A Biblical Picture of Marriage & Family, Sermon 07.03.11

A Biblical Picture of Marriage & Family, Sermon 07.03.11

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 and Song of Solomon 2:8-13

(Preacher’s note: At the beginning of worship, Junior, our lector for the day, announced, unbeknownst to us all, that he had asked Amanda to marry him. How nice it is when the Spirit brings people and apparent coincidences together.)

I usually preach a nation-related theme on the Sunday closest to July 4th. Often a message aiming at prophetic, more than congratulatory. To keep our pride about being Americans in check… from becoming hubris, arrogance and jingoism. We need to remember: for all the good in our history, our ideals are still mostly ahead of our realities. More often than not those sermons have been about the challenge that race continues to be in our country.

The 4th of July, like any anniversary, if it’s a celebration only about past becomes idolatry. Instead, a holiday such as this needs to be about the present moment, between the inheritance, even our missed opportunities and what lies ahead.

But the lectionary texts for today don’t really lend themselves to talking about the nation. Unless you take seriously the current moment, and how questions of marriage and family are the current cultural divide that dominates and underlies almost all the political and social discourse of our day. Marriage and family activize, obsess, paralyze our politics.

They’ve become as American as mom and apple pie, though not as generally agreed upon! I just bought a book entitled, Sex, Mom and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics– and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway.” I’ll share what it suggests when I get it read.

Both texts today speak of relationship, love and marriage. Very different visions they offer. Importantly different, I am suggesting. Interestingly, neither looks all the much like the “biblical model” that so often gets appealed to these days in the political discourse.

In Genesis, the picture is of an arranged marriage, arranged so as to assure that Isaac can marry his own kind, with, we are assured, God’s blessing.

Hmm, what then do we draw from that picture? God prefers unions that are not arranged by the partners, but by their families? Would we say that God ordains endogamy (marrying within your group), or that is against miscegenation, mixed marriages? Why not take this vignette to mean that God is pro-common law marraige, free of all the formalities and trappings of the institution as we know it, since Isaac and Rebekah, despite the camels and distance, are otherwise without what we moderns recognize as social recognition of their union. The go into a tent, and voila’, they are husband and wife. This story doesn’t seem suggest or require any of what we know as the religious ceremonies of marriage?

My point is that extrapolating from a biblical picture of marriage to a norm for our day, this society, our lives isn’t an easy or simple connect the dots exercise.

Beloved, despite how our reading today edited out some verses to make it sound as if Rebekah is accepting an offer to marry, she is not! Instead, she offers to leave home quickly, once others have made the decision for her. And despite how some commentators bend over backwards trying to put a better spin on this story, this episode is a reflection of the tribal society in which it occurred. Rebekah has no agency, no legal standings, no say in her future. Her father and her brother decide her fate for her. This is a business deal between men. Because women in Israelite society were commodities, extremely valuable commodities– as precious as the water with which they are associated– but commodities nevertheless.

I know I’m misreading culture and custom, but the ring that Isaac’s servant puts in her nose, instead of jewelry, or any sign of promise, I can’t help but think of a cow being led from one owner to the next…

The biblical images of marriage are all completely outsidee the modern contexts in which people today marry and make families. There was little notion of individual rights. No sense that women had any rights. No way for women to support themselves or be safe in a man’s world. No way for a woman and man to take advantage of modern family planning… Not any of the social setting of modern North American life wherein our lives and families find their background, assumptions, possibilities or meaning.

In our second reading, we have another picture of marriage altogether. Or at least the details of another aspect. The Song of Solomon is an ancient erotic poem, the story of a young man and young women discovering themselves and one another in a most carnal way, a narrative from courtship to consummation in which God’s presence is, at best, even further in the background than in the first reading. Read that, this is a love poem in the Bible that never mentions God.

Here, at least in the poetry and passion of young love, the Shulamite woman, seems to have found an agency uncommon for women in her time and place, an agency usually unseen anywhere in our religious canon, or in church, because it’s about claiming and taking command of her sexuality.

Again, commentators have done their best to allegorize the poem’s meaning, to remake it into metaphor about the marriage between God and God’s people. The only problem is, if you read it, you will see the Song as an allegory for the relationship of God and God’s people is some bit of a stretch. The Song of Solomon is more about the first blush of love. Its about kisses and breasts and the aroma of love. About overwhelming passion at a new beginning that might make you blush, particularly in church on a sunday morning.

It’s not really a description of the long haul of a marriage. Or the on again, off again relation of God and God’s people. Sure there is at the end a seal set upon the heart, but otherwise the setting is more Romeo and Juliet or a romance novel than the portrait of a marriage.

What are we to make of it? That God prefers young passion to longer-serving stability? That God wants dark-skinned women to couple with lighter skin men? That eros is more important than agape or filial love?

And along side of these two, there are other biblical pictures of marriage.

Yes, there’s the ur-couple, Adam and Eve, which some want to make both the ideal and the norm because, so the story goes, they hold the honor of being first. …Funny thing is, however: the generations that came after, they didn’t seem to get that message that marriage is between one man and one woman. Or at least they didn’t accept that teaching.

