So, it was another of those “Would you please do my wedding?” phone calls from total strangers. We all get them. Weddings are easier than out-of-the-blue baptism requests, usually from grandparents. My staff knows how I hate them, and they also know that I will want to talk to them. It is a sincere request, if misguided. I am relieved to say that my staff recognizes them as misguided.
The request is usually for religious services. “We want to get married in a church.” Which is usually, almost always, followed by a “but we don’t have one of our own.” There is almost always the “we would definitely come here if we could” which always has a “but . . . ” following it. Unconnected. No desire for the lifestyle or the work. Just a little Jesus icing on our cake, please.
Okay, I get it. You have some deep desire for something, and this moment in your life is so important that your normally easy to ignore longing has become something of a social need. You recognize that you should do something holy. And I am a little gratified that you turned to an actual religion rather than your agnostic uncle or that other group down the road, which I won’t admit that I hold in disdain, but I do. I am glad that our sanctuary is attractive to you, and that your grandparents or great-grandparents darkened the door once during the Great Depression, or was it the Civil War?
But seriously, sometimes I envy Hare Krishnas. They are enough of a cultural oddity that I cannot imagine that they get the regular attractive couple walk-throughs. I can’t imagine one of those perfect glowing couples taking pictures of Ganesha statues and saying “This would be just perfect.” I mean, I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure most of the couples I talk to on walk-throughs wouldn’t recognize the difference between a lotus-sitting Elephant-faced representation of the Brahmin and the empty cross.
We aren’t actually a faith for most of them; we are a store for religious services. Those services don’t have any content or context that really matters to the happy couple. There is generally no more understanding of the sacrament than most college freshmen have of the Tibetan prayer flags they bought at the local patchouli-smelling shop-of-all-faiths to show that they were no longer bound by the church their parents never made them attend in the first place. (Subtract ten points if bought at Urban Outfitters.) I am the Mary-is-my-Homegirl t-shirt worn to a family reunion at most weddings.
I hate these requests. I hate them because they are frequent and fairly consistent, but frustrating because they sometimes hide a real search for something more and maybe even a sincere turn to a real faith. But not usually.
In Tucson, in a church where I could count 19 crucifixes from my seat on Sunday, in an office surrounded by my collection of empty crosses, a young woman with a wedding binder in her lap after four sessions of pre-marital counseling announced that we wouldn’t be mentioning Jesus at the wedding. God was okay twice, but many of her friends were not religious and neither was she, and she certainly did not want to offend them. I thought it was a joke at first. I was wearing all black except for my bright white collar. Her wedding was less than two weeks away. The groom just mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
I really thought that this would be a great story, an anomaly that would serve as this great outlier in a life of ministry. But it is only the epitome of the religious services shopping that I have struggled with for twenty years. It gets worse as your sanctuary gets more beautiful. “This would be so perfect in our pictures.”
I am not a shopkeeper with religious wares to sell. I am not a witch-doctor. Our sanctuary is a place of worship of the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and known in the Holy Spirit abiding with us. It is not a third-space for sell. This isn’t a business; it is a community of faith. I am a servant of that community. We follow Jesus, which makes great demands on us about how we live, how we love, and how we do things. Our services are really for those who are part of that faith community, who are committed to this life of royal priesthood, of discipleship. They don’t make a lot of sense outside of that community.
My hope is that how we live, love, and do things reflects well the teachings of Jesus and our commitment to him.
If we are a royal priesthood, how should we relate to the the walk-through couples? What should we offer to them? Are our sacraments something we offer for sale? For free? For anyone? How do we express the free love and grace of God to the world?
I am sure of a few things after the last couple of decades. Weddings are perhaps the least effective way to get couples into church. There are a few exceptional couples, but they are usually clear after the first meeting. Baptisms without formation are a close second in the least effective ways to share the faith. Funerals work, but often they have a very different feel in terms of the relationship to who we are, although I have spread a little Jesus icing on some funeral cakes, for sure.
I am sure that it could be lucrative for a church to turn itself out like a cheap wedding whore. I see it sometimes on the front page of church websites, like a Craigslist ad for religious services like dating a faith community. Is that too strong?
It sells out everything we stand for to offer weddings for sale like that. It destroys the holy community doing ministry in exchange for the holy clergy doing religious stuff for money, shopkeepers and whoredom. But I could maybe be persuaded.
I am sure that it is good financially for priests to whore out our services. Sorry, I mean to sell our sacraments. No, I mean to share the gospel in these holy-ish moments. Forget it. I have done too much of this. I am the guilty one. I love weddings and baptisms, and I really love funerals. I love articulating how God is at work in the lives of people and naming the work of grace in these liturgical moments when communities of otherwise pretty secular families and neighbors actually come together to do something approaching holy. But I am not doing that for strangers usually.
These weddings are not disciples promising to live out the Gospel and Rule of God in relationship with their spouse. These baptisms are not honest vows of raising a child within the Gospel and Rule of God, keeping the apostles teaching and fellowship, much less rejecting Satan and evil or respecting the dignity of every human life.
At least at funerals I can do what I really think a royal priesthood does at funerals, tracing out the traces and places of grace and wisdom where God has been at work in this all-too-human life.
So I tell one couple yes, and I spend a lot of time using their wedding preparation as a chance to offer them training in the Gospel and Rule of God, and I tell one couple no because I just don’t think they want more than icing. But then I am not very good at this priesthood business.
This nails it: The BAD VICAR. Some of us watch in humored horror, and some of us watch in envy.