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Based on the Lectionary readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany:
Psalm 1
Luke 6:17-26

2004 February 15
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

A Marriage Grade in Heaven?

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of Doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

We have been hearing quite a bit about love and marriage lately, though mostly without great poetry. I thought that Shakespeare might help, this Valentine's weekend. Even today, marriage and some form of love are on the front page of every newspaper. For indeed, they are at the forefront of our culture's contemplation. Although, again, without a high measure of compassion, congruence, or conviviality. So I would like to say something in support of marriage and in encouragement of love. This will be the first part of a two-week exploration of these issues with next week taking us further into the challenges of social action, mission, and ministry. But grounded here today on two lectionary scriptures that ask us to consider blessings and woes in our lives, I want to learn from our heritage about marriage. I want to seek something encouraging, whether we are single, widowed, divorced, or married, about God's models for our communities. I want to pursue some answers to our cultural debate and inspire some conversation for all of us.

So what is marriage? Well, 2400 years ago Demosthenes said the following: "This is what it means to be married: to have sons one can introduce to the family and the neighbors, and to have daughters of one's own to give to husbands. For we have courtesans for pleasure, concubines to attend to our daily bodily needs, and wives to bear children legitimately and to be faithful wards of our homes." A real traditional definition, that. Yet a little different than Shakespeare in love. So what says the Oxford Dictionary? Well, marriage is the "condition of man andBack to top woman legally united for purpose of living together and usually procreating lawful offspring."

So far I'm a little under-whelmed. The ancient world and the modern world seem to leave out a lot of my friends, a lot of God's people, such as those choosing not to have courtesans or concubines or children. But as has been said often of late, maybe the Bible can offer us a better model. Christians like me turn to it as the source book of faith, and politicians who have possibly never turned its pages certainly seek its cover. What does the Bible say about marriage? Well, on the one hand, "don't." That's the Apostle Paul's advice. Unless, he says, you can't manage your erotic energies, stay single. Which is also not much help and still doesn't address my experience. Yet the books before St. Paul are also complex.

This is one review of Biblical models for marriage: Solomon, with 700 wives and 300 concubines. David, who kills a soldier to take his wife, even though he loves another man. Abraham, who kicks out the mother of his first son, pretends his first wife is his sister. Mary and Joseph, on the verge of divorce, traditionally held never to have had erotic energies, end up pretty good parents. It's a confusing group even amidst people we like. So we must go a little further and deeper.

The Bible presents us with seven primary models for marriage, and if you think your way through some of the famous characters and stories you realize that you've run into most of them. They are, the matriarchal marriage, where a man is taken into the clan and family of the woman's household and subscribes to her culture. Moses, Jacob, and Samson are examples here. Then there is patriarchal marriage where authority and descent is reckoned from the father's household. This is widespread in the scriptures and ranges from Adam's family of Cain and Abel to Paul's advice that a man is the head of a household. Next there is polygamous marriage and besides David and Jacob and Abraham there were many more of these. Polygamy was widespread in the ancient world and reported still in Newsweek just last issue. The fourth model is monogamy, which has strong support in Hebrew law. Adam and Eve got this started, and it lives to this day. The fifth model is exogamy, which means marrying someone from beyond your circle of community, and sixth is endogamy which meant, in the words of West Side Story, "stick to your own kind, one of your own kind." Finally there was levirate marriage where a widow was remarried to her lost husband's brother. There is one that I know nearby since thisBack to top tradition has been valued by Armenian Christians who so enrich our community.

With seven primary models reported, the Bible doesn't give us a simple resource. Much of what it presents, from the perspective of our modern lives and laws, is not palatable. So in our lives of faith most of us still have to update and interpret its core values prayerfully and in conversation with others. We choose some and discount others.

Jesus even does this: interprets and updates. Unless you believe a recent popular novel, Jesus didn't give us a clear model of his own to follow. But he did preach fidelity. And he did critique men who divorced wives, which in the ancient world meant a man kept property, and a woman was destitute. So he critiqued a traditional practice that was unfair to the culturally devalued. He even critiqued one of the central models of levirate marriage, fundamentally saying that when we address this whole subject, especially in the light of God's new creation, we have to think in new ways.

John Boswell, a Yale historian, says that in broad and meaningful ways, from the Judeo Christian tradition and into the Greek, Roman, and modern world, marriage has reflected two progressions. Once upon a time it began with property (women were property), led to offspring or children, and often, after years of life together, led to love. In the modern world, he says, marriage often begins with love, still addresses the issue of children, and ends up in conversations or disputes about property.

Boswell goes on to document that before the emergence of the heterosexual marriage ceremony in the church, which really didn't come about until the twelfth century, there were same sex union liturgies, sixteen of them across the Christian world of their current day. I'll talk more about that next week. But his insight is two-fold: marriage has long been a model in evolution. And, if we long to find its core, we have to look deeper than simple slogans and suppositions.

