Marriage for Whom?

wedding ringsI don’t usually reproduce sermons for this blog, but I’m making an exception.  Here is the sermon manuscript for Sunday worship at First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee on August 25, 2013. 

Marriage for Whom?
Luke 13: 10-17

This  Wednesday night I will be participating in a panel discussion at Faith Presbyterian Church.  The topic is “same-sex marriage,” and I will have seven whole minutes in which to state my opinion on the matter.  It seems only fair that you, the congregation I am blessed to serve, should hear what I plan to say this Wednesday night.

Most of the sermons you hear from this pulpit spring from the lectionary readings for the day.  This sermon will depart from that pattern.  I hope, at least, that what I say will be true to the spirit of today’s Gospel reading.  In this passage Jesus heals a woman who has suffered for 18 years from an affliction that keeps her from standing upright.  To use the language of the story, Jesus “sets her free” from her aliment.

Because Jesus performs this act of liberation in the synagogue on the Sabbath, the leader of the synagogue comes down on him like a ton of bricks.  Jesus replies,

“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”[1]

Among other things, this passage is about liberation, equality, and inclusion.  Jesus has compassion for this woman whose condition is no fault of her own.  He considers her a fully equal member of the covenant community, and sets her free because that’s what Jesus came to do.  He came to “set at liberty” the imprisoned and oppressed.

It is in the spirit of inclusion, liberation, and equality, and, most of all, in the spirit of the love made flesh in Jesus Christ that I offer these words for your discernment

First, let us not talk of “same-sex marriage.” The question before the church is not whether  to create some special kind of marriage for same-gender couples, but whether to include same-gender couples in the covenant of marriage.  Shall we continue to define marriage as “between a man and a woman,” or shall we revise the definition of marriage as a covenant between “two people,” regardless of their gender?

That’s the question – not “same-sex marriage,” but the inclusion of same-sex couples in the liturgical rite of Christian Marriage, in which, just like heterosexual couples, they would pledge to be faithful to one another “in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live.”[2]

Are those holy vows to be undertaken only between a man and a woman, or have we, as a community of faith, guided by scripture and under the lordship of Jesus Christ, arrived at a more inclusive understanding of marriage?

It is often argued that opening marriage to same-sex couples is “unbiblical.”  It is true that there is no Biblical precedence for this idea, but if you actually read the Bible,  you might be surprised to find that, Biblically speaking, marriage was not what you think.

Last May at a meeting of Faith Food Fridays, Rabbi Jack Romberg of Temple Israel put it bluntly. “Let’s face it,” he said.  “Basically, marriage in ancient Israel was a a contract to transfer female property from one man to another man.”

In Biblical times, marriage was part of a male hierarchical social system.  Men were allowed – indeed encouraged – to have multiple wives and concubines if they could afford them.  Women, on the other hand, were not allowed to choose whom they could marry, and lived under the authority of their husbands.  It is only in the later portion of the 20th century that we in the West have conceived of marriage as a fully consensual union of equals.

There is no single, consistent model of marriage that can be said to the biblical model. The Bible offers multiple visions of married life, and none of them resembles the bride and groom you find today on top of a wedding cake.

Through time, as culture has changed and our reading of scripture has changed, our understanding of marriage has changed, too.  When I preside at a wedding these days, I no longer ask the father of the bride “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” (as though the bride were a sack of potatoes), and I no longer ask the bride to promise to “love, honor, and obey” her husband (unless of course, the husband takes a vow to obey his wife.

To those who argue that the church must retain the Biblical model of marriage, I have to ask which one?  Abraham’s marriage to Sarah including  Abraham’s concubine Hagar?  Jacob’s marriage to Leah and to her sister Rachel at the same time?

“No,” you say, “Not those Biblical models,  I mean the Biblical model.”

Pardon me, but there isn’t one.  The Bible is not a book of definitions, but an unfolding story of God’s love, justice, and grace.

