This week in America, everything changed. The Supreme Court issued a new law that guarantees the right of any same-sex couple to receive a marriage license and to have that marriage recognized in all 50 states. The Supreme Court took something that had stood for thousands of years and, in a single decision, by a narrow margin, changed it. But a better way to say it is that the ruling simply marks the change that has been going on for the past many decades. It is a marker on the journey that says, “We have come this far…” or “We are this far gone…” depending on your viewpoint.
I do not believe that the sky is falling, but something seismic has happened. Walls have moved, to be sure. Things will never be the same. Same-sex marriage, in the eyes of the state, is the law of the land.
Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority:
“The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons; whatever their sexual orientation…There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices.”
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”
This is beautiful and soaring language. It is aspirational. It is hard to argue with these sentiments. What could be wrong with granting this kind of freedom and protection against loneliness to a group of people? We all have met homosexual people who share a deep love and commitment for one another. We all have seen a gay couple care for each other in beautiful ways; extending love and grace to one another.
Every believer in Christ should all want an opportunity for love and joy for any human being. I do. I believe that a person’s right to choose to be in a loving relationship should be legally protected and upheld in a free country.
But marriage is God’s idea. It is God’s design. It was his first and last “aftermarket” improvement on the created order. Many today, of course, do not believe the original story in Genesis and see marriage as a cultural accommodation that may shift and change with the customs and cultures of its day. It certainly has changed over time.
But by any account, marriage is a sacred biblical symbol. From the early pages in Genesis to the last paragraph in Revelation, marriage is more than just a human custom or arrangement. It is a sacred space where God will meet his people.
There are a few thoughts I’d want to make this morning about the ruling and the national conversation that we are a part of.
1. We should honor something that is good in this discussion. There are people who see a hope and stability in marriage that they want for their own lives. Think of this with your heart for a moment: there are people who are wired differently who want what every married person in this church wanted before they were married. Namely, to be loved and to love. To be committed to and to commit. To have protection and security, intimacy and a future. To not be alone.
This has to be respected and honored. Why? Because God has created in us all a deep need for these things. We have a deep need for fellowship and family; for stability and security. People want this for their lives.
I have a closet in my home and in that closet I have a shelf and on that shelf I have over a dozen photo albums from over 32 years of marriage and family life. I have pictures of vacations, pool parties, holidays, birthday celebrations, family pets, graduations, prom nights, baseball games, and goof-off pictures of kids and parents in all kinds of poses. Nearly every person who is gay today was raised in a family that has memories of this kind. And, we cannot deny that the desire for marriage is a desire to have these kind of memories and blessings in their own lives. Said another way, there is, in each human being made in the image of God, a longing…a yearning…a hope…for a strong family that will last a lifetime.
When we engage this issue we must remember this. Most people who want marriage for themselves are likely to want it for the same reason every married couple wanted it before they were married.
2. The church needs to set its own house in order with regard to marriage. We have not done adequate teaching or lived up to the defense of a high vision of marriage in our own culture today. We have disregarded the very thing that we are seeking to defend!
On a side note, many of you would not know because you are new to Christ Church, but I would want you to appreciate the uneasiness I have in even speaking about the sanctity of marriage. I was married to a woman in my early 20’s. It was a sad mistake and the marriage lasted just over two years. I have been divorced. I am not the best spokesman for this, I know. I have repented thoroughly for my part in the failure. I have asked for the Lord’s forgiveness. Fran and I have built a life out of the ashes and just three weeks ago celebrated our 32nd anniversary. So I speak NOT as a pure champion of the church’s teaching but as a victim of its lack of teaching.
Another side note…and this is a sad irony: Today, while the estate of marriage has been opened up to same-sex couples across the nation; the state of marriage and society’s belief in and respect for marriage is at an all-time low! Marriage rates are down. The age at which people marry is advancing. Divorce is common. Co-habitation is common-place. Out of wed-lock births are up. And overall rates for child-bearing are heading down.
One might be tempted to say to the advocates of marriage equality, “What? You want this? It’s a mess!” It would be as if two hitchhikers waved down a passing vehicle. The car slows down and rolls to a stop. The would-be passengers get it. “Thanks for stopping for us.” And the driver looks at them and says, “I didn’t stop. I ran out of gas!” Our understanding and respect for marriage itself is beleaguered.
