I can never remember a time like this in my life. The closest I can come was with our Churchwide Assembly in 2009. As a congregation, Holy Trinity had worked tirelessly for decades toward the full inclusion of gays and lesbians within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I honestly didn’t think it would ever happen until someday after I retired, if we were lucky. And then, all of sudden, we were hearing that maybe the time had come. I couldn’t believe it, because here in the buckle of the Bible belt it didn’t look promising. But there’s a whole big ELCA out there beyond the North Carolina Synod. So, we held our breath, which wasn’t that hard to do because the tension was so high at our Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis that you couldn’t breathe anyway.
I was there at the moment it happened and it was like nothing I had ever experienced. I remember going outside to call Tim Funk from the Charlotte Observer to give him the news and church bells started ringing from Central Lutheran across the street. It felt like the end of the war to me and in my head I was hearing the words to a good old Lutheran Advent hymn, of all things:
Comfort, comfort, now my people; tell of peace! So says our God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow’s load.
To God’s people now proclaim that God’s pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their war is over; God will reign in peace forever.
For as long as I live I will remember that moment. At the time, I thought no other moment would ever compare in my lifetime. On Friday I learned I had been wrong about that. And that line, “tell them that their war is over” rang in my head again.
After Amendment One passed in North Carolina in May of 2012, with the approval of less than 20% of North Carolina voters, many of us were feeling disheartened and defeated. It seemed like every day we were hearing of states where same gender couples could marry and, here in North Carolina, we were living in the Dark Ages.
Three years ago, on the night our North Carolina General Assembly voted to take this very unconstitutional constitutional amendment to the voters, the interfaith community gathered here at Holy Trinity for a prayer vigil. We were devastated. And Pastor Jay Leach took to the pulpit and reminded us of the words of Theodore Parker who was quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. a hundred years later in the civil rights movement. “The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends toward justice.” And for three years, we have clung to those words of hope, not knowing how long it would take, but with absolute certainly that justice would come.
Last Sunday when we gathered in this place to worship, we had no idea what was about to transpire. A seismic shift was headed our way. Nothing would ever be the same for us. Now, as we catch our breath with a day of worship before the first legal same-gender marriages take place in Charlotte tomorrow, my message to you is – Remember.
Remember the announcement Monday telling us that within days or hours, marriage equality would be realized in North Carolina. It was an absolutely nerve-wracking week for those of us who were watching it closely. Social media made it possible to follow minute by minute. We were tweeting, texting, messaging, emailing, and even using the telephone. We followed each development, hanging onto every glimmer of hope. It was a lot to keep up with!
Every day I woke up and thought, this is the day. By Thursday I didn’t know how much more of it I could take it. On Friday, when the campaign for Southern Equality told everyone in Asheville to get to the courthouse, my head was about to explode. My UU colleague, Robin Tanner called me on the phone, “What is happening?” she asked. Dunno. But after our conversation, I immediately texted her, “Can’t stand it. I’m going uptown.” She texted me back, “Me too.” My gut was telling me, “This is it!” and I rushed to the Mecklenburg County courthouse.
Cathy and Joanne, and Kevin and Aaron met me there. They applied for their marriage licenses. Then we waited around until the Register of Deeds’ office closed. And that was it. No decision yet. So no one was getting married in Charlotte on Friday.
When I got to my car, shortly after 5:00, I opened my email and there was something new from one of our lawyers. They had been keeping us updated throughout the week. And while everyone was focused on the political drama in Greensboro, our case was rapidly approaching the finish line in Asheville. These words from his email jumped out at me: “We had a conference call with Judge Cogburn at 3:45…. He took comments from every register of deeds counsel that nothing more needed to be filed, and then commented that any more filings would only delay the outcome – then scoffed at the Tillis/Berger motion to intervene.” Finally, a voice of reason!
And then, within the hour, it was over. Amendment One was ruled unconstitutional. Remember that moment. Remember the exact moment the moral arc of the universe touched justice in North Carolina.
Remember. There have been other such times in history. And remembering this time, in a sense, puts us in solidarity with people of other times who have worked, and waited, and hoped for justice. Imagine what it must have felt like to live in slavery your whole life and learn that you finally were free. Or how people felt when World War II ended. Or when women were at long last able to vote in this country. October 10, 2014 gives us a memory like that.
Remember. In remembering, we know that we stand in a long line of people of faith who have worked toward justice throughout history, the kind of justice the prophet Amos spoke of when he said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an every-flowing stream.” On Friday, I understood how justice rolls down like waters in a way I never had before. When the day was over and I finally had a moment to absorb the events of the past few hours, justice was rolling down like waters from my eyes. I will always remember those tears. Many of them were shed in thanksgiving that there are so many people who will never remember what we remember. All the children born in North Carolina that day and every day that follows will never live in the kind of world we were living in just two days ago.
But, the fight isn’t over. There are still people in South Carolina and Tennessee and about 20 other states where the struggle continues. And for many of you who gay, lesbian or transgender, the struggle may continue in your place of employment or within your own families.
During the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was asked about the futility of changing the law when you can’t change people’s hearts. And he replied, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that’s pretty important.” Changing North Carolina’s marriage laws is pretty important. But it doesn’t make people love us and it doesn’t end the fight for justice. We still have work to do. Remember.
Most of all, my hope is that we will continue to remember after the celebrations have passed. Remember and be transformed by this extraordinary time in our lives. We fought injustice. And we learned what it’s like to press on, never knowing if we will live to see the victory, but hoping and trusting that God is at work, even in the darkest of times. We have been given a blessed memory. We’ve learned first-hand that it really is true --The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends toward justice. And we’re learned that it doesn’t just bend on its own. We can’t sit back and wait for it to bend. It takes effort. We are a part of the bending.
Remember. For in the larger context, this isn’t simply about justice for gay people. It’s about justice for all people. As people of God, we are called to stand on the side of justice. Yes, justice for men and women who want the freedom to have a life with the one they love. But justice also for the chronically poor, people without sufficient medical care, young adults with life-crippling student loans, people who come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their children, people of color who continue to be denied the privileges white people take for granted, the list could go on and on.
As God’s people, we stand on the side of justice by walking alongside those who suffer injustice. Remembering that moments like Friday really do happen makes it just a little easier to press on. So remember, be transformed, and participate in God’s promise of justice.