St Paul, who wrote the letter from which the reading that Rod and Trish chose for their wedding today, loved making lists. It wasn’t just his own personal hobby, it was one of the intellectual fashions of the first century, and so in all of the letters he contributed to what we now call the New Testament, lists figure pretty prominently. Lists of virtues, lists of vices (which to tell the absolute truth look a whole lot more fun) lists of the fruits and the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit .. lists of the ideal qualities for saints ...and in the wonderful passage about love that we read this morning, yet another list of everything that love is, and much that it isn’t.
So because I think St Paul is generally spot-on, and in particular because he is so spot-on in this reading about love that there isn’t much I can add to it ... I decided to write a list of my own. I hasten to add that this is a wisdom that, for my own part, I am still working on! A list that in my own case is still incomplete, a work in progress ... a list imperfectly understood and incompletely practised ... but here for what it’s worth is my list of the virtues of married life.
First in my list, is happiness. You might think no, you don’t have to work on happiness, happiness is just what happens to you when you marry the right person, but I think it’s more complex than that. Happiness isn’t a by-product of good fortune, it’s a virtue that requires years of patient practice. Happiness is where you find it, not always where you look for it. Cultivate happiness by doing worthwhile things together, by setting your sights on goals that matter, by practising courtesy and restraint and generosity toward one another and toward others. And remember that your partner can’t make you happy – happiness is elusive unless you make a conscious decision to choose it and to practice it, but it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to one another.
And then, there’s love. Trish and Rod, I think it’s fairly obvious that you’re in love. But from what I can see, your love for one another is something you haven’t given lightly, and as I’ve had the privilege of hearing and sharing your story, I’ve got a glimpse of how you’ve grown together in trust and in friendship, how you’ve learned to respect and honour each other. You know, our culture teaches us to look at love and relationships through rose-coloured glasses – that everything’s going to be OK if you’re in love, the future’s going to just look after itself. I’m not so sure about that.
The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote this to a young couple who were planning to get married —'It is not love that sustains your marriage, but marriage that sustains your love'. I believe that to be profoundly true, because marriage is what the church calls a covenant. You sometimes hear people talking about a marriage “contract”, as though it was a sort of legal transaction, but I reckon that’s a long way wide of the mark. In a contract, you make a promise and maybe you exchange something of value. But in a covenant, you don’t exchange anything. You just give yourself. That’s the difference. A covenant says, "I am yours and you are mine." Marriage is a covenant, and it’s grounded in a bigger covenant – the covenant between God and God’s people. There is something both powerful and enduring in a covenant made before God and before one another. That’s why the church says you don’t enter marriage lightly or without preparation. Entering a covenant relationship means saying to one another, ‘for the rest of my life, you are going to be remembered in me’.
Then, I think, there’s acceptance, the grace of not putting conditions on one another. To practice this virtue we need to remind ourselves that God loves us before we’re even remotely loveable. This way of loving another person not because they’ve done something or changed in some way that we wanted them to, but just because we do love them – this sort of unconditional love that we learn from the way God loves us – becomes in the end the one safe place in the beloved’s life that actually transforms them profoundly because they’re accepted just as they are. This is a major virtue for married saints.
And then there’s forgiveness. Did you ever read that silly and patently untrue aphorism – ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry?’ Because when it comes down to it we do let each other down, all the time, and we let each other down in big ways as well as small ways, and the people we let down the most are the ones we love the most. We betray the love we receive and we forget the love that we owe. Forgiveness is never cheap, it doesn’t mean being a doormat, and there is often a great personal cost. It can be hard to practise forgiveness, both the giving of it and the receiving of it, but it does get easier because each time we forgive, or accept forgiveness, we learn a little more about the sort of love that dares to imagine a future that is not limited by past failure or regret, and that transforms timidness and selfishness into expansiveness and courage.
The next one is wisdom. In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, Wisdom is personified as God’s right hand girl in the act of Creation, subtle and fluid and un-pin-down-able but indispensable to rulers and lovers alike. Not to be confused with intelligence or knowledge, true wisdom is a virtue acquired through years of discernment and patient observation. Here’s a head start – the two of you are different! Males and females think differently, our bodies and minds, our feelings and logics are different. Devote yourselves to the wisdom of learning the ways of one another, expect your beloved to surprise and delight you, rejoice in the ways she or he confounds your expectations – be a patient scientist of the mystery and the secret strengths of one another, and be ready to relearn from one another much that you thought you already knew.
And last on my list is the humble but foundational virtue of kindness, the grace of never taking one another for granted, of being careful with the raw and tender places in one another’s lives. Trish and Rod, I’ve seen you practicing this, just during the couple of months I’ve known you, and I have seen your care of one another. Remember that the flaws and the ancient hurts your partner carries are holy wounds, places of growth and healing, and places of potential for new growth where the activity of God’s Holy Spirit is most clearly visible. Tread carefully in one another’s pasts, protect and nurture one another, encourage one another to grow in confidence and grace.