Reflections from the Other End of the Aisle

March 7, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

"Being Alive"

Somebody hold me too close
Somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair and ruin my sleep
And make me aware of being alive
Being alive

Somebody need me too much
Somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive
Make me alive

Make me alive
Make me confused
Mock me with praise
Let me be used
Vary my days

But alone is alone,
Not alive . . .

Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let me come through
I' ll always be there, as frightened as you
To help us survive
Being alive
Being alive
Being alive

Sermon "Reflections from the Other End of the Aisle"

I have done it ten or so times right down there in front of this pulpit. In the past, I have done it in people' s backyards, once barefoot with a group of pagans, casting a circle of flower petals -- and once while the bride held a cell phone so her brother could listen from his army post in Japan. I have done it in Arnold Arboretum, I have done it for two men in a Christian church with Holy Communion, and I have done it on a cruise ship in the Baltimore Harbor. I did it twice the weekend after September 11th only 20 or so miles from Andrews Airforce Base in Maryland, where the guests were noticeably subdued and we cringed every time a plane passed by overhead. I have done it in hotels about a dozen times, and once for two women in an art gallery in Provincetown, where a little dog named Annie served as ring bearer. I have done it for friends, and I even did it with a rabbi for my sister even though I knew it was a bad idea (and my hunch was correct).

I have officiated at the wedding ceremony or service of holy union for about 250 couples now. I remember almost every couple specifically; their circumstances, their special fears and challenges, and some of the funny details of their wedding day. They' re all different but they are all alike in one way: every couple is always full of hope --- and no couple ever can anticipate what they are really getting themselves into -- when they stand on either side of me and exchange promises that almost always go something like this:

"I, Starry-Eyed Lover take you, my beloved, to be my lifelong love, husband or wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."

Many of you have exchanged such vows and taken this leap of faith yourselves.

Did you ever imagine how much you would change and grow and have to endure from that moment on?

Did you ever imagine how much forgiveness, forbearance and patience you would have to practice to make it last as long as it has, or as long as it did?

And when you said, "Until death do us part," you did not consider in that moment, as no one does, that one of you would die first. You did not think about how courageous you were to go ahead and give your heart into the keeping of a mortal being just like you. But you were courageous. You were courageous, or perhaps crazy, to dare to make these lifetime promises. And yet people are this crazy, and this hopeful, all the time.

In Stephen Sondheim' s musical "Company," Bobby is the lone single man in a tightknit group of couples. Throughout the show, we see the world through Bobby' s eyes, as he regards the dysfunctional, endearing antics of his married friends – all of whom are invested in seeing him find the right girl. We feel for him (and laugh both with him and at him) as he deals with the dating scene in his own ambivalent quest to find a mate. He' s looking, of course, for the perfect woman, one who contains bits and pieces of all his best woman friends: a "Susie kind of Sarah, a Jennyish Joanne." ("Someone Is Waiting")

We have just heard Michael Hammond sing Bobby' s second act epiphany, where he adds up all the scary and negative aspects of marriage and weighs them against the human need for intimacy, deciding, at last, for the latter. I think you will agree with me that it is a deeply moving song. And I think it is important to say both in the context of this sermon and in the context of this church that while marriage is certainly one of the most common ways human beings form intimate ties in the quest for "being alive," marriage is not the only way to do so.

I am not a married person. I never have been a married person. I once planned to become a married person but my beloved at the time and I changed our minds. We were soulmates who couldn' t live together. It happens! So for many years I have been a close and respectful outside observer of marriage and of married people. And as a minister (and as a friend) I have been privy to the slippery underside of that supposedly rock-solid institution we call marriage. You know there' s worms and dank, musty material down there. There' s no shame in admitting that. It needs to be said and it needs to be said in the church.

I always smile when I think of another great musical moment in "Company" when Bobby sings "Here is the church/here is the steeple/open the door/and see all the crazy married people!" Here is the church. Here is the steeple. This covenanted relationship between two people is most frequently solemnized in churches, which is as it should be, and religious communities should concern themselves with supporting those relationships.

