A THEOLOGY OF RELATIONSHIPS
A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
October 1, 2017
This past weekend I was honored to officiate one of my sister’s wedding. It was an uncharacteristically hot day for late September, in southern Illinois. But the grace of things gifted me with a cool breeze just as soon as the ceremony got under way.
My sister, who I stood by when she became a mother, at 19; who I watched suffer through a too-long relationship with an alcoholic, only to face, later in life, an exhausting and bankrupting custody battle burst into tears as soon as she saw the 100 or so people there to celebrate her and her now husband.
It was one of the honors of my calling as a minister and a brother to be one of the people who stood with her on that special day; and to see her so happy and in love with a kind and selfless and generous man.
Of course, even in the midst of her wedding ceremony she and I couldn’t escape some sibling banter: she critiqued the way I untied the wedding rings that were attached to our grandmother’s bible. Of course, this critique was perfectly picked up by my microphone.
As I said to her and the gathered community, she was, aside from my mother, one of the first people I ever loved. A fact made all the more relevant by my mother’s stories of me whispering secrets while she was still in the womb, and then pressing my ear to my mom’s belly waiting for my sister to respond.
Not to mention the pictures I have of me feeding her bottles, and the two dozen or more paddling’s I got for cutting her hair, putting cat litter in her makeup bag, or impersonating her on ICQ Chat and AOL, breaking up with her boyfriends when she forgot to log off the family computer.
My father had just arrived at my sister’s wedding from Bradenton, Florida, where he had been by his mother’s side as she succumbed to the lung cancer that had plagued her for several months. My grandma died Thursday morning, and after finalizing her memorial arrangements, my dad drove through the night to get to my sister’s wedding in time to walk his only daughter down the aisle. The fatigue in my dad’s eyes made my grandmother’s absence all the more real.
Every wedding or memorial I’ve done has been a celebration of the life and choices of the individuals. There in sanctuaries or shaded under trees or on the slopes of cemeteries, life’s miraculous brevity is on display.
But as much as they are about the individuals themselves, they are also about the people who the couple or the dead counted among their beloved.
“For without friends,” Aristotle tells us, “no one would choose to live.” Seems to me these words are a truism.
Even mountain hermits rely on the generosity of people who make pilgrimage to their hermitages for food and news of the day. And modern medicine verifies that children starved of compassion and physical affection experience emotional and psychological trauma.
Patients in the ICU I used to work in were talked to by nurses and doctors as if they were wide awake; therapy dogs were brought in to lay by their sides and give them nose kisses, and grad students from the music department came by almost every day to play and sing songs.
The truth is we need each other. The magic of our own lives is made possible in our decision to share it with others, while also maintaining a portion of who we are just for ourselves.
The title I chose for this sermon, “A Theology of Relationships,” could use some explaining. The word ‘theology’ comes to us from the Greek. So, pardon me as I teach for just a moment.
Most simply, theology means the study of the nature and character of God. But that’s a classical definition, so before I lose the secular humanists here with us, let me broaden the definition to the study of the nature of the divine, which is to say, that which is larger than ourselves.
Therefore, a theology of relationships is a study of how our relationships, by their nature, are larger than our individual lives. After all, we inherit histories and genetics and forms of government and religious principles that are far greater and more impactful on humankind as a whole than our individual existence.
And please, bear in mind this is simply A theology, not THE theology of relationships. I welcome and enjoy conversation about deep topics! In any case, I’m done teaching for the morning. I’ll get back to preaching now.
Two days after I arrived here in Wausau I officiated the marriage of a couple that had been together for 11 years. They owned a home together, 2 cars, and 2 dogs, shared finances, and had traveled the world together.
They wanted to meet the very same night I got to town for pre-marital counseling, which I agreed to. As I was preparing some questions for the meeting I found myself really curious about their timing. Basically, this was my question: “Why?” I mean, really, why?
It seemed to me like they had a great thing going. Longevity, faithfulness, a home, leisure time, and an adoring family – what could marriage possibly do to benefit or improve their relationship? Furthermore, as two avowed atheists, who had never met me before, why pay a religious professional to perform the ceremony when a judge can do it for free?
So, after we spent about 90 minutes talking about their lives together, their trials and disappointments, as well as their joy and happiness, I finally asked them my “Why?” questions.
First the groom answered me; this is what he said: “Because this is the final step, the last thing for me to show her how much she means to me. The rings we wear will be a symbol of how without her in my life I would not be complete. And the reason why I want a minister to marry us is because I think marriage is more than a legal relationship, it’s something way bigger than that to me.”
I looked over at his fiancée and saw that she had a tear-filled sparkle in her eye. Then she answered my question; and this is what she said: “Well, he’s asked me to marry him like 5 times now, and this time I really couldn’t think of a good enough reason to keep holding it off.”
And so, two days later, in the living room of the bed and breakfast across the street, I officiated their wedding.
