Unbelievable – A Wedding Homily

Mark 12.28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and beside him there is no other’, and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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I can’t believe you two are getting married! Don’t get me wrong – I think you should get married, I am grateful to be here for your wedding, it’s just kind of hard for me to believe that it’s actually happening.

Why is it so hard for me to believe? When I was sent here as the pastor over a year ago, one of the first things you ever said to me, Marian, was that you needed prayer because you had a man who wanted to marry you and you hadn’t answered him. 

I thought I misheard you. There was man, who wanted to marry you, you didn’t answer him, and he was still hanging around? 

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When I saw you two sitting in church together, or upstairs in the fellowship hall, or outside in the parking lot after worship, and I observed your body language, and joyful expressions, I assumed that you were already married.

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When you finally told me the whole story, and I discovered that you dated thirty years ago in Liberia only to come together now after decades and other marriages, it sounds unbelievable.

And for as unbelievable as it might appear to me, and maybe even to some people here this evening, there is someone who truly and deeply believes in your getting married – God.

So, let’s paint a picture shall we? Like a movie, the scene opens with a young Liberian man and woman who are quite smitten with one another. They go on little dates, they continue to flirt back and forth, some of their friends even think that eventually they’ll get hitched. 

But, as it turns out, the teenage boy likes the company of other teenage girls. A lot of girls. So many, in fact, that Marian eventually say, “no no no, I can’t go for that.” And the relationship ends.

And again, like a movie, the next scene is thirty years later, in Atlanta, at a funeral.

The once young teenage boy now sees his old girlfriend across the room, and when he goes to shake her hand, she doesn’t recognize him! Thirty years have passed, and other relationships, and children, and yet there is something there. They get reacquainted with one another, John even has the gall to invite Marian over for dinner at his house.

The next scene is the interior of John’s kitchen where, for some time, he’s cooked all his food on the weekends so that he can have copious amounts of leftovers during the week, and he decides to serve Marian some old soup.

Marian takes note and decides to take some initiate.

The next scene is back in Virginia in Marian’s kitchen where she is cooking food just to send it all the way to Georgia for John to eat, and thus she wrapped him around her finger yet again! 

We then jump ahead in time to when the old love birds have rekindled their relationship, John asks Marian to be his wife, and she says nothing! Time passes and she remains steadfastly stubborn until she inexplicably comes to the realization that yes, YES, she wants to marry this crazy man!

And now here you two are. 

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You can see, from the story I told, and all the in between that will remain untold, for this marriage to work, you two are going to need a lot of help! Don’t take that as a statement against your individual abilities to be a married couple, but marriage is hard – it is complicated, it is messy, and it is confusing.

But, of course, that’s why all of us are here! We have been gathered by God to pledge our presence and our help. You two are about to make unconditional promises to each other, and we are going to hold you accountable to those promises. It is in the making of those promises, yours and ours, that we become the full vision of the church God has for us.

Because, our help, no matter how good willed and well-intentioned, would be futile if we were just another human gathering. But we are not just any ordinary gathering. We are the church of Jesus Christ!

We are a people whose stories have been given new meaning in the life, death, and resurrection of a 1st century Jew who was God in the flesh. And your story, that strange decades long dance of being brought together, pushed apart, and brought together again is what we, in the church, call grace.

A few weeks ago the three of us sat down for some premarital counseling, and I hope you appreciated the irony of a thirty year old pastor offering bits of wisdom to two people who have known each other longer than I’ve been alive! But toward the end, I asked you to consider what marriage really means to both of you. Not the churchy definition, not what other people think, but what do you think marriage is.

Marian you said marriage is a commitment, it is an eternal bond making the other feel connected to a new way of being. And John, you said marriage is simply loving the other as you love yourself.

