Why Marriage is Radical

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Dear friends,

This weekend, I had the incredible privilege of marrying two very dear friends: Jenna Herskind and Tyler Heath. My sermon articulates why I believe marriage matters for our world today, and I wanted to share it with you.

Deep love and congratulations to Jenna and Tyler!
Andrew

Why Marriage Is Radical

Two thousand years ago, history changed forever. A revolution of self-giving love began in the heart of the human condition that opened the way to everlasting life. And I believe this ancient revolution shows us God’s design for holy marriage still today.

In occupied Bethlehem, under the shadow of a violent empire, Jesus was born to poor parents, Joseph and Mary. Before Jesus was born, his passionate mother sang a prophetic song about how her son would turn things upside down, bringing good news to the poor, hungry, and powerless.

And Mary was right. When he was just a little older than Tyler and Jenna, Jesus began preaching and embodying God’s love and justice for the poor, oppressed, and powerless.

He shared meals with public enemies and prostitutes, earning him the unpopular title “friend of sinners.” He protected women from men’s deadly violence and welcomed them into his community. Jesus proclaimed God’s special favor for the poor, the depressed, the hungry, and the persecuted. But Jesus had hard words for the rich and famous, the full and fortunate.

He broke religious rules, healed the sick on the Sabbath, and praised foreigners for their faith. Jesus drove out demons and restored people to their right minds and families. He called the local ruler a predator for silencing critique of corruption and declared “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” to be God’s highest priorities (Matthew 23:23).

Jesus told scandalous stories that changed how people imagined God and related to God. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus celebrates the most hated person in his culture – the ethnic other, the religious heretic, the political enemy – as a hero who shows us what God really wants: practical love for the person abused and left for dead on the roadside (Luke 10). Imagine a preacher today making their most important sermon about the “good” gay person or the ”good” Muslim or the “good” undocumented migrant or the “good” fistula woman. Jesus did the equivalent of this in his culture by praising a Samaritan.

Jesus even went into the holy temple itself and turned over the tables of those who had turned God into business. Outside the temple, Jesus offered forgiveness to the spiritually bankrupt, giving new hope to those who had wrecked their lives. Jesus claimed that we meet him whenever we meet the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the foreigner, the sick, the prisoner (Matthew 35:31-46). What extraordinary generosity; what extraordinary beauty.

In all of this, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, the face of God – God in human skin.
Oh, Jesus turned things upside down like Mary sang. But how did humanity respond?
Jesus’s people found him to be too unreligious, too counter-cultural, too dangerous to the status quo. He didn’t fit their expectations and desires for a savior. So they arrested, tortured, and then executed Jesus on a brutal Roman cross. Alas, this violence is all-too-familiar to us today.

The historian Luke tells us that the crowd who watched Jesus die on the cross tempted and insulted him. First, the religious people shouted, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah” (Luke 23:35). Then the Roman soldiers sneered, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself” (Luke 23:36). Finally, for the third time, the criminal next to Jesus looked over and screamed: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39).

Save yourself.
Save yourself.
Save yourself.

Isn’t this interesting? Three very different groups of people – the religious, the political, and the criminal – all said the same thing as they watched Jesus die: save yourself. Nothing unites and divides humanity like raw selfishness, our burning desire to save ourselves.

But Jesus didn’t save himself. He gave himself. He hung on the cross and died – courageous, full of faith, passionately giving himself for our salvation, trusting that God would be faithful to him. In fact, he cried out to God, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).

Can you imagine that? You’re hanging on a cross dying in agonizing pain, and everyone around you – and probably the voices inside you – are screaming, “Save yourself!” But Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t give up or come down. He doesn’t shout back or kill his killers.

Instead, Jesus cries out for everyone to hear, “Father, forgive them.” Set them free. Let them start over. Hold onto them, not their failure. They matter more to me than the pain they’re causing me.

This is astonishing. Rather than saving himself, the Son of God gave himself — for all of us, even for the killers of God.

And Christians believe that three days later Jesus rose again. The power of Jesus’s self-giving love was so indestructible that it burst through death itself into new life. Peter said it like this: “God raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). Human fear and force could not kill the power of God’s self-giving love, and Jesus’s resurrection proved it.

Now why I am saying these heavy things here on this happy day?

Tyler and Jenna, the cross is the key to your marriage. Paul said it like this: “Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children, and walk in the ways of love, just like Jesus loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Paul goes on to say that when you see marriage for what it really is, you’re looking at Jesus’s love for humanity hidden inside it. He writes, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).

Christ’s cross is the key to your marriage.

The biggest temptation you will face in your marriage is that cry inside of you that confronted Jesus on the cross: “Save yourself! I don’t deserve this. I’m better than them. I’ve done all this good for them, and how do they repay me? They don’t see it. They don’t care. They’re suspicious and untrusting. They’re cold and distant. In fact, they betray me. I’m tired. I’m lonely. I’m sick of being treated this way. Save yourself. Then it will be better. Then I’ll be free.”

Of course, this attitude comes so naturally to us. We live in a culture that soaks us in the “save yourself” mentality from childhood. Our TVs say it. The Internet says it. Our politicians say it. Many of our churches say it. “Save yourself” gets socialized into our religion, our race and ethnicity, our economic class and sexuality, our police and prisons, our foreign policy and divided neighborhoods.

