Jan. 31, 2016 “Singular Gift” – Matthew 19:3-12

Matthew 19:3-12
“Singular Gift”
January 31, 2016 – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

I haven’t seen the 2005 movie, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” But without reading a plot summary you can guess it’s a comedy. Andy is an obviously immature male nerd living alone in an apartment filled with his collection of action figures. He rides a bike instead of driving a car. When he lets it slip at a poker game that he’s never had sex, his buddies conspire to remedy that.

The point of talking about a vulgar sex comedy is that a forty-year-old virgin is supposed to be an inherently ridiculous and funny premise. Here is a person and a way of life that cannot be taken seriously. Andy must grow up, meet someone and have sex like every other male his age. Our culture has an expectation that everyone not only will but needs to have sexual relations in order to be mature and healthy.

Christians might not put it that way, but we have our own version. We tend to think it’s normal—and better—to be married. The single person, especially an older single person not considering marriage, can seem as odd to us as Andy does to his friends. For younger singles in the church, we may consider it part of our mission to get them connected and safely married off. Long years of singleness are simply not normal or good.

That common Christian attitude toward singleness bumps up against two facts. Number one, society around us is filled with single people. For the first time in 2014, the number of single people over age 16 rose above 50 percent in the U.S. Of course, not all of them are living alone or without partners, but the inclination to marriage is declining. People put it off until they are older. One in seven Americans lives alone.

We may not see the reality of that statistic in our churches. Unless it’s a hip congregation full of college students, singles are often under-represented among those gathered to worship on Sunday morning. It’s not quite so true here at Valley Covenant, I’m pleased to say, but single people often find churches to be uncomfortable situations with few places where unmarried people fit in.

The second fact which a Christian bias against singleness confronts is that the Bible doesn’t see it that way. In fact, just as in two of our texts this morning, Scripture upholds and celebrates a single, celibate life as a good and desirable way to serve the Lord and His kingdom. In our concern over cultural decline of marriage and a understandable desire to support families, we’ve missed the biblical message that singleness is honored and upheld by our Lord and His apostles.

Part of it is just what Jesus says in verse 11 of our Gospel lesson. Then as now, it is hard to hear that it may, in fact, be better not to marry than to get married. But let’s back up. In the first part of the text, Jesus was asked a question about divorce. The Pharisees were trying to trip him up and make Him out to be either too lax or too rigid in his views about marriage.

The problem was that the Pharisees interpreted what the Old Testament law said about divorce in the way they paraphrase Deuteronomy 24:1 in verse 7: Moses “commanded” a man who wanted to divorce his wife “to give a certificate of dismissal and divorcer her.” But there is no commandment there in Deuteronomy. It’s simply a recognition of what people were already doing.

Jesus pointed them back to God’s real understanding of marriage, based in creation as we saw three weeks ago. Husband and wife are “one flesh.” It’s a permanent relationship brought about by God. So Jesus says in verse 6 those words we say at every Christian wedding, “what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

We could spend the rest of this sermon talking about Christians and divorce. It’s an anxious topic for some of us. My parents were divorced. But, as I said to one of you about the previous sermon in this series, we’ve got other fish to fry today. I preached on divorce not too long ago. You can find copies of that sermon at the back.

Jesus said that marriage was created by God to be a permanent relationship. As He went on to explain in verses 8 and 9, Moses allowed divorce because we human beings are hard-hearted, failures at even our most important relationships. But we break up a marriage at our peril, often committing the sin of adultery in the process.

Jewish men of Jesus’ time, just like men and women of our time, cherished what they understood as their God-given right to divorce an unwanted spouse. The Talmud tells us that one school of rabbis held that a man could divorce his wife for burning dinner. Jesus said an absolute “No” to easy divorce. And his disciples got worried.

In verse 10 the disciples, who wanted to follow Jesus all the way, wondered if one should even get married. Rather than risk getting caught in a difficult marriage with no way out, might it not be better to avoid it altogether? Sound familiar? For somewhat different reasons and motivations, more and more people are delaying marriage and often simply living together, rather than risking a commitment which will only cause pain if it is broken.

