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Mar 23 2017

What God Joins Together

“So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
–Matthew 19:6

The familiar words “What God has joined together” are often invoked at weddings. What do they mean? In a covenant relationship, freedom is essential. Freedom is indispensable to the truth of love. Partners in a covenant do not surrender their freedom; yet, we are joined.

In The Order for Marriage in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship, the partners are offered an invitation: “Before God and this congregation, I ask you now to affirm your willingness to enter into this covenant of marriage and to share all of the joys and sorrows of this new relationship, whatever the future may hold.” Each person speaks for themselves. Later, when the time comes to make their vows to each other, the pastor begins: “By your covenant promises shared with us, unite yourselves in marriage and be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Unite yourselves. There is recognition that it is we who are each taking this step; that this is an act of freedom, a profound choice. By invoking the name of God, and locating our reverence for one another and what we have together in Christ, we are recognizing our Lord as the third partner in our relationship and expecting his participation. This is wonderfully radical stuff!

It should be noted that in Matthew 19, when Jesus references the biblical poetry of Genesis about two people “becoming one flesh”, he is responding to a question asking him to justify the practice of dismissing a marital partner. Instead, Jesus points to what fulfills a partnership, rather than focusing on what would separate us. In the New Testament Greek, the word for “flesh”, sarx, is a reference to something that is alive. Our relationships are living things to be nourished and nurtured from their infancy into fulfillment.

So if indeed we “unite ourselves” as partners, what is it that “God joins together”? How is God’s communion with us, and God’s fidelity to us, manifested in the midst of our relational freedom?

  1. First, we recognize that it is the faithfulness of God’s love for us that is the foundation from which our own partnerships might grow and flourish. God makes sure we are never without resource!
  2. God gifts us with the continuing opportunity to acknowledge and more fully receive the deep humanity of our partner. This can and will unfold over time, promising that even in partnerships that last decades, the gift can be ever-new. The more we behold and welcome one another in love, the more we explore our “joining” with God! I often tell couples preparing for marriage that, given the dynamic nature of our lives, they may very easily have met someone else and been planning a future with that person. But I remind them that they can never have with someone else what they can have with one another. Their unique relationship is a divine gift, one with a rich creative mix full of wonder and possibility. “Always treat your relationship as a gift”, I tell them.
  3. God’s forgiveness is made real in our love for one another. There is freedom for each partner to grow and to have that growth encouraged and appreciated by their mate. When we encounter challenges and disagreements, God’s transforming power claims them as a necessary part of intimacy and allows those very same events to open paths to new discoveries of “two becoming one”.
  4. Since God’s faithful and inclusive love is the foundation for any covenant where God is a partner, Jesus’ teaching has particular meaning for couples who have been historically excluded from dominant marriage practices and culturally marginalized in the past. There is, and has always been, welcome, affirmation, and promise for LGBTQ couples committing themselves to each other in God’s realm! I rejoice in that.
  5. We all come from families of origin. Our experiences in those families have a powerful impact on our new relationship, often shaping our expectations and assumptions. The words that Jesus claims from Genesis remind us that our mates need not labor under idealized roles we have for them or unfinished business we bring with us from our previous households. A Prayer of Thanksgiving in our UCC Order offers grateful and appropriate expression to God: “We thank you for all who have gone before us. We thank you for our own parents, and for all, whether married or single, who are mother and father to us, and for countless parents whose names we do not know. We thank you as we grow to fullness of stature in Christ.” Yes, we have already been blessed with wisdom from our elders. But we are to grow, together, beyond where we have been before. Thus, couples who claim “God’s joining” must be committed to “getting help” when they are struggling. It is a matter of love for God and for each other.
  6. “God intends for us to live together, to love, to be just and fair, to treat each other as equals, to be accountable for what we do, whether we fulfill those purposes or not.[1] We are constantly part of a whole, as are our unions. From the beginning, we belong to each other.* We are part of one another, not just as marital partners, but as community members, children of God, recipients of God’s grace, residents of the earth. This is true in all our beauty and frailty. The yearnings, pains, visions, and loves of our mates are not ours to dismiss. We are not called to be faithful to an ideal; we are called to be faithful to one another, and to God.

In our “Building a Stronger St. Andrew’s” consultation with Carol Howard Merritt, our leaders have identified strengthening of marriages and primary relationships as one goal in our ministry. Offering enrichment workshops and resources for couples is something we will be working on.

I hope this E-pistle might stimulate many of us to consider the well-being of our own “gifts,” and of the relationships that await fulfillment in our futures. And to give thanks. I would also like to write about tending to broken relationships and the new life that God promises to us.

Peace!
Scott

* More than a decade ago, in one of our Confirmation Classes, we were reading the poetry from Genesis 2:18-24, that Jesus references when talking about marriage. We considered the story of the first human partner being drawn from the rib of the other, and the joyful recognition of “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”. What did we think that meant? One of the young men (today married for several years) responded, “It means that we belong to each other.” Amen! And we recognized that this teaching was not only for couples in marriage, but for all people in covenant relationships — including those in church congregations. We belong to each other.

[1] Loder, Ted. (2002). The Haunt of Grace: Responses to the Mystery of God’s Presence. Innisfree Press: Philadelphia.

Pastor Scott’s Archived E-pistles