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A Brief Sermon For A Wedding

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

I want to begin with a story that I am sure will not happen at this wedding. It did, however, happen at a wedding that a friend of mine took.

The happy couple were posing for their photos outside the church after the service. They had all the usual groups in the pictures: bride and groom, bride and bridesmaids, groom and best man, happy couple with her family, happy couple with his family, bride and groom with his friends, bride and groom with her friends, happy couple with anyone else who didn’t fit any of the categories, and so on.

They went off to their wedding reception, and the photographer went away to work on what he had done. He then came to the evening reception, hoping to sell copies of his photos to the guests.

There was only one problem: behind the bride and groom in every photo was the church noticeboard. It prominently displayed a Bible verse: there, just for the happy couple, were the words of Jesus on the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.’

Now I suspect you do know what you are doing, or as much as any couple on their wedding day can know. No-one knows for sure, because the future is full of surprises, some of them delightful, others we’d really rather not know about. But you have taken time to test your love and commitment to each other before making your promises today. You have taken your relationship seriously. Debbie and I have noticed from a difference how you have matured as a couple, and today, as we celebrate love in the setting of Christian worship, I want us to pause for just a few minutes and think about love from a Christian perspective.

Here are three thoughts for you today:

Firstly, love is unconditional. Somebody once joked that the agenda of the bride on her wedding day is ‘aisle-altar-hymn’ (think about it!). ‘I’ll alter him’ may be necessary, but to go into love on the assumption that love is conditional upon someone changing is quite dangerous. Love becomes carrot and stick. Love becomes something that is policed by ‘good cop, bad cop’. Love eventually gives way to fear and distance.

But the love of God is not like that. There is a beautiful verse in the Bible which says, ‘We love, because he first loved us.’ God’s love for us is seen in him sending Jesus before we ever loved him. It’s unconditional love. He loved us before we responded to him.

And I suggest to you that this unconditional love is a healthy model for marriage. While it is right to long for your spouse to change, they are best loved into changing. If they know they are loved regardless, they will want to change. Make no mistake, it’s important to change over the years. If I still loved Debbie the way I loved her on our wedding day eleven years ago, I don’t believe we would still be together. My love for her will always have to grow. And what brings that out the best is that the knowledge that she loves me unconditionally.

Secondly, love is forgiving. When I was a child, a slogan in an advert for a wildly popular film was this: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ Do any of the older people here recognise it? It was Love Story.

And wouldn’t it be great if love really were like that? Never having to say you’re sorry.

If only.

But for us frail human beings, love is rarely like that. Rather than ‘Love is never having to say you’re sorry’, I suggest ‘Love is saying you are sorry and hearing you are forgiven.’

Much as today we celebrate the enjoyable side of love with its chemicals and hormones, the fact is those things won’t make a marriage last. What will make a marriage last is the willingness to seek forgiveness, and to forgive. That’s why in the Bible reading Paul says that love ‘keeps no record of wrongs’ (verse 5). It’s easy to keep a record of wrongs. If you’re not careful, you keep a chart, a list, a running tally of all the times you’ve been hurt or offended. I encourage you not to do that. Forgive, because that’s what Jesus does.

I don’t know what the father of the bride is going to say later today, but at my sister’s wedding, when my Dad gave his ‘father of the bride’ speech, he gave one piece of advice to her and my brother-in-law. He had another Bible verse as a motto, the one had he and my Mum have kept close to their hearts: ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ I commend that to you. Find your ways of resolving your conflicts, forgiving each other – and of then enjoying the making up!

This all means that thirdly and finally, love is sacrificial. What does it mean to forgive? It means to set the other person free by absorbing pain into yourself that should rightly be theirs.

And thus love isn’t quite what we sometimes think it is. How many of you guests today turned up, expecting the bride and groom to say ‘I do’ to each other? But did you notice they didn’t say that? Only one person said ‘I do’ in the service: the father of the bride. At least he didn’t say, ‘Take her, please!’

The bride and groom didn’t say ‘I do’, they said, ‘I will.’ And that’s important. Because ‘I do’ is just in the present tense and it might change in the future. ‘I will’ is a promise for now and for the future. It also recognises that sometimes love will be an act of will rather than a feeling. Sometimes love will be the actions we do in spite of how we feel. Somebody once said, ‘It isn’t true that love will keep your marriage alive. Rather, marriage will keep your love alive.’ It is your commitment of will to keep those promises that will see through the dark tunnels and out into the light at the other end.

But that’s hard to do. And in truth I’ve told you a half-truth in reminding you that the bride and groom said ‘I will.’ What they actually said was, ‘With God’s help I will.’ God is available to help us keep those promises, promises that on occasion will hurt, promises that will mean we make sacrifices.