Jesus was once doing his Jesus thing and arguing with a bunch of the Jewish leaders when a scribe stepped forward and asked about the greatest commandment. And Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The scribe took in the answer and realized that what Jesus said was more important than all of the sacrifices and laws described in the Old Testament. And Jesus, seeing the scribe’s new understanding, said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

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When I asked you about what marriage really looks like, you responded like Jesus! For according to the two of you, marriage, at its best, is what we might otherwise call discipleship.

You see, when we can truly love the other as ourselves, when we can see that person standing before us and know that they deserve every bit of love, and joy, and hope that we do, then we begin to see each other the way God sees us. And that, is what makes the unbelievable covenant of marriage believable.

Marian, you are a deeply caring individual, not just toward John but toward all people. And your ideas and intellect are what draw people like John, and the rest of us, closer and closer to you. You give so freely of yourself to other people that it becomes infectious and people want to start living like you. And even though you can be downright feisty and stubborn, I think, in a weird way, it’s what John loves most about you. In you he encounters the joy of the dance that he doesn’t even know he is doing!

John, your love and passion for Marian is exactly what she needs. As someone who can too often fall under the temptation to believe she is not as wonderful as she really is, you help to reminder her day after day that she is truly worthy of love. And, in a paradoxical way, she provides the same to you. We all accept the love we think we deserve, and you deserve so much more than you have experienced, until Marian walked back into your life and showed you a new reality of your existence. 

And, John, you know I have to say it. You are also a deeply patient man, to a fault! Let’s be real for a moment, after asking her to marry you, some other men would have walked away after the non-answer, but you remained steadfast! But your patience in the relationship really is a beautiful thing. While all of us try to keep up with the frantic and frenetic pace of the world, you will often wait up in the late night hours just to greet Marian when she comes home from work. 

Now, I know you two are lovingly looking at me, and hanging on every word that I say, but I want you to turn around for just a moment and take in the scene before you. So much of weddings are focused forward such that the bride and groom don’t get a chance to take in the view that I have. Because for as much as I can attest to the love you share the commitment you hold for one another, these people can too. Look at all these people smiling back at you. They believe in the unbelievable thing you are about to do. 

But now look back at me for a moment, because God believes in you too. There is a reason that Jesus’ response about the greatest commandment begins with the love of God before the love of one another, because it is in loving God we learn what it means to love our neighbors, including the ones we marry. 

God’s love for us, in spite of us, is the paradigm through which the marriage of two people becomes intelligible. God looks at each and every one of us, with all of our faults and failures, and says, “You are my beloved.” And it is then, in the recognition of God’s unbelievable love for us, that we may begin to take steps to a place like this, by the altar, and look someone in the eye and say those unbelievable words, “I will.”

I can’t believe you two are getting married. Your story is just too good to believe. Your love for one another is just too good to believe. All of these people here on your behalf is just too good to believe. 

But it doesn’t really matter what I believe, or even what you believe, but that God believes in you.

So may the believing God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who came to show us the greatest commandment, bless you and your marriage such that you can truly love the other as you love yourself. Amen. 

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Silence Will Sustain Your Marriage – A Wedding Homily

1 Kings 19.9-13

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

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Let’s get a few things out of the way. You two, are without a doubt, the coolest couple I know. You’re hip, and fun, and just the right amount of edgy. You eat at really awesome restaurants, you spin the best vinyl, and you both often dress the way the rest of us will five years down the road.

I know this is especially true for you Parker. Because, though we’ve known each other since elementary school, when we played house league basketball and you ran around with your bowl haircut, it was in middle school that you began wearing girl jeans, white belts, and black skinny ties. That might sound a little ubiquitous now, but I promise you were the only one in our school who dressed like that.

Liz, I cannot speak to your sartorial habits from your youth, but I can affirm that you’re sense of wonder, in particular regarding the literary world, is cooler than a cucumber. Back after my own wedding, when you and Parker were visiting us, I was trying to brag about how well read we were as a couple, when you asked if I had read anything from Elena Ferrante. And, not only had I not read anything, I hadn’t even heard of her. And then when I expressed an interest in learning more, you simply left me a your own copy without even waiting to see my reaction.

