I’m considering making a list of readings heard at weddings that I don’t think actually belong at weddings. First is anything from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. The book, which was wildly popular when I was in college, is a smooth, sweet soup blended from most of the ancient religious traditions but without any connection to a God who might have ideas of how people should behave – that is, a handbook for those who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.
The next choice is the passage from the book of Ruth: For whither you go, I will go; and whither you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” I’ve always wanted to say to a couple making this choice, “You do know, don’t you, that these words are not spoken to a spouse, but by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. Do you actually have that close a relationship with your future mother-in-law?”
Ah well. By far the most popular passage of scripture is this morning’s epistle lesson. Even if you had never opened a Bible, you would know this reading if you had ever been to a wedding.
The Reverend Kevin Armstrong writes, “…. Couples coming to be married often say to me as we’re planning the service, ‘Now we want to be sure and include that love chapter – that little piece about love that Paul writes.’ And I try to explain to them, ‘You know that wasn’t written for a wedding. That was written for a group of people who came together. They cared about each other, but pretty soon it was clear that some of them thought that they had better ideas than some of the others, and some of them began to have voices that got a little louder than some of the others; pretty soon they were saying to one another, ‘Well, some of us are more equal than others.’ And it’s at that point that the couple usually looks at me and says, ‘Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what we want read at our wedding.’”
Well, I suppose it won’t hurt anything, even though it’s out of context. Some of the descriptions might help a couple behave lovingly within the relationship. But Paul actually wrote these poetic lines to a church community that was in wild disarray and conflict. While the words are beautiful, they are very confronting to those who are attacking or excluding each other, seeing themselves as smarter, better, holier than the rest.
All of which means that we ought to hear this passage as a description of a community as it should be, filled and defined by God’s love. Maybe when it is read in worship, it should be read by the congregation in unison, as we read our mission statement at the annual meeting – a reminder of our call in Christ.
When Ivy and I lived in Pennsylvania I was ordained an Elder in the United Methodist Church (that was before the Episcopal ordinations, after which Ivy told me, “This is the last ordination party I’m throwing for you.”) Anyway, the church had now acquired an Ordained Person who was also a psychiatrist, and they asked me to start a program of counseling for pastors and their families in the Central Pennsylvania Conference.
I did that for four years, and, man, did I ever end up hearing incredible stories of dysfunction: churches that formed little cliques and tried to get the pastor to choose sides; churches where members made terrible, destructive attacks on each other; churches, usually small, where one member, usually wealthy and third-generation actually ran everything. If I hadn’t already had a pretty strong theology about the institutional church as an imperfect body, I’m sure I could have drowned in the mess of the reality.
Fast forward to the move to Minneapolis nineteen years ago, where we found St. Johns and joined up. Marianne encouraged me to transfer my orders, and gave me opportunities to preach, teach and celebrate. It’s been wonderful. And many of you have heard me say, “This is the healthiest church I’ve ever been a part of.” Perhaps now you understand why I would know that, given where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
I do not claim that we here have reached perfection. We ought to be grateful for the gifts of unity and gladness we have been given, but also look for how we can continue to reach further towards God’s desire for us. I don’t mean that we need to look for more stuff to do, because the journey into love is not a project to complete. It is a revelation to be heard – a revelation of love that seeks to bring us to the maturity of a clearer vision of God’s presence. As Paul writes at the end of the passage, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Having said all this, I would not claim to be someone who is completely open to the depth of God. Part of me longs to know the fullness of God’s love and of my own deepest reality, but part of me has trouble facing that unknown.
I remember being at church camp when I was 12 years old. It was evening and I was on my bunk in the cabin. Suddenly two of the girls burst in the door exclaiming, “We went to the top of the hill out back and we met Jesus there!” Well! Needless to say everyone else had to go climb the hill too. Except for me. I lay rigidly on my top bunk, staring at the ceiling, afraid to join the quest. Afraid that I wouldn’t meet Jesus, as they had; probably more afraid that I would meet him and be vulnerable to whatever change or transformation that might bring.
Then as now, I continue to see as in a mirror, dimly, frightened of experiencing eternal love face to face. And I doubt that this ambivalence is mine alone. But it seems important, both for me, and for us as a community to dare to listen deeply for that revelation which completes our being.
As the good and healthy church that we are, we need to listen carefully and continually to each other and to God, to deepen our experience of love, to be made into the true body we are called to be. Because if we read Paul’s words carefully, we are not really meant to be a community of Christ or of love. We are to be a community in Christ, in love – falling endlessly, eternally, deeper and deeper into the heart of love.
The word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.