Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Is Marriage Dead?

I was never a big fan of HBO's Sex in the City. For starters, I didn't have HBO, so I wasn't introduced to Carrie Bradshaw and her friends until the series was shown in syndication. There was a time, however, when SitC was on television even more than Seinfeld, which is to say that one had a tough time not watching these four women explore the ins and outs of sexual relationships. I did enjoy the episodes I watched, and it must be a credit to the writing in the series that I continue to cite the wisdom of that show in my writing and preaching.

I remember the episode in which Carrie Bradshaw was asked to take off her Manolo Blahniks when she went over to visit a friend. One does not normally deposit one's $500+ shoes in a NYC apartment hallway, but, despite Carrie's objections, that was the demand of the apartment tenant. Of course, the shoes go missing and, when asked to pay for the shoes, the friend refuses, citing Carrie's lavish lifestyle. I don't recall the exact exchange, but the argument included something about people being single not having the same financial obligations as married people--especially those with children--and that Carrie would need to take care of her own shoe habit if that was her priority. The episode explores the validity of being single--of not ever marrying. To get her shoes back, Carrie plans a ceremony to celebrate her singleness, completes a not-wedding registry that includes one--and only one--item, and invites her friend. There's something clever about getting the reluctant friend to spend a good deal of money on shoes and also making her embrace the fully acceptable, fully complete, fully satisfied life of a single woman.

Leaving the sex out of it for the moment, I'm curious whether the biblical images of hope and fulfillment that are tied to marriage are outdated. On Sunday, we will read from Isaiah 62, in which the prophet declares, "For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." No matter how post-marriage our society has become, we still recognize those as words of hope and promise. For God to declare that he has betrothed himself to his people is a blessing. You don't need to buy into the fairy tale of white dresses for every girl in order to see that hope. But I wonder whether the power of that image is fading.

The only reason that episode of SitC was interesting is because we live in a culture that has begun to let go of the priority of marriage. In ancient times, marriage was more than a normalized sexual relationship. It was a source of security. Yes, the history/anthropology of marriage is tied up in questions of inheritance and property, but it was more than that. For a father of daughters, marriage was a hope for your children's lifelong safety. For men and women, marriage and the children who came from it were a retirement savings plan. When God promises to receive his people as his bride, it is God's ultimate expression of approval. It is the prophet's way of communicating a limitless, unbreakable love that God has for Israel. It is an invitation to a deep and abiding hope. Would we still use the image of marriage to convey that hope?

I ask not because I think that the words of the prophet Isaiah are outdated but because I think that the setting for the miracle in John 2 gets overlooked. It is no accident that, as we declare in the opening words of the marriage rite, Jesus "adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee." But the writer of the fourth gospel account locates the story of Jesus' first sign at a wedding feast for reasons more important than to give the wedding officiant a poetic introduction. Jesus wasn't just saying that marriage is a jolly good thing. He was declaring that the image of the divine-human marriage covenant, which fills the texts of Hebrew scripture, was coming to fruit in his own ministry. This is the time. This, as the water is turned into wine, is the vehicle through which God is declaring to his people that the wedding banquet, which Israel has awaited for centuries, is now upon us.

Don't preach the miracle at the wedding in Cana as a miracle of transformation. Yes, water into wine is pretty impressive, but that's not the point. And don't preach this sign as an expression of abundance. That's closer to the heart of the passage, but it still only scratches the surface. The miracle at the wedding is about a wedding. It's about God declaring to his people that they are his forever. Jesus is God's way of saying that he is ready to complete the long-awaited union. Marriage isn't the same to us in the 21st century as it was to the authors of the Old Testament books or even the gospel accounts. But the image of a union that will not be broken still rings true. Don't miss it this Sunday.

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