Relationship Status

(*Originally preached at the New Dawn service of Sunrise Church on Sullivan’s Island on November 10, 2019.*)

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’


I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook. It drives me nuts and I kind of think it’s terrible with its relentless algorithms and performativity and the way it simultaneously makes it easier to be terrible to people we disagree with and to only engage with people who confirm our own biases. But I do think it has some redeeming qualities, and chief among them is its ability to connect us with one another across vast distances. I’m pretty sure Ross and Julie are worshipping with us today from Canada, thanks to Facebook.

One of my very favorite instances of distant digital connection is a Facebook group I’m in for single young clergy women. It’s a subgroup of a larger organization called Young Clergywomen International, which connects female ministers under 40 around the globe. Those of us in the single young clergywomen subgroup come together to share the struggles and triumphs of singlehood as a female minister. It can be hard. You can be on a great date and the second you mention what you do for a living the other person gets worried about saying a cuss word, or wonders if you’re even allowed to date, or starts ranting about all their issues with the church. 

Or you can be perfectly happy living as a single woman, not interested in dating at all, and well-meaning church members will constantly ask you when you’re going to find a good man or try to set you up with their grandsons. It can be a whole thing. So we talk to each other and commiserate and enjoy being part of a community who gets it. You don’t have to leave the group unless you age out or get engaged, and when that happens we celebrate together even as we say farewell.

This past week, one of my friends from that group posted about today’s lectionary scripture and joked about how it’s really making the point that in the end, singlehood wins out. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

See?

We all laughed at the idea, and then moved on to whatever we were really going to preach about because, of course, this passage isn’t really so much relationship status as it is about resurrection, right?

Except, midway through this week, the British version of Vogue magazine published a long interview with actress Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, that discusses, among other things, how she feels about her upcoming 30th birthday. Emma shares that she has struggled some with the idea because there’s so much pressure as a woman to be married and have a baby by the time you turn 30, but she says she’s okay now because she’s come to a place of really enjoying being single or, as she prefers to think of it, being “self-partnered.”

Unsurprisingly, people quickly latched on to the admittedly awkward phrasing of “self-partnered.” But there was something else. Within hours of the interview’s publication, hundreds of comments in response had been racked up on Twitter and nearly all of them joked about how it was obvious that she was just covering for the insecurity and shame she really feels about not being married, because how could you not be insecure and ashamed about such a thing.

And that’s when I knew I was going to talk about singlehood and our idolatry of marriage in this sermon after all.

When you don’t have a dedicated person or people in your life to pick you up after surgery, sit beside you in grief, celebrate holidays and anniversaries with, you have to reach out. You have to be vulnerable, you have to think expansively, you have to love wide and trust big. The world tells you, you don’t have a family. So you make your own kin.

Because it’s true that Jesus is talking about the Resurrection in this passage but he’s also saying something about God’s intentions for the world made perfect, a new creation. And that should impact how we understand our calling to live out our faith today. If it’s important in the world to come, then it’s important to us now. 

Let me be clear: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with marriage. I’m a total sucker for weddings. I love them. Officiating them is one of my greatest joys in ministry. I hope to be married one day. I love love. It’s a beautiful and powerful commitment to share life with someone else. It’s a chance to live out covenant with one another in a way that reflects God’s covenant with us. And, as I told two of my best friends when I officiated their wedding earlier this year: Choosing covenant, choosing to believe in the power of love, and difficult but beautiful partnership, of messy intertwined life and shared humanity — that choice is absolutely and always a radical act. A brave act. An act of hope.

The problem is that too often we operate from the assumption that marriage is the only way we covenant with one another, or the ultimate way we show up in love for each other. The relational ideal. And this can lead to two problematic realities: people focusing so much on their marriages and families that they neglect their call to relationship with others beyond that space, and single people feeling like they are somehow lesser than those who are married, or have failed at life and at faith in some way.

Essentially we put marriage on a pedestal, and we make it into an idol. 

This isn’t just on the church. Take a look at our culture. Our movies and books – the stories we choose to tell. They all center on the search for love. And not just any kind of love – romantic love, true love, soul mates. This year, Hallmark has produced 70 new Christmas movies, and every single one, I guarantee, is about romance.

But the church doesn’t help.  If you pay attention, an overwhelming majority of church programming is geared to couples and families. If attention is given to singles, it is almost always focused on young adults. That’s why I was thrilled to hear that someone is putting together a FEAST group here for single adults.

