On Saving Marriage
By Rev. Rich L. Smith
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
September 28, 2003
Text: Mark 10:2-16
As in most weddings, the bride wore a white dress. Only this wasn’t like most weddings, because there were two brides involved, and the second one wore a black suit. They entered the church from different directions, one escorted by her brother, the other by her children. Songs were sung, promises were spoken, and while there was no pronouncement of legal marriage — that being impossible — the whole congregation declared with one voice, “We recognize you as two married persons.” And thus was the relationship of Kathy and Ann blessed by God and the First Congregational Church of Tucson.
This was my first experience is performing a “holy union” for a same-sex couple. For years I had said I would be open to it, and so when this couple and their children showed up in church, and asked me if I could do a commitment ceremony for them, I was happy to talk with them and make good on my promise. As an ordained UCC minister, I felt I did not need anyone’s permission to do this, but since they wanted to use the church sanctuary, I consulted with the church’s governing board, and received not only unanimous approval but enthusiasm. And this was five years before the church began the explorations and discernment that led to becoming the 420th “Open and Affirming” UCC Congregation.
“Gay Marriage” is, of course a controversial topic, one that has been generally supported in the national settings of our church for many years, although obviously in local congregations, where the practical decisions are made, there is a huge spectrum of opinion. While it is not exactly a new issue — I note that in 1975 the Washington DC City Council considered a bill to allow legal gay marriage — this summer’s actions of the Episcopal Church, as well as the Supreme Court decision overturning sodomy laws in Texas, and the advent of legal “gay marriage” in Canada, have once again brought the issue to the front page. The Episcopal Church did two things: confirmed the first openly gay bishop, a man who has been living in committed relationship with his partner for 13 years, and sanctioned the development of rituals of “holy union” to bless same-sex partnerships.
Given that public opinion polls show that only some 37 per cent of Americans are in favor of this, “official” reaction has been predictable: The President wants to find some way to make sure same-sex marriages can never be legal, and others cry out for ways to “defend” traditional marriage. And no major presidential candidate of either party will come out in favor of same-sex nuptials.
Naturally some of the best comments have come from California. Actor and Gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman.”
My favorite is from a letter to the Los Angeles Times: “The actions taken by the New Hampshire Episcopalians are an affront to Christians everywhere. I am just thankful that the church’s founder, Henry VIII, and his wife Catherine of Aragon, his wife Anne Boleyn, his wife Jane Seymour, his wife Anne of Cleves, his wife Katherine Howard, and his wife Catherine Parr are no longer here to suffer through this assault on our ‘traditional Christian marriage.’”
Obviously “traditional Christian marriage” is not what it used to be, and never was! While it has been heterosexual in nature, that’s about as much as you can say. (Although the late Yale historian John Boswell presents evidence that the church did blessings of same-sex relationships a thousand years ago.) There really is precious little in the Bible about “traditional Christian marriage” or weddings of any kind. In the Old Testament, polygamy is common — at least for the men. King David kept a number of wives, and his successor Solomon was said to have over seven hundred at the same time — plus some three hundred concubine! For this he is not condemned, but praised. I for one am jealous, not of his bounty, but his strength! But for the most part, back then marriage was not an intimate relationship between two people who met and fell in love, but arranged, a business deal between families, or a way of making foreign policy — the neighboring King would be less likely to attack you if you had married his daughter.
By the Christian era, monogamy was the norm, but there is a lot of ambivalence towards marriage in the New Testament. Paul didn’t think very highly of it; and while it is possible that Jesus married, most scholars think it unlikely. The fact that he is reported in John’s Gospel to have attended a wedding reception and saved the day when the wine ran out is about the highest endorsement you can find. Marriage for the early Christians was usually an hierarchical arrangement, with God up here, over the husband, husband over wife, both over children, and everyone over the slaves. The church itself was not even in the marriage business for many centuries, believing it to be a purely legal matter. And I know of a few clergy today who on principle will not sign marriage licenses, believing in strict separation of church and state.
Our scripture lesson today may at first not appear to be of much help, and may in fact cause those of you who are divorced and re-married to wonder what’s going on here. It’s probably a good time to not be a biblical literalist! But if we look at the passage carefully, and its context, we find that Jesus is not making a universal pronouncement about marriage and divorce for all time, but rather skillfully evading a trap, another one of those trick questions posed by the Pharisees.
They asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Readers of the whole Gospel of Mark would recall that just four chapters earlier, John the Baptist had publicly criticized the ruler Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife in order to marry his bother’s ex-wife. This led directly to John’s arrest and beheading. So it was a rather dangerous question, one Jesus would answer at his peril.
The Pharisees, of course, already knew the law, and so when Jesus turned the question back on them they answered that Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife, as a matter of necessity — humans weren’t always capable of living up to the ideal of God at creation. Jesus then — without answering their question directly, and falling into their trap — exposed their own hypocrisy and got to the deeper issue of God’s original intent in creating human beings, grounding relationships within God’s creative love. As usual, the Pharisees were more devoted to preserving tradition than they were to doing God’s will.
And I should note that Jesus’ further comments, made in private to the disciples about a man who divorces his wife and marrying another committing adultery — and a woman divorcing her husband doing the same — are almost certainly not authentically Jesus’ words at all. That’s because in Jesus’ time, under Israelite law, women did not have the right to divorce their husbands. That didn’t come about until later, and then under Roman law. So Mark, writing some thirty years after Jesus’ death, is applying what he understands Jesus as saying to his own time.