And the bible itself goes on to depict all sorts of marriages and families. There’s men with wives and concubines. And widow’s who marry their brother-in-law. Men in polygamous marriages. Slaves whose masters coupled them. Soldiers who kidnapped wives from defeated enemies. Single mothers. Women who have had more than one husband.

There’s Jesus who it could be said had two fathers and a mother. And the adult Jesus who is depicted as celibate (or at least unidentified). (One of my favorite books in seminary, “Was Jesus Married?” made the case that the argument from silence was not sufficient to assume Jesus led a single life.)

And there’s Paul who counseled against marriage altogether– ‘a bad idea to be avoided if one possibly could.’

Funny isn’t it: the New Testament actually offers a stronger picture against getting involved in heterosexual marriage than it does against loving someone of the same sex. Actually, it never says anything that would prohibit lesbian relationships or families.

My point is simply that despite all the appeals these days to Bible and its clarity about the preferability of a heterosexual nuclear family, mom and dad and two cute kids, the Bible neither presents a uniform picture nor an exclusive teaching.

Sort of like the portraits we offer. Some of us are married. Others are not. People here love partners of the opposite sex. Others are attracted to the same sex. Some have in their lifetimes loved both men and women.
We have childless families. And blended families. Families with two moms. And families without fathers.

Many of us have been married more than once. Some marriages are incredibly romantic or sexual or platonic or pragmatic. And some have forsworn ever doing or trying again “the couple thing.” Some of us are a family of one.

My point is that focusing on the composition of the family seems to be a bit superficial. Like suggesting that God prefers a darker complexions, or heavy set body type or Spanish over English.

It probably won’t surprise any of you to hear me say this, but I believe God prefers real families over posed portraits– all different kinds of families, even alternative families, in action, where love is alive, flourishing and bearing fruit… surprising families that may not look like who anyone expects but still somehow find the wherewithal to honor and cherish and support their members no matter what.

I said last week:

“…The point is– it’s not what your family looks like. Or that your family, or your lives, well, live up to anyone else’s standards or style. Because God often asks strange things of us. And because God doesn’t love people only if they are in the right family configuration. If they look the right way or love who someone else thinks they should love. I’m not talking just about gender. How many times do families for all kinds of reasons disapprove of who their loved one brings home?

But God loves each of us no matter what. Even if we choose the wrong partner. Or aren’t that good of a partner ourselves. Because God calls us to a love that broad and hight and deep. Even when things aren’t perfect. When we’re not perfect.

And God wants us to see how precious and to live out the preciousness of every last painfully imperfect human, even ourselves– no matter how horrible the situation is.”

To which I’d add today:
And God calls us to love likewise– without conditions, exceptions or reserve.

Beloved, that’s the biblical standard. Not how many or what collection of people are in your family! But what our faith asks of us… what God through the Bible– not in a single story or sentence but through the witness of the whole– is trying to lead us to…

Not some Olan Mills grouping of middle American normalcy. But our own real families in all their complexity and complexion.

Maybe that’s where we find God, behind the scenes as in both readings today: trying to bring families together, keep them together, even when they sometimes need to live apart. Families that surprise us: that in all our humanness still manage. But not always… Sometimes deliberately gathered families, what people in the queer community who’ve been rejected by or put out by their families of origins call families of choice.

Families that go through hard times. And struggle with misunderstandings and hurts that don’t seem to go away.

Families that manage, against all odds, to offer one another nourishment and courage and love that lasts a lifetime.

At weddings, I often read this passage (from Jonathan Schell’s “The Fate of the Earth”):

The biological continuity of the species is made into a fully human, worldly continuity, by, above all, the institution of marriage. Marriage lends permanence and public shape to love.

Marriage vows are made… to one another, but they are also made before the world, which is formally present at the ceremony as a witness. Marriage solemnizes love, giving this most inward of feelings an outward form that is acknowledged by everyone and commands everyone’s respect.

In swearing their love in public, the lovers also let it be known that their union will be a fit one for brining children into the world — for receiving what the Bible calls “the grace of life.” And the world by insisting on a ceremony, and by attending in the role of witness, announces its stake in its own continuity. Thus, while in one sense, marriage is the most personal of actions, in another sense it belongs to everybody.

In a world that is perpetually being overturned and plowed under by birth and death, marriage — which for this reason is called an “institution” — lays the foundation for the stability of the human world that is built to house all generations. In this sense, as well as in the strictly biological sense and the emotional sense, love creates the world.”

I like that– one aspect of marriage, even though not all unions produce children, is passing the torch from one generation to the next. Marriage and family lays the foundation, builds a house all generations. They provide us shelter, a home, a place of safety, nurture and growth.

The instructions that we heard Abraham speak to his servant are his last words recorded in the bible. In and through the ordinary, the God of heaven and earth blesses Abraham and all his descendents, right down to us, by counting on us as crucial vehicles for the leading and blessing work of God in daily affairs.

What a powerful way to think of our vocation as people of faith? What a high calling for our most intimate, private relationships… They are to be “vehicles” for God’s blessing and creative work in the world. Through the oh, so day in and day out, but still somehow extraordinary work of creating and keeping love and relationships and family.