Sunday, October 10, 2010

Marriage as a Call to Ministry

"What’s the gospel word on marriage?"
Hosea 2:18-20; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, 13

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If you happened to have observed,
that Irene is not with me in church today,
on the Sunday I’m preaching on marriage . . .
you should attach no deep meaning to that observation.
She simply needed to be elsewhere this morning,
and I supported her in that decision.
I did joke to several people, that having her absent,
when I’m preaching on marriage,
does open up more possibilities for sermon illustrations
than I might have had otherwise.
But then, she knows how to find it on the web!

Anyway . . . I will open this sermon with exactly the same words
with which I opened my sermon on pornography two weeks ago:
“This is a sermon for everyone here. Everyone.”

It’s important to state that clearly,
because I’m preaching a sermon on marriage,
and less than half of you listening to me now are married.

The unmarried here today
are not married for many different reasons.
I won’t conjecture numbers and percentages here,
but the reasons certainly include these:
You are too young to consider marriage an option,
or . . . you are interested but have not found a suitable partner,
or . . . you are not looking to get married,
or . . . you have a same-sex orientation ,
that makes marriage a non-option,
at least in most states, and in this church,
or . . . you have been married, but lost your spouse in death,
or . . . you have been married, but your marriage ended in divorce.
And, no doubt, there are some here this morning who are married,
and wish they were not,
or are at least in deep pain in their present marriage.

So this is actually a risky venture for me,
to preach on such a topic in a public gathering
like Sunday morning worship.
Some of you could, at best, be disinterested,
at worst, be deeply offended,
by what I have to say about marriage.

But my intentions remain clear: This is a sermon for everyone here.

I am putting before all of us a challenge
to think more clearly, more biblically,
more Christianly, about marriage.
To those of us who are married,
it will be a challenge to think about our own marriage differently.
To those who are not,
it will be a challenge to think differently
about the marriages you relate to,
and about your unmarried status.

And I should also make clear
that this is not a sermon that is going to be shaped primarily
by the ways marriage is being talked about in our culture.
I want to interact with the questions our culture is raising,
but this sermon won’t be shaped by those questions.

The burning question today, as for every sermon in this series,
is “what is the gospel word?”
That is a question we must live with, and keep living with.
It will not be given a final answer today.
It will, however, be asked, and wrestled with.

Marriage is, as we all know,
a hot issue in the culture wars these days.
And that’s primarily because of the conflict over same-sex marriage.

That’s not the topic this morning.
Same-sex marriage is not something I can affirm,
or that the church affirms.
But I do want to say this clearly. . .
over against a lot of the rhetoric we hear these days
coming from prominent Christian spokespersons . . .

Yes, marriage is in serious trouble
as an institution in our culture today,
but the biggest threat to marriage today,
is not that there are same-sex couples,
or that there is a growing chorus
calling for the government to authorized same-sex marriage.
Marriage is under great duress today
because our culture has long ago gotten confused
about the very nature and purpose of marriage.
We have, as a culture, worshiped for so long at the altars
of romanticism and individualism and personal freedom . . .
that the whole concept of marriage today
is almost unrecognizable
when you hold it up against marriage
as seen in scripture and the Christian tradition.

And this is not a liberal vs. conservative issue.
It’s not like liberals espousing
same-sex marriage and easy divorce and right to privacy
get marriage wrong,
And the conservatives pushing for
chastity, sexual purity, and one-man-one-woman family values
get marriage right.

To a large extent, we all get it wrong.
We all need to be challenged to think differently.

In an essay titled, “Marriage in the Fellowship of the Faithful”
John Thompson asked an important, but very basic question:
Why does anyone today get married?
Why would otherwise sensible people give up our individual lives,
and unite with another person?
Well, society gives us certain financial advantages to do so.
There’s a tax break. There’s shared expenses. There’s inheritance.
But most people, Thompson suggests, and it rings true,
marry mainly to reduce the fear of loneliness.
He writes, and I quote,
“Through marriage we secure a family
that keeps us from living and dying alone.
Many churches today merely echo
this secular and pragmatic function of marriage
with their extreme focus on family and family values.”