After the ceremony, the bride’s mom and I were having some champagne and chatting about the couple. The bride’s mom said to me, “From the outside they’re the oddest couple. My daughter’s glamorous and exotic, and he probably didn’t even tie his own tie [truth be told, I saw his dad tie his tie like 4 minutes before the ceremony, but I didn’t tell his mother-in-law this],” but, she went on, “for whatever reason, they adore each other, and they have since they met in band, in high school.”
When I looked over at the couple sitting across the room from me, I saw that they were so wrapped up in each other, talking and laughing. They seemed to be entirely unaware of anyone else in the room. And the bride and groom’s family just mingled and talked and laughed amongst themselves, giving me the impression that they’ve grown accustomed to having these two love birds in their midst.
The groom’s words, “because she completes me,” have stayed with me.
My guess is that many of you can join me in acknowledging there are people who have the power to make you feel complete. In addition to my wife and daughter, I can easily list off my parents and sisters, and even this congregation in some ways, – But I want you to notice the vulnerability inherent in the naming of the statement, “you complete me.”
To love someone wholly we must also love what they are not, and love also what they have been, and the paths they’ve taken that aided in their growth.
Of course, I’m not saying you have to love every decision or mistake they’ve made. Trust me when I say that if my life were like a word document and I could highlight and delete from about the age of 13 to 17 I would; but my guess is that my parents, friends, and sisters would stop me before I could.
And therein lies the risk of loving, and the scandalous fragility that hem our lives to our friends and family.
To freely enter into a relationship with someone, whether it be a spouse or a child or schoolmate, is to risk loving someone whose life is ultimately beyond your control. It is to know that at any moment they may slip away, or that something they do or say can hurt you worse than any physical pain.
And with that, the opposite is true as well: that each of us are terrifyingly capable of falling short of our promises and ideals, and inflicting the very same sadness and pain we all pray never happens to us or our team.
To love someone is a risk. It is to make a deposit that in all likelihood will never yield consistent returns. But love that yields the greatest rewards is like the parable of the sower who plants his seeds freely, laying them atop rocks and under trees and in fields all the same. The point is if you don’t sow wildly enough then a draught or fire or flood will most certainly do you in. The other may spare what one is taken by.
I cannot say for sure why we humans need each other so much. Some may say it’s biology; but if that’s the case, then why don’t we just stop right here, pull the money out of the endowment, and gift it to UW-Madison’s science department?
Others may say it’s because of our brains’ wiring, some mingling of psychology and our nervous system that ignite our hungering for companionship. But I say to that, what good is scientific reductionism. After all, Creation appears to resist unified theories rather naturally.
I believe we desire and require relationships because it is our human calling. It is something far greater than any of us are alone, something both beyond and before definition.
We long for each other because it is others who complete us.
None of us can ever know what changes and chances will befall, but each of us can chose how we will respond. That is why we make promises; that is why in sleeping bags in tents as children, with flashlights powered by failing batteries, we share secrets and discover our best friends; and eventually when we’re older, lying there with our lovers, we find warmth, and later rest.
This is also why communities of people form colleges and governments and churches. They do so because they rightly see themselves as co-workers and companions linked together by the great chain of being. We seek out principles and causes that define us as individuals and citizens, and then, hopefully, we give back to the greater good with a little sweat equity, money, or both. This is how dreams are shared and kept alive. This is how justice is achieved. And my guess is that this is a part of why you’re here now.
Of course, there’s a UU Wausau potluck that awaits us, but I’ve been told by many of you that here in these wall, with these people, you’ve found community, acceptance, and joy.
Not a one of us is perfect. If you haven’t been already, you will eventually be disappointed or hurt by something or someone you love dearly.
But answering the risk of love demands this knowing: that you are a part of something far bigger than you or I will ever be on our own. I didn’t arrive at this conviction alone. Rather, people who’ve stood by my side through it all have gifted it to me, even between the years of 13 to 17. My prayer is that somewhere along the way someone has made their relationship with you their calling, and that you’ve answered back; and, being so honored, you’ve gifted people and higher purposes with your gifts and your grace.
In closing I will leave you with some of my grandmother, Gladys’, wisdom. But before I do so I’ll give you just a bit of context:
She was 93-years-young when she died; she was born in India when the country was still part of the British Commonwealth; wealthy British girls like her didn’t work after college, instead they volunteered, but by the time World War II came around she was sent to France and then Germany to assist with the medical care of soldiers and prisoners of war on both sides. She married my grandfather, an American GI, who brought her back to Chicago, Illinois, and later, Florida, to start a family.
Living a life as long as hers she witnessed almost everyone she ever loved die, her sisters and parents, husband of 60+ years, and even one of her sons who died of cancer when he was 28.
About two months ago I called her. She refused to talk about her cancer; nor would she discuss her decision to forego treatment. Struggling for words I blurted out, “Grandma, did you ever think you’d live this long?” She instantly replied, “Heck no! And if I had I wouldn’t have smoked so many darn cigarettes or drank so much gin. But I’d do it all the same again in a heartbeat. Now I’ve got a hair appointment so I’m hanging up now.”
Dear friends, you are blessed, now be a blessing. Amen and Blessed Be.