“Why Marriage Matters”
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Genesis 2: 18-25
He said to me, “What, are you a college professor?”
I said, “No, I’m a preacher?”
He asked me what I was studying. I said that this coming weekend was the march for gay equality and that I wanted to talk this coming Sunday about marriage equality for gay people.
He said, “But isn’t the Bible against that?”
I said that the Bible has some verses that could be interpreted as condemning homosexuality, but I told him that I believe this is because the biblical writers didn’t know that same-gender love was natural for some people. I told him that I believe that what is important in the Bible is not its understanding of biology about which it has no special knowledge but its understanding of the quality of the relationship between people – love, caring, equality, compassion, justice —that the Bible teaches.
He told me he’d never heard it explained that way before but what I said made sense to him.
I said lots of people have a hard time understanding it that way.
He said that if I just explained it this morning the way I did to him at Starbucks Sunday people would get it.
So I’m going to trust he is right. The word of God in the Bible is not about biology or anatomy but about the quality of the relationship. The word of God in the Bible is not about the gender of the persons who marry but about the quality of the relationship that defines the Christian understanding of marriage.
I’m going to assume that the young man in Starbucks was right that if I said it this simply you all would get it and we can move on.
I want to suggest this morning that the greatest threat to marriage in our time is not the movement for marriage equality, which is not a threat to marriage at all, but an endorsement of marriage. The greatest potential undermining of marriage that we are facing in our time is the church’s opposition and resistance to marriage equality.
The church has historically taught three basic things about marriage:
Dee and I repeat them every time we do a wedding.
The church teaches that marriage is established by God…that it is part of the natural order of creation. The Genesis two account of creation teaches that marriage as part of creation accomplishes two things. Did you hear them?
Genesis 2: 24 says: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh.”
Marriage creates new families and it creates companionship. It allows a new generation to leave their father and mother and establish a new family unit, and thus makes room in the world for change. Marriage is a means of bringing new ideas, new commitments, new possibilities into the world. Marriage is an instrument of history, which includes both continuity and change. One of the purposes of marriage is to allow room for history.
And marriage makes two separate persons into one flesh. It creates community. It is a basic unit of community and society.
According to Genesis Two, these are the purposes for which God has established marriage. Neither of these purposes, by the way, precludes same gender marriage.
So the church has consistently taught that marriage is established by God for the purposes of creating history from generation to generation and for the purpose of community. Marriage is part of the natural order of creation.
Secondly, the church has consistently taught that marriage is sacramental. Marriage is a human reflection of the quality of the relationship between Christ and the church. It is faithful; it is inviolate; it is eternal.
No matter how often we fail to live up to the high ideals of what marriage is meant to be, it doesn’t change the ideal. No matter how often we fail and our marriages end up in divorce or worse, it doesn’t change the ideal that marriage is meant to be until death do us part. No matter how often we fail to be faithful in spirit and deed, it does not change the ideal that marriage is meant reflect the faithfulness of Christ to us.
The church teaches that marriage is sacramental – that it is a human reflection of the love of Christ.
The third of the church’s teachings is that marriage is covenantal. Marriage is a holy contract between two persons and then between those persons and the larger community.
If a couple came to me and said they had 60 seconds to get married, all that would be required for me to conduct their wedding would be for them to say the vows to each other in the presence of two witnesses. The rest of the ceremony is to enrich the experience.
Marriage is a holy covenant between two people and between them and the larger society of which they are a part and between them and God.
The Enlightenment understanding of marriage, which began to develop in the 18th century, was different. The Enlightenment taught that marriage was a human invention. That it was not established by God but by humanity. It was not sacramental but merely human, and it was not a covenant but merely a contract. Read John Locke. Marriage is merely an agreement between two people; it is merely a status. It does not have its own ontology. It is merely functional.
The Enlightenment philosophy of marriage may be the least successful of all the Enlightenment teachings. Something about marriage resists us reducing it to merely a practical or human institution.
Here is what is amazing
to me. The latest statistics I’ve heard say that on any given weekend only 14
percent of Americans will be in a house of worship. Church-going, or
synagogue-going, or mosque attendance, is no longer the norm for Americans,
if it ever really was. It is a minority activity. We who are in church this
morning are part of a relatively small minority in
Yet, here is the really amazing statistic. According to the latest statistics I could find in the book Choices in Relationships: Introduction to Marriage and Family by David Knox and Caroline Schacht published in 2004 (p. 212), the weddings of 80 percent of Americans are conducted by clergy.
Think about it. While only 14 percent of Americans go to church on a average Sunday, 80 percent of Americans choose to have a religious wedding ceremony. According to David Knox and Caroline Schacht, many of the 20 percent of the population who choose to have civil ceremonies are divorced Catholics being married for a second time and they choose a civil ceremony only because their priests will not do their weddings.
See, even though you can be just as legally married by going to a justice of the peace, I think Americans choose religious ceremonies because they understand their marriages to be more than just a civil legality, more than just a human contract. I think Americans choose religious ceremonies because they understand their marriages to be sacramental, a part of God’s created order and a holy covenant.
Yes, lots of marriages fail for lots of reasons, but that doesn’t change what we understand marriage to be and what we want it be. We want our marriages to be faithful, and life-long, and holy.
Let me predict what will happen if the churches refuse to celebrate the marriages of all people who desire to make their promises and commitments in the presence of God. Marriage will increasingly be seen as merely a civil ceremony, merely a legality, merely a convention.
The almost inevitable consequence of the direction we are headed is the diminishment of marriage to a merely civil institution, to merely a legal status. And the responsibility for this lies not with those seeking access to marriage but with the churches that are denying Christian marriage to those who are seeking it.
So I believe the struggle for marriage equality within the churches is as important as the struggle for marriage equality within the civil society, actually more important.
Part of the wonder of marriage is that it has been unique in our society, maybe in our world. Marriage transcends all sorts of boundaries.
It is where the most intimate aspects of life intersect with the interests of the larger society. It is where boundaries between the religious and the civil become porous. It is where private relationships and the public agenda become one.
Stable, caring, committed relationships are good for us as individuals; they are good for our communities; they are good for the world.
We had a student intern here several years ago who, as part of his pursuit of ordination, needed to preach a trial sermon. He asked if Dee and I would listen to the sermon before he preached it.
He was trying to preach a sermon about the Methodist idea of free will as opposed to the Calvinist idea of predestination. He used as an illustration a movie he had seen in which a couple was fated to marry and no matter what they did, fate just kept bringing them together again. He said that he didn’t believe this was true. He didn’t believe that he was the only one for his wife or that she was the only one for him.
I sat there trying to figure out how to tell him his theology may be right but, if he actually used that illustration in public, he ought to have his head examined.
There is something mystical and mysterious about the events of our lives that bring us together. There is something mystical and mysterious about marriage. There is something within us that resists reducing marriage to status and legality.
We have not wanted this most intimate and most public part of our lives to become merely secular. Even people who are not very religiously active have understood this commitment to be holy. Marriage is a reality that transcends church and state.
The churches and synagogues and mosques are called to teach and practice marriage equality because those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder. We are called to teach and practice marriage equality because marriage is established by God, not by us. We are called to teach and practice marriage equality because wherever a relationship sacramentally reflects the love of Christ, we are obligated to honor it. We are called to teach and preach marriage equality because what God has made clean we can not call unclean.
This is a prophecy not for the larger society but for the church. In the days ahead we will either honor marriage by affirming the loving commitments of all people or we will diminish marriage by defining it biologically rather than spiritually. Whatever the society does, the future of the holiness of marriage rests in our hands.