It is clear that Jesus was in favor of marriage.  When asked to justify divorce, he refused to do so, and instead invoked the second story of creation in Genesis.  God is the author of marriage, Jesus maintained.  “. . . what God has joined together, let no one separate.”[3]

As to the possibility of including same-sex couples in the covenant of marriage, the very notion was inconceivable in the cultural context of the Bible.  The Biblical writers knew about certain same-sex behaviors, but they had no concept of homosexual orientation as an unchosen “given,” much like left-handedness.

Our forbearers in the faith knew about same-sex rape, about consorting with temple prostitutes as an act of idol worship, and about Greek pederasty.  All of those practices they condemned, as we would condemn them today.  But they did not know about what we call “homosexuality.”  (The word itself was not coined until early in the 20th century.

The biblical writers simply did not consider the possibility that lasting, responsible, loving relationships could be possible for two people of the same sex.  They had no concept of “gay” and “straight.”  Within their frame of understanding, everybody had to be straight, and anybody who behaved otherwise had to be an idol worshipper, a reprobate, or at the very least “unnatural.”

Clearly the Apostle Paul believed that what we call homosexual behavior was unnatural.  He therefore lumped it in with all kinds of wickedness, including heartlessness, rebellion toward parents, slander, and gossip.  He then advised the Romans not to pass judgment on others because they themselves were guilty of the very same behaviors.[4]

Paul’s epistles are complicated, nuanced, even gender-bending.  Remember that he  insisted that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,[5] and advised married couples to be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ, [6] thereby undermining male hierarchy.

Perhaps, if we had him with us today, we could convince Paul that for some people, homosexual orientation is as natural as heterosexual orientation is for other people.  While we are at it, we could show him that the church is greatly blessed when, contrary to Paul’s advice, women don’t keep silent in the church.[7]

There is no biblical precedent for marriage between two people of the same sex, but there is biblical precedent for polygamy, slavery, for killing rebellious children, and for stoning witches.  Biblical precedent isn’t everything.

Some argue that same-gendered couples shouldn’t be married because they can’t have children.  If fertility is a requirement for marriage, then I have erred in presiding at the marriages of several couples in their 80’s.  The problem with that that objection is that it assumes that marriage is mostly about sex.

Is marriage for Christians mostly about sex, or is it mostly about lifelong commitment, mutual affection, kindness, forbearance, and the love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Isn’t marriage about love that does not insist on its own way, that is not irritable or resentful, that rejoices not in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Isn’t marriage about love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things?[8]

That’s certainly what Christian discipleship is all about, and marriage for Christians is an act of discipleship, a way of following Christ.

I have seen with my own eyes that kind of love between couples of the same sex.  I’ve seen it gay parents raising children.  I’ve seen it at the bedside of partners dying of AIDS in the early days of that terrible pandemic.  I’ve seen it in gay and Lesbian Christians whose lives of kindness and integrity put my own life to shame.  I wish I were as faithful a Christian as some of the gay and Lesbian members of this congregation.

I have seen as well the hurt and pain that is inflicted upon LGBT people by Christians who use the Bible as a bludgeon, instead of a bridge – Christians who construct  a weapon from seven texts ripped out of context and applied as though they were the sum and substance of the Bible’s entire witness.

I believe that marriage is a gift of God to all humanity — that, in the words of the Book of Common Worship, it is for “the well-being of human society and the ordering of family life,” that it is “a calling to a new way of life,” and that it is “a holy mystery.”  I count it an honor to preside at the liturgy in which a couple joins hands and pledges lifelong fidelity till death do them part.

What’s more, I now believe that the church should not deny this ordinance to couples simply because they are gay or Lesbian.  Sexual orientation is as much a mystery to me as is marriage itself.  I don’t know why some people turn out to be oriented toward people of the same sex.  I do know that all of us are made in the image of God.

