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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 indicates 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 thetone 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 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 an 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.