This is the text of a sermon I preached for my seminary Introduction to Preaching class this fall. It is meant to reflect David Buttrick’s Moves and Structures approach to preaching. There are some things I like about Buttrick’s approach, but there are also some things that I struggle with when trying to use it.
The preacher stands at the front of the church and holds aloft two golden bands. There in front of him, the couple stands. Young. Smiling. Hand in hand with hearts in their throats and tears of joy glistening in their eyes.
O Lord, the pastor says, bless the giving of these rings that they who wear them may live in your peace and continue in your favor all the days of their life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The rings they exchange are perfect circles, indicating an eternal and never-ending promise. They shimmer with precious beauty in the lights of the church. And when the best man hands them to the pastor, they are hard and cold, awaiting the warmth of flesh. Although we do not often pause to reflect on the hardness of the rings and the coldness of the bare metal, this day we are invited to do so because of this simple truth, brothers and sisters: Our hearts are hard. Our hearts are cold as a stone hidden in the dark of the earth. Our hearts drift like lonely asteroids through the black silent void.
We don’t like to think such thoughts sitting in the pews while the happy couple exchanges vows and rings, but we know it to be true. At even joyous moments like these, we know the dark impulses and thoughts that intrude. We know the petty differences that tarnish the wedding photos and blacken memories. There the mother of the groom wonders why the bride’s dress could not cover up her tattoo. On the other side of the aisle, the father of the bride despairs of the groom ever holding down a decent job. In the back, the cousins can only wonder in agony how long this will go on before they can get out of these ties and stiff shoes.
No matter how many silk flowers we festoon the church with, no matter how much rice we throw, no matter how much we coo at the flower girl in her perfectly pressed dress, if we are not too practiced at ignoring it, we sense the cold, hard lump in our chest that waits out the heat of the celebration to emerge again.
Yes, our hearts can be warmed at such moments. And yes, we are not always to blame for the flinty coldness that we carry around in our chest. But we live in a hard world that nurtures hard hearts. Even at our most joyous moments, reminders of this truth stare us in the eyes. Reminders like me.
We raise toasts to the eternal love of the couple, but there in the crowd we stand. The ones who have been here, too. The ones who once wore white dresses and tuxedos. The ones who said “till death do us part.” And now we stand alone at the wedding reception, the divorced, a testimony to our hard hearts. We know only too well that a heart that feels one day like it might burst with joy can find itself cold as a spent cannonball lurking on an ancient battlefield on a cold December night.
Our hearts, brothers and sisters, are hard.
And yet we can be shattered by the most tender of things: memory. The words of a promise we once made can bring us to tears. A fading wedding photo can stop our breath. The touch of pressed flowers that we carried that day can be more tender and more painful than any knife.
On the day the stone-hearted Pharisees came to test Jesus, he might have accepted that hard hearts are the only way to get by in a hard world. Yes, yes, he might have said, God understands that marriage is hard. He knows that it is unreasonable to expect a husband and wife to stay in love for all their days. Of course, it is okay to break the promise that once was made.
But Jesus knows that God intended more than our hard hearts can do. And so, when we batter each other with words and fists and betray our promises and pull the plug on the love lived so fiercely, Jesus does not let us place the blame somewhere else. He tells us this is not what God intended from the beginning.
He shows us the picture of Eden. Like the wife going through her wedding album with tears in her eyes, we are drawn to see what that promise looked like in the bloom of its youth. There are those young faces, again. There are those smiles.
Where has that all gone?
The question burns in the throat, and so we put the wedding album away. We take off the ring and feel its weight again in our palm. It no longer lusters as it once did. The shine has come off. The dress has turned yellow.
And yes, we know, some marriages need to end. Abuse or betrayal or addiction destroys every bond of affection. But even in these cases, we recall the promise of the wedding day and remember the surging majesty of the wedding march. We see the young Adam and young Eve standing before the altar in the wedding photo and know that God wanted something better here.
And so did we.
Jesus knows this about us. When we come like the Pharisees holding up questions about getting out of bad marriages or just getting fed up with marriage, he brings us to a halt by pulling out the wedding album and asking us to consider what was intended when it all began. He hears the hard hearts behind our questions, and meets us with the tender memories that slay us where we stand. And if we do not turn away, we are shattered by the memory of promises that human hearts were too hard to keep.
And so it is in our brokenness that we may come to learn this great and bitter truth: Jesus blesses soft hearts. He blesses hearts too young to grow hard. And he blesses hearts shattered into sand by the memories of what might have been.
It is no chance thing that Jesus turns from this confrontation over marriage and divorce to embrace the children who come surging to him. The disciples – with their hard hearts – would keep children away from Jesus. They are about the busy and important work of the kingdom of God. No time for child’s play here. This is no place for children. Adults only. These things are too hard for children. And when we talk this way, Jesus only shakes his head. We still do not hear; our hard hearts stop up our ears.
Jesus’ ultimate answer to the question of the Pharisees that day was what he did rather than what he said. It was not his words, but his actions that spoke the loudest. Confronted by the hard-hearts of men, he took a child in his arms, the gospel says, and blessed her, and held her close.
On the dance floor the spotlight comes into focus. There in radiant white she dances with the man who once bounced her on his knee, his little girl one last time. The groom waits, nervous not to intrude too soon. Slowly father and daughter come to him and the father with a kiss to his daughter and a nod to the groom disappears into the crowd. And into their arms the bride and the groom embrace. Is there anything more tender than love scooped up into the arms of love?
Is there anything more bitter than a husband and wife who can no longer dance?
When you are going through divorce, you can be hard to hold. You grow a shell, armor plating, the hardness of your heart worn on the skin to keep you from getting hurt again. The world cannot break your heart if it cannot reach it.
What does Jesus say to us who divorce? He says, come here my child. He says, let me take you in my arms. He says, let me bless you. He says, here is my body, broken for you, too. He says, lay down your sword and take off your armor. Your angry, shattered, frightened, grieving heart can find rest in the soft folds of my love.
He says, let me bless your soft heart.
It is not a blessing that takes away the pain of memory or the grief of loss. But it is one that invites us in the midst of our hard-hearted world to believe that God does not call us to win an argument. Jesus does not answer our hard-hearted questions by giving us more stones to throw at each other. No, instead, Jesus calls us to receive his blessing. We are invited to place our tender, shattered hearts in his gentle hands. For better, for worse. In sickness and in health. Until death do us … unite.