Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Genesis 2:18-24Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2:5-12
Psalm 8Mark 10:2-16

The marriage beyond marriage

Today’s readings were evidently chosen to turn our thoughts toward marriage.  The story from Genesis is like one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, which are designed to answer questions such as: How did the elephant get its trunk? Or: How did the leopard get its spots?  The story in Genesis is an answer to the question: How do you account for the passionate attraction between a man and a woman who adore each other and are irresistibly drawn to each other, who leave their home of origin to cling to each other (Genesis 2:24), and who feel, when they look at each other, that somehow the other person is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23)?  The Genesis story imagines one possibility: maybe God created the woman from out of the man’s rib. Maybe there is some kind of original, primal unity between men and women, some deep, visceral kinship between them, so that when a man and a woman fall in love and are united in marriage, it is a reunion of sorts, a homecoming with real cause for delight.

It’s a wonderful mythic story, but it’s been troublesome, too, and over the years progressive Christians have felt a need to clarify or correct its interpretation.  For starters, the story could imply that because woman was made from a man’s rib, women by nature are derivative of men, that by nature we are secondary and subordinate.   This interpretation has lost whatever traction it once had, thanks to the women’s movement that took off in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  I remember grinning back then at the graffiti that we often found secretly scribbled on the walls of women’s bathrooms: Adam was just a rough draft.  Today’s feminist theologians would reject just as decisively any interpretation of the Genesis story that tries to justify women’s unequal status as somehow God-given. 

The story has been troublesome in another way, too: it has been, and too often still is, interpreted as restricting marriage only to a man and a woman.  For decades now, natural scientists, social scientists, and progressive theologians have been struggling to help the dominant culture understand that a woman can feel “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” attraction for another woman, and a man for another man, and that this visceral, irresistible mutual attraction is just as God-given, just as good, just as built-into-the-nature-of-things, as the passionate love between male and female.  We need to hold the Genesis story not as the exclusive possession of heterosexual men and women, but as a story about how human beings are created for relationship, how we all find our full humanity only in community, and how many of us – whatever our gender orientation – are called to intimate, passionate, faithful connection with another person in the covenant of marriage.

The Genesis story gives a vision of marriage at its best and in its ideal form: the two partners delight in each other and recognize each other as best friend, as soul friend, as “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.”  This is marriage as God envisions it, the kind of marriage that God desires for us, the kind of marriage that married people aspire to and that with grace, patience, and hard work we may be blessed to experience for ourselves.  But marriage has its ordinary moments, too, its periods of struggle and stress.  There’s the garbage to haul outside, the milk to pick up, the leaves to rake, the endless demands of work, children, and email, the pressure of finances, the strain of illness or the in-laws.  Communication can break down; angry words can be spoken; doors can slam shut; and sometimes, despite our prayers and best efforts, a marriage can irrevocably fall apart.

Generations of the faithful have wrestled with the question: What then?  Under what circumstances is divorce legitimate, even desirable?  That’s the question that the Pharisees take up with Jesus in today’s Gospel passage from Mark.  Jesus’ answer tells a paradoxical truth: God’s intention is that marriage be lifelong, and on this point Jesus quotes the passage from Genesis.  Yet Jesus also acknowledges that, going all the way back to Moses, concessions have always been granted, provisions have always been made, so that in certain situations two people who are trapped in a desperately difficult marriage can be allowed to divorce.  Those concessions and those provisions have changed and grown more liberal over the years, and I notice that today’s Gospel reading stops right before Jesus makes what we would consider a very strict statement about the very limited circumstances under which a married couple may divorce.  Still, as one commentary puts it, perhaps the point “is not that the particular concessions made in the New Testament, and these only, are valid for all time, but that the New Testament grants to the Church [community] the authority to make concessions that are pastorally necessary.”1  Whether or not Jesus himself was a married – a topic that recently roared back into the news with divinity professor Karen King’s announcement2 that she is in possession of an ancient fragment of papyrus that purportedly quotes Jesus talking about his wife – whether or not Jesus was married – and there are many reasons to doubt that he was – it is clear that Jesus cherished the covenant of marriage and that he hoped to protect it. 

Marriage is our theme this morning, and I must say a word about the marriage that applies to everyone, whether we happen to be married, partnered, or single, whether we happen to be engaged or separated, widowed or divorced.  I want to speak about the marriage that has nothing to do with our marital status, about the marriage beyond marriage, the marriage within marriage, the marriage that is the origin and ground and fulfillment of all human relationships – and that is the marriage between God and the soul.  That is actually what interests me most: the marriage into which you and I and every person is called.

