The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
I have a conflicted and tumultuous relationship with church membership.
I went through confirmation as a tween-ager in my home United Methodist Church and became a member at the conclusion, though we never once talked about what that meant. Instead we watched the 6 hour long film Jesus of Nazareth over 6 different Sundays and talked about what prayer was supposed to look like and feel like.
But covenanting to support the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Nope.
Additionally, when other people joined the church it would take place like this: The pastor would occasionally announce, right before the concluding hymn, that if anyone felt the Spirit moving them to join the church, then they could come forward and do so. And, occasionally, people would march forward, share their names and vocations before the benediction, and that was that.
Moreover, I am part of a generation that is deeply suspicious of joining anything.
Therefore, when it comes to church membership I often let people come to me with their questions rather than pushing people to join.
And, after serving the UMC for nearly a decade, I think I’ve been wrong.
My wrongness stems from the fact that I have treated membership to the church like membership to any other number of organizations, whereas to join the church as a member is actually a profound witness to our faith.
For example: There’s a bishop from another denomination (thankfully) that often tells a story about recruiting for a local seminary. Over the years the bishop would meet with candidates and at some point in the conversation he would say, “Why should I join the church?” And the candidates would often wax lyrical about the music program, or the value of community outreach, or the fellowship that is present on Sunday mornings, but not a single candidate ever said anything about Jesus.
The church is not the local symphony through which you can experience dynamic music every once in a while. The church is not yet another social agency through which you can feel better about making other people’s lives better. The church is not a country club through which you can meet people of a similar social strata.
The church can be like those things, but the one thing the church is and has that nothing else does is Jesus.
Therefore, to join the church as a member is a remarkable thing. It is a strange adventure that is made possible only by faith.
Notably, when the Lord teaches the disciples about forgiveness they can’t wrap their heads around it. It would be one thing if Jesus told them they should try to forgive one another but instead he tells them they can never stop forgiving one another. That runs against everything the world teaches us. But forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom, and of the church.
If we insist on being right and perfect and only ever surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, our lives will be miserable and boring.
The church, then, stands as a dynamic witness to the power of the Spirit. The great gifts of the church include connecting us with people we would otherwise never connect with, the sacraments that make our lives intelligible in the first place, and the promise of the empty tomb that offers us a new past where we are no longer defined by our mistakes and a new future where resurrection is reality.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I became a member of my home church, but it was the difference that made all the difference in the world. It was the difference because, week after week, the church gave me Jesus.
In the end, the church is a miracle and, like the early disciples, we need all the faith we can get for it to be the blessing that it is and can be.
Therefore, if you are not (yet) a member of a church, I encourage you to prayerfully consider joining. It will take faith, but even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough in the kingdom of God.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
In the 1990’s Jerry Falwell, bastion of theological conservatism, pleaded for funds for his “Save A Baby Homes.” The organization was designed to establish homes, all over the country, where a young woman who decides to continue in a difficult pregnancy could go and receive free, caring support all the way through pregnancy and birth.
And, rather notably, Falwell ended his plea by saying something to effect of, “If we do not give our resources, our money, to this venture, if Bible-believing Christians do not demonstrate through our gifts that we are willing to give to, and sacrifice for, and to support these women, then we have no right to tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, do with their bodies.”
It isn’t easy for ordinary people like us to do some of the extraordinary acts as Jesus commands. “Turning the other cheek” is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The same holds true for loving our neighbors as ourselves, particularly when it comes into contact with our theological understanding of reproductive rights.
On Monday evening a draft was leaked of a revision to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that focuses on reproductive rights in the United States. In response, those in favor and those opposed to the draft have been celebrating/protesting in various parts of the country.
Reproductive rights are often painted as a faith-based matter for a variety of reasons and there are a great myriad of theological positions with regard to the understanding of being bodily creatures. The United Methodist Church, in our Book of Resolutions, both affirms the sanctity of life for all persons born and unborn and, at the same time, we support those who choose the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We are committed to ministering with those who have had an abortion, providing support and encouragement. (You can read more here: Social Principles)
The only time I can remember hearing about abortion in church, prior to becoming a pastor, was in a small group setting as a teenager when one of my peers asked the pastor how we should think theologically about abortion. His response has stayed with me ever since.
