Marissa is a dancer in NYC. Trevor, whom I’ve known since he was 10, just graduated from West Point a week ago. I got to do their wedding. They chose Ephesians 5.21-33 for their passage. Challenge accepted.
Here it is:
My wife is a tax attorney and, talking with her this morning about your wedding ceremony, she informed me that it’s now officially too late for you two to sign a prenuptial agreement. Whether that says more about her work or how I’m a lot of work I can’t say, but what I can say is that I sure hope you know what you’re getting yourselves into.
Trust. Intimacy. Fidelity and Forgiveness. Forever! Are you crazy?!
These are outrageous promises to make to any sinner, most especially to the one you’ll see floss for the next several decades.
Speaking of unwise decisions, Marissa you should’ve consulted Trevor’s mom, Elaine. Not only am I her boss, I’m her friend. She knows me better than anyone here, and she would’ve warned you never to let me see, in advance, the vows you and Trevor have written for each other.
Now that I’ve seen them, I’ve got one last pre-marital question for the two of you: if love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?
Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life. Certainly not to someone whose laundry you’re going to have to step over for the rest of your life.
Let’s not allow the bouquets and bubbles blind us to the inexorable facts known by all the unhappily married- and even, maybe especially, all the happily married- folk here today.
“It is hard,” as Robert Capon says in Bed and Board, “for one man and one woman to live together under one roof for as long as God desires. It is hard to raise a family, hard to manage the day-to-day of bed and board, without doing damage to the people we love.”
It’s hard, so hard that sometimes scrubbing the toilet will seem heroic.
There’s a reason we Christians talk so much about God in Christ becoming one with our flesh. It’s because we know it’s no easy trick.
We Christians, who happen to be husbands and wives, know how hard it is for the two of us to become one flesh.
Which is why, I think, the other vows you pledge today, the dusty ones written by Christians from less romantic times, these vows care not one wit about how you two feel today. The marriage rite cares not at all why you two want to get married; it only wants to know what you propose to do about each other henceforth. Indeed, these old vows lead you to anticipate sickness and poverty and all the heartache that can make that last line of the vow (“…until we are parted by death…”) sound like good news not bad.
Everyone here today is gathered here because of how you feel right now about each other and because of how we feel about you. Feelings of love– that’s why we’re all here.
The Church- not so much.
I’ve known Trevor since he was 10. I love him too. And I’m thrilled for how he feels about Marissa. As Connor said in the car on the way to the rehearsal last night, Trevor has had his whole life planned out since he was a boy and Marissa is the puzzle piece that fit perfectly into that plan. As someone who loves Trevor and now loves Marissa because she is loved by Trevor and loves him, I’m thrilled for how you two feel about each other.
But as a preacher of the Gospel and a steward of these vows-
it’s my job to remind you that God cares not at all about how you feel for the other.
Because feelings alone cannot lift the luggage when it comes to the sort of love with which Christ loved us.
The Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians- a text you two chose, I might add- writes that husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved us, which sounds innocuous enough, sentimental even, ready-made for an occasion like today.
But for husbands and wives this gets hairier when you remember how Paul has elsewhere described the manner in which Christ loved us. And, for husbands and wives, this gets to sounding offensive when you consider exactly what that ‘us’ says about us.
What I mean is-
Christ loved, not the lovely and inherently lovable with a few faults and a couple of quirks, the ungodly.
While we were yet his enemies, not his friends, Christ loved us unto death.
After all that pap about love being patient and kind, Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ took up residence among those whom he loved not counting their trespasses against him against them.
To say husbands and wives should love each other just as Jesus loved us is a heads up that what we wed you into today is the way of the cross.
That’s why before you face each other today and make any promises to each other, you faced the altar and remembered your baptism, when you were drowned, kicking and screaming, in Christ’s death.
Marriage is a daily dying.
It would be a cruel commissioning indeed were it not done in the faith that the way of the cross can make both of you Easter new. The reason the self you bring to your marriage today will not be the selves you possess when you depart one another by death is because marriage is a daily dying to self.
