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.

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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.

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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.

The End Of The Beginning – Ash Wednesday

Genesis 3.19

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

If you’re here in this place, with these people, on this occasion right now, you are blessed. You are blessed because you understand, you grasp, what the church is really all about. We are a people called church, who follow Jesus and take upon ourselves the sins of the world.

However, we don’t take upon the sins of the world in the way Jesus did. We are told to take up our own crosses, but we don’t drag them up to a place called The Skull, and we don’t wait for people to nail us to them. We take upon the sins of the world in confession, a confession that God is our judge and has every right to be. Because we have failed to be the people God has called us to be over and over and over again.

The United Methodist Church has a document to help us whenever we gather together. The Book of Worship outlines the ways to serve the Lord for just about every occasion, including funerals.

The Service of Committal is brief and is reserved for the graveside. And in our Book of Worship you can find these directions for clergy: “Stand at the head of the coffin and while facing it, cast earth upon it as it is lowered into the grave. The pastor then says, ‘Almighty God, into your hands we commend your son/daughter, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. This body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”

The last time I did a graveside burial, I held the Book of Worship in my hands like I’ve done too many times before, I read the all too familiar words, and when it came time to cast dirt upon the coffin, I couldn’t find any. I frantically looked at the area around the hole, and they had covered it with a frighteningly sharp bright green carpet of AstroTurf. So I bent down in my robe onto my knees, and I started ripping up the perfectly manicured grass on the edge of the fabricated lawn. I needed some dirt. I needed to dirty this pristine and picturesque committal service because death is ugly and disruptive. I clawed the ground and threw the grass to the side until I scraped enough bare earth with my hands to have a solid mound to drop onto the coffin.

It was a holy thing.

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I took my dirt covered hands and placed them on the coffin, I prayed the words from the Book of Worship, and then I slowly walked away giving the family time to grieve before leaving. And just as I began backing away, the funeral director motioned for the pall bearers to come forward. But they did not bend down to the hole in the ground I had just revealed. No, they took roses, the boutonnieres, from their lapels and laid them silently on the recently dirt covered coffin.

It is, of course, much nicer to throw roses than dirt. But like almost everything in the tradition of the church regarding worship, the dirt has important theological significance.

I wound venture to guess that many Christians, though they hear the words about ashes to ashes and dust to dust at funerals and at Ash Wednesday services, they have no idea where those words come from. But you do. You know where they come from because you just heard it. It is the final announcement from God to Adam and Eve as they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

            For us humans, this is the end of the beginning.

Much has been made about the Genesis story of eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. The slithering serpent who manipulates Eve’s desire; Eve’s treachery through inviting Adam to join her in the prohibited act; Adam hiding his shame and nakedness from God when the Lord returns to the Garden. And its all pretty harsh.

By this act sin was brought into the world. Because of our ancestors’ choice, we were banished from the paradise of God’s created order and were punished. Women must suffer through childbirth. Humans must work and sweat over the earth in order to glean enough produce to survive. Families are torn apart by an individual’s choice that has ramifications far greater than they can ever imagine.

And then we come to a place like this to have ashes smeared across our foreheads in an effort to remember what happened long ago, and what will happen to all of us one day.

We will die.

But we’re content with spending the rest of our days prettying everything that we can. We bring roses to place on the coffins at graveyards. Politicians bump up statistics to make things appear better than the actually are. We do our best to cover our scars, both physical and emotional, as if they were never there. And some churches spend Ash Wednesday not in sanctuaries confessing their sins with their brothers and sisters in faith, but in their parking lots presenting “Ashes to God with a cup of Joe.”

We would rather cover the harsh realities of truth than look at them in the eye.

God’s pronouncement to Adam and Eve, that terrifying moment when they were expelled and told that they will suffer until they return to the ground, that strange and all too familiar expression you are dust and to dust you shall return, they strike fear in the hearts of us mortals.

Sometimes its good to be afraid because it reminds us what a tremendous blessing it is to be alive at all. Sometimes its good to get down on our knees and confess our sins before the Lord because it reminds us that we are not God. And sometimes we need to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror on Ash Wednesday to remember who we are, and whose we are.

This day, this Ash Wednesday, is a moment for us to confess our sins, and for all the sins of the people who are not here. We bow our heads and are adorned with a sign of death, not just as a reminder to us and to others that we will die, but that God will not let death be the final Word.

And here is the hope, my brothers and sisters, the hope we need on a day like today. We know how the story ends. We know that the pronouncement at the edge of the Garden was not the final word. We know the final word is not suffering, nor death, nor dirt, nor even dust. We know that the final Word is Jesus Christ.

