Sermon Series: Relationships in God's Family
The Gift of Marriage
Pentecost XVI (O. T. 24); September 13, 2015
I don't know what I was thinking when I decided to preach a sermon on marriage. The subject needs a series of its own, not simply one sermon. So, let me start by offending everybody and touching on three difficult bullet points. First, the features of this story make it clear that it is a sacred folk tale designed to teach us something about ourselves, not a scientific description of human origins. Does the story-teller think that anyone would believe that God is so silly as to think a wombat might be a suitable "helper as his partner"? Surely the Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth would not run a procession of animals past the man to find out if any of them is suitable, especially not since Genesis 1 already tells us that God created humanity male and female. This sacred folk tale tells us something about our relationships with the rest of creation and with one another.
And one of the things it tells us is the mutuality of marriage, that man and woman are meant to be partners in the labor God has given humankind; namely, to till and keep the Garden (2:15). The sense of partnership in marriage is a theme that runs through the Scriptures, even though social customs of marriage change. And that is the second thing sure to offend someone: despite all the talk about "Biblical marriage," there is no one Biblical model for marriage. Marriage practices and customs change throughout the Bible, from the encouragement of polygyny so that a man's household may have many sons through a preference for monogamy and finally an acceptance of celibacy. You can read more about this if you want or we can have a conversation aboutthe details, if you're interested; the point is that there is no one "Biblical model," so ignore the politicians who claim that there is.
And the third thing to be said is that there is actually very little said about marriage in the Bible; it is simply taken for granted. If you read the stories about married people in the Bible, you will find some things that show you that we have a very different idea about the purpose of marriage than what you generally find in the Bible. As I said, there is no single model, so to generalize is dangerous, but it is generally the case that marriage was a legal and social arrangement for procreating children and providing a stable household. The life of that household was to be a partnership, yes, but that partnership was not intended to be a person's primary emotional support. That's what friendship was for. You were to love one another, but that's a matter of how you treat each other, not how you feel about each other. Marriages were generally arranged for social benefit, not because of people's feelings about each other. Yet many years of living and working together will lead people to love each other. The relationship between Tevye and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof is a good example of this. They met on their wedding day; their families had arranged their marriage. They did not get married because of their feelings for each other; they discovered after decades of living and sleeping and working together that they did, in fact, love each other. But that is not how we understand marriage now. We understand it not as an institution for the creation of stable households, although it should do that, but as a relationship of intimacy and mutual support. Therefore, there is no explicit reason why two persons of the same sex should not have access to that relationship.
There. If I haven't upset you by one of these three bullet points, then I haven't tried hard enough.
Let me follow up on that last point to say something that isn't explicitly in Scripture, but that is part of what makes marriage a gift. The relationship of marriage is intended to be a long-term commitment. And that means it is a workshop for learning what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself." People can drop jobs, friendships, and many other relationships when they become annoying; marriage is intended to be much more difficult to drop. Instead, it is to be a relationship in which we learn how to give and take, how to submit to one another, how to forgive and be forgiven. Jesus commands us, "Love your neighbor as yourself." A good way to learn to love your neighbor is to start with the person across the breakfast table.
And let's get to some of God's Good News about all this. Although there is very little about marriage itself in the Bible, there is a theme that runs throughout. The relationship of marriage is often used as a metaphor for the relationship between God and God's people. The ups-and-downs of marriage, the benefits of learning to love one another, the struggles, the growing closer and growing apart and forgiving and being forgiven are all experiences that can help us understand our relationship with God.
There are days that you feel so close to your spouse that you cannot imagine ever being separated. Then there are days that you think half a continent away is not far enough. Don't we feel that way about God? Doesn't God feel that way about us? Just as people who take our marriage vows seriously do not give up on each other, God does not give up on us, even though God gets so upset with us as to start Googling "divorce lawyers" in God's ZIP Code (77777?). And be honest: you and I feel that way about God sometimes. God does not give up on us. We will not give up on God.
The Prophets and the Apostle Paul use marriage to help us understand God's relationship with us. And Jesus and John the Divine use wedding banquets to help us understand life in the family of God. Although there are no wedding ceremonies anywhere in the Bible (the wedding ceremony may be a relatively recent invention), there are lots of wedding banquets. When the writers of the Bible try to help us understand what it is like for us to come together in the household of God, they tell a story about a wedding banquet. The visionary John, who wrote the book of Revelation, describes the culmination of all things in glory as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the banquet when the Bride (the Church) celebrates our marriage to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.
That is part of what this Holy Supper is about: an appetizer, a sign, a sample of the Marriage Feast. The Feast itself will be more than bread and grape juice, of course, but this is but a sample: the people of God coming together, eating and drinking with Jesus Christ, in celebration. So, to those who are not married, to those whose marriages have not turned out as you would have hoped, and to those whose marriages are teaching you to love your neighbor as yourself, to all of us: you are invited to this Table, you too are part of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church