Author’s Note: I gave the following homily at the wedding of two young friends on September 21, 2019. It is shared in the hopes that its themes will strike a common chord for its readers.
A wedding ceremony is a kind of time machine, allowing us to move back in time through memory and forward in hope. For those who are married, it reminds us of those months and moments leading up to the day, when we were ricocheting between hope, desire, and anxiety. For those who are engaged, it’s a time to learn by observation. For all of us, it’s a time to rejoice for our soon-to-be-married friends.
And for you two, it’s a time to do both — look back in memory and forward in hope. You’ve been together for five years, some of that time separated by a continent. You know something about long-distance relationships. You’ve weathered some things that most couples don’t go through for many years yet to come. The phrase “in sickness and in health” means a lot more to you now than it might have five years ago. “For richer or for poorer” — that’s still a work in progress.
This marriage thing is one of the most wondrous aspects of being human. Consider: people born thousands of miles apart and even years apart — complete strangers — make their paths in their own ways that eventually lead them to each other. Along the way, there are side trails, loops, reversals, ascensions, and descents. It’s never a straight line to an inevitable finish. For most of us, the one we marry is our discovery, our wonderful, amazing, unexpected surprise that somehow seems like it was meant to be all along.
In Genesis, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Plato told a story of human origins and said, “we used to be complete in our original nature, and now ‘love’ is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.” And Aristotle called us social animals, incomplete without one another.
Communication theories are built on the premise that most of our written, spoken, and nonverbal messages are directed to others. We wouldn’t know who we are if it were not for the responses we get back from other people. At the very least, there’s an acknowledgement of our presence as a being in the world. But when communication is a living, electrifying connection between two people, it is a miracle of the commonplace. Communicating with another person is the most complex thing we do. And we do it pretty well, all things considered. But it’s an open-ended standard, with practically no limits as to how we can communicate better and more honestly.
For at the heart of communication is a constant need for truth. Rowan Williams, once the Archbishop of Canterbury, said “Need is the beginning of truthfulness.” It points back, somehow, to this idea of incompleteness, that our longing for the other can be traced back to the Garden and God musing to himself that it is not good for a person to be by himself.
We are creatures created to learn — as a teacher this was my morning mantra — although on some days it seemed an impossible dream. But we do learn and most of the time we have a hunger for it. It draws us in, it creates in us a longing to be filled, to draw closer to some unnamed but inexhaustible truth about life.
Matthew Arnold recovers this in his poem, The Buried Life, when he writes:
“But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us — to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.”
Our yearning to know another person comes at a price. It calls for us to be intimate, vulnerable, open with the other. These things cannot be rushed — we’re uncomfortable when people reveal too much too soon about themselves. It leaves us holding treasure that we have somehow come by unequally.
I say “unequally” because communication at this level is a reciprocal action — or it should be. As we trust, we open up. When someone opens up to us it’s as if they are handing us a knife and baring their breast. It’s a risk, to be honest. It’s a risky business to be honest, because if we open up to another person with all that we are, we are open for pain. But if we avoid the possibility and we don’t open up, we cannot know them in any real way that goes beyond the bare necessities.
Remember Paul Simon’s song, “Something So Right”?
“Some people never say the words
I love you
It’s not their style
To be so bold
Some people never say those words
I love you
But like a child they’re longing
To be told”
We’re all longing to be told. It’s not selfish either. It’s an assurance that we’re not just taking up space in the world, but we are known and loved and if we were not here we would be missed and mourned. It means we matter to someone. And that touches on the other side of communication — that of giving, of being the sender of the message.
One of the most powerful passages I read in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale years ago was one that was leading me to believe that the narrator — in the midst of all that brutality and coldness — was longing to be loved. Instead, through the skill and wisdom of Atwood, it became clear that more than anything, she wanted to love. She wanted to give her love unstintingly, willingly, gloriously to another being. In loving another she would release springs of living water, as Jesus said, that had long been buried, sealed over, and forgotten. She would become her true self again.
The thing about learning and loving that brings them together is that neither one is brought to completion by ourselves. We learn in the company of others. We love, quite obviously, with others. Our incompleteness, that sense that there is always more, that just beyond what we can see there is so much more, is constitutive of learning and loving too. We get ourselves into a spot if we convince ourselves there is no more to be learned or that we have loved enough. The first reveals us to be lacking in curiosity; the second to be lacking in truth.
For in truth, when we are honest, we know that we can never love enough. We might find ourselves keeping score, maybe even throwing it back in someone’s face — “you’ve never loved me the way I’ve loved you!” But the kind of love that gets you through your day, dealing with slings and arrows and outrageous slander, that brings you home, tired from work, only to find a surly mate who’s had an equally bad day, that kind of love is not measured out in spoonfuls like medicine.
That might be the time, in all honesty, to admit to ourselves and our loved ones, that we do fall short in the giving part of love, and that we still have so much to learn. There’s no shame in admitting to those we love that our cup doth not run over. When we are true and honest, we — and they — know that it’s a temporary condition. This is where our strength lies in humility and forgiveness, outriggers that keep the ship of love steady as it goes.
The greatest poem in the Bible about love is familiar to most of us. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way… It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”
There it is again: the bond between love and the truth. It’s the truth within our love that gives us strength to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” And here is the scary part, that burns us with its fullness: “Love never ends.”
That’s not a test we are bound to fail, it’s not a criticism, it is, in fact, our blessed assurance. It means that in spite of everything, against all odds, no matter what, God, the one who created love, loves us. That is the truth and the truth can set us free.
Today you are going to vow your love to each other in front of these witnesses and God. Today you know that you love each other, but there may come times — there will come times — when you’re not so self-assured, when it feels that your life has changed in oh, so many ways. In those times, remember how the poem ends:
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
We love because God first loved us.
Lord of the light that is our life, we ask your blessing on us today. We give you this couple and ask that you bless their home and their love, this day and always. In your grace and through your love, may they be steadfast and true to one another and to you. And may we, their family and friends, be likewise true to our bonds of love. In the wisdom of the Spirit, may we together be a community that does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly in the land. Amen.