You two are too cool.

And, in addition to being cool, you two have got to be the best gift-givers I’ve ever known. Parker, you sent me a framed business card from Elvin Jones when I got ordained. For those of you who are uninformed, Elvin Jones was the greatest American Jazz drummer of the post-bop era, and he played with Coltrane. When our son Elijah was born you two sent us his very first vinyl record, and a vintage copy of a recording of Elijah Rock. And you’ve never come to see us without bringing an assortment of toys for our dog Tennessee.

And that’s just a sampling of what you’ve showered me with! I am positive that if we took the time, most of the people here would be able to share similar stories of your gracious gift-giving abilities.

You two are cool, you care very deeply for the people in your lives, and just as you have given so much to all of us, now you come here to this place, at this time, to give yourselves to each other.

James Baldwin wrote about his discovery of love being the key to life while in the midst of starving.

This is no accident.

There is something about absence that draws us to existence. In our weakness we are bound together in ways we can scarcely imagine, both as individuals, and as entire communities. And it was through Baldwin’s hunger that he discovered the overwhelmingly transformative power of love.

Baldwin, of course, is most known for his writing on race and identity, his work “The Fire Next Time” still haunts me to this day, but the selection from Baldwin you chose for your wedding, I believe is indicative of his entire work. It was a profound love for humanity that compelled Baldwin to speak so candidly about her failures. It was in the recognition of our shackles to one another, and our freedom from one another, that he experienced the mystery of glory.

There are few things more glorious in this world than two people making the profound covenant that you two are about to make. In your words, in your prayers, in your promises you will enter into that mysterious state that both confounded and excited Baldwin, this paradox in which your bondage will mean your liberation.

It is just as Rilke says, if you learn to love the expanse between you, if you learn to accept and cherish the paradox we call marriage, then you will experience the impossible possibility of see each other as a whole AND before an immense sky.

Your relationship began over a shared love of books; both evidenced in the readings your chose for your wedding and your gift giving. Though, as many of us know, Parker you did everything in your power to learn as much about what Liz liked, including books, just so you could keep talking to her. And in case anyone here doesn’t know, Liz slept through the first date.

But you both kept trying; you took steps closer to one another with your intellectual curiosities and you took steps away with your own experiences. You ventured out to new and strange places together, and then back to places of comfort and familiarity. And that give and take, the binding and the liberating, is what eventually brought you right here.

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Parker, you are an extremely grounded person, almost to a fault, and I am grateful that Liz keeps you comfortably off the ground. She pushes you and challenges you in ways that would make Baldwin proud, and she loves how dedicated you are to others.

Liz, you bring a sense of wonder to your relationship that is truly wonderful. You seek out new adventures, embrace creative moments, and you excel at being in the moment. I am grateful that in Parker you found a partner who both affirms your beautiful brain and can make you laugh better than anyone else, except for maybe Lenny Bruce.

A few weeks ago, the three of us were talking and I asked both of you to consider what you think marriage actually is. I challenged you to create your own working definition of what marriage could be and this is what you said: Marriage is bringing new worlds to each other.

I like that. I like it a lot in fact. Because that’s precisely what God brings to us.

In the story of Elijah we discover the strange new world of God’s reign. Elijah is afraid, he is in fact running for his life when he comes to the cave, when he hears the probing question from the Lord, “What are you doing here?” God promises to be present for the prophet, and from the safety of the cave Elijah experiences the great wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, and even the silence. But God is not in any of those things, not even in the silence.

However, it is only in the silence that Elijah is able to hear the question for the second time, and truly began to ponder his answer, “What are you doing here?”

