So sermons on these occasions should be short. But the central word of marriage and of life is short too. ‘Love’. Yet it’s the biggest word there is. Where do we find love? In the tiniest hazelnut, says Mother Julian: it exists because God loves it; in the entire sweep of the universe, says Dante, because it is ‘love that moves the sun and the other stars’. And today love has a human face in Stephen and Joy and the 50 years of marriage they celebrate. Today we know that love is God’s meaning.
A rabbi asked his pupils how they could tell when it was daybreak. ‘When you see an animal, and there is enough light to tell whether it’s a fox or a dog?’ one said. ‘No’ said the teacher. ‘When you look at an orchard, and can tell the difference between an apple and a pear tree?’ said another. ‘No. Day breaks when you look at someone and know that they are your brother or your sister. Until you can do that, no matter what time of day it is, it’s always night.’ So love is a kind of dawn, an illumination. It lights up our lives. We see each other in a new way. And when marriage is not only long-lived, but wholesome and happy and good, we recognise how love lights up not only two lives given to each other in vows and promises and rings but everyone else who is privileged to be brought into this circle of God-given grace. Marriage is one of the places in human life that demonstrate St Paul’s great saying: that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. For love never ends.
The gospel reading from St John talks about love in words so simple that a child can understand it. Perhaps we would find it easier to take it in and live it if we were a little more childlike. Jesus says: ‘as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love’. He is speaking about the new relationships we become part of when we are brought into relationship with God. Divine love has human love as its consequence. The church is a society of friends says John, a community of truth and love. Our badge is that we love one another. And this is as true of marriage as it is of all the other ways we love. In the Jewish Talmud, it says that the shekinah, God’s presence, his very glory, dwells between a husband and a wife. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Where love is, there you find God. For God is love.
And the model of all loving is Jesus. ‘As the Father loves, so I have loved you.’ There is more. Jesus will go on to say, in words familiar from so many war memorials, ‘Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Anyone who has ever loved knows what the cost of love is, the often little, sometimes big ways we are called to lay down our lives for those we love. Love demands as well as gives. It’s tough as well as gentle. It asks everything of us; yet it gives everything in return. Love is not only cross. It’s resurrection. When we love as Jesus does, the day breaks, the shadows flee away.
We have already heard from your beloved George Herbert in this service in Richard Lloyd’s exquisite setting of his poem ‘The Call’. But I have another Herbert poem to mark this occasion. The name ‘Stephen’ means ‘crown’. And happily, the poet brings together your two names, in an echo of St Paul, in a poem called ‘A True Hymn’.
My joy, my life, my crown!My heart was meaning all the day,
Somewhat it fain would say:
And still it runneth, muttering up and down
With only this, My joy, my life, my crown.
He is saying that he wants to sing a true hymn, his best hymn, in praise of God; he has the words, the rhyme, the metre but somehow not quite the spirit. He knows that what life is meant for is to worship God ‘my joy, my life, my crown’. But how to live the truth of his own song? At the end he finds the way.
Whereas if the heart be movedAlthough the verse be somewhat scant,
God doth supply the want.
And when the heart says, sighing to be approved,
O could I love! And stops: God writeth, Loved.
The point is: it is being loved that is the secret. To know you are loved and cherished is what liberates the heart to sing and the tongue to praise. This is what moves the heart to recognise and know God. And a long and happy marriage is surely one of the ways in which we know that we are loved everlastingly, and come to love God as ‘my joy, my life, my crown’.
So, Stephen and Joy, ‘joy’ and ‘crown’ with life held between your names: in God’s eternal love you had your beginning 50 years ago. In that time you have tasted its length and breadth and height and depth, have glimpsed in each other how the love of Christ passes knowledge, have walked side by side in loving God as your joy, your life, your crown. In his love may you also have your end, and many more golden days to come in the meantime. And as good Tobias prayed, may you both find mercy and grow old together.
For Bishop Stephen and Joy Sykes, 11 August 2012
1 Corinthians 13John 15. 9-11