Sunday, October 25, 2009

What 'Good is Faith?

Sermon preached October 25, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:46-52

What do poetry and quiche have in common? Real men avoid both! I came up a little dry this week on humor, and I thought that was better than, “How does a poet sneeze?” “Haiku!”
I am going to begin this morning with a poem, and yes, it is too late to schedule that Sunday morning root canal. For those present at Wednesday’s UMW meeting, this is a repeat.

"Otherwise" Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Sadly for those of us who appreciate her work, Jane Kenyon’s “otherwise day” came in 1995 when she died of leukemia just shy of her 48th birthday.
When I was twenty-one, I began experiencing medical symptoms that needed further exploration. After undergoing diagnostic testing and a course of medication it was determined that I had chronic ulcerative colitis. The inner lining of my colon acted up from time to time, and the best theory now around is that my immune system attacks that inner lining. For the most part the disease has been well controlled for these past twenty-nine years, with some significant exceptions. The most concerning issue with ulcerative colitis is the increased risk of colon cancer, especially after one has had the disease for twenty years or more. The kind of colon cancer associated with ulcerative colitis tends to be more aggressive than other kinds of colon cancer, so I get my colon scoped every year. This year was in late September, and I spent the next couple of weeks concerned about a new development.
My doctor discovered a polyp, a suspicious looking polyp and he was concerned that it was pre-cancerous. He told Julie and I that he was sending in biopsies and depending on the result I would either need to come in for a follow-up colonoscopy in six months or be referred to Rochester for further testing, likely leading to surgery for the removal of my colon next summer. So we waited – and the end of our waiting was unexpected good news. The polyp over which he was concerned was not related to cancer. I am guessing I am one of the few people in the world looking forward to having his next colonoscopy in a year.
It was good news, very good news, but someday, it will be otherwise. Some day we will all face difficult medical news. For some it will come later in life. In a recent week, I officiated at two funerals and the combined ages of the women whose lives we celebrated was 190. In these past few weeks, though, I have also been touched by more untimely deaths: Gregg Marquardt, age 62; Diane Nickila, age 58; Lynn (Wittich) Bergquist, teacher at Laura MacArthur, age 50 – a high school classmate of mine.
Short of that kind of tragedy, life has more than its share of smaller disappointments, hurts and tragedies – jobs not offered, dates refused, promotions not given, unkind remarks, invitations that never arrive, unexpected home or car repairs. Life’s disappointments, hurts and tragedies are not limited to our personal lives. Our world, too, has many. How can one not be disappointed that the human community fights senseless wars, that we allow so many of our fellow human beings to go hungry, that women are still brutalized, that children get sold into slavery, that skin color or place of birth gets in the way of recognizing the humanity of another? I am disappointed that our country cannot seem to muster the will and intelligence to come up with some way to provide medical insurance for all its citizens. I am often disappointed at the inflammatory rhetoric that passes for political discourse these days. Someone once wrote, “life is full of surprises, most of them bad” (Wilfred Bion, quoted by Michael Eigen in The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134). That is too stark and strong, but there are days when life feels like that.
So who put lemon juice in my coffee this morning? How do I get from this nice story about the healing of Bartimaeus to this discussion? The story of Bartimaeus is a nice story. Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho, heading toward Jerusalem, and they come upon Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. He shouts out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd tried to quiet him down, but he cried out even more loudly. Jesus calls Bartimaeus, asks what he would like. “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said, “Go; your faith has made you well.” The story has a happy ending.
But here’s the puzzle – we all know that at some point in time healing does not happen. Something gets us all. Faith will not always make us well. Our “otherwise day” will come. So what good is faith? What good is faith when life still disappoints, when we still get hurt, when an otherwise day awaits us all?
