The following thoughts are adapted (primarily the preface) from a sermon that I preached from Grace’s pulpit. Sometimes a sermon is crafted to deliberately provoke conversation; always such a sermon runs the risk of not adequately engaging the hearers and subsequently becoming one-sided. This may have been one of those sermons.
Whenever a minister officiates at a wedding, she acts as an agent of the state (having been granted this authority from the local municipality via the marriage license). Likewise the church, by hosting a wedding, complies with the legal system of marriage—whether through building rental, by extension via its minister, or in church members’ attendance at the wedding, the church acts a witness to the legal binding of a bride and groom. As I see it, this involvement is essentially a conflict of the church-state boundary.
My argument to the church, and my challenge as a minister, is that the participation of the church and minister in this legal institution goes largely unexamined and unqualified. If marriage is as valued and sacred as many Christians claim, then the church should reclaim marriage as a religious covenant and extract marriage from its currently legal entanglement. If, on the other hand, marriage is to remain as a legal institution (with nearly 1,000 laws contingent upon husband-wife designations), then the church should excuse herself from her present church-state compromise and more appropriately speak to any concerns of the “values” of marriage (I would say legal injustices) as an outside voice.
So: here is the hard question for the church to consider amidst all the loveliness and sentimentality of hosting weddings, a question that bubbles to the surface every time I read a marriage license: What’s so sacred about marriage?
Before you leap to an answer in your mind, let me elaborate on the question. What is it about getting married that prompts many engaged couples, who are otherwise nominal Christians, to go looking for a church? When couples plan weddings, what’s the appeal of having a minister versus having a judge? And on the flip side, what’s the interest of a church in deciding who can and who cannot marry within its walls (members, non-members)? What’s the church’s purpose in hosting a wedding? And—here’s what I’m really getting at—what is it about marriage that is so sacred and so valuable to the Christian Church that she has weighed in on the legal (civic/secular) debate over gay marriage in recent years?
Marriage has not always been (and, I suggest, isn’t now) an institution of the church. In the span of history, the coming together of two individuals to create a new family unit has typically been secular: either a private family matter or the business of government. For centuries, marriage was governed by local customs. In the Middle Ages, the Church actually had trouble becoming a voice of authority over marriage because marriage traditions were so localized and secular. The Roman Catholic Church finally established marriage as a sacrament in the 13th century, only to have major leaders of the Reformation —including Martin Luther—argue that marriage was a civil contract and not the business of the church (George Chauncey, Why Marriage, 79-80).
Simply said, the debate over who sets the rules for marriage is not new. Whenever gay marriage is debated today, there is an argument in the undercurrent of that debate: an argument of church versus government, sacred versus civil. Churches and church people are lobbying the government for the authority to say who can and who can’t marry. And, in Pennsylvania, the government is now making rules for the churches over which ministers can and cannot officiate at weddings.
So let’s take the debate in society and lay the questions on the table: What part of marriage—for us as a church, for you as a person of faith–is really important? What aspect of marriage (if any) is worth defending, in your opinion? What’s the crux of marriage that we should really value and encourage?
Let’s look at an Old Testament reading. It’s a familiar story: Moses the shepherd and former prince of Egypt is having an average day watching Jethro’s flock of sheep. Suddenly, he spies a burning bush: a green, growing bush that is red and yellow with dancing flames of fire…and yet it is not dying or crumpling into a pile of ashes! Moses says to himself, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight” (Exodus 3:3). Lo and behold, the voice of the LORD speaks to him from the bush, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry” (Exodus 3:6-7).
“Moses, Moses! You have turned aside from your sheep
to marvel at a fiery bush, but I have called you here because
I have already turned aside and bent my ear to hear my people’s cries.
I have turned aside from my place in the heavens
to concern myself with the welfare of the Hebrew people…
because that is WHO I AM.
I AM WHO I AM, and my whole divine being
is wrapped up in loving and rescuing my people.
I have turned aside to care for them, Moses,
and now I am calling you to turn aside from your business as a shepherd
in order to care for them as well.
I am telling you: turn aside for the sake of another,
because I have turned aside for all people.
Love one another, because I have loved all people. (1 John 4:19)
I AM WHO I AM, and who I am is to be understood in how I turn aside,
faithfully from generation to generation, to be near to those I love.”
