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January 22, 2012 | 8:00 a.m.
One God, One Faith, Many Responsibilities
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
1 Corinthians 7:25–31
“Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”
1 Corinthians 7:25 (NRSV)
Each one who will partake of this meal
is a particular someone You love, a someone
You have made and whom You sustain.
In You nothing and no one is forgotten.
How vast and providential is the memory
with which You keep us all.
“Setting the Table”
Being Home: Discovering the Spiritual in the Everyday
I have never forgotten the sermon preached at my friend’s wedding. In it, the preacher spoke about marriage as that proverbial ball and chain, and she drew out the irony that couples voluntarily enter into it. Providing example after example of scenes from married life, she underscored the reality that marriage, by tying you to another person, actually ties you down. She went on to point out yet a further irony: that while so many people complain about their families and spend much of their lives coming to terms with the fact that they are stuck with the families into which they were born, many of them nevertheless make the decision to get married, and by doing so, they actually choose, for better or worse, to become family.
It is true that family ties you down. Whether you were born, adopted, or married into it, the family you’re in requires loyalty, time, and attention, which arguably could be devoted to other things, and it entails taking on responsibilities and duties, enough to drive you to distraction. There has always been and probably always will be a strain between wholehearted and single-minded devotion to God and the multiplicity of familial responsibilities that clamor for our attention.
It is not surprising then that no religious tradition has been able to escape the tension between family and religious life. Judaism in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe dealt with the tension by separating spheres of activity, reserving religious study for men and designating care of family for women. Hinduism regulated the problem in a chronological way, dividing the cycle of life into four stages. Each stage was devoted to a different concern, one stage for “householding” and child-rearing. In the seventeenth century, American Puritans sanctioned the home as a “little church” in which fathers were not only placed at the head of the family, but were elevated nearer to God than others (Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, In the Midst of Chaos, p. 11). Though Christian families today hardly resemble Puritan families of the seventeenth century, the effort to live lives faithful to God while meeting the multiple demands put upon us by our families is no less strenuous and is all the more experimental. Each household has to figure things out as best it can, and the church needs to be careful whenever it feels inclined to take positions on the issue.
I was glad and quite relieved, when I read today’s scripture lesson assigned by the lectionary, that Paul, in addressing the issue of whether or not people should remain single, get married, remain married, or become single, takes care to qualify his remarks with the important recognition that at best his remarks are his opinion. They are not more than his best advice. They are not God-given, and thus they are not to be applied as rules or laws for the church.
Let’s review what Paul says: “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” Paul spells it out: if you’re already married, remain married; if you are not currently married, stay as you are; if you want to get married, then get married. None of these decisions is off limits, because none is sinful. But then Paul goes on to say that though none is sinful, it is better to be single than to be married.
The reason he gives is twofold. First, we’re running out of time; Christ will be returning soon, definitely in this generation, and with his return, the world as we know it will end. Second, and this is based on the first reason, since the world in its present order is about to end, why put yourself through such a drastic life change, especially one that will require your preoccupation with something other than God.
Paul is engaging here in moral reasoning. With no command from God, he is putting to use what he considers to be the best of human wisdom. He draws from not only his Jewish background, but also the Greek thought current in his day. From Judaism, Paul has inherited an expectation of the end of time, with its accompanying crisis, trials, and tribulations. From Greek Stoic thought, he has appropriated an outlook that regards complete freedom to serve God as higher than and incompatible with worldly distractions. For Paul and the Stoics, it’s not simply marriage but other things as well that can keep a person from single-minded service and wholehearted devotion to the Lord. Given that the world will end soon, he says, “From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
One’s possessions and wealth, the economy, politics, the future, the well-being of family members—all these and anything else that can change no matter our attachment, our effort, our worry or concern—these should be approached as though ultimately they do not matter, because, Paul is convinced, the present form of this world is passing away.
Of course, we know now, almost two thousand years later, that Paul’s forecast of an impending end was wrong. Even in the course of his own lifetime, Paul seems to have recognized the error of his expectation. That, when it came to issues of marriage and family, Paul’s moral reasoning was as open-ended as it was is, I find, truly remarkable. When else have those predictors of the end of the world refrained from making absolutist moral exhortations?
The Corinthians must also have found it remarkable that Paul, in addressing this issue, did not draw lines in the sand, especially because there were in the early church many couples in which one partner was Christian and the other was not. So at stake in the question they posed to Paul—should they be married or should they be single—was an urgent concern over salvation, their own and that of those whom they love. Those betrothed, but not yet married, must have worried: if I marry this person who is not baptized in Christ, what will happen to him or her and what will happen to me and my household on the day of judgment? Christians who were already married to nonconverts would have similarly worried and wondered: Should I get a divorce? Does my marriage to this nonconvert jeopardize my salvation? Therefore, at stake in the question of marriage and singleness was not just a concern that marriage would jeopardize one’s devotion to God, but moreover a concern that marriage would jeopardize one’s salvation.
