Unbelievable – A Wedding Homily

Mark 12.28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and beside him there is no other’, and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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I can’t believe you two are getting married! Don’t get me wrong – I think you should get married, I am grateful to be here for your wedding, it’s just kind of hard for me to believe that it’s actually happening.

Why is it so hard for me to believe? When I was sent here as the pastor over a year ago, one of the first things you ever said to me, Marian, was that you needed prayer because you had a man who wanted to marry you and you hadn’t answered him. 

I thought I misheard you. There was man, who wanted to marry you, you didn’t answer him, and he was still hanging around? 

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When I saw you two sitting in church together, or upstairs in the fellowship hall, or outside in the parking lot after worship, and I observed your body language, and joyful expressions, I assumed that you were already married.

I can’t believe you two are getting married. When you finally told me the whole story, and I discovered that you dated thirty years ago in Liberia only to come together now after decades and other marriages, it sounds unbelievable.

And for as unbelievable as it might appear to me, and maybe even to some people here this evening, there is someone who truly and deeply believes in your getting married – God.

So, let’s paint a picture shall we? Like a movie, the scene opens with a young Liberian man and woman who are quite smitten with one another. They go on little dates, they continue to flirt back and forth, some of their friends even think that eventually they’ll get hitched. 

But, as it turns out, the teenage boy likes the company of other teenage girls. A lot of girls. So many, in fact, that Marian eventually say, “no no no, I can’t go for that.” And the relationship ends.

And again, like a movie, the next scene is thirty years later, in Atlanta, at a funeral.

The once young teenage boy now sees his old girlfriend across the room, and when he goes to shake her hand, she doesn’t recognize him! Thirty years have passed, and other relationships, and children, and yet there is something there. They get reacquainted with one another, John even has the gall to invite Marian over for dinner at his house.

The next scene is the interior of John’s kitchen where, for some time, he’s cooked all his food on the weekends so that he can have copious amounts of leftovers during the week, and he decides to serve Marian some old soup.

Marian takes note and decides to take some initiate.

The next scene is back in Virginia in Marian’s kitchen where she is cooking food just to send it all the way to Georgia for John to eat, and thus she wrapped him around her finger yet again! 

We then jump ahead in time to when the old love birds have rekindled their relationship, John asks Marian to be his wife, and she says nothing! Time passes and she remains steadfastly stubborn until she inexplicably comes to the realization that yes, YES, she wants to marry this crazy man!

And now here you two are. 

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You can see, from the story I told, and all the in between that will remain untold, for this marriage to work, you two are going to need a lot of help! Don’t take that as a statement against your individual abilities to be a married couple, but marriage is hard – it is complicated, it is messy, and it is confusing.

But, of course, that’s why all of us are here! We have been gathered by God to pledge our presence and our help. You two are about to make unconditional promises to each other, and we are going to hold you accountable to those promises. It is in the making of those promises, yours and ours, that we become the full vision of the church God has for us.

Because, our help, no matter how good willed and well-intentioned, would be futile if we were just another human gathering. But we are not just any ordinary gathering. We are the church of Jesus Christ!

We are a people whose stories have been given new meaning in the life, death, and resurrection of a 1st century Jew who was God in the flesh. And your story, that strange decades long dance of being brought together, pushed apart, and brought together again is what we, in the church, call grace.

A few weeks ago the three of us sat down for some premarital counseling, and I hope you appreciated the irony of a thirty year old pastor offering bits of wisdom to two people who have known each other longer than I’ve been alive! But toward the end, I asked you to consider what marriage really means to both of you. Not the churchy definition, not what other people think, but what do you think marriage is.

Marian you said marriage is a commitment, it is an eternal bond making the other feel connected to a new way of being. And John, you said marriage is simply loving the other as you love yourself.

Jesus was once doing his Jesus thing and arguing with a bunch of the Jewish leaders when a scribe stepped forward and asked about the greatest commandment. And Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The scribe took in the answer and realized that what Jesus said was more important than all of the sacrifices and laws described in the Old Testament. And Jesus, seeing the scribe’s new understanding, said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

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When I asked you about what marriage really looks like, you responded like Jesus! For according to the two of you, marriage, at its best, is what we might otherwise call discipleship.

