Sermon for 10-03-10: “Love and Marriage, Part 1”

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 7:1-7

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The following is my original manuscript.

“Love and marriage, love and marriage/ They go together like a horse and carriage/ Ask the local gentry/ And they will say it’s elementary.” Frank Sinatra used to sing that much better than me! The song isn’t as old-fashioned as it seems. The singer winks knowingly at the listener: “Dad was told by mother/ You can’t have one/ You can’t have none/ You can’t have one without the other.” What do you think he’s talking about there? See, the singer of this song is not happy that love, and the sex that goes along with it, seemed inseparable from marriage, at least in his day—because from his perspective the love and sex part was much more fun than the marriage part. Why can’t you have love—and sex—without marriage. Obviously for the past 40 years or so we as a culture have convinced ourselves that we can separate them—to our great harm.

I promise you that I have never watched Oprah Winfrey, but when I told one of you about this two-part sermon series, you told me about something you saw on Oprah’s show. The celebrity Jenny McCarthy was describing her divorce from fellow celebrity Jim Carrey. Oprah asked her, “When did you know it was over?” And she replied, “I knew it was over when it stopped being fun.” When it stopped being fun? How long can any marriage survive if the only measure of its viability is whether or not it’s fun?

There are married couples of newborns and infants who are facing life on little or no sleep right now—and they’re irritable and they’re taking it out on one another. Are they having fun? Should they call it quits? There are married couples of teenagers in our congregation who are struggling right now to navigate this difficult transition in their child’s life, and I’m sure they’re tempted to look at one another and ask, “Are we having fun yet?” Does that mean they just throw in the towel? There are married couples who have bravely decided to weather the storm of infidelity and are trying to find healing. They are not having fun. Is something wrong with them for not giving up on their marriage?

There are married couples out there who are struggling with taking care of aging parents; who are struggling with a child or spouse’s addiction; who are struggling with illness; who are struggling with unemployment and job transition and financial crisis; who are struggling with the pressures and the messiness and headaches of life—and the seams of their relationship are loose or splitting, and the edges of their relationship are badly frayed. Are they having fun? Should they simply give up; call it quits?

Our culture lies to us about love and marriage and sex… All the time. First, it glamorizes the experience of falling in love. It makes falling in love the be all and end all. If, like me, you watch the show House, you know that House and Cuddy are in love now. They are in a romantic and sexual relationship. One recent episode centered on the question of whether or not House would say to Cuddy, “I love you.” She had told him earlier that she loved him. Would he say it back to her? And when he finally says it, it’s a big deal.

But why is that a big deal? Falling in love with someone, feeling in love with someone—that is the easy part of love. It really doesn’t take much to fall in love. You know what would be a far bigger deal than a man saying, “I love you,” to a woman at the beginning a romantic relationship? That  same man saying, “I love you” to that same woman 25 or 30 years down the line—after making a home together, after raising kids, after balancing the different demands of career and partnership and family, after years of working to build and maintain the passion, to keep the flame of romantic love alive! That’s a big deal!

Our culture lies to us when it teaches us the myth of finding our one true love—our “soulmate,” the one person in the world who’s exactly the right match for us. This concept is not from the Bible; it’s from Greek mythology: That originally our souls were physically united with a partner of the opposite sex. The gods separated us before we were born. So we spend our lives searching for our missing half, the one that we’re meant for, the one from whom we were split off. We see this all the time in pop culture—movies, books, songs, TV shows. In last week’s episode of How I Met Your Mother, Robin sets Ted up with a friend of hers on a blind date, and Ted worries that Robin has spoiled the date by not being honest about the kind of person Ted is. He worries that she’s raised her friend’s expectations too high, and Ted won’t be able to live up to the advanced billing. He asks, “What if she’s the one?”—and Robin has messed it all up before they even go out. The stakes are so high! So they talk about Ted’s finding “the one.”

By contrast, Duke Divinity School professor and theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who’s a bit of a grouch, is famous for saying that we “always marry the wrong person.” In other words, there is no one right person. He’s exaggerating a little… There’s no one right person for us to marry, sure, but there are plenty of less right people.

But… there certainly is no “one true love” if by that we imagine that there’s someone with whom our relationship will not at times be a struggle. There is someone with whom we will not fight. There is someone from whom we cannot be tempted to stray. My mom was married to my dad for many years before he died, and she said many times over the years that she never once thought about divorcing Dad. She thought about murdering him, but not divorcing him. That’s the way true love feels sometimes. In other words, even when we find the best possible match for us, the relationship is still going to be a struggle; we’re going to fight with each other; and—hold on to your hat—we may even be tempted to cheat; to act out sexually.

We have a hard time with this last part. When the Tiger Woods story broke last year, I was listening to sports talk radio, and I heard some of the radio hosts and some of the callers say these words—and maybe this thought crossed your mind, guys: “But Tiger’s wife is hot! Why would he cheat on her? I wouldn’t cheat on her.” Husbands and wives, if you think adultery is beyond the realm of possibility for either you or your spouse, think again! That’s a real and present danger that all couples face.

