Sunday, August 10, 2008

I went to a wedding and Jesus showed up

I was honored to be part of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage yesterday.

The young spouses are both Christians, with the groom preparing to go into youth ministry. They are mentored by the pastor of a Methodist church plant, the service took place in the chapel of the Lutheran College they attend, and I was invited to celebrate Holy Communion and bless them. (Long story that will just take up space).

They gave careful thought and preparation to the Christian content of the liturgy. There were more wonderful moments than I can type with an economy of words, so just a few highlights:
  • The Prayers of the People really were of the people. Members of the wedding party took turns offering each petition.
  • The music selections, a wonderful blend of classical and contemporary, invariably praised Jesus Christ. No syrupy top-40 love tunes.
  • The bride and groom received Communion, then joined the celebrant and preacher as Eucharistic Ministers to the assembled people.

Oh, yeah. The preacher. That was Dr. David O'Hara of Augustana College. He is a member of my congregation. With his permission, I am posting the sermon. I don't know that I've heard a better explication of marriage via the order and words of the liturgy. Enjoy:

N. & N., your wedding has taken a lot of planning and waiting and talking and work. Now it all comes to fruition; take a moment to breathe a breath of relief. The day is here, the event is underway. We are all gathered here to celebrate your new life together. Savor the moment and know that it is a joy for all of us to have the privilege of witnessing this union.

N. & N., let’s take a few minutes to consider the words we have spoken today and the words that will soon be spoken.

“Leaving and cleaving”

Weddings are times of both uniting and forsaking, or in the old language of Genesis, of leaving and cleaving. You are leaving your parents and cleaving to one another; in more contemporary terms, you are becoming a new family.

That word “cleave” sounds funny to our ears, since it also means to cut apart. But the word used in the wedding service has another root and another meaning. It means quite the opposite of the other kind of cleaving; it means “to cling to” or “to stick to.” This is what you two are about to commit to do: to cling to one another rather than to others; and to stick to one another despite the many forces that will attempt to pull you apart.

In this liturgy we also call on the whole community to honor and support this leaving and this cleaving.

The role of the families

We began with a question for your families: “Who gives this woman and this man to be joined in Holy Matrimony?” All together they have responded that they give you to one another.

This is both a beautiful and a difficult thing; your parents who have loved and raised you have publicly declared that they are giving you away.

It’s important for us to reflect on this because behind those few simple words are a lifetime of hopes, dreams, nurturing, and hard work in raising you to this point where they could give you away to one another. I think both of you recognize what a tremendous gift you are receiving.

Now begins the difficult work of living up to those words and to this gift. We may give away our most precious belonging to those we love most; and still we may later wish we had not given it away.

To the families I say this: it will not always be easy. It is at once our greatest joy and our worst heartache to see our children grow up and leave us.

Today we honor your gift and your years of raising them. And we call on you to continually remind one another of the liberty you have just given, and to rejoice in their new life together.

Concerning the congregation and community

Next we asked a question of the whole congregation: Do you know any reason these two should not be wed?

We follow this question with a charge: speak now or forever hold your peace. No one has spoken, and so the charge stands.

Notice that we do not tell the congregation to remain silent; in fact, all of them still have words to say in this ceremony, and those words are important.

But certain words we have charged them never to speak, neither during the remainder of this ceremony nor ever again, as long as you both shall live: namely, we have charged all present, and through them all other parties, never again to speak against your marriage.

This is so important we will say it once again in just a few minutes, with the words “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” Your families led the way in forsaking their exclusive claim on you; all others have now done the same.

A bond is about to be formed between you two that can include no other man or woman, and all who are present have declared, through words spoken or through intentional silence, that they agree to be excluded from this marriage.

This is important to remember: even if and when children come into your family, they will come as sojourners in your home, living with you for a while. But then the day will come when you will give them away as your parents have just given you away.

The bond between you and your children is biological or adoptive; the bond between you and your community is social; but the bond between the two of you is sacramental, and no other bond should be allowed to compete with it.

In even older language of marriage, medieval theologians described the purpose of marriage as fides, proles, sacramentum. Faithfulness to one another, raising children, and receiving the sacrament.

