A sermon given on the occasion of Timothy’s marriage to Charlotte Hackett, at Stepney Parish Church in 2005.
Timothy and Charlotte, congratulations to you both on your marriage! At one stage we wondered whether you would ever tie the knot – but the deed has at last been done!
Let me say on behalf of everybody how absolutely delighted we all are. Caroline and I are delighted to have gained Charlotte as a daughter-in-law, and we dare to hope that Thomas and Jen will also be delighted to have gained Timothy. We trust that God will richly bless you both in your life together – and that you will know much happiness in your marriage.
When you announced that you were going to get married in this church, I was both pleased and intrigued. I was pleased that you wanted to be married in church, but intrigued that you had chosen this particular church. For this church of St Dunstan’s and All Saints, the parish church of Stepney, is one of the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ churches. For the sake of guests from overseas, I should explain that ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is an English nursery rhyme which young children love to sing:
‘Oranges and Lemons’, say the Bells of St Clements.
‘You owe me five farthings’, say the Bells of St Martin’s.
‘When will you pay me?’ say the Bells of Old Bailey.
‘When I grow rich’, say the Bells of Shoreditch.
‘When will that be?’ say the Bells of Stepney.
‘I do not know’, say the Great Bells of Bow.
‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chip chop chip chop – the last man’s dead
Now, as no doubt the rector of the church knows, the origin of this nursery rhyme is found in some of the rituals surrounding the execution of prisoners in the early 18th century. A candle would be lit, the ‘Bells of Old Bailey’ would peel, and subsequently all the other bells, including the ‘Bells of Stepney’ would join in. Hence the final three lines:
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chip chop chip chop – the last man’s dead.
Wow, I thought to myself, what a start to a marriage. You have chosen to get married in one of these churches. What’s more, you have asked for the bells to be peeled immediately following the service. What message will those bells be conveying?
The 20th century Russian anarchist, Emma Goldman, with whom Timothy I believe is familiar, would have been quite clear. These bells, she would have said, would be announcing the death knell of your love for one another.
Marriage and love have nothing in common;
they are as far apart as the poles;
they are, in fact antagonistic to one another.
Dante’s motto over Inferno applies with equal force to marriage: ‘Ye who enter here leave all hope behind’.
Thank God, Emma Goldman and her followers are in the minority. The bells will be celebrating not the death of your love, but the fulfillment of your love in marriage. In the words of a song by Cahn and van Heusen, popularized by Frank Sinatra:
Love and marriage, love and marriage
It’s an institute you can’t disparage
Ask the local gentry
And they will say it’s elementary.
Try, try to separate them
It’s an illusion
Try, try, try and you will only come
To this conclusion.
Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
I’ll spare you from the rest of the doggerel. However, you’ve got the point. Love and marriage do indeed go together like a horse and marriage. That’s why we are all here today.
So let me reflect on your love and marriage.
At moment I guess you are both starry-eyed. You both think you’re the cats-whiskers, and with good reason. Charlotte probably thinks Timothy is the most wonderful man in world; and certainly Timothy can’t imagine a more adorable woman than Charlotte!
Alas the time will come when this dream will be over.
‘Love’, it has been said, ‘is a temporary insanity, curable by marriage’ (Ambrose Bierce)
‘Love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock’ (John Barrymore)
Yes, at some stage the bubble will burst and you will discover that neither of you is the ultimate in perfection.
Then what? I believe that the secret of any lasting marriage is a four-letter word called love – in particular the love of which the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs…. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope and patience never fail.
Paul wrote these words to a church where relationships were far from right, where there were some very real disagreements. But these words are also applicable to marriage. For love is the key to all successful relationships.
What is this love that Paul speaks about? Hollywood equates love with sex Mills and Boon equates love with romantic slush. The confectionery industry equates love with giving him your last Rolo.
The love of which Paul speaks is an unusually special kind of love. The Greek has a number of words for love:
- There was eros-love, i.e. erotic/sexual love; but that is not the word Paul uses here
- There was philia-love, the love good friends have for one another; but that is not the word d Paul uses here
- There was storge-love, affectionate love which parents have for their children; but that too is not the word Paul uses here.
- No, Paul speaks here of agape-love. Agape is a word unknown in classical Greek. It is a word which the first Christians picked up and used to speak of the kind of love which Jesus has for us.
In this hymn to agape-love, Paul makes a host of statements about agape-love. I want to highlight just three:
1) Love is putting the other person first
Love is not jealous or conceited or proud – love is not selfish (vv4,5)
Zsa-Zsa Gabor said: “Husbands are like fires. They go out when unattended”
Leonard Bernstein, the great American composer and conductor, was once asked what was the hardest instrument to play. Without hesitation he replied:
Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violins, but to find one who plays second fiddle with as much enthusiasm, or second French horn, or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.
Love is putting the other first – love is not self-seeking, love is self-giving.
2) Love is forgiving the other
Love does not keep a record of wrongs (v5)
Woody Allen’s marriage might have lasted had he learnt to forgive. As it was he said of his wife:
She was so immature. She kept sinking the boats in my bath.
Saying sorry and forgiving each other is something we all need to learn.
Ogden Nash had some wise advice for husbands:
To keep your marriage brimming
with love in the marriage cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
whenever you’re right. shut up!
3) Love is loving with the love of Jesus
Love never gives up (v7a)
It has often been said that 1 Corinthians 13 is a description of the person of Jesus.
Jesus never gave up on anybody.
He loved us to the end – even to dying for us on a Cross. In a way which is true of nobody else, Jesus gave of himself to others – and in giving of himself, he forgave even the worst of hurts against him.
Needless to say, if you are to learn to love one another with the love of Jesus, then you need to put Jesus at the centre of your marriage.
only then can you put each other first;
only then can you forgive each other;
only then can you keep on loving.
Timothy and Charlotte, I believe that by getting married in church today, you recognize your need to have God’s blessing on your life to together. But to know his blessing, it is not simply enough to have a church wedding. In the days and years that lie ahead you must learn to must put Jesus first and to show the kind of love that Jesus has showed to us all. May God help you to do that – and so may God bless you both – and may your marriage be a blessing not only to one another but also to all those who enter your home.