When I asked you two if you wanted anything particular to happen during this wedding celebration, you said silence. How perfect! In a world hell bent of berating us with sounds and words and arguments, you wanted time to shut up and listen. You wanted the silence in order to appreciate the sacredness of this moment, so as to not give yourselves over to the ways of the world.

Silence is rare in God’s scripture, but silence is not absence. Silence is often the perquisite for the most profound discoveries we could ever hope to experience. It is in the silence before the first note of a song that we enter into the strange new world of anticipation, it is in the silence shared between two friends that sets them forth on a path to the strange new world of a relationship, and it is in the silence shared between all of us right now that God asks the most important question of the strange new world you two are about to embark upon, “What are you doing here?”

Shutting up might just be the thing that sustains you in your marriage.

But, it’s not just about being silent so that the other can speak and you can appropriately listen, it’s about shutting off all the noise under which we are suffocating. Silence is the beauty of self-reflection that allows us to see who we really are in order to give ourselves to the other. Without silence, we are just clanging cymbals making noise in the void.

In your marriage built on silence, you will find speckles of the divine in the other. Those speckles will shine forth in intimate moments shared in the silence of your apartment, in the rare silence of a subway ride, in the silence shared during a meal, and even in the silence as you prepare to fall asleep in your shared bed.

Silence might just sustain your marriage.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and for the longest time I believed that where people got married didn’t matter. In a church? That’s fine. Out in a vineyard? That’s okay. In the backyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.

I don’t know if everyone knows this, but we are gathered in the middle of a labyrinth. Christians have been using abyrinths for at least 1,000 years as a way to experience the divine. The journey to the middle of the maze is one marked by contemplation, reflection, and silence. It is a journey to a new world, one in which you can’t imagine, one in which without silence becomes meaningless.

It is therefore perhaps the most appropriate place to have a wedding. You two are preparing to embark on a long journey to the center of the labyrinth we call marriage. It will be filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and in the silence of your journey you will find each other, and God will find you.

God always find us.

When Elijah stepped forth out of the cave, the stench of burning wood was still in the air, the boulders were crumbled into rocks, and the trees were split in two. The silence after the dramatic allowed him to really hear the question, “What are you doing here?”

And here we are, millennia later, and God is asking both of you the same question.

I’d like you both to look out at everyone gathered for just a moment. Their presence is an answer to God’s question. They are here because they believe in the impossible possibility of your marriage. They see in you what you have discovered in one another, and it will be through their hopes and dreams and prayers that your promise will be sustained in times of drama and in times of silence.

But at the end of the day, marriage is a mystery. It is like the paradox of being bound together and simultaneously being set free. It is like an empty tomb that stands a stark declaration about the defeated power of death. It is like the labyrinth in which we stand. It’s only something we can figure out while we figure it out.

Marriage is like the mystery of new worlds joining together.

So, my friends, it is my hope and prayer that you two recognize how profoundly mysterious your marriage will be, that you will cherish the moments of deep silence, and that you rejoice in the strange new worlds you are bringing to each other, and the strange new world that God has brought to you. Amen.

Make The Church Weird Again

Jeremiah 31.31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

I’ve been in ministry for roughly 5 years and I’ve finally figured it out. After all the sermons and all the meetings, after all the prayers and preparation, I know how to fix all the church’s problems.

It’s time to do a new thing.

Now, before we get to the solution, we need to talk a little bit about the problem that needs fixing. Churches everywhere, not just here at Cokesbury, are suffering under what I will call the paralysis of analysis. We spend far too much time looking at what we’ve done, evaluating past strengths and weaknesses, such that we don’t spend enough time looking forward. We don’t even ask if God is doing a new thing. Instead we assume that God did all the things God was going to do, and if it worked in the good ol’ days then it should certainly work now.

Here’s an example: Communion

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the month, we had communion like we usually do. I stood here at the front of the sanctuary, and I prayed for God’s anointing on the bread and the cup. We all prayed together, we stood together, and we began feasting together.

