Mike, my brother-in-law, I’ve known since he was 9, grabbing my huevos in the pool, cackling, and swimming away. LP was a 6th grader when I came to Aldersgate, and 13 years later I count her one of my best friends. It’s nice to write a wedding sermon where I don’t need to prove to anyone I really do know the bride and groom but where I can instead just get to it.
Texts: Ruth 1 and 2 Corinthians 5.16-21
Last Saturday marked the Festival of Pentecost, or, as my people call it, Shavuot, the celebration where Jews recall the giving of the Torah to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai.
You goyim might not know it, but Jews don’t read from the Book of Exodus on Shavuot. For Pentecost, Jews don’t actually read from the passages where God gives Israel the Law- probably because it’s not a very pleasant, flattering story.
No sooner does Yahweh command Israel to worship no others gods but God than Israel starts to melt down their gold teeth and grandma’s silverware and pour them into cow-shaped molds, an impious infraction for which the recently-paroled Moses orders the Levites to draw their swords and kill approximately 3,000 of the idolaters.
The Exodus story doesn’t exactly have any of the trimmings for a jolly holiday story so, perhaps not surprisingly, on Shavuot a week ago Jews read instead from the Book of Ruth.
Every 50 days after the Passover, at Pentecost, Jews read from the Book of Ruth in order to remember that their inclusion into God’s People, as for all of us, comes by way of adoption not accomplishment. “Once we were no people,” we pray with bread and wine, “but now we are your People.”
Your people only by your doing, we leave implied.
Whereas God elects the Israelites out of Egypt more or less against their wishes, Ruth actually chooses to be a part of Israel by declaring “Where you go, I will go…your People will be my People.”
If marriage vows, as Robert Capon insists, are when bride and groom give each other an overdose of self-confidence, then perhaps this assertion from Ruth is the perfect wedding declaration.
But then again, at this point in her life, Ruth’s situation doesn’t look much more promising than Israel’s in Exodus, whom, prior to their betrothal to Yahweh, were in bondage to Pharaoh, so maybe Ruth’s lines about going wherever the other goes aren’t so much born out of naiveté as they are desperation.
In other words, it’s not that Ruth has high hopes for where their relationship will take them; it’s that she doesn’t really have any other hope. The other to whom she speaks her vow is her last card to play.
For those of you who, like the government agents in Raiders of the Lost Ark, don’t remember your Sunday School, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are Jews who had fled the Promised Land because of famine, winding up in a pagan place called Moab where they made a home and started a family. They had sons who took wives, including a Moabite pagan woman named Ruth.
All was the stuff of the Colin Firth romantic movies that Mike is loathe to watch with Laura Paige until famine struck Moab too.
First, Naomi was left a widow.
Then she was left childless.
The Book of Ruth opens with Naomi determining to die back in the Promised Land with no one but this pagan daughter-in-law, herself a widow, dead-set on making the trip with her.
Long story short, they make it to Israel. Naomi plays matchmaker. Ruth takes their future into her hands (double entendres are everywhere here in the Hebrew) and marries a rich guy named Boaz and they become the great, great, great….grandparents… of Jesus.
So, nicely done you two.
The love song you’ve chosen for your wedding concludes with the conception of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, Maker of the Universe— way to set expectations ridiculously high! And here, all this time, I thought Taylor was the Mertins with the Messiah complex!
I mean, most couples settle for “Love is patient and kind…” Not you and Mike! Apparently, you two are aiming for Messiah-making love. Talk about gongs and clanging symbols.
For God’s sake, don’t tell your kids you chose this passage for your wedding. We chose a passage that ends with the couple giving birth to Jesus who was without sin and perfect in every way is a hell of a burden to lay on a kid.
Actually, when Ruth pledges these vows, she has no expectations at all.
Or rather, she has every reason to expect the worst. Both of them- they’re penniless. They’re both widows in a world so cruel to single women that Jesus will outlaw divorce altogether. And Ruth is a pagan about to journey to the Promised Land where she has every reason to assume the Chosen People will choose to send her packing.
So Ruth’s vows are vowed from the vantage of low expectations.
And from those low expectations comes a love that begets the Love which remakes the cosmos. On the assumption that we are all incredibly unique and yet all shockingly identical, I want to offer that there’s a lesson here to be gleaned. It’s this one:
When it comes to relationships, pessimism is a Christian virtue.
All of us are creatures marked by expectations. Constantly, we carry with us images of how things are supposed to be, where life is supposed to go, what I’m supposed to do. And our expectations are never higher- and, therefore, more fraught- than when we are in love.
In love, we just expect:
That the other will easily, intuitively understand us.
That we won’t have to explain things to the other.
That they won’t make too many demands.
That she will always be up for watching Predator.
We’re creatures who carry expectations, never more so than when we are in love. This is why (remember this, you two) we say the meanest-ass shit to the people we love. It’s precisely because we’ve invested higher expectations in them than in anyone else in our lives.
That’s the risk of marriage, right?