The ashes that will soon be on our skin are not our crosses to bear, but Christ’s who carried it to The Skull and was nailed to it for the world. Jesus Christ is God’s greatest and final Word because in him the fullness of the Lord was pleased to dwell. In Him the sin of Adam and Eve were reconciled unto the Lord. In Him we are brought back into the dwelling of God’s grace where the light always shines in the darkness.

So wear the ashes with fear and trembling, let them dirty your lives a little bit, but also remember the hope that has been available to us in the one who hung on the cross, and rose again. Amen.

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Too Busy To Welcome – Advent Homily on Romans 15.7

Romans 15.7

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

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When Bob Sharp was sent to Marquis Memorial, I know that he was welcomed because it didn’t take long for the church to paint his office burgundy and gold in honor of his dedicated devotion to the Washington Redskins.

When Courtney Joyner started at St. Paul’s, I know she was welcomed because she is a triple-threat: She can sing, she can jam, and she can preach.

When John Benson first preached at Augusta Street, I know he was welcomed because his people haven’t stopped shouting “Amen!” since his first sermon.

When Won Un showed up at Central, I know he was welcomed because their entire church community has developed an affinity for Kimchi and they know that if they can’t find Won on a nice day, it’s because he’s out riding his bike.

When Janet Knott arrived at Jollivue, I know she was welcomed because she preaches with gifts, and who doesn’t love presents?

When Clayton Payne began at Cherryvale, I know he was welcomed because people keep showing up week after week even though he keeps preaching the same sermon over and over again.

When Bryson Smith was appointed to St. Paul’s, I know he was welcomed because they know if the sermon falls flat, he can always sing a solo and get the people to shout “Praise the Lord!” and “Mercy!”

When Sarah Locke was sent to Christ, I know she was welcomed because people started showing up in her kitchen while she was still unpacking boxes. I know that because I was there!

I know the United Methodist churches of Staunton are a welcoming bunch because you have so warmly welcomed your pastors. But I wonder, do we welcome everyone to our churches in the same way we welcome the pastor when he or she first arrives? Do you really welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us?

When I arrived in Staunton, Won and I got together and thought it seemed about time to resurrect the Lenten and Advent luncheons. We were not here when they used to happen and so we were able to tweak the schedule and the organization a little bit. Important for us was the shifting of host churches and guest speakers so that everyone got a chance to welcome, and every preacher got a chance to preach.

Fun fact: As of Christmas day, I will have preached in every single United Methodist Church in Staunton. And it only took me three and a half years!

Anyway, we got the Lenten luncheons started again, and the first time I was invited to preach we were gathering at Central UMC. At the time, I was young and naive, and I thought it would be a good idea to wear my Carharrt Overalls when I preached from the pulpit in order to really drive home the message. Maybe you were there. Maybe you even remember some of the things I said.

I poured out my heart and soul from the pulpit at Central UMC and I did my best to make the people of St. John’s as proud as possible. Afterwards, during lunch, after the tenth or so person made a comment about my attire, an older woman came up to me and asked if we could talk (I won’t say which church she was from).

So we moved to the corner of the social hall, and she gingerly placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “I understand that you’re new to town you might be looking for a church home, so we’d love to have you join us for worship on Sunday.”

I remember just standing there stunned. I mean, it was a kind gesture for her to invite me to church (particular when the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 33 years). But going to another church on Sunday is impossible.

She welcomed me, but she didn’t listen to me. I suspect that she was more concerned with having people in the pews, than with knowing who the people are in the pews.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.

How did Jesus welcome? Well, he certainly didn’t wait for people to just show up because he was having a service on a Wednesday afternoon, or a Sunday morning, or even on Christmas Eve. Jesus welcomed others by showing up in their lives, he met them where they were and ministered to them in terms and in ways they could understand. He told stories that connected with their daily living, stories about the soil and the birds of the air. He welcomed them in the midst of their suffering and isolation. He welcomed the very people who would abandon him to a table without cost.

At St. John’s we have a Preschool and I spend time every week leading the kids in what we call chapel time. I’ll take a lesson from scripture and try to rework it in ways that can understand and apply to their life.

Last week, after practicing the Christmas pageant for what felt like the thousandth time, I set up a small table near the altar and I invited the kids to come sit and listen. The thirty minutes prior to chapel time were filled with pushing and tripping and laughter and debauchery, but when they sat down around the table I started speaking in a soft voice, and they all started to listen.