One by one you came forward with outstretched hands recognizing the incredible gift that you were receiving. I took the bread, placed it in your hands, you dipped it in the cup, partook of the meal, and returned to your pews.

It was a holy thing.

However, there was a young family with us in worship two weeks ago, a family who has never ever been to church. They sat patiently during the service, though I’m sure that a lot of what we did must’ve sounded and felt strange. But nevertheless, when the time for communion arrived, they stood up like everyone else, walked to the front, and prepared to celebrate the joy of the Lord’s Supper.

I reverently handed a piece of bread to the mother, who bowed penitently before dipping the bread in the cup. I then knelt down close to the floor to hand a piece of bread to her son, but the longer I held it in front of him the longer he stared at it. I motioned for him to take it, which he eventually did, but before dipping it in the cup he frantically looked between his mother’s eyes and the brim of the chalice back and forth, back and forth.

When finally I said, with every bit of pastoral bravado, “My son, this is Jesus’ gift for you.” To which he said, “Yeah, but you said this is his blood, and I don’t know how I feel about drinking it.”

            And he promptly swallowed the un-dipped piece of bread, and jogged back to his pew.

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            We have been doing what we do for so long that many of us neglect to think, at all, about what we are doing.

We, in many ways, are exactly like the Israelites during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke.

God had to do a new thing, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the first covenants, but there was something wrong with the participants within the covenant. Their faithfulness, their days of living as the people of God, had become so repetitive, that the Law God offered them was nothing more than a clanging cymbal, instead of the lifeforce it was meant to be.

Many of them followed the Law, they ate the right food at the right times in the right places, they abstained from foreign worship, and they wore clothes without mixing fibers, but it was done simply because that’s what they were supposed to do.

They were going through the motions.

They, to use God’s analogy, were like a spouse who no longer remembered what drew him or her to the marriage in the first place. They were waking up every morning to make breakfast, rushing to get the kids out the door, and maybe even stopping to give their beloved a kiss on the cheek, but without love, without intention, without grace.

For the people of God during the time of Jeremiah, it was all about the external and rarely about the internal. It was assumed that if you did all the right things, life would work out accordingly. Day to day experience was rationalized through objective realities – children exist to help the family, the community exists to maintain order, the worship of God exists to move life along.

There was no “why?”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

God looked out on the people, a people for whom the law was written on stones and parchment, a people who did what they were told without it providing life, and decided the time had come for a new thing.

The days of laws written on stone came to an end. There would be no need to write them down for all to see and few to follow.

Instead of attempting to adhere to a code of do’s and don’ts, instead of the Law being the thing they worshiped, instead of the marriage dissolving into routine rather than romance, God writes the law on their hearts, on our hearts.

No longer would the people need to shout at one another until they were blue in the face, “Know the Lord!” No longer would the marriage partner scream at the spouse, “Do your duty!” No longer would the people walk around as if God wasn’t there with them all the while.

This was the beginning of a new day, one in which all people would no longer know about God, with the right words and right theology. Instead they would know God, with all the intimacy needed, in which the “why” would become more important than the “what,” in which a new covenant was established.

            So now to the solution… The time has come to embrace the weird.

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If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.

We are pretty weird.

But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”

But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.

The time has come to make the church weird again. To embrace all that separates us from the expectations of the world. In no other place, in no other gathering, do we willfully consider how far we have fallen from what we could be. In no other arena of our lives do we say, and believe, that there is something inherently powerful about gathering even just to sit in silence for a few moments. In no other community can we find the power and the bravery to tear down injustice and overthrow corruption and evil.

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The time has come for us to re-evaluate our “whats” and begin to shore up our “whys.” Instead of going through the motions of our faith, instead of taking the church for granted, we have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing all of this?” “What does this have to do with the kingdom of God?” “How does the church make tangible the new covenant of God?”

If we can’t answer those questions, then we need to dive deep into the “why.”

