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
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.
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.
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.
Your Big Brother
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else.
There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.
Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”
The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”
She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”
The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.
She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.
And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.
Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.
She has children.
She finds herself back in church.
She leaves the church.
She buries her mother.
And then her father.
She brings the first child to college, and then the second.
She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.
She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.
She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.
The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”
Who am I?
Where do I belong?
What give me worth?
These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.
And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.
But those things never bring us what we need.
What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
I have redeemed you!
The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.
We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.
But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!
Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.
In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.
But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!”
They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.
Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.
Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.
And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious.
To God we will always belong.
However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us.
God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.
We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.
Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.
Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.
In the water, we are precious.
Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.
And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.
Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.
That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!
While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
She was almost 8 months pregnant. Her ankles were constantly swollen, the fatigue was nearly unbearable, but every kick she felt made it worth it. She and her husband had prayed and prayed and prayed for this baby, and in a month the baby would finally arrive.
Her parents lived states away, and she and her husband decided she should fly home for a quick weekend, one last chance to spend time with her parents before she herself became a parent.
The airports were challenging as she carried around a bunch of extra weight, but every eye that darted to her belly, and every strangers’ smile was enough to keep her moving forward.
Her parents enveloped their baby girl in their arms knowing that soon they would be grandparents and that their prayers had been answered as well. The time at home was destined to be a joyful reunion filled with the hope of the coming days, weeks, and months.
The day before she was set to fly home to her husband, she sat at the breakfast table with her parents. She held her mother’s hand on top of her belly, hoping for a quick kick that would surely bring forth a tear of unadulterated happiness, when the door bell rang.
In walked a young professional looking man, who walked straight over to hand her a large manilla envelope. But as his eyes moved to her belly, he froze in the middle of the kitchen. He muttered a barely audible, “I’m so so sorry,” deposited the parcel, and walked out of the house.
The parents and soon-to-be-parent slowly opened up the envelope.
She was almost 8 months pregnant.
Marriage is weird. Out of all the people in the world, among all of the possible conversations and interactions, some of us are brought together in a way that we believe we should make a covenant to be together for the rest of our lives.
It’s pretty strange when you take a step back to think about it.
I had a professor who loved to say that we always marry the wrong person. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with the individuals we marry, but that we don’t really know who we are marrying or what marriage really is until we do it.
Marriage is the weird and wild journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
And, for as many marriages as I’ve been blessed to preside over, I can’t help but wonder why people get married at all; particularly today. I’ve heard all of the reasons: “We love each other, “It’s the next logical step in our relationship,” “I can’t imagine marrying anyone else.”
But is that what marriage really is?
Love and logic ain’t enough.
A successful marriage, whatever that means, will never be contingent on the whims, or the romantic feelings, or the love, of those who are married. Love, as strong as it can be, is not enough to sustain couples in the midst of great tribulation. Love cannot make up for horrible lapses in judgment, terrifying domestic violence, or disturbing amounts of adultery.
Marriage is always about more than love. Marriage requires endurance, patience, hope, conversion, renewal, forgiveness, sacrifice, and reconciliation.
Marriage isn’t easy.
And that’s why more than half of all marriage end in divorce.
In the US the top three reasons for divorce have to do with money, children, and ironically enough, church itself.
All of these particular hangups stem from poor, or totally absent, communication. A couple disagrees about how to budget their money, or one of them gambles it all away without telling the other.
A couple disagrees about how to discipline a child or whether or not to have children at all.
A couple disagrees about the role the church should play in their relationship or their religious convictions can no longer harmonize with each other.
In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 per day, 16,800 per week, and 876,000 per year.
Divorce is one of the most remarkably prevalent occurrences in our culture and society to the degree that most of us have become numb to it, and we almost never talk about it in church.
We don’t take it very seriously.
Many are quick to end their marriage whenever the first hiccups are experienced, but as Christians we are called to hear what Jesus had to say about divorce, which can be a bitter pill to swallow.
So, for just a moment, imagine if you were standing up here with me looking out at everyone else. If the church is at all average, half of the married people in the room either have already been divorced, or will be by the end of their days.
That is a frightening reality considering Jesus’ words.
Some Pharisees tried to test him regarding the law on divorce because Moses allowed men to write certificates of dismissal to divorce their wives. And during the time of Moses, and Jesus, receiving that certificate was just about the worst thing that could happen to a married woman because she would effectively lose all of her rights. She could easily find herself on the street begging for food or prostituting her body for income.