Here is where reading this story more closely helps. I would argue that there are multiple dimensions of healing in this story, and that the physical healing is only one, and not even the most significant healing that happens to Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus cannot see, but beyond that, his life if filled with discouragement and lack of direction. He sits by the side of the road hoping for handouts. The minute Jesus invites him, the crowd tells Bartimaeus to “take heart.” That is a healing in itself – the healing of the heart. With a healed heart, Bartimaeus begins to take some action in his life. He springs up, throwing off his cloak. Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well – his faith. Bartimaeus hears Jesus speak words about his strength – “your faith” has made you well. With heart and courage, Bartimaeus is also given sight. He could use his heart and courage any way he would like. He chooses to follow Jesus – another healing.
The most significant kinds of healing in our lives occur when Jesus summons our inner strength and we hear the Spirit speak to us – “take heart.” Faith will not resolve all our difficulties or prevent all our hurt and illness. What good is faith? Faith gives us the capacity to take heart amidst the pain and discouragement of life. Faith gives us the courage to weave all our experiences in life together so that we are stronger, more compassionate, more loving. In a recent interview in Ode, Karen Armstrong says, “Science can give you a diagnosis of cancer. It can even cure your disease. But it cannot touch your grief and disappointment, nor can it help you to die well.” (September/October 2009: 36) Not everything in life will get cured, but the heart can always grow in care, and that is the good of faith.
Faith also gives us eyes to see the good and beautiful that is in the world, alongside the hurtful and tragic. It gives us eyes to see the rich resources of grace and strength that are there for us. Faith plus Jesus equals wellness, wholeness, healing, heart. Faith in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love opens us to rich resources for life that are just there for us. They are there. Theologian Bernard Meland writes in an essay about the relationships which form our existence, and they do. None of us chose to be born or when or to whom. It just happened. It just is. Meland writes: We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from [these] come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining…. [There is a] goodness in existence which we do not create, but which creates and save us. (Fallible Forms and Symbols, 151) What faith opens up to us is an experience of One whose very nature is goodness and love and who is always at work to bring the possible good out of any situation, to “One who does understand, accept, and love even when the world seems to have turned completely against us” in the words of theologian John Cobb (Mesle, Process Theology, 141). Faith opens us up to this one we call “God” and we affirm that we know this God best in Jesus Christ, a Jesus who pays attention to the blind beggar on the side of the road, gives him the courage to take heart, recognizes that a healing faith is at work in even this unlikely character, welcomes him to the way.
Wednesday at the UMW gathering I shared a favorite story of mine written by Annie Dillard. She tells of a time when she rounded a corner to watch a mockingbird in free fall, and then watched as it remarkably spread its magnificent wings just before crashing head long into the ground. She reflects: Cruelty is a mystery; and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump up against another mystery: the inrush of power and light…. Unless all ages and races of [humans] have been deluded… there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitious…. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Annie Dillard Reader, 286, 287). Faith helps us be there.
Life is full of surprises, some of them, at least, are bad. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. These are both truths about life. What good is faith? In faith we have access to resources which give us strength, courage and heart to weave difficulty into our lives and be more compassionate and caring. This is healing. Faith helps us see that we are loved and cared about, deeply. This is healing. Faith helps us see that life’s surprises include beauty and wonder and grace. This is healing. Faith helps us act to create beauty and grace, to follow Jesus along the way, to bring healing to the world. That is the good of faith. Amen.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One Up

