Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Marriage Persists, Marriage Evolves

Readings for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Somewhere Jesus warns his disciples, “Beware of the yeast of Herod.”

While yeast served our Lord’s positive purpose in one of his littlest parables, where he says that the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman added to turn several measures of flour into enough live nourishment to take care of a hundred people, Jesus also knew that yeast could mean infection, putrefaction, and death.

Those are words that sum up the reputation of Herod, Shakespearean in his tragic weaknesses. We’re told the gory story of John the Baptist’s execution as an example: Herod didn’t intend to execute his nemesis; it was expedient, an obligation of hospitality to not cause a scene after a lavish promise had been made. This makes my skin crawl, and I’m pretty sure Mark tells his story to have that effect.

Herod doesn’t know what he wants. He fears John the Baptizer, but is fascinated by him enough that he protects him. Protects him from Herod’s wife Herodias, who has no ambivalence towards John, and I’ll guess no ambivalence towards anyone. What Herodias wanted, Herodias got; and what was true of the mother was true of her daughter. What slick child abuse this is, to make her essentially the executioner of this heroic prophet.

The subplot, we know, is the Baptizer’s insistence that Herod has debased the institution of marriage by divorcing his first wife and marrying the wife of his own brother, Philip (who was still alive), and, to make matters dodgier, this new wife Herodias was Herod’s niece. Lest we think that it’s only governors and statesmen in our time who debase the institution of marriage… here is their prototype.

To call John the Baptist a heroic prophet is to understate his importance. It’s easy to get a cartoonish sense of the Baptizer as a sort of mountain man, an eccentric, one more 1st-century character straight from central casting.

But read the New Testament and find him paving the way for Jesus not just by his words and by that famous day at the Jordan River, but by being the leader of a major religious movement. Thousands went out from the cities to be baptized by him. When he is remembered to have said of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease,” this was not a smooth easy blending of popular preachers and their respective following. Every now and again we’re given a snapshot of moments when John’s disciples left him and placed their hope in Jesus. It would be Jesus’s followers who would control the telling of this story of one movement outshining another. John’s movement was a grassroots ethical awakening inspired, we think, by the Essene community of Dead Sea Scrolls fame. In Jesus’s movement, John would forever be esteemed.

I wonder if any dog-owner has ever named a dog “Herod.”

A highly-regarded king steps out of the 2nd Book of Samuel today, David, whose action-packed story we’ve been following this summer. Do you remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Here’s the ark, recovered from the Philistines, on its way to installation in Jerusalem, the city that would become David’s stronghold, Israel’s capital; and having the ark in his front yard was the ultimate legitimation of David as King.

This is no smooth moonwalk he’s doing. He’s gyrating, whirling, breakdancing, showing in his body ecstasy at standing so close to divine power, epitomizing in himself the dynamic rush of political power. And he’s not wearing much, just a linen loincloth. Judge for yourself from our window here how hot he was, that day.

David would go on to build for himself a palace of cedar in Jerusalem, and would make plans to build for the ark a grand shrine. But that never happened in his long reign, in part because God objected to going into real estate; and while David’s son Solomon would be credited with great wisdom and for building God a proper temple in Jerusalem, there’s enough evidence in religious circles today to conclude that it’s still a wise thing not to confuse God with the real estate of God’s many houses.

“The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it!” declares our psalm today. That’s what the ark of the covenant displayed, too, and its portability reinforced the message that God goes forth with God’s people. The processional hymn that day, while David danced his heart out, called on the gates of Jerusalem to lift up their heads “Lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in!” Here was evidence that would feed the faith of Israel forever: a powerful young king who can slay the Philistines and dance, too—and the sacred ark reminding everyone, “Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!”

But you and I know that words spoken by David over his predecessor Saul and over his beloved Jonathan—“How the mighty have fallen!”—would, not long from now, be said about the moral fall of David, falling in love with beautiful Bathsheba, someone else’s wife. Someone else, heroic Uriah the Hittite, whom David arranged to become a casualty of war, a war hero, so that David could have Bathsheba.

In the culture wars we are fighting within society and within the Church, much has been said about gay marriage threatening the institution of holy matrimony. Peculiarly religious wars are being fought over if and how the Bible speaks to this subject.

How do you hear the Bible speaking to this subject? Today we have two sharply etched stories that do not speak to this subject at all directly… but to my ear they clearly announce the danger that heterosexual marriage can threaten the institution of holy matrimony. And yet marriage persists, thank God. Yet it evolves—and we may not be sure whether to thank God.

Evolving also is the law regarding marriage. The first of six states to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts is now also the first to file a complaint against the U. S. government, claiming that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is discriminatory and unconstitutional because it excludes 16,000 same-sex couples (already married in MA) from critically important rights and protections based on marital status. Those rights and protections are more than a thousand in number, and include federal income tax credits, employment benefits, retirement benefits, health insurance coverage, Social Security payments, and Medicaid benefits.

In the words of this lawsuit, the Defense of Marriage Act "codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people."

The states of Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine offer clear evidence that this animus is dissipating, dramatically and rapidly. I am among those who rejoice at this. I will rejoice again if this lawsuit succeeds in ending the present separate-but-unequal marital status of gays and lesbians. And I will be ready to rejoice even more heartily when the Episcopal Church finds reason to bless same-sex marriages.

I recognize that any number of you may not share the enthusiasms I’m expressing, and I want to thank you for giving me a generous hearing today. What you are hearing is the substance of an e-mail message I sent to the Bishop of Alabama on Friday. He heads a theology committee of the House of Bishops that is considering the matter of same-sex relationships. I sent it also to our Bishop and our eight General Convention deputies, because I realize that this General Convention could decide to untie the hands of us who are clergy in those six states, so that we may extend some of those riches of Christ’s grace that our second lesson today celebrates as having been bestowed upon us in the Beloved.

I wrote to Bishop Parsley: “As your group reasons together theologically, I urge you to recognize that for many of this Church's members-- acutely so in these six states-- your consideration of social justice and the Church's calling to advance the civil rights of all people will be powerfully relevant to the communities we serve.

“As you consider how authority is exercised as the Church moves towards blessing same-sex marriages, will you recognize how rapidly our mission setting is opening in these several dioceses? Many of us yearn to be allowed to extend the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ to people who have long borne the animus of society and of the Church. In our settings now, it does not work to say that we can extend this unconditional love of God to gay people except through the sacramental act of holy matrimony.

“There will never be unanimity within our Church regarding how holy scripture is to be read on this subject. But our nation's history has taught us that however we read the Bible, we must not invoke that authority to impede or prevent the attaining of full civil rights by any minority of our people. I'm praying that the Bishops' theology group will be unafraid to see our Church respond to its mission as an American province, and that this General Convention will find a faithful way to allow the Church to help this nation achieve equality in marriage in those dioceses where gay marriage is legal.”

I imagine you never expected this sermon to wind up where it has. First there was Herod’s story, then there was David’s. And then there’s mine. What ties them together is Friday, a day when I spent much of the morning thinking and writing about gender and marriage, and much of the afternoon working with these readings.

I felt as if I’d been put in odd company with these men from thousands of years ago. Imagine how they might feel, hearing their marital histories mentioned in the same long breath as gay marriage.

I’m glad I live now. I’m glad I live in a democratic society, and in a church that does its evolving out in the open, as it is right now in General Convention in Anaheim. There we will see a church honoring the call of God as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: in Christ, God gathering up all things, to the praise of God’s glory.