He said something to the effect of: “If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses to carry the baby to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc. But the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum. If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses not to carry to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc.”
I remember thinking his answer was both deeply theological and faithful. I only realized, much later, that not every church feels and thinks that same way.
We do not talk of such things in the church today for a variety of reasons: we prioritize the privacy of the individual, we treat the church as a place to talk about churchy things and not worldly things, we are afraid of upsetting sensibilities, we don’t want to appear too political, etc.
And yet, we, in large part, have fallen into a fallacy of believing that the most important things in the world are political and can only be handled in a political manner. We therefore worry and lose more sleep over who sits behind the desk in the oval office (or behind the rail in the Supreme Court) than we do over who sits at the throne of the universe (and who comes to be the Judged Judge in our place).
The church is, and always will be, political but it is political on terms that run counter to the world. Put simply, the church does not exist to proclaim a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather to follow and point to the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Therefore, the most interesting, creative, and faithful solutions we (that is: Christians) have to offer our weary world are not new laws, new politicians, or new social programs (though we certainly can support such efforts). The most important thing we have to offer the world is the church. We best serve the world by showing the world what it is not: a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.
We, the church, exist to be present for others not to judge them or to damn them, but to love them and support them to the end.
It isn’t easy – but nothing really important ever is.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
He was a fisherman, and not even a very good one, when the Lord showed up and made him into a fisher of people.
And Pete, he’s seen some things, witnessed moments he can’t explain. First it was the teacher calling him to follow. That’s all it took. He and his coworkers, his fellow fishermen, left it all behind on the shore, including nets full of recently caught fish.
Then it was the episode with his mother-in-law. She was busy trying to meet the needs of the Teacher and his new disciples when he touched her and made her well.
And there was the time when the crowds grew so large, and stuck around so long, that they need to eat something and the Teacher turned scarcity into abundance, and everyone left with their bellies full.
And the stories! Mustard seeds and prodigal sons and wayward vineyard workers. That’s what Pete liked best, the stories.
It’s no wonder then, having seen all he’s seen and heard all he heard, that when the Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Pete was the first to shout, “The Messiah!”
But it’s also why, having confessed the truth of the incarnation, when the Teacher told him and the others that he was going to die, Pete was the first to rebuke him for saying what he said.
“JC, I don’t think you get it. The Messiah can’t die! You’re here to restore all the promises to Israel, which is something you can’t do from the grave.”
And do you know what the Teacher said to Pete? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, and I’m here for heavenly things.”
And now, 8 days later, they’re walking up a mountain to pray. They arrive at the top, bending in humble adoration, lifting up their prayers to the Holy One, when the Teacher’s appearance changes drastically. His face isn’t the same and his clothes are whiter than the brightest light anyone of them can handle.
Suddenly, two other figures appear, its Moses and Elijah and they’re talking with the Teacher. They are glorious and they talk about his coming departure in Jerusalem, his exodus for the rest of us.
Moses and Elijah are making movements as if they’re going to leave and Pete shouts out, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make dwelling places here on the mountain so that we might never leave.”
As the words leave his mouth, a cloud overshadows them completely, and the disciples are full of terror. But from the cloud comes a voice, a voice unlike any other, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Suddenly they are alone again, and the Teacher says, “Say nothing to anyone about what you have seen and heard.”
Today is a major turning point in the church year. The transfigured Jesus turns his blazing and radiant face toward a violent fate in Jerusalem at the hands of roaring crowds. This week, the church turns away from the light of Epiphany and toward the shadows of Lent.
Not all churches mark this occasion, but to ignore the Transfiguration is to miss out on the future made manifest in the present. It is a moment of transcendence that lifts the veil of all the good, true, and beautiful in the world.
The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.
And it is indeed a strange story, so strange that as I referenced it with and among individuals from our church this week, more than a few confessed that they were unfamiliar with this moment in the Gospel.
Which makes sense! This story, even among the strangeness of the Bible, is quite bizarre. Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple for missing the mark, yet again, they go up on top of a mountain during which Jesus is flanked by two of the most important figures from Israel’s history, only to have it all stop just as soon as it started.
