Silence Will Sustain Your Marriage – A Wedding Homily

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?”

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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.

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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.

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We Always Marry The Wrong Person – A Wedding Homily

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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From my perspective, which is to say the Pastor’s perspective, weddings are better when you really know the couple. Worshiping and celebrating together is always joyful and full of excitement when you’ve taken the time to get to know the people who are entering into the wedded covenant.

But when you know the couple as well as I know the two of you, it becomes that much harder.

What can I possibly say to the two of you that I have not already said before! I know the two of you too well to make the language of love and commitment intelligible because I cannot look at either of you with unbiased perspectives. I have memories of both of you stretching back so far that standing here before you, tasked with speaking the truth about what you are about to do, feels like an impossible assignment.

However, unlike so many weddings where you might hear the fluff about how love is all you need, I can be more vulnerable and honest with both of you, and everyone else here, because I’m actually going to see you again!

I told both of you months ago that regardless of whatever scripture you picked for your wedding, that I reserved the right to chose my own as well. This was not meant as a slight, I know you two know the scriptures well enough to pick a proper wedding text, but I also know both of you enough to what another scripture that gives light and life.

Luke 5.1-11

“Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

The Three-Fold is not quickly broken and Jesus Gone Fishing.

Jesus and fishing are like a match made in heaven, on earth. Throughout the New Testament people go fishing all the time and they never, ever, catch a single fish unless Jesus is with them. Fishing was so important to the early Christians not only as a way to survive, but they also carved out the sign of a fish in the secret catacombs to let fellow disciples know it was a place of worship.

It’s clear, at least in the witness of scripture, that Jesus liked fish: the first disciples were called after a night of fishing, Jesus fed the 5,000 with just a handful of fish, and Jesus first meal after the resurrection was broiled fish over a charcoal fire.

It’s only fitting that Forrest proposed to Katie while on a fishing trip. And, Jesus was definitely with you, because you actually caught her.

That’s when everyone’s supposed to say “Aww.”

And for as much as Jesus liked fish, and fish have become inextricably connected with the Christian faith, fishing has also become the de facto metaphor for romantic relationships. People say things like “You caught her” or “Don’t worry, you just need to work on your moves and maybe you’ll get a few bites” or “Of all the fish in the sea, I’m so glad you swam to me.”

We’re stuck with that language whether we like it or not. And the truth is, relationships, and in particular marriage, is much more like fishing than we give it credit for. However, it cannot be boiled down to a nice and cute and cliché Etsy print that you could hang on the wall.

The deep and profound truth of marriage is this: We always marry the wrong person.

Now, lest you two run away from me for saying something so heinous in the midst of your wedding, lest you scratch your heads as to how that relates to fishing… Let me explain.

So much of what the world tells us about marriage is destructively caught up in the lie that in marriage you will find happiness. I hope and pray that you two are happy in your marriage, but marriage itself is not indicative, or predictive, of happiness. We are told again and again that there is a soul mate for us out there, and that if we fish long enough we will find the “right” person.

We never really know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we marry the “right” person, just give it a little while and he or she will change.

Forrest, take a good look at Katie: Beautiful, intelligent, fierce. We both know that she loves you more than you love yourself. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing, she’s just deeply in love with you. But she’s not going to be like this forever. She’s not going to even be like this tomorrow. You, Forrest, are about to make a crazy promise – to love and share life with Katie knowing that you do not know how she is going to change.

And Katie, take a good look at Forrest. I know he’s as handsome as they come, but he’s not going to look like this forever. Sike, whom am I kidding, Forrest is going to look like he’s 18 forever! But really, he’s kind and committed and knows way too many random factoids that only make for good conversation when you meet strangers. He can tell you what state produces the highest number of toothpicks each year, and where are the best places to go urban fly fishing in the DC metro area. But he’s going to change. It is inescapable. And you, Katie, are about to make the same crazy promise – to love and share life with Forrest knowing that you do not know how he’s going to change.

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

Marriage is only made possible when you know who you are such that you are willing to enter into the mystery of the other with your whole self.

