Marriage into unity

“The Universal Man” by Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operam, 1165.

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, and Mark 10:2-16.

Last Saturday in this room we celebrated the marriage of Hilary Wilcox and Mike Craig.  It was a wonderful wedding:  a happy couple, loving family and friends, and great music.  One of the scriptures readings we heard that day was from Ecclesiastes.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Eccl. 4:9-12)

If you’ve been to a lot of weddings and never heard that reading, you would not be unusual.  In our Prayer Book, in the marriage section, there is a list of recommended scriptures for weddings.  A couple is not bound to those, but it’s a good start and usually covers what most people might want.  But the wonderful Ecclesiastes reading that I just read for you comes from another source.  It comes from the list of suggested readings in the new proposed liturgy for The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, the form our recent national meeting of the Episcopal Church endorsed for use in same-gender marriages, beginning this Advent. 
The new proposed liturgy encourages us to think in several new ways about marriage, union, or covenant, or whatever you want to call the blessing of a committed relationship.  Not only are there new readings suggested—many of which add a refreshing breach of the Spirit into a wedding of any kind, but also the whole liturgy recalls imagery of the baptismal service as well as a traditional marriage liturgy.  What’s different is that the couple come before God as two people, not as “man and wife.”  Also, the woman is not “given away” from one man to another, as though she is property.  There is additional language about the community of faith, making no mistake that what the couple does in binding themselves one to another is not just about the couple, and not just for the sake of having children, but is about a larger witness of faith, fidelity, and communion. 

The Church’s understanding about marriage is changing.  It is growing and deepening and, in many ways, is being baptized and sanctified in new ways.  But what may be surprising about the church’s willingness to adjust and change in its view of marriage, is that this in nothing new.  Since the beginning of time, people of faith have understood marriage (and the ending of some marriages) in ways that have been fluid and changing, both influenced by culture and guided by God. 


Listening to the Gospel we just heard, one could think that the sermon today was going to be about divorce.  The Pharisees are perhaps genuine in their question of Jesus, or maybe they are trying to trick him.  But he does take their question seriously. Jesus is asked about divorce, but he responds by talking about marriage.  He’s more interested in the relationship as it might be, as it can be, and God intends for it to be at its very best.  The provision for divorce, Jesus suggests, is there because of human fallibility. Jesus suggests that the law allowing for divorce is not there to encourage divorce, but as a necessity when there’s no other alternative.  God gave the law to Moses out of compassion, because God knew that humans can sometimes do harm to one another, and there needed to be provision for dealing with broken relations.  Sometimes a marriage needs to end, and so the law of Moses was provided for those situations.   

But this doesn’t settle the matter for the disciples.  They want to hear more.  After they leave the Pharisees and go indoors, the disciples push Jesus further.  They want to be clear what Jesus think about divorce, perhaps because they are aware that not everyone agrees about divorce.

Jesus answers by interpreting the religious law of his day.  But if we look closely, we’ll see that Mark, the writer of this Gospel, has already adapted Jesus’s words to the Greco-Roman culture of Mark’s day.  In Jesus’s day, there was no provision for a woman to divorce her husband, a provision that came later.  But by Mark’s time, this was a reality, and so Mark’s community of faith had already begun to grapple with those places in which scripture, tradition, and reason don’t exactly line up.  So already, we see a progression, a change, an interpretation of where God might be in the marriage relationship and where God might be when a marriage ends. 

The way we understand relationship changes.  The way we tell our story changes.  The way we understand God in our lives changes—and this has been so since the beginning of time. 

The Book of Genesis begins with a difference of opinion.  Genesis does not begin once.  It begins twice.  Genesis 2, from which we have today’s Old Testament readings is by a source scholars call the Yahwistic source. It emphasizes humanity and tries to explain how why it is that there’s a loneliness in the heart of us, and that this loneliness finds healing in another person.  Genesis 1 is of another source, called the Priestly source, and in those first few words of Genesis, it’s all about God. From the very beginning of our scriptures, there is difference and diversity of opinion.

