The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

FOR BETTER OR WORSE

Delivered 4/25/10
Text: Ephesians 5:21-33
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The calendar says this is the last week of April. This is a big week in the Leininger household. It was 32 years ago this Thursday, right here at Saint Andrew-by-the-Sea, that Christie and I were married. Thirty-two years is not all that much around this congregation where there are so many of you who have been together for 50 years plus. The long marriages that many of you have enjoyed (and I hope that is the correct word) are really remarkable these days. I do not know whether I will live long enough to make that lofty plateau - it would be nice. At any rate, we are pleased to be able to celebrate our 32nd and are looking forward to many more.

I remember the day very well. It was a Saturday. I got up early in the morning. In those days I made my living playing phonograph records on the radio (phonograph records - remember those?) and I had to be on the air at 6:00 AM. I could have had the day off, but I figured I might as well work - the wedding was not until 8:00 that night (a candlelight ceremony, so it had to be dark) - I needed something to fill the time. I did my show nervously; I was excited for some reason. The phone was ringing off the hook with folks calling to offer congratulations, unsolicited advice, and bad jokes about wedlock. My show was over at 10 AM, so there was still plenty of time to kill. I played golf. I do not remember how I did - not very well, I suspect - my concentration would have been faulty.

It should have been. After all, marriage is a big step. At one wedding ceremony, when the couple knelt at the altar for the closing prayer and benediction, it was noticed that on the soles of the groom's shoes someone (maybe he himself) had painted the letters "HE-LP." No wonder. In this country, I am not sure how-many-million couples will march down the proverbial aisle this year, but we all know that almost half of them will end up split.

In this week's issue of TIME magazine, the closing essay is about marriage and the number of multiple "marriers" in our society. It begins,
Barring a last minute reconciliation, Larry King is about to get unhitched for the eighth time. This despite the fact that his wife, Shawn Southwick, is 26 years younger and a foot taller than he is. In other words, a perfect match. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the x-Mrs. King club will soon welcome its seventh member - only seven because one of the Mrs. Kings served two tours. (1)
The article goes on to note that Larry is hardly the record-holder in this dubious competition. That goes (for the moment, at least) to the late Linda Wolfe of Indiana who had 23 husbands, although she admitted that she married the last one as a publicity stunt. Uh-huh. The others, of course, were "totally genuine and heart-felt." Yeah. Sometimes I wonder, considering the damage and pain that divorce causes, perhaps marriage licenses should require testing beforehand, the same way driver's licenses do. Marriage is a BIG step, and for most of us without the "benefit" of lots of experience, a step into the unknown.

I recall the story of a judge questioning a woman about her suit for divorce who asked, "How long have you known your husband?"

She replied, "Judge, I was acquainted with him for four years, but I did not KNOW him until after we were married and I asked for money to buy a dress."

A little boy in religion class was asked what Jesus said about people getting married?" And he answered immediately, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I doubt that Christie and I REALLY knew what we were doing. We had not known each other all that long. Her folks had retired to Hilton Head a few months before, joined this church where I was active, and brought Christie to worship one Sunday when she was visiting from her home in Wilmington, NC. That was the first time we ever set eyes on one another. The first time we spoke was at a party her folks hosted two days before Christmas - they had invited me because some friends of theirs had a daughter who also happened to be in broadcasting; she was visiting for the holidays, would be at the party - they thought we might hit it off. She was a lovely lady, but I spent most of my time around Christie. Surprise! Our first date was a week later; our second, the night after that; our third, the next day; and our fourth, the next. Then she had to go back to Wilmington. Two more days and we were engaged...on the telephone. Elapsed time? Two weeks.

Needless to say, everyone was shocked. My friends could not believe that this 33-year-old with an exceedingly active social calendar would do such a thing. After all, Hilton Head at the time was bachelor's paradise - 30,000,000 lovely ladies and only two eligible guys. It was a busy life. One lady of my acquaintance said, "I didn't know you wanted to get married. If you had only told me, I would have married you." Hmm. When Christie's brothers heard the news they said, "Gee, Christie, we thought, of all the people in this family, you were the smart one!"

My folks were caught off guard - they had been down to visit me only a couple of weeks earlier and had heard no mention of anything like this - obviously not...I had not met her yet. A few weeks ago, during my mother's funeral service, as I reminisced a bit, I recalled my mom's response upon hearing for the first time about Christie and me. She said, "Well, that's fine, but David, you really ought not to have children. God was very smart in setting things up so people could have babies when they are young; that's the only time in life you have enough energy to handle them. You're too old and set in your ways." Right!

Some years later, I had the privilege of officiating at my mom's wedding - she had been widowed for a number of years and now was about to marry another Presbyterian minister, also widowed, a man who had been friends with my folks since their seminary days at Princeton. As we stood in the sacristy and prepared to go into the sanctuary for the ceremony, I said, "Mom (who was age 74 at the time), one thing - you ought not to have any children; you're old and set in your ways!!! She stuck her tongue out at me. Tee-hee.

Christie's Mom and Dad were also caught off guard with our announcement, but they really could not say anything - 35-years before they had become engaged on their first date and were married five weeks later. That had worked out just fine. Perhaps history was repeating itself.

Within three weeks, Christie had pulled up her Wilmington stakes and moved to her parents' home here on the Island. She had to: back in the day before cell phones and unlimited calling, in those three weeks we ran up over $300 in telephone bills - we could not afford love by long distance.

There was plenty to keep Christie busy - arrangements to be made, invitations to be sent, dresses ordered, and so on. For me, little to do except sweat. After all, the role of the man in these events is generally limited to showing up, on time, clean, sober, and not to embarrass anyone. Other than that, STAY OUT OF THE WAY! So I did.