In her book Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, published by our own Beacon Press, Rosemary Radford Ruether puts forth this vision:

The exigencies of life in America at the dawn of the third millenium A.D. mean that people must support one another through a diversity of relationships. In all of these they should be encouraged by religious bodies to be as mutual, sustaining, and life-affirming as possible. These values of mutuality and commitment to flourishing life are not lessened but rather expanded when they are affirmed in many forms, and not in one form only that marginalizes and denigrates all the other forms by which people are sustaining their lives in community. We need to unmask the rhetoric that claims that the affirmation of ‘holy unions' for gay couples somehow demeans marriage for heterosexuals. All of our unions are made holier by expanding the options for faithful relationship and taking seriously their careful preparation and joyful blessing.
- (p 213, emphasis mine)

Ruether goes on to remind us that both the church and the state benefit from stable partnerships between people; relationships which sustain "the well-being of related people over…time, and caring for others in crisis, illness and old age." She suggests, and I agree with her, that the state ought to get out of the marriage business altogether – a fairly radical option that was recently suggested by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts– and let churches and religious communities celebrate, bless and provide a covenanted community for those couples living in a covenanted relationship with each other.

One more word about the state. I wrote in a recent newsletter article about my discomfort in being asked to discriminate on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Male-female couples who come to this church to be married rightfully expect me to sign a license that immediately bestows upon them dozens of legal protections and privileges, and that publicly legalizes and in fact sanctifies their decision to become family to one another. Their children, if they have children, will automatically be included in that bond which the Commonwealth will support in many ways -- ways intimately related to their health care, death benefits and a myriad of other privileges that come with kinship ties.

When a same-sex couple comes to this church to be married, they are blessed… and sent on their way. Any legal protections they want to create between themselves and their children are costly, complicated and therefore often left incomplete, often with unforeseen dire consequences. This is clear discrimination and I believe it is morally disgraceful. It seems patently wrong for any government to interfere with two loving human beings' desire to bind their lives spiritually, legally and economically.

I am offended by this interference and I resent participating in the discrimination of having a marriage licenses available to sign on behalf of some couples and not for others. Civil union legislation, while an obvious attempt at compromise, does not come close to providing the over 1,000 protections and responsibilities conferred by matrimony. In the words of my colleague Bonnie Devlin, the proposed civil union legislation would be like giving women half the vote.

I hope that all of heterosexual people gathered here this morning will take a moment to consider how our sense of our lives would be different if we were not legally allowed to be married. We may not all choose to be, but how would our sense of possibility for our lives be different if we knew we could not?

A single woman remarked recently that she hated to go to church because she was tired of looking at all the shiny, happy married people. It' s so fake! she cried. I tried to help her understand. Married people and families aren' t trying to be perfect when they come to church. Married people, families, widows and widowers, divorced people, gay people, straight people, single young adults, dating people, heartbroken and lonely people all recognize that church is a place that represents the ideals we claim for our lives. When we walk through those doors we' re not trying to act like perfect people but trying to live out our ideals the best we can. Sometimes you can see us strain with the effort. It' s not easy.

Pay attention. There' s a lot of pain beneath the smiles. There' s a lot of risk in standing that close together. It' s not fake. It' s hopeful. It' s faithful. Most couples exchanged vows in some kind of house of worship originally. Not a bad idea, then, to get back to one once a week or so to remember what it was you vowed to uphold that day.

I know marriage to be a land of fear and betrayal, loneliness and all kinds of original torments couples practice on each other. I have heard the stories, the scandals and the secrets. I have occasionally been called out in the middle of the night to witness to agonizing scenes of marriages in crisis. This is the necessary shadow ministry to the privilege of blessing the happy couple on their day of most exciting and excited promise. "Happily ever after" requires a lot of hard work, a lot of personal discipline, and a lot of not-as-happy-as-we-expected days.

We think of the marriage relationship as above all a romantic attachment between people who love each other, but of course this was not always the case. Going back to the dawning of the Common Era, we know that at the beginnings of its history, Christianity "took a negative or at least highly ambivalent view of the union of men and women in marriage, of sexual relations, and of procreation. The ideal Christian was seen as being unmarried, celibate and childless." (Ruether, p 4) Why? Because these were people who believed that the Risen Christ was going to reappear in glory any day, and that when he did they would be translated from human beings into spirit beings in a kingdom of heaven --where there would be no property, no division between people, and no need for exclusive relationships. Rosemary Radford Ruether points out that "The New Testament, for its part, offers no single view of family. It is even, at times, frankly anti-family… Modern Christians think Christianity has always championed ‘the family,' but this belief ignores three fourths of actual Christian history." (p4)

The Hebrew Bible – the other document that has historically ordered moral attitudes around marriage in the western world – is no better help than the Christian Scriptures. I always wonder if those moral leaders who condone so-called "Biblical" marriage have read theirs lately. Please allow me to quote:
Marriage shall not impede a man's right to take multiple
concubines in addition to his wife or wives." (II Sam 5:13; I Kings11:3; II Chron 11:21).

