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The Marriage Plot

San Williams

July 6, 2014
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

You English majors are familiar with what’s known in literature as “the marriage plot.” The marriage plot refers to the narrative arc in the novels of writers such as Jane Austin, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters.  In these Victorian era novels, the plot centers exclusively on the courtship rituals between a man and woman.  The couple would endure various obstacles, but eventually all would work out and the conflict would resolve in the couple’s marriage.

Well, the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis is a biblical version of the marriage plot.  The whole chapter is about the arranged marriage of Isaac and Rebecca.  So today’s scripture gives us the opportunity to reflect on the subject of marriage.  As we all know, in our society and in the church, the marriage plot has expanded, become more complicated and controversial.

To start, let’s review the marriage plot that is described in the 24th chapter of Genesis.  The plot begins to unfold when Abraham sends an unnamed servant on a mission to find a suitable young woman for Isaac.  The servant is sent to the house of Abraham’s kinsman, because in those days marriage between cousins was the preferred arrangement. The servant, however, hasn’t a clue how he’s going to succeed in his assignment.  When he arrives at the well of Abraham’s kinsman, he asks God for a sign.  After offering up a quick prayer, he decides that the first woman to appear at the well and agree to give him and his ten camels a drink will be the one.  When Rebecca shows up with her offer of a drink and water for his camels, the servant believes this is a match made in heaven.

Following this, the servant approaches Rebecca’s brother Laban to make arrangements.  Laban readily agrees to the proposed marriage, especially after he notices the gold jewelry, as well as the large herd of camels, that the servant gave Rebecca.  Clearly, Rebecca was marrying into a wealthy family.  Once all the arrangements had been made, Rebecca and the servant set off on  a long journey.  When Rebecca at last saw Isaac in the distance, the Hebrew very plainly says that Rebecca fell off the camel. She dusted herself off, readjusted her veil, and the plot resolved in a happy ending. Isaac declared his love for Rebecca, the two were married on the spot, and Rebecca comforted Isaac after the death of his mother.

Although God does not intervene in any obvious way in this domestic and slightly humorous tale, the underlying guidance and grace of God are assumed throughout.  The marriage of Isaac and Rebecca is portrayed as part of the larger drama of God’s  promise to bless all the families of the earth.

But now let’s jump forward.  The marriage plot continues to unfold today.  I can honestly tell you that it has been a prominent theme in my life and faith journey.  If I were asked how I have experienced God in my life, my answer would center on the loving relationship that Jan and I have enjoyed. Looking back on how Jan and I met, our unlikely courtship, our subsequent marriage—all of this for us  is wrapped in the mystery of God’s providence. How a lapsed Southern Baptist fell for a Presbyterian pastor is nothing short of miraculous.   When Jan and I were first married, her mother once said to me, “Jan will be an asset to you and in your work.”  That has turned out to be an enormous understatement!   The comfort and help that we have brought each other has been a blessing beyond explanation.

Yet we’re all well aware that many marriages don’t bring the hoped for blessing and comfort. Very often the marriage plot unravels, leaving a trail of broken promises and often bitterness and emotional pain. Statistics on marriages in the United States report that about half of marriages today end in separation and divorce.  Truly, marital relationships are complicated, and happy endings are never guaranteed.

Further, the definition of marriage today has broadened to embrace same sex couples. Already nineteen states have legalized same-sex marriage, and that number will likely grow.  As many of you know, the General Assembly of our Presbyterian denomination met last month, and the issue of marriage equality was before the Assembly. The matter was discussed, prayed over, and, in the end, two actions were passed by the Assembly.  In one, the Assembly offered what is called an Authoritative Interpretation.  In brief, the Authoritative Interpretation allows PCUSA pastors to exercise their conscience in performing same-sex marries in those states where it is legal.

In another action, the Assembly sent to the Presbyteries for ratification a change in the language in the Directory for Worship, to define marriage as “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and to support each other the rest of their lives.”  Note that the action concludes with this important qualification:  “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform, or compel a session to authorize, the use of property for a marriage service that they believe contrary to the Word of God.”

In other words, no pastor and no session is compelled to perform a marriage ceremony that violates their conscience or understanding of scripture. The General Assembly’s recent decisions provide for latitude without requiring compliance.

I know that in this congregation, as in most, not everyone agrees on this matter.  As your pastor, I understand and respect those whose conscience and interpretation of scripture tell them that marriage is only between a man and a woman. While I’m among those who favor the General Assembly’s action, UPC is a congregation where diversity of opinion is honored and respected.

But whatever your opinion regarding the definition of marriage, no one should make it a litmus test for Christian identity or church membership. After all, in our Protestant tradition, we’ve held that marriage is to be honored in the church, but not considered a sacrament.  John Calvin believed that marriage was a mostly secular matter, appropriately regulated under the authority of the state.  Marriage, he wrote, is an earthly thing like “agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving.”  (I don’t actually understand the analogy to shaving).  But in any case, Calvin reminded us that marriage is a subplot of the Christian life, and not the main theme.

Friends, in truth the marriage plot has evolved, changed, and taken different forms from biblical days to the present time.   Today the potential for an intimate, faithful relationship is being expanded to include same-sex couples. Let our prayer be that all Christian marriages may flourish as an expression of God’s faithfulness, and that the marriage relationship, however constituted, may show forth the love and justice of Jesus Christ.