8 years ago the three of us traveled to Guatemala together. We spent the majority of our time in Chiquisis, a small and remote village in the Highlands. We slept on old bunk beds, and woke up every morning to coffee as thick as porridge before we went out to work on building our stoves. As the leader of the trip I got to pair everyone in work crews, and I chose to work with you Katie, and I sent Forrest to work with my sister Haley.

I remember about halfway through the week, when the exhaustion and routine was so strong that we were able to work for hours at a time without talking, I interrupted you while you were mixing concrete and I asked you a difficult question: “Why Forrest?”

And I will never forget how you didn’t even look up, or pause what you were doing to answer, “Because he makes me feel like me.”

4 years ago Forrest, you and I went fly-fishing by ourselves in the middle of nowhere Virginia. We hiked and hiked up and down along the banks of the creek, we fished for hours and hours, and we never even saw a single fish. And I remember about halfway through the day, when frustration and the routine was strong enough that we hadn’t said anything for a long time, I interrupted you in the middle of a cast with a difficult question: “Why Katie?”

And I will never forget how you kept casting when you answered, “Because when I’m with her, she makes me feel like me.”

   I feel like me.

It is in the knowledge of self that you two come to this place on this day with a strange and beautiful and bewildering promise. To me it is a sign of God’s abundant grace and mercy that you two found partners who make each of your feel more like yourselves. In a world where we decipher far too much of our identities based on the people around us, it was through your joining together that you somehow became more fully the individuals God has called you to be.

When Jesus called Simon Peter by the lakeshore, he called the wrong person. What kind of Messiah calls a fisherman, who catches zero fish, to be a fisher of people? Why choose the one who shouted, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner” to be the first disciple? Everything about Simon Peter was wrong. Jesus chose the wrong person.

            But that’s exactly what made it right.

Throughout the gospels Simon Peter becomes the disciple who responds to Jesus’ healing, teaching, and preaching. Simon Peter is the one who confesses Jesus as the Messiah first. Simon Peter is the one whom upon whom Christ would build his church.

Not because he was a good fisherman, not because he was gifted with leadership potential, not because of anything within himself.

Simon Peter becomes the person God called him to be because Jesus was with him! Only when Jesus was in the boat did the nets begin to break under the weight of the fish. Only when Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God was Peter able to say, “You are the Christ.” Only when Jesus handed Peter the bread and the wine at the table was he able to become the rock of the church.

    Jesus’ presence changes us.

Christ is the third part of the threefold cord that is not easily broken. Christ is the one sitting with us on the boats of life beckoning us to throw the nets over one more time. Christ is the Lord of impossible possibilities.

Peter was the wrong disciple, just like we marry the wrong person, because we don’t get to control the people we love. We are bound to them and they are bound to us in the sanctity of marriage in ways that remind us over and over again that only through profound witness of faith can something so incredible become manifest.

Only when Jesus is with us on the boat, can we hope to catch some fish.

Now, I want you two to take a look at all the people here. They, like Jesus, believe in impossible possibilities. They believe in you. They are here as a witness and a testament to the individual lives brought to this place on this day, and they are the promise made manifest to hold you to the impossible possibility of your marriage.

Now look at each other one more time. Deeply. I hope each of your know how tremendously blessed each of you are to have the person in front of you staring right back, this old friend who has shared so much of life with you, this absolute stranger who is becoming your marriage partner.

Now back to me! Your wedded life will be filled with mountains and valleys, with monsoons and droughts, with good fishing days and bad fishing days. But no matter what, keep tossing the net and keep casting your rods.

Know, deep in your bones, that the Lord is with you on the boat, that the threefold cord is not easily broken, and that you need not be afraid.

We always marry the wrong person, but that’s exactly what makes it right. Amen.

What Did Jesus Do? > What Would Jesus Do?

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat of this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

Years ago I was in Michigan helping a church out for a summer. The church was massive in size and in ministries. They had hundreds of people in worship every week and were deeply involved in their community.

I did my best to help in every area of the church, including worship and preaching. However, they had plans for everything, including who would be preaching on what every Sunday six months in advance. So some shuffling was done, and I, the faithful intern, was given an opportunity to preach.

It so happened that I would be preaching on the first Sunday of July, and there would be communion.