You see, when we can truly love the other as ourselves, when we can see that person standing before us and know that they deserve every bit of love, and joy, and hope that we do, then we begin to see each other the way God sees us. And that, is what makes the unbelievable covenant of marriage believable.

Marian, you are a deeply caring individual, not just toward John but toward all people. And your ideas and intellect are what draw people like John, and the rest of us, closer and closer to you. You give so freely of yourself to other people that it becomes infectious and people want to start living like you. And even though you can be downright feisty and stubborn, I think, in a weird way, it’s what John loves most about you. In you he encounters the joy of the dance that he doesn’t even know he is doing!

John, your love and passion for Marian is exactly what she needs. As someone who can too often fall under the temptation to believe she is not as wonderful as she really is, you help to reminder her day after day that she is truly worthy of love. And, in a paradoxical way, she provides the same to you. We all accept the love we think we deserve, and you deserve so much more than you have experienced, until Marian walked back into your life and showed you a new reality of your existence. 

And, John, you know I have to say it. You are also a deeply patient man, to a fault! Let’s be real for a moment, after asking her to marry you, some other men would have walked away after the non-answer, but you remained steadfast! But your patience in the relationship really is a beautiful thing. While all of us try to keep up with the frantic and frenetic pace of the world, you will often wait up in the late night hours just to greet Marian when she comes home from work. 

Now, I know you two are lovingly looking at me, and hanging on every word that I say, but I want you to turn around for just a moment and take in the scene before you. So much of weddings are focused forward such that the bride and groom don’t get a chance to take in the view that I have. Because for as much as I can attest to the love you share the commitment you hold for one another, these people can too. Look at all these people smiling back at you. They believe in the unbelievable thing you are about to do. 

But now look back at me for a moment, because God believes in you too. There is a reason that Jesus’ response about the greatest commandment begins with the love of God before the love of one another, because it is in loving God we learn what it means to love our neighbors, including the ones we marry. 

God’s love for us, in spite of us, is the paradigm through which the marriage of two people becomes intelligible. God looks at each and every one of us, with all of our faults and failures, and says, “You are my beloved.” And it is then, in the recognition of God’s unbelievable love for us, that we may begin to take steps to a place like this, by the altar, and look someone in the eye and say those unbelievable words, “I will.”

I can’t believe you two are getting married. Your story is just too good to believe. Your love for one another is just too good to believe. All of these people here on your behalf is just too good to believe. 

But it doesn’t really matter what I believe, or even what you believe, but that God believes in you.

So may the believing God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who came to show us the greatest commandment, bless you and your marriage such that you can truly love the other as you love yourself. Amen. 

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Drunk With The Spirit(s)

Ephesians 5.15-20

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The massive sanctuary was eerily quiet at 7am as four of us gathered for morning prayer. It was my first year of seminary and I had committed to join together with the Episcopalians every morning to pray through the liturgy and read scripture together. Some days the room would have 20-30 people, but every once in a while only a few of us would gather.

I remember it was raining and I assumed thats why so few of us managed to make it out so early. I saw by myself, which wasn’t hard to do, and I centered myself for prayer. Typically one of us, a student or a professor, would guide us through the liturgy, but on that day an Episcopal priest walked down the center aisle and guided us from behind the altar.

I know we all raised our voices a little louder than usual as were were tasked to respond because it felt like we needed to. And then right before the final “amen” the priest began praying over communion.

Up until that point in my life I had received communion hundreds of times, but only in the context of a United Methodist Church where we dipped our bread in the common cup, so you can imagine my surprise as I, the last one in line, walked forward the the priest began to bring the chalice to my lips.

I reached out my hand to take the cup myself, but he ignored my movement, and began tilting the cup. Immediately my mouth filled with the strangest and warmest liquid. I, a good Methodist, foolishly assumed that I was about to take a sip of grape juice, but I was wrong. Instead my mouth was filled with warm port wine, and the priest wouldn’t stop pouring. 

I later learned that he was going to have to drink whatever was leftover, and with such a small number of people in attendance, he tried to share the burden with me.

I kid you not, my cheeks were both puffed out as I held the wine inside my mouth, debating whether to swallow or not. I even made it back to my seat before I decided to just get it over with. The sickeningly sweet taste of the port rolled down my throat and my belly immediately felt like it was on fire. It would have been helpful had I eaten breakfast that day, or had anything to drink other than coffee, but of course I hadn’t.