I said, “My friends, I have something I want to share with you. This is bread and grape juice, but it is about to me much more than that. For this is a gift that Jesus gives to us. Some of you might do this in your church on Sundays, and whenever we sit at the table we are remembering Christ’s love for us. At this table, all of us are welcome no matter what. So let’s pray… God thank you for loving us so much that you welcome us no matter what we’ve done and no matter who we are. I pray that you would pour out your Spirit on us and make us more like Jesus so we can love others. Amen.”

And then one by one I called them by name, I gave each of them a piece of the bread, they dipped it into the cup, and the received communion.

Unlike us, the preschoolers have the benefit of not rushing around through this season of Advent endlessly crossing items off our to-do lists. Unlike us, the preschoolers don’t feel burdened by the tyranny of things and can sit quietly for a moment to receive a gift better than anything under the tree.

It often happens around this time of year that we feel too busy to welcome. We become more concerned with the wrapping paper and the ornaments and appearance of things than with the welcoming love of the Lord who was born into an unwelcoming town. When our sanctuaries fill up with more people than usual on Christmas Eve we are more often burdened by making sure everything is in the right place, than we are by making sure we are in the right place to welcome and be welcomed by the Lord.

And it is at the meal, the Lord’s Supper, the thing that most of us do on the first Sunday of the month, where we learn what it really means to welcome like Jesus. For Jesus is the one inviting you to the table, not merely hoping that you will show up to fill an empty place in a pew, but earnestly and truly yearning for your presence. You are invited because you are unique, you are wonderful, and you are a child of God. There is a place for you at the table no matter what.

Can you imagine what our churches would really look like if we welcomed others as Christ welcomed us?

Amen.

A Drop In The Ocean – Election Reflection

Isaiah 12.1-6

You will say in that day; I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

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The line was long when I arrived at my voting location. I sauntered along with the others who were shivering in the cold until we made it to the door and the warmth. We listened to three different people explain the process of voting, we were shifted like a herd of cattle from one side to the other, and then one by one we had to hand over our driver’s licenses to prove our identities.

The woman holding my license (with a picture of me at 20 years old) brought it right up to her face in order to examine every fine detail. Without looking at me she said, “state your name and address.” So I did. And only when handing the card back did she look up over her glasses to say, “you’ve changed.” Which actually sounded more like “you look older than the card says you are.”

Like a sheep, I was then shepherded over to a separate table where I filled in four bubbles, took the card over to the machine, waited for it to beep, and was given my sticker. All told, I was there for ten minutes. 18 months of anger and political outrage, 18 months and nearly 5 billion dollars spent on advertising and campaigns slogans, 18 months and national turmoil all came to fruition in a ten-minute dance in a church social hall for four votes.

If I’ve heard one thing as a pastor more than anything else about this election over the last year and a half, it was this: “God is punishing us.” “God is punishing us for our sinful ways and making us choose between the lesser of two evils.” “God is punishing us for electing a black president 8 years ago.” “God is punishing us for not getting faith back in schools.” “God is punishing us for our lack of faith.” “God is punishing us and the world is going to end with this election.”

Want to know a secret that shouldn’t be a secret? The world is not going to end tonight when all is said and done.

God has been God a whole lot longer than this world has had democratic elections. God has been God through every presidency. God has been God long before America existed. God has been God, and will be God, long after we’re gone.

We Christians believe that Jesus is Lord which means we believe that God is in control. We believe that God spoke the whole of creation into being and has called each of us by name. We believe that God is almighty regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. And perhaps most importantly, we believe that God calls us to love and pray for our enemies, which today means we are called to love and pray for the people who voted for the other candidate.

Can you imagine? Christians praying for people they disagree with? Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and it has been so absent during this cycle. Instead, political offices have been bombed, churches have been burned, and voters have been intimidated at the polls.

And perhaps we want to blame Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than whoever will become the next president. The problem is us. We get the people we deserve running for office. Instead of seeing one another and brothers and sisters in Christ, we have adopted the world’s identification system and see one another as liberal or conservative. Instead of listening to those with different opinions, we just shout louder. Instead of believing that Jesus is Lord, we have fallen prey to the belief that the world hinges on this election.

But this election pales in comparison to God’s willingness to elect us. Not by a show of hands, not by absentee ballots, not by filling in a circle on a form, but electing us to salvation through his Son.

For it is Jesus Christ who humbles us to pray for those we hate. Jesus, though scorned and ridiculed by the people, does not call for votes to be cast, but says, “Follow me.” Jesus leads us on the path that leads to life, not prosperity and political prestige, but life eternal. Jesus places the uncomfortable yoke around our necks and says the burden is light. Jesus invites us to feast at the table and we do not deserve it. Jesus, high in the air with the nails in his hands and feet, says, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

If we’re honest, we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know what it means to be a Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our political identities and Christian identities in tandem with one another, and we don’t know how to love the people we hate.