But the God who promises to help us at these times is one who knows how to show sacrificial love. This the God who forgives – and who does so from the arms of Jesus stretched wide in love on the Cross. Jesus knows sacrificial, forgiving, unconditional love. He has modelled it in dying for us. He is ready to help all those who call on him.

Take the words we read from 1 Corinthians again. Instead of ‘love’, substitute your own name. This is how it would sound for me:

David is patient, David is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He does not dishonour others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. David does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I feel rather sheepish reading that, because I am so very far from that picture of love.

But now take out your name or the word ‘love’ and substitute instead ‘Jesus’:

Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He does not dishonour others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

That is the Jesus who is available to you this day and every day to make your love for one another and for others grow that will touch others with joy.

May God bless you both.

Weddings And Royal Weddings

If you believed the media, nearly all of us are getting excited about the Royal Wedding on Friday week. Well, not all of us: I noticed that BBC1 are showing a repeat of Shrek that afternoon, and the wedding in that cartoon is more appealing to me.

Not that I wish Wills and Kate any ill-will. Trial by media and marriage by media: no fun. They really do need prayer for a long and happy marriage.

But the coverage of all the royal frills will encourage all the existing wrong expectations people have of weddings. No expense spared – even if you haven’t got a royal budget. All about the day, rather than the life – the wedding, rather than the marriage. A focus on the couple, rather than on the mutual sacrifice that a marriage requires, as Giles Fraser recently got into trouble for saying on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. The coverage of who’s attending – whereas, as Maggi Dawn recently commented, all you need is the vicar, the couple and two witnesses.

So it was a joy today to register a very different wedding. The bride runs a toy library that uses the hall of one of my churches. A year ago she found faith in Christ through an Alpha Course run by the local New Frontiers church, who worship on Sundays in a local secondary school. But without anyone haranguing her, she came to the conclusion that it was wrong in the sight of God to be living with her partner outside marriage. So at 11 am today she was married, and at 12 noon (in the building of another local church) she was baptised.

It was wonderful to co-operate with her pastor on the marriage ceremony. No trimmings – both bride and groom had had that for their first marriages, and they knew it made no difference. A simple service, with about twenty friends and family present. Not even any hymns, but some worship music on CD – even if the laptop misbehaved for the music during the signing of the register!

I think I’ll remember today’s wedding for longer than next week’s.

A Brief Sermon For A Renewal Of Wedding Vows

Forty years! How on earth does someone like me, who has been married one fifth that length of time dare to speak some words to you on this day?

As I pondered that question, I felt led back to a particular memory of our own wedding service. No, not Debbie entering the church building to the accompaniment of ‘Born to be wild’ in memory of her past as a biker, with my mother whispering in my ear, “What is this music, dear?”

Nor did I think about us leaving the service to the strain of the Thunderbirds theme music, to the evident delight of my two young nephews who were our page boys. International Rescue might be a metaphor sometimes needed in marriage, but it didn’t occur to me in relation to you two!

Instead, I recalled that the Anglican rector friend of mine whom we asked to preach chose a surprising reading, we thought, for a wedding. It was Luke 24:13-35, the story of the two friends who walked to Emmaus, not believing yet that Jesus had risen from the dead. I didn’t dust down his sermon – besides, I couldn’t find the tape of the service! But it did make me think that I would offer my own thoughts on this story in connection with your own marriage.

As I say, it’s a surprising reading, but it is one about two friends, two companions. My rector friend said that some people think that Cleopas and his companion are a married couple. I’m not sure about that, but whether they were or not, I think there are some encouragements we can draw from the story on this wonderful occasion today.

Firstly, I see a couple talking about Jesus. Cleopas and his friend or companion are exercised about Jesus in the story. Granted, there are things they don’t know and major issues on which they are wrong, but nothing matters more to them than to talk together about Jesus.

And that’s something I appreciate about you as a couple, too. We can talk about all sorts of things, such as the way we compare notes about young children. David and I can talk about computers or football. But what is most important and utterly natural in your presence is that we talk without any sense of being forced or nervous about the central aspect of our lives, faith in Jesus.

In my four years here, I have seen it grow and grow in you. It was always there – our early conversations often centred on your experiences in the past with the Campers and Caravanners’ Christian Fellowship, and particularly the things you learned through your friend Mike Dominy.

But I have seen it increase. I think the decisive time was when you went on the (this is ironic with this text) Walk To Emmaus weekend. Something went up a gear in you then, especially in David!

There are all sorts of helpful things we can learn about what makes a healthy marriage. But for a Christian couple, this is critical. How sad it is when Christians find it hard to talk about their faith, even with their loved ones. But you can do that, and because you can, you have a way of getting to foundational issues about life and faith which surely holds you in good stead in your marriage. If you talk about Jesus, you will be talking about self-giving sacrificial love. You will be talking about forgiveness. You will be talking, therefore, about matters absolutely critical to the health of a marriage.  I see this as a work of the Holy Spirit within and among you. I pray it is something to which all Christian couples would aspire.

