For
most Protestant pastors the phenomenon of a bride or a groom (or both) requesting
the pastor to preach a “little sermon” during their wedding ceremony
is perhaps a rare occurrence. Despite the infrequency of such desires in the
past, however, I have found in my own ministry this seemingly newfound need.
Although not limited to, but especially for young couples, the wedding sermon
or homily furnishes a pastor an opportunity to place the wedding not only into
the context of worship, but in fact, place matrimony directly into the context
of the Christian faith.

Could
this be a reaction to the common notion that Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David
Popenoe outlined in their research? A report on their work notes that, “Traditional
social forces, such as the family, religion, and the workplace, used to pressure
men toward marriage, but that is no longer the case. . . . With the relaxation
of social pressures, coupled with general silence about unmarried couples living
together, ‘men can relax their timetable indefinitely.'” (from “Wedded
Bliss Not a Priority for Bachelors” by Cheryl Wetzstein, The Washington
Times, 26 June 2002). The article goes on to share many of the commonly held
assumptions about marriage that have little, if anything, to do with the church’s
biblical and theological understandings of Christian marriage.

The
repetition of the wedding sermon requests indicate to me that at least some
couples sense the need for recapturing the sacredness of marriage. It is not
necessary to provide a long litany of statistics about marriage difficulties
in our society. Pastors know from long and conceivably agonizing experience
the statistics all too well. Instead, I want to believe that a rethinking of
the wedding as a worship service in the minds of at least those who enter into
this sacred covenant is a positive sign. Let us all live in the hope that this
is the case.

From
the Beginning

It
may seem odd, but from the pastor’s perspective the success or failure of a
wedding ceremony as a worship occasion rises or falls during the initial moments
of the wedding rehearsal. So, I would first insert a succinct word about the
wedding rehearsal. The rehearsal is the best and most logical place to set the
tone of the wedding. It is the one place where the pastor can help participants
understand early on in the process just how important and sacred the service
of marriage is.

While
we all want a beautiful wedding, want to preach a meaningful sermon, want to
celebrate a family’s love for its children, what is most vital in the wedding
process in the resultant marriage. The rehearsal allows the pastor to say things
to the wedding party that helps them understand their role as authentic worship
leaders in this sacred worship rite of the church.

I
suggest that the wedding sermon also offers a pastor the unique opportunity
to speak to the theological vitality of marriage in a culture that, at best,
looks upon marriage with some ambiguity. Worse than that, because of the culture
in which we live, too many people think of marriage as a hopeless exercise in
optimistic futility.

I
realized what I was up against early in my ministry. At one of my first weddings,
I noted that the bride and groom had several sets of parents, stepparents, grandparents,
and step-grandparents each. It was a daunting task for a novice preacher to
“line up” the extended wedding party in order of importance. This
task was necessary so that the older generation could be properly ushered into
the sanctuary. The wedding sermon is an excellent opportunity for the preacher
to remind people who attend weddings about the sacred nature of covenants. Moreover,
because each wedding is unique, pastors have the opportunity to tailor messages
to suit the specific wedding occasion and the people involved with it.

Choosing
a Text

Therefore,
the choice of texts is vital. In most Protestant denominations there is a book
of worship or book of services. Generally these resources are excellent places
for pastors to turn. They not only provide rubrics for the service itself, but
many suggest two dozen or more biblical texts appropriate to the occasion of
wedding covenants. If a situation presents itself where the couple’s marriage
will create a blended family, a text on forgiveness or divine love might well
be appropriate (see for some of many examples: Matthew 18:15-35; John 13:34;
Romans 5:1-5, Romans 12:10, 13:8; Colossians 3:12-17; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:17-24).

However,
if the couple is relatively young, a pastor might want to focus on the nature
and substance of promises, focusing on covenant in the Christian understanding
of that sacred word (Genesis 6:18-22, 17:1-8; Psalm 18:25-33; Acts 2:37-39).
These examples merely serve as an illustration of the wide variety of biblical
texts that a preacher can employ. Each situation in a marriage circumstance
is unique and the pastor is best able to judge what is appropriate or inappropriate
in a given context. The vital element is that the pastor preaches the gospel.

