The School of Faith
This is an unusual Sunday for us, this Sunday in the midst of the Labor Day holiday, and so I hope I might have your permission to preach a somewhat unusual sermon.
Yesterday, my day began with a burial and ended with a wedding. Even in a great big church there are not many days like that. I had been invited to officiate at the burial of a woman whose husband had been buried from our church some years ago; they lived in Florida, but they had a family plot in Newton Cemetery, and would someone from Saint John’s possibly oversee the occasion? That was the request when her husband died 21 years ago, and that was the request of the same family when that man’s wife, their mother and grandmother, died this past June in the ninety-second year of her age.
Way back in April I had received an e-mail from the brother of a young man whose wedding I had officiated some nine years ago, and who was wondering, having become engaged himself, whether I might officiate at his wedding. So, that was the wedding that ended the day yesterday; and as I reflected back on all of this at the end of day it occurred to me that in the space of six hours of ministry I had seen the whole possibility encompassed by this idea called marriage, from its hopeful and ambitious beginning to its quiet and faithful end.
I couldn’t quite put that thought away reflecting on the readings appointed for today, and especially that scandalously poetic first reading. We don’t hear from the Song of Solomon much in church; the whole three-year lectionary only gives us two chances to hear it at all on Sundays. So the chances are, if you’re hearing verses from the Song of Solomon at all, you’re at...a wedding.
Because these words are really on the top-ten list of all-time wedding reading hits, right up there after the thirteenth chapter of the Letter to the Corinthians. And there is a plain reason for that. This is a book of love poetry hidden away in the Old Testament, stuck in a place where the children are not likely to find it easily if for some reason your children should go wandering through the bible.
For thousands of years the scholars and commentators have written that the imagery of the poetry is a profound and lovely metaphor for the love between God and God’s people. And even in the commentary in the bible the bishops gave me when I got ordained, that’s what the introduction to the Song of Solomon says.
Yeah, well...maybe. I guess I think it’s more likely that these poems were so popular and so loved in ancient Israel, that they were memorized and recited by so many love-struck young people courting each other and became part of the story for so many families, that the people who drew together the lists of books included in scripture figured it wasn’t worth fighting to keep them out. Sometimes the way God chooses to suggest to us that a text is divinely inspired is simply to make it impossible to ignore because it’s so popular.
Now, there’s something else about my funeral and my wedding yesterday that I should share with you, which maybe something you already figured out; it’s that in neither case were the people who invited me to participate members of Saint John’s, or in any way associated with us.
You might find that slightly odd, or even something a little, I don’t know, troubling. If we provide what we have to offer to anyone who comes asking, why be a member, right? Shouldn’t you have to be committed to us in some way before we will give you access to what we provide?
Certainly in some respects that’s how the church used to think of these things. But that is not the church we have now, and it is not the way I think of these things. When I’m invited to take part in these kinds of services, I always feel I am bringing all of us, representing all of us, to those people in that moment. Something of this place always goes with me to those occasions. If it’s a wedding, it’s at least the prayer book and the fact that all of those couples have had to come spend eight or ten hours with me in counseling before their wedding. If it’s a funeral, it’s at least some earth from our memorial garden, and more that the pastoral care you all enable me to give to that family.
But in the case of weddings, it is a bit odd. We don’t ever talk about weddings much on Sunday morning, let alone marriage. And that’s a missed opportunity, one that becomes more clear to me when I have a day like I had yesterday.
When you’re in a position like mine, and you’re invited to officiate at a wedding, you have to start with asking a lot of questions. Are they going to be married here in the church? Are they going to be married in any church? More and more and more often people tell me they want to be married on the beach, or in a meadow, or in someone’s back yard, and my heart kind of sinks, not just because I wish they would start their marriage out within the embrace of the church but because long and sad experience has taught me that no one can hear anything at a wedding held outdoors.
And then there’s the other question—is the couple involved in the life of the church at all? Are they even Christian?
And after that, there’s a whole series of other questions. Have either of them, or maybe both of them been married before? Are those former spouses still living? Do they have children that maybe came, you know, before the decision to get married?
