One of the gifts that comes with serving in one congregation for an extended period of time is watching kids whom I’ve baptized grown in to youth and seeing youth become adults, going off into the world and, sometimes, getting married.
Sometimes to each other.
This weekend I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for two special people, Will Gerig and Becca McGraw. I met them when they were both youth in the youth band at church, shortly before they started dating.
Here’s the wedding sermon I wrote for them.
The texts were selections from the Song of Songs and Colossians 3.12-17.
Will and Becca,
Let’s just say I can’t believe the kids I knew in the youth band are now old enough to get married.
And let’s just say I can’t believe I’m old enough to be marrying the kids I knew in the youth band. I’m old enough to have been at this a while.
For example, I’ve done a lot of weddings.
By my best guesstimate it’s around 70 times- 70 times that I’ve stood in sanctuaries like this and announced ‘Dearly Beloved.’
By my best guesstimate it’s around 63 times- 63 times I’ve had to suffer through 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient, love is kind…’) as the scripture passage despite registering my strenuous objections with the bride and groom.
By own best guesstimate it’s around 3 times- 3 times my notes have blown away with the breeze at an outdoor wedding, which makes it 3 times that I’ve lost my train of thought and called either the bride or the groom by the wrong name.
2 times- by my guesstimate that’s how many times the bride has been so late to her wedding I started to seriously wonder if she’d show at all.
And 1 time- 1 time I’ve had to stand up front with a fake smile plastered on my face as a 12 year old boy, whose voice is newly in the throes of puberty, tries to make Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ sound worshipful.
God I hope that remains the only time.
I’ve done a lot of weddings.
By my best guesstimate about a baker’s dozen of those occasions have been for close friends of mine, friends from in and out of the congregation, people I know pretty well.
I even presided at my college roommate’s wedding in the chapel at UVA, which I’m guessing Will must’ve vetoed as a location for your own wedding since he still hasn’t come to grips with Virginia Tech’s massive inferiority in all things.
I’ve done a lot of weddings and many of those weddings were for people I knew pretty well.
But to the best of my memory, my best guesstimate is that out of all those weddings- all those brides and grooms, all those rings and ‘for richer for poorers’- I haven’t known any of those couples as long as I’ve known the two of you.
Nearly 10 years. Will you were 8 and Becca was 7 if I remember correctly.
I remember one of my first conversations with Becca. She was sitting on the parking slab outside the youth wing here and alluded to a crush she had on some boy whom she chose not to name.
And I remember hoping, whoever he was, that he was a nice guy because Becca seemed to be the sort who deserved a nice guy.
And I remember Will coming up to me, the new pastor, to introduce himself. I remember thinking Will was kind of corny and a little bit shy but thoroughly sincere; in other words, he was completely different back then.
I remember treading bacteria-infested water in Belize with Becca as she gave me advice on what makes for a good confirmation class and what makes for a bad one.
I remember the many worship services where, after it was done, Will would come up to me and give me his deadpan assessment of the sermon and I would leave having no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not.
I’ve done a lot of weddings and some for folks I knew pretty well but none for a couple I’ve known as long as I’ve known you.
I mean, out of all those 73 or so grooms Will is the only one who has ever patiently waited inside my tent simply to scare the pants off of my wife.
And of all the photos I have on Facebook from mission teams in Guatemala, Will is the only one to pretend to behead me with a machete from behind.
Of all the weddings and all the couples, you two are the only ones I’ve spent a week with at a monastery in France, singing and praying and hiking and posing awkwardly for photos as all Europeans do.
I remember whispering to my wife in our tent one of those nights at the monastery, both of us thinking you two seemed perfect for each other, that even then your relationship was healthier than most people who’ve been married their whole lives.
And I remember that last night in France as we slept on the airport floor awaiting our flight and you two lay there holding hands when you thought no one else was awake or looking.
I’ve known you guys a long time.
Long enough to know how you two feel about each other.
Long enough to know how you two feel today.
Long enough for me to feel nearly as happy and ecstatic and joyous as you feel.
But then, today at least, that begs a question:
If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?
If love is a feeling, how can you two promise that to each other forever?
The bride in the Song of Songs says that ‘love is as strong as death’ as ‘unyielding as the grave.’
She sings, in fact, that ‘many waters cannot quench love’ nor ‘rivers wash it away.’
Earlier in the song she confesses that her groom’s love for her has the power to make her beautiful and lovely.
But again- there’s the question: if love is just a feeling how can she describe it like that?
Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over.
You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.
If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.
But, it gets worse. When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.
When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’
And the night before he dies, when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’ And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’ And in a different letter Paul goes so far as to command husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.
Those are all imperatives.
Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another.
Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another.
They’re imperatives. They’re commands.
Here’s the thing.
You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.
You can only command an action.
In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.
Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.
Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.
We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, something we fall into (and out of).
The culture has so shaped us that that’s how we hear a scripture like the Song of Songs.
The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.
But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.
And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.
In scripture, even in an erotic love poem like the Song of Songs, love is an action first and a feeling second.
You know me well enough to know I’m trying to sound unromantic.
I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.
Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.
That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And you can ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.
Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.
The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. That’s what ‘for better, for worse’ is all about.
Paul says: ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ so that ‘the peace of Christ may rule in your hearts.’
In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.
You do it and then you feel it.
So, in your relationship you may not feel gentle but you act gentle.
You may not feel compassionate on a given day but, just as you would a child, you listen and show them compassion.
You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.
You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.
I’ve known you two longer than any of the 73 couples before you. I know how perfect you are for each other. I know how you make each of us better too.
But even the two of you- you can’t promise each other the feeling of love.
That’s not the covenant you make today.
The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day.
Love is something you do and today you promise to trust the doing, to trust the doing transform to transform your heart.
Again and again.
Day out and day in.
That’s the promise.
And that kind of promise…
It doesn’t just take two people. It doesn’t require the perfect relationship.
It doesn’t take a feeling. It takes faith.
It takes faith, I think, because that kind of love?
That kind of love is exactly how Jesus loves us.