So there I was, sitting in a sanctuary at 7 in the morning, a little buzzed.

I gracefully exited the sanctuary with what probably looked more like stumbling, and I giggled as I made my way to my first lecture for the day. I remember receiving a lot of strange looks from my peers as I gave them my brightest toothy grin with lips that had turned a subtle shade of red, and then as I got closer there noses began to sniff with a detective like quality.

But I was feeling fine.

Right before my professor began the class, one of my friends leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I know Paul said that we’re supposed to be filled with the Spirit, but I don’t think he meant the spirits.”

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Be careful how you live, and make the most of your time. Do not get drunk with wine! But be filled by the Holy Spirit. Paul is getting close to concluding his letter to the Ephesians and he has some final exhortations. Time is a fleeting thing, is it not? Most of us here are all too aware of how life seems to keep passing by regardless of our best efforts to slow it down. 

This thing we call time is all we’ve got. No one can add days on to their life. So with the beautiful and finite time we have, Paul urges us to resist foolishness, to withstand the temptation of temptations, and make the most with what we’ve been given.

No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, all of us will experience times of emptiness. It can manifest itself in strange ways, and with unexpected consequences, but those moments will come for us all.

When the kid leaves home for college.

When the retirement celebrations come to a conclusion.

When we bury a friend.

When we see an empty pew.

And Paul knows that we need to fill those empty spaces, and Paul even knows one of the ways we do it the most: through wine!

Now, to be clear, Paul is not just standing up on his soapbox to address the virtues of temperance, but he is probing and prodding the people of Ephesus with a question, “What’s filling you?”

It’s all too easy to be filled with all sorts of trite and finite salves. Coming home from a hard day on to wallow away in a bottle leaves us withered and distracted. Reeling from a difficult conversation only to waste away some money on a gamble leaves us hollowed and guilty. Feeling frustrated by relationships only to discover the dark and frightening temptations of the internet leaves us ashamed and never truly satisfied.

So Paul suggests that we fill ourselves with something else; not a temporary fix or a hit from the nearest distraction. Paul says we should sing.

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We know today, thanks to scientific studies, that our brains literally change when we are involved in the act of singing. Endorphins are released, feelings of joy and euphoria are present, and something within us transforms.

I could regale all of you with countless stories of visiting older people in retirement homes, people whose communication with the outer world had all but stopped, until I started humming a familiar hymn and the curtain of dementia was be pulled back as we sang together.

O I could tell you the story from Acts 16 when Paul and Silas we singing in prison, singing in the midst of their bondage, when an earthquake happened and it set them free.

Or I could tell you about the time John Wesley was on a ship traveling to the colony of Georgia when a storm appeared out of nowhere and it destroyed the main mast. While he and nearly everyone else thought they were going to die, a group of Moravians were quietly singing psalms. When the storm later passed, Wesley asked them about their strange behavior, and why they chose to sing in the face of death, they responded, “If we die, we know where we’re going.

Music can make us lose control, in the best ways possible. Through music the Holy Spirit somehow grabs hold of us, and shakes us or moves us or prods us to feel something we’ve either missed or ignored. We lose control of the control we so desperately cling to, and sometimes music reminds us of the hard and beautiful truth – we’re not in control.

And most of us have a really hard time with that! Perhaps its because most of us have come of age in a world we are told again and again that we must be in control – that life is up to us, and us alone – and that if we lose control then we’ve lost everything.

Singing, music in general, is a gateway to unanticipated blessings like losing control.

Paul implores the hearers and readers of the letter to not be distracted by things that claim to fill but only leave us empty – he uses music as an alternative, and it would be easy to leave it there. It would wrap up nicely if all we really needed was to sit down every once in a while with our favorite song, or hear our favorite hymn in church.

But it’s about more than that.

Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are filled together by the Spirit – it’s not something we’re left to do on our own. And that’s what often confounds us the most — we need each other!

The thrust and theme of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is that they, and we (!), are no longer strangers! The community of God called the church is a people who respond to the wonderful things God has done, is doing, and will do together!

