Less Is More

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange new worlds, Encanto, covenants, righteousness, living in church, narrative preaching, memorizing scripture, waiting on the Lord, the Apostles’ Creed, Mississippi, and the status quo. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

So Be It

Isaiah 60.1

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 

I was sitting in a basement office somewhere on the campus of Duke Divinity School with an administrator who was explaining the ins and outs of “Field Education.” She shared the convictions of the institution, the valuable and positive research of such endeavors, and (finally) she told me where I would be spending ten weeks my first summer of seminary: Bryson City, North Carolina. Every student would also be spending their summers working for various churches and para-church organizations so that we could take what we learned in the classroom and apply it to the field. 

Before I had a chance to properly come to grips with the information shared with me, the administrator handed me a piece of paper and she said, “It’s covenant time.”

She watched me diligently as I weaved my way through the wording:

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. 

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low by thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. 

I only later learned that the words I used can be found in every United Methodist Hymnal because they are part of “A Covenant Prayer In The Wesleyan Tradition.” And, I also learned that countless Methodists have come back to these words at the start of new years, new jobs, new relationships, and a whole assortment of other new endeavors.

It can feel a little daunting to “freely and heartily yield” all things to God’s disposal but, according to the strange new world of the Bible, that’s exactly what God did and does for us.

Looking back, I am profoundly grateful for the covenant I made that day because I carried those words with me to the people of Bryson City, North Carolina and together we encountered the Lord who encounters us. 

Therefore, wherever you and and whatever you’re encountering, I encourage you to read through the words of the Wesleyan Covenant, let them sink deep into the fabric of your being, and know that “so be it” might be the most faithful words we can ever speak. 

The Crisis of Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun about the readings for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 1.1, 2.1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-12, Mark 10.2-16). Seungsoo is the Associate Director of Serving Ministries for the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church connections, Karl Barth, honesty in church, divine equity, ecclesial integrity, reminiscent places, Christology, the power of names, the difficulty of divorce, communal covenants, and porcupines. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Crisis of Faith

A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [B] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including older movies, promise keeping, Babel reimagined, different languages, the colors of creation, the gift of presence, holy hope, and diachronic pneumatology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope

Sinning Like A Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent [B] (Jeremiah 31.31-34, Psalm 51.1-12, Hebrews 5.5-10, John 12.20-33). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the ministry of running, new covenants, flipping questions, wedding rings, Christology, W. David O. Taylor, the judged Judge, clergy collars, the American Dream, and dirty liturgy. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sinning Like A Christian

To My Youngest Sister On Her Second Wedding Anniversary

1 Corinthians 12.12-13

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

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Two years ago I stood before you, Mike, and a whole bunch of family members and I brought you two together in, what we call in the church, holy marriage. 

What makes it holy has nothing to do with those getting married and everything to do with the Lord who makes your marriage intelligible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can very distinctly remember the phone call I received way back when Mike asked for your hand. I can also remember that as soon as we hung up, I prayed and gave thanks to God.

I did the same thing the day you got married.

I gave thanks to God because your marriage to one another makes no sense outside of the God who delights in our coming together to become something new.

In the church we call that grace.

Today I give thanks again not because you’ve rejoiced with your partner for the last two years, or that we had such an awesome time at your wedding; I give thanks to God because your marriage is a sign, and a reminder, of the Spirit’s presence with us.

It forces people to confront the truth that your joining together points toward the unity in community that is the Trinity.

On the day of your wedding, I did my best (read: failed) to hold back tears when I watched you walk down the aisle. I grabbed your hands and placed them on Mike’s and asked you to make promises with each other about the future, a future that you could not possibly predict. I even made a joke (Jason Micheli did as well) that as Stanley Hauerwas teaches, “we always marry the wrong person.” We marry the wrong person because none of us knows what we’re doing when we get married. That we stay married to strangers who we never fully understand is yet another reminder of God’s grace. 

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On the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians bickered among one another about whatever it meant to follow Jesus. They refused to share communion with each other, they argued about who was really part of the new covenant, and they very quickly reverted back to the ways of life prior to Jesus interrupting their lives. 