And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him.
He completely ignores Pete’s request for a motel franchise on top of the mountain.
There are so many things at stake in this triumph of transfiguration, but most of all it is a preview of the Gospel. It is the future present.
And we can’t really wrap our heads around it! Because, we confess, we don’t know what to make of moments that we can’t explain.
Our default mechanism for living in the world today is living in and by the natural and explainable rather than, and at the expense of, the supernatural.
The challenge of our being is that we are stuck living in an unthought way – we are addicted to certainty in a world that is inherently unstable and uncertain.
Our comprehension of events is such that we are convinced we no longer need a religious or mystical explanation for things that happen, or don’t happen. And yet, we are equally obsessed with self-justification, which is inherently a mystical adventure.
Put simply: We’re all on a journey for meaning in the world and more often than not we derive our sense of meaning out of what we can accomplish. Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, never amounts to much. But we keep trying and trying and trying anyway. We add new habits or we drop bad ones. We set out to create some permanence in a world that works only through impermanence. We try and try and try and find ourselves disappointed whether we work harder or not.
We, in some way, shape, or form, are looking for transcendence, but we can’t find it.
Which is odd when you consider how often, in church of all places, we try to take the strangeness of the gospel and turn it into something practical. We take the impossible possibility of God’s grace and we transform it into a list of three things to do to become a better version of yourself. We take the mount of Transfiguration and turn it into some form of moralism about what we should, or shouldn’t, be doing in the world today.
But the Transfiguration isn’t about what we are supposed to do – it’s about being in the presence of God.
Christian art is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. And the Transfiguration has, for centuries, commanded the imagination of artists.
Here is the Transfiguration as portrayed by the Renaissance painter Raphael. It was the last painting he created before his death, and it was conceived as an altar piece for a cathedral in France.
The top of the painting depicts the scene we encounter in scripture and notably, the bottom half conveys the next part of the story when Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain to heal a young boy.
Notice how the light of Christ’s Transfiguration is juxtaposed with the darkness of the lower scene.
And here is a modern and abstract depiction of the Transfiguration by an artist named Jaison Cianelli. Like Raphael’s, the painting conveys a hyper focused change that is wrought with lasting consequences.
And finally, this is a modern icon created by a Ukrainian artist named Ivanka Demchuk. The cowering disciples in the bottom portion stand in for all of us, who when encountered by the One who encounter us, can’t help but tremble in fear.
The Transfiguration is one of those moments in the Bible that we can never fully wrap our heads around. It’s one that we need art and music and other aspects of expression to help us come to grips with this bewildering proclamation.
It is beyond our ability to explain and certainly beyond our ability to comprehend because it transcends all modes of our being.
Without the supernatural, without transcendence, without mystery, the church becomes nothing more than a country club, or the next best self-improvement clinic, or a sub par social services agency.
And to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking out fellowship, or trying to better one’s self, or providing needs to the last, least, lost, little, and dead. But if that’s all we have, if that’s all the church is, then we have no business calling ourselves the church.
There will always be plenty of other institutions that can bring us better friends, or help us get from where we are to where we want to be, or make substantive changes in the world. But they don’t have the one thing that we do: Jesus Christ and him crucified.
The wonderful and weird witness of the Transfiguration is that the only thing we’re told to do is listen to Jesus. From this point forward, Jesus is going to do what Jesus is going to do. He will still stir up the crowds with stories of treasure in a field, and proclamations about the signs of the times, but when push comes to shove Jesus will mount the hard wood of the cross regardless of all our goodness or lack thereof.
We can point to all these bewildering details on top of the mountain, but it’s important that we don’t miss out on the timelessness of the scene. The Transfiguration, a moment indelibly in the past, shows us a glimpse of the future.
Tell no one what you have seen or heard until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.
This moment is made indelible only by the ending that the disciples can scarcely imagine, even though Jesus just hit them up over the head with it.
They are sworn to silence because they are not yet ready for the transcending truth. They have not made it from their reality to God’s reality. They witness something remarkable and inexplicable, but it is not yet the resurrection, the great transfiguration of all things.