If there is a biblical mandate for marriage, if there is a God-given example for committed relationships, it is not Adam & Eve or Abraham & Sarah & Hagar, it is not Jacob & Rachel & Leah or Hosea & Gomer. If there is a biblical mandate for marriage, it is God’s own actions. It is “I AM WHO I AM” turning aside from the business of up-in-the-sky holiness to hear the Hebrew people crying in anguish in Egypt. It is God foolishly loving—over and over and over again—stubborn and selfish people such as us.
There are many examples in the world around us of people turning aside from what they are doing to focus on and care for others: parents turning aside from their work to bandage scraped knees or to rock away their children’s pain; friends turning aside from their own schedules to spend time with one another when a tragedy occurs; volunteers turning aside from lucrative jobs to assist total strangers through non-profit organizations. Turning aside for one another—loving our neighbors—is beautiful and certainly holy.
But turning aside for a partner, a lover, a spouse,
in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow,
turning aside from one’s own tunnel vision to rejoice when the other rejoices
or to weep when the other weeps,
day after day, faithfully through the years
turning aside from one’s own ambitions and
remembering to turn aside from that innate self-focus
long enough to see the brilliant fire in the partner next to you,
to be always tuned in to hear their cries,
to say publicly that WHO I AM is wrapped up in WHO YOU ARE…
that kind of turning aside in imitation of God turning aside,
that kind of loving in imitation of God loving is a miracle.
In the sacred/secular battle over marriage, if we—this church or any church—really want to weigh in on the government’s rules about marriage, then we should check our bible stories. The example of marriage that is given to us, the story of covenant that is told repeatedly from cover to cover, is not the story of one man and one woman…but the story of God’s relationship with humanity. And there’s no gender in that relationship! God speaks to Abraham and to Mary both; God appears in fire to the Israelites and to the early Christian Church alike; God turns aside to hear the cries of both Hagar and Job.
If there is something about marriage that is sacred, something about partnership that is holy, it is the faithful repetition of turning aside to see and to hear one’s partner, in imitation of God turning aside to care for those most in need, in imitation of Moses turning aside to bask in the glow of God.
None of that is written on the marriage certificate that I sign after officiating a wedding. None of that is written into our state or federal laws. The government does not define what the quality of a married relationship should be or how partners should treat one another….only who can enter a marriage and who cannot.
So I return to the question: What’s so sacred about marriage? What’s so important about keeping marriage between a man and a woman that many Christian organizations and congregations are spending millions to lobby for legal restrictions? How does gay marriage threaten straight marriage? As an Open & Affirming congregation, can we risk being silent on the issue of marriage—on the meaning of marriage—or do we have something different to offer in this raging debate?
Adam & Eve don’t particularly inspire me as the exemplary married couple in the bible; I want to know what their relationship was really like when the honeymoon ended and they were forced to leave the Garden of Eden. Abraham, that great father of monotheism, just wanted a son, and he would take in or throw out whichever woman (Hagar or Sarah) who was most helpful to him or most in his way. I could go on with biblical examples of “married” couples!
But show me two people—two individuals, regardless of gender, who otherwise have no reason or obligation to care for each other—and yet they faithfully and lovingly turn aside from their own egos to support, to walk with one another along life’s journey… that is the holy ground of marriage. In the brilliant flames of that partnership, you can see the reflection of God’s partnership with humanity. In the reflection of that love, you can hear God calling us out of our self-focused daydreaming, calling out to us from the miracle of a burning bush, saying, “Turn aside, for the sake of one another. Turn aside, for the sake of my name.”
Blessed be the name of God,
who has been faithful to the generations before us
and whose constant presence surprises us still.
We are amazed and thankful for the signs of your love among us….
for the miracle of two people in love,
for the joy of friends in each other’s company,
for the tenderness of parents caring for children.
You call us to turn aside from our self-absorbed routines in order to see one another clearly,
to hear the cries of those most in need,
to behold the fire of your presence.
Do not stop calling us, we pray, even if we are slow to listen and slow to look.
We are grateful for people and events that reflect your love for life.
Break into us with your steadfast love;
make us bold to break through the limitations and restrictions that have been placed on the gay & lesbian community.
We would be hopeless in trying to love one another at all
if not for your grace and your example in first loving us.
Blessed be your name, O God, for you do not leave us alone.
Pour out your Spirit on us, full of strength and courage for loving one another.
For Christ’s sake. Amen.