            Better yet, we should, at the very least, start with our “why.”

Why are we here? Are we here because we don’t have certainty about anything else and we’re looking for answers? Are we here because we’ve always gone to church and we don’t know how to live any other way? Are we here hoping to get something out of church?

Or, are we here because we know God is getting something out of us? Are we here not for ourselves, or our families, but for the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are we here because God found us when we were lost and showed us a better way?

The people during the time of Jeremiah were lost. They were lost in themselves, lost in their exile, even lost in the Law. They were a people of “what.”

            God saw their suffering, God saw their heartless practices, God saw their injustices, and ultimately saw it fit to do a new thing. The new covenant was inscribed on the hearts of God’s people, such that they would remember the “why.”

Perhaps God’s Spirit is moving again in such a way that the new covenant will break our hearts of stone and we might know that God is ours, and we are God’s. Maybe the time has come for us to question every little thing we do as a church so that we break free from our bondage to doing what we’ve always done such that we can ask why we do what we do and start over with God’s new covenant.

Perhaps the time has come to make the church weird again. Amen.

To My Youngest Sister On The Occasion Of Her Engagement

Jeremiah 31.31-33

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

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I answered the phone yesterday afternoon to the delightful news of your engagement. You shared the where, and the how, and the when. I listened with my imagination and tried to picture the scene as it all unfolded. I contemplated the beginning of your relationship and all the mountains and valleys that led to the proposal.

And as soon as you hung up to call the next person on the list, I gave thanks to God.

I gave thanks to God not because you’ve found your partner, or that you were asked in accordance with your romantic desires; I gave thanks to God because your engagement is a sign (and reminder) of God’s covenant with all of us.

When the day of your wedding arrives, I will stand with the two of you by the altar, and I will ask you to make promises (read: covenants) with each other about the future. A future that you cannot possibly imagine. And I will save more theological reflections for that particular moment, but until that holy time, I will share this – there is a difference between the promise that is now present on your finger, and the promise that marks our hearts.

For centuries the people of God abandoned the ways of God. Rather than rejoicing in all the good gifts they received, they (just like us) wanted more. They wanted more power, more wealth, more esteem at the expense of their faithfulness, holiness, and convictions. They worshiped other gods, they rejected the covenant, they assumed that they could make it through this life all on their own.

And for that reason God established a new covenant.

It was a new covenant not because the first was flawed, but because the partner of the covenant was flawed. The covenant became a list of dos and don’ts such that they worshiped the Law rather than the One who gave the Law. Moreover, they began to see one another not as fellow brothers and sisters set apart by God, but as objects to be manipulated for individual gain.

In the fullness of time God saw fit to establish a new covenant through water and Spirit, the covenant of baptism, through which we are incorporated in Christ’s church. It is a sign of a promise written on our hearts that God will be our God.

It is not a ring on a finger.

That is a different sort of promise. That promise (of which you sent a picture to me minutes after the proposal) is a promise made between two of God’s people in anticipation of God’s promise being made manifest.

That’s not to say that God’s wasn’t there on the mountaintop when you shouted “yes!” with gleeful joy. God certainly was; just as God has been with the two of you in every moment of your relationship. But there is a new covenant coming, one made between the two of you in the sight of God, and in the sight of the community that will promise to hold you accountable to the covenant you are making.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenantal moment on the mountain is a reminder of the power and necessity of the church. The church (for all of her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the kind of promises that you and your beloved have made, and will continue to make, with one another. The church itself is a covenant from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as bridegroom. We make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and exemplified in the empty tomb.

You two are now on a path that Christians experience every Sunday in worship, through every clasped connection of hands in prayer, in the breaking of bread, in the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the occasional sermon.

Your engagement is a reminder of God’s engagement (covenant) with us. And for that I give thanks to God.