Today we, like the disciples, are called to live according to the wondrous nature of the Transfiguration – we can stumble around like fools grasping out in fear for comfort – and then we will hear the words, the only words we need to hear: “This is my Son, the chosen; listen to him.”
But, and it’s a big but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to listen to Jesus. We’d rather listen to ourselves.
We’d rather listen to ourselves because we are downright addicted to control. Or, at least to thinking we’re in control.
Do you know how God responds to those who think they’re in control?
It is humbling to be laughed at by anyone, but when God’s laughs at us it’s another thing entirely. But perhaps we need to hear that laughter, particularly when we wake and sleep believing that it’s up to us to make the world turn out right.
The world has already turned out right. We know the future in the present. The tomb is empty!
We don’t have to be the hope of the world because Jesus already is. The only thing we have to do is live accordingly.
And that’s why Lent beckons us. It’s why Christians, for centuries have marked and observe the season that starts on Ash Wednesday because it reminds us of our inconvenient truth – we can’t make it out of this life alive. But, like the Lord in the tomb, God refuses to leave us that way.
We are a people desperate to be in control of our lives and we’re living in a world in which we are not in control. Moreover, we can scarcely imagine what it would look like to live in the light of Jesus’ transfiguration. It leaves us quaking and bewildered like those three disciples.
But if we do not reflect the glory of the One transfigured, then the world has no light to see that all is not darkness. Amen.
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Jesus shows up by the lake of Gennesaret and crowds begin to gather to hear whatever it is he has to say. He starts teaching, if that’s what we want to call it – he tells stories, some of them make the folk scratch their heads, some of them make the people mad.
Talk of the first being last and the last being first always sounds like good news to those on the bottom rungs of life, but it sounds like unmitigated bad news to those with everything to lose.
Anyway, Jesus amasses such a crowd that, while standing by the seashore, the Lord decides to amplify his proclamations.
Down the way he stops a few boats and men who had been out all night fishing. They are busy cleaning their nets and Jesus decides to hop into one of their boats and says, “Hey, let’s get out on the water.”
And without giving it much thought, a nobody named Simon Peter pushes the boats out, and starts oaring the Lord back toward the crowds.
“Thanks Pete,” Jesus says, “This’ll do fine. Keep it steady will ya?”
And then Jesus teaches some more. Perhaps talk of fig trees and mustard seeds, maybe some more of that “all things being made new,” perhaps he ended with a particularly probing parable.
And then Jesus looks back to his conscripted fisherman and says, “Pete, since we’re out here already, what do you think about going deeper and let’s see if we can’t find ourselves some breakfast?”
“No offense, Lord,” Peter replies, “But I’ve been out all night fishing. You see, fishing is what I do. And there ain’t no fish to be caught. However, you seem to be on a roll today, so why not?”
15 minutes minutes pass and they catch more fish than they can safely bring aboard their aquatic vessel and they call out to the other fishermen to come help.
Pretty soon they have so many fish that the boats start sinking into the lake from which their plunder came.
Peter, with his arms burning from pulling in net after net, falls to the bottom of the boat and he says, “Get away from me Lord! I am not worthy of this!”
Jesus calmly replies, “No one is. But that’s the whole point. And you needn’t be afraid my friend, from now on you’ll be catching people.”
And Peter, along with his brother and their fishing partners, leave everything at the shore and they follow Jesus.
I love this story.
Every time I enter the strange new world of the Bible to this little tale by the sea I am bombarded by Peter’s reaction to Jesus. He falls before the Lord with a feeling of complete unworthiness. He, somehow, understands that God is near in the person of Jesus in a way that is more tangible and palpable than he can comprehend. And it is in the presence of God that Peter feels his sin.
Does Jesus call Peter a sinner? Does Jesus list all of Peter’s faults and failures? No.
Instead, the experience of God’s wonderful presence leads Peter to a recognition of his unworthiness. And then, lo and behold, Jesus wants to have a sinner such a Peter in his service!
“C’mon Pete! It’s time to start catching people!”
It’s hard to know exactly when it happens, but somewhere along the line Jesus catches us. That’s what Jesus does, in the end. It’s not just the telling of tales, and the proclamations of parables, and the making of miracles. Jesus delights in gathering us, all of us, into the great net that, in the church, we call salvation.
