Sermon Text: Genesis 2:18-25; Ephesians 5:25-33
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Recently, I read something about marriage in a book about my favorite singer and musician, Bob Dylan. You don’t have to know anything about Dylan to appreciate what this author writes. In one passage, he analyzes an obscure song that Dylan wrote in 1980. The song is unusual, he says, because it’s not a song about what he calls “the relatively easy romantic angst of regretting yet another break-up.” One reason, he says, that many people no longer find Dylan’s more recent work relevant is because “one of his main areas of address is splitting up and moving on, while they themselves are working through the harder, more complex business of sticking together… They are, thereby, coping with a far more ‘contemporary’ life than the old one Dylan speaks to with all his stoic leaving-or-left-alone songs cocooned in romantic images of dusty roads and lonesome oceans.”1
That’s good writing! “The harder, more complex business of sticking together.” It got me thinking: How much of the popular culture that we consume says much of anything about this harder and more complex business of sticking together? Don’t the majority of movies we watch concern falling in love or breaking up? Aren’t most songs we listen to about falling in love or breaking up? Aren’t most TV shows we watch about really pretty young people falling in love or breaking up? Not counting the crime shows, which, oddly enough, often feature husbands and wives who murder one another! There have been exceptions… Remember Everybody Loves Raymond. My favorite all-time line from that show involves Ray and Deborah arguing. Deborah says, “You never listen to me, Ray!” Ray responds, “Because you say so many things!” But at least it showed a couple hanging in there through thick and thin.
No, this “harder and more complex business of sticking together” definitely needs better P.R.—because it’s where most of us are most of the time. Not that you’d know it by looking at pop culture. But how can the business of sticking together compete with that rush of falling in love? the thrill of finding one’s soulmate? the promise of finding, as one of the online dating commercials tells us, the person of your dreams?
Even in today’s scripture there’s a strong hint of romantic love or falling in love.
In beautiful, poetic, highly figurative language, Genesis 2 describes God’s creating the first human being, Adam. And God says, “It’s not good the man should be alone,” and God finds for him creature who is just right for him: a woman, Eve. Think about this language of taking the rib from Adam. It suggests that Adam isn’t complete, isn’t fully himself, without Eve. She possesses that missing part of him. Remember that movie Jerry Maguire, and that line that became sucha cliche: Tom Cruise tells Renee Zellwegger at the end of the movie, “You complete me.” It may be a terrible cliche, but Adam could look at Eve and say, “You complete me,” and Eve could look at Adam and say, “You complete me.”
No wonder the first words spoken by the man are a romantic love poem: “This at last is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh…”
The Bible tells us that we ought to find in marriage a strong sense of personal fulfillment—emotionally, intellectually, and physically—which comes through this kind of romantic love. By all means! But let’s be honest: Romantic love, as good and God-ordained as it is, is not enough to sustain a happy marriage. If marriage could always be personally fulfilling, if our partner could always meet these deep needs, if we could continually, without interruption, kindle the flame of romance—then who would ever divorce? But we can’t! No one can! And yet, it’s such an ingrained part of our American mythology about marriage: If only we could meet, fall in love with, and marry the right person, then… What? We could live happily ever after? It’s literally a fairy tale. Worse, it’s a lie! Marriages built on that lie are destined to fail—at least without some major re-design and reconstruction along the way.
You want to know why? Because if we marry solely for the sake of love, then we divorce for the sake of love. Because that writer I quoted earlier is exactly right! Breaking up is terribly romantic—tragically romantic. Every bit as romantic as meeting that special person who’ll sweep us off our feet and with whom we’ll fall in love. Breaking up is romantic because we often tell ourselves, “There’s someone else out there for me—I got it wrong this time, but I still believe in this love. And for the sake of this love, I need to try to find that right person.”
I like what Duke Divinity school theologian and Methodist Stanley Hauerwas says about marriage—well, I don’t like it, but it gets under my skin and bothers me enough to make me think that there’s probably a lot of truth to it. It’s become known as the “Hauerwas Rule.” You’re not going to like this. The rule says, “You always marry the wrong person.”2 His point is, there is no right person. Hauerwas is a glass-half-empty kind of guy, but he freely admits that you could turn it around and just as easily say, “There is no wrong person.” He’s exaggerating a little but one thing I take from this is that if you are struggling in your marriage, if you are fed up with your partner, if you feel as if you’re at the end of your rope and you want to call it quits, that itself is not a sign that you married the wrong person. And if we buy into that myth of “finding the right person,” as I fear that we often do, well, then it’s no wonder the divorce rate is as high as it is.
