- Parish House
Sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year C
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Eight years ago, this past Tuesday, I joined a procession into this very church and participated in a worship service like no other I’ve experienced. There was music, ranging from a Gospel solo of Amazing Grace to the congregational singing of Be Thou My Vision. There was liturgy, including a Eucharist with people Emily and I have known throughout our lives, separate and together, from our earliest childhoods through college and into adulthood.
There were also some trip ups and mistakes that, in the end, helped us all relax and give up our anxious hopes for a perfect liturgy. Emily’s nephew for instance who served as crucifer complained to his father just before we entered the church that he was feeling ill. His father told him to buck up and do his job. A few minutes into the liturgy the nephew vomited in the chancel about where the tenors are sitting.
With both sickness and health, beauty and error, Emily and I were married in a ceremony that embodied marriage in all its sacramental realities as well as we could have hoped. My memories of that day often return, especially now that Emily and I worship in this space week in and week out. And with our anniversary having been just this last week, I could not help but have marriage on my mind as I read our lessons for today.
Our reading from the Gospel of John, is after all, one of the bases upon which the church considers marriage a sacrament. In blessing the wedding at Cana through his miraculous intervention to extend the party, Jesus is understood as having blessed all marriages as a sign of God’s kingdom.
And as we read in Isaiah, the idea that God’s reign would become visible in marriage was indeed an old one. That God is in a loving and covenantal relationship with a particular people is one of Israel’s most fundamental beliefs throughout the Hebrew scriptures. It made sense, then, that marriage as a loving covenant with a particular person would be an apt metaphor. And it is a metaphor that comes into the Christian scriptures as well with many references to the church as the bride of Christ within the pages of the New Testament.
Marriage can be a beautiful thing, and my life has been blessed immensely through my marriage to Emily, but our individual happiness, the pleasure of our companionship hardly justifies its status as a sacrament for the whole church. The reality is that Jesus himself never married and many in the church from Paul through the earliest Christians seemed to think that having a family could be a hindrance to life in the kingdom of God. Jesus goes so far as to warn that families can be down right demonic, and any consideration of the families we have witnessed in our wider community could certainly confirm that possibility.
So if it is not the establishment of a family that matters and if it is not a rite meant for everyone, why is marriage still considered a sacramental a sign of God’s kingdom for the whole church? What difference does it make to celebrate marriage as a religious reality rather than simply a legal and social arrangement? In what ways does marriage join with other signs of love to show the light of Jesus to the world?
Reflecting on these questions, the Eastern Orthodox scholar Alexander Schmemann writes that “Marriage is the sacrament of divine love, as the all-embracing mystery of being itself, and it is for this reason that it concerns the whole Church, and–through the Church–the whole world.”
Marriage, is then this place, where two people come together in a deep and promised partnership in order to practice the love that is the fundamental reality of all being. That love is at the heart of all reality, is a bold concept, but it is one that runs deep in the Christian tradition. And now there are even scientists who are claiming this truth. As the biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber has said, “Love — the impulse to establish connections, to intermingle, to weave our existence poetically together with that of other beings — is a foundational principle of reality. Love is the active search for the other, the yearning to be transformed by the other, to enter into connection in order to give life. Love is actually the practice to give life. The need to exercise this practice manifests as desire.”
And yet the burning of desire, our wisest traditions tell us, must be directed and contained, not to cut them off or close them in, but in order to keep the fire burning. One of the best ways to kill a fire is to spread it out. In the disciplined desire of marriage, we create a hearth where the flame of love can keep burning with life and warmth and light. Friends, and family, and community can then all join in the gifts of that gathered brightness. This is where marriage lives into its sacramentality, because though love may be offered and given in many different ways, marriage is a form that makes love a visible light for the illumination of the whole community, and promises, through fidelity, to keep that light alive whatever darkness may come. This is why the married couple commits to staying even through sickness and poverty, because human life will always and inevitably come to a shadow and it is essential that the light of love must learn to endure such darkness. When marriage does so, it witnesses to the fidelity of God’s love for us, even through the shadows of our life and humanity.
Married love, in its fullest expression, is connected to the other ways love becomes visible in charity and friendship. The faithful covenant of love is made manifest in all those places where human life is honored against the limits of lack, poverty, and death. In our Gospel reading we see the extension of this love most clearly through Mary, who pays attention to the shadows creeping in at the edge of the celebration, and invites the gifts of her son’s light to answer them. It is through Mary’s love for the poor that the kingdom of God is brought into reality through the extension of the marriage feast. And this, I think is always a sign of the kingdom, when what is good finds itself being sustained and extended in joyful celebration. A marriage then becomes an opportunity for charity.
In Mary we find an example of love that we should all follow. We are to witness the limits and exclusions of poverty that come through human sin and greed and call on Jesus and his followers to answer those limits with the abundance of God’s kingdom. This witnessing will often require us, just as it did Mary, to call on the institutional structures of our day to listen to Jesus and do as he says, bringing the water so that it might be made into wine.
It is the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, that helps bring together the ways of love and show how us how they are meant to serve the common good. Paul calls on the church to recognize spiritual gifts as “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This means that the gifts each of us have received into our lives are meant not only for our individual happiness but for the good of the whole church and even the whole cosmos. I believe our understanding of marriage in the church would be served well if we understood marriage as a kind of spiritual gift–something given to certain people, not for their own fulfillment, but for the common good of God’s kingdom through which we become truly alive. In this way marriage becomes something that isn’t for everyone, yet is for all.
When everyone is living fully into their gifts, and using those gifts for the common work of God’s kingdom, there is indeed much joy. And that joy, as with any good wedding, must be answered with celebration. In the gifts that Jesus gives to us we should recognize that when we accept them, we are entering a feast where the wine will never run out, and it will be far better than whatever we were drinking for our own happiness.
After our vows were exchanged and we all ate from the common table of communion, our families and friends moved with us to Bowen Hall, where a band played Romanian folk music and we feasted on foods prepared by friends. Though our love had brought all these people here, it didn’t feel like it was about us. Our love was the excuse for the gathering of a community in celebration. God, I believe, is always ready for such feasts and is prepared for whatever miracles are needed to keep the party going. Its our work to accept the gifts God gives us for our common joy and return the light of those gifts to the kingdom gathered around us. When we do that, it will feel as though the dancing will never end. Amen.