But we do know the truth: Jesus is Lord.

So we give thanks, for even though the Lord has been angry with us, he comforts us. Surely we know and believe that God is our salvation. We will trust, and not be afraid, for the Lord God is our strength and our might. Through the immeasurable gift of his Son we have been elected into a strange new way of life. With the knowledge of this joy we draw water from the wells of salvation. As we remember and contemplate our own baptisms we remember who we are and whose we are.

So we give thanks to the Lord, and call upon God’s name. We proclaim God’s mighty acts from the beginning of time until this moment. We sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously.

Though some will say that our faith is fruitless, that to gather here at this moment, while the party lines are being heavily fortified for future derision, is pointless; that to pray for, and love, the very people who drive us crazy is a waste of time. Some will even be so bold as to believe that gathering at the table while the country is in chaos is no more than a drop in a limitless ocean, that it can never transform the world. Yet, what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? Amen.

Why The Cross? – Good Friday Homily

John 19.28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

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I get asked a lot of questions. I’ll be in a bible study when the conversation moves to an area of confusion and all eyes will turn to me and someone will inevitably say, “What does this mean?” Or I’ll be in my office and someone will walk in to share about all of the trials and tribulations they’ve experienced and finish by asking, “So where is God in all of this?” Or, like after the atrocity in Brussels this week, I’ll receive an email that says, “How could God let this happen?” People are looking for answers.

On Wednesday morning I gathered all the little preschoolers into the sanctuary to talk about the cross. I wanted to show them the cross we have here in the sanctuary and eventually have them march outside in a line while I carried the cross. For most of them, Easter is about the bunny and the candy so anything I can do to make it more about Jesus is important.

They were all sitting nice and quiet in the pews as I explained Jesus’ final week, and that he died on a cross to help us get to heaven, and most of the kids nodded along. But one sat in the back pew with her eyebrows in an expression of “huh?” I tried to keep moving us forward but I could tell it wasn’t connecting with her so when I saw her shoot her hand up with a question I wasn’t surprised.

She asked, “But why did he have to die on a cross?”

In the moment I tried to answer her question in a way that only a four year old could understand, but the question has stayed with me nonetheless. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross?

Well, he had to die on a cross because that’s the way the Romans executed those who they regarded as a threat. Today we have drones and missiles that we can fire from far away in order to remove ourselves from death, but during the time of Jesus, they were hung high in the air so that all could see what happened when you challenged Rome. The cross was a sign of death and fear.

But that answer is not good enough for those, few, of us who gather in a place like this on Good Friday. If you’re here right now, you get that discipleship is more than just Easter. You get that Jesus was more than just a nice guy. You get that there is something more to this cross than symbolic remembrance.

Jesus died on a cross to reveal the heart of God.

The cross is where God’s grace crosses our life to create a new way of living.

We’ve got crosses everywhere and sometimes we forget how terrifying they were and should be. It is our central icon and we have them displayed in our sanctuary, some of us have crosses around our necks, and some of us even have them tattooed on our bodies. But notice: our crosses are empty. It would disrupt our Protestant sensibilities to have a murdered and graphic Jesus hanging on the cross for everyone to see. We would rather have the clean empty cross to remind us of the resurrection. But if we lose sight of the fright and discomfort of the crucifixion, the empty grave becomes cheap grace.

So, to be here on Good Friday implies a willingness on our part to confront the cross and we also want it explained. We want to know ‘why.’

But Jesus doesn’t offer us an explanation.

Whenever the religious elite, or the crowds, or his disciples questioned him, he would respond in cryptic parables that left them more confused than in the beginning. Jesus doesn’t offer simple explanations. Instead he offers love.

Explanations will never calm our anxieties in regard to suffering and tragedy. The people who try to explain the death of a young child by saying that “God wanted another angel in heaven” transform God into a murderer for the sake of an explanation. The people who try to explain a disabled child as “God’s way of punishing the mistakes of the parents” make God in a torturer for the sake of explanation. The people who try to rationalize terrorist attacks with “God is using them to show us its time to go to war” morph God into a selfish, violent, and manipulative entity for the sake of explanation.

Love, not explanation, is required when we are faced with tragedies. Instead of telling a grieving mother that God wanted her baby, we are supposed to show up with love and not answers. Instead of blaming sinful or faithless behavior for the disabilities in a child, we are supposed to love them with every fiber of our being. Instead of dropping bombs and sending drones to wipe out the Middle East we are supposed to see them as our brothers and sisters.