Jesus’ answer in verses 11 and 12 is very difficult to understand, but he starts out by giving the disciples credit for saying more than they intended. His response implies the same thought Paul offered in our reading from I Corinthians 7, verse 8. For those who are unmarried, “it is well for them to remain unmarried…” In other words, the answer to the disciples’ question is “Yes, it’s better not to get married.” But it’s a qualified “Yes.”

As you heard in the readings today, Jesus and Paul both taught that there is a great spiritual opportunity in the unmarried, single life. Yet both of them also realized and taught what Jesus said in verse 11, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” That includes both people who are married or on their way to marriage and many people who are single. Please let me explain.

There is a special purpose and calling for those to whom a “gift” of singleness is given. Jesus calls them “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” and Paul talks about unmarried people who have an undivided focus on “the affairs of the Lord.” But that’s not everyone. It’s not even everyone who is single. Many older single people don’t feel any special blessing or calling, just a deep pain of loss for something they have never had.

That’s why it’s good, as difficult and uncomfortable as it seems, that Jesus talks in verse 12 about eunuchs, three kinds of eunuchs. Eunuchs were a fixture of the ancient world, men who had no sexual capacity, no way to have children. As Jesus said, some were just born that way, as some are still today, with an intimate physical disability which they did not choose.

In ancient society there was also a practice of making boys or young men into eunuchs so that they could hold special service roles, particularly in the houses and palaces of royalty. A eunuch would be an ideal keeper of a harem. They also posed less threat to a king because a eunuch’s future in old age depended completely on his patron. He would have no children to look after him and he could not create a dynasty of his own.

Jesus spoke of “eunuchs who have been so from birth,” and those “who have been made so by others,” two kinds of involuntary eunuchs, people who have no sex life through no choice of their own. The third sort of eunuch Jesus talks about are not literal, physical eunuchs, but those who remain unmarried by choice. It’s no great stretch to let this verse remind us that many people in our day are not single by any choice of their own. Like those ancient eunuchs, they are victims of circumstance and single by physical disability or by loss or a spouse or by simply finding no one to marry, not because they want to be.

The truth is that we as Protestant Christians have often not done a very good job of recognizing, loving and supporting all kinds of singles. Unlike Catholics or Orthodox we generally have no special status or place for those who choose to do what Jesus and Paul said was such a good thing, to remain unmarried for the sake of serving God’s kingdom. In fact, as the few single clergy friends I have could tell you, churches are often either suspicious of an unmarried pastor or on a mission to get them married off.

In the world portrayed in Hollywood movies it seems the goal of life is to find someone with whom to have sex. It ought to be different in Christian churches, but we are often a place where single people, even people who want or feel called to be single, find themselves ignored, lonely and excluded from full participation. Which means that we have not listened well to Jesus and Paul and the message of the Gospel. The key relationship in anyone’s life is with God, not with spouse or children or anyone else.

As I said in the first sermon in this series, if we fail to honor and uphold the value and even beauty of the single life, we’ve also failed to pay attention to the very basic fact that Jesus was single. He never married. Yet He lived the only perfect and complete human life the world has ever known. To dishonor or marginalize single people is to dishonor Christ our Lord.

Despite all our failures in this regard, the church has been and continues to be a place where a single person may live out his or her singleness surrounded by and included in a spiritual family and intimate friendships. The church in return is blessed and built up by the gifts and ministries of single people in our midst.

I praise God for the way unmarried people share their lives and spiritual gifts with the rest of us here at Valley Covenant. You’ve been volunteers and leaders and caring friends to many of us. But rather than embarrass anyone here, let me talk about a few single people in previous churches I’ve been in.

In the church in which I grew up, just like churches now, we often struggled to find people to lead children’s and youth classes, especially junior high and high school groups. But when I was in those groups, some singles stepped up. Paul was willing to take a group of junior high boys to church softball games in his new Ford Mustang, and he once took us out to a community airport to take turns riding with him around the area in the Cessna plane he knew how to pilot.

Peggy Joe was a shy single woman who I think would very much have liked to be married. But she took on our growing high school Sunday School class for a couple years and did her best to offer solid lessons and answer our questions about all kinds of things.