Then he points out what really ought to be obvious.
Christian marriage is not intended to serve this purpose
of providing a supportive family.
If Christians ever feel a need to marry to overcome loneliness,
then the body of Christ isn’t doing its job.
The gospel word . . . the good news on this matter . . .
is that in Christ, even strangers become family.
In fact, marriage could even hinder life in the family of God,
as our energies and time get redirected
from our family of faith to our biological family.
That’s the point Paul was making to the Corinthians,
when he said, in 1 Corinthians 7:32ff,
“I want you to be free from such anxieties.
The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord,
how to please the Lord;
but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world,
how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.”
And then he said the same thing
about married and unmarried women.

Neither Paul, nor anyone else,
is saying that marriage is wrong for Christians.
When we marry, we should celebrate and nurture those marriages.
But there is nothing to suggest that Christians
have an imperative to marry,
or that marriage is a more whole or wholesome state to be in
than singleness.
In fact, even though they lived in a Jewish culture
that emphasized marriage as an essential norm,
both Jesus and Paul made marriage relative to a greater good.

Paul uses the term “charisma”—or gift—
to describe both singleness and marriage.
In v. 7 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says he’d like it if everyone
could be as he is—single,
“But”—and I quote—“each has a particular gift from God,
one having one kind and another a different kind.”
These gifts, like every other spiritual gift,
are intended for the building up of the body of Christ.
They are not intended just for our individual needs to be met.

Marriage is a calling. And not everyone is so called.
So in the context of Christian community,
if two partners in Christ are called to be married,
then the norm for their relationship is Christological.
That is, their relationship reflects the character of Christ—
which is mutual love and sacrificial service to the other.

And in the context of Christian community,
our baptism determines our identity
more than our marriage, or lack thereof.
So we can see our spouse as family
even before a marriage ceremony.
Irene and I are sister and brother, we are friends in Christ,
before we are husband and wife.
When those who are married
participate in the practices of the church,
such as shared worship, mutual care, mission,
and especially communion,
we are reminded that all we have and are—
including our marriages—
are based on the grace of God in Christ, they are gifts.

For Christian marriages,
there is a connection between our friendship as spouses,
and friendship among all believers.
Certainly, our friendship is distinct,
because of the particular vows we made
with each other before God,
and before—and within—the Christian community.
But our bond is not completely different and separate from
the bond that forms the body of Christ.
A central part of our calling as Christian married couples
is to use this gift we have to build up the body of Christ.
And not just by joining forces as husband and wife
to sing in the choir together or be youth sponsors
or make casseroles or visit the sick.
As a couple we are called to build up the body
by bearing witness to the grace of God,
by demonstrating, through faithfully carrying out our vows,
what is possible for human community here and now
because we have been redeemed, made new in Christ.

Marriage is a ministry not just to the church but to the world,
that deep human community, in Christ, is possible,
even between persons who differ significantly from each other.
It is a powerful testimony to the grace of God
that faithfulness is possible even against great odds—
like when the second half of “for better or for worse” . . .
becomes daily reality.
Marriage is a ministry that embody’s God’s self-giving love.
It bears gospel witness that living for my own happiness
and my own well-being and freedom,
does not result in the deepest joy and fullest life.

That’s the difference that covenant makes.
Now there’s talk even in secular circles of “covenant marriages”—
that is, marriages that make it harder, legally, to divorce.
But that doesn’t begin to get at the biblical notion of covenant.
A covenant in scripture is God’s way of restoring and reclaiming
relationships damaged by sin.
It’s not the same as a contract.
A contract establishes terms for exchanging goods,
it focuses on the obligations for that transaction.
Covenant focuses on the relationship being established,
and it is not time-limited.

I want add here, parenthetically,
that seeing the marriage covenant in the context
of a covenant Christian community,
is not to suggest that couples where only one spouse is Christian,
cannot have a marriage that is both meaningful, and lasting,
and one in which God is present.
It does, however, have particular and unique challenges
when our primary faith identity is not shared.
But again, the blessing and grace of covenant community
is that we can be family to one another
before, after, and outside of the marriage relationship.

But speaking of marriage as covenant is speaking into the wind,
it is truly counter-cultural speech.
At a wedding, when we talk to the couple about covenant,
we are acknowledging some unpleasant truths.
By making them take a solemn vow,
before God and these witnesses,
we are admitting that we are all, underneath the gowns and tuxedos,
faithless sinners.
The vows put external, social and religious pressure on the couple,
to keep faith.
Exchanging vows—if you really listened to those words—
is terribly unromantic.
On their wedding day, they may be passionately “in love,”
but their bond will be tested.
So we are asking them, in advance,
to put promise before sentiment,
to put their commitment before their self-preserving instinct.
We are making them take a binding, public vow,
to put the romanticism aside when the going gets hard,
and slog it out all the way through the swampy, messy reality
of living in intimate human community with each other.