To be Christian is to enter into suffering. We do not look away from tragedies, we do not abandon those who are alone, and we do not isolate ourselves from the ways of the world. Instead, because of the cross, we are tasked with showing up for others when there is literally nothing we can do to save ourselves from suffering.

So, we could take the time to outline the connections between Jesus hanging on a tree with the first sin of Adam and Eve taking fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We could go deep into rationalizing the cross through theories like God used Jesus as bait to hook the devil from hell. But the truest response to the cross, the way we are called to go forth from Good Friday, is to look at the cross and take up our own to follow Jesus. Amen.

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Why Remember? – Maundy Thursday Homily

Mark 14.22-25

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Maundy-Thursday1

Why is this night different from all other nights?; A worthy question for any of us who took the time to gather in this place to remember Jesus’ final night. But the question is also asked of Jewish children who gather together for the celebration of Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God brought forth all forms of life, which culminated in the creation of humankind. God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God, and for his descendants to be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham eventually fathered Isaac who grew to father Jacob. Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and was renamed Israel, which means: “you have struggled with God and prevailed.” Israel fathered Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his other brothers. But during his time in Egypt he became prosperous and eventually brought the gathering of Abraham descendants to live in the new and strange place.

At first everything was great in Egypt, the Hebrews lived comfortably, they had food to eat, homes to live in, and opportunities abounded. But over time, as it happens, the Egyptians grew jealous of the Hebrews and began to subjugate them. They were forced into labor, and eventually every male child born to a Hebrew woman was killed for fear that they would grow to rebel against the Egyptians.

Moses was born during this time and was saved by his mother by placing him in a basket to float down the Nile River. Moses grew in strength and wisdom and was called by God to lead God’s people out of captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land.

God commanded Moses to have the people to slaughter lambs and use the blood to mark their doors; this was to be a sign for the Lord to pass over their homes while slaughtering the firstborn males of Egypt. While waiting in the night, God implored the people to gird their loins and prepare to depart because their time of delivery had come near.

Passover is a night different from all other nights because it is a time set aside to remember the sacred and holy moment when God delivered God’s people out of slavery.

Jesus had gathered in the upper room with his friends to celebrate Passover. They sat around the table to remember what God had done long ago and be thankful. While they were eating Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

While they were remembering God’s actions from the past, Jesus said, “I am doing a new thing. I am delivering my body and my blood for you and the world.”

He took the Passover celebration, and assigned it to the great sacrifice he was about to make. Not only would the meal be a remembrance of God’s mighty acts, but also a testimony to God’s actions in Jesus Christ. The disciples would remember God delivering the people out of bondage in Egypt, and would now remember Jesus delivering the people out of bondage to sin and death. Whereas God brought the people into the holy land through the waters, God was now about to bring the people into resurrection through Christ’s sacrifice.

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This is Good News for us, but it is also heavy news. Many of us buckle under the weight of knowing that Christ would give his life for us, but then we remember that Peter and Judas were at the table that night as well. We remember that in short time, the disciples who received the bread and cup would abandon Jesus to his cross and death. But he gave his life for them and us anyway.

So here we are, millennia later, remembering Jesus’ give of body and blood in the bread and cup. We remember God’s mighty acts of deliverance for the Hebrew people. But God’s power is not limited to the distant past. It is made available to each of us here and now.

At our tables, we are going to remember what God has done for us before we feast. With the people next to you I want you to discuss the following questions: What has God done for you? How have you seen God at work in your life recently? And what has God delivered you from?

 

I have seen God at work with our youth. Each week the youth of our church gather for an hour to share communion, fellowship, and bible study. We have examined some of the great moments from both the Old and New Testaments, we have learned about one another’s lives, and we always take time to remember Jesus’ final night with his disciples. Over the last year I have seen the youth transformed by the grace of God. Whereas they began meeting sheepishly and nervous to share about their lives, we now know each other well enough to check in on everyone without have to be prompted. Whereas they might have giggled during the first time we celebrated communion, they now respectfully and faithfully outstretch their hands to receive the bread and the cup.

Through the work of this church, God has delivered our youth from lives of selfishness to lives of appreciation. They have been delivered out of isolation into a community that genuinely cares about their well-being. They have experienced God’s love and it will stay with them forever.

Whenever we gather at God’s table, and particularly on Maundy Thursday, it is a time for us to confess where we have fallen short, recognize our forgiveness, share peace with one another, and give thanks to God for our deliverance. We remember where God has showed up in our lives, and the lives of others, because it retunes us into God’s frequency. We remember Jesus sharing the bread and the cup because he has shared it with the world. We remember in order to transform the world. Amen.