The anniversary of Paul and Holly

We’re gathered today to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Paul and Holly. As we were preparing for this day, Holly told me that, before the wedding, her mother told her – as a kind of encouragement: “If you two do 10 years, that would already be something…” So I guess you two made it!

But we’re not here to celebrate some kind of record breaking. It’s not about personal accomplishment or endurance, the ability to “have made it” (last). When we celebrate at church, it’s always to give thanks. Today we celebrate, rejoice and give thanks for each one of you and more specifically we give thanks for you as a couple, we give thanks for the life you build together, the life you brought into the world, the joy and the hope you incarnate for all of us, your children, your grand children, siblings, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.

So on this occasion, we celebrate and give thanks not only for the love you have for each other, but also for the love you spread around you, this love that, as people of faith, we believe to be the ultimate reality, the most important thing in the world – this love we believe to be God. When I told a friend I was preaching for a marriage anniversary this Sunday, she told me: Oh good, you’re going to preach about love. But the truth, you know, is that we should preach about love every Sunday, because it is what it’s all about.

This is the reason this passage we have read from John is so important. It reminds us that all of Jesus’s teaching is actually about asking people to love each other. This passage is often chosen for weddings, but interestingly, put back into context, we find out that this is one of the last things Jesus said before dying: Those verses are part of the “Farewell discourse”. And you know, when you’re about to die, you don’t spend time with details and subtleties, you go right to the heart of things: And so this is what Jesus told us: in the end, it all comes down to love.

We may forget how disturbing, and even revolutionary, it was when Jesus said that his only commandment was to love. In the religion of the time, there were more than 400 rules to follow. So it was really hard I guess to have a sense of having it right with God. There was always something that could go wrong! Jesus came to tell people that they only had to love to know who God was and to please God. “Commandment”: Not so much a “rule”, in Hebrew it’s a “word”, a word that brings life and joy. Jesus speaks about a way of “doing life” that will bring us (true) fulfillment and happiness.

In this sense, this is still revolutionary. Many people have wrong ideas about God and religion, and often religious people themselves have wrong ideas! Having faith, it’s not so much about being very pious or obeying a moral code, rather it’s about loving and being loved, and diving always deeper in this love. What Jesus reminds us, is that we are are first invited to receive God’s love – the reason why he asks his disciples to “abide” in love – and then, as we are being filled with this love, we are made able at our turn to love others: open our hearts, welcome, share, give and forgive and doing so – finding our joy and our purpose.

That’s the bottom line: Because we are made by love and made for love, it’s in loving and in being loved that we find joy and purpose – as you Paul and Holly have found fulfillment and happiness in your commitment to one another.

Now the question for all of us I guess is this: Well, how do we do that? How do we find true and deep love, the love God wants to give us, a love that brings joy and fulfillment?

Well, I really like it that you chose a passage from the book of Tobit for your first reading. The story of a marriage – and a strange and fascinating story – such a strange story that it has been removed from some protestant versions of the Bible. Yet it’s a beautiful story – filled with wise old people, and angels, and children (there’s even a puppy)…and it’s also a very necessary story because it says a lot about how we experience love and become able to receive it.

So this is the story, if you don’t know it: Holly – if your mother hoped your marriage could last ten years, it was nothing compared to what Sarah’s mother was feeling! Actually she was hoping the marriage would at least last 24 hours. Because that’s what was going on with Sarah: She had married several times, but each time the groom had died suddenly on the wedding night, “before the wedding was consummated”. This was very depressing and as the story goes, it is said that Sarah’s father was so sure Tobias was also going to die during the wedding night, he started digging a grave for him in the garden while the couple were headed to their bedroom! Yet this time things went differently: Tobias survived the night and enjoyed a long marriage with Sarah.

And so this is kind of a crazy story, but for all its strangeness it’s a very necessary story because it teaches us a lot about love:

First, it looks like that the death of the grooms and the curse Sarah seems to be under tells us about the way we apprehend love, and most of the time it’s with fear. We fear that we will never find love, that love will pass us by or that we will die before knowing it – or maybe we are afraid that we will destroy the love that is given to us. To become able to love, it’s important to acknowledge these feelings. Made to love, we all long deeply to find love, to love and to be loved in return, and it’s scary because it makes us feel vulnerable. Yet, we cannot find love if we don’t show a little bit of this vulnerability, if we don’t acknowledge that we need to receive love and to be able to learn how to love. In our culture, we often hear that love is not that important – an illusion. Better a good career, a nice house, exotic travels, having fun. But as Christians, we believe otherwise. We believe that only love can make us really happy. It does not mean necessary marriage. But love must be at the center our lives.

Second thing the story teaches us is that to love, we have to surrender our desire to have power on others. Tobias says that he does not take Sarah “out of lust”. It does not mean that he does not like her! “Lust” is considered as a sin but it’s not about having a physical attraction for somebody, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Bible reminds us several times that sexuality was created by God. But lust needs to be renounced because it prevents us from loving truly, lust is when we consider others as our possessions, as a thing we can take or leave, as if people were only there to make us feel good. And we are tempted to behave like that not only with romantic partners! We can very well use our friends or other family members to fulfill our own needs – but then we can never know what true love is about: caring for one another, sharing life together and supporting one another, as the passage from Mark reminds us.

Third thing that the story teaches us about love is that all our relationships rest in God’s love. Tobias prays with Sarah and they offer their love to God, acknowledging that their love is like a small drop in the ocean of God’s love. This is important to remind us that we are not in charge of love, rather love is in charge of us. To love, we need first to receive love: to know we are worthy of love. Then we can enjoy relationships made of respect, intimacy and complicity. Jesus reminds us that love should bring us joy! It does not mean that we don’t meet difficulties, but God will give us the strength to love when it’s necessary – the strength to forgive for example – or the strength to love ourselves enough to leave a loveless relationship. If love is meant to bring us joy, it also means that if we have to try too hard to make it happen or to make it last, maybe it’s not really about love. To love, we don’t have to try too hard all the time, but we have to make the effort to be present and attentive to those around us. What children needs the most is to have their parents spending time with them, not looking at their phones! Love is here, given, present, but we are often absent and we don’t see the people God sends us everyday to love us, or in need of being loved!

Last thing the story teaches us about love is that love is resilient. I admire Sarah who is still ready to get married with yet another man! Love takes risks and chances and carries on. I’ve just read a book about a woman who says that her closer experience of faith was the way she kept looking for the right partner even after having suffered terrible breakups. She says that although each time she kept telling herself it was the last time she fell in love because it hurt so much to be left, each time love kept being reborn in her heart. She was willing to put her out heart out there until she found the man who truly loved her. Well, I think she’s right to say it’s a kind of faith, it’s faith actually: to believe that love is real and can be found and that is the meaning of life.

That’s what we do at church actually – we don’t go to church to become Bible nerds or very pious or very moral people, we come to church to receive love and to learn how to love and to grow in love – as we do when we get married. And we do this because it’s our joy and fulfillment. So today let’s celebrate and let us be thankful with Paul and Holly! Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *