A Wedding Sermon

Wedding sermons are unique - they are sort of like a conversation between the pastor and the couple, but a conversation when you know that everyone else is listening in and you are also speaking to them. This was the conversation I had with William and Jennifer on the occasion of their wedding at St. John - Prairie Hill. Texts for the day were Genesis 2:18-24, Colossians 3:12-17, and John 15:9-12.

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It really is a joy to be here today, gathered with you, William and Jennifer, and surrounded here by all of your family and friends. It is one of the privileges of my job that I am invited to be a part of celebrations like this – and I thank you for inviting me to be a part of this special day.

After the service today, when everyone is gone, I will go back to my office, and I will sign this piece of paper (Hold up Marriage License). Apparently there was some question about whether you would remember to get this on time. I don’t know, that’s just what I was told.

But this is your marriage license. It was given to you by the state of Texas, and I will send it back to the state of Texas. Everyone who has been married in Texas has one of these.
Some folks have it in a nice frame, up on the wall somewhere in their house.
Some might have it in a lock box with other important documents to keep it safe.
Maybe some are like the lawyer who had his marriage license out and was reading it one night, when his wife asked him what he was doing. He said, “Looking for a loophole.”

Regardless of what you do with this piece of paper, I want to tell you a secret; you know, just between the three of us …

It’s just a piece of paper. Really. That’s all.
This piece of paper is not a marriage.
In fact, everything we are doing today is not a marriage. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great day. It is wonderful to be in this place, with all these people, witnessing your vows to one another. This place where grandparents said their vows, and where parents said their vows – it is good to be here.

But as good as it is to be here, don’t get confused: this is a wedding, not a marriage.
What makes a marriage is what comes next.
What makes a marriage is what you do tomorrow, and the next day, and the following weeks and months and years.

For many weddings, the couple will look at my list of recommended readings and say, “Pastor, you just choose something.” Or they’ll use First Corinthians chapter 13, because it is what is used at everyone else’s wedding, right? And that’s fine for those people. But not for William & Jennifer.

We talked quite a bit about what readings would be most appropriate today. What would express the life that they want to live together. And I am glad we settled on what we did today, Especially that Gospel lesson from Saint John.

Especially that one little bit – the bit that often gets cut out of wedding services: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” As we talked about it, the question was asked, “Surely that’s not appropriate for a wedding?”
And the answer is: few things could be more appropriate.

Because here is the truth: Chances are that you will never be asked to give up your life for your spouse. But, you will have to give up yourself for your spouse.
Marriage is not a piece of paper, it is a gift.

Jennifer, today you will give yourself to William.
And William, today you will give yourself to Jennifer.

Those are the words that we used as we began this service: William, will you give yourself to Jennifer, to share your life with her? And Jennifer, will you give yourself to William, to share your life with him?

Marriage is a gift, the gift of yourself, of your life. And it is not just today.

Every day from here forward, you must continue to give yourselves to one another. That is a marriage.

It means letting go of petty fights about who is right and who is wrong.
It means putting your spouse’s interests – their wants and desires and happiness – ahead of your own.
It means, William, that Jennifer’s happiness is more important than yours.
And it means, before you smile about that to much, Jennifer, that William’s happiness is more important than yours. That is a marriage.

That is precisely what Jesus means when he gives his disciples their one and only commandment, to love one another. That is what Paul means, when he tells us to be clothed in love. That is what means to become one flesh, forever joined together.

You are each your wedding gift to one another. And your marriage is the gift of continuing to give yourselves to one another.
A warning. It must be both of you, and it must be a decision you continue to make every day.
And with that gift to each other, with that shared love, I know that you will have a marriage that will last through the ages, and stand as a witness to all of the love of God. God bless you.

But that’s enough of me talking; let’s get to the main event. William and Jennifer, I invite you to come and begin the adventure of your marriage by declaring your vows to one another here in the presence of God and of God’s people.

In Defense of Seminaries: Theology Matters!