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As I said, this church had everything planned out. But not only the text, and the sermon subject – they had metrics and data for worship attendance going back ten years and they used this information to provide necessary items in the sanctuary. That had it so fine-tuned that they were able to print an accurate number of bulletins +/- 10, they knew how many parking attendant workers they would need, and finally, they knew how many pieces of bread would need to be pre-cut for communion.

Here at Cokesbury we serve by intinction, in which I tear off a piece of bread from a common loaf and offer it to every person in worship. But at that church, years ago, they pre-cut every slice of bread, and had them stacked in baskets for people to pick up on their way to the altar where the single cup could be found.

And so I preached, and we moved to the table, the elements were blessed, and then the congregation was invited forward. However, no one thought to augment the numbers of bread pieces, and, as the shiny new intern, more people came to hear me preach than they anticipated.

As the gathered people lined up in the center aisle and walked forward to receive the body and blood of Jesus, it was abundantly clear that we were going to run out of Jesus. So, when the last piece was picked out of the basket, I walked back up to the altar where the actual loaf we blessed was, I ripped in in half, and I started giving Jesus so people.

And while I was standing there one of the lay leaders from the church leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Are we even allowed to do this?”

Are we even allowed to do this?

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For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you. So Paul writes in his letter to the church in Corinth. I gave you what was given to me. That on the night in which Jesus was betrayed he took a loaf and he took a cup and he said do this in remembrance of me.

Memory is a funny thing. It connects us to the past, in both good ways and bad. We can all reflect on those positive moments from our lives, and we can also remember the visceral pain we have experienced.

We cannot escape our memories. Memory is everything.

Paul cherished the memory he received, but he was concerned with the Corinthians ability to remember how transforming the meal was for their community. Like counting the number of bread pieces to such a degree that they no longer gave life, the Corinthian church was partaking in the meal without remembering why.

On any given Sunday, or even a Thursday night, at best the church is called to remember. Remember what God did for God’s people. Remember Jesus’ words to his disciples. Remember how God has showed up in your life.

Remembering our memories is strange, particular in the time we are living in. Many families and groups are separated in ways impossible in the past – we are separated by geography, estrangement, or even through dementia. And because of all these weird divisions, the art of memory sharing is dying. Memory, however, is the glue that keeps us together, and without it we don’t know who we are.

I’ve had to do a lot of funerals as a pastor, and whenever a family and I sit down to discuss the arrangements; I will ask questions to get the conversation going. “What was your mother passionate about?” “What stories did your grandfather tell you about his childhood.” “What’s a the story about your wife that you’ve told the most?” “How did your husband pop the question?”

And then I will sit back and listen.

And throughout all of the funerals I’ve prepared, and all of the families I’ve listened to, there are two things that have happened every single time.

No matter what the person was like, or how old they were, or even where they lived, at some point some one in the room always says, “I never knew that.”

Children make the comment about one of their parents, a brother will make the comment about his sister, and I’ve even heard a wife make the comment about her husband.

Something is shared, a deeply personal and important memory, and someone’s response is “I never knew that.”

Either we don’t remember these important things, or the memory of them was never shared. It is always a troubling and difficult moment to process in my office in which someone realizes they didn’t know the person as well as they thought they did, and now it was too late to do anything about it.

In addition to the “I never knew that” comment, there is always a moment in which someone shares a funny story about the person we are about to bury, and 99% of the time, the story takes place around a dinner table.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is something mysterious about the dinner table. Perhaps it’s the one place where entire families gather together for a finite period of time, maybe it’s the sharing of food that compels us to share stories, or maybe it’s just the wine that get passed around. At the table memory is shared unlike anywhere else.

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As disciples of Jesus, we believe that whenever we gather at this table, or dare I say any table, Christ is with us breaking the bread and pouring the wine so that we too can be his body redeemed by his blood.

When we break bread, when we pass the cup, when we tell stories, we are connected with the signs and symbols that tell us who we are and whose we are. It is around the table the particularity of bread slices, or the shame in admitting “I never knew that,” disappear. Because at the table things begin to change.