Secondly, I see the presence of Jesus with you. Jesus came and joined the couple as they walked to Emmaus. They weren’t aware for quite a while that he was with them. They were unable to identify the mysterious stranger who accompanied them and made sense of the Scriptures. Only in the breaking of the bread were their eyes opened to his identity.

And similarly, you may not be aware all the time that Jesus is with you. I am sure you know it in theory, but there will be times when you do not feel his presence or circumstances will be dire and you imagine he is distant or absent. You would be only human if you were not to have those thoughts and feelings as you live with Arline’s health.

But let me tell you something. People see Jesus in you. They see it in how you live out your lives in the face of joy and pain. They experience something of him, simply by coming into contact with you. Some will be able to say, ‘That’s Jesus’. Others will merely know there is something special about you.

And you may be surprised to learn this is the case. However, it is my experience that it is often other people who notice things like this. I know of a story where a student vacated his room at the end of a term and someone stayed in it for a conference during that vacation. That latter person experienced a particular sense of peace that they put down to the faith of the student who normally lived there.

Likewise, I know a story where the house where a Christian family had lived in was sold. The new residents were Christians. They had an unmistakable sense that they had moved into a property that had been full of prayer over the years.

Today, then, many of us here celebrate the fact that you are a couple through whom we encounter Jesus.

The Rector who preached at our wedding lifted five points from this story. I am going to confine myself to three. My third is about hospitality.

Cleopas and his companion offered hospitality to the stranger who had joined them on the road. It was a natural thing to do in Middle Eastern culture, and indeed still is. It is not something so natural in our society.

But it is something I – and others – have experienced from you. One piece of advice we were given when training for the ministry was that if you are going out visiting for a few hours, save for last a visit to some people who are positive, and who refresh you just by being with them.

Often when I’ve called on you unannounced, you have been my last call of the afternoon for that very reason. Whether times have been good or you have been going through further adversity, I have always been glad that I have had time with you. If it were ever inconvenient, you have never let on. You seem to know that definition of hospitality which goes like this:

Hospitality is making people feel at home when you wish they were at home (Michael Baughen).

It is something we know you have practised in the way you have welcomed international students into your home.  In the New Testament, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit in the case of some people. why? Because it’s a Jesus thing again. The offering of love. The giving of self, of time, of possessions. All these are implied in the act of hospitality. Christians, therefore, can offer hospitality as a witness to their faith. I believe you do.

As I conclude, then, you may think I have described you as far better people than you feel you are. Well – let a friend have this public opportunity to say kind things about you! I am sure you know dark and broken things that I and many others here have no idea about.

But – today we celebrate the love you have shared in forty years of marriage, and which you continue to share. In particular, those of us here who are Christians rejoice in the way you put that love into practice in such distinctively Jesus-shaped ways. I pray that many of us will learn from your example and be inspired by you.

And in doing so, may the Jesus you love and serve gain all the glory.

Wedding Vows By Mobile Phone

According to Reuters an Indian bridegroom had to take his wedding vows by mobile phone when floods preventing him reaching the location of the ceremony.

So what are the issues around technology and proximity? In the 1990s I once heard the Revd Dr Phil Meadows argue that there was little difference between communicating certain things via virtual reality and mediating them through other, older, more socially acceptable technologies such as hearing aids. (And what about spectacles?) Earlier than that, in the 1980s, when Ship Of Fools was an ordinary magazine made of paper, they reported on the case in the USA (where else?) of the Roman Catholic ‘drive-in confessional’, with the slogan, ‘Toot and tell or go to hell.’

So how close do we have to be to someone for it to be personal? Conversely, how far away do we have to be from someone to break the sense of personal connection? What barriers are acceptable, because we don’t perceive them so much a barriers as mediators? Theologically, what constitutes community and incarnation?

Wedding Vows By Mobile Phone

According to Reuters an Indian bridegroom had to take his wedding vows by mobile phone when floods preventing him reaching the location of the ceremony.

So what are the issues around technology and proximity? In the 1990s I once heard the Revd Dr Phil Meadows argue that there was little difference between communicating certain things via virtual reality and mediating them through other, older, more socially acceptable technologies such as hearing aids. (And what about spectacles?) Earlier than that, in the 1980s, when Ship Of Fools was an ordinary magazine made of paper, they reported on the case in the USA (where else?) of the Roman Catholic ‘drive-in confessional’, with the slogan, ‘Toot and tell or go to hell.’

So how close do we have to be to someone for it to be personal? Conversely, how far away do we have to be from someone to break the sense of personal connection? What barriers are acceptable, because we don’t perceive them so much a barriers as mediators? Theologically, what constitutes community and incarnation?