It may sound strange to imagine our relationship with God as being like a marriage, and of course the marriage metaphor is just one of many that describe the relationship between the soul and its Maker.  But the Bible often uses wedding imagery as a way to express the complete and intimate union of God and God’s people, and of God and the individual soul.

For many years I’ve served as a spiritual director, sitting down with individuals who want to reflect on their relationship with God and to go deeper in their life of prayer, and I often feel as if I’m rather like a marriage counselor when I ask the person about his or her relationship with God.  Do you and God spend quality time together, just the two of you?  Do you share with God the things that really matter to you?  Is your relationship formal, distant, and polite?  Is it catch-as-catch-can, a quick How-do-you-do, gotta go-gotta run?  Or do you feel comfortable taking time to share honestly and openly what is really going on in you and how things really are?  What parts of yourself and your life do you try to hide or hold back from God?  How often do you consciously do things together?  Do you play together?  Do you laugh together?  Do you weep together?  Do you spend quiet time together?  Do you actually listen to God or do you do all the talking?  What needs to happen in your relationship with God so that that relationship becomes as real and precious and intimate as the most intimate and lively union between two human beings?

God is always courting us, always beckoning us into relationship, always luring us to fall in love.  It can happen in so many ways, that moment when our heart quickens and we suddenly see what is going on and what God is up to.  Maybe you go to a concert one day, in which the orchestra will perform a piece that is particularly dear to you – in my case, it might be Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto.  The concert hall falls silent, the French horn plays the haunting opening notes, the strings enter, the pianist sets his fingers to the keyboard.  As the music flows into us, at first we may want to be the piano player.  We want that music to be streaming through our own hands and body, to be singing through our fingertips.  As we listen intently, absorbed in the music, maybe eventually we say, No, I want to be the conductor: I want to stand with open arms, listening with such pure attention that I hear the whole of it, every note and every space between the notes, receiving it all into my body and guiding and responding to it as it takes shape around me.  And then as your listening deepens, you give yourself even more fully to the moment.  You become very silent, very still, as you listen.  You forget yourself, and you become the music.  Moment by moment the music is giving itself to you, and moment by moment you are giving yourself to the music.  You’ve relinquished all sense of who you are, and yet in that self-surrender you’ve never felt more fully yourself or more fully alive.  If someone asked you afterward who you are, you’d have to answer, “I don’t know.  I am Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto.” 

It’s the ecstatic experience that T.S. Eliot speaks of in Four Quartets:3

…music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

In moments like these, we experience the marriage, the union between God and the soul.  We taste for a moment in our own bodies what it is like to give ourselves fully to the present moment, in all sincerity and with an open heart, and to realize that moment by moment God is giving God’s self to us, in and as each moment.   

Maybe it’s not music that grants you this experience, but wandering outside on one of these glorious autumn days, looking at the leaves.  Here I must quote again from St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrate this afternoon with a blessing of the animals.  You’ve heard me read this poem before, and I want to read it again:4

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,

I have to wring out the light
when I get
home.

St. Francis understood the marriage into which we are called, every one of us: that intimate, ongoing, lifelong and longer-than-life, very personal relationship with the One who loved us into being.  The more surely our life is founded on that bedrock union with God, the more open-hearted and patient and generous we will learn to be in all our human relationships, including our spouse, if we have one.  For when we look with love into our loved one’s eyes, we will know that he or she is conveying to us something of God’s infinite love for us, and we can be grateful.  And if our loved one fails or disappoints us – when we run into the inevitable miscommunications and conflicts that are part of married life and part of human life – we can forgive our beloved for not being God.  We can remind ourselves: Oh, right, my beloved partner or spouse is not my ultimate source of love – that source is God, and God alone!  From the deep springs of our love relationship with God, perhaps we will receive the strength to forgive our human partner, to be kind, to quit having to be right, to let the other person be.  And if our loved one dies, as will happen at some point in even the happiest of marriages, we can grieve in the presence of the God who loves us without reserve, who invincibly sustains us, and whose loving arms will embrace us at the last.

I invite you in the silence to speak to God about your own relationship with the lover of your soul.  What is God inviting you to see?  Do you already sense the marriage into which you are being invited?  How will you respond?

1. Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today, rev. ed. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1984), p. 356.

2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/us/papyrus-fragment-that-refers-to-jesus-wife-stirs-debate.html

3. T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” Four Quartets (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1943, p. 44.

4. St. Francis of Assisi, “Wring Out My Clothes,” in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky, New York, Penguin Compass, 2002, p. 48