Marriage: commitment, creativity and celebration

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
1 Oct 2011

A wedding sermon for Shona Scanlan and Ekklesia associate director Jordan Tchilingirian.

(Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 4:14-21, Philippians 2:1-11, Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, John 2. 1-11, Zygmunt Bauman – ‘Liquid Love’)

Marriage. What’s it all about, then? This is the question that wedding sermons are properly meant to address. [1] But by the time whatever wise words can be mustered are said, it’s all a bit late, really. The vows have been made, the journey is embarked upon, and to employ a much used and abused phrase, already “we’re all in this together”. Not just Shona and Jordan, but all of those gathered here. We are an important part of what makes the kind of daring faithfulness expressed in marriage possible. Or not, as is sometimes the case.

In the second of today’s three readings, which began with Jesus’ manifesto of radical social upheaval and ended with a reflection on how the active love he embodies goes right to the heart of God, we have the following words. They were written towards the end of the first century (from a Roman prison, in all probability) to a small, vulnerable group of people on the edge of empire. They are not about marriage as such, but they are definitely about the way of life that being married both presupposes and requires.

“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as God in Christ forgives you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3. 12-14)

So, Jordan and Shona: no pressure then! Well, of course, any attempt to live a good life in a world which can be painful, unjust and arbitrary is going to be full of difficulty. You’re not here today because you’re naïve about that. But you are here, committing to each other and involving all of us in strengthening our own bonds of love and affection too, because – to pinch a current advertising slogan and give it some actual content – you “believe in better”. Not the “better” of acquiring more and more things, but the better of building a world where people come before things.

What’s more, the symbolism of this wedding celebration is about reminding us that living together well (that is, living creatively, justly and lovingly) is possible. Not easy, but doable – because the immense resources we need to make marriage and many other forms of intentional community work are not ours alone: they are built up within the whole wider network of friendships and solidarities represented here today. And of course, they are part of the communion - the diversity in unity - that God makes possible in and through us.

“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken”, says the author of Ecclesiastes, prefiguring the Trinitarian Christian understanding that God is beyond us, with us and for us – all at the same time. In the case of marriage, I would suggest, those three strands are commitment, creativity and celebration. I will say just a few words about each of them.

The starting point matters a lot. To achieve anything significant in life we have first to commit to it, as you are doing today. Seeing is believing, we often say. But sometimes, without first believing that something is possible, we simply wouldn’t see it.

The theologian and Nazi-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer composed his famous wedding sermon from a prison cell as he awaited almost certain execution – probably the least promising context you can possibly imagine for being hopeful about a future together. His words, then and now, are both chastening and inspiring: “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” [2]

To connect not just once, but to go on connecting, to go on trying, to go on forgiving, to go on in spite of it all, we need first to commit – “to put on love”, as that letter to the Colossians curiously phrases it. But surely, we say, love isn’t something that you “put on”? It isn’t something you contrive, it’s a gift. Well, yes. But like all really worthwhile gifts love needs nourishing and developing. Neglect and presumption are the biggest enemies in all human relationships, and not least ones where we hold our goods and our very lives in common.

And it’s this holding things in common which is what that other ‘c’ word, ‘community’, means, incidentally. Or rather, not incidentally, but deliberately. Today, Jordan and Shona, you have brought us together because of your love and commitment, and we are here to thank you and support you in the great venture of your life together. That’s in danger of sounding a bit pious. But it’s true. We need you and you need us – friends, family, allies, neighbours, colleagues. Those present and those absent but cherished. People with you now, and those you will meet along the way. The known and the unknown.

All of this requires a great deal of creativity, of course. Possibly procreativity. We’ll see. The core point is, as your mentor Zygmunt Bauman aptly puts it: “It is not in craving after ready-made, complete and finished things that love finds its meaning – but in the urge to participate in the coming of such things.” [3]

Quite. That can mean children, for those blessed (and maybe tormented!) by them. It can also mean many other projects, ventures and inspirations in the life you build together, and equally in the individuality, the distinctiveness, which you support in each other.

Last but definitely not least, there’s the sustaining power of celebration – and that’s what we are really here to do today. To enjoy a great party which you and your loved ones have generously thrown. As someone once said, “don’t take life too deadly seriously; after all, none of us is going to get out of it alive!”

Now you, Shona and Jordan, have chosen many fine readings and hymns for your marriage celebration. But there’s one missing: the biblical story of the wedding at Cana. In some ways, I admit, I’m relieved you’ve omitted it. Hackneyed isn’t the word in terms of the way it is often employed. But that story has an important point, and it’s the final one I want to make.

There is a wonderful tale, made even more glorious by actually being true, about a young, fairly newly married Baptist who grew up in one of those churches where anything to do with unbridled enjoyment – especially if it involved alcohol – was definitely frowned upon. One day he was told that he could preach his first sermon there, and that it would be about Jesus’ first sign and miracle as recorded in John’s Gospel. “That’s marvellous news,” his supportive wife declared. “By the way, what is Jesus’ first sign and miracle in John’s Gospel?” The young man rushed to his Bible to find out, and came away looking rather crestfallen. Turning water into wine – in a strictly teetotal church. Oh dear.

Come the great day he began his sermon by commendably admitting the problem. “It’s very puzzling”, he said. “The world is full of great needs and woes. There are many important things we should be doing. Yet apparently Jesus chose, as his first major public act, to produce obscenely large quantities of booze for a wedding party which, late in the day, would probably already have been rather sloshed. Why on earth did he do something so frivolous? I’ve been thinking hard about that, and this is what I’ve come up with. Jesus is saying to all of us, “Hey – get real. The kingdom of God is a party… and the drinks are on me!” Amen.

References

[1] See also Ekklesia's research paper, 'What Future for Marriage' (2006) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/papers/abolishmarriage

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 'A Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell', May 1943, in Letters and Papers from Prison: An Abridged Version, edited by Eberhard Bethge (London: SCM Press, 1981). There are many fascinating insights to be derived from Bonhoeffer's famous address. At the same time, particularly in its uncomfortably conservative religious characterisation of gender roles, it is very much of its time. Understood maturely, that is a strength as much as a weakness.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This sermon was delivered at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, on 24 September 2011.

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