Some
of the most traditional wedding sermon texts include the wedding feast of the
Lamb (Rev. 19:1, 5-9), God’s creation of the first couple (Gen. 1:26-28, 31a),
Jesus’ Love commandment (Matt. 22:35-40), and obviously, Paul’s hymn to love
(1 Cor. 13). However, preachers must take care to take into consideration the
text’s biblical context. If we do not, then the scripture may turn out more
comical than theological. Often couples request the beautiful words from the
book of Ruth that read: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will
lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
This perspective is beautiful. This point of view may express the couple’s deepest
commitment to the other. But no matter how we slice it, these words are, in
point of fact, biblical words that a daughter-in-law speaks to her mother-in-law.
During a wedding, if this biblical fact penetrates a congregation’s awareness,
then the possibility exists for some hushed hilarity for those attentive people
who catch the irony.

Where
should we place the wedding sermon within the worship service? Some suggest
early on, perhaps after the opening prayer or before the couple takes their
vows. In my experience the best place for the message seems to be either right
before or right after the giving, receiving, and blessing of the rings. If the
preacher delivers the homily too early in the service then the congregation
seems ill equipped to receive it. A congregation needs some reflective time
of preparation to hear the Word of God. However, if we place the sermon too
late in the liturgy, then it may appear as the focal point of the service. This
sermonic placement may be inappropriate to the subsequent declaration of the
marriage. Each pastor must decide about the sermon’s liturgical placement in
order to be fitting for the worship circumstance.

How
long shall the wedding sermon be?

In
some parts of the country (and in some traditions), those who attend weddings
may be unaccustomed to a wedding homily. In that event, preachers may want to
limit the sermon’s length — perhaps to 10-15 minutes. If, however, tradition
endorses preaching at weddings, then the preacher may adjust the length according
to what seems suitable.

If
the couple and the wedding party remain standing, however, this circumstance
will naturally limit the homily’s length. Nothing is worse than one of the wedding
party slumping to the floor during a rousing sermon on love and commitment.
Most pastors know their people and circumstance so well that this is a call
that only the pastor can make. On occasions when it is appropriate, the seating
of the wedding party can be helpful. In these cases a preacher has the luxury
of a reasonably longer sermon. Similar to funerals, local custom and traditions
will best guide preachers in these decisions.

What
is a Wedding Sermon Like?

Many
pastors are curious about the tone to use during this kind of specialized wedding
preaching. Generally, most preachers will not face this homiletical circumstance
often. Wedding sermons do not occur with nearly the frequency that Sunday morning
sermons or funerals do. For this reason they can be tricky for some preachers.

For
example, a preacher might specialize in prophetic or evangelistic preaching.
This pastor might hold forth on Sunday morning by bringing people’s individual
sin squarely into the sanctuary. The preacher might call for repentance and
encourage the people to renew their covenant commitment to God. On the other
hand, a pastor may focus on the social gospel and encourage/chastise the congregation
for not feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger,
visiting the sick or imprisoned, or giving clothing to those without (Matthew
25:35-36). Clearly, although there may be elements of this theological perspective
in the wedding service, the wedding homily is of a different order. Therefore,
the preacher’s tone will necessarily be different.

The
wedding sermon is a golden opportunity to preach the gospel to people who may
not normally attend worship. For this reason alone it is imperative to use a
tone that gives the gracious imperatives of the gospel in a warm and inviting
way to which a congregation can legitimately respond. The preacher will initially
have to decide: who is the primary audience? Is the preacher preaching to the
whole world, the congregation, family and friends, or strictly to the couple?
I often suggest at the opening of the wedding homily that I am speaking primarily
to the couple entering the marriage covenant. However, I invite any others who
might be interested to listen as well. This technique invites others to eavesdrop
or, as Fred Craddock calls it, “overhear” the gospel. At the same
time it places the focus squarely on the couple – where, in my judgment, it
should be.

