This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, shortsightedness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, instant gratification, divine subversion, geographic gathering, deadly trespasses, Nicodemus, and living in grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sola Gratia
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 they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
“There is no such thing as a stupid question.”
I have heard that sentence more time than I can count; at the end of a lecture, in the middle of a bible study, at the beginning of a date… It drives at the heart of inquiry, a desire to process information to grow in knowledge.
But, honestly, stupid questions do exist:
“If money doesn’t grow on trees, then why do banks have branches?”
“Why do we park in driveways and drive on parkways?
“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”
However I do appreciate the intent behind the claim of the non-existence of stupid questions, because the worst questions of all are those not asked.
We’ve been going through the book of Mark chapter by chapter in our Sunday school class and one of my favorite refrains has been “Well, why didn’t they just ask Jesus?!” It’s as if while reading through the gospel we’ve become so intimately familiar with the characters that we want to shout out directions on to the pages. And who can blame us? Time and time again the disciples encounter something absolutely holy only to completely miss it or ask a question that has far more to do with them than it has to do with the Lord.
And here’s the crux of it all: for as much as we might lament the disciples inability to further their knowledge of Jesus, and therefore limit our ability to know the truth of Jesus, they were really no different than us. We read that they regularly did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were too afraid to ask. And that’s actually a good thing!
There are some things that are simply too mighty and too holy for us to understand. And even if we had an inkling of the depth of Jesus ministry and we were so bold to ask a question, it would probably be one that blew up in our faces.
Sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, it is good and right for us to not have all the answers because so much of our lives are mysterious. And the more we try to pull back the curtain the more disappointed we will be.
So we can raise all the questions we want, we can even scream at the disciples in the pages of our bibles, but God has revealed to us what God wanted to reveal, the rest of it is left to that thing we call faith.
The team behind Crackers and Grape Juice hosted a live event back in June on the subject of What We Talk About When We Talk About God. We invited Dr. Kendall Soulen and Dr. Johanna Hartelius to join us as we dove into the subject matter and we wound up covering a lot of ground including a live version of the doxology, the importance of theological grammar, the power of words, gendered pronouns, the challenge of active listening, and co-opted speech. We were able to record the conversation and if you would like to listen to it, or subscribe to the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast, you can do so here: We Are God’s Echo
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.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
I love churches. I’m not sure when my affection for worship spaces began, but for as long as I can remember I have always loved Christian buildings. Whenever I travel somewhere new, and have an opportunity to explore a local church – I do so.
The first time I went to Guatemala, while all my friends were bargaining with the local artisans for a blanket, or a sweater, or a bowl, I found myself walking around the village peaking in on the churches. When I was younger I would arrive early for youth band at my home church just so I could walk around the building, sit in the different pews, and even stand up in the pulpit to pretend I was the preacher. In fact, when I came to St. John’s for the first time, Good Friday evening of 2013, I was introduced to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and when they inquired if there was anything I needed to know about the church, I asked to see the sanctuary.
When I enter a church for the first time, I have made it a habit to walk to the front near the altar, kneel on the floor, and pray. Sometimes the prayers have been about the safety of the mission trip, or for God to bless the people and preacher who call this space home, or even for God to bless me with a church of such beauty in the future.
One summer, when I was provided the opportunity to lead a group of college students to Taize, France, I found myself walking with my friends and exploring the local town. Between the three daily worship services with 5,000 other twenty-somethings, we had the freedom to do as we pleased, so we hiked around Burgundy, France.
When we entered the small chapel, I was overcome by its opulence. The stained glass was filled with such vibrant colors, letting in just the right amount of light through the scenes of scripture. The crucifix at the front had a triumphant Christ hanging on the cross above the altar. The pews were made of well-worn wood that conveyed a deep sense of time and care. While my friends examined the fine details of the space I walked to the front, fell to my knees, and I prayed.
I must have been there for some time, because when I opened my eyes it took them a moment to readjust to the light. Below my knees, I noticed some writing on the marble stones that made up the floor. While my eyes began to focus on the crude letters, I was gripped with a sense of fear and awe – the floor was made of old gravestones.
With all the beauty surrounding me on the walls, and ceiling, with an altar worthy of a king, and a pulpit raised high in the air, I neglected to notice the most sacred and holy element of the church. The floor and foundation of the worship space was made possible through the saints that have gone on before us, a constant and beautiful reminder that this was holy ground.
Just like every other day, Moses was tending to the flock. The morning was typical, calm, and cool with the dew hanging on the leaves while Moses walked along the path. Perhaps while walking in the still silence, Moses thought back upon his life, and what had led him here. He had grown up around the inner circle of Pharaoh’s cohort, raised by the princess as her own, but when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew he could not contain his rage and committed murder. Moses fled from the comfort, power, and prestige of Egypt because he was afraid. He eventually settled in Midian and married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the priest.
Moses was tending the flock that belonged to his father-in-law when he led them beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb (“wasteland”), the mountain of God. Walking along the path, filled with thoughts form the past, Moses discovered a bush on fire, and even though it was blazing, it was not consumed. Rather than continue on his journey, Moses turned aside to look at the great sight, to see why the bush was not being burned up. Then God called out from the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he replied, “Here I am.” The Lord commanded Moses to stay put, and remove the sandals from his feet, for the place where he was standing was holy ground. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
It was just an ordinary, everyday journey for Moses. A normal routine with no “religious” intentions. He was not going out to seek the perfect modern preacher or guru to learn about what God was calling him to do with his life, he was not sitting in the great temple of Jerusalem, he was just doing his job.
