Acts 10:44-50; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-15
Last week the clergy of the diocese gathered for our annual clergy conference. The theme: marriage. We listened to a theologian and several panels of peers address issues related to the changing institution of marriage in preparation for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which takes place next month in Salt Lake City, when a task force on marriage will present its report; the clergy conference was designed to reflect in advance on the subject. It’s possible that during the same week, the Supreme Court of the U.S. will announce a decision regarding same sex marriage. It’s clearly time for us to address the subject of marriage. What better time than Mother’s Day.
Many churches talk about Christian marriages and families, biblical marriage and family, and traditional marriage and family, as if they were simple and obvious references that answered any questions that might be raised. And there are plenty of questions circulating around modern life: about same sex marriage; about adoption by same sex couples; about who the parents are in cases of artificial insemination; about blended families; about cohabitation; about the increasing frequency of singleness and couples without children. For better or worse, the answers are not simple. Marriage and families have complex histories, there are multiple examples in the Bible, and no single understanding fits the words Christian, biblical or traditional.
When people talk about biblical marriage and family they often use stereotypes and fantasies from a certain period of history. The concept of family as mom, dad and children living alone together in one home is a picture of the dominant culture in the United States during the 1950s. The Bible has much more variety: Abraham and Sarah were a couple, but Abraham fathered a child by Sarah’s maid, Hagar, and Sarah was the one who suggested it; Isaac had at least four wives, some simultaneously. David also had several wives. Mary, Martha and Lazarus friends of Jesus, formed a family of siblings, all apparently single. Those are some well-known families. In each one women were property of the fathers or husband
In the early centuries of church history, celibacy was considered better than marriage. For the first thousand years, weddings happened in the home; the church had little or nothing to do with them. It wasn’t until the 16th century that priests were required to perform weddings. Also during the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation rejected celibacy as a requirement for ordination; that opened up many new conversations about marriage and the church. Divorce laws have changed frequently throughout history, not just in the last 50 years. Interracial marriage was considered immoral until 50 years ago, and same sex marriage is still considered immoral by many in the church.
And the changes continue: people are older when they first get married; fewer people are getting married; people delay marriage due to student debt, job insecurity or career preparation; young adults raising children are more likely not to be married; couples living together prior to marriage has increased by nearly 900 percent over the last 50 years; forty-eight percent of all first births are to unmarried women; and acceptance of same-sex marriage is growing, though not in all racial or ethnic communities. And on and on it goes.
None of that may seem relevant to you and your family. But, apart from the complexity of defining marriage and family, all of us face the challenge of living in families. We see the same dynamics in the families of the Bible that we face in our families. Like Sarah and Abraham, who left Ur for Palestine, some of you are immigrant families, torn from your cultures of origin. Like Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, who were unable to bear children at the usual time, some of you struggle with infertility, even when new options are available. Like Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and Benjamin and Israel’s other 10 sons, many of us have grown up in families where one child is obviously the favorite of one of the parents. And like the entire family of Abraham in Genesis, we’ve had to grow up with family members deceiving each other time after time, and had to figure out how to trust each other again. These are not modern problems. They are struggles that all families have experienced.
So does the Bible have a message for us? Are there core values of marriage and family that apply to all the varied shapes? We could spend a whole week answering that question but I want to propose a few that come from this morning’s readings. First, Christian families are united around baptism. Our first reading speaks of a whole new group of people welcome into baptism – Gentiles. Baptism, whether of children or adults, is an opportunity to reverse original sin. But original sin is not an actual tendency toward sin, or a stain, that we inherited from Adam and Eve. Rather we're trapped in original sin when the lie that we are unlovable gets passed down from generation to generation. When children, or minorities or outcasts, grow up believing the lie that they are unlovable because parents, or teachers, or neighbors or entire cultures somehow make them believe they are unlovable, that is when they inherit original sin. Christian baptism reverses that. God affirms, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” Baptism proclaims that, far from being unlovable, we are the beloved. The first core value and task of Christian marriage and family is to convince each other that we are beloved.
A second core value comes from the second lesson. Jesus came by water and blood. Families and communities are built not just on belovedness & baptism but on laying down our lives for those we love, being willing to shed our blood on behalf of another. Mothers show this kind of love regularly, even if they don't literally shed blood. A Lutheran pastor friend told how she learned belovedness from her mother. When she was seven or eight she used to play by a stream in back of her house at the bottom of two steep banks with a rock ledge across it to a field on the other side. Her parents warned her never to try and cross it because it was slippery and she could fall and hurt herself. One day she was at the stream wanting to cross over to the field. She tried to cross, and half way across slipped and fell hard. She wasn’t badly injured but she had to climb up the muddy bank to get home. She emerged covered with mud, blood and tears. Her mother had just gotten dressed for a women’s luncheon at the church. The dress was a pale shade of yellow that soiled easily, and had to be dry cleaned after each wearing. When Heidi came from the woods, her mother was standing at the back door, waiting for her to come home so she could go to church in her yellow dress. When she saw Heidi she went and hugged her to herself – mud, blood and all. She never made it to the women’s luncheon. There were no conversations about fault or disobedience to belabor the obvious. Never releasing her loving touch, she took her upstairs to wash. Heidi claims that’s where she learned belovedness. (Breathing Space, p. 89). Thank you, mothers, who have taught us what it means to be family and to confront the challenges that come our way. May our families pass down belovedness and love that lays down its life to future generations.