At the table signs of memory are everywhere. In the water we remember our own baptisms, we remember the great stories of scripture where God’s people were delivered through water, we remember the living waters Jesus offers us. We see wedding bands are reminded of a couples’ promise, and God’s promise to us.

            At the table, all sorts of ordinary things become extraordinary.

We break bread, we share the cup, and we remember and retell the story of Jesus death, and resurrection. But it is more than just passing on a story – it is contemplating a mystery.

For years it has been fashionable in certain Christian circles to wear a bracelet with the acronym WWJD on them. WWJD of course meaning: What Would Jesus Do? It is used like a talisman, a final reminder of Jesus’ morality before we make a choice or a decision. And for as helpful as the WWJD reminder can be, it is also inherently problematic. It is problematic because, at the end of the day, we fundamentally can’t do what Jesus did, and that’s kind of the point.

We don’t gather to contemplate how Jesus would respond to a certain situation, we don’t wonder about what Jesus would do, instead we ask ourselves What Did Jesus Do?

Because that question, and the struggle to answer it, is at the heart of the mystery we call faith. This night, tomorrow night, Easter Sunday, every Sunday, they’re not about what we should do. It’s about what Christ did.

The Christian life is predicated on a story handed to us, a story about a poor Jewish rabbi named Jesus. It is Jesus’ story that re-narrates and re-navigates our story. We repeat it again and again and again because is not only reinforces our memory, but it also becomes a proclamation, it is a witness.

We do not gather here tonight for ourselves. We are here because at the table we discover God’s story for us, and not the other way around.

            So, what did Jesus do?

On his final night, while surrounded by his closest friends and disciples, one of whom who betray him and another would deny him, he took an ordinary loaf of bread. He gave thanks to God, and then he broke it. He looked at his friends and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he then took the cup, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Let us then remember…

Showing Up To Our Own Funerals

Joel 2.15-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, ‘Where is their God?’”

“By next week I want each of you to have your funeral sermon and bulletin figured out.” My peers and I exchanged strange looks before I raised my hand, “Funeral stuff for whom?” Our facilitator looked at us seriously and said, “You own funerals of course.”

I was in the middle of what we call CPE, clinical pastoral education. It can take place in many ways, but for me in meant serving a handful of 24 hour on-call shifts at Duke University hospital and spending every Monday for an Academic year gathering with a small group to process through the work of serving people near the end of life.

And it was on one such Monday when our facilitator informed us that we needed to create our own funeral services and bulletins.

To be frank: it was miserable. At first I kind of enjoyed thinking about the hymns and prayers I wanted to be used, but then I couldn’t help but imagine the actual people sitting in the pews while my urn, or coffin, rested at the front of the sanctuary. I found joy in flipping through the bible trying to pick one of my favorite verses for the funeral sermon, but then I started wondering who would be the one preaching, and if my life amounted to any profound theological reflection.

The longer I spent working on the assignment the more I hated it.

The following Monday we sat around our table, preparing to share our hypothetical funerals with one another when, thankfully, one of my peers raised what all of us were thinking. She looked at our facilitator and said, “I can’t understand why you would make us do this. It was cruel and frankly unchristian.” To which after giving it some thought he said, “Why do you think we get together every Ash Wednesday if not to think about our own funerals?”

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If we do this service right, all of us will be blessed. We will be blessed because we will get a taste of what the church is really for. In this service, in this time set apart, we will take upon the sins of the world (not by dying on a cross like Jesus) but through confessing our sins and the sins of others. We are here to do the thing that we should do everyday, but we often fail to until we come a little to close to death for comfort.

For it is in the wrestling with our mortality, we catch a glimpse of who we really are, and we wonder about what we could become, should we have just a little more time.

In the end, only God knows the degree to which each of us have participated in, or encouraged, or allowed some great evil to exist in this world. And it is for that reason God sent his Son to be crucified, to be killed. It is God’s judgment laid upon us, that God took away from us.

That, in a sense, is what the strange celebration of Ash Wednesday is all about. It is why we gather together when people from our community die. We, like the prophet Joel says, have been gathered together for a solemn assembly, to be sanctified, to weep if necessary, to call upon the Lord to do spare us, knowing what God did in Jesus Christ.

