As I discussed in part one of this series a wedding sermon or homily is most effective when based on a biblical text.
The choice of a biblical text for a wedding sermon may develop from many possible sources:
- A couple may inform the preacher of their “favorite text” for a wedding sermon.
- The preacher will choose a text from a denominational or general text list.
- The preacher might pick a text that is deemed particularly appropriate to the couple.
- A text may be chosen in relationship to the liturgical season in which the wedding is held.
It is important to note that the wedding sermon is heavily influenced by the denominational framework of the wedding. Text choices will vary for sermons because often they implicitly or explicitly reflect significant aspects of the denomination’s theology of marriage. This affects preaching (or avoiding) such topics as married sexuality, divorce, the role of children in a marriage and the view of the denomination itself on marriage.
For example, texts that are preached from a Catholic perspective may reflect on the Body of Christ in relationship to the understanding of marriage as a sacrament. Protestant preachers will usually not articulate a sacramental understanding of marriage. In some cases, pastors will have available for them pre-written homilies to guide the proclamation theologically.
Historically, some biblical texts have been favored and what makes many of them unusual is that they actually never directly discuss marriage! In fact, some of the historical aspects of these texts are omitted or not developed in a wedding sermon. A current popular text refers to the “threefold cord” as a basis for marriage (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The biblical text itself never states what composes this cord although preachers tend to treat the three strands as the couple and God.
A perennial favorite is 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter is interesting for a number of reasons. It never mentions God or marriage. Historically, the text was part of a letter addressed to a community in significant conflict, a point rarely developed in a sermon! Nevertheless this fact certainly does offer a great deal to consider, especially if pastors are not hesitant to discuss the fact of marital conflict and to use the word “sin” in a wedding sermon. Furthermore, since the English language does not distinguish between the different forms of love, as does the Greek language, use of this text would be enhanced by discussing the Greek meanings of various forms of love, with particular reference to God’s “agape” love.
There are two other popular wedding sermon texts which seem to have little specific focus on marriage. One is the verses from the Book of Ruth: the well-known sentiments of devotion and allegiance spoken by a daughter-in-law talking to her mother-in-law. John’s Gospel recounts the first miracle at the so-called wedding at Cana episode but the incident is actually focused on the post-wedding reception and the need to have enough wine!
Some texts which specifically relate to marriage, such as several Pauline passages, have generally been omitted from much mainline wedding proclamation for several decades. This has happened in response to societal changes related to views of female and male relationships. For many people these texts would never be chosen. One member of my wedding sermon class at Gettysburg Seminary decided to preach on Ephesians 5:21 ff. The student’s proclamation was a valiant effort to rescue laudable elements of the text from their contemporary negative connotations in which “submission” is understood by most listeners as “subservience.” The class agreed, however, the effort did not work as they had too many cultural and theological filters in place.
The wedding proclamation course invites students to consider the context of the couple and the wedding and to explore the entire Bible for possible texts. This has been a rich venture. One student accepted the challenge to preach on a parable at a wedding and used the parable of the mustard seed. The organic nature of the parable lent itself well to the growing and blossoming of a marriage. Another student addressing an elderly couple marrying for the second time effectively used the sermonic text of Psalm 23.
Part of the challenge of a wedding homily is preaching the text with a thematic direction — without reducing the text to a “theme.” Such directions developed from a text can include marriage as vocation; marriage as Christian witness to the outside community; marriage as discipleship and service.
The historical time frame in which a sermon is preached may form the thematic direction. Some wedding sermons prior to the end of the 19th century, and possibly reflecting the mortality rates, often mentioned the eschatological nature of marriage. This is a theme one does not hear today in a “till death do us part” view of life for long-living and often re-marrying people. So in choosing a text for a wedding sermon, the preacher does well to consider all the multiple historical, biblical, theological and contemporary cultural views on marriage in the decision-making process.
The next article in the series is, “Children and Wedding Sermons.”