26 January 2021

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Sermon - 5 June 2005
Bible Verses: 1 Corinthians 13 & John 2: 2 - 11
(click the verses above to read the passages online)

Marriage - From Contract to Promise

June 5 , 2005 !05 Years of weddings

Marriage is one of those things we take for granted like family. Not everyone is married, not everyone wants to be married, some people prefer to stay single, they can live out their calling more effectvely, some have had disasters in relationships, some have been deeply hurt some have not had the opportunity to marry and wanted to, and the word marriage can raise all sorts of conflicts. But over the last 150 years there have been many weddings in this parish, probably for many reasons. And today we pause to remember that and to ask for today why do the old dresses get reused and the veils still get worn, where do church and State meet in marriage?

It’s a deceptively simple question, like what is marriage for that touches our understanding about ourselves. We find we are asking deep questions about what it means to be fully human. The debates we heard in Parliament about the civil union bill raised some of these questions for people and I found politicians to be extremely naive and ill informed. They demonstrated an assumption that every one thought the same about what marriage is.
Listen to the news this week

The world’s longest married couple - 80 years married - met in church he was singing in the choir, she was a Sunday school teacher. Of course Percy and Florence Arrowsmith first both had to live long enough – he is 105 and she 100, But it is apparently a successful marriage.
I liked the realism of Florence –“ Its not been easy but worth every minute because he’s the love of my life. We don’t argue much these days, only when I want to watch the soaps on TV which he hates. Its all about hard work. We have had our arguments but work through them together. We always go to bed as friends”.
His answer – “it is down to two words: “Yes dear.””

The same week we are told about a remote village in India where children, girls as young as six even babies are being married and having their childhood taken from them.

And a few weeks ago we saw Prince Charles’ wedding. The old precautions ensuring the succession for the chief of a clan and the effects of a suitable marriage for the tribe start to look rather ridiculous in an age where the role of the monarchy has little direct influence on the affairs of the nation. The confusion of church and state being linked , not a situation in secular New Zealand – [we have never had a state church]. impacting on the personal lives of two people in a way that is part of the 15th century, was strange and irrelevant to secular New Zealand.

Many have been suprised to find that what they have taken for granted and understood as marriage is not set in concrete. – that marriage has always had a fluid definition, and not just across cultures.

Marriage in New Zealand has always been a civil occasion. Ministers act as agents of the State in the declaration of marriage.
The marriage Act changes relatively frequently to meet changing situations. A few years ago the exchange of vows and signing of the register had to be between certain hours, not during darkness and the doors had to be open. The public nature of marriage was being preserved so any could witness it. Now the doors can be closed and we can have an evening wedding. Finally the old fears that a bride could be kidnapped by the groom and secretly forced to marry, enabling transfer of property and assets had not happened for a number of centuries I guess, if ever in modern New Zealand. Witnesses and the need to obtain a licence is all that is needed for public declaration before the wedding.

The Marriage act requires only that each says “ I take Henry as my husband and I take Mary as my wife. And that is witnessed and the contract is made which implies all the legal responsibilities involved in two people marrying.

The content is supplied by the world views, beliefs and customs of those who are being married.and the society we live in. but the simple marriage statement still has within it two important beliefs about marriage.. One is that each party freely consent. One cannot force the other. This is a biblical concept, and certainly contained in Christian understanding of the worth and respect with which each person is regarded, a leap from women being considered as chattels to be passed over. A chattel does not have to consent.
The Indian village situation would totally be rejected by our understanding that for a marriage, consent must be given – informed consent, which renders that of a six year old invalid.

The other in our law is that you can only marry one person at a time.

So what have we been doing and saying over the last 150 years in this parish and in the churches of this land when Minister, vicars and priests have been acting as agents of the State and marrying people in a Christian ritual.