Sermon preached October 18, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:35-45

Play: Jean Knight, "Mr. Big Stuff"

So do you think this might be what the other disciples were saying to James and John – “who do you think you are, Mr. Big Stuff?” They were angry, for James and John had the audacity to ask Jesus to be seated on his right and left in his time of glory.
As is often the case in Mark, there is an underlying irony – sad and tragic and yet, humorous, all at the same time. Jesus time of “glory” is also going to be a time of sorrow. Death on a cross casts a large shadow over the telling of this story. Mark, the gospel writer, already knows what’s coming, but makes it clear that the disciples, James and John did not. They just wanted to be in places of importance, places of prime importance.
The other disciples were angry with James and John. It does not seem as if they are frustrated because James and John have misunderstood where following Jesus is taking them – to Jerusalem and the cross. They are angry because of the audacity of James and John, their presumption. Why should they seek the most important places? What about us? They don’t understand the situation any better than James and John. They just want to make their case for being important, being most important. There are only so many places at the top, and why should James and John be trying to claim them? The Reformation theologian John Calvin remarked that this story displays “the bright mirror of human vanity” (quoted in Feasting on the Word).
Jesus wisely intervenes. Yes, he admits, this is a dog eat dog world. This is a one up world, where everyone strives to be one up on others. Yes, this is a “he who dies with the most toys wins” world. But… BUT “it is not so among you.” What an interesting way of putting the matter. “But it is not so among you.” It isn’t? Of course it is – they have just been arguing about who is one up, who is the biggest dog in the pack. “But it is not so among you.” Jesus reminds them of who they are called to be, reminds them that when they are at their best as followers of Jesus, they will be different from the surrounding culture, the surrounding world.
And those words of Jesus echo through the centuries to our ears – “but it is not so among you.” We are invited to live differently because of who we are in Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, our relationships in Christian community should not be one up relationships, but rather relationships of mutuality, of caring, of support, of listening. Let me say a few words about what I think this means and doesn’t mean.
I don’t think this means there is no such thing as leadership in Christian community. Rather it means that leadership in Christian community is servant leadership. Servant leadership is well-defined by Robert Greenleaf, AT&T executive and Carleton College graduate in his book Servant Leadership (1977). A servant leader does all she can “to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” he asks: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what it the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? (13-14) Leaders in Christian community are concerned to remind others that they are important, and less concerned with their own importance. They are listening, learning, loving leaders.
I don’t think the words of Jesus mean there are no teachers in Christian community. Rather, teachers in Christian community share their knowledge aware that, in the words of a master teacher, Parker Palmer, “truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (A Hidden Wholeness, 127). We recognize in Christian community that there are those among us who have knowledge to convey, but the kind of teachers we need are good conversationalists. They are listening teachers who learn with and from those they teach.
We need leaders and teachers in Christian community. Jesus’ words don’t rule that out, but they do ask leaders and teachers to be careful. They caution all who would teach and lead that being a leader and/or teacher in Christian community requires deep self-awareness, keen self-analysis. Leaders point a direction, paint pictures of a path ahead. The danger is always that they do that without sufficient dialogue with those they are leading. It is a constant temptation. Teachers share their expertise, the knowledge they have gained in studying something more than others. Expertise is always in danger of becoming a one up game. It, too, is a constant temptation. Leaders and teachers in Christian community need to be deeply self-aware and keenly self-analytic.
Jesus words don’t eliminate the need for leaders and teachers in Christian community. They redefine what it means to teach and to lead. They challenge us, they challenge me, to be a different kind of teacher and leader. But maybe the most profound truth in the words of Jesus is that when it comes to the deepest questions of life, all of us carry insight and if we play one up games we miss the insights we need from each other. Who of us has God all wrapped up? We are going to be talking about that during Soul Kitchen today. Who of us has completely mastered what it means to be young, to grow old, to be a parent, to be a spouse, to seek a better world, to know what it means to love? We each have experiences to share that shed a light on what it means to live as a follower of Jesus, and if we are too caught up in games of our own self-importance, we miss the light in others. It should not be so among us.
A favorite movie of mine is Forrest Gump. I first saw it with a youth group in Corpus Christi, Texas, when I had led a youth mission trip to the area with my youth group from Ridgewood Park UMC in Dallas. It is a wonderful and rich film in so many ways, but one scene that has remained with me since I first saw the movie is the scene where Forrest proposes to Jenny. Forrest Gump is a person who is intellectually slow. Jenny is his life-long friend whose broken home led her to look for love and happiness in countless places and in countless ways – never quite finding it. So Forrest proposes, and when Jenny shakes her head “no,” Forrest replies, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” And he does.
To be a follower of Jesus is to seek to love, and each of us knows something about what love is, yet none of knows all of what love is or requires. So we need to listen to each other. We need to build a kind of community where we listen to each other’s stories of trying to love in a world that encourages one up living. But one up living, that’s not our way. Our way is the way of listening, of learning, of loving. May we be who we are. Amen.

Forrest Gump, "I Know What Love Is"

Money For Nothing

Sermon preached October 11, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:17-31; Hebrews 4:12

