Another marriage trend that has some link to the trends in our churches is mixed marriages. This is when two people of different faith traditions marry and raise a family. Such families have three options, 1) pick one religion in which to raise the children. The spouse of the other tradition may or may not convert or participate too. 2) leave religion out of family life and let the children pick when they are old enough to decide for themselves. 3) try to practice a little of each religion – Hanukah presents and a Christmas tree, Saturday evening Mass with grandpa Smith and Sunday School with grandma Jones. From the point of view of faith traditions only the first option is satisfactory for families with children. When religion is practiced in a home the way any faith tradition intends, it serves the function of embedding that religion into the identities of the children. The more immersed a child and his family are in a community of faith the more he will think of himself that way. As I talked about last week, faith is like a sport, an art or a craft. It is a practice, a set of skills, understanding and habits that can’t be conveyed well through any other method than by active participation, regular practice of the faith. Parents who want their children to be physically fit and involved in sports don’t say, let’s wait until Jane is an adult to decide whether to be a swimmer, play baseball or basketball. If they did wait, chances are pretty slim that Jane will want to take on any of these activities. Likewise parents who want their children to develop as musicians don’t have them play violin in the orchestra one week, and fiddle in a country band the next – each group calls for unique ways to play the same instrument, and the group needs to practice for hours together to be ready for any good performance. So when the parents of a family come from different religious backgrounds and don’t pick one for the children to grow up in, will result in children who typically don’t identify with either as adults.
Yet often faith communities who have tried to prevent mixed marriages, and/or at least insure that the children are raised in their own tradition, also fall under heavy criticism of doing harm to their members. Grandmothers have insisted that the babies be baptized as soon as possible, even when parents aren’t ready to make truthful promises to be faithful, and pastors and priests have gone right along filling up the “cradle rolls” that far exceed worship and Sunday School attendance. People who have entered mixed marriages have been shunned, shamed, threatened with hell fire and denied by clergy and other church leaders even when they are seeking to raise their children in that faith tradition. Living in a multicultural society like Eastern Massachusetts, I’m sure each one of us here would have some stories to tell about marriage as it relates to the church. And many of them would be painful and confusing. Where did all of these rules, and warnings come from? What is the actually biblical connection between the Christian faith and marriage? Are the concerns based on outdated understandings that just don’t mesh with our modern views? And what is the church’s beef with mixed marriage?
We are talking about marriage today, and mixed marriages in particular because it is one of the themes in the New Testament book of Hebrews and it is connected to the larger theme of idol worship in Hebrews. I actually referred to the passage Steve just read last week – a passage that mentions Esau. Chapter 12 verse 16 is a warning, “See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” Last week I shared that the Greek word for immoral is pornos signifying sexual immorality. And I offered the interpretation that the writer of Hebrews was using a metaphor – that just as sexual urges can tempt us to act impulsively and do things that are not right, so we to can allow our desires for immediate gratification to eclipse the blessings that come from practicing a faith fully.
Well today I’m going to muddle things for you a bit. Because Bible scholar don’t fully agree on how to interpret what Hebrews is saying about Esau. Last week I based my sermon on one interpretation. But there is a second interpretation that also makes sense and is worthy of our consideration. The first interpretation relies on the well known bible story of how Esau, the first born, was tricked by his twin brother to give away his whole birthright for one single bowl of stew. It was an impulsive act for the sake of immediate gratification. If this is what Hebrews is referring to then the word pornos, sexual immorality, is a metaphor for Esau’s impulsiveness. But when we go back to Genesis and read everything it has to say about Esau we learn a few bits about his life that aren’t as well known, like the fact that Esau married women who did not know the Lord, the God who made a covenant with his grandparents Abraham and Sarah. Esau married two Hittite women and the Genesis reports that “they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah,” Esau and Jacob’s parents. In contrast twin brother Jacob, traveled to the homeland of his mother’s relatives, people who knew the Lord, and he married two of his cousins (and took two concubines in the process – that’s another long complicated marriage story) who were all, presumably, within the covenant.
Hebrews warning about Esau is found together with a warning about the root of bitterness that can spring up and cause trouble. As Eugene Peterson puts it “Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time.” That is one of the references about idol worship referring back to the Old Testament, one of the five places in Hebrews when the author assumes that the readers will know the Bible so well that they will know he is talking about idols, though Hebrews never uses the word idol even once. The root of bitterness refers specifically to Deuteronomy 29, which is a speech God instructed Moses to give to the people of Israel as they were getting ready to settle in the Promised Land 40 years after their escape from Egypt. The larger passage is reminding them that they are in a covenant relationship with the Lord. It is warning them that the nations all around them do not worship the Lord, but other gods, idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. If the children of Israel are tempted to marry into these other peoples the temptation will be strong for their hearts to turn away from the Lord God to those other gods and idols, the temptation for their children to worship the idols of their non-Hebrew parents will be strong. “It may be,” Moses says, “that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth. All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, ‘We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways’ (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike)— 20the Lord will be unwilling to pardon them, for the Lord’s anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven.” Whoa!
Here is the crux of the matter about marriages and mixed marriages in particular. The Jewish and the Christian tradition see marriage not as a contract between two people, or even between two people and their families. The Jewish and the Christian tradition see marriage as a covenant. And that covenant is only one kind of covenant faithful people can make within the larger, all encompassing covenant God has made with God’s people.
