Monday, July 10, 2017

Love and Marriage

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 24:34-67, Psalm 45:11-18; Matthew 11:16-30.

Love is in the air! Or at least it was in June. It is the most popular month in which to marry, with 10.8% of all weddings taking place then. It is followed by August, September and October. The least popular month for a wedding is March. 2.3 million couples marry every year in the US; that's about 6,200 a day. 80% of weddings take place in a church or synagogue. What city is the most popular place to get married? If you guessed Las Vegas, you would be right only if you are thinking of US weddings. Worldwide, it comes in second after Istanbul, Turkey!

Weddings pop up a lot in today's lectionary. Our reading from Genesis is about how Abraham's servant finds a bride for Isaac. Our Psalm and the alternate reading from the Song of Solomon are about royal weddings, the psalm directed at the princess and the selection from the Song of Songs is from her viewpoint. Even Jesus makes reference to children playing at weddings and funerals and finding that others won't play along.

Weddings and marriage are frequently used as metaphors in the Bible. In the Old Testament God's relationship with Israel is compared to a marriage, making idolatry a form of adultery. (In fact, it is widely believed that the Song of Solomon, the sexiest book in the Bible, would not have been accepted as scripture had it not been seen as a metaphor for our relationship with God.) In the New Testament, Jesus is often called the bridegroom and the church his bride. The kingdom of God is often compared to a wedding banquet. And this makes sense if God is Love, as it says in 1 John 4:8.

And the centrality of love in life is certainly backed up by what we have discovered about human beings. A Harvard study that followed sophomores from 1938 for almost 80 years found that the secret of health and happiness is love. Close relationships make people happier than money or fame and are a better predictors of a long and happy life than genes, IQ or social class. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, found that people in happier marriages lived longer, were healthier, had better memory functions, and had better moods even on days when they had more physical pain. People in unhappy marriages felt more physical as well as emotional pain.

Not that the happy couples didn't have problems. Said Waldinger, “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn't take a toll on their memories.”

On the other hand, Waldinger said, “Loneliness kills. It's as powerful as smoking and alcoholism.” We are not machines. We are social animals. Relationships and community are important to our psychological as well as our physical health.

Waldinger, the 4th director of this longitudinal study, has expanded the study to the wives and children of the subjects. He'd like to expand it to the 3rd and 4th generations. He wants to see why it is that having a bad childhood affects our health in middle age.

As I have said before, God's rules are for our own good. And he commanded us to love one another. That not only benefits others but also ourselves. So is loving God also borne out as a good thing by science? Since scientists can't objectively measure how religious someone is, they use the metric of church attendance. And indeed those who regularly participate in religious activities live longer, have less stress and more life satisfaction. In addition, those who have a sense of purpose in their life live longer, sleep better, and have a lower risk of stroke and depression. Oh, and they have better sex.

Loving God and loving one another are not only good for society, they are good for us personally. But we must widen the circle of those we love for it to be morally good.

I'm sure Bonnie and Clyde loved each other; their fellow man, not so much, or they would not have killed 9 police officers and a number of civilians. I'm sure Ma Barker loved her boys, and while historians doubt she was the criminal mastermind pop culture made her out to be, yet she certainly knew of her boys' murders and robberies and was their willing accomplice before and after their crimes. So she put her love of her family above the love of her neighbor. One way to look at evil is as a narrow definition of what is good; ie, thinking only of what is good for you and yours.

And yet most situations are better for you and those you love if you act on what is good for everyone, or at least the largest possible number of people you can benefit. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)

Bonnie and Clyde's love would have lasted more than 4 years and they probably wouldn't have died in their early 20s had they cared about what was good for others. The same goes for Ma Barker and her 4 sons, none of whom died a natural death. Those are extreme cases but they throw the issue into high contrast. We never would have had life-saving seat belts in our cars had we merely stopped at the fact that most accidents (3 million out of 5 million a year) are fender benders and then we ignored the the less common but more serious car accidents that kill 37,000 people a year and leave 2.3 million injured or disabled. You deceive yourself if you judge which behaviors are bad by paying attention only to those folks lucky enough not to suffer the full consequences.

I can love my neighbor but I'm not married to him. I don't have to live with him or eat with him or sleep with him every day. Marriage is harder because it is a more intensive form of love relationship and it is 24/7. And just as we can learn from the extreme examples of car accidents, we can learn from the extreme form of marriage failure that is divorce.

While doing research for this sermon I found out that determining the divorce rate is difficult. It depends how you measure it. If you simply want to know how many people in the general population divorce each year, it's 3.6 divorces per 1000 people, or more than 800,000. The problem is that the general population includes children and unmarried people, who won't be getting divorced. If you count all the people who have ever been divorced the rate is 22% of women and 21% of men. But some of those have remarried and some will remarry. And there are other more complicated ways to calculate the divorce rate. (For them and a lot of the following, I want to thank Glenn Stanton for his article on

But none of these general statistics can tell you if you personally will get divorced. And nothing can. But we do know a lot of the factors that increase or decrease the risk. For instance, living together before getting married greatly increases your risk of divorce. Getting married after the age of 18 decreases the risk of divorce by 24%. A large difference in the ages of the two people doubles the risk of divorce. Only 27% of college graduates divorce. Being previously divorced increases the risk greatly whereas having parents that never divorced decreases it. If both husband and wife have a strong personal conviction that marriage is for life, that decreases the risk as does having a strong common faith. Smoking markedly increases the likelihood of divorce, whether only one person smokes or both do!

