This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Amos 7.7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1.1-14, Luke 10.25-37). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including professional segues, We Own This City, low anthropology, the parable of the plumb line, false modesty, wickedness, comfort, grace, worthy living, holy friendships, and promises. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Necessity of Judgment
Grace and peace to each of you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Taylor Mertins and, like Jon and Randy, I am a pastor and I serve Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke, VA.
But I grew up in this church, and Tyler was one of my oldest friends.
I am someone who works in the world of words, and I must confess that preparing these words was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I have 1,001 stories I could tell about Tyler, many of which would not be appropriate to tell in church, and that’s saying something coming from a pastor.
I met Tyler for the first time at my 6th birthday party. My mother had received word that a new family had moved in around the block and she informed me that a boy I never met would be coming to my party because what better way could a child be introduced to a neighborhood.
Let me tell you, that’s an incredible way to parent.
Anyway, I vividly remember this dark haired boy with a cast from his shoulder to his wrist jumping on the bounce house and using his cast to push all the other kids around.
We were fast friends.
There’s a ten year period of my life where I can’t really remember doing anything without Tyler being involved somehow. Our families went on vacation together every year, our first sleepovers were at each others houses, we were together all the time.
Our mothers will tell this story that, one time, they brought all us kids over to Collingwood park and while they stood by the playground with our younger siblings, Tyler and I were running around in the field. And all seemed well, until they really looked at us and they realized we were beating the hell out of each other. So they rushed out into the field and pulled us apart, and the next day were were playing together again.
That is to say: I always felt like Tyler was more of a brother than a friend.
Another confession – during that same ten year period, if I ever got in trouble and some concerned adult asked for my name and my parents name, I never hesitated to say “My name is Tyler Gray, and my parents are Larry and Janet Gray.”
Tyler got in plenty of enough trouble on his own, but Larry and Janet, you probably received at least a few phone calls that were about me and not Tyler.
There are things we did in life that I know we did only because the other one did it. Tyler and I were in cub scouts together and we came to this church for a time on Sunday afternoons to earn our God and Me badge, we went through confirmation together and knelt at this altar in order to respond to God’s grace and mercy, both of which I am sure Tyler did because I did it.
Similarly, Tyler enrolled in German when we were in high school just as I did, and I know for a fact that Tyler never learned a single word. I know he learned nothing because I helped him cheat on every single test and even when he was called upon to stand and respond to our teacher’s questions Auf Deutsch, I would whisper the answer to him and he always answered with a smile on his face.
And it went both ways; I am sure that I signed up to play Ft. Hunt baseball, basketball, and lacrosse because Tyler did. I listened to a lot of punk music in middle school only because Tyler talked about it all the time. I even used to wake up early every morning before school so that I could ride my bike to the Gray’s house and then walk up the hill to ride the bus with Ty.
I wanted to spend as much time with him as I possibly could.
Because I loved him, and he loved me.
The latter part of high school was rough for Tyler and he went through a lot. So much so that there was a time that we didn’t speak to one another. But when we finally reconnected, one of the first things he told me was that he met a girl on the ski trip.
Sure you did, I thought.
But then he kept talking about Laura, and spent time with Laura, and Tyler started to change, for the better. He became a version of himself that I think he always wanted. In you he found himself. You were the light in his darkness. Your marriage and your girls are a testament to who Tyler became.
He loved you, and you loved him. What a gift.
Larry, Janet, Corey, B, Lauren – you loved Tyler too. You loved the hell out of him. You were patient with him, you were forgiving, you were present.
And he loved you.
No family is perfect, just as no marriage is perfect and no friendship is perfect. But you were all for Tyler in a way that he needed.
There’s this bit right smack dab in the middle of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that, for me, I can’t read without thinking about Tyler. Paul has been riffing on the wonders of God’s love and it crescendos up to this remarkable declaration: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What makes such a statement so profound is the fact that all those things are constantly trying to separate us from one another and from God. Life, at times, is a seemingly endless battle between where we are and where we should be or want to be and, no matter what we do, we can’t get there. And then Paul shouts through the centuries, rattling our souls, with the reminder that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more, or any less. Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
And yet, the pain of life can sting like nothing else.
None of us will ever know or understand what happened on Sunday. But today is Good Friday, and if you’ve ever spent time in church you’ll know there really isn’t anything good about today. Churches across the world will gather to worship the King of kings who rules from the arms of the cross. Today is the day we remember Christ’s death.
And, notably, in two of the Gospel accounts Jesus’ final words are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The incarnate One cries out with his final breaths feeling completely alone, isolated, and abandoned. The Messiah meets his end feeling like he has nothing left.
We will never know what Tyler felt, but Christ does.
And even in death, Jesus isn’t forsaken.
In three days God gives him back to us.
The promise of Easter is that, one day, we will all feast at the supper of the Lamb with Tyler. We will gather at the table anew when there will be no mourning and no crying.
But that day is not today. Today we weep and we mourn because Tyler is gone.
Sometimes, I fear, we’re too noisy around people who are suffering, trying to make things okay with our words. Nothing will make this okay. What we do need is presence, we need one another.