 

Sincerely,

Your Big Brother

God’s Engagement Party

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Ben Maddison about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [Year B] (Jeremiah 31.31-34, Psalm 51.1-12, Hebrews 5.5-10, John 12.20-33). Ben is an episcopal priest who serves as the rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal church in Wenonah, NJ. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Where The Red Fern Grows, new covenants, the Law on our hearts, gifts for high school graduates, the sinfulness of email, mirrors at the altar, Jesus as priest, and the problem with loving your life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God’s Engagement Party

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The Not Top 10

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

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Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.

I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.

Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.

I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.

I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.

Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.

I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.

I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.

There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.

Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?

When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.

It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.

And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.

            Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!

            But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?

Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?

Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.

Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.

God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.

And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.

We make them more about us, than about God.

The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.

But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.

Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.

It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).

Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.

But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.

Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.

            But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.

We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.

It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.

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We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.

We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.

We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.

Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.

What’s In A Name?

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

I was born 30 years and 3 days ago, and my parents named me Taylor Christian Mertins. They, like a lot of parents during the late 80’s, refused to find out my gender ahead of time and decided to live into the mystery of those months not quite knowing what they were about to receive. And it was during those months of mystery that they started debating baby names.

They could have gone the popular girl route with Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Sarah, or Jennifer. Or they could have stuck with the equally popular boy side of Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, and Andrew.

They wondered about giving me a family name. In fact, my father once said that if I was a boy, he really wanted to name me Wolf Detlef Mertins after his brother who did not survive childbirth. And my mother, apparently, said, “That’s fine, but I won’t be your wife anymore.”

So they talk and talked, my mother’s womb grew and grew, and they finally picked a name. If I was a boy I would become Taylor Christian Mertins, and if I was a girl I would be Taylor Christiana Mertins.

Years later, when I was old enough and mature enough to actually think about the name given to me, I asked my parents why they picked Taylor Christian. My mom said that they liked Taylor because it could be used for a boy or girl, and my dad said they liked Christian because they wanted me to act like one.

And look where that got me.

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Names are important, more important in fact than we often give them credit for. Of course, today, some of us are more inclined to name our children after a character on a television show than with some kind of theological intent. However, in scripture, names reflect character, purpose, and identity.

Lent is the perfect time to read about Abram and Sarai. We find them here in Genesis 17 during the twilight of their lives, they are reflecting on all the have seen and done, what went well, where they screwed up; its basically what we do every Lenten season.

And in this particular covenantal moment, it’s been 24 years since God promised Abram a son and Abram was still waiting for the promise to come true. (Though he had Ishmael during those years, but that’s a whole different story). 24 years of hoping against hope that God would make good on the covenant. Abram is 99 years old, after waiting for a quarter of his life, when God says, “walk before me and be blameless, and I will make my covenant with you and you will become exceedingly numerous.”

We could, of course, talk about how God always makes good on God’s promises. I could preach a half-decent sermon on patience in waiting for God to reveal God’s will. We could even spend the next ten minutes reflecting on Abram’s faithfulness being reckoned as righteousness.

But, it’s important to remember that these two soon-to-be-elderly parents were deeply flawed. They had plenty of opportunities to practice their faith in the covenant established 24 years prior. They went to a strange land without knowing what would happen. They saw grim hope for the family God promised them. They agreed (to some degree) to let Sarai lie (to and with) Pharaoh in order to protect Abram. They even plotted to let Abram sleep with Hagar in order to bring about God’s promise on their own time.

And nevertheless, we serve a great God of “nevertheless,” God chose these two to make the covenant possibility possible. “In you,” says the Lord, “will I make a multitude of nations.” God uses the flawed and fatigued couple as the seeds that become the people Israel. Where we see failure, God sees possibility. Where we see problems, God sees solutions. Where we see an end, God sees a beginning.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”

“And you shall no longer be called Abram, but you shall be called Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of many nations.”

“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

Everyone in the story receives a new name – The Lord becomes God Almighty, Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.