I can’t see why we should forbid to gay and Lesbian Christians the blessings and challenges of Christian marriage.  I don’t see why those brothers and sisters in Christ shouldn’t be held to the same standards of fidelity and monogamy as straight Christians.

To deny the covenant of marriage to these brothers and sisters is to say to them, “You don’t really belong in the body of Christ.  You are too different from the rest of us.  You aren’t worthy to seek God’s blessings on your life with the person you love.  We will not give our “Amen” to your vows.  We will not sanction the love that brings you together.”

We used to say to black Christians, “You can’t sit downstairs here.”  We used to say to female Christians, “You can’t be ordained here.”  Yet we continue to say to gay and Lesbian Christians, “You can’t be married here.”

It’s a lot like that leader of the synagogue saying to that woman bent over in pain for 18 years, “You can’t be set free here.”

Jesus had other ideas.

I know it won’t be easy to change.  I don’t have all the answers.  But I have come to think that the time has come to broaden the definition of marriage and to rejoice in the grace of Jesus Christ – the grace that makes Christian marriage possible.

That, more or less, is what I plan to say this Wednesday.  I pray that somewhere in what I have said today, you will hear God’s word to you.

[1] Luke 13: 15-16

[2] Book of Common Worship, Christian Marriage: Rite I

[3] Mark 10:9

[4] Romans 1, 2

[5] Galatians 3:28

[6] Ephesians 5:21

[7] I Timothy 2:12; I Corinthians 14:34

[8] I Corinthians 13

More Light Welcomed

Last Wednesday President Obama announced his support for “marriage equality.”  He was nice enough to write me an e-mail about it — well, me and a few million others.

I have been as forthright as I can be about my struggles with this issue.  Same-sex marriage is not allowed in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  As a Teaching Elder, I must live under the authority of the church. From the standpoint of the church’s constitution, marriage is between one man and one woman.

On the other hand, the General Assembly of Church has repeatedly called for equal rights for lesbian and gays.  I can’t offer a resolution to this matter because neither I nor the Presbyterian Church has arrived at one yet.  But I can at least clarify a couple of points about the President’s position.

First, I respect the President and the stance he has taken.  In his e-mail announcement he said that, although he once thought that “civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution,” he has now concluded that “same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.”

Of course, the President is speaking in terms of secular law, not church law.  He writes, “ . . . I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.”

As people say these days, “I’m fine with that.”

Second, I appreciate the President’s respect for people of faith who will, based on their religious convictions, find themselves at odds with his position.  He writes, “I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines.”

Some religious leaders are already saying that the President wants to force churches to perform same-sex marriages.  This is not the case, but that won’t keep people from asserting that the President wants to annul the First Amendment.

I have clergy colleagues in the African American community and in the Roman Catholic Church who will find themselves at odds with the President over this matter, even though they are in agreement with him in most other matters.

And, of course, I have gay and lesbian colleagues who are frustrated and angry that they are being denied in church what some states already allow in law.  For them, and for those who love them,  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

For this Christian President, the Golden Rule trumps any reservations he might have had.  I honor that reasoning.  I also honor those who think that he has framed the matter wrongly.

I thought about preaching on the matter last Sunday, but neither the lectionary texts nor my state of mind would cooperate.  I’m not even sure a sermon would be helpful.  Sometimes a sermon stirs the pot without feeding the flock.

In 1620 John Robinson addressed a portion of his flock upon their departure to the New World.  Convinced that God’s Word is living and active, he told the pilgrims, “God hath more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”

I don’t think God has spoken the final Word in this matter.  I welcome more light.


For other blogs on this issue, see Rev. David Lewicki’s “The Case Against Christian Marriage.”  David makes some good points, but his dismissal of the  the Genesis “myth” is problematic, in my opinion.

Also, see Adam Copeland’s post in A Wee Blether.  I agree with Adam that the theological challenge is to construct a positive case for same-sex marriage based on scripture.