So it is my prayer that, in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead that we hold tight to each other. That we give thanks to the Lord who gave Tyler to us. Amen.
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Tell me about your last fight.
That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.
There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything.
There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.
But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”
To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”
I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.
And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”
Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.
Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.
Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.
Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.
And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.
This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One.
I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.
And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.
We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.
And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.
And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.
So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.
Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.
Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?
When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…
I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little twinge of vulnerability.
I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.
And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.
However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.
The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!
In the end, that’s Advent.
More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.
Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.
That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me.
Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents.
Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.
Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!
Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.
Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.
This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.
I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!
In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. 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.
In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.
And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.
But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.
And that’s a big if.
But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.
And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!
That’s wild stuff.
It’s what we call grace.
Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.
God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.
Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.
That’s not just great news, its Good News!
Happy New Year! Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-14a, Psalm 89.20-37, Ephesians 2.11-22, Mark 6.30-34, 53-56). Our conversation covers a range of topics including sabbath scriptures, God’s presence, corporate worship, confronting control, the faith that moves, profound peace, crazy covenants, Taize tales, Jesus’ friends, and compassion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Temptation of Domestication
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and bide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no name town and decided to pop in.
It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the short order cook. While Craddock sat at the count, making his way through some soggy eggs and very strong coffee, a black man entered the diner, sat down at a nearby stool, and ordered an asked for a coffee. The cook promptly turn around, looked at the man in the face, and said, “Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind.”
The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while point over toward Craddock. The cook remained firm and pointed at the door, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!”
And with that, the black man sighed and slowly removed himself form the stool and the diner.
Craddock continued to sit at the counter, he finished his meal, paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.
This is where I pause for a moment.
Did any of you feel any chills at the conclusion of the story? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the narrative and it’s enduring reminder about racism in this country, but for some of you this story will hit even harder. It will hit harder because it connects, deeply, with the strange new world of the Bible.
Fred Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism, bigotry, and belittling that happened a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before the crucifixion.
The story of Craddock’s experience becomes power particularly in light of its biblical connections. For, had Craddock been unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance and drove away without giving the whole thing a second thought.
But Craddock knew his Bible, he knew his Bible because he was one of the most important preachers of the second half of the 20th century and eventually became a teacher of preachers.
And when he heard that rooster all those years ago, it changed his life forever.
I read that story of Craddock’s for the first time in a collection of his sermons years and years ago and the story has always stuck with me.
Which makes me wonder: Can any of you remember any particular sermons?
Pause for a moment, if you don’t mind, and try. See if you can recall a particular phrase or story or major point. And, should it prove helpful, you can literally pause the audio or the video feed if it helps. Which, frankly, is not something I ever thought I would ever say in a sermon.
Can you remember a particular sermon?
More often than not we tell stories, or preachers preach sermon, in order that they might be remembered. Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke Divinity, believes that sermons and stories should actually function differently: She makes the case that a successful story, and a successful sermon, is one that isn’t remembered.
Sounds a little strange doesn’t it?
I mean, I’ve stood in this pulpit nearly every Sunday for the last four years in hopes that you all might actually remember at least some of what I’ve said. But, to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember much of what I said last Sunday!
Perhaps Dr. Davis is right – the best sermons are forgettable. They are the best because part of the Christian journey is showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear the Good News because it is the story that makes us who we are. We listen to it again and again because there are countless other narratives vying for our allegiances, but this story, the Gospel, the Good News, is the one that is the difference that makes all the difference.
And yet, there are some things we receive, from the pulpit or all sorts of other places, that do stay with us and reknit us into who we can be.
That’s what happened to Craddock. Somehow, someway, the story of Peter and the rooster from the Gospels stuck with him such that he could recognize something profound in his own life.
God, in a sense, worked through a story to speak a truth about Craddock that he needed to hear.
When Jesus gathered with his friends for their final evening before the crucifixion they shared bread and wine, Jesus washed their feet, and he left them with parting thoughts about what it would all look like on the other side.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. I’ve said all of this to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And you are my friends.”
Jesus calls the disciples, us, his friends?
It’s one thing to sing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” but it’s another thing entirely to think “what a friend Jesus has in us.”
The friends around the table that night with the Lord will shortly deny him, betray him, and abandon him.
In our own lives, like Craddock, we regularly fail to see the Jesus in one another as we constantly deny the value/worth of other people, we chose to look out for ourselves far more than we do for other people, and when all is said and done we’re far more content knowing Jesus is our friend than trying to imagine ourselves as Jesus’ friends.
The words we hear in one time and place can take on an entirely different meaning if we receive them in another time and place.
Imagine the times you’ve heard a friend remark, “It’s so good to see you.” We can easily brush that aside because we’ve heard those words countless time before. But now imagine getting to see a friend having not seen them throughout the entirety of the pandemic and they greet you with, “It’s so good to see you.”
It becomes something all together different.
Or think of Craddock – He probably heard, read, and even preached the story of Peter’s denial many many times, but it was only when he was in the diner that the words became real.
Consider those first disciples – on their final evening with Jesus, he calls them his friends. Maybe that meant a lot to them at the time, but chances are that it didn’t. It didn’t because within 24 hours Jesus was hanging on the cross.