Notice that children do not come first in that list; your commitment to one another comes first.

Nor do children come last as the ultimate or highest thing; the sacrament, the experience of God’s grace together is highest.

Let children fall in the middle, wrapped securely between your faithfulness to one another and your reception of the grace of God. Let no one come between you and your life together will be spiritual food for both you and all who live with you.

Your role in this service and in marriage

So we put aside the claims of others and we turn our attention to you and ask, do you freely consent to what you are about to do?

But notice something: When you said “I will,” you were not then married. That is still to come. There is still time to turn away from what you are about to do, if you wish.

You may think I am joking. But the liturgy is serious. So we turn to the congregation once again and ask, will you do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?

First we charge them never to hinder your marriage, then we charge them to do all they can to strengthen it.

[to the congregation] I urge all of you to consider that this is in fact what you have just agreed to.

[to N. & N.] And I urge you to recognize that we would not summon a whole community and ask them these questions if marriage were easy. We come to marriage easily sensing its sweetness but often only slowly recognizing just how painfully difficult it can be.

The scriptures we read remind us of this as well: Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is that they might have power to grasp the love of Christ. Jesus’s last commandment to his disciples is to love one another. If love were easy, we would need neither power to accomplish it nor commands not to neglect it.

Two chapters later in the Epistle to the Ephesians we read what this means for marriage: just what Jesus showed us: washing one another’s feet, becoming servants to one another.

The woman was made from the man’s side, not from his head or his foot; you are to be equal servants of one another, equally a part of the bride of Christ.

To put it in other terms, you are forsaking not just your families and anyone else who might come between you, but in this service you are forsaking your own selfishness and choosing to value the other as your own body, your own self.

Soon you will make vows to one another. You have said you intend to love, comfort, honor, and keep one another; to forsake all others, to be faithful to one another until death disrupts the bond that unites you. You will soon promise to take, have, hold, love and cherish in all the circumstances life presents until you are parted from this life. I tremble at the thought of these words. Are you able to do all this?

I think that in fact most of us who have taken these vows break them daily in small ways and large.

We often hear of marriages that end due to “irreconcilable differences.” Here is the truth of the matter: marriage is one big humanly irreconcilable difference.

What I mean is that in marriage you are to become one flesh, but obviously you will remain two bodies.

That is, there will always be competing claims for your affections, not just from parents, community, and children, but even from your own bodies, your own wills and desires. How, then, can you ever become reconciled?

The sacrament of Holy Matrimony

In a moment, in the words you speak to one another, God will perform a mystery in our presence. When you make these solemn vows to one another, you will partake in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Though none of us will see it, at that moment you will receive God’s grace to become one. This is a mystery, a holy thing for us to dwell on.

How then can you ever again be unkind to one another? And yet you will find this very easy to do.

This is the bad news: marriage is hard and it stays that way until you die.

Now the good news: God is at work in you. The challenge I lay before you now is this: if you go on with this liturgy and take these vows, then you commit yourselves to living into the mystery of being one.

This does not mean that you will somehow be empowered never to hurt one another.

It does mean that you will be empowered to confess and forgive.

You are not about to vow to be perfect; such vows would be absurd. Rather, your vows are your public commitment to one another, made before God and these witnesses, of the ideal towards which you intend to strive, knowing full well that you will fail and that you will need the help of God and of these witnesses as you move on.

Now, some good news. I have called this thing we are about to bear witness to the sacrament of marriage.

This is a unique sacrament. Christians have long held that most sacraments are to be celebrated by ordained clergy. The sacrament of marriage is not performed by the clergy, however. It is performed by you two.

In this moment you two will become to one another ministers of God’s grace.

It is not consummated in a kiss, nor in a prayer, nor in anything I will say or do. Rather, the words you will speak in your vows – those are the moment of your marriage. By God’s grace, at work in your words, will you be married.

Remember this always. The sacrament comes today; your ministry of grace and love to one another will last your whole life together. Receive that ministry from one another, and use it well for God’s glory and for the nourishing of your mutual love.

The moment of decision

So the time has come for me to ask: with these things in mind, do you still intend to marry one another? [They said yes]

Good! Let us then bear witness to this holy
sacrament of matrimony.

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