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Saturday, October 08, 2016

Marriage is FOR life

That my joy may be in you (Jn 15:9-12)
 A 'Love Letter" for the 
Blessing of a Civil Marriage

Amy Bian Fang Wong and Timothy Wong

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 
 Harrington Park, NJ.
October 8, 2016

This is a love letter for Tim and Amy Wong, who were civilly married in China four years ago  and today come to this church, this Body of Christ, seeking a blessing on the sacred covenant they now make between them. It is my hope that they will put this love letter in with their photo album and take it out to read it as part of the celebration of their wedding anniversary. My prayer is that it will strengthen and nourish and sustain the grace bestowed upon them in this sacramental act of marriage. So . . .

Dear Amy and Tim,

First of all, please allow me a moment to simply gush. 

Tim, I’ve never seen you look more handsome. As we say in North Jersey, “Hey, you clean up real good.” And, Amy, you are a beautiful woman but today, today your inner beauty and joy are shining in ways that are simply breathtaking. 

I just want to warn you that I just may get all “gurly burbly” at some point in the midst of this service. I just hope that, if I do cry, it’s not my “ugly face” cry.

So, having said that, let me get onto the heart of this sermon – the part I want you to take with you into your sacramental married life together:

In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about love. Abiding in love, in fact. Living in it. Dwelling in it. 

You can find this love, he says, by keeping his commandments. 

If you remember, that had to do with love, too. His ‘new commandment’ is to ‘love one another as I have loved you.” 

Live in that commandment, abide in that love, and, says Jesus, your joy will be complete.

I cannot even begin to express my joy at being here today, for the blessing of your civil marriage. 

I’ve known you, Tim since you were 16 years old and a CIT (Counselor in Training) at Eagle’s Nest Camp. I, of course, was only about twelve at the time. I was so impressed with you, with your beautiful heart, your generous spirit and your dedication to living out of – and abiding in – the Gospel of Jesus Christ that you simply claimed a piece of my heart.

When I was rector of St. Paul’s, Chatham, and looking for a Youth Missioner, I felt a very clear vocational call to work with you and I called and ask you to come and work with me. Your work rapidly became the model of Youth Ministry for the rest of the diocese. Everybody wanted you for their Youth Missioner. I couldn’t have been more pleased and proud to have worked with you. It gives me such joy to see you in love with this beautiful woman.

Your mom and dad obviously did a great job parenting you. I can only imagine their joy today!

I first met you, Amy, shortly after you and Tim came home to America and took a trip to visit Barbara and me in our home on Rehoboth Bay in Delaware. You fell in love with our home and immediately wanted to move to Delaware, demonstrating exactly the kind of judgment and character and temperament we’ve come to admire in you. 

I love seeing your spirit of adventure, your embrace of what’s new and foreign, and your absolute joy in discovering America and making it your new home. I love that you are now teaching Chinese to American students, contributing in your own way to building bridges across countries and cultures.

As someone who is second generation Portuguese immigrant, I resonate with that line between Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette from the Broadway play, Hamilton: “Immigrants, we get the job done.”

One of the early conversations we had together was about the English language. Your English is ever so much better than my Mandarin. Or, Cantonese, for that matter. Which, as you may have guessed, is non-existent. 

One of the fascinating things about the Chinese language is that one word said with a different tone can mean a very different things. In Mandarin there are four different tones. In Cantonese, I believe there are six.

One of my friends who was doing Interim Ministry at an Episcopal Church in China Town in New York City, was trying to learn Cantonese to be able to minister more effectively with the people God had called her to serve. The first sentence she learned was from the words we say at the altar rail as we distribute the bread, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” 

Apparently, if you say “bread” using the wrong tone, it comes out “dog”. She said that she only knew she was saying it wrong when some of the sweet older ladies would start giggling at the altar rail.

Amy and I talked about our observation that one of the fascinating things about the English language is not that there are different ‘tones’ but that there are so many different accents.   