This is the day, the one day, when we can faithfully admit that we deserved, and still deserve, to be judged. Yet, at the same time, we proclaim that God did not abandon us.

            This is the day that we show up to our own funerals.

Ash Wednesday is time set apart from the regular movement of church time, it is time interrupted, to confront the stark truth: no one makes it out of this life alive. Regardless of every commercial product promising to make you look, feel, and act younger – the bell will toll for us all.

Everything we do here right now, we do in the presence of ashes; these ashes force us, compel us, to speak of death before death in a world where death is denied.

Years ago I was standing by the entrance of the preschool at the church I was serving, greeting all of the children and their parents/caretakers as they arrived for another day of school. I knew every child’s name and their favorite food, color, and television show. I knew more about each parent walking into the building than they ever could’ve imagined, because the kids were like faucets you couldn’t turn off when the doors closed, and they weren’t old enough to know that some things are meant to be kept a secret.

And on that particular day, one of the moms ushered her daughter down the hallway, and made a motion to me that said, “we need to talk.” I, of course, was worried that I was about to get lectured about teaching too many of the strange stories from the bible to the kids, but instead she asked for my help. In less than a minute she told me that her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, had died the night before after being sick for a few weeks, and she wanted me to tell the child that her father was dead. And with a solitary tear streaking down her cheek, she turned around and left the building.

I got nothing done that morning as I retreated to my office and frantically prepared to devastate a four year old girl with news no one wants to here. I thought about analogies and metaphors that might soften the blow, I even contemplated going to the library to find a children’s book on grief, but time ran out, and I had to do something before the day ended.

And so I marched down toward the preschool, sat down at the table with the kids, and asked to speak to the girl in the hallway. I sat down on the floor with her and I spent a couple awkward moments trying to work up the courage to begin, when she asked, “Did my Daddy die?”

Not knowing quite what to say, I just simply nodded, and then she said with maturity beyond her years, “That’s okay. So did Grandma, so did our old neighbor. Everyone dies. Even Jesus died. But he died so that we could be together again right?”

“Right.” I said. And much like her mother, she turned around and went back in the room to play with her friends.

Everyone dies. There’s no way around it. No pill, no procedure, no product can stop it forever. And because no one makes it out of this life alive, we grieve. We weep and wail. We raised our clenched fists in the air and shout, “Where are you God?”

And then we remember the theological wisdom of a four year old; God has answered that question. God answers in Jesus being born like us and among us. God answers in the ashes smeared on our foreheads. God answers in the community of faith that carries us through the gravity of our grief. God answers in the words of scripture, and in the words of prayer. God answers in the truth that we’d rather avoid: We are dust and to dust shall return.

But, thanks be to God, dust is not the end. Amen.

A One Hundred and Fifty-Fold Cord

4 years ago, today, I presided over one of my first weddings, and it was for my sister and my (now) brother-in law. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more nervous leading worship than I was that day (so nervous that I forgot to invite my then fiancé (now wife) to offering one of the scripture readings), but we all made it through to the other side. I am grateful for my sister and her husband, I am grateful they asked me to participate in their holy ceremony, and I am grateful that God has so blessed their marriage. Below is the homily I offered 4 years ago…

1 John 4.9-12

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us to much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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28 years. 28 years ago my parents, JT and Sarah Lynn Mertins, stood in the same position as both of you. Haley, I don’t know if you will remember all of this, but we used to watch their wedding VHS tape when we were growing up. Truly I tell you, it is a miracle that the wedding ceremony happened at all. When we would watch the tape, it appeared as if the cameraman had decided to smother vaseline all over the lens in order to achieve some sort of effect that left the viewers nauseous and confused. As my Aunt Laura made her way up the steps toward the altar she stepped on, and ripped, her dress. My uncle Bill Hanff and a friend stood over by piano the prepared to sing a wonderful rendition of “On the Wings of Love” though the pianist started the song in the wrong key and uncle Bill had to match accordingly. And then there was the hair and the dresses. There must have been enough hair spray in this church to light the whole thing on fire, but somehow, by the grace of God, our mother and father were married on this exact day 28 years ago.

