Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Marriage of Justin and Neina

Justin and Neina
Ruth 1:16-17
Colossians 3:12-18
John 15:9-17

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You know, the thing about Neina is, she and I go way back . . . to yesterday.  We have known each other for a long day.  We’ve had all sorts of experiences together, like saying “It’s so nice to finally meet you,” and “Wow!  Nice dress.”  We’ve been through thick and thin in our two conversations, and I feel we have really grown in our relationship from back before we met all the way to now having finally met.

Justin, on the other hand, is an enigma to me.  Because you do not so much get to know Justin as you are . . . I don’t know . . . Overtaken, perhaps?  Having Justin Vetrano in your life, means a certain set of things.  And, as many of you know, chief among those things is something we might call “acting.”  If you’ve known Justin for even half as long as I’ve known Neina, you have heard him do some impression of somebody at some point.  And, having seen it many many times around Christmas, one of my favorite things Justin does is what we call, “The Camel Driver.”  I’m not even going to try to explain the whole thing, but I will say, the character has a warm place in my heart.

And, given that the Camel Driver is the one who delivers the Wise Guys to the stall in Bethlehem, our thoughts now naturally turn to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

The Gold part is obvious.  Though it is white gold, Neina and Justin will offer rings as a sign of their pledge and all that that implies.  The connection of Frankincense to these two is something you’ll have to pry out of them yourself at some point.  It really is a story that makes you think, “Maybe that Agent Mulder wasn’t crazy after all.”  But then we come to Myrrh . . . Myrrh is something hipsters say that means, “I am disappointed.”  And, as our family has learned twice now, Myrrh is also what a female cat says when she . . . um . . . reaches kitten-bearing age.  In addition, Myrrh is that third gift given to Jesus by the Wise Guys, along with the more-familiar Gold and Frankincense.

Just last week, I smelled Myrrh for the first time, courtesy of my wife having some essential oils around.  I was really excited for this moment, since I had never smelled Myrrh before.  My assessment?  Myrrh smells like something you clean a floor with.  I mean, you know, a really expensive floor.  Myrrh is not something you use to remind you of the joys of life and all that.  Myrrh is a resin that was used in embalming and funeral rites.  It smells better than formaldehyde, to be sure, but it ain’t no Frankincense.  Myrrh has a strong association with death.

Oh wait, I left some stuff out!

So, one of my favorite parts of the Marriage Rite in the Book of Common Prayer (which is like my denomination’s hymnal) is the Blessing of the Marriage.  A beautiful prayer, which comes at the end of the marriage ceremony.  And there’s this one part that gets me every time, where the Priest asks God to Bless them in their work and in their companionship; in their sleeping and in their waking; in their joys and in their sorrows; in their life and in their death.

Now I’m sure that for most people hearing that final blessing of the couple, they don’t really notice the last sentence.  Instead they are wondering if there will be vegan appetizers, or if the band takes requests, and what exactly is meant by an “open bar?”  But anytime I hear that Blessing of the Marriage, I honestly get choked up, whether I am speaking it, or hearing someone else speak it.  And here is why:

We expect to ask for God’s blessing on all sorts of human activities.  You know, starting a congregation, or opening a soup kitchen, or getting married to the one we love.  We ask for God’s blessing in communities all the time.  But I think we all honestly expect that when our final hour comes, we will likely die alone.  Chances are, we’re sitting in a hospital, maybe some family gathered around, but dying is a lonely business.

But hear the last line of that Marital Blessing again:  Bless them . . . In their life, and in their death.

It’s subtle, to be sure.  But it can be life-changing.  Bless them in their death.    As we just heard in the Gospel reading, Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Sure, Jesus, we understand that great love is to lay down your life for your friends.  But the greater comfort is this:  To lay down your life with your friends.

While I know I am putting undo pressure on the phrase, “Till we are parted by death,” there’s a promise in that phrase.  It sounds like law, I know.  I will not leave you until I am dead and buried.  (Hey, happy wedding day!)  But there is a very strong promise in that vow, and it is related to what I am trying to get at here:  In simple terms, a marriage can mean that we face death together.  Obviously, in most cases, one spouse will die before the other.  But that spouse dies knowing they are loved.  And when the other spouse finally closes their eyes in sleep, it is in the confidence that they will be reunited with the one who has gone before.

I know it seems awfully heavy handed for a wedding sermon, but I also believe it is the best news a couple can hear.  A marriage vow of commitment means we will not die alone.  And, more importantly, Jesus’ promise of resurrection means that death is not the end of our relationships.  For those who marry and for those who don’t marry.  We will be reunited with those who have gone before.

