[Just to clear up any confusion: I wrote this sermon for a preaching class I’m in this week. I wrote it with my sister-in-law Hannah and her fiance Nate in mind. While I won’t have the honor of delivering this at their wedding (however, I do have the honor of being a groomsmen!), I hope it encourages them and all of us who are striving to faithfully love each other in all our various relationships.]
Weddings are big occasions. While they can be wonderful celebrations of love, friendship, and family, they can also be a lot of work. Of course, I’m a man, so I actually have little idea of all that has to happen, except for one thing: gift registries. I don’t know who invented this tradition, but we’re officially NOT friends. Of course I enjoy receiving gifts – who doesn’t – but going to all those stores and signing up for plates, and silverware, and bed sheets is just not my thing. But, as couples often do, my wife Cassie and I made a compromise when it came to making our gift registries: I would come along and help but only if I got to be in charge of the little barcode-scanner gun. I had a great time at Sears – you know those little scanners kind of sound like lasers?! I was actually a little excited when we left Sears and went to Bed, Bath, Beyond, but then it all fell apart. What happened? Apparently, BBY thinks that couples need an employee to follow them around the store so they can ask us a 1000 times if we’ve thought about nice it would be to have our own pasta maker, or sweet tea kettle, or some other vaguely useful kitchen appliance. Oh, and this employee got to hold the barcode scanner – not me; that was a deal breaker. (Nate, I hear you had a similar experience?) After it was all said and done, we ended up with a lot of very nice gifts that we really needed and appreciated very much. Weddings are full of gifts aren’t they? Registries, parties, showers. Amidst all the shreds of torn wrapping paper, the sparkling ribbons, and the big pretty bows, we should be careful not to forget that one, essential gift that we can’t put on our registry: marriage. Hannah and Nate, your marriage is the best gift you’ll receive today.
In his novel Hannah Coulter, one of my favorite authors Wendell Berry speaks of marriage beautifully through the words of the main character who is most appropriately named Hannah. She describes her marriage with a metaphor – a “room of love”; a place “where giving and taking are the same, and you live a little while entirely in a gift.” Now, since there are kids around, I don’t think we need to go into all the details of what happens in the “room of love.” At any rate, I think Hannah helps us understand how marriage works as a gift: it’s a place “where giving and taking are the same,” where what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, where we’re simply together and free to offer ourselves and receive the other in love. Sounds like grace to me. Marriage is a gift because, in marriage, we open ourselves to grace.
What makes this possible? Our lives are opened to grace in marriage because marriage is a covenant – a solemn promise which requires the commitment of all we are for another. But marriage is a covenant that points beyond itself to another, greater covenant – God’s promise of love and justice towards us and all creation through a particular people, which was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are here today, Nate and Hannah, to consecrate your lives in covenant with one another. A covenant founded on the promise of our God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” The marriage covenant you make today is a gift of grace because it binds you together with the God who exists as communion of perfect love, who is supremely good and eternally faithful – a God whose promises never fail.
Of course, this promise is simply too big for you to keep on your own. You’re not standing here today because you’ve sat down with each other and come to some understanding about how each day of your lives will unfold in order to maximize each other’s happiness. Let’s face it: you have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into up here! Thankfully, you’re not alone. Your promise to each other is made within a community bound together in the covenant of baptism. In a moment you’ll exchange rings. These rings deeply symbolize your personal commitment to one another, but they are also a very public announcement of your marriage. Your married life should reflect this dual purpose of your rings: intimately personal yet lived publicly within the grace of a community of fellow believers. As members of community, the gracious gift of your marriage is transformed into a gift of love and hospitality for others. They say it’s better to give than to receive; how will you share the gift of your marriage with others?
Marriage is a gift of grace, founded in the gracious covenant of God, to be shared with each other and with your community for a lifetime. However, every time we open ourselves to receive grace, we simultaneously expose ourselves to the wound of grace denied. The very people we love the most, the ones we commit our lives to, are the ones who hurt us the most. We are all wounded people who wound others in return. There is no avoiding this truth. Hannah, Nate: you will hurt each other and being married only makes the pain worse. Will you shut yourselves off? Will you fight back in anger, in fear? Will you accuse and point fingers? Will you keep score? You’ll be tempted to do all of these things and more. None will do any good. Unfortunately, marriage leaves you with only one option: forgiveness. The grace-gift we share in marriage is sustained by our acts of forgiveness.
Henri Nouwen says it best: “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” God has created us with limits. We don’t know everything, we don’t see or hear everything, and we can’t be in two places at once. We’re also created uniquely with different needs, wants, struggles, hopes, and joys. On top of that, we’re always changing and growing. These realities make it hard to love each other well and we often do it poorly. After all, we’re not God. Forgiveness, then, in the words of Nouwen, is about continually being willing “to forgive [each other] for not being God – for not fulfilling all [your] needs.” Forgiveness is not easy; it’s nearly impossible. Again, we come back to grace: we love and forgive because God has first loved and forgiven us. Nothing is impossible for God. Learn to forgive each other, just go ahead and plan on it.
Nate, Hannah: live freely in grace. Embrace the gift of your covenant. Love each other as God has loved you. What an awesome day of celebration this is! What a display of grace! What a gift! Praise God from whom all blessings flow! May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always. Amen.