Do you know how hard that is? Waking up in the midst of our frustrations and failures only to believe that the way, the best way, to handle it all is to share it we each other… Who wants to do that? Who among us wants to stand hand in hand and sings songs knowing full and well that our lives do not look like what we portray on Sunday morning?

Well, of course, all of us here do. That doesn’t mean its easy; in fact, its incredibly challenging. Most of the time its hard to find the joy and glamour in all of it. But as we live out the ordinary moments of our lives, as we experience both the mountaintops and deep valleys together, we can be filled to overflowing with the Spirit.

This, after all, is the call of the church: to be the body of Christ, a community together, in spite of all our differences. This, all of this, is made possible and tangible in the person of Jesus Christ who came to live and die and live again in a way that makes intelligible our commitment to community.

Our call is to be the church, in all of its simplicity and complexity. And, to use Paul’s language, time is of the essence! Right now is the moment for us to make good on all the possibilities for redemption and transformation and fullness in Christ Jesus. We, the church, cannot afford to waste our time, or fill our days with frivolous pursuits, or miss this particularly poignant call.

When we, the church, are out of touch with our vocation it’s as if we’re stumbling around in the darkness like drunken fools. We might feel a welcome reprieve from the mundanity of life, we might get the hit we need to forget our frivolity, but without our call we cease to be the church.

So the questions arise:

Do we know, deep in our bones, what we are called to do and who we are called to be?

Or, are we just stumbling around in the darkness looking for the next drink, the next distraction, the next filler?

Are we drunk with wine, ego, money, power? 

Or are we filled with the Spirit?

God, strangely enough, desires our drunkenness. God wants us to be so filled and fueled by that which we consume such that we are forced to rely on the person to our left and the person to our right as we stumble around through life. God hopes and yearns for us to throw our cares to the wind as we are three sheets to the wind! 

The time has come for us to lose control and to be filled with the right Spirit. Amen. 

The Anger Will Set You Free

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk comes out of your mouths, but only what it useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Holy Week is a strange time in the life of the church. While Christians are gearing up for the joy of Easter morning, pastors like me try to slow everything down so that we can take stock of everything that happened the final week before jumping to the empty tomb.

Some churches embody this patience with dramatic performances. They’ll get actors to play all of the characters including Roman centurions guarding the tomb. And some are crazy enough to even bring a donkey into the sanctuary as a way of remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem.

Other churches will slow down the week with special music and scriptures. Every night there will be time for reflection and prayer as a choir leads the gathered people through a few songs, and specific individuals will read the stories aloud from Jesus’ final week.

I got the great idea years ago to preach the entirety of Holy Week in a 15-minute sermon.

This meant that I committed the important details between Palm Sunday and Good Friday to memory as I attempted to guide the congregation through a time of encounter and contemplation. I was as passionate as possible, marching up and down the center aisle frantically waving a palm branch like the crowds who gathered outside of Jerusalem. I set up tables by the altar only to flip them over with as much force as possible to frighten the congregation just like Jesus did at the temple. And even at the end, I got out a hammer and knocked on the pulpit to really bring home Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross.

After the service ended, while I was saying goodbye to the community of faith, more than a few people said the same thing to me. “You sure sounded angry today Pastor, is everything okay?”

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So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

There is little truth in advertising. In fact, most of advertising is built on selling us a lie. If you buy this car you will finally find the fulfillment you’ve been looking for. If you go on this vacation, your children will actually love you and respect you. If you take this pill you will shed the extra weight you’ve been carrying around.

But Paul, Paul is a terrible advertiser for the church. While we are quick to make sure people know we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, Paul tells the truth. The church in Ephesus is filled with all sorts of bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. So much so that Paul has to tell them to get rid of it all!

Who in their right mind would like to go to a church like that? Who wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Yeah, I want to try that community of selfishness, and greed, and anger!”

Paul doesn’t mince words. The church of Ephesus is messed up. They’ve got tons of problems with no easy solutions. They’ve got to drop a lot before they can pick up their crosses. The Ephesians would have to give up themselves, their need to always be right, their need to feel superior, their grudges and bitterness. They’d have to sacrifice it all if they wanted to be God’s church.

They’d have to start looking like us! Because we’re perfect aren’t we? From where I stand I see a room of beautiful people, filled with nothing but love and joy and hope. I see people with perfect families, and overflowing bank accounts. I see people without fear and loss. I see perfection!