I’m required to counsel couples whose wedding services I’m going to officiate. When I do, I talk to them about experiencing the temptation to cheat. When I mention this temptation, their eyes get big, and I know what they’re both thinking: “This will never happen to us. She’s the one… He’s the one.” Sin and evil are far too insidious. Our enemy is more clever than that. The question, which I hope we will spend time answering next week is, What will we do now to guard against cheating?

Here’s another lie that our culture tells us, which is related to the myth of finding our one true love. Because finding our one true love is so incredibly important, we need to make extra sure that this person is the one. So we live together before we tie the knot… just to make sure that we’re compatible. What I’m about to say may sound like an exaggeration, but I don’t mean for it to be. I have performed dozens of weddings in my six years of ministry. Unless I’m mistaken, every couple whose wedding I’ve officiated has lived together before marriage. Except for one. Ironically, the bride in that case was eight months pregnant. I’m not kidding.

The mistaken premise behind living together before marriage is that if only we really know each other well before we marry, then we can know whether or not we have what it takes to stay together for a lifetime. Sorry… You can’t know that. No one who gets married really knows what they’re getting into. The person you marry today will not be the same person you’re married to five or 10 or 20 years from now. You won’t be the same person. And we can’t predict how other circumstances will affect us and our relationship in the future. There’s got to be something other than simple compatibility binding people together if a marriage is going to last.

Besides, in all of our concern for finding the one right person, do we consider the possibility that we’re not the right person? Even if we got a divorce, as painful and difficult as that is, what makes us think that we wouldn’t simply bring these same problems into our next relationship? That’s why a good marriage therapist will have couples work on themselves as individuals, even as they work on their relationship. Because we are broken and need to be fixed.

Here is another lie that our culture tells us: After you’ve been married a while, the thrill is gone. Your life will settle down into a boring, mundane, predictable routine. Your sex life will not be as exciting as it used to be. In fact, this lie tells us, you better enjoy all the wild and crazy sex you can before marriage because once you’re married, the best is behind you. This lie tells us that in one way or another, the fun will come to an end; that marriage is a bit of a let-down; that it’s a big compromise. The church often tells a sanitized version of this lie. A friend in ministry told me recently that when he got engaged to be married, well-meaning Christians told him, jokingly but condescendingly, “Enjoy life now because once you get married, you’re in for a surprise! Look out! Things are gonna change. You just wait until you’re married. You won’t be able to do this or that or the other thing.” They joked about all the things he would be giving up rather than all that he would potentially be gaining! My friend resented it, and I don’t blame him.

What are our expectations for marriage? Do we expect marriage to be a let-down; a compromise; that we’ll be stuck in a rut? Do we expect marriage to mean that the thrill is gone; that the fun must come to an end; that our sex life can’t be exciting and filled with passion? If this is what we expect, we need to raise our expectations! A friend of mine told me a few months ago he was contemplating divorce. He said, “Things cannot go on the way they have. They can’t continue this way.” And I said, “By all means! Expect more! Tell your spouse that. Don’t settle for less than what you deserve to have! But that doesn’t mean that divorce is the answer, either!

If you’re experiencing problems in marriage, that’s a sign that you need to get help! But it doesn’t mean the marriage is over! It doesn’t mean you’re stuck. If you are married, your love life, your sex life, should get better over time—as you grow closer, as you experience greater intimacy—and if it’s not, then that is a symptom of a problem. And it may be a problem that a pill cannot solve, if you know what I mean! You need to get help. There’s no shame in getting help. I can put you in touch with good people who can help you.

But by all means, don’t believe the lie that marriage is just that way. It can be better, and it should be better.

That’s certainly what Paul believes about marriage in today’s scripture. One thing Paul is saying is this: if you are a married Christian, you ought to enjoy a deep and satisfying sex life. That’s in the Bible. That’s what God wants for you in marriage—not just for those chosen few who were lucky enough to find the right person; but for everyone. If you want to think of it this way, it is nothing less than your duty as a married Christian to have good sex; to have passion; to kindle and rekindle romantic love. And this love is characterized, Paul says, by mutual self-giving; giving everything you have to your spouse; and your spouse giving everything they have to you—in order that your marriage be the best it can possibly be.

Good marriages are not a matter of finding our soulmates; rather, they are a matter of becoming soulmates over time. Your marriage can grow. Your relationship can be better tomorrow, ten years from now, 50 years from now, than it is today.

At Pastors’ School at the Methodist retreat center on St. Simon’s this summer, Rev. Walter Kimbrough was the guest preacher for the week. When he stood up to preach for the first time, he told the congregation, “Before I begin I want to tell you that today is a special day for me and my wife. Today we are celebrating 47 years… eight months, two weeks, and five days of married life together.” And he made a point of saying that each time he preached.

And I watched him as he said it; and I listened closely to him; and I looked at his wife as he said it. And you know what I decided? He meant it… He said it because that’s how he really felt about his marriage with his wife. Isn’t that amazing?

That’s the kind of marriage I want. Don’t you? Amen.

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