The more you love another, the higher your expectations for the other; thus, the more intense your frustrations and your disappointments in the other.
But- notice now:
The problem is NOT in the other.
It’s in your expectations.
We see people all the time who have difficulty in their relationships, but we discount it. We think the problem is with those particular people. We think that we’ll be different in our relationship. And we miss it: the problem with people’s relationships is relationships.
Here’s a prediction I can make-
Whatever problem you have in your relationship, whenever you have a problem in your relationship, the problem in your relationship will be relationships in general. Your problem will be with expectations as such.
And I think that’s a good word because it’s easy to think when things get hard that you’ve just placed your expectations on the wrong person, that you’re in a relationship with the wrong person, when, really, the problem is relationships.
Every relationship is fraught and folly because we never fully understand another person. “Expectations,” as the philosopher Alain de Botton writes, “are the enemies of love.”
Expectations are the enemies of love because expectations overlook one central fact about people in general:
Everyone has something substantially wrong with them once they become fully known.
This is why, says de Botton, every marriage would be made better by both spouses frankly acknowledging to each other that they’re both in certain ways crazy. I mean, just see what happens when you eat all of Mike’s Sour Patch Kids- he’s 50% Crazy Rob.
Instead of high and lofty expectations, it’s better for you to expect that it’s completely normal and unavoidable that people do not understand each other very well because the witness of the New Testament, born out by the Old, is that we do not understand even ourselves very well (because we’re all more than one self). Such is sin that we’re a mystery even to ourselves.
As St. Paul confesses, “I do not do what I want to do, and what I do not want to do is the one thing that I do.” And so do you. And, as perfect as she seems, so does Laura Paige.
There will be occasions when he understands and empathizes with you 100%, times where she gets you totally and what’s going on with you, but these should not be your expectations because they are, in fact, the exceptions.
The pop songs get love all wrong. The real heartache of love is not in finding someone; the real heartache of love is learning to tolerate the person you love once you’ve found them, or, at least, that’s what Ali tells me.
Take tonight’s text as your clue.
Naomi wishes to change her name to Mara, for Mara means ‘the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.’ The name Mara, Naomi thinks, better reflects her most recent past and what she anticipates that the future will bring. Naomi/Mara, in other words, has low expectations, yet from these low expectations comes the Love which made all things and in which all things hold together.
A better expectation for love than the expectations the pop songs and princess weddings give us is this one:
No one can live up to your expectations.
Being disappointing is a universal phenomenon. This is why the marriage rite tonight 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, leading you to anticipate sickness and poverty and reasons why you might consider forsaking the other. The wedding rite, in other words, is calibrating your expectations towards pessimism.
Marriage is about the two becoming one flesh goes the pious cliche, but, really, only Christ can become our flesh. Marriage, as a Christian vocation, is the process of discovering and accepting that the two are two, that the other is other, with you, yes, but not you.
Jesus, after all, tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom we must be born again. And Jesus tells the disciples, who were busy elbowing past each other, that anyone who would enter his Kingdom must become like children.
If marriage is a sign and sacrament of the mystery of Christ’s Kingdom, then it follows that married people need to become like babies.
And babies, as St. Augustine notes, take time to realize that their mother is not just an extension of themselves.
Little children take time to learn that their mother is someone else.
Thus, married love is not about finding your high expectations met by another with nary a conflict along the way because conflict is actually what happens when love succeeds. Conflict is what comes when love prevails, for it means you’ve done what Nicodemus couldn’t do. You’ve been born again. You’ve become like a child again; in that, you’ve gotten to know another as other. Conflict is what happens when love wins; it means you’ve gotten to see someone else across the full range of their life. It means all their different selves have been revealed just as all of yours have been made vulnerable to them.
It’s only when you’ve seen all that is unloveable in another, yet choose to love them anyway that you’ve loved in the way Christ loves us- Christ, who does not count our trespasses against us; Christ, who became all of our wrongdoing so that we might become his righteousness.
St. Paul says elsewhere that this righteousness of Christ’s is given to us through baptism; that is, in baptism we are clothed permanently in Christ’s perfect score. Despite our abundant and obvious pockmarks and imperfections, Christ’s perfection is reckoned to us as our own.
This is why, before he asked you to make any promises tonight, Taylor asked you to remember your baptism.
What makes a wedding an act of faith?
Your willingness to believe that the other is already and always will be perfect.
Made so, not by you and your love for them.
By Christ ’s own perfection.
Even though every day your life together will appear to contradict this conviction.
What makes a wedding beautiful is your willingness to trust that the other will do the same for you- you trust that they will believe that you are already and always perfect even though you know they will have access to see much to the contrary. A God who reveals his power through weakness, his glory in suffering, is a God who loves to hide behind paradox. The paradox of pessimism, when it comes to love, is that a low anthropology is in fact the way God makes us to be what God in Christ has already declared us to be.
This way of love, which chooses to love even what it knows to be unlovely, is how God makes holy.