And what does “save yourself” really mean? It means: “Me first. I count most. If it’s my happiness or yours, it’s got to be mine.”

So the cross asks us that ultimate question: “Does my love prefer the other? Or does my love just make me feel good?” (Mumford & Sons). The cross declares, “You first. You count most. I will give myself for you and your happiness.”

And thus the cross marks the key difference between Christ-like marriage and human romance, between divine covenant and manmade contract.

Human romance is all about comfort. I want sexual pleasure, plenty of money, success in my career, the perfect number of kids, a beautiful house, and a secure retirement. I want someone like me who can give me what I want.

But Christ-like marriage is about commitment. No matter how much pleasure or pain, no matter how much wealth or poverty, no matter how much success or failure, no matter how much security or risk – I will be faithfully committed to you.

Human romance is all about personal fulfillment: How can I be full? How can I have more and be more and get more for myself? If I’m not fulfilled, there must be something wrong. Maybe I should move on.

But Christ-like marriage is all about radical forgiveness.

Even when I feel empty – even when I feel hung out to die – how can I set the other person free? Forgiveness says, “I will hold onto you and release your failures. I will embrace you and let go of your harsh words, your careless behavior, your painful attitude. I will be with you and for you to the end. You are more precious to me than the pain you have caused me.”

Human romance says, “Save yourself.” Christ-like marriage says, “I will give myself to you, come what may.”

Friends, the mission of marriage is to bear witness to God’s unconditional love in a world of contracts, conditionality, and convenience. And it’s like what Bonhoeffer said in the reading: this self-giving love is the ultimate triumph. Like Merton said, this love is our destiny.

When we are patient and kind, new life bursts out of stony tombs. When we give up our self-seeking, resurrection shows up. When we don’t keep a record of wrong but forgive and hope all things, the sun rises after the dark night of the covenantal soul.

And this is why I believe that marriage is a counter-cultural, radical institution, what W.H. Auden called a “garrison” that shows us a paradigm of a plausible future. Some might think that marriage is giving up or settling down for a safe life. But marriage is the opposite of that.

Marriage is a daring, courageous, prophetic embrace of a Christ-like life that most of our culture knows nothing about. Marriage is a new way of being human that points the way to enemy-love and real hope for our world: you do not love an enemy because they deserve it but because you yourself are a lover and, you are committed to the other’s wellbeing, come what may.

If you asked me, “Andrew, what does our consumeristic, polarized, racially divided, distracted and violently self-driven society need?” I would answer, “We need marriages.” Because the heart of true marriage is the cross, and the heart of the cross is neighbor-love, and neighbor-love is passionate will and practical work for the other’s wellbeing, which changes how we see and feel and talk and treat others. When everyone is saying, “Save yourself,” neighbor-loving spouses remain faithful, forgive, and trust the miracle power of God to break through death with life.

Marriage is a laboratory and rehab center for courageous souls who have chosen to workout the divine muscles of love, commitment, and forgiveness for their entire lives without stopping. In this way, the home is not only a refuge. It is also a hospital and embassy for our divided, enemy-hating world.

Jenna and Tyler, I share this message with you, yes, as a challenge. But I mainly say it as a celebration of who you are and the quality of your relationship.

Lily and I have had the privilege of walking with you since early in your relationship, and we are so confident that you are ready for this radical cross-shaped, Christ-embodying way of life that never dies.

Jenna, ever since you sat to my right in our AAE seminar at Wheaton College and then traveled together to Ethiopia, I have seen your radical love for the most vulnerable and devalued people in our world — people like Ethiopia’s remarkable fistula pilgrims. Your relentless, fierce passion for health-care justice and the flourishing of neighbors that many see as worthless is a beacon of hope. May they always be your most important patients. As you wrote in your philosophy manifesto five years ago, “This is love that does not take into account offensive smell or social standing or efficiency of investment of love. Self-for-other love gives importance, gives priority, to the least important and the least prioritized and the least efficient.” It has been so beautiful to watch this self-for-other love find itself in Tyler and the way he has made you feel so free and comfortable to love and be loved. Your passionate love for Tyler is so beautiful and brings so much joy to everyone who witnesses it. Jenna, you are a precious diamond.

Tyler, your inspiring courage, radical vulnerability, and decision to make your life an act of neighbor-love is so beautiful.

Your loyalty, responsibility, and commitment to equity are rugged and life-giving. Lily and I will never forget standing in your mostly-unfinished house in the East Side and literally seeing the baseboards and beams of your passion to love your neighbor across boundaries. Your relentless, tender love for Jenna is so beautiful and brings so much joy to everyone who witnesses it. Tyler, you are a precious diamond.

The light in your eyes when you look at one another is dazzling, and it radiates the love of God for the world.

Tyler and Jenna, God has sent you to one another with the same mission that he sent Jesus to the world: to reveal God’s unconditional love to one another. And the strongest temptation you will face as a husband or as a wife is to answer that cry, “Save yourself!”

Oh, but God calls you to be his “imitators…as dearly loved children,” just like Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. You are called to give yourself to one another not to save yourself. Walk in the way of love.

And as you do this for one another, you will bear witness to the world of God’s unconditional, revolutionary love that makes family out of enemies, life out of death, and hope out of despair.

Today is your triumph, and God says Yes to your love. All of us gathered here say Yes to your love.

You will never walk alone. May the self-giving love of Jesus guide, energize, and sustain you each day for the rest of your marriage.

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