by Ken Sehested
Rev. Ken Sehested was asked to officiate at a covenant vow ceremony, for 12 same-sex couples, at the close of Asheville, North Carolina’s PrideFest on Saturday, 13 October 2007.
Greetings. On behalf of the organizers of today’s gay pride festival—and of these couples who now stand before you—welcome, each and every one, to the close of this festive parade.
Every genuine freedom march is a kind of ritualized renewal of commitments of various sorts. We march in the streets to communicate with the palaces, demanding that those without voice be given one, insisting that justice be granted where it has previously been denied.
But we don’t just make demands. We also make promises. And among those promises are the ones being signified and blessed in this sanctuary, as we surround these couples who conclude this party with a public recognition of the promises they have made to each other—vows which they invite each of you to overhear, to attest and to bless.
We all know the vows being said here today still lack public recognition and sanction. The relationships already forged by these couples cannot be registered in the courthouse. But that shouldn’t be such a surprise: Courthouses have always been a bit suspicious about what goes on in sanctuaries. People of faith often make governing authorities nervous. The freedom of gayfolk to marry is a struggle that’s still on our agenda.
But there’s another kind of freedom which no authority can sanction. You see, in its deepest sense, freedom isn’t something you find—it isn’t something someone gives you. Freedom (to paraphrase Will Campbell) is something you assume and practice. And then you wait for someone to come take it away from you. And the amount of resistance you put up is the amount of freedom you possess.
Freedom is one of those fashionable-but-slipper words that is used frequently nowadays. A lot of rascals hide behind it. In my life I’ve had many occasions to travel outside the U.S., and I can assure you that most people in the world don’t think kindly about our nation’s claim to be the beacon of freedom. Freedom has come to be the disguise for our willingness to invade other countries under the pretense of self-defense. Freedom is the justification for dominating other people’s economies, under the guise of “free enterprise.” And in our interpersonal relationships, freedom has come to mean: Don’t ask me to make commitments. All these realities are tied together. They are the expressions of the same confusions and betrayals. Each is an assertion of hubris masquerading as valued principle.
Some of you have probably heard this expression: “Without a vision, the people perish.” It’s a verse from Scripture, in the book of Proverbs (29:18). But note this modern translation: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV). That is to say, when no one lifts up the dream of the Beloved Community, everyone pursues their own narrow self-interest.
The truth is, the only real freedom we have is the freedom to make commitments, to chose where, and with whom, and for what purpose we will invest our lives. It’s a nice sentiment to say, “Oh, I want to love everybody.” But you can’t. To love someone means to spend time with them, lots of time. It means be consistent and persistent. Which is why the wording of traditional marriage vows talks about commitment “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer.” There’s a day-in, day-out quality to such relationships that requires an open-ended commitment.
The candleholders on the table were made by my Dad. He was a diesel mechanic. When he retired he turned his engineering skills into creating homemade artwork. The thing about these candleholders is that they were made from everyday stuff. He didn’t order the materials from a specialty store. He didn’t travel to some faraway, exotic place to get them. I’m pretty sure this one was made from a grapefruit juice can. The small ones are probably pork-and-bean cans. Covenant vows are spoken from the commitment to consistency and perseverance amid the grapefruit juice and pork-and-bean cans of life.
I’m sure many of you were fans of the TV show “West Wing.” You remember, someone along the line—I can’t recall exactly when—we viewers found out that Martin Sheen’s character had previously been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was kept secret; and when the truth came out, many of his closest associates were very angry with him.
In the last season of that show, as the disease finally began to affect Bartlett’s physical abilities, I remember this one scene especially. The President and his wife were dressing early one evening for a banquet of some sort. Because of his frailty, the President was having trouble getting his trousers on. His wife noticed, came across the room, and helped him. He was very embarrassed, of course, even ashamed. As his partner finished buckling his belt, Bartlett looked pleadingly into her eyes and said, “This is why they make you take vows, isn’t it?!”
This is what vows are for. This is why we make promises. Because none of us are at our most brilliant, sexy and entertaining selves all the time! We don’t live our lives in party attire and crafted hair all the time. In fact, we all have the occasional morning breath, unaffectionate days and irritable episodes. That’s why we make covenants of fidelity. And that’s why we ask witnesses to take part in overhearing these promises, for we all need support and encouragement from a larger community. So now let’s attend to these couples as they renew the vows that brought them to this time and place.
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