In that same little church, Sam was our part-time minister of music. He was the son of a Hispanic pastor and gave our congregation a huge gift in his musical talent. He was paid a pittance, which he promptly put back in the offering plate. He led our choir and got us to sing Bach and Handel and all sorts of other challenging Christian music.

I talked to my sister yesterday and she told me that some of those who were older singles in our church back then got married, but are now single again by loss or divorce. She also reminded me that our choir was a kind of small group community of older singles and there were also Marilyn and Beverly and Harold and Audra and probably others. Some of them never married, but they were respected and loved church members.

In the first church I served as pastor one of the key members was an elderly lady named Hildegaard. I’m not absolutely sure, but I don’t think she ever married. She certainly had been single a long time. She was a teacher and a bright, dynamic, vibrant person who served her church in all sorts of ways. She sang in the choir and played handbells. She supported and encouraged adult Christian education. Whenever the church had a big decision to make, everyone listened carefully to what she had to say. No one knew how old she was and she never said. I respected that and never looked it up in the church records. Hildegaard was a friend to Beth and me. The set of Great Books in our family room was a gift from her own library.

My walk down a church singles memory lane is simply to say that they, that you, if you are single, are essential. The Church of Jesus Christ is stronger and better because you are here, because we who are married are sharing faith together with you and learning from you. Thank you.

I also want us to recognize that single life as a Christian is not some sort of holding pattern, like being a batter-on-deck or a plane at a busy airport circling before landing. Whether one is unmarried because God called you to that life or because of unfortunate circumstances which have kept you from it, God has a rich, complete and full life for you to live in and with Him. Whether you’ve been single all your life or now find yourself in that state, you are not just circling real life waiting for something. You are living a life which finds its image in Jesus Himself, in the apostle Paul, in the life of every unmarried Christian who has devoted that situation to serving the Lord as fully as they could.

As Jesus said at the end of our Gospel reading, “Let anyone accept this who can.” All of us need to recognize that being single is hard. As I’ve preached in the two previous sermons, God made us with sexual desire. As I will preach next week, some, whether by biology or circumstance, find themselves with desires that are disordered, not as God intended them, perhaps same-sex attraction. In those cases, the only Christian, the only biblical option is to remain celibate and single. And that is hard, as many faithful singles could tell you.

As that movie I started with and a deluge of other films and television shows and popular songs show us, it is very hard today to be a Christian single living as Scripture teaches, living without a sexual relationship. The Bible shows clearly, as Jesus taught in today’s text, that sex is not necessary for a full and complete life. But the world around us does not believe that and so we can find it hard to believe and live that too.

Together as a church we have a calling and responsibility to bless and care for the singles among us as they live with the struggles of the single life. It’s not that those struggles any greater or more difficult than the challenges of marriage or raising children. As one Covenant writer says, it’s not a contest about whose life is easier or harder.[1] The challenge for us all is to live out the love of Christ in a church community which includes people walking all the paths that Jesus and His apostles laid out for us, married, single, widowed, divorced, young and old. As our Covenant president says often, “We are in it together.”

In the last two sermons I’ve emphasized how marriage reflects the image of God, how it shows us something about the relationships between the persons of the Trinity and God’s relationship to us as His people. But now I need to point out that the persons of God are obviously not married to each other, and that the Bible talks about our relation to God in other ways.

In particular, Jesus just before the Cross talked to His disciples about friendship. He called us His friends. Covenant people originally called themselves “Mission Friends.” In the church we are a community of friends, and the single people among us especially need deep and abiding friendships in Christ our Lord. To be faithful, our church must be a place where all, whether single or married, finds strong and lasting friendship extended to them in the love and grace of Christ.

Today, if you are single, I want you to know that though we who are married may not completely understand, we know it’s hard. And we respect and love you for your walk with the Lord. We want to be your friends. You may want to remember that there are those, maybe single, maybe married, who need your friendship. You can be a blessing. And today, if you are married or in a relationship on your way to marriage, be a friend to those who are not. There are those who need a place in your life and, whether or not you realize it, you need them. You can be a blessing. Again, as Jesus said, “Let anyone accept this who can.”

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Rebekah Eklund, “A Theology of Singleness” (Covenant web site), p. 5.