I was talking to a clergy friend this week who married for the first time at 39. She told me about a day in divinity school when her class looked at the creation story and her professor told the class that the imago dei, the image of God in which humans were created, is only fully realized in marriage. It’s a familiar message. We treat life like it’s incomplete without marriage. And in so doing we diminish ourselves as individuals and the worth of our own lives. And we prevent ourselves from an honest reckoning of the ways marriage has historically been about control, particularly of women, and how many remnants of that flawed and dangerous understanding are still present in our modern day traditions, even if we no longer ascribe to that worldview.

I’m here to tell you, in case you don’t know, that what that professor said is a lie. We all carry the imago dei within us just as we are. And the grace of God embraces us and tells us that we are enough just as we are. Worthy of God’s love, capable of living a good and full life whether we end up with a spouse or not.

It isn’t that marriage is unholy – we call it holy matrimony after all. But we’ve probably all heard at least one sermon about the holiness of marriage. Heck, I’ve given 14 of them because we literally celebrate marriage by having a worship service around it. But I wonder if anyone here has ever heard a sermon extolling the virtues and holiness of singlehood. Well now you have.

Because what if the reason we don’t marry in the world to come is because there are no relational hierarchies? What if it’s cause the vulnerability, and trust, and deep affection, and care that people achieve in healthy marriages is present in our relationships with all people. That depth of love that, in our imperfect humanness we reserve for a limited few people in our lives, we actually, in the kindom of God, have the capacity to offer everyone, and receive from everyone?

You may have noticed that I’ve been saying “kindom” rather than “kingdom.” That’s my preferred terminology, and not just for some politically correct reasoning (although that’s a conversation worth having too). It’s because the Greek word used throughout the New Testament “basileia” doesn’t really mean “kingdom” in the way we understand kingdoms: absolute power and hierarchy. A more precise translation is “commonwealth.” A structure rooted in common good, in mutuality, and equity, and equality. An absence of hierarchy, and expansive relationality.

In our world, family is officially defined by law. But love is what makes us kin. And love is what defines the kindom. 


In marriage, for those who are married, we have the opportunity to practice loving another human being to the depth we’re meant to love everyone. But it’s easy for family to become this insular thing that emphasizes contrast: these are my people and those are not. These are the people I have to care about, worry about, struggle with but stay in relationship.

The kindom that is to come, and which we as Christians are called to live into as much as possible in the here and now, isn’t about insular, limited love – it’s about expansive, limitless, endlessly inclusive love. When I think of the people I know in my life who are single, I see an understanding of that love in a way I don’t see it anywhere else.

When you don’t have a dedicated person or people in your life to pick you up after surgery, sit beside you in grief, celebrate holidays and anniversaries with, you have to reach out. You have to be vulnerable, you have to think expansively, you have to love wide and trust big. The world tells you, you don’t have a family. So you make your own kin.

The kindom of God looks like a Facebook group of single clergy women who support one another and share their griefs and triumphs and lives, who remind each other over and over that they are loved and worthy of love, who trade gifts every year at Christmas because they all know what it’s like to wake up on Christmas morning to a quiet house and a tree with nothing under it. 

The kindom of God looks like one single person sending a private message on Twitter to another slightly younger single person, naming the struggle and reassuring them that a full and meaningful life is entirely possible without marriage. Like solidarity.

The kindom of God looks like elderly single friends who move in together to take care of each other during the vulnerability of their final years.

It looks like a man who, in the absence of spouse or children, fills his life with the community of theater and singing and the men’s chorus in his city.

It looks like my friend Erika. Erika and I met when she was my boss during my ministry internship one summer in seminary. We grew close, and she has been one of my dearest friends and favorite people ever since.

When I think of a good, full, faithful life – the first person I think of every time is her. She’s in her 50s, and she has never married, but her life has been full of adventure, and travel, and faithfulness, and love. She loves well and robustly and deeply the people in her life. She’s so open, so inviting. And a few years ago, she adopted her kids, Kimberly and Chris, when they were in late elementary and middle school. She has made a family on her own terms, not just with her kids but with so many people, like myself, who are lucky enough to be loved by her. To be her kin.

In the world come, Jesus says, we will neither marry nor be given marriage. We will be like children, open and eager and trusting and alive. We will all be kin.

And in the meantime, as we strive to love each other will, let us look to the single folk among us as an example, and try to love – not just our spouses or our families, but all people – as single people love, as God loves: deep and wide.

May it be so. Amen.

 

4 thoughts on “Relationship Status

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  1. Love this message, Layton. Excellent insights on both singleness and marriage. Having YOU officiate at our wedding was one of the best days of lives! Hugs!

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