But then consider the disciples cowering in the upper room on the evening of Easter when the resurrected Jesus returns to those so-called friends and offer them a word of peace.
“I have called you friends” takes on a whole new meaning.
In another part of scripture, Abraham is called a friend of God. That might not seem like much, but the friendship between Abraham and the Lord was made manifest in a bizarre and confounding set of dynamic moments.
Abraham is a content octogenarian who is told to leave the comforts of him behind in order to become a stranger in a strange land, he is told that he will become a father in the twilight of his life, he is told to sacrifice his son, the one he loves, all because of his friendship with the divine.
It’s all too easy to water down the faith into being a call to just love one another a little bit more. But that’s not what faith is about. Sure, we have to love one another, that’s literally what Jesus says to the disciples before and after he calls them his friends. It’s not a question of where or not we love, but whether or not we love rightly.
We, the church, exist to welcome all people with love. But that love usually looks like a bunch of judgments. We talk about one another behind each others backs, we make assumptions that really have no basis in reality, and we are far too content to let whatever those relationships look like remain within the realm of Sundays and never to be found Monday through Saturday.
We, however, can know what real love and real friendship looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Love, to put it bluntly, is cruciform.
Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life, being betrayed, and then returning to the betrayers and calling them friends.
“I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard form my Father.” In other words: friends of Jesus are those who share in the remarkable knowledge of what God is doing in the world.
And what is God doing?
God is intimately involved in the creation of a community predicated on a cruciform love, a love that really embraces everyone. A friend of God has this love and offers it toward other and it is not easy – it comes at a cost.
The world is not prepared for this kind of love and, more often than not, it will reject this love just as it rejected Jesus. Jesus, to use his own words, shows ultimate love by laying down his life for his friends, his friends who did not to deserve that title in the first place.
Jesus did that for us.
Chances are, you won’t remember this sermon. Frankly, neither will I. Our brains can hardly handle all of the information that we consume on a regular basis. But, at the very least, I hope we all rest in the somewhat discomforting knowledge that Jesus has called us his friends.
And I’ll end with the enduring words of Randy Newman:
“And as the years go by / Our friendship will never die / You’re gonna see its our destiny / You’ve got a friend in me.” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2.19-25, John 10.1-10). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christian friendship, sharing in the kingdom, extravagant generosity, restful places, The Art of Dying Well, Jesus as the door, and abundant life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Am My Own Worst Enemy
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jim Moore about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Our conversation covers a range of topics including internet friendships, counting people for the Lord, the burden of purpose, eucharistic time, miry bogs, divine requirements, call stories, acting like we believe what we say, and being surprised by Sunday. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Instant Pot Faith
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including loving and loathing the pastoral vocation, preaching better sermons, dust and ashes, leaning toward mystery, the use of dissonance, tasting the Lord, TV trays vs. tables, Jesus as the perfect permanent priest, and believing without seeing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Ain’t Your Friend
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.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
On Saturday evening I will stand in front of Alex Chatfield and Brianna Gays in order to join them together in what we call “holy matrimony.” Months of planning will come to fruition in their wedding vows as they stare lovingly and longingly into one another’s eyes in front of friends, family, and the Lord. And I will have the best seat in the house (though I won’t be sitting and it won’t be inside) because I have the privilege of asking for God’s help to bless and sustain their marriage.
I have known Brianna longer than just about anyone else in my life. Her father and my father went to high school together and Brianna and I were basically raised as siblings. When she was on the homecoming court at a different High School (my school’s rival), I went to support her. When I was ordained, her family was there to worship with the entire Annual Conference. Countless birthday parties, and gatherings, and family vacations have solidified a friendship that really makes us feel like brother and sister.
And on Saturday I get to challenge and charge her with a task far greater than anything she has experienced up to this point in her life; I will require and charge her (and Alex) to love one another knowing full and well that they are each marrying the wrong person.
Now to be clear: they are not marrying the wrong person because there’s something wrong with their relationship. They are each marrying the wrong person because they (and we) never really know another person in such a way that we can call a marriage “right.” They will promise to love and to cherish one another without knowing what their lives will look like in five years, or even what they will look like in five years. And they will do all of this under the auspices of “love.”
But what is love? Or, at the very least, what is the kind of love that sustains something like a marriage? Is love about attraction and aesthetics? Is love about commitment and loyalty? What is love?
Love, like marriage, is a mystery.
Paul writes a lot about love, and more often than not the “love” Paul talks about has nothing to do with the Hallmark version of love that most of us are familiar with. Love, according to Paul, does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, according to Paul, is the fulfilling of the law.
What Alex and Brianna will promise to one another on Saturday night is really no different than what all Christians promise one another. As Christians we make covenants (through baptism) to love one another knowing full and well that we don’t really know one another.
And I believe that Alex and Brianna can, and will, do so faithfully, just as Christians can, not because of any power on their own part, but because God empowers them and us to do some wonderful and strange and remarkable things in this life; like getting married, like having lasting friendship, and like doing no wrong to our neighbors.