And here we are now, ready for the two of you to enter into the holy state of matrimony. As I have looked back over the totality of your relationship, and all of the little steps that led you to this altar on this day, I am convinced that I will never marry a couple that I know as well as both of you for the rest of my life. So before I continue I want to show you something.

(Turn around, look out at the sanctuary. Gathered together in this room are the people who have made you, you. Family, friends, both the foolish and the fun, but more importantly, when you look out I hope you see faith. So soak up this view for a moment, you rarely get to see anything as glorious as this)

Faith, the people gathered together today are indicative of the kind of faith-lives that both of you are living. Everyone here has faith in both of you as individuals, and also as the married couple you are about to become. They have been there for you in every aspect of your lives, and today two families are joining together as a testament to the faith that you have in each other. They say a threefold cord in not quickly broken? Well neither is a one hundred and fifty fold cord.

However, for as much as everyone gathered together in this room are responsible for your relationship, no one can take more credit than God.

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When I found out that Matthew was moving to Africa for a year, I knew that the only thing that would be able to sustain your relationship was a resounding faith in the triune God. I know it wasn’t easy. Even with the notebook Matthew left behind, even with the commitment to read through the entire bible while you were apart, even with the advantages of technological communications such as Skype and email, you would not be standing here today unless you had tremendous faith in God, but more importably God has faith in you.

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One of the things that I love most about you two is that, even with all the planning and the suits and dresses and decorations, today will not be the greatest day of your lives. Both of you strive to discover all of the joy in life and share it with one another. You earnestly love the lives that God has given to you, and you hope to share that love with everyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. Thats what it means when we say, “If we love one another, God lives in us.” The two of you have made a commitment to loving one another so that God abides and manifests himself in the world.

Matthew Logan, I have waited 23 years for a brother, and today I’m finally getting one! You are a remarkable man with compassion, faith, and hope. I have been privileged to watch you grow up, in a way, I’ve seen the way that you create and nurture friendships, I’ve seen the way that you have selflessly served others, and I have seen the many ways that you have committed yourself to my sister. Marriage will not be easy. There will be mornings that you wake up and wonder how such a beautiful woman can drive you so crazy. There will come a time when all the love that Haley can give you will not be enough, but you will never be alone. Beyond the multitudes that have gathered here today, God almighty is with you in all that you do. As a husband, literally, you have been called to love Haley with all that you are, live into the life that God is calling you toward, and to have your relationship shine as a beacon of hope and love to all the world. I have nothing but profound respect, enduring faith, and unending love for you, my brother.

Haley Lynn, precious sister of mine, you are a beautiful woman who has truly come into her own. I have been privileged to watch you mature into your truest self as you now prepare to enter into marriage with Matthew. I love how your willingness to serve others is so central for understanding who you are and what you do. Whether its helping out your students at school, or volunteering your time and energy for church, or helping your idiot brother match his clothing when we were in high school, serving and loving others is what you do. What a blessing you are to all of us, and what a blessing you will be to all the lives you touch in the future. Marriage will not be easy. There will be mornings when you wake up and wonder how such a funny man can drive you so crazy. There will come a time when all the love that Matthew can give you will not be enough, but you will never be alone. Your family, your friends, and your father in heaven are with you in all that you do. As a wife, you have been called to love Matthew with all that you are, to live into the life that God is calling you toward, and to have your relationship shine a beacon of hope and love to all the world. I have nothing but immeasurable respect, enduring hope, and unending love for you, my sister.

Matthew and Haley, God’s love was revealed to all of us through the incarnation in Jesus Christ. In his willingness to take on human flesh, God humbled himself to be just like us, in order to help transform us. God did not mount the hard wood of the cross because we loved him, but instead he came to die and live because he first loved us. Above all things, your marriage should, and will be, a testament to God’s love in the world through the redemptive acts in our Lord Jesus Christ.

In giving yourselves to each other, you are mirroring that great act of God coming to be with us.

And so, as you prepare to take these first steps into wedded life, I call both of you to hold fast to the people that love and support your relationship, hold fast to the faith and hope that you have in one another, but most importantly, hold fast to the good God whose joy knows no bounds, whose grace extends beyond our imaginations, and whose love was made known to all of us in the gift of his Son.

