Loving the Nearest Neighbor

  • Exodus 20:14; Mark 10:1-12
  • Fox Valley Presbyterian Church
  • October 8, 2006

A true confession to begin the sermon. (That ought to get your attention in a sermon about adultery!) I spend too much time reading advice columns. If I’m busy, the “Ask Amy” column might be the only thing I read in the Tribune. When our home computer died last month, the thing I missed the most was access to the weekly “Dear Prudence” column on Slate.com.

Why do I love these columns so much? Because I, like Amy and Prudence, am in a profession where advice is something I sometimes give? No, the truth is a bit seamier than that. I’ve noticed that a good third, maybe even half, of the articles are in some way about relationships and sex. Other people’s relationships and sex. People I don’t know. And, like a nosy, small town gossip, I’m intrigued by the information.

I might be a little too comfortable reading about sex in these columns, but when it comes talking about sex in church, when this commandment rolls around, I’m uncomfortable with it. I suspect a lot of you are too.

I’m uncomfortable with the commandment because in our culture we are perfectly happy to talk about sex, as long as that talk doesn’t get too personal. My advice-column-addiction is a great illustration of this. I have no problem being interested in the sex lives of people I don’t know. I have no problem with those details showing up next to the comic strips. But, when it comes to myself and the people I am closest to, I am uncomfortable with the idea that sex is public.

We live in a culture that is unquestionably infused with sex. But at the same time, we live in a culture that says sex is only between the people involved, and the community has no say in what happens. We are free to speculate about Brangelina’s or TomKat’s sexual unions, to peep into the bedrooms of the Desperate Housewives, to look at just about anything we want online. Political parties may use sex as a battle cry. I can read my Ask Amy and Dear Prudence columns. But when it comes to my bedroom, your bedroom, it’s none of the community’s business.

Do not commit adultery. With this commandment, sex is placed squarely in the realm of community. It comes right in the middle of commandments about living with and loving our neighbors: Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not murder. Somehow, God is tying our sex-lives to loving not just our nearest neighbor, but all of our neighbors.

In the culture of Ancient Israel, the connection of adultery to preservation of community was fairly obvious. The specific definition of adultery was a little different for men and for women. For a man, it meant sexual intercourse with any married woman who was not his wife (note that this leaves room for sex with single women…), but for a married woman it meant sex with any man who was not her husband. This preserved community—women were supposed to be the unsoiled property of their husbands. That sexist, patriarchal legacy leaves many people wondering if this commandment has outlived its usefulness. Do not murder, do not steal, those carry weight for all times and places. But in our egalitarian, liberated society, maybe this commandment has no place.

The problem with throwing the commandment out on that basis is that it misses the point that the commandments are not just a list of “don’ts”. They are also a list of “dos”: instructions for living lives of gratitude to God.

The Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus approaches the commandments as a list of “don’ts”. They want to know what one can’t do as a way to define what one can do. They ask, “Is divorce permissible?”

But Jesus takes the answer in a different direction: the Pharisees are asking about marriage as it is, scarred by human sin. Jesus’ answer is about what God intends marriage to be.

This is a tricky passage: Jesus statement about divorce, remarriage and adultery was shocking then and it is shocking today. There’s another sermon or two there…and this is not intended to be a sermon about divorce.

But notice these things about his answer.

First, Jesus’ answer shows progress away from a sexist interpretation of marriage. Men and women are held responsible for their actions in marriage. And, women, not just men, are protected from promises broken too easily.

Jesus also says that the laws about divorce are accommodations to the reality that we live in a sinful, fallen world. God’s intention was not for marriages to fall apart. Jesus broadens the definition of adultery: the boundary lines for adultery are not a sexual act, but encompass the preservation of all commitments made in marriage. Divorce is a breach of any of those commitments. This does not mean that God cannot or will not forgive. Divorce is the most extreme way in which those commitments are broken. Sin, whether it is our own, a partners, or even the sin that exists in the fallen world around us, has scarred the relationship beyond repair, and the covenant is broken.

Sex is at the heart of adultery, just like sex is at the heart of marriage. But neither adultery nor marriage are limited to sex. Sexuality is one of those areas where we are prone to being dishonest with ourselves. If you’re not actually having intercourse with someone, if a relationship is not physical, if it’s not even a relationship with a real person, but just a little innocent over-stimulation courtesy of the internet, is it really adultery?

The truth is that the commandments are right to place not just sex but our broader sexuality and our marriages in the midst of the community. We take our marriage vows here, in the community. We pledge as community to care for these marriages. And so, we should talk about sex in this community.

We need this commandment, and we need the community to help us live it out.

This commandment is not just about who you may or may not sleep with. This command is a call to protect and preserve marriage, your own and others, and to respect what God intended marriage to be.

In our current cultural context, I know that last statement sounds like the beginnings of a moral-political-rant, like I am about to raise up a certain form of marriage as righteous. But if there is a crisis in marriage in our time and place (and, honestly, the statistics aren’t so good…), yelling about who marries whom misses the point entirely…the problem is how we view the inside of marriage: what marriage is for, what sex is all about, how to love your nearest neighbor. Without having these things straight, we cannot follow the commandment.

