Open Marriage

Sermon preached October 4, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:2-16

This morning we are celebrating World Communion Sunday, that special day once a year when many Christians throughout the world all share communion in their respective worship services. It might be a good day to talk about communion in the church, but we are not going to.
Communion, one term for the celebration of God in Jesus we experience as we share bread and juice, is a relational term. There are other words used for this part of worship – The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. When we talk about communion we are saying that this ritual opens us to a deeper relationship with God in Jesus Christ, and opens us up to deeper relationships with one another.
Relationships are vitally important. We are, in many ways, our relationships, that is, the person we become has a lot to do with the quality of the relationships in our lives. We live with all the aspects of our relationships with our parents – with the joys and with the scars of early family life. Our lives are enriched by friends who can support us, who rejoice with us, who tell us the truth. And for many, one of life’s most important relationships is marriage, and that’s what we are going to talk about this morning. We are going to talk about it because it is the focus of part of the gospel reading for this morning.
Marriage is a relationship whose importance we recognize, yet also one that we are fond of making fun of. All men are born free and equal. If they go and get married that’s their own fault. – – – Men are like fine wine. They start out like grapes, and it’s the wife’s job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d like to have dinner with.
A little humor is helpful, because the Scripture we are tackling this morning is a tough one, and here is the toughest part: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” At face value this seems to say that if you are divorced and remarried you are in an adulterous relationship – pretty harsh.
But I don’t think using this text as a proof for the absolute prohibition of marriage is in keeping with the broader themes of Jesus teaching about love and compassion, nor does it take the first century context into consideration. I will be saying more about this during Soul Kitchen at 10:45. These verses have sometimes been used by the church to denigrate and demean those who have been divorced, turning them into second-class Christians, and that is unacceptable. There is an element of tragedy in divorce, and Jesus’ teaching acknowledges this. His other teachings about compassion lead me to believe that he would not have used his strong feelings about marriage and divorce to denigrate those who had been divorced. The church has not always done the best job of showing compassion to those divorced and that is inconsistent with the overall teaching of Jesus and the Christian faith.
At the same time, this text speaks of the seriousness with which Jesus and the early Christian community treated marriage. We should take marriage no less seriously. These verses are an encouragement to care for marriage, and the entire text, I think, gives us a clue about how to do that. Two notes, here: (1) the definition of marriage I am keeping in the back of my mind is of a life-long, covenantal commitment between two people, regardless of gender; (2) the relational ideas for a good marriage can be used in keeping other relationships alive and vital, too. We can discuss that more during Soul Kitchen, too.
So if we should take marriage seriously, if we should see in divorce an element of tragedy that should be avoided if it can be, what makes for a stronger marriage? I think it is interesting that right after these words about divorce, Mark puts the story of little children being brought to Jesus. The disciples spoke “sternly” to those bringing children – strong word; and Jesus is “indignant” toward them – another strong word. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs…. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Openness, receiving – – – this is the clue this text gives to how to enrich marriage. Research with babies and small children suggests that “instead of experiencing a single aspect of their world and shutting down everything else they seem to be vividly experiencing everything at once” (The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik, 125). Openness, receptivity. I think Christian tradition advocates open marriage. Now by that I don’t mean the idea of open marriage from the 1970s where couples agreed that because they could not perhaps find all their needs satisfied in one relationship they could seek out intimacy with other persons, including physical intimacy. Christian open marriage is a radical openness to the person to whom you are married – being open to them and opening up to them; accepting them as they are and encouraging their growth, allowing oneself to be accepted and invited to grow. This kind of open marriage is hard work. It is terrifying. It is joy. It is adventure. I want to say a brief word about these two aspect of Christian open marriage – acceptance and growth.
We in the United States have a culture of high expectation, for good and for ill. One of the ways this manifests itself is in an attitude toward marriage. We expect Prince Charming, Cinderella, happy ever after, and we expect that if our wedding service is appropriately magical, the happy ever after will take care of itself. In the months before his death in 1970, the psychologist Abraham Maslow expressed concern for unrealistic expectations in relationships, even marriage (unquoted supporting data from Maslow’s journal: “a good marriage is impossible unless you are willing to take sh** from the other”). He believed that “the breakdown of traditional families… as well as of intimate friendships, [comes] partly from the inability of many to live with human imperfection” (Hoffman, The Right To Be Human, 313). His thoughts are echoed more recently by United Methodist theologian and ethicist, Rebekah Miles. I believe that we are irresponsible about marriage and sexuality not because we think too little of them, but because we expect too much…. We expect perfect mates, perfect bodies, {perfect orgasms}, perfect children, perfect moods, perfect families…. Is it any accident that the culture with the highest expectations for marriage has produced the highest rates of divorce, the lowest rates of marriage, and a growing number of people afraid to make any commitments at all? (The Pastor as Moral Guide, 89-90). Christian open marriage means openness to our partners as they are. The longer we live with another, the more we find their imperfections, and our homes are the places where our imperfections are most often expressed. We need to find ways to live together with these. A cautionary word, there is a difference between an imperfection and abusive behavior. Hitting your partner is more than an imperfection.
Christian open marriage is openness to the other as an imperfect, but growing and developing human being, one loved by God just as they are. It is also openness to growth, which can be terrifying and painful. If marriages are places where our imperfections come out, we need to be open to our own imperfections, and some of them can be worked on. Julie did not marry a bald man, and there is little I can do about that imperfection. Over time, other imperfections in my life have been moderated, have changed because of our relationship. I have often been impatient with myself and let that impatience spill over into my family. My marriage has helped me deal with that. I am a rather driven person, and my marriage has helped me deal with that on some levels.
The great tragedy of divorce is in the missed opportunities for growth in both partners. Sometimes people divorce to run away from their own imperfections, as well as the imperfections of others. Even knowing that, the church which tries to represent God’s love in Jesus Christ, though it does so imperfectly (but that’s another sermon) should never denigrate any who have actually experienced the pain of divorce – and I have seen that up close and personal in my own family. All are welcome here, including to the communion table. The church needs to walk the tightrope of welcoming all, of offering compassion to all, while recognizing that perhaps divorce has become too easy an alternative in our culture and we need to do what we can to strengthen Christian open marriage.
Julie and I have been married now for over twenty-seven years. Before our marriage we took a form of the pre-marriage inventory I still use. One statement in that inventory has always stuck with me. “In loving my partner, I feel that I am beginning to better understand the concept that God is love.” I strongly agreed with that statement, and still do. It is the promise of marriage. It is part of what makes working at marriage worth it – openness to our partner, openness to ourselves even when it is challenging. God loves us as imperfect as we are. Our love for one another in marriage begins there too. Amen.