The big day arrived. The combination of work and golf helped to fill the time. The hour eventually arrived. I got dressed in my "monkey suit," came to the church, posed for pictures, and finally made the short walk to the front of the candlelit sanctuary. John Wood Robison and my father would jointly officiate. It was a gorgeous setting.

The Wedding March began. All eyes looked to the rear waiting for Christie and her father to appear - they were nowhere to be seen. The music continued - still no Christie. The organist played the March again - still nothing. Our friends in the church began to look at one another quizzically. Maybe she got smart and backed out. I leaned over to my Best Man and whispered, "In my business, this is what they call dead air." Finally when the organist began playing the Wedding March for the third time, Christie and her father appeared - whew!

It was a wonderful ceremony, very traditional, lots of music. Christie would have enjoyed it...had she been there. Oh, she was physically there, but mentally she was on some other planet. You see, at the rehearsal the night before, both of us had gotten caught up in the emotion of the moment and had shed some joyful tears. She decided then and there that she would not do the same thing the next night, so she wrapped her mind in a steel cocoon and went through the wedding like one of the Stepford wives. She says that she finally came to about halfway through the reception, looked around, saw that everyone was having a good time, and figured that things had gone all right. They did indeed, and have ever since.

Oh, there have been some "interesting" moments. Less than a year later, I informed her that I was feeling called to go into the ministry. I had known since I was eight years old that this is what God wanted me to do, but I had refused and put it out of my mind. Now, I could postpone it no longer. Needless to say, she was not prepared. We were both very active and involved in this church, but she had never anticipated anything like this. For the next ten days, every time we looked at one another, she burst into tears - she had said, "for better or worse," but this was ridiculous! She had married a disc jockey, not a preacher.

I am sure it has been anything but a bed of roses being married to me. Someone has said that when a girl marries, she exchanges the attentions of many men for the inattention of one. That seems to be particularly true for pastors' wives, and no doubt that is why the divorce rate for clergy is even higher than the rest of the population these days. Very sad.

In my files I have an article entitled "A Case of Unprofessional Conduct." It was written from the perspective of a disgruntled parishioner who complained that Pastor Cooper did not attend the meeting to choose the paint for the new fellowship hall but took his son to the movies instead, did not come to the young singles bowling banquet because he had been visiting hospital patients all day and was just too tired; he had missed the special musical program in October because he insisted on taking his wife out to dinner for their wedding anniversary which they could have done some other night. Listen to the conclusion:
One thing for certain, Pastor Cooper is not like Pastor Ormstead. I miss him a lot. He was so available. Anytime the church was open, he would be there. You could call him day or night and he would come. He was in everything, remember? Out every night of the week. And our church really grew under his ministry, you have got to admit that. It was a real shame he had to resign, but after the divorce we could not very well keep him on. You know how it is. (2)
No question, Christie has put up with a lot during our years together. She has endured a major career change (including the absence and inattention which come with the job). She has supported us through seminary, made wonderful homes in the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and now back here on the island in the house we left when we went off to seminary, and presented me with two beautiful children. And she has done it all with unfailing love, grace, acceptance, forgiveness, and good humor. No one would deny that I married better than she did. I am more glad than I could ever say that she has hung in there because I cannot imagine life without her.

I think back to the early chapters of Genesis, the story of creation. God created this and said it was good, and that and said it was good, and the other thing and said it was good. Do you know the first thing that scripture says is not good? "Not good for the man to be alone." (3) I say AMEN!

Actually, scripture has very little to say about HOW not to be alone. There is not much in the way of instruction for married life. One of the few passages is found in that lesson we read a few moments ago. The relationship between a husband and wife, says Paul, should be like that between Christ and the church - caring, accepting, forgiving, affirming, and being willing to sacrifice...even life itself. That might not sound strange to us, but it was a radical concept in the first century when marriages were arranged and any love that developed was accidental.

What might be more important for us to note is the other side of that coin, this equally radical affirmation that the Lord loves you and me "for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health." God loves us despite our odd habits, our inattentiveness, our unloveableness. Why should God bother? Why should Christie bother? As the lesson says, "This is a great mystery..." But if you take nothing away from this morning other than one thing, let it be this: God loves you...for better or worse. And that is good news indeed.

If you have been waiting for me to unravel the mystery of how to have a wonderful marriage, I will do it now. The pat answers like work hard at it, be willing to give without expecting anything in return, establish good lines of communication, "the family that prays together stays together" and so on, you have heard before. In an article in Newsweek two weeks ago called "Beyond the Bad Boys," (4) the advice particularly to men is don't fool around, especially in these days of You Tube and golf clubs, spend more time with your kids, and do more house-work. OK. The article notes that more and more men are heeding the advice and the result is a divorce rate in this country that has been on the decline for the past 25 years. Hallelujah! All that advice is helpful, no doubt, but following any of it is no guarantee. The only sure-fire way I can suggest is to marry someone as wonderful as Christie.

A reporter once asked Henry Ford, when he celebrated his Golden Wedding Anniversary, to what he attributed his 50 years of successful married life. Mr. Ford replied, "The formula is the same I have used in making cars - stick to one model!" I intend to do the same.

April 29th. When Christie and I stood at the altar here at St. Andrew that night, neither of us would have dreamed the route we have come. We took the vows, "...for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part." We did not know what we were doing, but I am glad we did it. Thank you for my life, Christie. God loves you, and so do I...more than I could ever say. Happy anniversary.

Amen!

1. Belinda Luscombe, "Revoking the Marriage License," TIME, 5/3/10, p. 64

2. Jean Shaw, Eternity, 2/80, p. 35

3. Genesis 2:18

4. Julia Baird, Newsweek, 4/18/10, p. 24

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