The Rev. Dianne O’Connell
Immanuel Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2009
Proverbs 8:1-7; 22-31
Who Will I Live With in Heaven?
Marriage is a cultural thing ... and it takes a great deal of wisdom to make it work. That’s the premise of my sermon this morning, and if you promise to remember “Marriage is a cultural thing ... and it takes a great deal of wisdom to make it work,” you have my permission to nod off a bit during the next twenty minutes or so.
Even God knew that a human being would be happiest when he or she had a soul mate, a helpmate, with whom to travel this life. But even God needed a little practice in determining just who was right for whom. You might recall that according to rabbinical mythology, Eve was Adam’s second wife. Adam’s first wife was a being named Lilith. Adam and Lilith didn’t get along – and the Lord God had to send her away and make a mate for Adam who was a little closer to his heart. Even then, the result did not always seem to be a match made in heaven.
Back in the day, if you remember, men were allowed to have as many wives as they could afford to maintain. There were some other cultural differences between then and now, as well. Abraham married his sister Sarah, for instance. Abraham later came together with Sarah’s maid servant Hagar, with both the Lord’s blessing and the short term concurrence of Sarah.
We remember that Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, a practice not followed in this country today outside of Fundamentalist Mormon circles. Cultural norms do change.
How to provide for widows was a major societal question back then, as now. Our scripture lesson this morning suggests one approach. A surviving brother marries his brother’s wife, even if that brother is yet a child himself. This would probably not be encouraged today. Society does change and religious traditions change, too.
Jesus reminded his disciples that once upon a time, anyone who was no longer happy with his wife had to provide her with a certificate of divorce. “But I tell you,” he added, “that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a woman so divorced commits adultery.” Remember when this verse was codified into secular law and wives and husbands, in order to legally obtain a divorce in this country, hired private detectives to catch their spouses in compromising situations?
Even Saint Paul had conflicting notions regarding marriage. “Do not be yoked together with non-believers,” he says in II Corinthians. In I Corinthians, however, he asks, “Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife…Those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.” Probably good advice, Paul, but advice most have ignored.
Like Tina Turner, you might ask, “What’s love got to do with it?”
A marriage can be one of the most sacred states of being available to an earthling. As Tina knew, it can also be hell. It can be a mere contractual obligation between individuals, or between families – entered into and maintained for financial reasons, for family stability, and/or for continued acceptance within one’s religious community.
As a minister, I have married nearly 200 couples. Some, right from the beginning, looked like their road might be pretty rocky. Others, one could pretty much see, were going to make it just fine. But all, it seemed to me, deserved the chance to give it a try -– with all their heart and with all their hope, give it a try, building upon a growing understanding of what living with, and loving, another person really means. It ain’t easy for any of us, but to find a loving soul mate is an almost universal dream.
A marriage is a social contract. To my way of thinking, the secular authorities usually do best when they avoid talk of love or even talk of religious yoking and unyoking based on righteousness. The secular folk are here to register couples and to make sure they receive something that resembles equal justice should the couple split up later.
The religious community, on the other hand, can and must provide support, guidance, and a moral/ethical foundation upon which the couple can build their life together. Each religious community may choose to provide this support differently, using different criteria.
But even with all this legal, cultural and religious help, marriage is not easy. Families – and society – have a long way to go in answering all the questions and concerns that marriage engenders. My remarks this morning are offered to encourage the conversation – between couples, policy-makers, and religious leaders. How do our culture, our laws, and our churches encourage and support loving relationships between committed adults? And when do we start talking about such things with children?
Since I retired about a year and a half ago, I’ve been writing a series of stories based on my experiences as a hospital chaplain. Some of those experiences deal with marriage and re-marriage. I would like to share a couple of these narratives with you today – one dealing with an older, mature couple trying to meet their cultural responsibilities as well as their spiritual needs, and another with a young child whose mother stopped thinking like a child a little too soon.
The first story reminds me of the planned marriage of Ryan O’Neal and Farah Fawcett before she died this past Thursday. The marriage never took place.
The chaplain’s name in this story is Lydia. There is also a Spiritual Presence who has been a Companion of Lydia’s since her childhood. The Presence accompanies Lydia on her hospital rounds.)
The chaplain enters a hospital room on the fifth floor of a major, urban, medical facility where she finds two attractive, mature people, holding hands – a gentleman and his lady.
“Hello, I’m Lydia Jackson, the chaplain. Did you request to see me?”
“Yes, we called you,” the gentleman begins. “Could you marry us?”
“Possibly so, but wouldn’t you rather wait until after you get home?”
(The Presence shakes his head.)
Listen a little longer, Lydia. Just listen.
“I’m afraid we can’t do that,” the gentleman answers. “I am dying, very soon.”
“Oh,” said Lydia, pulling up a chair and glancing from the gentleman to the lady.
“We would like to be married tomorrow,” the lady adds.
“It might take a little longer to get a license,” the chaplain ventures.
“That’s something else we would like to discuss with you,” the gentleman says.
Politely taking turns, the couple explains that they have lived together as man and wife for many years, but have never married. They wish deeply to be married before the gentleman’s death, which is imminent, but there is a problem. The children of both the man and the woman, and the attorneys for each, strongly advise against such a course of action. The attorneys had visited with them that very afternoon.
