Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 21, 2007

2007.10.21 “Church at the Passages of Life: Marriage”

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Church at the Passages of Life: Marriage”

John 2: 1 – 11

Rev. David L. Haley

October 21, 2007

It was many years ago in Memphis, TN., where I served in my first appointment, as Associate Pastor.  Late one night after a meeting the Senior Pastor, George Comes, and I stopped into a restaurant for pie.  There was a young woman in a booth who recognized Rev. Comes and said, “Oh, hi”, aren’t you Rev. Comes?”  You married me a few years ago.”  But I’m divorced now.  You married my sister also.”  She’s divorced now too.”  Poor George:  you could almost see him inflate and deflate in the same motion.

Nothing like the high and holy estate of marriage to humble all of us, whether those who perform the services, or those of us who are wed. 

This is the third sermon in my series, “Church at the Passages of Life, about the major ways the church impacts our lives at some of the most important times of our lives.  Today we look at the church and one of the most joyous passages of our life, Marriage.  Or as the title of one article put it:  “Marriage:  Minefield on the Way to Paradise.”

      First of all, it ought to be noted that marriage — as most of us have known it — is on the decline – not by the so called assault on marriage by gays — but by changing demographics.  According to census statistics, married couples with children now occupy fewer than one in every four households — a share that has dropped by half since 1960 and is the lowest ever recorded by the census.  The other 75% of the population is made up of what we used to call “non-traditional” families:  singles, including single-mom and single-dad households, widows, and non-married couples, all categories that continue to increase.

So let it be noted that if we plan our congregation resurgence on traditional families in the form of Dad & Mom and 2.2 children, it’s a declining demographic.  Furthermore, we would be ignoring 75% of the population. 

But marriage has always been an important province of the church, and significant for those who choose it, so what about marriage?  Although we Protestants do not refer to marriage is a Sacrament, as does the Roman Catholic Church, (we acknowledge only two sacraments, Baptism & Holy Communion), we do believe marriage is sacramental, capable of conveying God’s grace and blessing upon those who enjoy it.

Ah, but there is the rub:  that word “enjoy.”  The humbling nature of marriage is evident in the many quotations about it, chiefly from those who are married:

Socrates:  Whether you marry or whether you don’t, you’ll regret it.

H. L. Mencken:  “A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he’s married.”

The late Ruth Graham, wife of Evangelist Billy Graham: “Have I ever thought about divorce?  Never.  Murder, many times.”

I know in this congregation as any congregation there are people who would like to be married, as well as married people who would like not to be.  I know there are the disappointed, the disillusioned, the hopeful, and the happily single.  (Remember what Socrates said . . . .)

What contributes to making marriage so humbling are the high ideals with which we go into it. As George Bernard Shaw once noted:  “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”

Some have even speculated whether – now that we enjoy the longest life span human beings have ever known – it’s feasible for the same two people to be married so long.  In the past, when life spans often fell short of fifty, people either stayed married to the same person until they died, or had a series of spouses because they kept dying.

Even when you look at the Bible – the source of many of our high ideals, marriage is almost always less than perfect. You want a Biblical marriage? Would that be an Old Testament one, polygamous, replete with concubines, as Abraham and King Solomon?  Or would that be a New Testament one, where the wives were property, and invisible, at least publicly.  We know that Peter was married, and perhaps Paul, and maybe even Jesus – but it was of such little importance to those who wrote the New Testament that they told us nothing about it.

Even when Christian couples go looking for Biblical texts for their wedding ceremony, they often discover – sometimes to their amazement – that there are few.  Inevitably, it comes to the creation text from Genesis or the passage from Ruth or most often I Corinthians 13, where, let’s face, St. Paul was at his best, and even there, not talking about romantic love. Ironically, almost nobody reads from the Song of Solomon, the only book of the Bible really about erotic love.  No wonder it has traditionally been interpreted allegorically; otherwise, it’s “How’d that get in the Bible?”

Sadly, statistics show that when Christians do get married, they actually have a higher divorce rate. The Barna Research Group’s national study showed that members of nondenominational churches divorce 34 percent of the time in contrast to 25 percent for the general population. (We Methodists did better at 26%). To make matters even more distressing for believers, atheists/agnostics had the lowest rate of divorce 21 percent.  For some this raises the question of whether religion has anything to do with happiness in marriage, or at least, might not be the most important factor.

If anything, that ought to give us in the church the incentive of trying harder, not less.

