July 8, 2014

The Most Personal Sort of Creation


Preached at the Craigville Tabernacle, Centerville, Massachusetts, July 6, 2014

Text: Matthew 11:13: “...for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

am both honored and frightened to be with you this evening. This historic space has seen many a summer, and heard many a preacher, and I have no doubt that the standards of expectation are rather high.

If that were not enough, the person who invited me to offer this sermon this evening holds the weighty title “Worship Coordinator and Theologian-in-Residence.” Those are indeed six words to conjure with. I am not sure how the people of my own parish would regard my deciding to fashion myself a “theologian in residence”; I am more than a little afraid most of them would run, not walk, for the exits.

So I am made aware that this is a community that takes theology very seriously, and that is a commendable thing, because many of us dwell for much of the rest of the year in churches that do not take theology very seriously, or who have reduced it to a kind of spiritually inflected take on popular culture. Here, none of that will do.

I have been advised that the theme of the summer is “Treasuring God’s Creation: A Pilgrimage.” That alone is a bit of a challenge to the theologian, because it holds in proximity two very distinct ideas with a great deal of theology behind them: Creation on the one hand, and Pilgrimage on the other.

This could be a jumping-off point for an exploration of why Christianity is distinct from Judaism and Islam in its understanding of pilgrimage; how for us it does not arise from a scriptural teaching or a covenantal expectation but from localized, inculturated tradition. But that is a sermon for another day, and another beach.

Instead I want to invite you to reflect with me on what I think combines the two ideas of creation and pilgrimage into a single human experience. It is a yoke, a burden, in the sense Jesus speaks of in those beautiful and enticing lines from Matthew; but it is not merely a spiritual experience, not by any means. I want to offer the idea that there is a theological importance to this experience that deserves reflection and is almost always overlooked, particularly by the people most involved in the experience.

But before I do any of that, I need to offer just a few words of introduction. For my sins, which are many, it fell to me to begin my ordained career as one of a number of clergy in a university church. My particular role was to be the undergraduate chaplain, but all of us shared in taking responsibility for the pastoral services of the place. And what I can tell you beyond fear of contradiction is that when you are a member of the clergy on the staff of a university church, you end up doing way, way more than your fair share of  two kinds of services: weddings, and funerals.

Now, here in the presence of these faithful people I wish to make a long-overdue confession: from the perspective of the minister, one of these sorts of occasions is really preferable to the other, and it’s not the weddings.

Of course it’s a happy occasion when two people find each other and fall in love and decide on the crazy idea of getting married, actuarial tables to the contrary notwithstanding. But most of the people who come to you in that kind of setting are there because they met during their time as students, or perhaps as colleagues. They are not there because they met in church, or even because they make a regular habit of being in the church. They are often there to have some kind of church-inflected backdrop for the occasion they want to plan.

I am thinking about that these days because what for you is the season of being here in the serenity of the Craigville Tabernacle is for me, and my colleagues in ministry, the season of weddings. I have six of these events on my calendar this year; just yesterday I struck off number three, so I am halfway done, and less than a week from today I will complete number four.

So here is what I want to offer to you as the human experience that combines into one creation and pilgrimage; it is the experience, not so much of weddings, as of marriage, but marriage as it is understood and described in the thirty-seven to forty-two minutes of the liturgy of solemnizing matrimony.

Starting out my own work as I did in that place gave me a particular take on the role I have in that conversation. These days I am the rector of an Episcopal church, and when a couple comes to me seeking the ministry of the church in welcoming their marriage I have to meet their interest by making clear the expectations that the church will lay on them in order to accept the idea they propose.

Of course, if you think about it, stating expectations up front is kind of a poor way of doing the work of evangelism. And for most conversations about marriage, that is exactly what is required; whether we like it or not, the majority of people who come to a church seeking to be married, at least here in the northeast, are not members of that church, or any church. They know they are supposed to be there, but they are pretty much completely without a clue about why.

At a university church, the dynamic sort of gets flipped around. If they pass the test of having some kind of affiliation with the place, they have an absolute right to get married there. For the minister that means that you are no longer a gatekeeper; instead you are a teacher, and your job is to make the best case you can for the peculiar and particular language that is only and ever said in the midst of a wedding. Where did it come from? What does it mean? What does it signify? Why do we say it as we do?

Let me begin with a somewhat bold claim: every one of you has some sort of experience, directly or indirectly, of marriage. Some of you may have more than one, and some of you may not have the best experience even if you’ve had only one experience. But the simple fact is that pretty much all of us are the result of such an experience. So it is worth reflecting on the theological content of it for just a moment.

When I meet with these couples I point out to them that their wedding is something like a lovely house built on an open meadow. They have a vision of inviting people into that beautiful house on their wedding day. But of course beneath the house, in a place they can’t see, is the whole foundation on which the thing is built, and upon which it depends to keep standing.

The stones of that foundation are the theological claims upon which both a wedding and a marriage depend, at least as far as the Christian faith understands God’s purpose in all of this. The wedding service itself never makes explicit what those claims are, and we don’t go to weddings, let alone participate in them, expecting to receive a theological seminar when we do.

But of course if there weren’t some kind of theological substance underneath it all, the church would have a very bad claim to be involved in the marriage business anyway. So here is that substance.

The liturgy of a wedding rests on three fundamental theological claims. One is about the nature of God; one is about the nature of humankind; and one is about the way in which God intends for us to be in relationship with both God and with each other.