The conversation seems to come up twice a year.In the spring, around graduation time, and then again in the fall as enrollment happens, a glut of conversations questioning the value of seminary education.And almost universally, the conclusion (at least in the public debate) seems to be that it is time to do away with traditional seminary education.

"We need new models!" "It's too expensive!" "We can't be tied to brick & mortar institutions!" And on goes the list of battle cries. To be clear: there are some very good, intelligent criticisms leveled against traditional seminary education.As the saying goes, some of my best friends are opposed to seminary education. However, I strongly believe not only that traditional seminary education can be a good thing, but that the church of the twenty-first century needs traditional seminary education.

First, many of the arguments against seminary education are fueled by the current milieu of anti-expert rhetoric. We want politicians who are not professional politicians. We are told to distrust "mainstream news" sources (usually expressed as a distrust of professional news outlets and commentators). We walk into the doctors office with our own diagnosis made from our own research. And into this mix comes seminary education - a system that asks people to devote three to five years to study, to become in some sense professionals or experts.

I don't want to spend too much space on this point, but simply put, we need experts. Not everyone who talks about the economy is an economist. I would not be a person who should make fundamental decisions about the economy. Sure, I have my opinions, based on my reading about our economy and my experiences. But you would be gravely mistaken to think that because of those opinions I have an insightful understanding of how an economy the size of the US economy works, let alone the global economy. Not everyone who talks about the body and health is a surgeon. My chiropractor has done wonderful things for my spine, and often helps me to feel much better. But when I go for a vasectomy, I want a professional, an expert!

And not everyone who talks about God is a theologian. Yes, I know, we've been told that since "theology just means words about God" everyone who talks about God is a theologian. But it is a logical fallacy. In the same way that my personal opinions about the economy (having my personal economic theories, if you will) do not make me an economist, our personal thoughts about God (having a personal theology) does not make us all theologians.

Theology, Christian theology, is a comprehensive system that shapes our understanding who God is, the reality of the world, and who we are in relation to that God and one another. Rooted in the Gospel, the theologian is informed by the great teachers of the church and (in our tradition) creeds and confessional documents.

Ok, ok. You could argue that anyone could do those things, without a formal theological education. And you'd be right (If you tell anyone I said you're right, I'll call you a liar). I certainly know some brilliant theologians who have not had formal theological education. They have, however, put themselves through a theological education. And - much more importantly - I would say that they are the exception to the rule. Most people who put themselves out there as "self-educated" theologians quite simply aren't. And - here's the point - it is dangerous to take them at their word.

Theology matters! In May of this year, thousands of individuals gave up on their lives, ready for the end of the world because that is what "theologian" Harold Camping said was going to happen. Many of us laughed at Camping, but the reality is thousands of lives were ruined because of bad theology. In April 1993, 76 people died in Waco, Texas, and even more lives were ruined because of the teaching of "theologian" Vernon Howell. Maybe these examples are extreme, but the point to an important truth: theology matters, and has the potential have serious effects on the lives we lead. There is also the family who will never return to a Christian community, because of the "theologian" who taught them that their daughter was sick because of the sins of their family. Or the countless individuals in our congregations, confused by popular "theologians" about death and resurrection.

When Harold Camping and NT Wright, or Oprah and Douglas John Hall, or Joel Osteen and Kathryn Tanner are considered to be equal authorities, something has gone wrong. If theology matters, then it also matters who we look to as theologians.

A seminary education provides the opportunity to immerse oneself in the roots of our theological tree. To study and read Scripture, to sit at the feet of the great teachers of the church, and to engage in theological exploration with other learners. One can, in the midst of life, do this on one's own; but traditional seminary education gives the opportunity to do nothing but this for three years. In addition, in a traditional seminary environment there are trusted guides who have been acknowledged as theological authorities, who provide direction and structure to theological inquiry.

Seminary education matters, because theology matters.

Next thoughts: Seminary education as formation. But until then, what say you? Is everyone a theologian? Does seminary education matter?