You promise your love to each other with Gold.  You celebrate all that life has to offer with Frankincense.  And you cling to each other in the Myrrh-infused journey into everlasting life. 
Justin and Neina, may God bless you in your work and in your companionship; in your sleeping and in your waking; in your joys and in your sorrows; in your life and in your death.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

for Merle H. Porter: Jan 26, 1919 - April 9th, 2012

Easter 3, 2012
St. John's Church, Genoa OH

From Lamentations
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

Great is thy faithfulness. Great is thy faithfulness. Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed your hand has provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

As many of you know, that was the favorite hymn of Merle’s wife, Jean. And, being a sensible man, this means it was among Merle’s favorites too. It is a beautiful song, with a progressively rising chorus, comforting verses, and an interesting twist. The phrase, “great is thy faithfulness” soars to great heights, but the very last word, “me,” is so low it is almost muttered. The lowest note in the entire song comes with “me.” We belt out God’s faithfulness, and whisper who it’s for. But if we decide it’s too low, and try to raise “me” up just a little higher, we can no longer sing, “great is thy faithfulness.” It’s almost as if we have to choose between “me,” and God’s great faithfulness.

Since Merle sang in the church choir for his entire singing life, he no doubt sang this hymn a lot. In this very space in fact. Morning by morning became year by year. Daughter by daughter. Wedding by wedding. Grandchild by grandchild. Great grandchild by great grandchild. And, inevitably, funeral by funeral. Merle knew God’s faithfulness. And because of that, Merle was not afraid of death. And because he was not afraid to die, he was not afraid to live. Merle was as alive as anyone I’ve ever known. He did not have to walk on eggshells and obsess over appearances. He could sit around in his boxer shorts with the front door open . . . of the house, I mean. If that bothered you, well then that bothered you. He was going to live his life. But still, you were always welcome to sit down and take in a ballgame. And if you asked, he would tell stories about his life.

And what a life it was. A life of great faithfulness, in fact. He faithfully sang in the choir. He faithfully answered his country’s call to take up arms in war. He faithfully waited for his GI bride. And together they held hands faithfully through this life for 52 years. He faithfully led this congregation as president. (More than once, not having learned his lesson the first time, I suppose.) And he was a faithful fan of his beloved but hapless Cleveland Indians. He was faithful to being a good father to six little girls, who grew up and into six wonderful women. Above all that, of course, Merle was faithful to God. How was one man able to be so faithful in so many things? Well, I think it goes back to that hymn. Merle Porter trusted and believed in God’s unending faithfulness. He trusted in God’s mercy, and believed in the promises of God. Promises to faithfully save him from sin and the power of death, to feed him in the communion meal, and to be present with him, no matter the circumstances.

Merle Porter is greatly missed, by so many people, in so many ways. And maybe it is Merle’s faithfulness that we miss most of all. He was the flesh and blood example of the kind of faithfulness we all want to have. Perhaps we miss Merle Porter so much because we miss walking through this life knowing someone who so clearly embodied the love of God, the faithfulness of God. To be hugged by Grandpa Porter was like being hugged by God. (Or, at least, Santa Claus.) For many of us, his presence in a room was a reminder of God’s presence in a room. He welcomed people like God welcomes people: unconditionally. He was the first person to laugh at your jokes, and the first to cry at your misfortunes. Just as, I suspect, God is.

Well, was Merle like God then? Of course not. He was just the loudest, lowest, bedrock voice singing, “Great is thy faithfulness.” Day after day, year after year. And for those of us who heard him, we could know of God’s faithfulness by looking at Merle Porter. Following his lead. And he could show us God’s faithfulness because he knew it to be true. He knew that God did not give up on Jesus when his body was laid in the tomb; and he knew that God will not give up on us when our bodies are laid in our tombs. God raised Jesus, just as God will raise Merle, just as God will raise each of us.

How do we know that? Well, one way is because God occasionally sends someone like Merle Porter into the world to tell us about it. Someone who sings God’s praises throughout life. In the trenches and on the mountains. Someone who never tires of singing, “Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.” And that is the key. Because, you see, though Merle was faithful to the end, it was not his faithfulness that saved him. Rather, it was his faith in the one who is faithful. It is God’s faithfulness that saves. God is faithful, morning by morning, year after year. No matter what you have done in the past, no matter what you are doing now, no matter what you will do in the future, God’s faithfulness is constant. Complete. God has promised to save, and because of Jesus, God has saved, is saving, and will save. Merle Porter had complete faith in those promises because they were made by the God whose faithfulness is unending.

Does knowing that make today any easier? No. It doesn’t. Our pain and our loss are too deep to be swept away by a simple promise, no matter how grand or how trustworthy the source. But, somehow, God’s mercy has gotten us through this morning. And after we have cried ourselves to sleep, tomorrow morning will be another morning. Another chance that God’s mercy will be enough. And morning by morning, new mercies we will see. All we have needed God’s hand has provided. Great is God’s faithfulness, to Merle, to you, and to me.