Covenant Love: Marriage, Jesus and Us

A Sermon preached on June 28, 2015

It’s been quite a week!

We began with decisions with businesses and state governments making moves to remove the Confederate flag. Somewhere in the middle, the Supreme Court issued prophetic rulings on affordable healthcare and fair housing practices. And on Friday, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion named marriage, for once and all, as one of the rights and privileges available to ALL people in the United States under the 14th amendment.

Listen to the words in his final paragraph: 

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.  It is so ordered.

This decision, together with the amendment to our own Presbyterian constitution, means that Presbyterian churches in every state are now able to do what First Presbyterian Church of Oakland courageously did in 2011 when our Session voted to offer our sanctuary for same gender weddings.  This is something to be celebrated! 

Yet as much as these decisions bring us joy, our joy is tempered by the reality that because far too many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have been wounded, even killed by the church’s long history of exclusion and judgement, it is unlikely that we will be receiving hundreds of phone calls to reserve our sanctuary and contract with the pastor for same-gender church weddings.  So much pain has been inflicted in the name of the church, in the name of righteousness, so much damage done using texts like Ephesians 5:25-33 that we still have a lot of work to do.

So we might want to begin by trying to understand something about a text like the one before us because the temptation to put it aside is strong.  In the wrong hands, when taken at face value, the words that describe man as the kephalos (the head) can be and have been used as a bludgeon, pounding into married life the same oppressive, hierarchical view of human relationships which maintains that men are to be served with all deference to their superiority and with unquestioning obedience to their authority by the women (and children) in their homes and in the community around them.  Similarly, the words that reach back to Genesis 2 have been thrown up like electrified razor wire around the notion of “biblical marriage,” allowing for only the narrowest view of what a marriage can and should be.

Does that mean we should throw it out altogether?  Put it on a shelf with laws about eating pork chops and bacon and Dungeness crab? write it off as archaic and impossible to practice like the sabbath codes?  To quote Paul:  “By no means!”  

If we decided to do that, the Bible would simply become an ancient historical curiosity, or a collection of myths and legends or a book of principles and practices from which individual congregations, individual Christians pick and choose which parts “work for them.”

So that we don’t go down that slippery slope of prooftexting  – making our case with only those parts of the Bible that we like, and so that we hold scripture in the appropriate light as Reformed, Presbyterian Christians, we can actually begin, and end, with Paul.

Embedded in our understanding of what it is to be Presbyterian, is Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In particular, Romans 12 which begins like this:  

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As Presbyterians, we share a historic understanding that the church, that all humanity is not just formed once and for all, but is always being re-formed – reshaped, remade by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word in Scripture and the living Word in Christ Jesus.  We need God to be doing this work in and with is because we make a mess of things when we try to go it alone.  

But we also need to recognize that transformation is at the center of who we believe God to be.  Our God is alive and free – never bound by our human constructs of particular traditions or doctrines or contexts.  We believe that God will appropriately reveal God’s self and God’s will for human transformation in unique ways for every generation.  And though that may make God a little hard to pin down, as Biblical scholar Mark Achtemeier puts it:  “God is a God who delights in confounding standard expectations.”  

We see it again and again in Scripture – just when Israel believes it truly understands what God wants from worship, God tells Amos that their worship is despised because they’ve missed the most important thing – care of the poor and needy.  When Jesus stands in his hometown synagogue and teaches about love and mercy, his own neighbors threaten to run him off a cliff because he shakes up their understanding of what it means to be in God’s favor.  When the Spirit moves Peter to break the kosher laws and inspires Paul to call for an end to circumcision, they are persecuted by the Temple leaders.  If we learn nothing else from scripture, we need to learn that God will not be put in a box. 

And we are making the same mistake if we take the view that this part of this letter to a church in Ephesus is meant to define marriage for all times and places.  We no longer live in an ancient Roman world where men and women of a certain age were required to marry and where the woman was either under her father’s rule or her husband’s with very little possibility for independence.  We no longer live in ancient Greek world where Aristotle wrote that males, by their very nature were superior to females and where Plutarch taught that women should not have any friends nor gods of her own but should, in every way, yield to the friendships and worship offered to her by her father or husband.  Neither do we live in the world of ancient Judaism where a bride price was attached to each female and required payment prior to marriage, thus treating females like property to be bartered and traded.

Finally, this is definitely not a text from which we can extrapolate rules or even guidelines about same gender marriage.  It isn’t just our notion of male-female relationship in marriage that has undergone enormous change over the millennia, but our understanding of the diversity of loving relationships as expressed through sexuality, family and covenanted life partners would have been impossible for the ancient mind to conceive.  Yet there is something we can learn from these words because, though we might not realize it, when read in the light of Christ’s servant model, this teaching about marriage is radical and might make ALL of us rethink this institution.

What if being the head isn’t about power, isn’t about being at the center of the universe?  What if this little letter is trying to overturn the cultural norms of marriage as a transaction that benefits the men in that world by saying the head of the marriage is to be the mirror image of Christ – a servant, full of love and mercy and forgiveness, a person who was willing to giving up everything for the sake of others?

What does the covenant of marriage look like if it models God’s unfailing love and never-ending forgiveness? What if we understood the relationship that comes in marriage in the same way as the self-giving relationship that Jesus had with those around him?  What if both partners in the marriage lived to serve the needs of their partner?  

This isn’t going to happen because the Supreme Court decrees it.  It isn’t going to happen because the PCUSA changes its constitution.  It isn’t going to happen because a pastor pronounces it in a ceremony.  Marriage will be redefined for good and all when those of us who are married and those of us who wish to be married and those of us who are friends with married peop,e make the commitment to live this covenant relationship of grace and love in such a way that we make it about always sharing god’s expansive love with everything we do. 

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