All which prompted Paul’s letter to the church regarding the “body with many members” discourse. 

Today, preachers like me, use 1 Corinthians 12 to talk about how the people of a church just need to get along. After all, we all have different gifts we bring to the table.

But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve thought those same words being meant for those who are married. 

Two years ago, I told you and Mike that you were becoming one flesh, I talked about how the body of Christ would be made visible through your marriage to one another, and I even hinted at the fact that the promise you made was a reminder of God’s promise to remain faithful to us.

No matter what.

God has been with both of you in every moment of your marriage and was there long before you even met each other. God, in God’s weird way, brought you two together to remind the rest of us what grace, love, and mercy really look like. Because if a marriage isn’t filled to the brim with love, grace, and mercy, it will never work.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenant of your marriage is a reminder of the power and the necessity of the church. The church (for all her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the promise you made to each other. The church, itself, is a covenant and promise from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as the bridegroom. We, who call ourselves Christians, 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 brought to fruition in the empty tomb.

In your marriage you two have experienced what Christians experience every Sunday in worship: through hands clasped in prayer, the breaking of bread, the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the preaching of a sermon. 

Your marriage is a reminder of God’s marriage with us. And for that I give thanks.

Sincerely.

Your Big Brother

The Grammar of Faith

Genesis 12.1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

The people who seem to have it all just drive me crazy. 

Now, you’re good and faithful and kind people so you don’t know what’s its like to feel the way I do, but when people go about parading all of their successes and all of their perfections I just get all sorts of frustrated.

It’s even worse when the people in question are Christians.

These people are the type who get on social media and brag about all the blessings God has showered down on top of them, all the while giving you a tour of their 3.5 million dollar house. 

They are the type of people who, after experiencing some apparently divine miracle, start raking in the dough from the righteous investments and then brag about their vacation home on the other side of the world. 

They are the type of people who make it seem as if being a Christian simply means there are no problems, no fights with spouses, no disagreements with kids, no bills to be paid, no medicine to take, so long as you invite Jesus into your heart.

But what about the other Christians? 

What about the disciple who’s coping with poverty and hunger? What about the family that shows up in church only to get in the car and continue the fight they paused when they pulled into the parking lot? What about the person sitting in the pews week after week feeling less and less sure about this thing called faith?

To be clear: Miracles happen, and the less fortunate can become the most fortunate. After all, Jesus did say that the first will be last and the last will be first. It just seems like sometimes those who go from last to first want to remind everyone that they got there on their own.

Which, of course, is absurd. 

But that doesn’t stop us from consuming it with reckless abandon.

We are suckers for the supposedly self-made fortunes, and the get rich quick schemes, and the take this pill to lose all your fat babble. 

And, frankly, if we want to pour ourselves into those narratives, we are more than welcome to do so, they just don’t have much to do with the Lord.

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Every verse in the Bible is important.

That’s why, every week, we read the Word aloud in this space and we affirm the importance of that Word by responding with: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. There are, of course, verses in the scripture for which it becomes a little harder to affirm our gratitude for something that appears confounding. But, as Christians, we believe that this book continues to speak new and fresh and good words into our lives, even today.

Every verse is important but (dare I say it?) there are some which are more important than others. What we’ve read today, the call of Abram, though short and to the point, it contains some of the most important words of all: Now the Lord said to Abram…

That might not seem like much, but it is not too strong of a statement to say that the entire structure of our faith hangs upon this foundation that we, at other times, call revelation. Now the Lord said to Abram… If this is something we believe to be true, then everything else falls into place accordingly.

Like most books, we learn to read the Bible in particular ways. Some of us learned this explicitly from a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, and others among us just picked it up along the way. There are a great many ways to read the Word and how we do it can make all the difference.

The two primary ways of coming to the text, of reading it and hearing it, are to do so anthropologically or theologically.

Now, before I lose all of you to the midmorning nap session that can come from using words like the ones I just did, bear with me. All they mean is that we can encounter the Bible as if its all about humanity (and largely only about humanity) or as if its all about God (and largely only about God).

How we read the Bible, and in particular this story near the beginning, is a big deal.

And it comes down to grammar. 