God chose the mountain in the wilderness as the place of revelation and change for Moses’ life. The encounter took place far and away from the sights and sounds of the religious community, this holy moment takes place in the least likely of situations and locations.
A burning bush appeared in the wasteland, but the fire did not consume it. Moses was not frightened away from the bush, nor was he repelled by the sight of something strange, but instead he was drawn toward it. His curiosity propelled him forward, not for religious reasons, but because it was unknown.
God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, loves to make use of human curiosity for his own purposes. Curiosity often leads to discovery, new life, and new vision.
Moses was the one who ran away from familiarity into the unknown. He had left behind his family and calling in Egypt because he feared for his life. He escaped to the place of Midian, found a wife, and a new calling and was settled. It happened in the ordinary and mundane moment of routined life that Moses was jolted into a new reality.
God is the one with the initiative in the situation. Moses was not begging on his knees for God to enter his life, instead it is God who confronts Moses and calls him to a task.
We gather in this space for worship with expectations. We come to church to sing, to pray, to live, to love, and to encounter the living God. It is our hope and belief that in so doing we will come into contact with the divine in such a way that we can be filled and transformed for the coming week. However, if the story of Moses and the burning bush is to come alive for us today, then we must prepare ourselves to be encountered by the living God when we least suspect it.
Years ago, Zig Volskis was preparing to preside over a wedding for a beautiful couple. He had done the necessary pre-marital counseling, he had met with the families to discuss the needs of the wedding ceremony, frankly- he had taken care of everything he needed to for the wedding to be perfect. Like with all weddings he stood at the front with the wonderful couple and began to speak about the holy covenant of marriage, of Christ’s role in bringing two people together as one, and the responsibility to live into this new identity with faithfulness.
Zig had done a lot of weddings. He knew that at some point the bride would start crying, and if he really worked it, the the groom would cry as well. He knew that some of the people in the congregation no longer believed in marriage, but believed in the young people enough to show up. He had done enough weddings to know the routine. But this was to be no ordinary wedding…
“I can’t do this,” the bride blurted without warning. Zig, the great pastor that he was, immediately took over the situation, escorting the young woman out the congregation to have a serious conversation. Thinking that it might just be wedding jitters and nervousness, he invited the young woman to speak. “I can’t do this,” she said, “I’ve had my doubts, of course. But it just hit me right before we walked in. We were waiting for my grandmother to arrive and she was running late. The longer we waited, the more angry my fiancee became. When she finally made it he began yelling at her for ruining this moment, for making us wait on her. The entire time I walked down the aisle and saw him standing at the front, I realized for the first time, that I was making a terrible mistake.” So Zig re-entered the sanctuary, and as calmly as possible, informed everyone that the wedding would no longer take place.
God shows up in the most unexpected times and places. In the midst of a beautiful wedding ceremony the Spirit moved in such a way to give a dose of reality to a young bride about the mistake she was about to make. In the midst of a cold December evening when I was sixteen, God brought me down to my knees and propelled me on a path toward church ministry. In the midst of a leading a flock God appeared in the burning bush to call Moses into something difficult and holy.
I knew a pastor who, every Sunday morning, would kick off his shoes at the back of the sanctuary before entering during the opening hymn. When I finally asked him about this strange practice he casually replied, “this is holy ground.” I think he was right; this space, the inside of our sanctuary, this room where we gather to meet the living God is holy ground. But I also think he was wrong; the ground is only holy because of God’s appearance, not because we say it is.
I love worship, and I love churches. I have had some incredible moments in my life where I have heard a preacher proclaim words from a pulpit as if he or she was speaking to me, and to me alone. I have been in the middle of singing a hymn only to realize that tears were flowing down my face because of the depth and beauty of a God who could love me in spite of my sinfulness. I have prayed at the altar after receiving communion and experienced even just a foretaste of what God’s kingdom is all about. But some of the most transformative and life-giving moments of my life have taken place when I least suspected them, in places far removed from the religious center of the church.
Being called by God into a new life is not something that applies only to clergy, nor is it something that happens exclusively in worship. We are all called in one way or another to live faithful lives for God’s kingdom, whether we are clergy or lay, teachers or students, engineers or musicians, writers or mathematicians. We are given incredible opportunities to respond to God’s calling in manifold ways in our daily lives by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by asking the hard questions that other people are afraid to mutter, by looking at the world through Christ’s perspective.
We are not abandoned and left alone. We see how God is really gracious toward us in the fact that God confronts us in his incredible holiness. The fact that God does not permit his people, the righteous, or the church to perish, means that He refuses to let us go our own way when we act and behave as if we were people who do not need to hear the Good News.
We stand on holy ground, here at church and out in the world, confronted by the Holy One, who searches deep into our souls and knows what we think, what we feel, and what we believe. God cannot allow us to wander off and be left to our own perspectives, but meets us in the ordinary, when we least expect it, and calls us by name: Moses, Moses; Taylor, Taylor, etc.
When God confronts you in the midst of life, how will you respond? Will you continue your journey and ignore the unexpected call? Or will you say, “Here I am”?