“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam…
And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva..…”
That’s how I started my sister’s wedding sermon (even after strong orders NOT to). It’s also the line from The Princess Bride for those of you who haven’t seen it. But it’s the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to say at a wedding, having sat through plenty of weddings as my wife’s date. The typical guy, I just wasn’t that into the pomp and circumstance of the moment.
And I wonder if that wasn’t Jesus in John 2:1-11. We see that a marriage was taking place in Cana in Galilee. We don’t know who was getting married but we know that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was there and that Jesus was invited, along with his disciples.
Seriously, was Jesus checking the time, seeing if it was time to go? Was he begrudging the busyness of having to be present because his mother had told him to show up? Or was he reveling in the moment, in the way that God was invoked at a time when a man and a woman were joining themselves together forever?
We may never know. But we do know that at some point before everyone was filled, that the groom who was responsible for the afterparty ran out of wine. And that Mary, the mother of God, felt like this was the appropriate moment for Jesus to get involved.
Kind of amusing thought, isn’t it? Jesus is at the wedding but he’s not officiating. But when the alcohol runs out, it’s 1-800-G-E-T-J-E-S-U. Mary, who had an angel appear to her and announce that her child would save people from his sins, and who discovered that he would be king, uses her motherly influence to push Jesus toward his first public miracle.
I remember the first thing I ever did at a wedding at my mother’s insistence: I was a junior groomsman at my cousin’s wedding. That’s possibly the most boring situation for a twelve-year-old boy. But I complied—it’s my mother!
Unfortunately, that wedding is even clearer to me than my own. Midway through the pastoral prayer, there’s a dull “thunk” offscreen on the wedding video. Told the night before to stand perfectly still, I did, and that “thunk” is my right cheek bouncing off of the clothed kneeling rail. I suffered a minor abrasion that was made up so that the pictures wouldn’t be damaged; the plant I knocked off its pedestal on the way down was irreparably damaged.
Back to another amusing moment in the mother-son exchange in Cana: Jesus says no without actually saying no, and Mary doesn’t verbally answer him, but tells the servants to listen to whatever he tells them.
It says that Jesus saw the six stone jars that the wedding guests had used to clean themselves for the wedding, washing their hands and feet, holding between 120-180 gallons of dirty water. And he tells them to fill the jars back up to the brim, and he sends some to the party planner to taste.
Now, just pause with me for a second: dirty water. I’ll admit it, I’m a clean freak, germaphobic. I don’t drink after anyone, wash my hands before eating, my clothes before wearing them. I worry about E. Coli outbreaks at waterparks (my wife won’t get into a hot tub but I’m definitely worse). And Jesus is taking first century, used, dirty, non-hypoallergenic, unsanitized water and using it?
That’s making new meaning to “ministry is messy.”
We don’t see that Jesus did anything to the water, touched it in any way, or said anything, but when the water-turned-to-wine was presented to the planner, he was amazed that the better wine had been saved for later. He knew that you usually got the crowd liquorred-up, and then introduced the less aged stuff when the partygoers were too drunk to notice.
So, there’s Jesus’ rather surprising first miracle. Not a feeding or a healing, but a party trick where he turned water into wine. Still, it’s enough that his being different was revealed to those who knew where the water had come from, and his disciples believed.
I think about the things I’ve learned about weddings from my own through the ones I’ve officiated.
1- The wedding is just the beginning.
2- The ketchup goes in the cabinet (not like the fridge like my mom says). Wait, technically, I learned that from eleven years of marriage, not the actual ceremony…
3- A wedding shows off a lot about family dynamics, from the way its organized to the elements that are important.
4- No matter how old or experienced, the groom is incredibly nervous. You haven’t seen the full picture of a wedding til you’ve seen the groom’s foot tapping like Thumper in the back room.
5- Most people don’t recognize the hard work that they’re about to experience, but that’s ok. The wedding is only the beginning.
Let’s look at that for a minute. The wedding was what I thought was going to be the finish line, growing up. You got married and everything was happily ever after, right? I mean, seriously, that’s how it works in all the movies…. [Have you ever noticed how the movies end with a wedding and sitcoms go through what happens once the people have been married for a decade? Just saying.]
The thing is that weddings are the party and marriages are the covenant. Weddings are the launch and marriages are the orbiting around in space, trying to figure out how to eat space ice cream and manage the essentials in zero gravity. Weddings are when the covenant gets signed and marriages are the place the covenant gets cashed.
The marriage covenant is a microcosm of what God created with Abram, and later fulfilled in the person of Jesus. It echoes the way that Jesus would later promise to love the church as his bride. It’s sometimes as a stretch for us to see that God would view all of us in our togetherness to be the bride to his groom, but it shows the way that God loves us.
Jesus knew about the covenant. He knew about the way that God had first made a covenant with Adam and Eve, which they had broken, and later with Abram. Here, God promised that he would care for Abraham and his descendants, while Abraham was agreeing to worship him as the one true God.
Which brings me to this disclaimer: I know that not every wedding is beautiful. I know that there are tragic wedding planners and poorly planned wedding cakes. I know that best men give terrible speeches and that sometimes, families make us wish they hadn’t been invited.
And I know that not all of our parents set good examples, and that sometimes, our own marriages don’t work out the way that we want them to.
But in this case, when we’re talking about the marriage covenant, we’re talking about the way that God planned it, for a man and a woman to be joined together, to work together, to support each other, to challenge each other.
