This past Sunday morning, I performed a wedding at the Green Center in University City. I had never been there before. And nor had many of the guests, who said so one after another. It's a lovely place, though, with patches of prairie grass, day lilies, an herb garden, a vegetable garden, a rain garden, a greenhouse, a butterfly way-station, and acres of green space surrounding a beautiful old mansion. It's within sight of a small park whose tennis courts were in constant use that morning, but I'll bet even the tennis players haven't noticed it's there.
It was a beautiful day for an outdoor wedding. There was just enough of a sprinkle of rain, half an hour before the ceremony, to make us all thankful for the soft, cloud-filtered sunlight and the cool, clean airs that attended the nuptials. A three-piece band played slow jazz on the front porch. The small wedding party (myself, the bride and groom, and two witnesses) stood between a pair of gorgeous flower arrangements and an equally impressive pair of bronze lions guarding the front steps. Thirty-odd people in folding chairs looked on.
The groom is one of those people who has been to the Green Center before. Lots of times. In fact, he is the day lily expert who planted the "splash of color" next to the front drive. His laboratory garden is in the back, a series of beds where he plants, cultivates, breeds, and evaluates day-lily varietals on a three-year cycle. If you're interested in gardening, you should see this place. Also, if you're not interested, you should see this place: you might get interested.
I know the groom from singing next to him in the Symphony Chorus, where our baritone voices blend wonderfully. I had only met the bride once in the weeks leading up to the wedding, but our conversation was enough to give me the raw material for the wedding homily, which went over rather well if I may say so. Neither bride nor groom is of my church fellowship. I performed the wedding, therefore, as a private friend rather than as an act of pastoral care or a public act of the church.
I'm sure these circumstances are not unique, though they may be challenging (not to say awkward) for a faithful minister. I took confidence from the couple's willingness to be married under a rite in a Lutheran agenda. They even welcomed the traditional "thee's" and "thou's," which they preferred to the modernized verbiage, though the words "plight thee my troth" raised a slight chuckle. I also used the opportunity of a short homily to confess my faith.
So I think I can submit the whole experience, with very little embarrassment, as an example of what can be done in a case like this. I do not say "in such less-than-ideal circumstances," because I can't recall participating in any wedding, in any capacity, even before the altar of the church, even among members of the church, in which the hearers seemed to welcome the faithful message more than this group. And other than the fact that I signed the wrong license (a souvenir copy) and had to go over to the couple's house later to sign the real one, it came off more smoothly and less stressfully than any wedding I can remember.
And now, here's the homily...
The ministry is full of occasions when a preacher feels inadequate to the task. You can imagine that this is such a moment. Here I am, a confirmed bachelor and the son of a divorced couple, about to tell two people how to have a lasting and happy marriage. Two people, moreover, who have between them a total of sixty years of experience being happily married. So I’m going to begin by sharing some of the things I picked up listening to the two of you. Then I’m going to share a few things I believe, and I will challenge you to consider them as you go forth in the wisdom of your experience.
Michael, when your wife of 32 years knew that her life was ending, Sandra admitted having felt jealousy. She knew, as you know, that you thrive best as a member of a couple. She knew she was going to have a successor. And it hurt her to think that someone else was going to enjoy you after her. But not at the end. At the end she expressed her hope that you would have a happy life, and she understood that in such a life you would not be alone. If Sandra is looking on, you can bet she’s smiling.
Kathy, when Tom passed away after 28 years together, you didn’t know what to do with your life. I know it can be hard to move on. My mother felt the same way after losing my stepfather after 20 years of marriage. The memory of what you lost can make it difficult to move on. You are here today, beginning anew with Michael, because you saw that there is no law against living, taking an interest in life, and being happy.
A crass person might say, you are both here because death set you free. Free from a bond that only binds “till death do us part.” And so, such a person would say, you are free to enter another bond. But that is not how I think about marriage. In my view, marriage is a mission. You have each completed one mission, and completed it successfully. Today you are freely signing up for another mission, a mission you will carry out together. I believe that you will be successful. I believe that your marriage will last as long as you both live. And I trust that, when death does separate you, the survivor will know how to go on. Life and loss have already tested you on this, and you passed the test. You know how the questions go, and you know the answers.
