Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sermons I would like to hear - On Marriage as a Sacred Institution.

This may be part of a series. I like to sermonise in the shower. To get the full effect you need to read this with a Desmond Tutu accent.

Marriage is a sacred institution. Perhaps this is so. However those who say this in order to exclude people from marriage by their unfitness have forgotten what the sacred is for.
We do not utilise sacred institutions because we are eligible for them. We enter into them because we are inelligible for what lies beyond it. Sacred institutions are the means of approach given to us so that in our unholliness we can come closer to that which they point to. Were we already holy we would have no need for sacred institutions. Or rather the sacred would be paths leading to us.
Who can say that of themself? Who can say that they in their holiness are what the sacred points to?
Equally who stands before marriage and says “I am fit”. Who says before marriage our relationship is perfect and so deservedly we claim marriage as our right? Actually we are what marriage is about?”
I reply, “Then what do you need marriage for? Marriage is not for you who are already perfect. Marriage is for the rest of us to approach such perfection.”
I am not saying that Marriage perfects us. We long for that to happen. We want our vows to ensure we live up to them. They won’t. They are not magic words. We must ensure we keep our vows ourselves each day.
And we will probably fail. Most marriages fail. Most people don’t keep their vows. Marriage is just not that kind of magic unfortunately.
However maybe Marriage can improve us. There is something ideal in our hearts; the old couple who only grow more and more in love with each other; the one who has the others back even past death to ensure that their final wishes are served. If Marriage is a sacred institution, an institution of Gods design, then it is perhaps the best means we have to approach this ideal.
 But we only ever approach Marriage unfit for what it points to. We come to it deficient, distorted, looking nothing like the ideal beyond it. We try to feed on its sustenance without teeth, gummily draw what we can of it into a stomach riddled with tapeworms. We get distracted by its least sustaining qualities; the circus of the wedding. Time and time again we misunderstand it.
We misunderstand it most of all when we think it is a reward for being already sufficiently marriage-like. A wedding veil is not a homecoming queens crown. We do not fit it. In fact wedding attire should be several sizes too big to remind us we need to grow into it.
How foolish is it therefore to claim that a person mustn’t be gay if they want to enter into it, that gay people can’t fit this sacred institution – as if others did. I think if any of us are walking upright into it we are definitely going to bump our head. That’s the other thing that sacred institutions should do. They should take us to our knees.


  1. Hey Tony,
    I love the line, "Wedding attire should be several sizes too big to remind us we need to grow into it."
    I want to bottle that line, engrave it on my wedding ring and use it in my wedding speech (I just may do that).
    We do need to realise that marriage is always between two flawed individuals, not two people who are "fit" or have graduated to being eligible for marriage due to their perfection.

    Your last point is a bit confusing though. It looks like you are saying that those who disagree with gay marriage are claiming that gay people are not "fit" for marriage. That is not true, at least not in my case.
    No one is fit for marriage (if you are defining "fit" as "perfect" or "holy"), and so gays and straights are just as flawed and unfit for marriage as each other. But just because everyone is unfit for an institution, doesn't mean that the institution is open to everyone.
    To use a possibly unhelpful example, you and I may be unfit to lead the country, but that doesn't therefore mean that anyone qualifies to be Prime Minister, just because we are all unfit for that office.
    Likewise, marriage is a role that no one is "worthy" of, but some do qualify for.

    If marriage is just about companionship, or friendship, or the expression of love and the pursuit of happiness, then it would should be open to everyone who would enter it with that goal.
    But I believe that (from a biblical Christian perspective) gender is bound up in the meaning and purpose of marriage and so gender can not be ignored as a qualifying factor.

    You say that if we were holy we would not need marriage.
    But actually, we need to be holy and we need to see marriage as holy.
    The word "holy" simply means "set apart for a special purpose". That's why something can be "made" holy and God can have a holy people. It doesn't mean they are perfect, it means that they are set apart for him.
    Likewise, we need to be "set apart" and we need to see that marriage has been "set apart" for the purpose that God has given it.
    It is holy. It has a purpose and a design and God is the one who gets to set the rules about who we get to marry.
    I can't marry a chair, I can't marry a dolphin, I can't marry my sister (if I had one), I can't marry someone who is already married, I can't marry a guy. As a Christian, I can't even marry a non-Christian.
    All of those involve things that don't qualify, not because of them being flawed or "unfit", but because they do no qualify for the purpose for which God designed marriage for.
    A dolphin is just as unworthy of marriage as my fiance Catherine, but because Catherine is a single, female human who is not in my immediate family, she qualifies. (I just want to clarify that she is also awesome and I am totally in love with her. The dolphin doesn't even come close!)

