Recently I have been fortunate to speak at two weddings and so I thought I would share the texts of the two sermons. Each has been edited to remove personal anecdotes or jokes. Because each of these were given within a short space of tim, they contain some similar themes, but I hope that posting them both will not be redundant.
This is the transcript of a sermon I gave on 9 June 2012 in the Southend ward.
As I have been thinking about what I might say today a poem by Christina Rossetti keeps coming to mind. It is entitled ‘A Birthday':
MY heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.
Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.
This poem is perfect for an occasion like this. It captures the essence of the day on which we are married because it recognises, or at least so I believe, that this is a day when gifts are given and when gifts are received; but they are gifts of a particular type.
Love is characterised by two things: first it is the act of giving ourselves as a gift to another person. Second it is the act of receiving that other person as a gift.
Marriage is a promise that we will both give ourselves as a gift and receive the gift of that other person for the rest of our lives, and for Mormons for all eternity. This promise is significant because the other person inevitably changes or can be opaque. I would like illustrate what I mean with a few anecdotes.
First, on receiving. Every person is ultimately encumbered with different life experiences, personality traits and various kinds of responsibilities or duties, some of which are often concealed or not fully apparent when we first meet or even while we are dating. When we make the promises associated with marriage, we their whole self, even those parts that are currently unknown to us in the present.
My wife often tells me that she did not intend to marry a balding geek. Now I protest that I did my best to make my geekiness known before we were married. But, really none of that matters because she did in fact marry me. She made a promise to receive me as a gift. People change. They accumulate new personality traits and life experiences which inevitably shape them. In fact, according to e.e. cummings, ‘love’s function is to fabricate unknownness’ but lovers also ‘abide under whatever shall discovered be’.
In tandem with the necessity of receiving the other as a gift is the need to give ourselves as a gift to the other.
In order to illustrate what I think giving ourselves as a gift consists of I will emphasize the opposite of this type of relationship. This is to live love as a form of exchange. When we do this it often sounds something like this: “I cleaned the Kitchen, why can’t you clean the bathroom” or “I cooked last night, you should do it tonight”.
The point here is that when we focus on what we get in exchange for what we give we change the nature of the relationship from a gift to an exchange. This way of approaching relationships is unsustainable for the following reason.
A famous psychological survey found that women, on average, believe they do 70% of the housework while men, on average, believe they do at least 50%. Now it does not take a statistician to work out that there is discrepancy here. If I do 50% of the housework and my wife does 70% we have, between us, done 120% of the housework. What does this mean? People of all kinds do two things fairly regularly when it comes to work. We overestimate the amount of work we do while underestimating the work that other people do. There is a very simple reason for this: I am always around to see myself doing what I do whereas I am very rarely around to see what someone else does.
Approaching relationships as a form of exchange will be dissatisfaction because we will very often feel that we give more than we receive. Whereas, if we give ourselves as a gift to another we are more focused on the quality of the gift we give than on what we receive in return.
These notions of gift-giving and gift-receiving are also present in the scriptures.
According to St. Paul, Jesus models this type of gift-giving through his life and atonement. He writes (with a little interpretative gloss from me) ‘Husbands love your wives [and wives love your husbands] even as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself for it.’
Further, in a revelation given to JS it states (roughly) ‘For what doth it profit a man [or woman] if a gift is bestowed upon them, and they receive not the gift? Behold they rejoice not in that which is given unto them, neither do they rejoices in him or her who is the giver of the gift.’
Christina Rosetti got it exactly right when she described love as the birthday of her life because this is the day, perhaps more than any other, that should be defined by the gifts we give and the gifts we receive.