Small stuff, right? Nothing we can’t cover in the small space we usually get before the reception starts.

Our claim about the nature of God finds its roots in the very first words of scripture, indeed the very first verb of scripture: In the beginning, God created. By faith we hold that whatever else it means to be God, it means at least this: the essence of God is to create. And by extension it means one thing more: if God acts to create all there is, then it must be that God acts to bring this creation into being out of ultimate freedom. God is free to choose, and God chooses to bring the creation forward.

So: God is essentially creative and ultimately free. What about us?

We look just a little farther in the record of Scripture for that answer, where we hear the collective voice of God saying this: Let us make humankind in our image and likeness. All right, then: if we are made in the image and likeness of God, and if what it means to be God is to be essentially creative and ultimately free, then it must be the case that each human is essentially creative and given that capacity for creation to explore under the condition of free will.

I don’t mean by this that we are all meant to be poets or artists or musicians. I mean that we are all given both the capacity to dream and the desire to achieve our dreams, to create our life’s meaning; and when we are denied the ability to do either of those things, to imagine goals for ourselves or to work toward them, then we have in some fundamental way been dehumanized.

Last: We make the claim as Christians, specifically in the first letter of John, that God is love. It is not that love is a quality or an attribute of God, but that the two ideas are coterminous. There is an identity relationship, a three-line equals sign between them.

For us this means that love is not merely an emotion, or a neurochemical phenomenon; it is the presence of the living God in our lives, drawing us into closer relationship not only with another human being but with each other. The transforming power of love to enable us fully to realize our best selves is the deepest connection we come to know with the ground of our being; and it is also why we are so willing and so able to mislead ourselves in hope when we sense the possibility of love in our lives.

All of that—our claim about God, and about us, and about love holding the capacity in human relationship for revealing something about God—all of that is right there in the middle of the liturgy of weddings, and yet it never is spoken of in so many words.

The claim about free will is the whole reason why the assembled congregation is asked one last time whether they have any objections to the proceedings; and it is always a moment of worry when I remind a couple that while they may invite people to their wedding, the fact is that the church does the inviting, and it closes the doors to no one, whether they received an invitation or not. If that were not the case, it would make no sense to ask the question of a rigged room.

And the claim about free will is the whole reason why each of them is asked whether what they are doing in coming into the church is an act of free will on their part. The question they are asked takes this form: “Will you take this person...” And their answer is an affirmation: I will.

We don’t really think of a new couple undertaking an act of creation in the midst of their wedding, but of course that is exactly what they are doing. They are taking what had to that moment been a private matter and re-creating it as a public fact, one in which their status fundamentally and profoundly changes—legally, socially, and personally.

Even more than the creative act of the moment, what they are really doing is pledging to each other the whole of their creative capacity. They are willingly accepting bounds on the exercise of that capacity, agreeing that how they live out their this quest to realize the people God has made them to be will take place within the gentle but real bonds of that relationship.

That is a radical act of faith. It’s my theory that it has something to do with the reason people cry at weddings. I always ask couples about this. Why do you think it happens? It isn’t because it’s a sad occasion—at least not usually. I think it’s because we so rarely have a chance in this age of ours to witness such a bold, daring act of faith.

What they say to each other are these words: “With all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you.” But of course they cannot know the full meaning of those words when they say them. They cannot know all that they might be, all that they might become, each of them, separately and together, in the future they are agreeing to share. They cannot know how the story will end or where the journey will take them. It is an act of great nobility to make such a pledge. And that, I think, is why we find it so moving.

And it is also how it is this most personal act of creation is a true pilgrimage. Because it does not stay in the church; it has to move forward. Unlike most pilgrimages it may not have a defined objective at the beginning, no Jerusalem or Canterbury or Mecca or Santiago. But like all pilgrimages it is an experience in which the meaning is made in the journey, not the destination.

It is the oldest human disappointment to arrive at a destination at the end of a long journey and to find the place less than one’s imaginings. But of course no destination has the power to change us anyway; it is the lessons and experiences of the path there that do the changing. Couples who come expecting somehow to be changed in the glorious setting of their wedding day always end up seeing the thing through the wrong end of the telescope. But those who grasp that they are beginning on a journey that will fully engage all of their capacity, all of their patience, and all of their possibility come in the end to a result that reveals something of God to them.

We live in an historical moment in which the whole notion of marriage has been opened for reexamination. It is no longer necessary to be married to avoid social stigma in child rearing. It is no longer the case that divorce is freighted with a kind of narrative of moral suspicion. And thanks be to God, it is no longer the case that a whole class of people is held outside the gates and not permitted to enter the institution simply because they love a person of the same sex.

All of this makes it necessary for us to consider again the basics of what we think we mean when we talk about the meaning of this most personal act of creation. Like I said, it is too much to ask any given couple of the day to have a firm grasp on the theological significance of what they are doing. They’re generally too busy worrying about whether the florist will deliver on time or how to avoid seating Aunt Tillie anywhere near Cousin Elliot.

So it is for us to do, in this summer season when brides and grooms of all kinds descend on you here on Cape Cod to begin their pilgrimages. Keep them in your prayers. What they are doing is a daring, dangerous, and profoundly fragile thing. It involves the greatest capacity for joy, and the greatest capacity for hurt, exactly because it is all premised on the greatest possible vulnerability. But that is where God has a chance to meet us, to create in us, and to bring us fully to become ourselves. Amen.