More than Biology

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on  October 7, 2012.

If I were smart, I would not preach on the gospel this morning. If I were running for office this year, I would definitely avoid the subject. But I’m not very smart and not running for office, so I’d like to ask you to think with me about this morning’s gospel and about marriage with an open mind and see whether there are some principals, some suggestions, some guidelines, that could be useful to a society changing in front of our eyes.

Now, the subject of marriage is more than I can deal with in one sermon and I may raise more questions than answers but questions are good and if we ask good questions we may get some suggested answers that can help us be better Christians.

So, what is marriage?  I think we used to think we knew; some people still do. From the time of Queen Victoria to the time of President Eisenhower, most people thought they knew what marriage was all about. It was a relationship between a man and a woman, it took place before you lived together, and it definitely happened before you had children. Lots of people still think that; they haven’t noticed that times have changed or if they have noticed, it just makes them angry. If I had a choice, I would go back to that world myself.  I think there was a lot to be said for it.  But, the fact is that that world is pretty well gone and I doubt that it’s coming back any time soon no matter what we say or do.

There was an article in the New York Times last Sunday that talked about marriage and suggested that with the divorce rate what it is we might do better to reorganize marriage by contract for twenty years instead of for life, or maybe even for five years renewable.  “I John take you Mary, . . . for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for five years renewable.”  What do you think?

Well, the answer to that question depends on what you think marriage is.  If it’s just about biology, it might work. So it might work for a lot of people. But I think marriage – at least potentially – is about much more than biology. I think it has to do with God’s purpose in human lives.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is asked about marriage.  Well, actually, he’s asked abut divorce, but notice what Jesus does with it: He talks about God’s purpose in creation and he traces a history of change. He says, Here, first, is what God created and here, second, is what Moses did because you couldn’t live up to that standard, and here, third, is what I think marriage ought to be.

But here’s an odd thing: Mark quotes Jesus as saying something about what happens when a woman divorces her husband. But under Jewish law, a woman could not divorce her husband. So why would Jesus even talk about it? But the Gospel of Mark was most likely written years later and in Rome where, under Roman law, a woman could divorce her husband.  So it looks as if Mark was trying to update the gospel and make it more relevant, trying to have Jesus say what Jesus might have said if Jesus had lived longer and gone to Rome.

You and I don’t get to rewrite Jesus’ words but every one of us who takes the gospel seriously does something very much like that when we try to apply Jesus’ words to our own lives. What would Jesus say about our current issues: the death penalty, universal health care, the tax code, whatever it is we argue about?  We ought to be trying to apply Jesus’s words to that problem. We should be asking, What is the essence of Jesus’ message and how does it apply to me, here and now?  That’s what we should ask and it may mean putting words in Jesus’ mouth: I think Jesus would have said this . . .

So how do Jesus’s words apply to the institution of marriage today? How can we take what Jesus said and make it relevant?  Well, first of all, what Jesus did in Mark’s gospel was to ask what God had in mind to begin with.  Before Moses and the Ten Commandments, before Queen Victoria and white weddings dresses, what was God’s intention? Well, God made them male and female, Jesus said, and intended them to become one flesh.  Yes, but suppose we discover that the lines between male and female are not that clear today and suppose we find that the males and females who come together don’t always stay together and become one flesh. What then?

When I was ordained, the answers were easy: if you don’t feel drawn to the opposite sex, you keep quiet about it, and if you can’t stay married, you don’t come back to try again.  But suppose you were to come to Jesus and ask, Is that how you want it: no second alternative, no forgiveness, no second chance? Do you think Jesus would rule out forgiveness?  The sermon on the mount ends with Jesus saying, “You must be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.” But when Peter asked whether he should forgive seven times, Jesus said, “No, seventy times seven.”

So how do you match up Jesus’ call to perfection and Jesus’ almost unlimited forgiveness? What the Episcopal Church did some years ago was decide there had to be room for forgiveness.  We forgive murder, is divorce that bad?  And if there are some who don’t seem to fit into that neat division between male and female, can we say, Sorry, no room for alternatives?

Now, these are not easy questions unless you think there are easy answers to all life’s problems. We want there to be easy answers, clear lines; we want to be able to say, I’m right; you’re wrong. It feels good to know I’m right and to know you’re wrong, that I’m on God’s side and you’re not. Last week, if you remember, we had the disciples trying to draw that kind of line and Jesus wouldn’t do it.  No, he said, those who are not against us are for us; there’s room for different approaches; we don’t all have to do it the same way.