There is a bit of a Beatles renaissance these days. Late last month the entire Beatles catalog was re-released in a re-mastered version. A video-game version of Beatles songs was also released the same day – and all things Beatles seem to be selling well. A collector’s box set of mono recordings sold out and cannot currently be purchased.
There is a great deal to capture one’s attention with this musical group, and even the topic of money can incorporate Beatles’ music and Beatles lore. How is it that the same group that could sing in a famous song, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love” could also sing in a less famous song, “Money, that’s what I want”? And how is it that the group who could poke fun at rich Britain’s – in a concert in England John once invited the audience to participate, the folks in the cheap seats could clap their hands while those in the front rows were invited to rattle their jewelry – would end up breaking up, in part, over financial disputes? These songs and these stories capture something of our ambivalence toward money. We know that there is more to life than the pursuit of money. We would like our lives to be more than our earning statements. We don’t want our net worth and self-worth to be confused. At the same time, most of us would appreciate just a little bit more money than we have. We can imagine life being just a little easier if we earned just a bit more. I think I can imagine that!
And that’s not so bad. I went to the Friend’s of the Library book sale this summer and picked up a couple of books, one by a philosopher whose work I have appreciated over the years, Jacob Needleman. The Needleman book I found was entitled, Money and the Meaning of Life. I have not read the entire book, but perused it preparing for this sermon. Needleman writes: There [are] very few, surprisingly or even shockingly few, problems of life that could not be solved with a finite amount of money, a distinct, specific dollar amount…. Used rightly, money allows us to live, eat, drink, protect ourselves, help our families and friends, maintain our health, accomplish certain aims (112, 116).
But money has its limits, according to Needleman. Money can solve almost any problem, but the solution never lasts…. Used wrongly, money prevents relationship, prevents exchange between certain elements of the whole life…. Money is good at solving problems; it is bad at opening questions. Like technology, money is used wrongly when it converts inner questions that should be lived into problems to be solved (112, 116, 117). While that is a little abstract, Needleman’s basic point is that money is good when kept in proper perspective, but not when it is not. Our lives become skewed when our relationship with money is unbalanced.
That same point is made in our gospel reading for today, a difficult story, about Jesus telling a rich man to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow him. He follows this up with these words, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Somehow, wealth gets in the way of participation in God’s dream for the world, and it is only by the power of God’s grace and love that those who are caught up in wealth can get free.
The story by itself gives money a rather bad name. But then there is this fascinating ending. Peter tells Jesus that they have left everything to follow him, and Jesus assures Peter that they will receive a hundredfold what they gave up. Cryptic, but it provides a sense that Jesus is not against money, against daily needs being met, only against an unbalanced relationship with money, with wealth.
Now we could all just dismiss this story as inapplicable to our lives. Wealthy, who of us is wealthy? We hear stories of people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, and compared to them, who of us is wealthy? We don’t need to worry about being caught up in wealth, do we? Yet compared to most of the rest of the world, we are a wealthy people. Many of us spend for a cup of coffee the daily wages of many workers throughout the world. The danger of an unbalanced relationship with money is very real for us, for all of us.
If we let this story be word of God for us, that is a word used by God’s Spirit to help us examine our lives, this story can be “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword… able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). This story about the rich man shines a light into our lives, if we let it, a light that seeks to illumine our relationship with money, asking whether it is balanced or unbalanced, whether we are using it or it is using us.