  2. Simon,
    I always enjoy your comments but why do the issues of gender and marriage get your attention instead of the other pieces? I guess it’s where your head is at but I think it’s much more provocative to say non-violence is essential to Christianity (in the Tolstoy post) than anything I say here.

    I actually had your own situation in mind a little as I wrote this. I think that you as a person who was previously married serve as a much better analogy to a person of the same gender than a chair or a dolphin does. You are in a class of innapropriate people to wed in some eyes. In fact hillariously some would think you less "fit" for marriage than me. (I would say the reverse.) Yet your ambitions for marriage are the same as those who would deny it to you.

    I don’t think that a person wanting to marry a chair or a dolphin shares those ambitions. They don’t want the ideal I mentioned in the “sermon” that marriage hopefully leads to. I might be wrong there with the dolphin lover. Any common law dolphin spouses feel free to try to correct me. Chair lovers however will probably concede my point. Basically I can’t see how they’re imagining sharing life’s ups and downs together.

    I am more prepared to accept that the hypothetical siblings to be wed are aiming to reach, through marriage, the same place you or I might aim to reach through it. I’ve never ever met anyone in this position though. Have you? They truly seem rarer than hens’ teeth. No offense brother but I really can’t relate to their attraction. Cat need have no fear there.

    Certainly I believe that there is no reason to deny, as a class, same-sex couples access to a sacred institution of marriage. Here are a people I know want what marriage might mean for me. Basically I almost entirely agree with your paragraph; “If marriage is about companionship, or friendship, or the expression of love and the pursuit of happiness, then it should be open to everyone who would enter it with that goal.” (I think pursuit of happiness is a little too vague if allowed to stand on its own and you missed commitment and family for me.)

    To use an analogy you may appreciate In this sermon I present marriage as much like communion. I prefer the approach to that sacrament where it is shared with all comers who seek it in good faith. This is in contrast to those churches who only dispense communion to members of their church in good standing. The latter believed they are “protecting the sacrament” from abuse by not letting just anyone have it. The former would protect the eucharist only by refusing communion to say an art student who wants to make a collage out of it. Basically if you want what communion offers, you’re who it’s for.

    Lastly I do hope you read the post like Desmond Tutu. This post was about showing how a "sacred" notion of marriage can be turned from an elitist to a generous notion. I think its a very Desmond Tutu idea.

  3. Simon, having some time to reflect on your comment I think I better understand where you're coming from.
    Is it fair to say you agree with my post that marriage is entered into for the ideal it points to rather than by right of already being that ideal? Is it just that for you it points to both a Christian and gendered ideal... so therefore for you same sex couples do have a different intention for marriage (not just a different set of qualifications)?
    Surely You can see however that this logic would also exclude me from marriage. Leaving alone for the moment the Christian aspect I don't want the gendered model of marriage. What I want is indistinguishable from what same sex relationships want from marriage (generally speaking) - all that loving, growing old stuff. Hence if gay couples should be excluded from marriage so should I be because our intention is the same.
    This really nails for me one issue I have with marrying for me. And you know from the kids comments this is a question around our home. So long as it excludes samesex attraction marriage excludes my attraction for my beloved Lenka. Because my attraction for her can't fit into a heteronormative model by intent (only by qualifications). We would have to be rebels inside the model at the moment - like a same sex couple - but we would not be read that way at all.

  4. Hey Tony,

    To start, I thought I'd include a YouTube link which may relate to the "marry a chair" question:

    But now, on to your comments...

    I think communion is a good analogy. Communion is a physical act that has a highly symbolic meaning, and Paul says that there are some heavy consequences with taking communion just for the sake of food with no regard for the symbolism behind it. You don't have to qualify to take communion, other than to acknowledge the Jesus that it points to.
    When my church does communion, my pastor even says, "Do not let consciousness of sin prevent you from coming to this table, because Jesus died for sinners."
    Likewise with marriage, I think all should acknowledge the symbol that is represented in marriage - namely the covenant keeping love between God and his people (or Christ and the Church).