Again, I recognize that I am tempting fate by dragging out such ideas this early on a Sunday morning, on Daylight Savings no less, but the grammar we use in the life of faith communicates more about who we are and whose we are than we recognize

God is the subject of the verb right here at the beginning of Genesis 12. That means we’re not the main characters of the story – God is.

The story of the Bible is, of course, the great tale of God with God’s people’s, but (more often than not) we read it as the story of who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, or not to, and the more we focus on ourselves the less we realize that God is the subject of the verb.

But we don’t like this. 

Not one bit. 

So time and time again we change the grammar. We do it whether we’re lay or clergy, we do it in the pulpit and in the classroom, and the results can be devastating.

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I can vividly remember attending a college campus meeting of Christians shortly after moving away from home in which all of the faithful freshman were encouraged to gather together for a worship service in an auditorium. There was a band that played familiar songs, and we said familiar prayers, and this scripture from Genesis 12 was used by the speaker that night. 

She went on and on about how Abram was faithful in traveling to where God sent him. She talked about how Abram is an example to all of us whenever we encounter something new and strange and different. She kept returning to this singular idea that no matter how difficult college life might feel like, all of us had to keep the faith, to stay the course, and to be like Abram as strangers in a strange land.

I know she meant well, and I know that she truly believed in what she was saying, the only problem is most of us were already nervous as it was, and now it felt ten times worse. She left us with this idea that our faith was being put to the test, and that only if we held fast to our moral convictions would we remain, as she put it, sheep of His flock.

It was all about us, and it had almost nothing to do with God.

We, whether we’re college freshman or not, are all functioning narcissists. We think the world revolves around us and we want to know how everything will affect us and we act as if the entirety of the cosmos is resting on our shoulders.

And that is exhausting.

For some reason, bad theology mostly, we think this whole story from Genesis 12 is going to be about Abram as if Abram has special powers or holy characteristics that make him worthy of God’s affections. There had to be something special about Abram that led to God choosing to bless the world through him. 

But, the truth is, we don’t know anything about Abram at this point in the story. At least Noah was a good man when God told him to build the ark, but Abram’s got nothing. All we know from Genesis is that he is the son of Terrah, and his wife Sarai is barren. 

That’s it.

And yet, those skim details are everything! They are everything because these two people carry nothing significant about them or within them. What happens from this point forward is about what God does in the lives of two people who had no potential for anything on their own.

God chooses nobodies to bless the world.

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I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it brings me great comfort. For, if God could bless the world through two people who had no hope in the world, then maybe God can do something even through someone like me.

Or someone like you. 

And, again, notice the grammar. God is the one who blesses the world through Abram and Sarai, not the other way around. God is the one who makes a way out of no way which, incidentally, is the entire story of the Bible.

God promises to do what is impossible for humankind, God calls into existence things that do not exist, God is the subject of the verb.

If it were all on us, if it were all up to us, we would fail. We can’t bless the world because we are far too concerned with blessing ourselves. We can’t fix the world because we are so fixated on our own problems. We can’t redeem the world because we are the ones who need redemption.

We can’t even keep our promises.

But God does. 

Always.

That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about when you hear it for the first time or the thousandth time, it just also happens to be true.

Lenny Duncan is a pastor in Brooklyn, NY at a church that has rapidly grown under his leadership. He is a gifted speaker and is sought after across the country as someone who can speak the truth of the role of church in the 21st century. He wrote a book that I’m reading right now called Dear Church.

But the fact that Lenny became a pastor is a miracle.

It’s a miracle because he had a far greater chance of ending up in prison than behind a pulpit.

He’s a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and a felon.

He tried church again and again and again when he was younger, and every time he did he left feeling worse than when he arrived. He was told, explicitly and implicitly that he was not enough, that he needed to correct his ways before coming to the Lord, and that he needed to take a good hard look in the mirror to find out if he was really worthy of Jesus’ love.

That only led to more of the same in his life.

Until one day, miraculously, he entered a church just like any other church, sitting in the first pew with a backward cap on, listening to people whisper about him under their breath, but this time he heard something different. Not a different sermon or a different prayer or a different hymn, but a different invitation.