Friday, after the ruling was issued, the bishops of the Anglican Church in North America issued a statement. They have made it very clear that our church cannot go the way opened up by the Supreme Court. I fully agree and we will fully comply. But they have also called upon us to pray for marriage and to restore its strength.
3. Our members should know why our church cannot go the way that was opened up by the Supreme Court; why we cannot perform same-sex marriages or recognize their legal or spiritual standing within the church.
The biblical witness about marriage is crystal clear. The definition of marriage is a man and woman. The bible really is not opaque here. It is crystal clear. Jesus himself was asked about it, in a question about divorce. And Jesus could not have been more specific: from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man separate.” (Mark 10)
In its graphic detail, marriage is male and female. It is about the differentiation of genders. It is about the complementarity of sexes. It is about the union of unlike people into one. As Christopher West reminds us…and the US Catholics bishops wrote on Friday: The unique meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female.
Further, the bible maintains that the symbol of marriage holds the key to understanding our relationship to God. From Ephesians 5 we see that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her. From Revelation 21 we read, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And from Isaiah 62, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you”.
The intimate realities of a marriage are some of the most expressive and powerful ways the bible speaks about our relationship with God. It is intimate. Loving. Fulfilling. Desirable. Joy-filled. Even erotic! Throughout the bible, God’s desire for his people is laden with the language of complimentary sexual delight.
Of course, heterosexual marriage (the bible recognizes no other kind) is not the only best practice for God’s people. Jesus was single. Although many scholars believe Paul had been married and widowed, Paul was a single when we meet him in Acts. “Being single” is noble! Indeed, those who are single, single again and those who have same-sex attraction must not be made to feel that they are outside of God’s best plan for them because they are single. The church needs to be a place where everyone can experience the love and community of fellowship. Every marriage home should welcome and celebrate the friendship and companionship of single adults.
But we cannot redefine marriage or bend these images to suit our world-view or accommodate the culture we live in and the people we love and might even admire.
Every week at Christ Church we ask people who are celebrating the anniversary of their marriage to come forward for a blessing. The prayer that our clergy pray for them is from our Book of Common Prayer; it is beautiful. It asks our Triune God to bless, preserve, and keep these marriage union. It asks our God to mercifully with His favor, “fill (us) with heavenly benediction and grace…that (we) make faithfully live together in this life and in the age to come have life everlasting”. It is our weekly tradition that has been in place for over 30 years.
But you know it is on the honor system, in a way. We never check to see if the anniversary is within the scheduled week. We don’t check to see if you come up every month for little extra push! We assume and pray that you intend to live a Christian married life fully respecting the biblical definition of a marriage as between a man and a woman. And that is the only kind of relationship that our clergy can bless of behalf of the church. I will meet with anyone, anywhere, at any time to talk, counsel, pray, encourage, discuss, explain, or pastor. But I can only pray a prayer of blessing over those relationships that honor and respect the biblical vision of a marriage.
Finally, we should not panic or be afraid. The Supreme Court did something to the nation, for sure. They did something to the culture. But they did nothing to the church. They changed the definition of marriage in the secular United States. But the church’s teaching, as we see in our bishops statements, is unchanged.
No, the sky is not falling. But the overlapping and often, in the past, friendly relationship between the church and the state has fallen away. There are two different agendas at work. Two different ideals. The Supreme Court has opened up a new understanding of marriage that runs antithetical to the core teaching of the Christian church.
C.S. Lewis addressed this point in a remarkably prophetic insight over 60 years ago in his classic work, “Mere Christianity”. He is referencing a growing culture of divorce in his own day.
My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.
A final thought: The church should always respect the highest and best hopes of the secular state. Our conversations and our disagreements should be clear and distinct, but never sharp and injurious. But one question Christian leaders are asking today is this: “Can we retain the religious liberty to object, critique, and reject this innovation in our churches?” That remains to be seen. Christians, and all who care about religious liberty and conscientious objection, should work together to maintain this freedom.
But for now, I remind you that in the middle of the most depressing and forlorn little books in the bible, the Book of Lamentations, a book I was reading when the decision was announced, the prophet breaks away from the gloom to make a stunning faith-statement.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him. (Lamentations 3:21-25 ESV)
He is saying something that needs to be heard in every generation. Our trust and hope is not to be found in the walls of a city or in an institution of the church. We are to put our confidence in hope in the One to whom these things point: our Lord God and King whose steadfast love will never cease and whose mercies will never come to an end. Today…and tomorrow…they will be new; they are new every morning. Great is his faithfulness!