"A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a
virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be stoned to death."
(Deut 22:13-21

"If a married man dies without children, his brother shall
marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or
deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe
and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law." (Gen.
38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10

Marriage has changed drastically in intent and purpose over the centuries, and even in recent history. My own great grandmother was given in marriage to Stephen Billo despite the fact that she was in love with another man. When she ran away from Stephen Billo, pregnant at the time with my grandmother Anne, he caught her and beat her in the town square. I am still trying to understand this, because those who remember my great-grandfather say he was gentle and kind and lovable. Perhaps he was, as have so many other men have done, following Paul' s instruction found in the New Testament for husbands to beat their wives if they prove troublesome. Did you know that our expression, "rule of thumb," comes from an old law that specifies that a man can' t beat his wife with a stick than is thicker than his thumb? Those who work with abused women report that Paul' s instructions are still taken as permission to abuse among many married men.

In my own mother' s generation, I have heard that romantic love was still mostly secondary to other considerations in choosing a mate. Those primary considerations had to do with the man' s ability to provide and the woman' s ability to excel in the domestic arts of homemaking and child rearing. We all know many couples who partnered for other reasons, of course, and I hope we all know some couples who were lucky enough to find harmony both in living out society' s gender expectations of them and in truly cherishing each other.

The comedian Wanda Sykes has a funny bit where she talks about her relatively short marriage. "It was going fine for awhile until he started asking me these funny questions, like ‘What' s for dinner?' I' d say, ‘I don' t know, watchya makin' ? But don' t worry about me, I already ate!' Or he' d say, ‘I don' t have any clean drawers.' ‘Aw, that' s a shame. I just did some laundry and I got a whole clean pile! You' re welcome to borrow some to tide you over!' "

I love what this routine reveals about the anxieties of those who consider the notion of same-sex marriage so repellent: perhaps one of the aspects of same-sex marriage that so upsets them is the dissolution of gender stereotyped roles. If two men are married, in other words, who does the cooking and the laundry? If two women, who mows the lawn and takes out the garbage? This really rocks some people' s world.

It is not for this church or any church to control and dictate what brings people together in holy matrimony, and how they work out the division of labor and other intimate details of their lives once they are married. I believe the church should be responsible to the extent that officiating clergy meet with each couple to determine their sincerity of purpose, their basic compatibility, and their willingness to engage in open discussion of expectations regarding how they will live, whether or not they will attempt to bring children into their lives, how they will argue about money (not if… how!), how they will covenant together around fidelity and sexual issues, and whatever other issues they feel are primary between them.

And then the church should make it its business to support and uphold those sacred vows that individuals make to one another, all within the context of the larger church covenant. Doing a moral inventory of my own support of married friends and family in my life I have asked myself, as I ask you all to consider now, do we take seriously enough our role as bulwarks for married couples? Do we make clichéd "da wife" or male-bashing jokes that diminish or shame our spouses or anyone else' s, all under the guise of humor? When a friend' s marriage is under stress, do we take sides? Turn away out of discomfort and require them to keep secrets in "shiny happy" silence? Gossip about it? Do we abandon from our social circle those whose marriages have ended and whose divorces threaten our own tenuous sense of security?

Marriage is a common thing. It is easy to take for granted because so many people do it. I commend you, married people. Marriage is a spiritual discipline that requires strength of spirit, fortitude, sense of humor, patience, and the ability to finally accept that not even a spouse can save you from the ultimate aloneness of the human condition. When one can realize that and yet remain a compassionate and intimate presence with the all too imperfect and mortal partner, love is achieved.

A wise man once said, "Those whom God hath joined, let no one put asunder." None of us can presume to know whom God hath joined. It is a dangerous arrogance to think that we can. Let us rather be in the business and the practice of affirming and supporting those who feel so joined, in their adventure of lifelong partnership. Dearly beloved, that is why we are gathered here today.

And so may it be, ‘til death do us part. Amen.