Or rather, marriage is a means by which God crucifies your other selves you bring to your marriage today.
The ones you haven’t yet shown the other.
The ones you require the other to reveal about you.
The ones, once they’re revealed, you won’t want to admit are really there.
When we agree that husbands and wives should love one another just as Christ loved us, we’re owning up to the hard and bitter truth that marriage will provide ample opportunity to disclose the hard and bitter truth about ourselves.
Marissa, you will at times be ungodly to him. Trevor, you will sometimes be her enemy not her friend. You will both trespass against each other.
You see, you’re not promising not to trespass against each other. That’s not a promise you can make. You’re not promising not to trespass against each other.
You’re promising to put away your calculators, to scrap your score-keeping ledgers, and not count your trespasses against one another.
I realize this sounds thornier than what you likely expected when you chose this passage, but someone who graduated near the top of his West Point class should’ve been suspicious about a text that begins with a problematic line like “Wives submit to your husbands.”
A verse you didn’t want read today but, since we’re safely in the zipper of the Bible Belt and because I know Rob Hopper will pester me about that verse at your reception, I figure I might as well point out how when it comes to that verse, just like the rest of this passage, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Paul gets a bad rap when it comes to women, but this excised verse from Ephesians should be read in submission to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, his master thesis, for which he empowered a woman named Phoebe, likely a man’s wife, as its primary preacher and interpreter.
Thus, the Paul who writes here in Ephesians that wives should submit to their husbands is a Paul who could just as easily have written elsewhere that husbands should submit to their wives.
Notice, Paul doesn’t say men and women are unequal.
He says husbands and wives are unequal.
It’s a difference, as Robert Capon notes, not of worth but role. It’s a functional difference not a natural one.
Inequality sounds bad to us. And most of the time it is bad.
But not, Marissa can tell you, not in a dance.
The inequality Paul has in mind is a functional inequality because marriage is NOT like a West Point parade march.
Marriage is more like a dance where one leads and the other follows, an inequality of role not merit. And, as time goes on and the music of your life together changes, the roles will shift and the other will take the lead and the other will follow.
Marriage is not a march where you’re both doing the same thing, shoulder-to-shoulder, or one behind the other.
Marriage is a dance.
It’s close up, often aggravatingly so.
Marriage is a dance. It’s face-to-face.
It’s a tango of loving and being loved. Of initiating and responding. Of repenting and forgiving. Of showing patience and showing gratitude for patience. It’s a movement of actions to which your feelings are often incidental. Marriage is a dance where the work is learning when to lead and when to respond.Marriage is a dance. It’s exhausting and hard and beautiful and fun and it takes practice.
Marriage is a dance where 2 equals take on different, unequal but fluid roles in order that both may contribute to the perfection of the whole.
And the whole, the reason we’re here today, is the Mystery of Christ. The dance you two do with your lives lived together- it’s meant to be a live performance, a spontaneous street theater parable of how God in Christ loves us all.
And don’t worry, that’s not the high stakes burden it sounds. It’s not like America’s Got Talent or Dancing with the Stars. There are no losers. No one is voting you to go home because by your baptism in to Christ’s death for our sins, all of them- even the sins you’ll sin against each other, you’re already home free.
The Christ who compares his Kingdom to a wedding party also compares his Kingdom to a stupid sheep who can’t help but get itself lost. Nonetheless, with Jesus, what will get lost has already been found.
In other words, you two are free to dance knowing that every misstep is already forgiven.
As far as the judging of your dance goes, Christ has already said all of that’s finished with, with perfect scores for everyone. The music of his party already kicked on in a garden near a cross on a hill, and the needle will never reach the end of the record.
It’s a hard and difficult dance to do but there are no stakes, no penalties to messing it up.
As the prodigal’s elder brother can tell you, the only way you fail at this dance is by being a begrudging wallflower and refusing to join in the Bridegroom’s party. So as the prodigal’s Father says to the elder son, it’s time for me to shut up and for you to dance.