A set of car keys, said by someone from New England can sound like a pair of men’s khaki pants to the ears of someone from the Midwest.  Or, vise versa. As a native New Englander I have no idea why anyone would wear their chah kees.

It’s moments like that when you know God created not only the Leviathan “just for the sport of it” but also delights in the human creatures who must provide an endless source of hilarity and joy – when we’re not causing Jesus to shake his head and do a face-palm.

You know, what we say in English about marriage is like that. We say that marriage is for life. Meaning that the covenant of marriage, made between two people before God and the people of God, is sacred. It is holy. It is to be marked by mutual respect, equality and equity, trust, and faithful life-long monogamy. It is for life.

But, said in a certain way, that can sound like a punishment for a crime. Right? Getting married? Well, it’s FOR LIFE. No way out. Take the key and lock them up. You are doomed forever and ever and straight on into infinity.  FOR LIFE.

I think it is indisputable that living in that way –like it’s a prison sentence – is not ‘abiding in love’. That is not keeping the commandment of Jesus to “love one another” as he loves us. And, there is certainly no joy – no joy whatsoever – in that particular perspective of marriage.

Here’s what I want to say. “Marriage is FOR life”. Hear that difference? It’s neither Cantonese nor Mandarin, but can you hear the change in tone?  Marriage is FOR life. 

Let me translate “Marriage is FOR life”. By that I mean that marriage is about life. Being FOR life. Supporting life. Creating life. Sustaining life. Do you hear the difference?

There is a beautiful understanding in orthodox theology that when two people fall in love, an energy force, a new light, a new life is created between them. The two are still two but united as one. This “one” is that new energy, that new light.

The goal of the two who love one another, the purpose of their marriage, is to sustain and nurture that new energy, that new light, that new life, which their love has created. Everything they do, everything they have, everything they are, goes into that love, that life. It’s no longer “just me” or even “just us”. It’s about “our marriage”.

So, let me say it again: “Marriage is FOR life.” And, if you want your marriage to last, the best advice I can give you is contained in the Gospel you chose for today.

First, abide in this love that you have created – this new energy, this new light, this new life – that you now share between you. Abide in it. Live in the truth of it. Let it be for each other a seal upon your hearts, a mantle about your shoulders, and a crown upon your foreheads.

Next – keep the commandment of Jesus: love one another as God loves you. Unconditionally. Abundantly. Generously. Lavishly. Wastefully. Undeservedly. 

I recently heard Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg say that, in order for a good marriage to succeed, “You have to be a little deaf sometimes.” 

Sometimes, you’ve just got to let go of your own anger, your own exhaustion, your own frustration over something your beloved just said. It’s best to be a little deaf when you hear your spouse say something annoying or when they react to something you’ve done (or promised to do but didn’t) that is said out of frustration or anger.

Finally – If you do these things – abide in love and love one another as God loves you – then your joy will be complete. 

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not talking about happy. 

With just a little bit of effort, almost anybody can be happy. Living in the midst of the beauty of Rehoboth Bay makes me happy. Ice cream makes me happy. Driving on the beach at Cape Henlopen in my Jeep and surf fishing makes me happy. This wedding makes me happy.

I have come to know this much is true:  

Happy is an emotional state.  Joy, however, is a spiritual state

Joy requires that you abide in love. It requires that you love yourself and one another as God loves you. That’s not as easy as it sounds, especially in today’s world which can be such a broken and dark and desperate place, filled with the increasing levels of intolerance and violence, prejudice and bigotry, xenophobia and nationalism we find all around us.  

I suppose that's why the Chinese symbol for Marriage is 'double happiness'. It's more than just happy. It's much, much deeper and more complex than that. 

Sacramental marriage is about the spiritual quest to find and attain the state of joy in life. 

Jesus says love one another and abide in love and your joy will be complete. If you live into your married life committed to being FOR life, you will do these things and you will not only have joy, your joy will be complete.

Tim and Amy, I wish you love in your marriage. I wish you happiness in your marriage.  Most of all, I pray that the sacramental blessing of this wedding service provides you with the grace to find abundant, complete joy in your marriage.                                                          


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