Jesus was concerned about an unbalanced relationship with money. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was also deeply concerned about that issue. You know, this seems to be a perennial human problem. The human relationship with money is always in danger of becoming unbalanced, it seems. Wesley was not one to condemn money. In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” Wesley wrote that money was of “unspeakable service to all civilized nations, in all the common affairs of life.” In that sermon, Wesley laid out his three principles for the appropriate use of money: gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. We gain all we can, though not at the expense of our well-being or the well-being of our neighbor, because money “is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of [God’s] children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked.” We save all we can because superfluous spending can become a danger in its own right. We should have a sense of the distinction between needs and wants. Wesley saw this as a spiritual discipline of a kind, a way we stay in touch with God and with ourselves. Finally, Wesley contended we should give all we can. In giving to others, we channel God’s grace and love to others, and experience that grace and love more deeply ourselves. Failure to do that endangers our souls, Wesley believed (Rebekah Miles, “Works of Mercy as Spiritual Formation” in The Wesleyan Tradition, 98).
Throughout his life, Wesley was concerned that we are always in danger of falling into an unbalanced relationship with money. He was particularly concerned about Methodists who were taking his invitation to hard work and thrift seriously. Some who had been poor were now finding themselves better off, and Wesley noticed that while many were earning all they could, and saving well, giving often dropped off. That was of deep concern to him.
Now I could use what I have laid out here to talk about church giving, and our stewardship campaign is just around the corner. I am not going to do that except to say that I agree about the dangers of an unbalanced relationship with money, and that one part of a healthy relationship with money is to give it in ways that make a difference in the world, and that the church is one place where your money can make a difference.
But I want to focus elsewhere this morning, take this message about money in an even more controversial direction. Hold on. This Christian message about money is not just personal, but also social. I think that one place where our unbalanced relationship to money is evidenced is in a prevalent attitude in our society that views almost any form of taxation as some kind of theft. This is simply theologically and biblically unsound. Now I would not argue that all taxes are good, nor would I argue against the idea that some taxes are excessive and should be replaced or gotten rid of. At the same time, I think we would do well to see taxation, at its best, as one opportunity we have to help one another. Taxes can be too high, stifling creativity in the economy, but taxes can also be too low when a slight increase in taxes could bring great benefit to many. If you want to discuss this more, come to Soul Kitchen at 10:45.
One area I think we have really missed the mark in our state is in the elimination of the program General Assistance Medical Care. This program, designed to help the poorest of our citizens, will be completely eliminated March 1, 2010. The people who benefit from this program make less than $7,800 per year and many suffer from chemical dependency or mental illness. Without medical care, some will go without psychotropic drugs. I have written extensively about this issue in the newsletter and don’t want to reiterate what I have already written. In a society as wealthy as ours, the poorest among us should not suffer this way. If a lack of generosity, an unbalanced relationship with money, does damage to the individual soul, as both Jesus and Wesley seem to believe, then maybe a lack of generosity in our common life does damage to the soul of our society.
I am on the board of Life House, an agency that seeks to shelter homeless youth, and provide them resources to stabilize their lives. At the last board meeting I heard a story I want to share in concluding this morning. In September there was an event highlighting the problem of homelessness, a sleep-out at St. Scholastica. A number of church youth groups participate, and some of the youth from Life House were also there. Among the young people from Life House was a young man who earlier in the day found a dollar bill. Most of us would not be delighted by this, but he was, because he rarely had a dollar in his pocket, and if he ever got one, it seemed to get spent quickly. He held on to this dollar though, and some of the Life House staff were lovingly teasing him about that. What was he going to do with that dollar? During the evening, the young man attended a presentation about homelessness among youth and toward the end people were invited to make a donation. The young man who rarely had a dollar decided to donate it, to help someone who might need help.
Maybe that story, too, can be a penetrating word of God for our lives as we struggle to keep our relationship with money balanced. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Open Marriage