An invitation that felt like an invasion. 

“This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, so come.”

There was no membership meeting, no checking of theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before he was invited to the table of grace. He was welcomed simply as he was, and that was revolutionary. 

He describes the moment that he heard those words and walked up the center aisle like this: 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked forward… this welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t even know what it was. It awakened the shadow side of my relationship with God that I hadn’t had the courage to look under. It was like a knife that cut instantly through years of shame and brokenness and released me from those bonds. Grace is like a knife sometimes.

That invasion of an invitation changed him forever. It changed him because instead of being invited to change or transform or get his life together, he was invited by a mighty God who works the changes that we couldn’t on our own. 

Right then and there God called him to a new and strange and different life. Not because he had any of the prerequisites or the right schooling or the right amount of faith, but simply because God loves to make something of our nothing. Amen.

Believing Is Seeing

Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. 

We will be watching you.

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than thirty years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away. And come here saying that you are doing enough when the politics and the solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. You say you hear us and understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and kept on failing to act then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe. 

You are uncomfortable with all the figures because you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generation are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. 

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16 year old Greta Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Action Summit this week and spoke those words to leaders from across the globe. She did so passionately and unflinchingly for all to see and hear.

The next day Robert Jeffress, a megachurch pastor in Texas, got on the radio to express his disappointment in Thunberg’s address. He said, “Somebody needs to read poor Greta Genesis Chapter 9, and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps will never melt and flood the world again.”

The text read to us today from the prophet Jeremiah is long and full of interesting details. There is a lot regarding the legal rights to property to be held within families, there’s the proper procedure for procuring said property, there is even the naming of particular places and people that feel almost too specific, even for the Bible. 

But the entirety of the passage boils down to one simple thing: Jeremiah was a foolish realtor.

I mean, the whole scripture is bizarre. Jerusalem is under siege, and Jeremiah has already noted that Jerusalem will fall to Babylon and that King Zedekiah along with the people will be exiled as strangers in a strange land. Also, for what it’s worth, Jeremiah is in prison! He got locked up for declaring the time had come to put down the weapons and surrender to Babylon. Which, when the ruler was as megalomaniacal as Zedekiah was, was treated as treason. And Jeremiah chooses this moment, weird as it may be, to buy piece of land that is quite literally in the process of being taken by someone else.

So, I guess it really isn’t all that simple.

Jeremiah for reasons often beyond our ability to understand maintains a tremendous faith in the God who first called him to the task of being a prophet. While everything screamed the contrary, Jeremiah declared the steadfastness of God and implored people to see what exactly was going on. 

What Jeremiah could see, and what so many others couldn’t, was that while the destruction of Jerusalem would mean the end of all they knew and understood, it did not mean that God had abandoned them or that God had lessened God’s connection with God’s creation. 

They would always be God’s people no matter where they were and no matter how bad things became. Later Jeremiah will write a letter to the exiles as they begin seeking out what it will mean to live in a strange new world and the prophet will give them simple instructions: till the soil, marry and bear children, worship the Lord and celebrate together, for God is still God no matter what.

But what about the land that Jeremiah bought? What good was his money on wasted soil?

Redeeming the land, as scripture puts it, was not an act of foolish hope or ignorance of the obvious. Procuring the land was a sign act to the faith Jeremiah had for the future of God’s people and God’s promises. And that even in the present, God is present in catastrophe.

Which, in the end, is what the life of faith is all about. It’s about believing in impossible things, and then seeing they weren’t really impossible to begin with. It’s about believing in things not yet seen and being part of something that helps those unseen things become seen. 

In short, it’s being able to look out at a bunch of powerful and wealthy individuals knowing that their own interests have led to the imminent destruction in their midst and hoping against hope that they will hear what you are trying to say, that they will begin to shift their lives around, and that something new and beautiful can come out of their nothing.

Faith gets knocked around in the world a lot, and often for good reason. Christians have, at times, acted in ignorance of facts and figures to be moved instead by charismatic individuals who, notably, Jesus warned about during the gospel narratives. Christians have absolutely been responsible for reprehensible behavior in the world and we often brush it aside as if nothing happened.