Well, what would Jesus say to our time, this time when fifty per cent of all marriages end in divorce, when a lot of long term relationships never go as far as legal marriage, when there is a widespread sense that the bedrock foundation of society as represented in the nuclear family is on shaky ground? There are still churches that take Jesus literally and automatically condemn divorce, though they haven’t all exactly been models of sexual integrity themselves. Most mainline Protestant churches have long since accepted divorce as a reality, and have chosen the compassionate approach, realizing that this is how Jesus dealt with people — after all, he refused even to condemn the woman caught in adultery, finding no one among her accusers qualified to cast the first stone. We know there are times when remaining in a marriage is not what God would want, especially one that is abusive, or one that becomes destructive in other ways, and we believe that new beginnings are always possible.
But the real issue for us today is not divorce but marriage, and more specifically same-sex marriage. In the end, beyond his conflict with the Pharisees, I think Jesus is affirming the value of marriage, that it was from the beginning God’s intent that human life would best flourish within loving and committed relationships, and that just as Mark applied what he heard Jesus saying to his time, so we do to ours. In looking at the totality of Jesus’ life, and not just a proof-text here and there, we find that he always cared most for humans and what was best for them, that he always sided with those whom society devalued, that he befriended not just sinners but also the shunned and disregarded, and that he was quick to set aside the conventional mores of the day when he believed them to be contrary to God’s will. And that leads me to believe that he would affirm commitment and caring relationships wherever they are found. And I am glad to find that reflected in Westmoreland’s own “Statement of Openness and Affirmation” with the declaration, “We Cherish the family in all its different forms and celebrate all loving and committed relationships.”
And why not? Because these relationships form the foundation of a civilized society, they are where we are humanized, where we learn compassion and forgiveness and where we are saved from self-centeredness. In many cases they provide the setting for the procreation and nurture of children, but that’s not a requirement. If it were, the church would refuse to marry people over child-bearing age, and I don’t see that happening in any church. I think the purpose of marriage or union is best expressed by the new Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, whose election is so controversial, Gene Robinson: “In my relationship with my partner, I am able to express the deep love that is in my heart; and in his unfailing and unquestioning love of me, I experience just a little bit of the kind of never-ending love (of God). It’s sacramental. . . .”
It is ironic, I think, that just when a large portion of the heterosexual population is running from marriage, or often not doing a very good job of it, that the gay community is begging to have a crack at it — a very conservative thing, when you think about it! As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts writes, “It strikes me as intriguing, instructive and poignant that gay couples so determinedly seek what so many of us scorn, are ready to take the risk many of us refuse, find such value in an institution we have essentially declared valueless. There’s something oddly inspiring in their struggle to achieve the social sanction whose importance many of us long ago dismissed. Some people say they are a threat to the sanctity of marriage. But I’m thinking they might just be its salvation.”
And Naomi Wolf, writing in now-defunct George Magazine, says: “Conservatives’ fear of gay marriage is valid in one way: it would highlight the existing corruptions within straight marriage. For though conservatives blame the breakdown of the family on feminism, (it) is better blamed on sexism. More women than men initiate divorces, and the primary reasons women cite for wanting out are spousal abuse and discontent with years of doing the second shift of housework after a day on the job. Other research shows that the apex of marital stress comes after the birth of a child, when the balance of power shifts to the higher-earning man. The social dysfunctions that follow divorce are real: Women’s incomes drop dramatically, while men’s rise substantially. The harshest impact of this inequality before and after divorce falls on children.
“Now here is where gay marriage has something to teach straight people. With gay marriage, we would be witnessing, for the first time in history, unions of two social equals. When two white men marry, for example, the rest of us would be confronted with real marital parity, where neither individual is the automatic low-wage earner or the socially predetermined children’s caregiver. True equality is the ground of true love. That we all intuit. Gay couples are (usually) equals. Straight couples (often) aren’t. If gay marriages surrounded us, this would be a shocking challenge to straight America to make hetero-marriage truly equal — with all the upheaval that implies.”
That may be a radical notion, certainly an unpopular one, as polls show. But I recall that many of the arguments used to today against same-sex marriage are strikingly similar to the ones employed a couple of generations ago against inter-racial marriage. In fact, over a century ago, the law did not recognize the marriage of a woman and a man — if that couple were slaves. Nevertheless, slaves devised their own wedding rituals to seal their marriages to one another. “Jumping the broomstick” transformed a free slave union into a legitimate slave marriage. Eventually white ministers began to conduct church weddings for slaves. They wanted — as one historian put it — to see slaves “united under the laws of God, even if their marriages were not recognized by the laws of man.”
In another generation, I predict, the current “laws of man” will have changed, and my great-grandchildren will not know of a time when marriage was restricted to men and women. I can say this because, not only do I see it as a matter of simple justice, and over the long haul we are moving in the direction of justice, but also because I take encouragement where I find it, and so I want to quote Vice President Dick Cheney, who while not favoring gay marriage, at least said this: “The fact of the matter is we live in a free society, and freedom means freedom for everybody. . . . And I think that means people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It’s really no one else’s business in terms of trying to regulate or prohibit behavior in that regard. . . .” Ah, you never know where that kind of thinking will lead!
I trust we will continue this discussion after the service at the Forum, being sponsored by BCA and BCE downstairs. For now, let me conclude where our scripture lesson concluded, with a reference to children and the kingdom of God. Those who are able to be child-like themselves are the ones who will truly know what God’s realm is like — innocent, open, trusting, full of wonder and a natural appreciation for goodness and beauty and love. When we can see and celebrate that in the fidelity and commitment of all “those whom God has joined”, we too will find ourselves experiencing something of the “kingdom of God!”
© 2003 Rich L. Smith