Renewal of Marriage Vows
There’s been a great deal of public conversation about marriage over the last several years. Though, as I think about it, conversation might be too gentle a word to describe some of the vitriol that continues to fly back and forth across this major battlefield of the current culture wars. Fortunately, things finally seem to be easing up a bit. The problem, at least from my perspective, is that most of this conversation focuses on the gender composition of couples which has historically defined such unions and hardly any air time has been given to the deeper and more crucial aspects of this critical form of human bonding. And that seems like a real shame because as we argue and fight about who can be married to whom, more and more and more of those historically configured marriages are ending in divorce.
So it’s with no small degree of joy on my part that all of us will act as witnesses this morning when Dick and Carol McConnell renew the vows they made to one another twenty years ago. One of things that makes me particularly happy about doing this today is that it’s happening on a Sunday morning in the context of the community that gathers to worship here week after week. I have presided at many weddings through the years, and one thing I can assure you of is that, with very few exceptions, almost no one in the congregation is invited to the weddings of members of the congregation or to the weddings of their children. There are lots of valid reasons for this, but what it means is that the event which is a “wedding” gets disconnected from the ongoing covenant that is “marriage” which hopefully is lived out in the context of a worshiping community.
Another “problem” is that, in most western cultures, marriage is both a legal contract and, for Christians, a sacrament, a distinction most people are unaware totally of. You may not know this, but when I, or any other clergy person, stand before a couple and join them in holy matrimony we are also acting as agents of the state, in our case the state of Pennsylvania. We’re required by law to sign and return to the county courthouse the marriage license which joins them in a legally binding contract. But the flip side of that legal responsibility is that clergy have no standing whatsoever when couples decide to void that legal contract in divorce. This is a source of dismay for a lot of clergy. Yet, as you and I know, when many couples decide to marry, they do want to make their vows in a church and before God. The Episcopal Church requires couples to go through a period of preparation to help them focus beyond the day of the wedding “event” and to think about the realities of living in the marriage covenant over the course of their lives. The Church also wants couples to understand the sacramental ramifications of what they are doing.
One of the few questions I remember from the catechism I was required to memorize as a twelve year old girl is this: What is a sacrament? And to this day I recall the answer: A sacrament is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In other words, a sacrament is something that reveals and demonstrates that which would otherwise be undetectable. For marriage there is actually a concrete and visible symbol of the relationship. It’s a ring which clearly demonstrates that people have entered into the legal civil contract called marriage, but revealing the sacramental reality of marriage happens in the life of the couple. So how do those of us on the outside detect the sacramental in the lives of couples we know?
The first and primary way is that they live like people who are joined by a covenant they’ve made with God and with one another rather than people simply bound together by a legal contract. For example, we sign a legal contract when we sign a lease to rent a house or an apartment. The lease says we can live in that house or apartment as long as we pay the rent at a mutually agreed time. The lease also binds the owner of the property to maintain that property so it is safe and habitable, and that lease gives remedies to either party in the agreement if the other party doesn’t hold up their part of the bargain. But a covenant is different. In a covenant the parties promise to uphold their vows to have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health…regardless of what the other party does. It’s not that covenants never get broken, that relationships never become toxic and destructive. It’s about entering into a relationship prepared, as best they can be, to weather the inevitable ups and downs that come with all human relationships, especially the ones that are lived up close and personal.
And if we want to understand what sacramental loving looks like, what are its outward and visible signs, we can turn to the marriage prayers. In fact, do that right now, if you would. They’re on page 429. Notice that the first petition is a general invocation for God to pay attention to the couple, to be present with them in their life together, but the heart of what we’re talking about this morning is what follows.
- In the second petition we ask for the grace of wisdom and devotion so they can be there for one another in all that comes with life: times of dependency, confusion, grief, and happiness.
- Next we pray that they be knit together, not just to each other but to God as well. I always think about this as a prayer for resilience in the face of those inevitable challenges that can pull and twist relationships out of shape.
- Then we ask for that most necessary ability to accept responsibility when they mess up and the willingness to forgive each other. This is so critical because love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry. On the contrary, it requires saying it over and over again through the course of a lifetime.
- And in that same vein, we pray their loving devotion will make them a shining beacon, a sign of what is possible in a world torn by estrangement, guilt and despair.
As I think about it, the sacrament of marriage as laid out in these prayers is a pattern for all human relationships. It’s about commitment to faithfulness and honesty; to companionship which sustains and challenges and heals not just the participants, but those around them and the very world in which we live. So thank you, Dick and Carol for inviting us to share an important part of your life together this morning, and for giving us the opportunity to think about the sacrament that our lives and our relationships are meant to be as well. Thank you.