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

What is the truth?

Let us at least admit that we are far from perfect here. We, like the Ephesians, are filled with bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. They might not bubble to the surface often, or even in church, but deep down we know its there. We know the people we’ve maligned, we know the bitterness we feel toward other, we know the wrath that can show up when we least want it to.

But the anger, what are we do to about the anger? Paul, in this passage alone, tells the Ephesians to be angry, and then later to put away their anger. But anger isn’t always, or necessarily, a bad thing.

Jesus was angry all the time in the gospels. As fully God and fully human Jesus could not not be angry. When he encountered the Pharisees looking on those at the margins of life, Jesus got angry. When he saw what was happening inside the temple of Jerusalem, Jesus got angry. When Peter raised a sword in the garden, Jesus got angry.

And whereas other might caution us against adding fuel to the fire of others’ anger, Jesus’ anger is a lens into the divine desire for a different reality.

Paul cautions the people of Ephesus to avoid conflict, which is a difficult thing for any group of people attempting to live and work together. But he also knows that conflict is at the very heart of who we are. And, in particular, when we are bold enough to speak the truth.

Because the truth, the hard and unavoidable truth, is that we’ve got plenty to be angry about.

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We’re angry that it’s been a year since the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA and it feels like nothing has really changed. We’re angry that people in our community don’t have food to eat, or clothes to wear, or beds to sleep in. We’re angry that people are treated as less than whole because of the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or their country of origin.

And we should be angry!

            Being angry isn’t a problem; it’s what we do with it that is.

We can be angry about what happened in Charlottesville, but the people marching and chanting about death to Jews and death to blacks are angry too. They’ve let their anger manifest itself in the violence and degradations of entire populations.

We can be angry about those who are suffering in our community, but there are people who are angry at those who are suffering for no reason other than the fact that they are suffering! They’ve let their anger manifest in selfish ways that belittle people for choices made on their behalf by communities who abandoned them.

We can be angry at all the people who are xenophobic, and sexist, and racist, and homophobic, but those people are angry too. They just let their anger out in horrific ways against people without caring about who they really are.

The line between anger and wrath is slim and mysterious. There is good anger that propels us closer to the divine will, anger that gives us the courage to speak out against injustice in our midst, and anger that provides the strength necessary to imagine a different way of being.

            But there is also anger that propels us closer to violence, anger that encourages us to see the other as other instead of as brother, and anger that justifies a hatred and violent way of being.

There’s a hymn that’s been around since the sixties and is filled with all of the cliché charm made possible by a Christian people in the sixties. It’s called They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. And for as much as the hymn paints this hopeful image of the church, a church where people walk hand in hand, and work side by side, it’s a far cry from what the church actually looks like.

            The hymn sounds a lot like the terrible advertisements we see that promise us an impossible world.

And I really wonder how many people outside the church know Christians like us for our love… Because, sometimes, we Christians appear to be the most negative, hostile, and unloving people around. There are times where Christians like us relish in any opportunity to stir up and perpetuate conflicts rather than resolve them.

            I think, if we asked people outside the church, what they know us for isn’t our love, but for our anger.

So then, who in the world would want to join us? Who in their right mind wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Gee, you know what, I think I’m going to join those angry Christians at Cokesbury. Maybe that’s just what I need”?

            Why do you keep coming here?

We are an angry people, we Christians, and that’s okay. We worship a Messiah who spent most of his earthly ministry being angry. But our anger, like Christ’s, should not send us into despair or violence. Our anger, like Jesus’, sends us to an even stranger place: telling the truth.

And while Paul might call upon us to tell the truth to our neighbors, no doubt a worthy venture, maybe we should start a little closer to home. Perhaps the person who needs to hear the truth is… me and you.

It is so easy to hear this text from Ephesians, and imagine the other people in our lives that it seems to describe. We can immediately conjure up someone in our minds who is too bitter, too wrathful, and too angry. But the text is also about us. It’s definitely about us. There is no one for whom these words to not represent a profound challenge and a holy opportunity.

The time has come for the truth, for us to take a good hard look in the mirror and accept who we are. We can even be angry about it if we so choose. But then the anger, that raw energy, can be focused into better places, while Jesus starts working on us from the inside out.

