More and more I am coming to love and appreciate the “art” of preaching; and it is most definitely an art. We work with existing material to craft something at once both traditionalist (art always owes to what came before it) and original (no one has done it yet precisely like this). I’m also learning that different contexts demand different styles, and the savvy preacher will utilize and be comfortable with a variety of styles to fit the context.
I haven’t always been aware of that. I used to think that you simply locked into one style that you were super-comfortable with and then just translated that to whatever it was you were doing. Whether you were a manuscript preacher, a free-form preacher, a note-free preacher, an outline preacher, a poetic-artful preacher, a 5-points-and-a-story didactic preacher, a word-for-word exegetical preacher, an anything-else-I-missed preacher… whatever it was – you found your sweet spot and ran with it.
For the past several years I’ve been on a really exhilarating and liberating journey of learning to preach without using notes. It’s been really fun, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at the craft. A couple weekends ago, however, I did a wedding. And I have learned (through my own failures and by listening to some really shoddy wedding sermons) that weddings are no time to ramble. They are times in which what is appropriate to the moment are carefully chosen words, delivered gracefully and artfully. So–I’d never done this before–I crafted a wedding homily: a short meditation/reflection on the momentous thing that marriage is.
Now mind you, I’d manuscripted wedding messages before, but always felt awkward when I delivered it because it felt “untrue” to what I normally did (which was a bit more free-form). This time, however, I decided to write something that I could comfortably and confidently deliver word-for-word, really savoring the delivery. And savor it I did.
Anyway… gosh… now I’ve rambled… I’m posting it here for any preachers out there to take cues from, and for any married persons out there to be encouraged by 🙂
Grace and peace to you.
(PS – I’ve changed their names)
Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony.
The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ blessed this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.
It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.
Therefore marriage is not to be entered into UNADVISEDLY or LIGHTLY, but REVERENTLY, DELIBERATELY, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.
THIS MOMENT…IS SACRED
I realize that you all did not come to church this morning to listen to a minister ramble on about the meaning of marriage… but I do think this is a moment that deserves some weighty words, for it is a weighty thing.
And they all lived happily ever after… Every couple wants that as a conclusion to their story. Not everyone wants what comes before “happily ever after”. Conflict. Doubt. Uncertainty. Inner turmoil. Forks in the road. And some pretty deep and often painful sacrifices.
But no story is a worthy story without those elements. And stories don’t even get written, or told, if the heroes bail out on the quest. It’s the commitment to a worthy goal—a commitment that shapes the heroes in deep ways—that makes a story a worthy story.
Christian marriage, I think, gives us that kind of a goal. A worthy goal. “I do solemnly swear to love you, to cherish you, to have and to hold you, to stay committed to you, to stay faithful to you, to serve you…till death do we part.”
Given how prone we are to selfishness, that is a fairly ludicrous promise to make. One would think that it would take an act of God to live up to it. We are told in Scripture that it, in fact, does.
“I do solemnly swear…” –Yes. And may Heaven help you.
With that in mind, let me give you four brief encouragements, and a charge, as you begin your journey:
1) You need to know that God is at work in this. On one occasion, when Jesus was interrogated by the Pharisees about the human limits of this institution, marriage, he replied, “Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator MADE them male and female…so they are no longer two but one, and what GOD has JOINED TOGETHER, let man not separate” (Matt 19).
Jesus seemed to think that beyond, or even better, beneath the human institution was an act of God. My own experience has shown me that it is a CONTINUAL act of God. The energy of the Spirit in marriage is to draw us deeper into the union that God has ALREADY created between us.
Paul, speaking to one of his churches, says “Make every effort to PRESERVE the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4). He doesn’t say “create the unity,” but “preserve…” In other words, “Protect what is ALREADY there.”
It is the same with marriage. When the marriage is sealed, the union becomes REAL, whether you feel it or not. And God will constantly be drawing you two deeper into it.
Know that. Believe it. It will sustain you through hard times.
Following from that…
2) You need to know that this will break you. What makes this marriage a “Christian” marriage is not that we’re doing it in a church. What makes this a Christian marriage is that you are Christians, disciples, and discipleship by its very nature is about death and resurrection. It is about an “old self” constantly dying and a “new self”, a self that lives in the life and the power of the Spirit, emerging.
The passage that we read earlier was beautiful. “12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful…”
But that is not an automatic thing. The ingrained habits of selfishness, defensiveness, individualism, and lovelessness need to be destroyed in order for the realities that Paul speaks of to emerge. It doesn’t happen in a day. It happens over years. The Spirit constantly breaking us, remolding us… shattering us, reshaping us… until the New Creation comes into being in us.
Stanley Hauerwas put it so well when he said:
“When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it’s interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re ‘in love.’ Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”
And so it is. But you are the baptized. Death and Resurrection is your identity.
3) You need to know that your breaking will become the source of a powerful and deep joy. Scripture tells us that we are “made in the image and likeness of God.” And God, the Christian Tradition tells us, is an everlastingly happy Communion of Persons who are perpetually giving themselves away to each other in perfect love.
When God “breaks” us, he doesn’t do it because he’s being mean. He’s doing it because the things that need to be broken in us are the things that stand in the way of our “image-of-Godness” being realized. The more selfishness is destroyed, the more love emerges… and the more love emerges, the more capable we are of giving ourselves away to EACH OTHER in perfect submission… and the more the giving, the more the joy. “Tis more blessed to give than to receive…”
There are places of delight that few couples ever reach. And do you know why? Because they abort this process.
Let Love lead you beyond yourselves and into joy, my friends.
4) You need to know that this will bless the world. Marriage, according to Catholic tradition, is a sacrament. That is, it is a means of grace. And I don’t think that’s just grace “FOR US”, the married couple. But it is grace FOR OTHERS. It’s an institution for the world. When God’s life takes shape in us in marriage, then we begin, in profound ways, to “image” God to the world. And the world is blessed.
The world is blessed when couples love each other…
The world is blessed when homes become places of grace and peace…
The world is blessed when families stick together…
The world is blessed when children are brought up “in the Lord”…
The world is blessed when living rooms become places of hospitality and friendship…
The world is blessed when our little plots of earth become places that mirror the order and stability and the fruitfulness of the kingdom…
The world is blessed. It will be BLESSED through you. So stay in it. Stay with it. Remember what this is about. God is trying to reach the world through you.
SO, having said all of that, Ben and Sarah, IN THE NAME OF JESUS:
I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that God is at work in this and that your union is REAL, before and beyond how you feel. Fight to preserve it.
I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that the breaking and reshaping is part of the point of this. Submit to the process.
I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that for Christians, resurrection is the flip side of death. So let Love lead you to beyond yourself and into Joy.
I CHARGE you – Know in your bones that your union will bless the world. Let your love spill over onto a dark and hurting world, to heal it.
That’s what this is about.