So when we go back from the marriage covenant to the covenant between God and the church, we see that God really wants something more for us. Sure, church doesn’t always work the way its supposed to. Some of you have been burned by the way that churches treated you. You’ve been knocked around in abusive church relationships, and for that, I am truly sorry.
If you are someone who has perpetrated the misogynistic, hateful, segregationist side of church, I pray that you’d repent.
The truth is that God hasn’t given up on the church, whether it’s the wounded or those who have done the wounding.
Too often, the church we see in the paper or experience in shadowy church parking lot conversations is too often the addition of broken soul after broken soul. The church is often the collection, the hodge podge, of the worst of us. That’s what happens when the church focuses too much on what it can do and what it can be, and focuses less on what the church can be when it lets Christ be the focus.
When we get back to the basics, it comes back to the water in those jars, and the water in this (baptismal) bowl. We’re going to take time later to celebrate our baptisms, the ones we reflect on and the ones that are still to come.
If we, the church, would be who we are baptized to be, like Jesus, then the wedding covenant would end happily ever after. All of the brokenness of our pasts, the marriages, the relationships, the failed attempts to be who we were always meant to be, all of that is washed away. All of that is redeemed, cleaned off, made clean in the waters of baptism.
Which begs the question: is it more amazing that Jesus turned dirty dishwater into wine or that Jesus turned broken-down liars, cheats, and rage-filled gossips into the beauty of what the church can be, what the kingdom of God can be?
Maybe Mary was onto something. No matter the size of the miracle, Jesus had it in him. And no matter how dirty the water, Jesus finds a way to make it crystal clear. Frankly, that’s one more marriage lesson: we don’t always have our best or our first choice attitude to work with every time, but if Jesus is involved, it comes out smelling wonderfully (if you like the smell of wine).
Jesus holds up God’s side of the covenant: to be with his people, to care for them, and to provide them with a much richer future then they could ever imagine. But consider the ways that we agree through the baptismal covenant to fulfill our end of it, the way that the Methodist church articulates it:
We will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
I didn’t make that up—it’s there in the hymnal. We, when we’re confirmed, or get baptized as adults, or join the church by transfer, agree that we will do these things.
We promise to participate: we will not sit on the sidelines but get in the game. We will not just show up and expect that someone else will get it done. We will not go through the motions but we will be engaged in the work of the covenant in these five ways:
Our prayers- Do you pray? Seems so basic, but most of us go through stretches of our faith where we don’t actually pray. Pretty ridiculous right? You’ve got the red phone, the Batphone line, straight to the all powerful being in the universe and you don’t talk to or listen to him? (Funny, we don’t always communicate as well as we should with each other, either.)
Our presence- We will be fully present (you need that one in marriage, too). When you’re not here, you’re not soaking in community, and worship, and discipleship… but other people aren’t being blessed by your work or your perspective.
Our gifts- (Gulp.) The preacher is about to talk about money. Ahhhh! Run! It says right there in our baptismal covenant that we will give to the church, that we will participate in the life of the church by giving back to God what is really his anyway.
Leonard Sweet told this story:
At graduation from a Christian college, two best friends made a covenant with one another: even though neither had any money, they pledged to practice tithing to the church every year for the rest of their lives. As time went on, one became a pastor, and the other became a successful entrepreneur. During the hard years the entrepreneur tithed one thousand dollars the year he earned ten thousand, ten thousand dollars the year he earned one hundred thousand, and one hundred thousand dollars the year he earned one million. But the year he earned six million dollars, he just could not write out that check for six hundred thousand dollars to the church.
So he telephoned his pastor friend, long since having moved to another part of the country, and asked to see him. Walking into his study and joyously greeting his college buddy, the entrepreneur begged to be let out of the covenant. “This tithing business has to stop, bro. It was fine when my tithe was one thousand dollars, but I just cannot afford six hundred thousand dollars. Do you know how much money that is? You’ve got to do something, Reverend, to help me out of my bind.”
The pastor immediately knelt on the floor and prayed silently for a long, long while. “Are you praying that God will release me from our covenant to tithe?” the entrepreneur asked. “No,” said the pastor. “I am praying for God to reduce your income back to the level where one thousand dollars will be your tithe.”
Our service- We are better at this at times than at other things, but too often we’re willing to check it off as a “thing we do” than a “way we are.” When our service becomes a check on our to-do list instead of way we “love God and love others,” we’ve stopped actually serving. We’re doing business rather than loving God through the covenant. We’ve got to stay focused on the love we first felt.
And finally, there’s our witness- it’s been added into the covenant since our hymnals were printed (we’ll have to work on that)- but it’s the thing that’s sometimes hardest for us to wrap our minds around. We promise in our marriage covenant to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others, not just hoping that they’d notice how awesome we are but that we’d actually tell them! Which means we need to be inviting others to the wedding or baptism or church, right?
Ben Affleck said that marriage is hard work last year at the Oscars and got ripped by online columnists for days. I tend to agree. But marriage is a lot like our faith walk, too: it takes work. Certainly, God did the heavy lifting in the person of Jesus Christ by carrying the cross for us, leaving us the ways we can participate ourselves.
Participation. It seems so easy, but to do it, we’ve got to get up off the bench and get in the game. Who’s ready?
This sermon is for 9 a.m. on January 5 at Blandford United Methodist Church