Gen 2:18-25 Mark 10:2-9 7 October 2018
A Sunday School attendee was asked, ‘what does God say about marriage?’ The boy thought about this for a moment and then responded with Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” I guess that’s true for most of us who have entered this sacred relationship. We may not know what we were doing, but surveys tell us that we do have some idea of what we want. For women it’s affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial support, and family commitment. For men the list is different – for us it’s sex, recreational companionship, an attractive spouse, domestic support, and finally admiration. I should point out these were American surveys so it’s probably different here! But with such different expectations its little wonder that marriage is fraught with difficulties and challenges.
Marriage is a fundamental relationship in our scriptures. In the creation story from Genesis 2:18-25 we have a statement that ‘it is not good for the Adam or earthchild to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for the earthchild’. The state of loneliness is the one thing in creation that is not good, for it seems humans are created to live in relationship. I should also point out the word for helper sometimes is thought of as someone inferior who serves. This is not so. Later on in our scriptures in Deuteronomy 33:29, God is described using the same word. God is our helper. Essentially the term means providing something that is lacking in the other. Human beings it seems are not complete and whole by themselves but are created to live in relationship with others. In partnership and community there is a blossoming of life. What our scriptures say is that we are communal beings and we are at our best when we commit to communal relationships.
A key building block for communal relationship is marriage. The uniqueness of this relationship is spelt out in two ways. “Therefore a man (or person) leaves his (her) mother and father and clings to his wife (another), and they become one flesh.” (Gen 3:24) Firstly there is a marital leaving. There is a disengaging from the family that brought us up and gave us our beginning to launch a new unit of life. This message of letting go for us has to do with the leaving a childlike state of dependency and taking responsibility as an adult to shape new life. Young people of today need to hear this as they cling to the security of parents, and modern parents need to hear this as they build dependent relationships with their children. Around us birds are building and inhabiting nests but very shortly the nests will be abandoned as parents literally kick the young ones out into the world to sink or swim. The second message is about marital union which is something far more than the intimacy of sexual encounter. It involves everyday skills of friendship, listening, appreciating, encouraging. It is why good friendships often lead to secure and satisfying marriages. At the heart of becoming one flesh is the hard work of love. Many couples seem to work on the assumption that marital intimacy just happens. We talk of falling in love.
One of my favourite authors Dr Scott Peck in his excellent book, “The Road Less Travelled” says a couple of things that stick with me. The first is that people who fall in love eventually fall out of love and that’s when real love begins to take root. When the rosy coloured spectacles come off and we see one another in the real light of day with warts and wrinkles and still commit to seeking the welfare and growth of another – that’s real love. He also says that the opposite of love is not hate but is laziness. Love is essentially hard work as we commit to the growth and well being of another, but it’s very very easy to slip into lazy patterns and routines in our relationships that treat our partners as part of the furniture. The opposite of love is laziness. We no longer see the special-ness and sacredness in another, and we take the other people in our lives, or ourselves, for granted. We forget to affirm, appreciate, and communicate worth and value. It is a wonderful thing to switch off our ego and self centredness, to dull down our ‘what can I get out of this’, and focus wholly on helping another grow and blossom. It is a good thing to take a moment to reflect in our relationships how I might be a better lover, how I might encourage the life in another, what can I do to grow aliveness in another….or again even within yourself. This is the work that is at the center of marriage and at the center of family.
Words work well for some but for others images are important so I want to encourage you with an image. This is a picture of a sculpture sculptured by the French artist Auguste Rodin in 1908 called originally the Ark of the Covenant, but renamed by Rodin rather interestingly the Cathedral. I think the great interior space of a gothic cathedral is encapsulated in the space between the hands. If you look closely you’ll notice the hands are both right hands. There are two people involved here. The hands are about to clasp. It is the space between them that intrigues me, and speaks of the work of love and marriage. It is a sacred and mysterious space. The two hands are nurturing something awesome together. A marriage isn’t just about a practical arrangement of living together, or about fulfilling one another’s needs, but it is participating in a new dream, nurturing a new sacred space through which something mysterious and awesome, God breathed, emerges. A good question to ask for those of us who live in the gift of marriage is, “what are we nurturing in our relationship, and how are we serving the sacred presence of love through which the world will be healed?”
I want to remind you of Jesus’ words… that two become one flesh. They are no longer two distinct individuals but are melded somehow into a new form which I think is a sign of the interconnectedness that was at the heart of Jesus’ vision of a new earth. Deep relationship in its many forms is what Jesus is talking about here. People transcending their ego driven lives to see sacredness and value in another. We are part of a culture that is possibly the most individualistic self seeking culture of all time and in that culture it’s no wonder marriage is a disaster. Community is a disaster, caring for creation is a disaster, but loneliness and anxiety are winners. We have neglected the importance of relationship and instead promoted the ideal of getting for self. What can I get out of the relationship is the question we ask rather than what can I give and how can I serve. What will fulfil my needs as opposed to how can I create sacred space, a cathedral.
We now see the consequences of these ideas in a record high number of failed marriages with huge costs on the partners who have to deal with the failure in so many ways, the cost to the children, and to society as a whole. Before those with marriages intact sit smugly back however, I observe many marriages that are so called “intact” because they have lasted the distance are far from ideal. Lasting the distance isn’t anything to be proud of if the dream of God and the life giving sacrificial love has gone from the relationship. Jesus as we know had much to say about skin deep appearances. Some of you know the painful reality of facing up to a relationship that has failed and taking steps to move on. I salute your courage! Jesus is someone who believes in the second chance. All of us fail in life, and all of us are surrounded by the deep love of God which does not give up on us. Working out balances between ideals and realities is never easy.
I want to end with another image – simple story of encouragement. Robert Salzer is a surgeon who has written of some of his experiences. In this story he visits a young woman after surgery to her face. He writes:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth has been severed. I had followed with religious fervour the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumour in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening light, isolated from me, private. Who are they I ask myself, he and his wrymouth I have made, who gaze at each other? The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes”, I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it”, he says. “It is kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.
I wonder why such a story evokes awe and a deep sense of this is what life is about. Rodin might have said if he were a witness to this encounter…. Cathedral. Some might say sacrament – an action in which God is present.
May there be God filled moments in your relationships and in your marriages.
Dugald Wilson 7 October 2018