    Now where this analogy falls down is in the fact that I think people will and should get married whether they understand or agree with this symbolism or not. Marriage is a good gift from a good God for a variety of good purposes.
    I do believe that a gay couple might marry and be able to enjoy some of these good purposes (namely, lifelong friendship, end of loneliness, expression of faithfulness and committed love, growth of character and a daily opportunity for servanthood) but there are at least three key areas that gay marriage does not fulfill God's purposes for marriage.
    1. Representing and display of the relationship of Christ as husband of his bride the Church. (you've heard the argument from Ephesians 5 before, so I'll just move on)
    2. The one place where sex and sexual desire can be expressed, enjoyed and satisfied in a way that God has permitted. (clearly sex outside of marriage breaks this one down as well)
    3. The designed and healthy (I use that word cautiously) place for children to be conceived, born and raised.

    To expand on point two, probably the clearest reason for me why I can never fully agree with gay marriage, is quite a simple one, although I know it will be of no use to anyone other than a Christian.
    My thinking is this: Although, I believe very strongly that a Christian should not marry a non-Christian, if two non-Christians married and then one became a Christian, I would never advise the Christian to end their marriage. Paul teaches this in 1 Corinthians 7:12-13.
    But if two guys married (or even if they were simply in a committed defacto relationship) and one of them became a Christian, I would encourage the Christian (at the appropriate time) to end the relationship as homosexual sex is so clearly forbidden in scripture and so to practise it, can not be consistent for a Christian who has committed their life to following the God and the gospel of the bible. If unfortunately, they were legally married, I would expect in time that they would have to go through the frustrating, costly and painful process of getting a legal divorce. In a nutshell, I believe God honours as legitimate interfaith marriage and I don't think God honours as legitimate gay marriage.
    If I believe all that, how can I endorse a legalisation of gay marriage? It seems hypocritical.
    I understand that sadly many won't become Christians, and I also understand that there are some who identify themselves as both Christians and gay and do not see the biblical inconsistency that I do. But I can not escape what I see and understand is God's position on sex and marriage.
    Again, I realise that this will not convince you or many others. It simply explains my position on the issue.

    I know that you will have many many issues with what I have just said. We disagree on some fundamental premises on this issue, so I don't expect that you will like what I've written.

  5. Simon,
    I watched about half the youtube video on my phone. Alas my best internet connection is through the library and hence no sound without headphones. I was impressed by the women’s bravery. I also think it raised some interesting questions about the dynamics of a relationship. For example we may say she has no relationship with an object but we may want to stop yourself before we make too much of give and take in defining a relationship. After all if your wife was in a coma would you still have a marriage?

    Despite the interesting nature of the video I feel like it’s an insult to compare a same sex relationship to object sexuality. Obviously a gay love is as unalike object love as your relationship with Cat is. In fact they are precisely as unalike as your relationship with Cat minus your insertion of your relationship into a broader performance of heterosexuality. And that insertion renders Cat more of an object not less as her unique individuality becomes less important than her membership of a class. But you're still not a bridge lover. :)

    I also think we need to clear up our question. The issue is not whether Christians can prohibit or hinder homosexual marriage by law. There is clearly no permission in scripture for that. In fact if we look at the far clearer commands of scripture such as not worshipping other Gods we can see that this is an absolute rule for Christians and even a broader instruction for everyone however there is no permission to legislatively hinder other faiths. Similarly it is not the place of a Christian church to prohibit remarriage or to shut down restaurants where food is offered to other Gods or to make it easier to enter heaven by taking rich people’s property off them. These are all much, much clearer than injunctions against homosexuality. It is grossly imbalanced to read injunctions against homosexuality in a different light than all these other injunctions in regard to the right to hinder them by law even if the motivation is a love for the homosexual. There is nothing in the text to justify this distinction. Quite frankly it seems opportunistic.

    So for me the only question is whether people who view Marriage as sacred can celebrate same sex relationships inside that sacredness. You raised three points and I’d like to address them in reverse.
    (which I have to do in next comment due to word count!)