I asked you one of those questions a few weeks ago over lunch in your beautiful home. I asked, “What makes a marriage work?” Your answers were honest and, I think, illuminating. Kathy, you counted patience among the essentials of a lasting and happy marriage. Michael, you mentioned that in your marriage to Sandra, sparks often flew between you, but you accepted them as part of the “weather” that invariably passes through a relationship. So you are both aware that there will be weather, and sometimes stormy weather, between you. Sometimes your patience with each other will be tested. Maybe, Michael, it won’t always seem enough to be fascinated with Kathy’s personality, or to love the sound of her voice. Maybe, Kathy, the love you feel for Michael will at times be a painful rather than a happy feeling. I think you are both grown up enough, and experienced enough, to know that such times pass, and that your relationship will survive.
I trust that you can fortify your patience with each other with a healthy dose of forgiveness. When your mate seems to have taken things out of all proportion, look at yourself from his side or her side. It can be a humbling view. He or she will have quite as much to forgive as you will. As God forgives both of you, I urge you to forgive each other. Similarly, God has served both of you in Jesus Christ. He made Himself the servant of all, and on behalf of all He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He did this so that He might present us to God as a spotless bride. When St. Paul tells us about this in his letter to the Ephesians, he urges husband and wife to be imitators of Christ, serving each other as Christ has served you.
Marriage is a holy mystery, Paul says. It is a sign of Christ’s unity with us as one spiritual body. It is a symbol of his redeeming love. It isn’t for nothing that some Christians view this joining of man and woman as a sacrament. I listened with interest when you, Michael, explained the theology, or philosophy, behind the way you live your life. I’ll admit there were some areas where we disagree. But I think you would agree that your life, and particularly your life together, is sacramental. Here’s what I think this means, and I hope you will give it some thought.
In our Lord Jesus Christ, we find God reaching into our earthy, fleshy, human existence. Since Christ was born, He is no longer merely a transcendent spirit that surrounds and interpenetrates creation. Humanity has been raised to the right hand of God. Our life, our needs, our weaknesses and pains, matter to Him as they can only matter to a God who has been through them Himself. To me, nothing matters more than belief in an almighty, eternal God who has taken humanity into Himself. To me, this makes all the difference.
God loves you. He is patient and forgiving toward you. In Christ, He has served you to the uttermost degree of service. And here’s the clincher that will make your relationship with Him really work: He is fascinated with you. If He was just a distant spirit, or an all-pervading force, you might perhaps doubt how significant you are, as individuals. But because Christ is, now and always, the God-Man, you are sacred. You, Michael and Kathy, have His undivided attention. It’s a paradox, a mystery, and an enigma rolled in one. It comes with the territory, since your Lord is beyond all understanding. He has created you. He has redeemed you. And even though there is so much more for Him to pay attention to, He has a close interest in you. It can only be because He is God, for whom nothing is impossible. It can only be because He is a Man, who bears with our weaknesses and sympathizes, because He has been there.
And just as Michael loves Kathy’s voice, so our Lord loves to hear you. So let me leave you with this last thought: Prayer actually works. Prayer works because you have a heavenly Bridegroom who loves to hear your voices. Prayer works because your Father cares about you, cares enough to rejoice with your joys and grieve with your griefs. Prayer works because the Lord is near, and not far away; and because in speaking to Him, in asking Him for help, you exercise faith through which He is able to do so many things. When you want someone to complain to, complain to Him. When you want to vent your frustration with each other, dump it on Him. And when you need help finding where you laid your ability to forgive each other, look to God. Remind Him that He has forgiven you, as if He needs reminding; and ask Him to give you the gift of forgiving. To ask is to believe. To believe is to receive. So I ask you to join me in prayer today, and to continue praying, that the Lord would bless your marriage; that He would fill you both with every gift, so that you may bless each other.