And Jesus is very good at what he does.
Life, as we often perceive it, is little more than going through the motions and doing one thing after another. But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same. That’s the great witness and proclamation of the church – Jesus comes that we might have life and life abundant. Jesus shakes up the monotony of our daily existence, sets us free from the chains of sin and death, and invites us to the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.
Jesus’ divine fishing charter, his conscription of Peter, is not merely about gathering in whoever he can whenever he can – it’s about bringing us to a place we could never arrive on our own.
Hear the Good News, the very best news: The tall and the small, the good and the bad… Jesus’ net is wide enough for all of us.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is doing his Jesus-thing, teaching about the upside down nature of the kingdom, when a yuppie shows up and asks about the requirements for salvation.
We only know what we know about this particular character based on what scripture tells us, and his story is a cautionary tale (and a beloved one among preachers).
Notice – the rich young man is already a success story in the eyes of the world: he’s a winner.
But he wants more.
What could drive someone to such a desire? Surely none of us know of such thirst and such hunger for more.
Robert Farrar Capon, in his seminal work on the parables, imagines the innermost thoughts of this yuppie with Jesus like this:
“Oh yes, I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced statistical methods in the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel… But the world is not better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whisper of my secretaries… deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of disheveled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted, misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want… translate me, bright Angel, from this hell of inert and ailing matter, growing steadily senile in a time forever immature, to that blessed realm, so far above the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case where, tortured no longer by three dimensions and immune to temporal vertigo, Life turns into Light, absorbed for good into the permanently stationary, completely self-sufficient, absolutely reasonable One.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 42).
The yuppie certainly has a problem: he is a winner who cannot fathom, whatsoever, the end of his winning. He is positively bewitched by the idea that there are no limits to what he can achieve by his own power.
Jesus responds by adding insult to injury and gives the man an impossible list of goals to achieve, namely the Ten Commandments. But the yuppie assures the Good Lord that he is, was, and forever will be perfect in the eyes of the Law.
And then, as Mark puts it, Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and says something like, “Okay hotshot. There’s only one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Hopefully removing all your winnings will free you to see that the only real way to win is by losing, the only way to be great is to be the least, the only way to live is to die.”
But the yuppie walks away sad, because he has many possessions.
And yet, here’s the really sad part: the yuppie walked away from the only really good news he would ever hear. Because all of that winning, in whatever form it took (material, moral, or even spiritual success) would eventually pass away like the wind in his death.
Or, as Jesus puts it, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
The rich young man couldn’t stand the thought of being a loser. But Jesus saves sinners (losers) and only sinners.
In the strange new world of the Bible, only the winners lose because only the losers can win – that’s how reconciliation works. If winning could’ve saved the world we would’ve done it a long time ago. Evil cannot be destroyed by moral score-keeping. The only way to save the world is to do what God did – by taking evil out of the world by taking it into himself in Jesus, nailing it to the cross, and leaving it there forever.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. Nothing because, we can’t save ourselves.
But, thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making something of our nothing.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69). Josh is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including spicy spices, Solomonic wisdom, the power of place, door holders, the agency of armor, Martin Luther, the powers and principalities, rational arguments, The Dude, discipleship, Bo Giertz, and pickles. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Subtle Allegiances
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Jonah 3.1-5, Psalm 62.5-12, 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, Mark 1.14-20). Mikang serves at Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including boredom, a eulogy for a fish, liturgical time, reading the WHOLE story, discipleship requirements, centering prayer, note passing, and God’s fishing net. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eschatological Patience
You can also check out Mikang and I “teaming” up for a devotional/musical video here: Let It Begin With Me
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Brian Johnson about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 33.12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22). Brian serves at Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including TNG, immutability, puppy dogs Jesus, James Cone, defined justice, discipleship as imitation, taxes, the drug of political affiliation, and space communism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Great And Terrible Mystery
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Drew serves as one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including charcoal fires, Damascus road experiences, reluctant discipleship, the soul from Sheol, heaven & hell parties, learning Revelation, The OK Computer Passion Play, being naked and ashamed, and hope in the face of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Did Everything We Could
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.