Sermon preached October 4, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:2-16

This morning we are celebrating World Communion Sunday, that special day once a year when many Christians throughout the world all share communion in their respective worship services. It might be a good day to talk about communion in the church, but we are not going to.
Communion, one term for the celebration of God in Jesus we experience as we share bread and juice, is a relational term. There are other words used for this part of worship – The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. When we talk about communion we are saying that this ritual opens us to a deeper relationship with God in Jesus Christ, and opens us up to deeper relationships with one another.
Relationships are vitally important. We are, in many ways, our relationships, that is, the person we become has a lot to do with the quality of the relationships in our lives. We live with all the aspects of our relationships with our parents – with the joys and with the scars of early family life. Our lives are enriched by friends who can support us, who rejoice with us, who tell us the truth. And for many, one of life’s most important relationships is marriage, and that’s what we are going to talk about this morning. We are going to talk about it because it is the focus of part of the gospel reading for this morning.
Marriage is a relationship whose importance we recognize, yet also one that we are fond of making fun of. All men are born free and equal. If they go and get married that’s their own fault. - - - Men are like fine wine. They start out like grapes, and it’s the wife’s job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d like to have dinner with.
A little humor is helpful, because the Scripture we are tackling this morning is a tough one, and here is the toughest part: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” At face value this seems to say that if you are divorced and remarried you are in an adulterous relationship – pretty harsh.
But I don’t think using this text as a proof for the absolute prohibition of marriage is in keeping with the broader themes of Jesus teaching about love and compassion, nor does it take the first century context into consideration. I will be saying more about this during Soul Kitchen at 10:45. These verses have sometimes been used by the church to denigrate and demean those who have been divorced, turning them into second-class Christians, and that is unacceptable. There is an element of tragedy in divorce, and Jesus’ teaching acknowledges this. His other teachings about compassion lead me to believe that he would not have used his strong feelings about marriage and divorce to denigrate those who had been divorced. The church has not always done the best job of showing compassion to those divorced and that is inconsistent with the overall teaching of Jesus and the Christian faith.
At the same time, this text speaks of the seriousness with which Jesus and the early Christian community treated marriage. We should take marriage no less seriously. These verses are an encouragement to care for marriage, and the entire text, I think, gives us a clue about how to do that. Two notes, here: (1) the definition of marriage I am keeping in the back of my mind is of a life-long, covenantal commitment between two people, regardless of gender; (2) the relational ideas for a good marriage can be used in keeping other relationships alive and vital, too. We can discuss that more during Soul Kitchen, too.
So if we should take marriage seriously, if we should see in divorce an element of tragedy that should be avoided if it can be, what makes for a stronger marriage? I think it is interesting that right after these words about divorce, Mark puts the story of little children being brought to Jesus. The disciples spoke “sternly” to those bringing children – strong word; and Jesus is “indignant” toward them – another strong word. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs…. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Openness, receiving - - - this is the clue this text gives to how to enrich marriage. Research with babies and small children suggests that “instead of experiencing a single aspect of their world and shutting down everything else they seem to be vividly experiencing everything at once” (The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik, 125). Openness, receptivity. I think Christian tradition advocates open marriage. Now by that I don’t mean the idea of open marriage from the 1970s where couples agreed that because they could not perhaps find all their needs satisfied in one relationship they could seek out intimacy with other persons, including physical intimacy. Christian open marriage is a radical openness to the person to whom you are married – being open to them and opening up to them; accepting them as they are and encouraging their growth, allowing oneself to be accepted and invited to grow. This kind of open marriage is hard work. It is terrifying. It is joy. It is adventure. I want to say a brief word about these two aspect of Christian open marriage – acceptance and growth.
We in the United States have a culture of high expectation, for good and for ill. One of the ways this manifests itself is in an attitude toward marriage. We expect Prince Charming, Cinderella, happy ever after, and we expect that if our wedding service is appropriately magical, the happy ever after will take care of itself. In the months before his death in 1970, the psychologist Abraham Maslow expressed concern for unrealistic expectations in relationships, even marriage (unquoted supporting data from Maslow’s journal: “a good marriage is impossible unless you are willing to take sh** from the other”). He believed that “the breakdown of traditional families… as well as of intimate friendships, [comes] partly from the inability of many to live with human imperfection” (Hoffman, The Right To Be Human, 313). His thoughts are echoed more recently by United Methodist theologian and ethicist, Rebekah Miles. I believe that we are irresponsible about marriage and sexuality not because we think too little of them, but because we expect too much…. We expect perfect mates, perfect bodies, {perfect orgasms}, perfect children, perfect moods, perfect families…. Is it any accident that the culture with the highest expectations for marriage has produced the highest rates of divorce, the lowest rates of marriage, and a growing number of people afraid to make any commitments at all? (The Pastor as Moral Guide, 89-90). Christian open marriage means openness to our partners as they are. The longer we live with another, the more we find their imperfections, and our homes are the places where our imperfections are most often expressed. We need to find ways to live together with these. A cautionary word, there is a difference between an imperfection and abusive behavior. Hitting your partner is more than an imperfection.
Christian open marriage is openness to the other as an imperfect, but growing and developing human being, one loved by God just as they are. It is also openness to growth, which can be terrifying and painful. If marriages are places where our imperfections come out, we need to be open to our own imperfections, and some of them can be worked on. Julie did not marry a bald man, and there is little I can do about that imperfection. Over time, other imperfections in my life have been moderated, have changed because of our relationship. I have often been impatient with myself and let that impatience spill over into my family. My marriage has helped me deal with that. I am a rather driven person, and my marriage has helped me deal with that on some levels.
The great tragedy of divorce is in the missed opportunities for growth in both partners. Sometimes people divorce to run away from their own imperfections, as well as the imperfections of others. Even knowing that, the church which tries to represent God’s love in Jesus Christ, though it does so imperfectly (but that’s another sermon) should never denigrate any who have actually experienced the pain of divorce – and I have seen that up close and personal in my own family. All are welcome here, including to the communion table. The church needs to walk the tightrope of welcoming all, of offering compassion to all, while recognizing that perhaps divorce has become too easy an alternative in our culture and we need to do what we can to strengthen Christian open marriage.
Julie and I have been married now for over twenty-seven years. Before our marriage we took a form of the pre-marriage inventory I still use. One statement in that inventory has always stuck with me. “In loving my partner, I feel that I am beginning to better understand the concept that God is love.” I strongly agreed with that statement, and still do. It is the promise of marriage. It is part of what makes working at marriage worth it – openness to our partner, openness to ourselves even when it is challenging. God loves us as imperfect as we are. Our love for one another in marriage begins there too. Amen.