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The name changes are subtle, but their theological implications are profound. Abraham means the father of a multitude and Sarah means princess. These two have been changed by God’s promise, God will do with them the impossible, and who they are called by God is important.

Today, as I said before, we usually use names as nothing more that titles, something to be flung around without a lot of thought. But in scripture, there’s a lot in a name. And for Abraham and Sarah, they have no say so in the matter! They do not choose their new names, only God does.

They have been called by God to do something for God. In spite of their identities as flawed and somewhat forgotten people, God uses them to inaugurate a new reality in which the world would be forever transformed.

This covenant, a promise made to Abram and Sarai, its nothing short of hope. It’s saying to a people with no future that they will be given a future. It is a promise that is reflected through God’s relationship with all of Israel, and through Israel to the church, and through the church to each one of us.

In their new names they discovered the new call and covenant placed on their lives.

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Names are so important. There are few things that warm the heart quite like someone remembering your name in a world so busy that we often forget almost anything else. There is a huge difference between saying, “Oh hey, it’s so nice to see you!” and “Oh hey Taylor, it’s so nice to see you.” The difference might only be one word, but that one word makes all the difference.

Our names are so integral to whom we are that sometimes we neglect to realize how vital they are. For instance: studies show that individuals who share a first initial with the first initial of a major hurricane are far more likely to donate money than others. Kims and Karls were more likely to donate money after hurricane Katrina than Taylors and well Taylors.

The incredible importance of our names is also made evident in what’s called the cocktail party effect. The idea is that if you’re at a party, even when hundreds of people are in attendance, if someone mentions your name on the other side of the room, you’ll hear it. Somehow your name with rise above the fury of the room, it will float along, until it catches your attention in a way that nothing else quite can.

I experience this every week during the passing of the peace. I will stand right here and motion for you all to engage with one another, and while standing by the choir loft I can hear one of my back row ladies start talking about Taylor’s choice in sermon title. Or I’ll be off to the side of the room shaking hands with a visitor and I’ll hear a youth on the other side of the sanctuary lament the fact that Taylor picked the same hymn again.

My name is so much a part of who I am, that I can pick it out of a crowd, and you can too.

A couple weeks ago I was working on a sermon at Wegman’s on a Thursday morning. I was sitting at a table by myself, with my bible opened in front of me, a hot cup of coffee in my hand, and I was trying to figure out how to tie all my thoughts together.

Wegman’s provides what I think is the ideal environment for my creativity, there’s always a low drum of sound that keeps me focused, but it’s not so loud that its distracting. I can sit by myself, and no one from the church bothers me while I’m writing.

So a few weeks ago I was sitting there, working hard, when someone, seemingly out of nowhere, shouted, “PASTOR!”

I almost fell out of my chair.

“Yes?” I stammered. The man was unfamiliar to me, but he was giving a look I can only describe as bewildered. He said, “I saw your bible, and I figured you were a pastor, and I wanted to ask for your prayers, but I’ve been trying to get your attention for a minute and every time I said, ‘Pastor’ you didn’t even move. Are you sure you’re a pastor?”

He had been calling my name, the one given to me by God, for over a minute and I didn’t hear him at all. But when I’m here in church, when I can worry about what all of you are thinking and saying about me, I can hear it all.

Our parents gave us our names, the ones that draw our attention. But God has given each of us new names, just as powerful and as vibrant as Abraham and Sarah. God has sealed our hearts with these names, names that truly define who we are. The great challenge is that sometimes we can’t hear them at all, or we’ve forgotten who we really are: children of God.

The Lord is calling us to the covenant, to a promise of hope, that is not contingent on our faithfulness. We are no better than Abraham or Sarah. We will fall and fail. But the covenant remains because God is faithful! God sees our potential even when we’ve grown blind to the future. God makes something of our nothing. Our God is the God of nevertheless.

God is calling us by our names.

The question is: “Can we hear it?” Amen.