But one of the things about the life of faith we often ignore or forget about is the willingness to open our eyes, as Jeremiah would have us do, to what has happened and is still happening with a willingness to accept responsibility. We can, of course, always look to the past and deny any wrongdoing on our own part. It’s become an all too common refrain these days, “It’s not my fault that my ancestor owned slaves,” Or, “I shouldn’t be punished for what happened to the native peoples in this country.” And yet scripture reminds us again and again and again that we, today, are not paying for the sins of our parents but for our own. This problems of the world are as much on us as they are on anyone else, now or ever.

And that is why Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet. He knew and saw and believed the truth about the people in his midst in ways that we still deny and ignore and disbelieve. It brought him to tears knowing that the people willfully choose to disobey the one in whom they moved and had their being. He wept as mothers and fathers and children were dragged off into exile leaving behind the city of Jerusalem in ruins. He wept because they refused to believe the truth.

For many years I affirmed the common expression “Seeing is believing.” And why not? I wanted proof and evidence before and prior to making an assertion of something’s relevance. And for most of my life that’s been fine to some degree. But we are all now living in a time when seeing isn’t even part of the equation. 

People and pastors like Robert Jeffress can speak of people like Greta Thunberg as if they are the ones who are ignorant of God’s movements and motives in the world. And people lap it up! They show up week after week to receive more of it because it grants them permission to keep closing their eyes to the truth around them. They are like staff on a boat telling everyone they have nothing to worry about even though there’s a gaping hole in the bottom of the boat taking on water. 

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And then people like Greta Thunberg stand with the courage like Jeremiah to say and do what others can not and will not. When I watched her speech this week, with all of her passion and energy and conviction, the thing that stayed with me most was her unwillingness to see others as evil. Talk about faith!

Because many of those people, and the people they represent, are categorically evil! They choose profits over people, they care about the short-term instead of the long-term, and they have drunk themselves silly with deniability about what they have done to the world. 

Greta Thunberg knows what those people do and what they care about. She knows they’ve denied the truth going on 3 decades, she knows that their interests and beliefs do not match her own, and she knows that many, if not most, of them will return to business as usual as if nothing happened.

She, like all prophets, know what we human being are really like. We choose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should. At the end of the day, for most of us, it doesn’t matter how many numbers and figures are placed in front of us, whether it has to do with racial profiling in this country, or the overwhelming advantage of white privilege, or CO2 emissions, we will continue to see whatever it is we want to see.

Or, to put it another way, we will act according to whatever narrative requires the least of us.

But Jeremiah believed what he could not see! He didn’t wait until the people changed their behavior, he didn’t delay until the right statistics started showing up. No, Jeremiah believed in impossible things. He believed that God would make good on God’s promises. He believed that when the time came the people would see how far they had strayed from the Good News of God’s purposes and would return to the Promised City a renewed people. 

That’s the difference between the prophet Jeremiah and someone like Robert Jeffress. Jeffress believes that God will not flood the world again like God did during the days of Noah. And we shouldn’t either. God hung up that rainbow as a promise that God would never do that to God’s creation again.

But that’s exactly the problem! God isn’t doing this global warming to us, we are doing it to ourselves! We’re drunk with petroleum and fossil fuels and unmonitored emissions. We’re writing checks that our ecosystems can’t cash. We’re walking around blind to how much our actions are fundamentally rewriting the very fabric of the planet. 

But God has not and will not abandon us. God lifts up ordinary people like Greta Thunberg and speaks a prophetic word through her to all with ears to hear. She has no reason to believe that the people listening will heed the call and change their ways. But she keeps going anyway. Christ too had no indication that the words he used and the actions he offered were dramatically reshaping the lives of the people who followed him. In the end he was all alone. But Christ still died for the ungodly. 

Faith is believing in things you cannot yet see, and then one day seeing what you believe.

Amen. 

A Bad Foundation – A Wedding Homily

Psalm 118.1-2, 19-24

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 

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For some strange reason we treat the Bible like a textbook – as something to be mastered. It’s why people are forever starting these foolish campaigns to “Read the whole Bible in a year.” I mean, good for you if you want to try it, but reading through the Bible in the year mostly guarantees that we will either resent it in the end, or we will have forgotten most of what we discovered.