Thus,
the tone of the sermon might be one that is both loving and challenging. No
one present fails to understand the risk of making lifelong promises – especially
in our culture of provisional contracts and our tendency to deconstruct everything,
sacred or not. We speak of love out of the context of God’s loving-kindness
for God’s people. We create a sense of God’s purpose through the creating of
new families.

Augustine
once said something to the effect that “Every family is a little church.”
For this reason when we create a new family through marriage, or for those with
a higher theology of marriage, when God creates a new family, then God creates
a new family in the divine image and in divine love. As the epistle of Ephesians
reads, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined
to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (5:31).

When
people enter the marriage covenant, God is always the silent third party. Thus,
we not only celebrate the marriage covenant, we also hold it up and challenge
the couple to remember that they, too, are part of God’s marvelous creation.
The preacher’s tone, therefore, expands the hospitality of God into the marriage.
Not only this, but the preacher also invites the couple into the hospitality
of God’s gracious creation. The tone of a wedding homily holds out the hope
of encouraging covenant faithfulness, while at the same time pledging the community
of faith’s supportive role in the marriage. Is this not why we celebrate marriage
in the church – the body of Christ?

A
Great Cloud of Witnesses

Clearly
we need to sound a pastoral note – but now here is a word about creativity.
We live in a culture where everything must be new and shiny. People look upon
five-year-old cars with askance. We are the lovers of the new. This cultural
tendency will tempt, or dare we say, seduce, those who marry to be novel and
original.

Sometimes
I encounter couples that say things like, “We don’t want anyone to ever
forget our wedding.” However, the most memorable weddings are distinguished,
in my experience, by things most of the participants would rather forget than
remember. The memorable wedding event may have been an overly intoxicated groomsman
(read here: He is “filled with new wine” [Acts 2:13]), a child who
decided to sing during the ceremony, or even, e-gad, the clergyperson forgetting
the bride’s name. These may be memorable events, but not in the way the couple
intended. For this reason, pastoral care for the wedded couple becomes important
to their own understanding of both the wedding and, more significantly, for
the subsequent marriage.

I
try to help the couple see that marriage has great continuity with the past.
Once in a while, I pull down from my bookshelf a 1883 edition of The Doctrines
and Discipline of the Free Methodist Church. I am usually surprised that
for many couples this is the oldest book many have ever held in their hands.
Included in this little book, about 120 years old, are some of the worship rites
of the church – including the solemnization of holy matrimony. In most respects
it is a much simpler service than those that we currently use; for example,
there is no mention of the giving and receiving of rings. Yet it is remarkable
how the service wording is virtually identical. I try to help couples visualize
their grandparents and great-grandparents taking vows very similar to those
that they are going to take.

This
reminds all of us that there is great stability in the worship liturgy or order
of service for Christian marriage. I get great reassurance from the fact that
my own marriage vows were not too dissimilar to those that my own great grandparents
took. In helping couples remember that our tradition is a great fountainhead
from which we draw from other’s experience, then it helps them bear in mind
that marriage is a much greater endeavor than merely their own individualistic
celebration. Indeed, “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) surrounds
this couple, as indeed the cloud of witnesses surrounds all believers. For those
who are contemplating the seriousness of marriage, perhaps this is encouraging.
Many others have stood where they stand and offer hope for those who are about
to do something that many have long since done.

The
task of the pastor is like that of an umpire at a baseball game. The umpire
has a very important job, but if done well will remain almost invisible. The
wedding day is a day for the couple to speak promises before God and this company.
When we preach we are vessels through whom God chooses to communicate the gospel.
Therefore, we do it with love, care, and grace. We are there to remind people
that God is present in the sacred promises that we get to see close up. It is
an honor and a privilege.

______________________

David
Neil Mosser is Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Arlington,
TX.

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