How counter-cultural is that?
If I believe what I heard on NPR a couple months ago.
I was dumb-founded driving in my car and listening to “On Point.”
One of the guests on the show was Sally Quinn,
a religion columnist for the Washington Post.
It was a day or two after Al and Tipper Gore
announced they were separating after 40 years of marriage.
And Sally—a journalist of religion—
said we really ought to do away with the part of the vows
that say, “till death do us part.”
She said in this day and age, it’s simply not realistic.
Those vows were invented, she argued,
when people had a much shorter average life-span.
We simply can’t expect a marriage to last 40 or 50 years.
Because we change so much over time,
that after a decade or two
we aren’t even the same persons who took those vows.
I said out-loud in my car, “Well, duh! Of course we aren’t!”
How little Sally knows
about the power of covenant within community.

But her viewpoint is the new norm.
I went to the website of On Point later,
to read some of the comments posted by listeners.
Many applauded Sally Quinn for speaking what they believed.
One said, “It is my opinion that marriage
should have an expiration date of 7 yrs.
Renewable for an additional 7 yrs only if both parties agree.”

But there were dissenters.
One listener wrote,
“So, if my wife has an aneurism and my needs are not met,
and we no longer have much in common
because she has brain damage, I should leave?”
And another husband wrote just one line,
“Been married for more than 30 years . . . the first week was great!”
I assume he would have gone on to say,
“The rest of it has been a lot of hard work.
But I promised I would do the hard work.”

There is still a desire in our culture, I believe,
to experience the kind of full life
that God intended for us in intimate community.

We just have to get past the romantic notion
that if we only find Mr. or Mrs. Right,
then all will be sunny and bright.
Most marriages have a shadow side.
And some shadows are darker and longer than others.
It takes more than a romantic fantasy to sustain a marriage.
It takes more, even, than purely human determination.
We will always, by nature, be pulled toward the escape hatch.

Let me also be honest and acknowledge that in my counseling,
I do not always counsel couples to stay together no matter what.
There is no biblical justification to insist that a spouse stays
in a relationship that is clearly abusive.
And in some cases, the marriage and it’s covenant are already dead,
and should just be grieved.
When one spouse checks out of the covenant,
and has no desire to restore it or work to maintain it,
then there really is no marriage to work with.

But I do strongly condemn the counsel we get from popular culture—
that when my needs are no longer being satisfied,
it’s okay for me to move to a different relationship
where I can start something new that’s good for me.

In Christian marriage we are rooted in covenant love,
a love embodied in a community of Christ,
a community of people who follow Jesus.
And my guess is—you tell me if you think I’m wrong—
that the Jesus who told his disciples to walk a second mile,
who said to carry our cross,
who said the road is hard that leads to life,
would probably not whisper in a Christian spouse’s ear,
and tell them to leave their boring marriage,
and go where they get more of their needs met.

It takes being rooted in the kind of covenant love
exemplified by the example and words of the prophet Hosea,
which we heard a bit earlier.
It takes being rooted in the kind of covenant love
described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.
A love far deeper and more profound, and more daunting,
than any starry-eyed couple ever dreamed,
when they asked their friends to read it aloud at their wedding.
Love is patient. Love is kind.
Love does not insist on its own way.
Love bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.

May it be so for us in all of our deepest relationships.

As a response, let’s turn to hymn #625 in the blue hymnal.
This is in the wedding section,
but it’s a wonderful hymn about the love of God
that calls us all—
whether it calls us to marriage,
or to express our love to others close to us.
In any case, our love finds its source
in the love of God that calls us,
not into ourselves,
but out from this place into a world of need.

Let’s meditate in silence on the words of this hymn, then sing it.
Your love, O God, has called us here,
for all love finds its source in you,
the perfect love that casts out fear,
the love that Christ makes ever new.

O gracious God, you consecrate
all that is lovely, good, and true.
Bless us who in your presence wait,
our trust in your desires renew.

Your love will send us from this place;
reveal your will in all we do,
that every path of love we trace
may show the world its source in you.

—Phil Kniss, October 10, 2010

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