Instead, the Bible begs to be considered, slowly, delicately, and above all, faithfully. 

When we encounter scripture this way, as servants of the Word rather than masters of the text, we begin to see things we never saw before.

It’s like the way you two can look at a building and see things that most of us miss. You have taken the time, slowly, delicately, and faithfully to appreciate what might appear insignificant to the rest of us. And yet you know, without very particularly important elements, this room would not exist, nor would it have stood the test of time as it has.

But I’ll get back to this room a little later.

For now, I want to keep our minds firmly planted in the strange new world of the Bible. For it is a strange new world, one that opens up to us something new whenever we enter it. Whether we’re standing on the banks of the Red Sea with Moses or we’re walking around Jerusalem marveling at the buildings and stones with Jesus, we find ourselves in this book and sometimes we’re not sure if we like what we see.

Of course, there are those good and holy moments of profound beauty and clarity, but the strange new world of the Bible is equally coarse, and broken, and flawed.

It is all of those things precisely because we are in it.

The writer of Psalm 118 has been steeped in the strange new world. The writer knows that God’s steadfast love endures forever even say, in the midst of exile, or persecution, or marginalization. 

It requires a willingness to believe in, or hope for, things not yet seen to keep a faith like that.

Which makes things all the more complicated when the Psalmist, inexplicably, declares the stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone. 

It’s probably better to let the two of you speak of such architectural language, but for the sake of your wedding I will just make the point that there is good reason to reject certain stones. The cornerstone, after all, is the one upon which the entire building will stand. Any imperfection or crack warrants a plain dismissal because it is simply not up to snuff.

And yet, we learn that the stone rejected for its brokenness is precisely the chosen cornerstone!

Or, to put it in frighteningly applicable words, your marriage has a bad foundation.

I, of course, do not mean to imply that there is something wrong with either of you. You’re just plain old sinners like the rest of us. However, you have come to this place, with these people, to stake your claim on a marriage upon which Christ is the broken foundation.

Marriage is strange; two people willing to make a covenant into something they cannot possibly comprehend. 

I like to put it this way: we always marry the wrong person.

Not because you two aren’t right for each other, but more so that we never really know who we’re marrying; we just think we do. Or even if we marry the right person, whatever that means, part of what makes us who we are is that we change.

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Brent, turn to your beloved bride and take in her beautiful glow. Jane is better than you deserve – she calms all anxieties, and keeps your life together, which we all know is a herculean task. Moreover, Jane adores your incredible family, and I promise she will be the most fiercely kind person you will ever meet.

But she will change. And yet, Brent, you are making a covenant to be for her knowing full and well that she can and will change.

Your turn Jane – take a good look at your handsome soon-to-be husband. Brent is better than you deserve – he regularly puts your needs before his own. He is filled with what appears to be a never ending amount of love to give. Moreover, he goes out of his way, particularly with his crazy travel habits, to make sure that you two always have time to be together. 

But he will change. And yet, Jane, you are making a covenant to be for him knowing full and well that he can and will change.

Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. 

That is why, at the heart of what we are doing here, is the formation of a holy covenant binding you two, and all of us with you, together.

So take a moment now, and turn to take in this room. One of the reasons churches and chapels used to be designed this way is that the room is cruciform, it takes the shape of the cross. And to have everyone facing each other is a theological witness that we are to look upon one another through the cross. 

Sadly, this type of worship structure is all but gone. We’ve decided that its better to all stare at someone like me instead of looking through the cross at one another.

And so now I ask you two to look out on all who are here. Look at them through the broken cornerstone that is the cross. Your marriage is about more than just the two of you. Everyone here has already promised, they have covenanted, to hold you to your covenant. Their presence and promise is a testament to what they see, know, and believe about the two of you, and it is not something you can take for granted.

But now eyes and ears back on me.

When the three of us talked about today I asked you to consider what you thought you were getting into. And you said that marriage is a sacred thing to share in which we become totally bound to and with one another. Moreover you described it as a complete promise and connection to the person with whom you are now standing. And finally, you described marriage like a history: it holds and ties everything together.

