How wonderful it is to begin this new year with a celebration of love! Jonathan and Sarah have come together with friends and family, near and far, and in the presence of this congregation to ask God’s blessing upon their vows of love and commitment. Some of you have known them since birth, others are more recent friends and some in the congregation may never have had an opportunity to meet them in person. And yet, all are welcome to celebrate with them and to add your blessing. God knows, we need opportunities to lift up hope, joy and love.
This event has been a long time coming and even a record-breaking cold spell, snow and the omicron variant of COVID 19 could not delay it any longer. It may seem unusual to bless a marriage as part of our regular Sunday worship but there is much to recommend this practice. It reminds us that every relationship cannot survive without the support of others. Just as it “takes a village” to raise a child, it takes a community to learn how to live faithfully into the vows of love we make. In fact, I often refer to the church as a “school for love” in which we learn forgiveness, the giving and receiving of grace, generosity of spirit and the loving faithfulness of God in whom all our relationships flourish.
It is upon this foundation of faith that what is lasting and eternal is built. Of course, we know that human marriages often end. We have all known the failure of relationships, of love that seems to have grown cold or soured, of bonds that cannot withstand pressure and stress, of joy that has turned to sorrow. Commitments can be broken and separation and estrangement are too often part of the human experience. And yet, there is something more that is holy and everlasting, beyond our temporal reality.
In the sacraments of marriage and Eucharist which we celebrate this day, we proclaim that God is creating something permanent that no circumstance can ever fully destroy. Not even death on a cross can take away Christ’s presence. Each time we are remembered in the Eucharist, we are reminded that we are part of the Body of Christ. All that is truly of love is eternal. Nothing can ultimately separate us from the true source of love and life.
We receive the never-ending gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control through the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. These are the qualities and characteristics that guide us as we attempt to live into our vows of love for God and neighbor. We will fail, over and over again, but the source within us will never dry up. We have an inexhaustible flow of grace and mercy to begin again over and over.
On this day that we rejoice in the marriage of Sarah and Jonathan, we also mourn the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We remember him for his passion for justice, his joyful presence and his energetic commitment to the full equality and value of all people in every aspect of our common life. I remember hearing him speak in 1994 in Oxford, England at my seminary. At that time, when LGBTQ folks were not legally or canonically allowed to fully and openly participate in church or society, he advocated for full inclusion in all the sacraments, including marriage and ordination. He drew deeply on the fruits of the Holy Spirit to work against Apartheid and for truth and reconciliation in a lifetime that saw old, entrenched exclusionary practices demolished.
Most of us know about his public witness as a Christian leader, but his daughter lifted up another aspect of his life as she remembered her beloved father. She talked about the evident love her parents demonstrated for one another. In over 60 years of marriage, her father would tell his spouse daily how beautiful and wonderful she was to him. They experienced many challenges and threats in the decades of their marriage, but the foundation of their love was a solid place from which, not only their children but also his ministry and work flourished.
I’m so glad that Jonathan and Sarah chose today’s first reading from the Book of Ruth. It is often quoted at weddings but many don’t know Ruth’s story. She was married to the son of Naomi. Naomi was a foreigner in the land, an émigré from Israel. Her people were Jewish. As a widow, Naomi lived with her sons and daughters-in-law, until both sons died. The remaining 3 widows were destitute, without the legal and financial provision of male relatives. In desperation, Naomi decides to return to her homeland where she hopes to find charity and pity from her remaining family. It is in these difficult circumstances that Ruth determines to follow Naomi and vows, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”
Ruth commits herself to her mother-in-law and to her people. This extraordinary vow goes against the norm and is incredibly risky. It means that Ruth will leave all that is familiar and live and die in a foreign land. But that’s not the end of the story by a long shot. The love and faithfulness of Ruth results in her union with Naomi’s relative Boaz. Their offspring and subsequent generations make Ruth an ancestor of the child, Jesus. She is named in the gospel of Matthew’s genealogy.
Now, I’m pretty sure Sarah and Jonathan didn’t choose this reading because of any expectation of more children! What is true, though, is that their marriage is generative. It is a solid foundation on which they can stand as they continue to build a community of love around them. They stand, not facing one another with both hands held tightly, but rather together, facing the world, holding onto one another’s hand, with a free hand to reach out in love to all within their orbit.
Today God blesses their joining together in a way that continues to create an ever growing circle of love. From hand to hand that love reaches out to build the Beloved Community. Through our relationships of love and commitment, God is able to redeem and strengthen the bonds which hold us together.
I often remind couples that they are the ministers of this sacrament. They marry one another. They make the vows. They are the outward and visible sign of this inward and spiritual grace. Each of us, today receives that gift of love to strengthen our own vows of love. It doesn’t matter if we are married, divorced, single or widowed. Love draws us near. Love is the sign of God’s incarnate presence. Love brought all that is into being. Love called Ruth to follow Naomi. Love came down at Christmas. Love is consecrated in bread and wine. And love is here today, standing before us. Amen.