What is marriage? Since romantic love is an invention of the fourteenth century, marriage is something based on more than love. Since property doesn't have the same meaning and content as four thousand years ago, marriage engages more than property. Since children are no longer property, and for the Protestant Church Back to topat least no longer a necessity of a fulfilled covenant, what is left?

The answer could come in that word I just introduced: covenant. What is left is something that has always been there in the scriptures and is as central to Israel and the Hebrew's relationship to God as it is to our sane and healthy relationship as individuals, nations, and groups today: covenant. What is covenant? It is God's model for the interaction of two or more. It is a flexible but binding promise to enter a relationship that gives life, even if its costs are high. It is an agreement that creates an identity that is more than the sum of individual parts. It is not a contract, for you don't back out of a covenant even if one party fails in its performance. You keep covenant. For it is a pursuit with the participation of God to be a new creation.

Biblical covenants, although fundamentally unchanging, are always growing. Those of us here today who were not born Jewish are proof of that: God reached out to Gentiles. Those of us who shave our beards, eat our lobster, and wear wool blazers with synthetic linings live by grace, too. The old covenant that prohibited football, tenting on mountains, and women sitting in certain pews has evolved. Covenants do. We don't have to begin our marriage relationships with instructions from our parents anymore, much as I intend to give them to my children. We don't live as beggars or suffer stonings based on the opinion of the head of our clan. We live with a new testament, that is, a new covenant, and it is growing still.

I've given them less than honorable attention, but both scriptures today include keys to our approach to this whole issue. The Psalm, in six short verses, reveals that for God there is a past, a present, and a future. And one moves forth from the other. And we're invited not to get stuck in certain debates but to remain fixed on God, who leads to the future. The Gospel offers four blessings and four woes. They are worth lengthy examination for their content but also their intent: they call us to a life of blessing and away from one of death. They address us directly and directly state that those excluded for their best faith today are at the heart of God's hope. Again, that's short attention to pay them, but they linger behind my whole understanding that we are called ahead in covenant, ahead in life, to grow into the future, into blessing and its translation: happiness.

I learned something important about my own marriage this week. Forty years ago it was illegal. You see my father's family came to the states from Scotland in 1739. My mother's came from Sweden around 1900. And my beloved wife's families came from Ireland and Sicily around that same time. Yet in 1896 Celts, from Ireland, were deemed "roughly similar" to emancipated Negroes, "lacking the solidity, the balance and judgment, and the moral staying power of the Anglo Saxon," and in 1922 a state court case ruled Sicilians non-white, and national rules against mixed race marriages lasted until the Supreme Court struck them down in 1967. I couldn't have married my wife without the intervention of the Supreme Court just a few years ago. Back to topI love my wife and I'm glad for activist courts and evolution.

What can I say in support of marriage? It is a wonderful gift and a strange institution. It is often, as Mencken quipped, the triumph of hope over experience. It is a blessing that changes. It is, as Tevye discovered while Fiddling on the Roof, the crucible of love growing from a life of common effort. It is an evolving idea still yearning for God's best vision. It is, as Christians know, a fallible effort. It is an organism that takes care and feeding, time and nurture, rest and exercise. Once upon a time it was required for priests. Once upon a time it was required for Bishops. Once upon a time it was open to same sex couples. Now at the intersection of church and fate we are again in a moment of change. And we still embrace this blessed gift and promise. We are still called to do our best.

This is such a modern thing to say, but for Christians since the beginning and for Shakespeare in the end, a lot of every relationship comes back to our acts of love. Two weeks ago I preached on Paul's concept of love and reminded us that he offers that list specifying just what it means to a community, a couple, or a country. He gives a guide for all decision making. It lists patience, kindness, hope, endurance, belief, rejoicing, and forbearance as ingredients of the expression. Today we hear Shakespeare say that love has a compass and measure that is timeless and strong. It is not shaken by tempests nor by what the remover removes. It is a God-inspired guide for our own navigation in this life of faith.

In our living this Valentine's weekend we could heed a little poetry from the bard, some vision from Jesus, and some faith from Paul. For we are still growing, too. Amen.

Copyright 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

Shakespeare's Sonnet is number 116.

The quote from Demosthenes is found in John Boswell's Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, New York: Vintage Books, 1995. This is also the source for his review of the history of marriage and citation of same sex liturgies.

The quote regarding the nature of "Celts" is from the Atlantic Monthly in 1896, cited on the website of Interracial Voice in an editorial by A.D. Powell in 2001.

The court case involving Sicilians is Rollins v. Alabama, 1922.

The Apostle Paul's discussion of marriage is primarily in 1 Corinthians 7, esp. v. 1-8.

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