The Mystery of Marriage – A Wedding Homily

1 Corinthians 13.1-3

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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Marriage is a mystery. However, I am an expert. I am an expert because I am a pastor and I’m supposed to be an expert in these types of matters. When a family has a baby and they don’t know quite what to do when the baby becomes a toddler and starts talking back, the family brings the child to church in hopes that someone like me will teach them how to behave properly. Or when a family loses someone they love, they will have a funeral at a church in hopes that someone like me can use words to make sense out of such a terrible loss. Or when a couple is finally ready, and for you two I really mean the words “finally ready”, to take that next step into holy matrimony they start talking with a pastor in order to figure out what marriage is all about.

But all three of those things: life, death, marriage – they are the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in this world.

I don’t understand why people get married. And I say that as a happily married man. To get all these people together, to make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of love and commitment, to look someone in the eye and promise to love and to cherish them the rest of the days of your life is a strange and mysterious thing.

Brianna, I have no memory of my life without you in it. In fact some of my earliest memories are of your remarkably curly hair and wondering what might happen if I stuck a toy in it. I’ve been your friend for every major moment of your life, and frankly I consider myself more of your brother than a friend. I know you well enough to know that you are spectacular and funny and kind and dedicated. I know that there have been, are, and will be times when you know better what to do than anyone in the room. And you’re not afraid to let everyone know that you know. I know that you can be the most extraverted or the most introverted person in the room. And I know that you can throw one hell of a party.

But for as much as I think I’ve got you figured out, and even for as much as you might convince yourself that you know who you are: You are a mystery.

And Alex, I haven’t known you nearly as long as Brianna. But she hasn’t stopped talking about you since the day you met and she has basically forced me to ingest all of this knowledge about the one and only Alex Chatfield. I know that you can provide for other people in a way that will never stop, no matter the consequences. I know that your sense of values and morality are better than most of the Christians I know. And as you so eloquently put it recently, I too know that you’re pretty damn good-looking.

But for as much as I think I’ve figured you out, and even for as much as you think you know who you are: You are a mystery.

Which makes it all the weirder that the two of you are standing here on this occasion making a covenant toward the unknown.

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Now, all of us here can affirm that two are better than one. We know that from our experiences of life. And we know it because the writer of Ecclesiastes talks about it. It’s nice to have someone that can pick you up when you fall down. It’s good to have someone keep you warm when you’re cold. But the last line is the most important: A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Three. Not Two.

The mystery that is marriage is made manageable and magnificent by God. Only God knows who the two of you really are, only God knows what it will take to make your relationship what it needs to be, only God can provide the strength and hope necessary for what you two are about to do.

One of the greatest mysteries in the church is what we call the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Somehow, the three-in-one plurality in unity is what God is. We cannot see it, we cannot touch it, we cannot even understand it. And yet God is. The Trinity, like marriage, is a mystery.

God made the two of you into who you are. God is the one responsible for your quirks and idiosyncrasies. God is the one who ultimately brought your lives into tandem. And God is the one who is going to bless your marriage, who will be the third part of your cord; who will reveal to you what love really means.

Brianna, you once told me that you wanted to be committed to someone who wanted to be committed to you. In other words, you wanted to find a partner.

            Alex, you once told me that you wanted to find someone with whom you could speak the truth in love, even when it was the hardest thing to do.

Your relationship with one another has had its mountaintop moments of joy, and its deep valleys of challenge. From meeting at Webster Hall, to taking care of one another when you both had the Neuro Virus, to sleeping through meeting your future-father-in-law for the first time, to countless parties, vacations, and celebrations.

You’ve seen one another at your best, and at your worst. And with that full knowledge, you believe the time has come to make this holy vow to one another.

I believe both of you are right. And all the people here do too. That’s why they’re here after all. They were willing to travel to this place and listen to someone like me because they believe the two of you have found a partner in one another.

            All of us here are a testament to the love you two share.

And your love, thanks be to God, is deeper and truer than the Hallmark/Lifetime channel version of love we hear about all the time. Both of you know that you could have the greatest job or the greatest car, that you could have all wisdom and all knowledge, that you could have the kind of faith that could move mountains, but without love you would be nothing.