  6. 3. The children. This is an empirical question. Let’s have the courage and true love for children to treat it as such. I believe we should definitely be looking at what makes a great environment for children and encouraging people before they have children to assess their environment for its suitability. This will mean some people will conclude they don’t make a good home for all sorts of reasons. I don’t believe the empirical data supports a blanket condemnation of same sex couples or a blanket endorsement of heterosexual ones. Look at our cousin and her female partner doing amazing stuff for their kids. Of course they are also the longest running relationship in the wider family of our generation by far. None of the rest of us come close.

    2. I think this is rephrasing the question we face rather than a point in itself. Personally me and sex outside of marriage are happy friends however for the purposes of argument lets say that the only fitting place for sex is inside marriage. This is hardly something that can be used as argument against gay sex – atleast until gay sex is possible inside marriage. The question has never been whether gay people can have sex (they can easily enough) but whether they can in a sacred fashion – in marriage.

    1. I find this blog interesting. They have a two parter on Sexuality and the Christian body that shows a different interpretation of a Christian model of marriage. I would just like to say though that neither God nor the church is actually gendered. There is in fact something radically ungendered and beyond biology about this metaphor of Pauls particularly given the sole focus on reproduction that defined the marriages Paul was contrasting Christian marriage too.

    I realise we may have intractable views on this matter but hopefully never unbroachable. I would rather though hear your thoughts on poverty and non-violence too. Lately I feel a need to elevate these non-sexy topics to a higher place. They are more relevant to how my life needs to be challenged.

  7. Lots of interesting points there Tony.
    I'll just address two.
    Firstly, I don't think that homosexuality is the same thing as objectum sexuality and I didn't mean to imply they are the same thing. I do however think that although homosexuality is "closer" to hetrosexuality than objectum sexuality, that does not automatically make it morally closer. If there is only one form of sexual expression that God has designed us for and permitted us to engage in (namely, hetrosexual sex within the context of the covenant of marriage) then all other forms of sexuality, from sleeping with your girlfriend, to sleeping with your gay partner, to sleeping with a bridge, are off the list.

    The second point is much more interesting to me. Namely, should Christians try to change the law to be more "Christian"? You rightly point out that there is no instruction in Scripture to do that (at least in the New Testament), although there really was no conceivable way for Christians to effect the laws of the land under Roman rule. You might be interested to be aware of 1 Corinthians 5:9-12, a great verse telling Christians to only judge fellow Christians, not people outside the church, especially on the matter of sexual immorality.
    The question arises though, what should a Christian do when they are in a position where they can influence the law or even where they have a responsibility to influence the law by their role as a politician or their duty as a voter in a democratic government? It seems everyone else fights for what they believe is right and good. Why not Christians?
    This issue first came to my attention back in the day when they were questioning whether homosexuality practise should be legalised in Tasmania. As you pointed out to me then, do I really want people put in jail for breaking that law, even if I think they are wrong? The conclusion I came to was clearly they shouldn't and so consequently the purpose of the law was not simply to enforce a Christian worldview (even if I believe it is God's worldview). Christianity isn't about trying to get everyone to "act" Christian. Is an appeal to every individual person to turn to Jesus of their own will and give their life freely to him. Enforcing through law Christian behaviour in the end just serves to make people think that Christianity is all about morality and rule-keeping rather than Jesus.
    So I am glad that homosexual practise is legal and I'm glad it's not against the law to be an atheist or a buddhist or even a satanist.
    But having said all that, the question still remains... Abortion for example is for me a more clear cut one. I think abortion (other than in cases of extreme medical necessity) should be 100% illegal. I do not understand anyone who could share the Christian view that life and human dignity begin at conception and yet believe that abortion should be legal. It is just as clear an evil as infanticide. Would I vote against it if I had the opportunity? Yes. Would I make it illegal if I had the opportunity? Yes, I would. I would also increase the support to women facing unwanted pregnancy and look for ways of making abortion an unnecessary option.
    So why do I think abortion should be illegal and homosexual practise should be legal, even though I think the Christian position is that both are wrong? And where does gay marriage fit in that spectrum? At the moment, I am leaning towards gay marriage being closer to the "should be illegal" spectrum rather than the "it's wrong but should be legal" side, although I am not completely convinced and have enjoyed our discussion to keep my views balanced.