I wrote a book years ago about marriage and how it’s changed over the years and how it needs to change more. I didn’t suggest renewable contracts but I did suggest that the exchange of vows at the altar is serious stuff and the point at which we are ready for it may not be where it used to be. There was a time well before Queen Victoria when a couple didn’t commit to marriage until the woman was pregnant because why would you marry someone who might not have children? By Queen Victoria’s time, customs had changed and I’m not sure the couple had even kissed each other before the wedding night.  So what is the right time to go to the altar and exchange vows?  Statistics show that people are doing it later now than ever before and that later marriages generally last longer. So if the goal is a lasting commitment, maybe it makes sense to wait.

But there’s still a more basic question: what is the goal? What are we aiming for? Jesus talks about becoming “one flesh.”  I’m not sure that happens at the altar no matter how long you wait.  I like to quote Helen Oppenheimer, an English theologian, who once wrote: “Call no one married until they are dead.”  Her point was that marriage isn’t an act, it’s a process. It’s a journey with bumps and turns in the road, not an instantaneous once and forever change.  Jesus is calling us to perfection and why settle for less? But why expect perfection overnight?  Instead of trying to control behavior by law, wouldn’t it be better to try to support those who embark on the journey, giving them every support and forgiving them when they fail?

But here’s something I think is even more important: Jesus goes back to God’s intention as if to say that marriage is related to God’s purpose for us in creation.  That is not a biological question. “Birds do it; bees do it.” Well, yes and no.  Birds and bees don’t much come into church to do it but some of us do.  Why is that? I think it reflects a deep-seated feeling that marriage, as I said at the beginning, is about more than biology.  I hear Jesus saying that marriage is what our Prayer Book says it is, “A holy estate, instituted of God.”  Now that is still a revolutionary idea.  Marriage will happen no matter what we say for biological reasons and the race will be propagated. But I would suggest that there is also holy matrimony, that God is able to work within a marriage to make it much more than biology, to make it perhaps the most powerful way we have of understanding the love of God, that God is able to work in a marriage to change us, to recenter us, to draw us out of our narrowness and self-centeredness, into a faithful relationship with another, and that in that other-centered relationship we can begin to discover what it might be like to enter more and more deeply into a relationship, a unity even, with God.  I’m saying that marriage is a sacrament, that as God works through the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, to draw us into the life of God so God is also able to work through the flesh and blood of marriage to be spiritually present in our material world and draw us into God’s own eternal life.

Now, not even all Christians make that claim and a lot of those who fuss the most about “traditional marriage” and “Biblical marriage” are really talking only about biological marriage and have no idea at all of marriage as a sacrament. Do you know that the first Puritan settlers of New England never allowed marriage in church? They thought it was just a civil matter, a legal matter, not a sacrament at all. Most Protestant churches still believe that today. Yes, they come into churches now for weddings, but not with communion, not as a sacrament.  It’s still for most Protestants just a civil, secular event, with prayers added. But it seems to me that Jesus’ words point to something much more and the church has gradually grown to glimpse that potential and bring the biological, legal relationship into church and make it a sacrament.

I think, as I said, that it’s a lot like baptism.  We have a baby and we see the potential. What can that child become? A decent citizen, a good father or mother, a capable employee or small business owner or maybe a scientist or investor or billionaire – who knows? The human potential may be there, but as Christians we see also the image of God and potential for eternal life and so we bring the child to baptism to get that process started. I think marriage is like that.  At one level, yes, it’s biological and can lead to a nice relationship and children and happiness. At one level, it’s a civil and secular relationship that creates a social unit and is recognized by the state and confers certain privileges and certain obligations. But Jesus said God created us for a relationship that involves a deeper unity, “one flesh.” St Paul builds on that to say that marriage is “a great mystery” but that it is like the relationship between Christ and the church. And that is not a sexual or biological relationship but deeper, much deeper, and not, it seems to me,  something easily defined or limited by human law.

So I don’t think we can solve our problems with a simple appeal to the past. I can’t anyway give you an example from the Bible of a marriage that provides a good example for us; not one.  Most of the Biblical marriages we read about – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon – were polygamous. I can’t think of a single Biblical marriage to hold up as an example today.  But the Bible is not a rule book, it’s a history book, the story of God at work slowly, surely, leading the people of God into a new land, a new world, new understanding. And it’s not an easy journey with clear guidelines and simple answers. Show me a good marriage and I’ll show you two people who are not the same as they were when first they met. They’ve grown into a deeper, more mature relationship, and they’ve probably worked hard to get there and maybe been helped along whether they knew it or not by God’s presence and guidance and strength.

I would suggest that the critical issues for Christians are not sexuality so much as faithfulness and not the sequence of events as much as the destination and certainly not sticking to laws or customs as much as growing in love.  I’m not at all suggesting an anything-goes approach but one that holds up Jesus’ call to perfection. And I see perfection not as doing what’s always been done but as doing what has never yet been done, what we need to be working on all the time – uniting ourselves more and more deeply and fully with God through Jesus Christ, through worship and prayer and self-sacrifice until we come at last to the fulness of life that God has promised us now and forever.

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