This was one of the most fun sermons I’ve ever preached: for a wedding (the couple’s names have been “redacted” to protect the innocent!), which for various reasons took place on April 8, 2017 — the night before Palm Sunday — usually verboten, I know, but it all makes sense in context. The wedding was a surprise: all the guests thought they were coming to an engagement party at a venue in the city, and all were enjoying the evening — when the bride sprung the announcement that a priest (me) was waiting in the next room along with a string quartet, and that the wedding would take place immediately. I had no idea whether the congregation would be happy or furious, hence my hesitation at the beginning of the homily, and my strategic decision to emphasize the element of “Surprise!” In the event, I needn’t have worried: the congregation couldn’t have been happier for the couple, and I couldn’t have been more honored to do this.
Collect: O gracious and everliving God, you have created us male and female in your image: Look mercifully upon this man and this woman who come to you seeking your blessing, and assist them with your grace, that with true fidelity and steadfast love they may honor and keep the promises and vows they make; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
As N. and N. and I have been preparing for today, I’ve been threatening them that I’d preach a 6-hour homily, but just in case some of you don’t like surprises as much as these two, I’ll make this short before you start lobbing rotten tomatoes in this direction!
Surprises: At first glance nothing seems to be further from the kind of long-term faithfulness at the heart of marriage. When choosing a partner we weigh our options carefully, engage in serious soul-searching based on our own experience, our personalities, our priorities and needs and wants. Nearly every corner of the relationship market these days has completely sold out to the idea of analytical compatibility, which leaves very little room for any kind of real surprise. Surprises are not welcome by this kind of metric!
But I think surprise is one of the chief cornerstones of any good relationship, no matter how many years you’ve spent together or how well you know each other. One of the things at the heart of the Church’s conviction about who people are is that each is made in the image of God. As God is infinite, inexhaustible, so is any mirror put up to reflect his image. We spend our whole lives on this earth getting to know God and the things he has made.
Recently I was at a bedside giving last rites to a man many regarded as exceptionally wise, strong in faith over many decades of life’s many episodes. What was going through his mind as he lay there dying? Great thoughts of profound meaning about his life and the people he loved? Not by any measure — he was remembering the stories of his childhood, and the songs he learned in Sunday School. He went to his death croaking out the tune “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Here on his deathbed he was still full of the wonder of a child, ready for more mysteries to unfold, more surprises to be unveiled, just around the next corner.
Why do I tell this story at a wedding? Because just as this man was full of childlike wonder before entering the nearer presence of God, so in this life you and I are constantly brought face to face with persons who bear his image: whose depths we can never exhaust, who are always just one step ahead of us no matter how well we think we might know them.
This is the way it is with every person in our lives, and the degree to which we allow them to surprise us with who they are is the degree to which we learn to love as God loves.
In no relationship is this more profoundly the case than in marriage. Sometimes I’ll hear from someone married a long time, that they’ve lived with their husband or wife for forty, fifty, sixty years, and they still don’t understand them. It’s often meant as a quick quip, a light joke, but there’s a very deep truth there. The person whom you marry will always be one step beyond you, eluding your complete understanding, evading your complete grasp.
As the poet in Song of Solomon calls his beloved from where she lies to where he is going, a husband or wife calls the other from out of the current moment into the beyond, into the realm of God’s love, where mercy is new every morning, and worlds on worlds are created for sheer joy. There is no exhausting that love, no possessing it, no controlling it. Here we are on the eve of Holy Week, when we remember chief of all that even death itself can have no lasting hold on God, and the more it tries the more it is undone.
Which is all a very long way of saying, N. and N., surprise one another! Be ready to be surprised. There is no telling how the years will unfold, or what you will have made of each other when you face your own last moments. But understand there will be many surprises along the way, many unforeseen moments, many chances to see afresh, to make anew, to forgive, to restore, to nurture, to flourish. Welcome the surprises, use them as occasions to learn something of God, and to grow in love. Easter is the surprise that remakes the world. Let your marriage be the occasion for God to remake you, as you love one another in his Name and in his power.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.