“We have decided on a spiritual wedding, not a civil one,” the gentleman explains.
“We want a marriage valid in heaven,” the lady adds.
“Of course,” says Lydia.
With eyebrows slightly raised, the Presence smiles.
The next morning, Lydia packs her basket -- new white candles and a new white linen cloth. She includes her small, white, but bedraggled, Bible from childhood, and some fresh flowers.
"Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's," she quietly chants as she makes her preparations.
The observance is scheduled for that afternoon. To Lydia’s surprise, the families of the couple have gathered for the ceremony, bringing flowers and cards. The radiant bride stands beside the bed of her groom. Lydia places the linen cloth over the bed table, sets up the candles and flowers, and lights the wicks.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God to ask His blessing upon this gentleman and his lady and to honor the years which they have spent together in love and companionship.”
And after the exchange of rings…
“O Eternal God, Lover of all humanity, send Thy blessing upon this couple. Look graciously upon the love that they have shared together and grant that they may ever remain in perfect love and peace.”
The couple kiss and family members embrace.
The groom dies the following day.
Lydia is asked to officiate at the gentleman’s memorial service, which she does. Several days later, she receives a handwritten thank-you note from the groom – thanking her for officiating at both his wedding and his funeral.
“He must have written the note before he died, knowing that I would agree to do his service. His wife must have mailed it after the funeral,” she thinks to herself.
A thoughtful gentleman, comments the Presence.
“And a lucky lady,” says Lydia.
“Am I going to die?” asks the boy.
“Affirmative,” barks the chaplain.
“Good,” the kid relaxes.
This year’s disaster-preparedness scenario simulates a bombing at an elementary school. All the medical facilities in town, the local police, fire and other governmental agencies are involved. A great deal of planning goes into these events and the hospital itself is a total flurry.
This year, several classes of youngsters are enlisted to participate. Stage makeup is applied to each kid showing severe to god-awful injuries. The patients are brought to the hospital by ambulance, school bus, and other vehicle s that can be commandeered for the disaster.
Medical staff prepares in advance. The cafeteria is set aside for family members awaiting news of their injured child’s condition. Patients who can be treated and released are placed in one area. Patients whose injuries will allow them to wait will be housed in another. Patients who can be saved with immediate, intensive medical attention are, of course, hurried to the front of the line. Patients who are going to die, no matter what is done, are assigned to the chaplains.
Lydia is called to sit with a little boy lying under a “bloody” blanket. His Halloween makeup is exceptionally well done and he looks like a soon-to-be-goner for sure.
“Am I going to die,” the boy asks the chaplain weakly.
Taken aback, Lydia asks, “You know this is a game, don’t you?”
The boy looks horrified. This silly adult is ruining everything.
“Well, hon. your injuries are pretty severe,” she corrects herself.
“Am I going to die?” The boy wants a straight answer.
“Affirmative,” the chaplain barks, suppressing a wink.
“I know. I’m going to die,” he happily groans. “What happens when you die?”
“Well,” the chaplain begins tentatively, “all the pain goes away. And you rise and leave your body behind. You’ll get a new one, you know. A spiritual body.”
“Will I see my dad?”
“My dad. My dad died. Will he be there?”
“Yes, your dad will be waiting for you,” the chaplain says, beginning to feel the tingle of tears rising in her eyes.
You know this is just a game, don’t you.
“This kid is pretty good.”
He has something he wants to ask you. He’s wanted to ask ever since he knew he was going to be in this disaster game. He hoped he would get to die. In fact, he volunteered.
The chaplain turns her attention back to the youngster.
“How about my mom?”
“Did your mother die, too?”
“No. She is alive. But she married James. Will my dad still be waiting for her? What about James? Who will I be living with in heaven?”
This is a kid. You only have a few more minutes for this exercise. Good Lord, Lydia prays.
Hang in there, girl.
“God sorts these things out pretty well,” she begins. She was going to say that the Bible tells us that in heaven no one is given or taken in marriage. But then she remembers that some faith traditions believe quite differently… plus she had just performed a “Valid in Heaven Only” marriage ceremony. She’d better ask.
“Do you go to church, hon? What church do you go to?”
“We don’t go to church,” he answers, “but my mom talks to me about God and heaven. She talked to me a lot after my dad died. Not so much anymore.”
Well, let’s take a shot at it, Lydia whispers.
“In heaven,” she begins, “everyone is contained in God’s love. Jesus taught that in heaven no one is married like here on earth. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I think maybe that your dad will be welcoming you, your mom, James, everyone who ever loved you. You will all be together -- if you want to be. However it happens, God will make it okay.”
The kid smiles, closes his eyes, and sticks his tongue out the side of his mouth. Lydia laughs. The exercise is declared over and the youngster jumps up, gives her a quick hug, and leaves to meet his mom in the cafeteria.
Not too bad. How much of what you just said do you really believe?
“I don’t know,” Lydia answers. “I believe what I said contains part of the truth. I think life after death must be a little different for each person. Truth is very complicated.”
So is Marriage, observes the Presence.