“Building a wedding is a recipe for muddle — the bridal party, the families, the guests, the minister, the vows, the food.”
“You’re attempting to make something beautiful out of unruly and unpredictable elements — the weather, the nuttier relatives, the rivalries, disorders, and dreams.”1
So Anne Lamott describes the wedding of friends. But who is the you in her comment?
Lamott is likely thinking of the one planning the wedding. I would say it is the Spirit — the same one who brooded over the chaotic waters at the dawn of creation. At a Christian wedding, in the midst of the unruly and unpredictable elements of the fallen creation, the Spirit is bringing into being a new creation. Through marriage, a family is birthed. And for the occasion, the Spirit calls the pastor to serve as midwife at this new birth. S/he is charged with the task of centering all of the wedding on the word.
You, in priestly office, are thinking about what God is doing — what words God would have you speak and what words God would have them hear. They, the muddled members of the wedding congregation, are thinking flowers, dress, photographer, limosine, tuxedos, and gifts.
The sermon on these birthing, wedding days presents the preacher with a more arduous than usual task of working through all the layers of distraction. And it has been my observation that the more money spent on the wedding, the greater the layers of insulation the word must penetrate.
Your ally as the preacher is the flow of the wedding liturgy. It is a counterbalance to the scattered thoughts of the wedding congregants. Its structure provides a three-fold pattern for the sermon: interrogation, proclamation, and affirmation.
Interrogation may seem harsh, but I disagree. The cultural mindset that embraces the wedding guests and accompanies them into the place of worship is contractual. What does he get, what does she get, what do you get and what do I get out of this or any such arrangement? It is pervasive and evident in the reality that no self-respecting attorney would ever allow a client to enter into a contract that is as wildly open-ended as, “I’ll take whatever comes.” But, of course, a Christian wedding is not contractual. It is covenantal.
A Christian wedding aspires to the God-like love of committing oneself to another, even when no reciprocal response is forthcoming. So the couple is interrogated. “Will you love name/name in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him/her as long as you both shall live?”
The interrogator/priest does not ask “do you” but “will you” love each other. We know they love each other now. But they and we know they won’t always appear so wondrous to each other. Will you enter into this covenant committed to each other, regardless of what the future brings, knowing God’s commitment to you?
The preacher needs to make the stakes of this event clear. The interrogation is the opportunity to do so. It is not on their strength alone that the couple enters this covenant. The words spoken later, “what God has joined together,” have their foundation here.
Having boldly underlined the reality of the commitment the bride and groom are about to make to each other, the commitment of the third covenantal party needs to be spoken with equal force, clarity, and grace — the proclamation of what God is about here.
Often pastors invite couples to choose the Scripture readings for the day. The uncertainty this creates for the preacher reminds me of the task my third grade teacher set for herself every day after recess. Each day, she asked three different students to choose a single word, which most always popped out of our mouths unrelated to the others, and she would create a unified story out of them. This, coupled with the reality that there are very few texts that directly address marriage and as in the case of one frequently chosen, Matthew 19:4-6, does so in the context of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, increases the challenge.
However, most texts that are chosen (from the common hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, to the household catechism in Colossians 3:12-17, to the currently depreciated catechism in Ephesians 5:21-33) center on relationship. They show what God has done for us, how God has committed God’s self to us in Christ, and the opportunity for faithful response. God has invited us into the seamless flow of love among Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In so doing, God has opened the unfathomable depth of divine mercy to God’s children, on this day especially to husbands and wives. No greater gift will they receive than your proclamation that a wellspring of mercy is theirs to receive throughout their life together.
When I ask couples in pre-marital counseling to define a Christ-centered marriage, we eventually get to the point of thinking together about a mercy-centered, truth-centered, forgiveness-centered relationship. This mercy, this truth, this forgiveness is offered to them, and it is the core of what we proclaim to them on their day.
The wedding liturgy provides rich experiences of affirmation. The vows are sealed in the very name of God, who joins the two as one. The rings are offered with their message that husband and wife are encircled by God’s constant presence. Prayers widen the circle as they are said for the couple, for all husbands, wives, and children, for the church, and for the world. The blessing of God, which would be sufficient in itself to seal a marriage, is spoken and comes to rest on all hearts.
Every one of these affirmations writes large the word that God is about this work of Christian marriage in public.
The sermon affirms this in addressing the role of the “supporting cast.” It is not only spoken to the couple, but to all present, charging them to nurture and support this and all marriages. It also reminds them that their words have power and can either build up or break down a marriage when one partner confides in them that the marriage is under stress.
The primary affirmation is God’s presence in the marriage as long as both live — truly the only hope for such a covenant to thrive.
Interrogation, proclamation and affirmation — these are the roles of a midwife on the birthing day of a new family, a day of courageous joy.
1Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York; Riverhead Books, 2005), 245.