June 5, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
About ten years ago, I was confronted by a question that struck me as strange and illuminating. Here it is for your consideration: Why should the Church take an interest in marriage? Why should the Church make it its business to perform weddings?
My first impulse is to answer, “Because churches do weddings, that’s why.” It’s like asking, Why should a middle school teach algebra? Or why should a city make it its business to repair the street? Everybody knows that weddings are one of the things that churches do.
Of course, in the United States, it is increasingly common for couples to have their weddings in venues other than churches. Lesbian and gay couples have not always been welcome to get married in the Church. Thankfully, that is changing, and churches are becoming more open. Still, many young people have not grown up in the church, or have grown up in the church and left. Many people getting married identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or maybe not even spiritual.
Now it may be the case that you have grown up in the church, and you’ve been to your share of church weddings over the years. But even so, we all can understand there’s not often an intuitive connection between having an extravagant family celebration and having a Christian worship service. And should that matter to the Church? Why should churches care about performing weddings?
This question shines a light on that critical tension between the secular and the sacred, between the human and the holy. When a wedding happens in a church, it holds this whole tension. Which is why traditional American weddings feature a hodge-podge of secular and sacred elements. Wearing a white dress, exchanging rings, throwing birdseed—these are secular customs; praying to God, reading scripture, making covenant promises —these are elements of our faith.
I will admit to you, there have been times when I have gotten fiercely protective of the sacred. One time a woman in Ohio, who I didn’t know, left me a voicemail message inquiring about using our church as her wedding venue. There was something about how she said using our church that made me bristle.
Other times, I have talked with couples about the ceremony being a Christian worship service, so while, yes, that’s a funny idea for a tribute, it might go better at the reception. During the service, I tell the couple that the scriptures they’ve chosen are not decorative inspirational quotes; the scriptures are not like centerpieces on the tables. Read the Bible during a wedding and realize we are invoking the word of God.
You can imagine how I get defensive. And I can imagine myself telling some poor unsuspecting couple: “You know you can’t just have a lavish, loud-spirited family party where all the drinking and the dancing matter as much as the vows and pretend this somehow glorifies God…”
Really? Because what if that’s exactly what it does?
You know I believe the human and the holy are not opposites, but actually one leads to the other. What if the deeper we go into our humanness, the closer we get to Christ? What if the deeper we move into our faith, the more human we become? So what if a, pour-another-drink, dance-all-night party is exactly what gives glory to God…
Now if you were to name the resplendent turning when the human becomes holy, or when the holy becomes human, if you were to name that out loud and cry “I see it!” the thing you would be saying is the blessing. This is what a blessing does —it announces the presence of the holy right in the middle of an ordinary plate of food, or an ordinary crisis, or an ordinary couple.
So why should the church care about the work of weddings? Maybe because saying the blessing is what we do in the world. Maybe because when two people stand up to make promises of love, that is so utterly human and so utterly holy, and worth every breath of our blessing.
Our scripture this morning takes place on the third day of Jesus’ ministry, and if you think it sounds like a story of resurrection, you’re right. To begin with, Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding in Cana, and his mother is there too.
In this period, it was common for wedding celebrations to last up to a week. During this week, the hospitality of the wedding party was a big deal. It signified the honor of the family, so a failure in hospitality would invoke shame. You can understand it is a serious problem when Mary says the four words you’d never want to hear at a wedding: “They have no wine.”
At this point in the Gospel of John, we are just beginning to get to know Jesus. This story is told before he has performed any miracles, or signs as they’re called, and in this moment, we get a glimpse of incarnation, how Christ encompasses all that is holy and all that is human.
So Jesus says to his mother, “Madam. Why do you care? My hour has not yet come.” Mary’s not going to even dignify that with a response, but I’d like to think that she rolls her eyes. Seriously, Jesus. She turns and tells the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” And wouldn’t you know, Jesus instructs them to fill the massive stone jars full of water. The servants are the first ones to know what happened. When the steward comes along and tastes the water, he is shocked.
In a flurry, he goes to find the bridegroom, and can you imagine how the groom must feel when he sees the steward approaching? Look, I am fully aware of the crisis. Yes, we have run out of wine and what can be done… Hear what the steward says to the groom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk!” // “But you have kept the good wine until now?!”
What can the groom possibly say in response? It’s partly an accusation and partly a compliment. “See we have all this good wine on hand! And what do you have to say for yourself?”
Wow…Thank you. The crisis that I couldn’t explain just turned into the miracle that I can’t explain, thank you God, and could there be a better prayer.
This story is one of the first episodes revealing a glimpse of who Jesus really is, a question rising throughout the Gospel. Already it proves this much: Christ is not just a theological concept connecting our human lives with the realm of God. Jesus is a person who shows up at our family reunion and has the nerve to interrupt our Tuesday afternoon with the miracle, with grace so inconvenient, so none of his business. O Jesus, we never asked you to help!
Because it’s no problem for us to imagine Christ as the High King of Heaven. The problem comes when Jesus comes along and interrupts our day to save our lives. It has happened to me before, and maybe this has happened to you, and I never see it coming. It can be humbling—even embarrassing— to stand here and taste the wine that we could never afford, and there is more than enough, and what could we possibly say for ourselves… Thank you.
That “thank you” is everything there is to know about blessing. Later in the Gospel, Jesus is standing with crowds of people. They are so hungry, and human, and holy. Jesus is talking with his disciples, how will they possibly get enough food to feed everyone? when a young boy brings him five loaves of bread and two fish.
Once the crowd sat down, Jesus took the food, and said “thank you” —the Greek word for this is eucharisting. Saying thank you, is saying the blessing, is saying grace. And the food turned out like the wine. Everybody ate and there were baskets left over. Because it means something to stand with the people, in the middle of a crisis, and look at the LORD, and say “Thank you.”
Almost exactly two years ago, we walked out of this sanctuary on a Sunday morning and stood outside together and blessed the corner of Twelfth and Twelfth. In the last two years, it’s clear that our blessing did not establish a hedge of protection for that spot. There has been violence right here. There are children who ride their bikes right here. We stand here together in all our humanness and see that this is holy ground. Now Heart of Hope shares that corner with us and we plan to have a block party together in August, and who knows what might come of our blessing, what kind of miracle might interrupt our summer?
It is the work of the church to see the human turn into the holy and the holy turn into the human and then say the blessing. That’s why we bless street corners, and Sunday School children and teachers, and high school graduates. That’s why we bless couples who dare to stand in this spot and make promises of love before God and all the people. And as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “The key to blessing things is knowing they beat you to it. The key to blessing things is to receive their blessing”
You want to know why the Church has an interest in performing weddings, that’s it right there. Because we can’t pronounce God’s blessing and not get that blessing all over our own hands. Because if we want to give glory to God and take seriously the promise of grace that will save our souls, we might have to allow God’s grace to intrude and save the day. It’s right here in the cup, taste and see it is good, then what could we possibly say: Thank you. Amen.