Love, the kind of love that will sustain your marriage, holy love, is Godly love. It is a love unlike anything else on this earth. It is beyond definition and explanation. It is deeper than the deepest ocean, and greater than the tallest mountain. It is sacrifice and resolution. It is compromise and dedication. The love that God has for you is the kind of love you are promising to one another and it is a mystery.

It is only something you can figure out while you’re figuring it out.

We never really know whom we marry; we just think we do. Who you are today will be different tomorrow. As the days, weeks, months, and year pass each of you will become someone new and different. And marriage, being the enormous mystery that it is, means that we are not the same person after we have entered it. The challenge of your marriage, of any marriage really, is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

A few weeks ago the three of us talked about what you wanted your wedding to look like. You both shared how you wanted everyone to feel like they were part of the celebration, you wanted great music and lots of laughter, and above all you wanted your friends and family to recognize how we are all connected.

Through his ministry Jesus was often asked about the kingdom of heaven, and do you know what he compared it to the most? A wedding feast; a party, a time of celebration with great music and laughter, where all sorts of people recognize how connected they really are.

So, whether you knew it or not, your wedding is just about as close as any of us will ever get to having heaven on earth. For it is here, at your wedding, as we party together, that we see and feel the love that God first had for us. Here, in the promises and covenant you make with one another, all of us will be reminded of God’s promise to us in Christ that without love, we are nothing.

Brianna and Alex, I would like you to look one another in the eye for a moment. Bask in the strange, mysterious, and wonderful reality that you are about to take steps into the unknown. Rejoice in the fact that as you see one another, you can also catch glimpses of everyone else here who have promised to help sustain you in your relationship. Between them and God, you two have the best cord anyone could ever ask for. Between these people and God, you will have everything you need to care and love for the stranger you are staring at right now.

May God bless and sustain you in the mystery that will be your marriage, may God give you the strength and the wisdom of how to party like Jesus, and may God provide you with a holy love that will never be broken. Amen.

Devotional – Ezekiel 27.1-2

Devotional:

Ezekiel 37.1-2

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

Weekly Devotional Image

I love challenging couples to pick their own wedding scripture beyond the cliché of 1 Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, love is kind…). In between premarital counseling sessions, I ask them to dive deep into their bibles in order to final a passage or a verse that really speaks to them, and I have been deeply impressed with the scriptures they’ve picked. I’ve been blessed to bring couples together into holy marriage with the stories of David being anointed by Samuel, Paul’s description of what it means to be a Christian, a prayer to the church in Ephesus, and more.

The scripture passage a couple chooses for their wedding says a lot about what their relationship is like, and what their marriage will be like.

Years ago, two of my friends from Durham were married at a local Presbyterian church that was known for the preaching of the pastor. To start the wedding homily, the pastor described the sanctity of marriage and what it means for two individuals to make this covenant, but then he began shaking his head and said, “You know that these two standing before us are devoutly faithful, because when I asked them to choose their wedding scripture, they picked the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel.”

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I can remember sitting with my back against the pew and wondering what in the world he was going to do with the text. The valley of the dry bones is a remarkably beautiful passage, but it doesn’t naturally lend itself to a wedding sermon.

So the pastor continued on with bits of wisdom and advice, he shared stories about successful marriages and what to emulate as well as terrible marriages and what to avoid. But for the better part of ten minutes, he completely avoided the Ezekiel passage. And then, out of nowhere, the Spirit start blowing and he said, “James and Jennifer, I think you two can have a good marriage, but if you think that you can do it without the help of your friends, family, and the Lord, it will never be more than a dry valley filled with old bones. Only your friends, family, and the Lord can breathe the Spirit back into those bones and give them life.”

It was a simple sermonic twist, but it’s one that I think everyone it attendance will never forget.

What does your life look like? Is it filled with vibrancy and energy? Do you feel the Spirit moving in your midst? Or is your life like a deep valley filled with dry bones?

Thanks be to God who calls us into relationship with the Spirit, with our friends, and with our families who can breathe life into the dry bones of our lives.