You would think I had learned my lesson about preaching on marriage. I once gave what I was sure was a home run sermon on that subject. I don’t remember it exactly, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with commitment and love in a Christian sense being, at least in part, an act of will (ask my wife!). It got fairly good reviews that Sunday, but I wasn’t expecting what one particular parishioner took me to say the next. The next Sunday, as I was greeting the people leaving after the service, a woman from the congregation came up to me and said, “Father, I’ve been thinking all week about what you said in your sermon, and I’ve decided to divorce my husband.”
Now, he may well have needed divorcing. I don’t really know. I do know that understanding of my sermon goes under the category of “unintended consequences.” As I’ve reflected on that experience, I’ve come to three conclusions. The first is that people have a tendency to hear what they need to hear. The second is that my words were probably simplistic and did not take into account the complexity of circumstances in which people actually lived. The third is that I should probably refrain from preaching about marriage altogether for any number of reasons. Perhaps it is because my wife and I celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps it is that I’m getting ready to celebrate the wedding of a beautiful young couple this weekend. No doubt it has something to do with the readings for this week, especially the Gospel, Matthew 16:21-28. For whatever reason, though, I’m thinking a lot about marriage lately, and in particular, about the final blessing I will say in just a few days over Alexa and Matt. The wedding liturgy, to be sure, has its problems, mostly from historical contexts having to do with property rights that happily no longer apply and from some degree of theological confusion. One thing we got right, though, was the Nuptial Blessing, which we incorporated into the Prayer Book from Eastern Orthodox liturgies. The Orthodox blessing is beautiful blending of realism in facing life head on and hope in pointing beyond what is to a vision of what God intends.
“Bless them in their work and in their companionship; in their sleeping and in their waking, in their joys and in their sorrows; in their life and in their death. Finally, in your mercy, bring them to that table where your saints feast for ever in your heavenly home.” (BCP, p. 430)
I also love the opening line, which comes to a crescendo concluding with something from this week’s Gospel. “Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.”
To make the way of the cross to be the way of life. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24)
What a paradox! The way of the cross leads, of course, to death. But then, so does every other way, at least sooner or later. The way of the cross, though, is from the divine perspective the only way that leads beyond death to life.
From a human perspective, though, it admittedly does not make sense. Another couple at whose wedding I’ve officiated has helped me understand by helping me realize that the “way of the cross” is difficult to understand for those not standing within the Christian tradition. They asked me to adjust the language so that their non-Christian friends would understand what was meant. That seeming like the very essence of what a follower of Jesus ought to do, I happily agreed. They helped me realize that even within the Christian tradition, it comes close to jargon, something said without much thought to its real meaning, and that I needed to more carefully consider the truth underneath the paradoxical words that so easily tripped off my tongue.
The best I could come up with was “self-sacrificing love.” For one thing, it gets away from the concept of redemptive suffering. I have a hard time believing suffering is redemptive, or at least necessarily is, which is an insight I got from my best friend in the sort of deep conversation about what life means I so enjoy having with him. On the other hand, and I’m pretty sure I’m right about this, I do think choosing to make a sacrifice for the sake of love is at the core of redemption and is indeed the path Jesus walked to resurrection. That may require some suffering. Or it may not. If it does, the suffering may be great or it may not. But what makes it redemptive is not the suffering itself. It is the spirit with which it was undertaken. And that I do think says something about marriage.
Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us to make the way of self-sacrificing love to be the way of life. We thank you, also, for consecrating the union of [human beings in marriage] in his Name.
Bishop Stacy Sauls