My friend Meg, a wise, witty, and often irreverent seminary student, a future fabulous-pastor, would probably protest being given expert-status in a sermon on adultery: as a 20-something-single-woman, she does not exactly have the clout to speak from experience. But, reflecting after a course on marriage, she wrote the following:

Marriage is a gift from God.
God’s gifts are not for our comfort.
(You did not hear that wrong: God’s gifts are NOT for our comfort.)
God’s gifts are for our redemption.
God goes to exceedingly great lengths to accomplish our redemption.
One of God’s great lengths may be our marriages.

Try writing that on the next wedding congratulations card you send out! We are quick, when we celebrate marriage, to mention the “great gift” part. We are not so quick to acknowledge that marriage is not always a comfort, and that Christian marriage, like our experience of God’s redeeming work, as part of God’s redeeming work, often comes by way of growing pains.

Marriage attaches us to another person not just as a sexual partner. We are meant to be companions in every possible way. Intense companionship is not easy. The idea that marriage is not for our comfort becomes all too real after you’ve been married for awhile. It turns out that the intense experience of living so close to someone let’s you see them at their best AND at their worst.

The ethicist Lewis Smedes says, “no one marries the right person.”

In some mysterious way, with some combination of our inner desires and God’s guiding hand, the person we marry becomes a catalyst for our growth and development into the person God intends us to be. They do this by bringing out the best in us, but they also do this by bringing out the worst in us. It is when we stick with the marriage that we truly see growth.

This is not what society tells us about marriage. It’s similar, but subtly different. Society says we are meant to be “self-fulfilled” in our marriages. Self-fulfillment is about our own good and enrichment. We get married because it will be good for us, it will stimulate our growth. We stay married for the same reasons. But when the marriage is no longer fulfilling to us—when the sex isn’t what it ought to be; when the relationship takes too much from our own emotional stores; when the commitment limits our individual potential—then it can be discarded.

The Christian view of marriage is not self-fulfillment, but covenant keeping. Marriages are covenants made between two people. Covenants have to be kept. They are not set in stone for all time—the agreement must be respected and nurtured by both sides. (And this is why everything I am saying about growth and sticking with difficult marriages does not apply in cases of enormous breaches of that covenant, like abuse.)

When we publicly make these commitments in front of God and in front of our community, the commitment becomes part of our identity. The future will bring change, but when that change comes, the commitment we made is meant to be an un-changing part of who we are.

We are meant to grow in our marriages, and growth does not happen without change, and change is not always comfortable. There are times in any marriage when the person we marry is the worst person for us—the person who can bring up the things that have hurt us in our past, the places where our past growth and development was stunted.

And this is not a bad thing. The security of a covenanted relationship gives us a space to work on becoming the person God intends us to be. But we cannot experience that growth unless we stay in the haven of that covenanted relationship. Bailing out when things get tough means that we cheat ourselves of the healing God wants us to experience. Like Meg said, marriage is one of God’s gifts, and those gifts are meant not primarily for comfort, but for our redemption. Our growth is not for self-fulfillment, but part of God’s fulfillment.

The sexual center of a marriage is the place where trust grows and blossoms so that we can stay with each other through tremendous hurt and sorrow. Violations to that center can take many forms: physical and emotional affairs, pornography, spilling secrets, emotional distance, violence and abuse.

We are bombarded with temptations to violate that center. For some of us, those temptations tend more toward the emotional. We have friendships that slip too close to the intimacy we ought to have with our spouse. We withhold large parts of who we are from that person who ought to be closest to us.

And for some of us, those temptations tend more toward the physical. It is all too easy to find sexual fulfillment in places other than our marriage.

There is a sketch by comedian Dave Chappelle where he imagines what the internet would be like if it was a real place. He steps into a mall, headed for a specific store, but is sidetracked by stores, attractions, and salespeople approaching him. Most of them are offering some form of pornography or virtual sex experience. His conclusion after a few hours in this mall: “If the internet was a real place, it would be disgusting. I’d never go there.”

On the internet or not, whatever our individual temptations toward adultery are, it is not easy, but if our marriages are meant to be tools of grace, if our spouses are meant to agents of the grace by which God shapes and molds us into the people we were created to be, we must maintain the safety and trust at the core of our marriages.

That maintenance is not just the task of isolated couples—it is one of the things the whole community is called to. It is a call to maintain openness and accountability about our marriages with the people God has placed with us on this journey. It is a call to talk about sexuality as the good gift that it is. It is a call, whether we are married or single, to cultivate appropriate fidelity in all of our relationships. It is a call to open ourselves to the growth that comes from faithfully sticking with the people we are committed to.

It’s an intimidating task, but God does not leave it up to our willpower alone. It is only through God’s grace that we keep this, or any, commandment.

And with that grace, God is our ultimate model of faithfulness in covenant: God who pursues us, even when we turn away, Jesus Christ who gave himself for love of us, and the spirit who remains with us in all circumstances.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

One Response to “Loving the Nearest Neighbor”

  1. Meg Says:

    Great sermon. It really encapsulates an entire quarter’s worth of work in Ron’s Marriage & Pre-marriage Counseling class.

    Thanks for explaining that I am NOT an expert in adultery!