Up front we ought to be clear – as the wedding policy we worked out at my previous church makes clear:

“Your inquiry about having your wedding at our church indicates to us your desire to invite God to be present at your wedding and to bless you throughout your marriage.  Your wedding – the vows you make to each other and to God – therefore become not only a sacred celebration of your love and commitment to each other, but also of your love and commitment to God.  As the old wedding service put it, “It is therefore not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God.”

In doing weddings, I would have to confess that if there is anything that has turned my hair gray with anxiety, it would have to be performing weddings.  The cast of characters, the oceans of anxiety, combined with all the things that can go wrong, make them exhausting.  The last wedding I had I kept asking myself why I had so much anxiety. After the rehearsal, with six attendants on each side and about 3 other people who wanted to be in charge, after practicing 3 times outside and then going inside to practice two more times in case of rain, I drove home thinking, “You know what, my anxiety over weddings is not exaggerated, it’s justified!”

        Even then, sometimes, regretfully, despite our highest ideals and best efforts, a marriage disintegrates, and the toll taken by staying together becomes greater than that of splitting apart.  Which is why some churches — including the United Methodist Church — recognize divorce as the lesser of evils, akin to cutting off a gangrenous leg to save a life.

Those of us are divorced, will always feel guilty, that we failed.  From which we may or may not have learned our lessons.  As a pastor, I never feel more like God must feel, than when I silently and secretly watch over couples whom I know to have a disintegrating marriage.

Having acknowledged what’s wrong with marriage, what can we say that’s good about it? As I said before, marriage is sacramental, capable of conveying God’s grace and blessing upon those who enjoy it.

What’s graceful about it is, in fact, the very same thing that makes it so challenging:  it is – as 16th century reformer Martin Luther (who was married) put it, a “school for character.”  It asks of us exactly the same thing that religion does:  growth in grace, in the basics of spiritual transformation: love, selflessness, kindness, forgiveness – the very things St. Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 13.  And that’s what makes it so hard! 

Like the woman who put up a sign in her kitchen saying, “Prayer changes things.”  Her husband took it down.  “Don’t you believe in prayer?”, she said.  “Prayer I like,” he said.  “It’s change I hate.”

Add to that all the required relationship skills, such as communication and negotiation and compromise, and you can see why marriage – even at its best – can be so challenging.

I’ve always liked the 85 year old, who when he was asked the reason for his good health and long life, said: “Well, my wife and I agreed sixty years ago that if she was mad at me, she’d tell me and get it off her chest.  If I was mad at her, I would take a walk. I attribute my good health and long life to the fact that I have led — for the most part — an outdoor life.”

Let me be clear:  as difficult as marriage is, in a good marriage, the companionship and intimacy and good marriage provides is worth it.  Believe me, I’ve had both, I know! 

I don’t want to either whine or brag, but because I’m new here, let me share with you my own experience. 

I was married for 14 years, and then divorced.  Since this is going to appear in public (in written form, on the website), that’s all I want to say about that.   I was then single about five years, and that’s all I want to say about that, too.

In 1999, Michele came, with her Handbell Choir from St. Andrew Lutheran Church, to play at my church.  Before we went into the service, she began talking – like an old friend – to the lay reader, a friend of mine.  “You two know each other?”, I said.  That was to be the start of something.

I grew to care for Michele, but then she had a two-year old, (Becca), and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to raise kids again. The first time they came over to my house for supper, I cooked Bœuf Bourguignon, which Becca threw up all over the rug.

But (against my better judgment), Michele and I grew to love each other.  In October of 2000, in the same church (this time she was playing the flute) and — shall we say — I fell under conviction.  I called her to the front, and in front of the whole congregation asked her if she would marry me.  Fortunately, she said “yes”, otherwise I would have had to change churches.  The congregation — I understand — went wild – but we didn’t hear it, we were delirious.

The next Monday, our District Supt. reported to then Bishop Joseph Sprague that one of our pastors had proposed marriage in church on Sunday.  His reply was, “Please tell me he isn’t married.”

        Three months later, on January 20, 2001, in that same church where we met and got engaged, Michele and I were married before an overflow crowd, ending with Louie Armstrong singing, “Give me, a kiss to build a dream on . . .” 

        I’ve come to love her more, everyday since. 

        And that’s what’s good about marriage.  I wish it for each of you who desire it, for all of those who will come, seeking the high and holy estate of marriage.

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