Notice the scripture says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” I like that word clings. We need more for a marriage to work than just love and personal fulfillment: we need a stick-to-it-iveness; we need to stubbornly and heroically hang in there when the going gets tough; we need, in other words, fidelity… commitment. The apostle Paul gets it right when, at nearly every wedding, we read his words on love from 1 Corinthians, that love “beareth all things” and “endureth all things.”
But let’s be careful with this too. I was bothered by this Methodist magazine called Interpreter recently. The June issue was devoted to marriage. The cover story purports to tell the love story of a couple that’s been married for 26 “reasonably happy years.” But then the husband, a spouse of a Methodist pastor, says, “We clearly love each other. But our relationship has never been one … of those feel-good sort of things. Our relationship has been more of a partnership” [emphasis mine]. And then his wife, the pastor, added, “A partnership to raise our children and be a force for good here on Earth.”
Pardon me, but “Ugh! That sounds so… boring.” I don’t know these people, but I hope their marriage isn’t as bad as it sounds: “It’s never been one of those feel-good sort of things”? Really? Is it only a partnership? A contract? Is their love only intellectual? Is sheer commitment the only thing holding the two of them together? I hope not!
Just as a healthy marriage cannot be sustained by a desire for romantic love and personal fulfillment, it also can’t be sustained by commitment alone. Most of us married people are somewhere between the poles of pure commitment on the one hand and pure love on the other—but there ain’t nothing wrong with constantly striving for love and personal fulfillment! Those periods in which we have to fall back on dry and dusty commitment alone ought to be the exception, not the rule.
But the church doesn’t help much. We often emphasize commitment over romance—fidelity over fulfillment, remaining faithful over being in love, but that’s kind of a bait-and-switch. Oh, sure, we’re all about love and romance as God’s greatest gift in the world before couples get married—this love is celebrated with our wedding liturgies, our showers, our parties, our receptions… but somewhere down the line, when the romance seems to run dry and couples lose their way, we say, “Don’t you dare consider divorcing; don’t you dare consider cheating!”
Divorce should only be a gracious option of last resort—and adultery is never permissible. You may be justifiably angry at someone, but you don’t get to murder them. In the same way, you may be having very real, very difficult, and very sympathetic problems with your marriage, but you don’t get to act out sexually! But my point is we the Church shouldn’t tolerate loveless and unfulfilling marriage any more than we tolerate adultery. The church ought to be interested in both fidelity in marriage and fulfillment in marriage.
I tell couples in premarital counseling this all the time, and I believe it with all my heart: that the stuff of your relationship ought to get better over time. Not continuously, not without setbacks, not without occasional problems. But over time you should grow closer and find greater intimacy; over time your friendship should deepen; over time your sex life should get better. And if these things are not happening for long and uncomfortable periods of time, that is a sign you need help. Don’t ignore it! And seeking professional help or seeking pastoral help is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite! It’s in keeping with the spirit of Christian marriage. We as Christians are married within a community of faith, and we are not left alone in the world to solve our marital problems by ourselves—we have a loving and supportive community to help us, and it is their responsibility to help, and this church can help!
In Ephesians 5, which we read earlier, Paul begins by saying something about how husbands and wives ought to love one another with mutually self-giving, Christ-like love. But then, listen to this: He quotes from today’s Genesis text: ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’” And you’re thinking, yeah, O.K., he’s just proof-texting Genesis 2 to make a point about marriage. That’s nice. But no! Listen to the next sentence: “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”
In other words, he’s not using Christ’s love for this world to say something about marriage. He’s using marriage to say something about Christ’s love for this world. Just as the man, out of love, leaves his home and his family to unite with his wife, so Christ—God the Son—out of love, leaves his home in heaven and his Father to unite with humanity—and save us and fulfill us and give us eternal life. The gospel is a love story between God and the world. And our Christian marriages bear witness to this same gospel love story, just as we bear witness to it through evangelism and missions.
And if that’s true, then it means this: Our lives as disciples are characterized by love and commitment, fulfillment and fidelity—and an ever-present hope in a future that is in God’s hands. In the same way, our marriages ought to be characterized by these same virtues.
Jesus never stops loving us. Jesus never gives up on us. Jesus hangs in there with us, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer. Jesus is committed to working through the problems of sin in our lives so that we may become whole. Where we are damaged and broken and beaten down by sin and guilt, Christ is committed to healing us and forgiving us.
We just say “yes” to this gift of love. Have you said “yes”? Have you experienced this love? Have you given your life to Jesus Christ? Have you asked him to be your Savior and are you working day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and moment-by-moment to be your Lord? You may do so even this morning.
1. Michael Gray, The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (New York: Continuum, 2004), 407.
2. Stanley Hauerwas, “The Radical Hope in the Anunciation: Why Both Single and Married Christians Welcome Children,” in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 513-514.