Jesus was deeply deeply concerned with the marginalized people within his community, and in this particular case women who were handed a signature that destroyed their lives.
Of course, we can all admit that things have certainly changed since the days of Jesus – but maybe they haven’t changed enough.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that day is one that still casts a great shadow over families, churches, and communities: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus talked about this kind of stuff A LOT, and yet we in the church often avoid it at all costs. Probably because half the people in the church have, in all probability, experienced divorce.
But let us at least consider something Jesus said that is of paramount importance: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
God is the one who does the joining; we are the ones who do the separating.
Or maybe a better way to put it is this: Divorce is certainly not what God intends or hopes for, but there are times when there might not be another option. Times of horrific physical abuse, or traumatic adultery, can be nearly impossible to move through, but plenty of people get divorced for some of the most mundane reasons:
“Our interests have grown apart.” “We no longer communicate effectively.” “I’m not in love anymore.”
As long as we are human beings, divorce will be a reality. Which is to say, as long as we are sinners we will sin against each other. However, we worship a God of impossible possibilities who believes in us even when we do not. We follow a first-century Jew who believed in the sanctity of covenants even when we do not live according to them. We are empowered by a Spirit of truth, and renewal, and reconciliation.
Marriage is a strange and serious thing – it is perhaps one of the most strangely serious thing that any of us will ever do.
And we know the strangely serious dimension of marriage because it is one of the preferred metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people.
Marriage is not normative for Christian people, and is certainly not the expectation. If any us discover someone in whom we believe God can keep us covenanted with, well then good for us. If we find ourselves moving through life without ever coming to altar to make that particular covenant, then good for us too.
But marriage, whether we experience it or not, is something we are all called to know because God has covenanted to remain with us.
God stands before us again and again knowing full and well how we have failed to respond to the promise. We regularly pursue our own desires, we sin against neighbors, friends, and strangers, and we forget what God was willing, and is will, to do for us.
Jesus was able to speak with such ferocious certainty and conviction about the virtues of marriage because Jesus is the one who holds fast to the covenant even when we do not. It was in holding on to the promise that Jesus found himself nailed to the hard wood of the cross while abandoned by the bride which is the community we call the church.
Marriage is a strange and serious thing. And so is divorce. Which is why we need to talk about it.
In every marriage there is the strange discovery of realizing we don’t really know the person we married. We move through tragedies and hardships, we experience mountaintops of joy and deep valleys of sorrow, and if we are still married in the end it is because we found the true nature of the God of covenant and hope.
Marriage, though we sometimes forget, is a radical and countercultural endeavor. Jesus subverted the expectations of marriage with the Pharisees because he believed married couples should exists in plains of equity. No longer would the patriarchal norms in which women had no autonomy be present in something like marriage (though we clearly still have work to do).
Marriage has to be more than something that can be ended with a simple piece of paper. But as long as that option remains (as it should in some circumstances) the church is the place where that broken covenant can be redeemed.
After she opened the envelope, it felt like a tornado ran through the house. Every part of her hopes, and dreams, and expectations felt shattered and annihilated.
The covenant was broken.
She moved back in with her parents for the remainder of the pregnancy, and when the time came to go to the hospital she was surrounded not by her husband, but by her parents and friends.
Every bit of her life felt lifeless until she held her baby girl for the first time. And though it certainly hasn’t been easy, and she still feels the sting of pain and betrayal and hurt on a regular basis, every time she looks into the eyes of her daughter she discovers something beautiful that came out of the darkness.
Weddings take place in the church because the church is strange compared with the rest of the world. While others might ebb and flow like a kite in the wind, the church stands for something that resists our subjectivity. The church is a willing witness to the sanctity of marriage, particularly in light of Christ’s willingness to beckon us back to the throne over and over again.
The church is where married couples learn what is means to remain faithful to something that they never really could’ve imagined.
The church is where divorced individuals discover a community that will remain steadfast even if their partner didn’t.
The church is also where the sinful partner can one day find a new home and hope of redemption on the other side of repentance.
The church is where single people who never feel called to the covenant of marriage embody similar covenants with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
The church is where the virtues of marriage and the destructive nature of divorce can be laid on the throne because being together is never really about us; it’s about God. Amen.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.