To Bless

10/5/03
Mk. 10:2-9
Pent. 17

Today’s Gospel reading from St. Mark is about marriage and divorce. The Pharisees put Jesus on the spot, trying to get him to commit himself to one position or an other of the rabbinic schools. Herod has just beheaded John the Baptist for speaking out about divorce, hence the atmosphere is loaded. It seems to me that what Jesus is saying is that just as the relationship between God and man is more fundamental and profound than the Law, so too the relationship in marriage between spouses is more fundamental and profound than the law. Having said this I want to talk about marriage. To talk about marriage is, as Jesus well knew, to walk through a minefield. People are divorced, single, living in various forms of relationships, or have been married so long that they couldn’t care less what someone else thinks. I have been married 43 years to the same woman. I have done 60 weddings since coming to St. John’s, 60 pre-marital sessions (of five meetings a piece) and have a divorce ratio of 6% over against a national average of 50%. Still, I don’t know diddley, but I do have some observations.

Many of you remember my Irish mother-in-law, Mary, aka Gladys, who died two years ago. Gladys was the joy of my life, and the Queen of malapropisms. One evening twenty-five years ago, she was sitting at one end of living room and my father-in-law Paul, aka Charlie, was at the other end. Charlie was reading the Wall Street Journal and Hartford Courant. Gladys was reading The National Enquirer, The Star and The Globe. Gladys was snorting, tsk tsking and muttering. Finally Charlie said, “Gladys, what is the matter?” “It is all these sex scandals,” she replied. “People are running off together, chasing each other and there is all this sex stuff. How did it all happen?” Charlie waited a moment and then said, “Well I guess it all started with Adam and Eve.” Without missing a beat, Gladys shot back, “That¹s what they got for eating that old banana! Why couldn’t they have done something worth while, like gardening?”

Now good old Gladys was the product of Catholic parochial schools, and she had heard the Genesis passage, which we read today. She got the gist of most of it, but somehow modernized it by throwing in evolution and the Protestant Puritan work ethic.

Now my point is that marriage is a lot of things, but it is more than simply procreation and it is more than dutiful hard work. Both are part of marriage, but neither catches the essence of marriage, which is more fundamental and profound.

Sometime ago I was at a wedding in which the bride and groom wrote their own marriage vows. They are fine, handsome, well-educated and very smart young adults. I was caught aback by their marriage vows. Each vowed to help the other become the best person he/she could possibly be. Each celebrated his/her individuality and vowed to maintain and enhance it as well as the other’s own individuality. To maintain a sense of identity and a sense of self-hood is a good thing. But pushed too far there is the risk of encouraging narcissism and egotism, both of which are poison in a marriage.

Now I enjoy my solitude. I have a pretty good sense of who I am, and my wife, Faye, has a pretty good sense who she is. If the truth be told, there is a point at which without my wife I am incomplete. It is as though part of me is gone ­ a foot or a hand, or part of my heart or my brain. Just as marriage is not just about procreation or work, so it is not about celebrating our individual uniqueness. It is not about pursuing our individual self-actualization ­ being “the real me.”

Let me illustrate this point. In nineteen sixty-one my wife, Faye, and I were living in Evanston, Illinois. Faye was teaching at New Trier High School and I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. There was another couple in our apartment building, John and Marsha. John was a medical intern at one of the Chicago hospitals, and Marsha was an outstanding English teacher at New Trier. (She had been sited in Time as one of the ten best secondary teachers in the country.) Now it was Christmas vacation and Faye and I were packing to drive home to Connecticut. There was a knock on our door. Faye opened it and Marsha asked to come in. She was in tears, for she and John had had a huge fight. I headed for my study, but Marsha asked me to stay and to listen to her plight. It seems that John’s break between internships coincided with her Christmas vacation. He wanted to go skiing in Colorado. She wanted to stay and attend concerts and tour museums. John announced that he was going skiing, period. He needed to get away and to get some physical exercise, plus he loved to ski. He wanted her to go with him, but if she didn”t want to come, then he was going alone. Marsha pointed out that John was being bull headed, selfish, inconsiderate, small minded, a chauvinist, a boor, bully and Neanderthal. How could she possibly live with and stay married to someone so selfish? Marsha looked at me and said, “You went to seminary and took marital counseling, what should I do?” Well, this was beginning of the roar of feminism, and I had just finished reading Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique. I thought of Jesus and the Pharisees and figured that He had it easy. Jesus didn’t have to answer a question about marriage while living with a feminist wife, as did I.

I thought a few minutes and said, “Go skiing.” Smoke poured out of Faye¹s ears, fire shot out of her eyes, and she went into the kitchen and poured herself a strong drink (coffee). “Hear me out,” I said. “Let’s start with the premise that you and John got married because you love each other. So far as I know you both still love each other. You knew at the time you got married that John loved to ski. John wants you to come with him while he does something that he loves. Because he loves you, he wants you to have the same kind of enjoyment that he has. He wants you to participate in something that he absolutely loves. You don’t want to go. He can go alone, but he will meet some snow bunnies in the après le ski lodge, who may or may not also like to ski. That is not a good reason for going. It is just a fact. John will probably be faithful. But that is not the point. John wants you, not a snow bunny, to share his enjoyment. Go and allow him to help you learn to ski and be with him while he does what he loves. Don’t sit around sucking your thumb. Join in and be a part of what he does as best you can. Go with him to be with him while he does something he thoroughly enjoys. In time, it is my guess, he will start to go to concerts and museums with you. He will do that not because he is paying back a bargain, but because he will want to be with you.”

You see, marriage is not about negotiation, bartering, wining or losing. Marriage is not about compromise (although sometimes all those things happen.) Marriage is about affirming one another. It is about embracing who someone is and what they love and saying, “you are good, what you do is good, and I’m proud of you. Don’t stand aside and judge or criticize or be disdainful. Marriage is about affirmation. Go along with John and enjoy his having a good time. Do what you can to have a good time, too. Someday he will be glad to go to the museums and concerts with you, because he will want to be with you, affirming who you are.”

Marsha sniffed and left. Faye looked at me. “I blew it, didn’t I?” I asked. “I¹m not saying a thing.” Faye replied. We left and went on our vacation. Ten days after we got back, I asked Faye if Marsha had gone skiing with John. “Yes,” Faye said. “I’ll be darned,” I replied. “She probably had already decided to go,” my wife answered. We lost touch with John and Marsha, but about ten years ago we got a Christmas card from them out of the blue. They were living in Colorado. There was enclosed a picture of John and Marsha with their two eighteen and twenty-year old daughters on the ski slopes. On the back of the card Marsha wrote, “Here we are on the slopes. John is the chairman of the board of the Colorado Symphony orchestra and president of the local museum.” “I’ll be darned,” I said. “I was right.” “You just never know,” replied Faye, quoting one of her mother’s favorite non sequiters.

Years ago I learned from our rector that to affirm is to bless. When we bless someone, we are affirming him/her. In marriage we bless one another. Marriage is more than procreation, work or self-actualization. It is more than the law, more than keeping this rule or that, this bargain or that. It is more fundamental and profound. It is about affirming, or blessing. In Jesus Christ, God has shown us that He affirms who we are. He affirms that which He has created. The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which Jesus gave us, is an act of affirmation and blessing. To live in proper relationship with God is to allow Him to bless us, and to bless Him. The proper relationship between persons in marriage is that of affirmation and blessing. Come to think of it, on the most fundamental and profound level, isn’t that the proper relationship between each one of us, to affirm and to bless one another? After all, didn’t Jesus say that the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love one another? ­ Amen