Theologically speaking, those were pretty good answers. In fact, they might be the best. In the church we call it something like the diachronic witness – it is a declaration that moves through time in such a way that we are connected to the past, present, and future all at the same time. 

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? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.

Not only does it has this theologically intriguing style, it is also within the oldest college building still standing in the U.S. 

And, I should knock on wood, it has caught fire three separate times in its long history, and yet the exterior walls remained after each fire such that they were able to build again.

Thats a pretty good metaphor for a marriage!

What I mean to say is that at the cornerstone of your marriage, is the person of Jesus Christ was was rejected by those with whom he encountered for a great number of reasons. And yet it is precisely because of his brokenness, his humanity amidst his divinity, that he rests at the foundation of all of our lives and your marriage.

This bad foundation is thus what can and will sustain you through the journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married, because there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Just as there is no perfect building. 

The broken foundation of the one who mounted the hard wood of the cross frees you from the marital expectations of the world and instead invites you into the mysterious covenant you are about to make. 

Marriage is strange but it is at the same time wondrous. It is wondrous because it is less about us and more about what God does in and through us. Which is why the psalmist has the confidence to declare that this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Only a God of impossible possibility could have stitched your stories together into one. 

Only a God of reckless grace could look upon your flaws and all of ours and still say we are enough.

Only a God who sees perfection in imperfection would lay Jesus as the cornerstone of your marriage. 

This truly is the day that the Lord has made, which is why we can rejoice and be glad in it, with you.

And so, may the God of grace and glory, God of the beginning and the end, God of life, death, and resurrection sustain you in your marriage, knowing full and well that the foundation is bad, but that’s what makes it good. Amen. 

A Wedding Sermon From A Prison Cell

Devotional:

John 2.1-2

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an outspoken pastor and was decisively opposed to the reign of Adolf Hitler and Germany’s complicity in providing the power and leverage Hitler used to decimate parts of Europe. Bonhoeffer’s theological convictions against Hitler eventually got him locked up in prison, though he befriended enough of the guards that he was able to write and receive letters from his family.

In May 1943, while held in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote a sermon for his niece Renate and long time friend Eberhard Bethge’s wedding. The sermon is beautiful and appropriately faithful: 

“Certainly you two, of all people, have every reason to look back with special thankfulness on your lives up to now. The beautiful things and the joys of life have been showered on you, you have succeeded in everything, and you have been surrounded by love and friendship. Your ways have, for the most part, been smoothed before you took them, and you have always been able to count on the support of your families and friends. Everyone has wished you well, and now it has been given to you to find each other and to reach the goal of your desires. You yourselves know that no one can create and assume such a life from his/her own strength, but that what is given to one is withheld from another; and that is what we call God’s guidance. So today, however much you rejoice that you have reached your goal, you will be just as thankful that God’s will and God’s way have brought you here; and however confidently you accept responsibility for your action today, you may and will put it today with equal confidence into God’s hands.

“As God today adds God’s ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes’ , as God confirms your will with God’s will, and as God allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, God makes you at the same time instruments of God’s will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In God’s unfathomable condescension God does ass God’s ‘Yes’ to yours; but by doing so, God creates out of your love something quite new.”

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I had returned to the words of Bonhoeffer’s sermon many times (particular while preparing my own weddings sermons!) but every time I read it, I can’t help but imagine the pain of the writer knowing that he could not be there to celebrate the union of two people who meant so much to him.

According to the John’s gospel, one of Jesus’ first miracles took place at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when Jesus turned water into wine. In that poignantly beautiful moment God’s abundant grace was poured out upon the celebration of two people brought together in marriage, and yet we receive no details about the two brought together! It’s as if the gospel writer wants us to see that though marriage is important, the one doing the marrying is actually God almighty!

Or, to use Bonhoeffer’s language, when God adds God’s “Yes” to our “Yes” we become instruments of the Lord for both ourselves and for others. So, for as much as I wonder about Bonhoeffer’s disappointment from missing out on the festivities, I am reminded, through his words, that God is the focus of the covenant of marriage; it doesn’t matter if we are there to celebrate or not, because God surely is.