Again, none of these can tell you if your marriage will survive or not. It just tells you the probabilities of success: the obstacles you will likely face and the advantages you may have in living out your marriage. You may beat the odds. Especially if you do what you can with the factors you can control: don't marry young, get a college education, find someone with a deep conviction about marriage and with whom you share a strong common faith. And note that all of those things—delaying marriage, graduating, having faith and convictions—require commitment. Perhaps that's why folks who opt for the free trial offer of cohabitation are less likely to stay together.

There are also techniques you can use to make marriage better. Learning to communicate constructively. Attacking any problems you encounter as a team rather than attacking each other. Really listening and seriously considering what the other person says, even if you disagree. Recognizing your and your partner's strengths and weaknesses, and letting each other do what you are good at and helping each other with the things you're not good at. If the wife is better with the finances, let her manage them. If the husband is better with the children, let him be the primary kid wrangler.

And, by the way, a lot of the principles that help make a marriage work, help with any group you are in: good and constructive communication, listening, solving problems as a team, knowing everyone's strengths and weaknesses and offering encouragement and support. And as I said a couple of months ago when talking about prayer, a lot of the elements of a good marriage can help our relationship with God.

So finally I want to look at 3 other major things we can do to improve our relationships with others and with God: faith, hope and love.

First, we can strengthen our faith in each other. Trust underlies every relationship. Without trust relationships wither and die. Some relationships never happen because trust is not established. We can help our relationships by being trustworthy. Never make a promise you can't keep and fulfill every promise you make. Or as Jesus put it “let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No.'” (Matthew 5:37) Our track record lets others know they can trust us and vice versa. That works in marriage and it works in any group.

It is God's track record, his faithfulness, that lets us know we can trust him. Again we should respond by trying to be worthy of his trust, by being steadfast in our commitment to serve him and follow him.

Secondly, we can bolster our hope. Hope is simply the future tense of trust. In good times, it is the belief that things will stay good. But that's naive. Bad times will come; in which case, hope is the faith that things will get better. Lack of hope can lead to despair, the fear that things will never get better. Despair, like loneliness, can kill. It can also spell the death of a relationship. To keep relationships alive we need to show that we are working to make things better.

Our hope in God is in his past faithfulness to us and his promises for our future. In Christ, we know things will get better. People will come to Jesus. People's lives will be better. There will be a new creation. Heaven will come to earth. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. We will be in paradise as God intended.

Thirdly, we can commit to loving one another. And it is a commitment. In a lifetime you can fall in and out of love. Just as in raising your kids, there are days when you want to hug them and days when you want to strangle them. You can't say to your child, “I'm just not feeling the love today, kid; I can't parent you today.” You take care of them in good times and bad, when they're angels and when they are little devils. Commitment is key in marriage as well. So in the Bible love is not merely a feeling; it is a commitment to do what is best for a person consistently. It's not all flowers and chocolates and dinner dates and great sex. It is having that person's back and he or she having yours.

Right now there is a film out called “The Big Sick.” It's based on the true story of the comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon. It's about how they met, started dating, and ran into problems because his parents wanted him to enter an arranged marriage like a good Pakistani Muslim. And then Emily got seriously ill and was in a coma. Kumail stayed at her bedside, bonding with her parents and realizing this was the person he was meant to marry. Most of us don't encounter the “in sickness and in health” part of a relationship until we take the wedding vow. And, even then, we don't really think about it until our partner actually gets cancer or heart disease or is in a car accident. Sadly, some people don't keep that part of the vow. They are fair weather marriage partners, which means they aren't good partners at all. Which is why we clergy tell people that marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly. It is a commitment.

God loves us despite our bad days and failings. He forgives us and helps us back on our feet when we stumble. The Hebrew word chesed is often translated “steadfast love” and is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to describe God's love for us. As it says in Psalm 107:1, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; His steadfast love endures forever.” God is committed to our ultimate well-being. He will not give up on us. We similarly must be committed to him.

Marriage is an extreme example of faithful, hopeful committed love. Which is why the Bible so often uses it as a metaphor for our relationship with God. Like all metaphors it breaks down if you over-extend it. But at its heart it reveals deep truths about how God acts towards us and how we should act towards him. When I was researching what protects us from divorce, I read that while a strong common faith lowers the risk, a nominal faith does not. You can't achieve anything great if you are not committed. Distractions and temptations, mood changes and periods of boredom and fatigue will try to get you to stop, to give up. You need to commit. You need to persevere. You need to put your whole heart into it. That's only only way a marriage or a relationship with God will work.

So how is it that Jesus says, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light?" Isn't this the same guy who tells us to take up our cross? Yes but who are we yoked with? Jesus. He will help us with the task at hand. He will help us shoulder our burdens. He will make sure we will get rest. He will make sure we get nourished. And he will ultimately do the heavy lifting. He did the worst part of it on the cross. That's how committed he is to this relationship. So the real question is: how committed are we?

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