Covenants are different than contracts. Contracts are made by two parties and can be made for a time period and end, and they can be properly broken when certain stipulations are not met, or when one party violates enough terms of the contract. Covenants are made primarily between God and human beings. And important tenant of our faith is that because our God is eternal our covenants with God are meant to be eternal and are not easily broken. For God never violates God’s end of the covenant. And when we sin and fall short of our end. As we say to God every time we take communion, “When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” Jesus tells us that God is like the father of the Prodigal son, so that even when we become apostates, turn our backs on the life of faith we once knew, God is waiting and watching for us to come home. All it takes for a backslider to come home is to turn around, repent, and ask for forgiveness, and renew our end of the covenant to live as disciples of Jesus Christ once again.
It is because of this faith that the Untied Methodist church does not baptize anyone second time. And it is because of this faith that the Christian covenant of marriage is expected to be unbreakable, until death do us part. In the eyes of the church covenants made between human beings are only covenants because they assume that God has called the relationship into being. As we say in a marriage ceremony, “What God has joined together let no one put asunder.” Christians, like Jews, see marriage also as a covenant relationship that should only be entered into with a sense that God is calling the couple to join together. When both people are of the same faith that covenant relationship fits properly and easily into the circle of the local church, or at least the circle of the Church universal. Covenants made within the church are meant to be patterned on the covenant between God and God’s people – that is faithful and eternal, full of repentance and forgiveness, repeated over and over again.
Of course the church is called to hold marriage partners accountable for their actions, and to protect life. It is unconscionable for a pastor to simply tell a battered woman to return to her abuser and forgive him without addressing the threat to her life and his sin. It does no good to be inhospitable to families where the couple is “not evenly yoked.” In other words where one parent is a disciple of Jesus and the other isn’t.
But when marriage is understood as a holy covenant called by God the family is availed of blessings that only come of covenants. And the blessings are directly related to the practice of the faith – those practices we spoke of last week that take time to learn, but transform us slowly into the saints of God – just as ballet practice turns children into accomplished ballerinas. As Christians, people within the covenant of marriage are called to faithfulness, even at times when they are not “in love” with their spouse. All Christian people within the covenant of marriage need to know that even if they started out equally yoked – sharing the same faith at the time of marriage - each person’s faith will grow and develop at different rates. As Addie Zierman wrote on her blog
“God is unchanging, steady, forever. But faith ebbs and flows. It shatters and is reassembled. You are on fire for God and then the fire burns out and you are left angry and ashen and cold. [Faith] is a road. It’s a journey. It’s a pit. It’s a paradise. And the thing about marriage – any marriage – is that you are two different people, and there will be times when your faith feels like it’s gone dark and his has not. Or when he is full of doubt and you are lit up with a new grasp of grace.” You are, both of you, Beloved of God, but you won’t always feel it. And you won’t always feel it at the same time. And it’s okay. It’s just part of it. Stay here, in this place where nothing feels equal or easy. Stay here in this love, with your jagged faith. Stay when the chasm seems too big to cross and when you’re afraid you’ll never be on the same page again. Balance each other out, or rage together in the darkness. But stay if you can. You are equally loved, equally held, tied here together for reasons you won’t always remember. Keep moving forward, together, into the future God is planning, has planned. It is wild and beautiful and worth every heavy, uneven step.
The Church is meant to surround couples in the covenant of marriage. Indeed, Stanley Hauerwas argues that, “Marriage and family exist to serve the ends of the more determinative community called church. When families exist for no reason other than their own existence, they become quasi-churches, which ask sacrifices far too great and for insufficient reasons. The risk of families that demand that we love one another can be taken only when there are sustaining communities with sufficient convictions that can provide means to form the family.”
Let us grow into the kind of Church who unlike Esau cherishes and holds fast to the birthright of covenant relationship we were given at our baptisms. Let us fully embrace our relationship with Jesus Christ and work at being his disciples just as artists work at their art. Let us be the kind of church that helps one another to grow as skillful disciples of Jesus Christ, help one another to confess our sins against God and one another, forgive one another and remain faithful just as our God is faithful to us.
Primary covenant of our lives is between God and us,
incorporating us into the Church which is the Body of Christ.
All other covenants, all other relationships, are meant to be encompassed within that primary covenant.
On September 15 as stepping into a series of concentric circles.
The largest circle is the Covenant of Baptism. When Brandon is baptized he will formally be incorporated into the New Covenant and share the name of Christian, with every other Christian in the world.
Connected to Baptism, particularly infant baptism is Confirmation. Andrew Brown will be confirming his side of the covenant that Linda, Jeff and this congregation made on his behalf when he was an infant. Andrew will be claiming the name of Christian, a disciple of Jesus, for himself.
The next circle of covenant that Christians step into is the covenant within a specific denomination. Heather who has already been baptized and confirmed into Christ’s church will become a professing member of the United Methodist – along with Andrew.
Then the final circle of church that everyone will step into is this local congregation here in South Walpole. Bart who is transferring from the United Methodist church where he was baptized and confirmed, will join Heather and Andrew as professing members. Nerris will retain her membership in her United Methodist Church in the Philippians, but become an Affiliate member of our congregation because she has been making this her church home. Each of these persons, including Andrew will full professing members of this congregation, eligible to vote at our Church Conference, and serve on committees – Andrew he will not be the future of our church – but a present and active member along with us.