In her spiritual memoirs, Sister Joan Chittister, theologian, activist, world-renowned lecturer, and Benedictine nun, shares stories of experiences that profoundly formed her lifelong spiritual quest. Two childhood stories, or more accurately, two childhood relationships about which she writes, stand out in particular. Her memoirs begin with a self-description of her childhood:
I was an Irish Catholic child of a Roman Catholic mother and a Presbyterian stepfather. A “mixed marriage,” they called it euphemistically. What they meant was that we were right and he was wrong. We had the truth, and he did not. We had faith, and he did not. We would go to heaven. He? Well, heaven, for him—for them, for Protestants, I had come to understand—was at best uncertain. Sad, I knew, but true, nevertheless. Except that down deep in me, even then, the justice of that statement went begging.
The problem revolved around the fact that my stepfather was a good man. He was honest and hardworking and unpretentious. He’d even earned a Bible for perfect attendance at Sunday school. Who was this God, then, who would burn the good and the believing like him because, though they kept the same rules, they kept them differently? I forced the question down deep inside me. It could not be spoken out loud. Its answer was not to be quibbled with. But the question stayed with me all my life. That question and many another like it. (Called to Question, pp. 11–12)
A similar question would take root in her childhood, when her Uncle Lou married a Protestant girl and stopped going to church, having accepted the knowledge that he would be lost forever. He and her Aunt Bertie remained together for almost fifty years, loving each other and loved by the whole family. “It was hard to consider him damned,” she writes (Called to Question, p. 39).
These family members—her mother and stepfather, her uncle and aunt—so dear to her, were rejected by the church. As she grew older, her commitment to serve God grew stronger, and her faithful loyalty to family members did not diminish. Into adulthood she held onto her childhood sensibility that something in this situation was not right, did not make sense as it was, couldn’t be the full truth. Bothered by these and other discrepancies in both a subconscious and conscious way, Sister Chittister writes that it took half a lifetime for her to realize that she could give voice to the inconsistencies and that “God was ours for the asking” (Called to Question, p. 40).
On one Sunday of each month, Rabbi David Levinsky from Chicago Sinai, our neighboring Jewish congregation, and I co-lead a program series on interfaith homes and families. In these sessions, approximately thirty people—mostly young couples who are engaged to be married, some who are already married and have young children, and some who are grandparents—gather to discuss topics and questions that arise whenever interreligious families are formed, questions like “How do you deal with the in-laws?” “What are we going to do this December?” “Will we teach our children Christian values, Jewish values, or human values?” and “Baptism or circumcision?” No matter the specific topic, the discussion always revolves around the same age-old issue between religion and family that every world religion has attempted to address: how do we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to our faith while also meeting our many responsibilities and being faithful to our family, especially when family now consists of persons who practice a religion different from our own?
Rabbi Levinsky and I begin each session with the same qualifying reminder that we can offer only our best opinions, informed and shaped by our respective religious traditions, but certainly not rules to be applied to every household. Each interfaith family has to determine for itself its best course. In the midst of the hopefulness with which these participants ultimately seek an interfaith solution are also moments of skepticism. Can it really be that there are no indisputable divinely given rules to be laid down and enforced by the church?
Perhaps the Corinthians too received Paul’s advice with some skepticism, for wouldn’t they have anticipated and even hoped for a more definitive answer from Paul, given their need to prepare for the imminent return of Christ to judge the world? And yet rather than giving them rules to follow, he gives them an opinion to consider.
The fact that the world didn’t end as Paul had expected does not render Paul’s moral reasoning obsolete. Though Paul and the church had to dismiss his false expectation, they continued to hold onto the profound conviction that lay under it: that the world as we know it is drastically different from the world as God will redeem it. The old will pass away, and the new will come.
When people from different religions want to become family, to extend their loyalties to one another, religious rules that draw lines in the sand cannot be the ground for hope. The only real source for hope is God’s promise of a new creation—a new order in which anything that did not make sense before will make sense now; in which room is made for our loved ones who were left out before; in which all our many loyalties and responsibilities are held together, not strained apart, by our faith. The world as God redeems it, family by family, loyalty by loyalty, relationship by relationship, will be far greater than we can ever imagine it to be so, that all the people we love and to whom we are loyal, all that grieves us and all that brings us joy, all our many responsibilities will be put into a new order, a new constellation. Glory be to God. Amen.