It’s on me to find out answers to all those questions.
It used to be, of course, that we defined marriage mostly in terms of who had access to our willingness to provide this service. The way we approached it was plain in the form I have to fill out in the parish register. Mind you, this form was drawn up and printed in the 1950s. But I was expected to indicate whether each party was baptized, confirmed, and a communicant. I was expected to indicate whether, for each party, this was a first marriage or whether they were a widower or a widow—because those were the only conditions under which you could get married in this church. And of course it was simply assumed that one person would be a groom, and the other would be a bride.
To have access to marriage in this church, those were the rules. Not very surprisingly, as the world changed, as our views on who should have access to married life expanded, lots more actors emerged on the scene who would provide the services of officiating at your wedding. Now, you can get married by someone ordained online by the Church of the Latter Day Dude.
By God’s grace, we have changed our outlook. First we admitted folks who had been divorced. Now we welcome people of the same sex.
But there still is this question; shouldn’t the people we offer these services to have some kind of connection with us?
I’ll give you my answer, and I’ll give you the reason for it.
For my own part, I have always received those invitations as an invitation to introduce people to the possibility that God is somehow involved in their lives, and never more presently, never more clearly, than in the marriage they come wanting to create. To say it in different words, I don’t think I get many better evangelical opportunities than the invitation to officiate at a wedding.
First of all, it gives me a sustained opportunity to explore with that couple just what it is that they sense is happening in their lives that they’d rather not just take to the town clerk’s office. I always point out to them that they’d be just as married if they did it that way, and they’d probably save a lot of money. And it is in their resistance to that idea that a possibility is opened to talk about something deeper—something we here understand as God.
There’s another part to this evangelical opportunity. It’s that on the day of the wedding I get to preach, and that means I get to connect the great joy and hope felt by a roomful of people to the idea and the possibility of God.
Underneath all of this is a view that I hold that you may not share, which is simply this: The church’s insistence for so many decades on people conforming this most profound experience of love into our acceptable terms effectively shut down for many people any sense that the church was a place to bring the joys, the sorrows, and the mess of their lives. And I think because of that, we have a lot of work to do now, and for years to come, reaching out.
All of this is important for one reason above all: For many of us, not all of us but many of us, that primary relationship we have, that marriage, is the school in which we learn most deeply what faith really means. It is the place where this abstract idea of God’s power to transform us through love that I keep talking about from up here in this pulpit is made real—and more than that, where it is necessary.
You can have a wedding on the beach. You can have a wedding without an ordained person within a hundred miles. God knows that there are plenty of ways you can do that these days. But I believe with all my heart that it’s just about impossible to make a marriage, and to make a marriage work, without the presence of that abiding, affirming, transforming, reconciling, creative love—which is, after all, what we mean when we say “God.”
I said that the Song of Solomon was probably included in the scriptures of Israel by popular demand, and much the same can be said for what we call the Letter of James. It’s probably not a letter, we’re not really sure who wrote it, but we know it had a wide readership in the early church, and we know its teachings were revered.
What we heard from James just now is about the best and most succinct advice it is possible to give to people of any age thinking about making a marriage together, and when you put it together with the Song of Solomon you encompass everything from poetic romance to practical reality. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, because your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
It’s easy to bring to mind all the angry voices in our civic life these days and want to hold them to account against this standard. It’s more difficult to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask when perhaps we might have been better advised to follow this advice. How often these days we confuse our rage for righteousness. Five minutes on Facebook will make that plain.
Of course it’s true—and I’ll end by saying this—that this doesn’t apply to everyone. I know that. Not everyone is married. Not everyone is meant to be married. Marriage is many things, but at least one of those things is, marriage is a vocation. And all vocations are tested.
But for those of us who live within them, they are the best place God has for teaching us just how it is God loves us, and how God hopes to be loved by us. So that is why, when I am invited, I take these services, and that is how I understand myself to be doing so on our collective behalf. Say a prayer for John and Judy as they begin their new lives together today, and give thanks for the fact that people still come to us hoping to have that conversation. Amen.