Sermon for Pentecost 20 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The nature of marriage (on which this week’s Old Testament lesson and Gospel focus) serves as an important model for all Christians, whether married or single. In fact, the shape which the scripture says God intends for marriage is not only a model, but it is a sign and symbol of God’s grace. That is to say that the grace of marriage is a visible, tangible expression of God’s grace for all people.

We learn from the Old Testament reading that the bond of marriage actually goes beyond a relationship of mutual responsibility and interdependence. These may be the fruits of a good marriage, but the essential bond between a couple committed to a lifelong relationship is something even more profound. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This language indicates something even more profound than mutual support and love. It suggests a total recasting of identity. Marriage is not something two people share as if it were a possession; it is a sacrament possessed by God himself which profoundly transforms those who enter into it, such that on some level they become a new creation, a different person, “one flesh”.

Then we learn in the Gospel that on some level, marriage is indissoluble. Here it gets very touchy. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the lectionary gives us texts we might not choose to think about or preach on, and Jesus’ discussion of divorce, considering the reality of marriage in our society and even among our number, is perhaps more frightening for me to preach about than any other issue. I have a friend who has been a priest for decades who once told me “maybe you should just avoid talking about three things from the pulpit- divorce, abortion, and gay marriage. As tempting as that might be, it seems irresponsible considering the lessons we heard this morning. To ignore the Gospel because of its difficult would show a tremendous amount of cowardice, and it wouldn’t be fair to any of you to just leave it hanging there because of my own trepidation. So, here goes…

“They are no longer two, but one flesh,” Jesus says. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Actually, our contemporary translation misses the point a bit in its attempt to use inclusive language, because the older translations make it clear that the distinction is between God’s actions and human interference: “what God hath put together, let no man put asunder.” Underneath this is the implication that a human attempt to break apart a divine institution is doomed to failure.

Certainly this is a point on which we might find some conflict between Jesus’ own expectations and our experience in the world of sinful people and dreadful realities. There are certainly situations in which one party seems to be more-or-less blameless in divorcing his or her spouse, and for which a faithful analysis of the teaching of scripture says as much, such as certain situations when there is infidelity or abuse.

But in many cases, because of original sin, it seems that we are forced to choose between two less-than-ideal choices: remain in a marriage which is unhealthy and shows no hope of attaining health, potentially bringing harm to the couple and their children, or else dissolve something that God sacramentally established. It’s a catch-22. That’s what original sin does; it forces us to live in a world of moral ambiguity. Jesus said “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” but the reality is that we’ll not get to that point in this life.

So the response to this terrible reality must be one of humility. Just as in so many other difficult choices wrought with moral ambiguity, we must approach God, offer the seemingly impossible situation up to God, choose and act, and then ask forgiveness in case we’ve chosen and acted wrongly. And then we move on, not flagellating ourselves, but confident that if forgiveness were needed it was granted.

In all events, we learn from today’s lessons that marriage is, at its core, an indissoluble transformation of identity. This is why (and here is the Good News for everyone, whatever his or her marital status) the relationship between Christ and the Church finds marriage as its chief metaphor. Christ’s marriage to the Church is indissoluble because of the eternal nature of Christ’s one sacrifice on the Cross, and a motley agglomeration of men and women have been transformed such that they have become the very body of Christ. Just as the husband and wife become one flesh, so have Christ and his Church.

And it is not only the church catholic which is transformed in her marriage to Christ, but each of her individual members. By virtue of each Christian’s baptism, he or she is given an eternal, indissoluble link with the Savior, a bond which transforms each of us into something he or she was not before. As St. Paul wrote in his second epistle to the Corinthians, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Surely the soul’s bond with Christ is something like marriage, for the Old Testament prophets spoke of idolatry as either adultery or prostitution, and that beautiful biblical book of poems attributed to Solomon, the Song of Songs, depicts the life of faith as a love affair with God.

This is why the mystics spoke so much about spiritual marriage. St. Teresa of Avila said that Christ marries our souls, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, my favorite figure from church history as some of you know, referred to the human soul as “the Bride of the Word”. As strange as it sounds this is a truth in which we can take great comfort. Our souls have a spouse whose very nature is defined by fidelity and unconditional love. We have a partner who cannot but remain faithful despite the devices of our wandering hearts, who cannot but love us in spite of how unlovely we may sometimes think ourselves to be.

This is a great comfort, but it is also a tremendous responsibility. Our relationship with Christ is a primary relationship, just like a relationship to a spouse. In our Baptisms we, or those presenting us when we were infants, made promises just as profound as wedding vows, and in our Confirmations we have reaffirmed those vows, making a mature promise to live by them. We have promised not only an abiding belief in the truths of the Apostle’s Creed, but in the actions which flow from those truths: continuing in prayer and fellowship, perseverance in resisting evil, proclaiming the Gospel in word and example, and serving others in the name of Christ to name but a few.

After church, I would propose that you go back and look at your prayerbooks at the order for Holy Baptism, starting at page 299, and at the order for Confirmation on page 413. Find there your vows. They present a tall order, as it were, and all of us have at some point or another fallen short. But thanks be to God that every time we stumble, the Lord remains faithful, providing forgiveness to the soul he has taken has his spouse, and giving each of us opportunity to hold up our end of the relationship.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.