It is not a matter turning to the Bible and looking up marriage.
If we do that we will find a huge diversity of what constituted marriage. The many wives of the wandering nomads, and concubines required to go forth and multiply in a time of low populations is hardly what we would call responsible living on today’s crowded planet. Polygamy would be frowned on both in law and in the church. The veil which hid Leah from Jacob as he married her after doing 7 years hard labour for Rachel is also hardly our guide. The number of wives of King Solomon and his successors was not approved by the people of the time.
However weddings were times of celebration, or promise of new life and maybe new alliances,
The songs of Solomon celebrate human sexuality. Jesus told many stories of wedding feasts and heaven is often shown as a great wedding feast where the whole village is invited, and there is plenty of food , music laughter and joy.. If anything is to be taken from the Bible is that we celebrate a wedding. It is a time when humans enjoy each others company and the circle of family and friends gets wider. Weddings should connect people. And they do, across cultures , nations, customs, languages. You cannot say today who may end up being a relative.
In past times nations have used marriage laws to control this dangerous tendency of people to love across the barriers and in the United States until relatively recently there were laws preventing cross racial marriages. Praise be to those in the church who married people who loved one another regardless of their race, for church marriage must reflect God’s grace and love which breaks barriers not makes them.

Until the emergence of the nation-states in Europe, most marriages were conducted under one or another religious regime. So a 13th-century Catholic couple would be married in the eyes of the Catholic church, while their Jewish neighbours would be married under Jewish law. Their marriages would be governed by the separate laws also. So you have Jews allowing divorce and Christians forbidding it; Jews allowing an uncle and niece to marry, while Christians forbade you to marry your godmother’s third cousin. all based on bible teachings, and interestingly assuming that the barriers would not be crossed.

Civil marriage came about when the nation states emerged and said, “We are going to have a separate set of laws and no longer destroy societies in terrible, bloody ways over religion.”
Intrinisically tied up with this was the parting of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in the 1500’s and Martin Luther gave marriage to the civil authorities , freeing people from the church holding power over all parts people’s lives .
"I advise in every thing that ministers interfere not in matrimonial questions," he thundered, "... because these affairs concern not the Church, but are temporal things. ...Therefore, we will leave them to the lawyers and magistrates."
Many people of course did not marry formally that was left to those who had property to protect.

Marriage is not a sacrament in the Protestant church. It is a celebration of love and an opportunity to bring God’s blessing and thank God for the gift of love to the couple for one another
and for those present to thank God for the gift of the couple as part of society.
What is marriage for? Well even there the different denominations in NZ differ. Presbyterians have stated for many years the first reason for marriage is for companionship of a man and women, second is to have children and bring them up in a family.
Catholics and Anglicans say no the first purpose of marriage is to have children and the second to have companionship.
People do what they need to in their own circumstances.

A Christian marriage service encourages people to live out their relationships as part of Christian living . We ask for God’s blessing on all who are there and on the couple who are about to launch out on their journey.
At the centre of a Christian marriage service are the vows. These are not a contract but promises. No matter what promises. made between equals.
We know how frail we are at keeping promises so we ask God’s help to keep our promises.
We also ask that the couple be part of the community, they live in and be able to serve it. The friends and relatives who are there are not just spectators, they are part of the powerful marriage ritual that brings friends and families into [the newlyweds’] hearts so they are not alone in their partnership.
Above all, we do what the church does best. We celebrate love, Not romantic love which drifts and has not attachments but the grunty love. which reflects the love God has for each of us and for the world. The love which is shown in Jesus life, death and resurrection.

Its not surprising 1 Corinthians 13, written to the squabbling community of Corinth, is chosen for so many weddings.
You want a standard for Love – look at what God’s love is like .
Love which stays the distance, which has the ability to forgive, which hopes, which is willing to go through the good and the bad times. Love which is faithful.and can trust the other. Love which has the courage to say I promise no matter what. Love which is lasting because its source is God’s lasting love.

God’s love is not bound by time and space, but marriage ends upon the death of a partner, however love does not end.
Love risks, when we love we are vulnerable, it hurts when relationships go wrong and marriages end, or trust is broken. But God’s love is a costly love which does not let go of us through pain or disaster and promises that even at dead ends new life will come.

We can give thanks for God’s gift of love and today we specially give thanks for those who have had the gift of good and loving marriages The love of God is for all of us, and there are gifts to discover and new life to live as we follow the one who commanded us to love one another, whether in marriage, or in friendship or dealing with the person we find difficult down the street.
Thanks be to God.

[ we then had the wedding vows for those who wanted to remember and reaffirm them.]

Rev. Margaret Anne Low


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