If we zoom through time to the Sixteenth Century, we can see there was a particular difference of opinion about marriage.  Some people will flippantly say that the Church of England came about as a result of a divorce.  It was created, they say, when King Henry VIII’s wanted to break his marriage with Catherine of Aragon.  The Pope refused, so the King refused the primacy of the Pope, made himself head of the church in England and got the divorce he wanted.  But there were larger issues. 

At stake was the interpretation of scripture, the understanding of marriage and divorce in English law, and an undercurrent of theology and exploration made possible by the printing press and intellectual developments in the mid-sixteenth century.  Very simply put:  things were changing.  And things have always been changing ever since. 


Our own Bishop Mariann Budde remembers when she was a little girl and her parents got divorced.  [She mentions this in her interview on the Diane Rehm Show, December 21, 2011.]This was not an easily accepted thing in Episcopal circles.  In fact, it was only in 1973 that the Episcopal Church, meeting in general convention, passed a canon that allowed for remarriage after divorce. 
People of faith have wrestled with how to understand divorce and the Church continues to wrestle with how to understand marriage.  In the Episcopal Church, at least, we have having these conversations openly.  We read our scripture and take it seriously.  We read the tradition of the Church and take seriously what others before us have done and said.  And we use our best thinking to take into consideration history, theology, psychology, medicine, and every other good gift God has given us.  As we discern, we let faith guide us through the Holy Spirit, so that not just one person is given the truth, but groups of people coming together in faith and humility.
Our Church is still discerning how, diocese by diocese, it understands marriage, just as our country is discerning state by state.  But I am grateful that the Diocese of Washington, and your vestry have given me permission to welcome any couple who meets our requirements for marriage to be married at All Souls.  I will continue to meet with couples who request a blessing, talk with them, pray with them, listen for God’s Spirit moving through their lives, and officiate at those marriages that seem appropriate for us to host in this place.

We have been talking a lot about marriage this morning, about committed relationships between two people, and even though the Church has sometimes privileged married persons over those who are not married, our Epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us that God’s image is not best reflected in marriage, but “[Christ] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”  Christ is the model and the goal for love, friendship, and all relations, and in Christ are both male and female. 

When the disciples ask Jesus about marriage, Jesus responds with Genesis 2 in which male and female are helpers, partners, and part of each other.  Genesis does not mention marriage there, but speaks in larger terms that apply to all. 

The union of male and female in Christ is something the saints have aimed for.  And it is precisely this blending of male and female in a graceful and loving way that shows up in people like St. Francis of Assisi.  Describing Francis, Leonardo Boff writes

The feminine and the masculine are ontological determinations of every human being, in such a way that each individual carries something of both within him or herself….The male must integrate the anima that gives him strength, that is, the dimension of gentleness, of care, of attraction, of intuition, of all that is linked to the mystery of life and generation. The female must integrate the animus that is found within her existence, that is, the objectivity of the world, rationality, ordering, and direction—everything that is linked to history….[And so, in Francis of Assisi] without machismo or feminism, without fragility or rigidity, there blossoms in him, harmoniously, a gentle strength and a strong gentleness that are the brilliance and the archetypal enchantment of his personality” (Francis of Assisi: a Model for Human Liberation, p. 26)

The famous Prayer for Peace (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…), attributed to St. Francis, asks for a kind of peace that results from reconciling opposites:  hatred/love, injury/pardon, discord/union, doubt/faith, despair/hope, darkness/light, sadness/joy.  We could add to this list, male/female, masculine/feminine.  Duality goes away.  In its place is integrity, unity, wholeness, and peace. 

God’s intention for humanity is that we be as whole as possible in this life, which prepares us for the next life in which we receive the fullness of God.  If what moves you most into wholeness and completion is being with another person, then link up with someone and let that relationship grow in God.  If you’re moved most toward wholeness by being single, then let God sanctify your singleness and free you to grow more deeply into God. 

Whether single, married, in relationship, or out; may God fill us with love so that, with Francis and all creation we might sing,

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.  (Canticle of the Creatures)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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