You see, that’s why people keep coming to church even when they know it’s filled with angry people. It’s because they’re angry too, and on some level they know that the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, they are like seeds within us sprouting into new life. They know, whether they can articulate it or not, that the church is the place where they can bring their anger, where they can be angry, and the anger will set them free.

People don’t join churches because they are open hearted or open minded, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. People commit their lives to the work of the church, Christ body in the world, because Christ is revealed in this place! Jesus is what makes our anger intelligible and applicable. Jesus takes our pent up frustrations with the world and with ourselves, and he flips them over like the tables in the temple to say, “Follow me!”

            God in Christ doesn’t make our anger disappear, church is not the salve that fixes our ailments. But it is the place where we discover how anger is the beginning of a revolution of the heart, anger is the catalyst that reshapes the possibilities we believe about the world, anger is what Jesus felt as he made his way to the cross.

            So, it’s fine if those outside the church will know we are Christians by our love. But maybe it would be better if they knew us by our anger. Amen.

Incompatible

Ephesians 4.1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Can’t we all just get along?

So asks the woman in her Sunday school class, so asks the friend of his neighbor wearing the Make America Great Again hat, so asks the father of his children fighting in the back seat of the car.

Can’t we all just get along?

You don’t need to hear it from me to know that, at our cores, we can’t really get along. We resent our neighbors for the dumbest reasons, we berate our children for raising their voices after we first raised our voices at them, and we drive through town day after day with clenched fists as we hear the news over the radio.

Sure, getting along in the world might be a forlorn possibility. Maybe our differences in opinion, our polarized political proclivities, and our desire to speak more than to listen will always prevent unity in the world.

But the church should surely be a place of unity, right? If nothing else, can’t we be the place where we just get along?

I passed 15 different churches on my way here this morning. 15! That alone answers the question of whether or not we can get along.

This part of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is absolutely breath taking: One body, one spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. I can hear Paul crescendo-ing these words in the locker room we call the church. It is the pep talk of all pep talks about what it means to be who we are.

But the more I read it this week, the more I wondered, when has the church ever felt like this? I can’t speak toward what this church was like before I arrived, but I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a church that felt like what Paul’s talking about. What Paul describes sounds more like a wedding, or a giant party, focused on one particular thing where great pluralities of people can join together in oneness.

In contrast, the church often feels like the place where we are supposed to gather for one, but the plurality is precisely what holds us back.

Most of us tend to think we know best, we insist on our own way, and we are intolerant of others’ quirks and weaknesses. We stand on pedestals of our own making looking down on just about everyone else. And even if we are “tolerant” of the differences, that’s because we are the ones with power! No one wants to be tolerated! We want to be loved and heard and cherished and respected.

Do you all remember the time Jesus traveled into town and gathered everyone together to hear his earth-shattering proclamation? “The kingdom of God is near, and the time has come for toleration!”

Yeah, me neither.

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Paul does not say the mission of the church is to tolerate the behaviors of others.

            Paul says the church is called to be one.

But can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be one by just being nicer to each other?

There is a tremendous difference between loving one another (like Christ), and being nice. Being nice often means being quiet, and not calling out the behavior of others. Loving like Jesus however, often means speaking up and actually calling someone out.

            Easier said than done.

Paul pokes and prods our human tendency toward division and schism by using the word “one” seven times in two verses. We can all imagine the divisive energy that must have been present in Ephesus for Paul to write these words, because those types of arguments are still very much a part of the church today.

The sevenfold emphasis on oneness is at the heart of the great challenge we call the church. How do we find unity in our plurality? Unity, to be clear, is not uniformity. Jesus does not want the church to be a factory where random parts are brought in and perfectly congruent products are shipped out.

And so, as the church struggles toward, or around, the kind of unity that God has already created in the church through Jesus Christ, a unity made possible by the three-in-oneness of the trinity, a question arises: Where have we dug our trenches so deep that we are no longer able to experience this God-given unity?

The line that forms after worship is one of my favorite, and least favorite, things about the church. I love the intimacy that can be found in our narthex as I overhear conversations about the prayers, and the hymns, and even the sermon. I relish in the opportunities to hear feedback about what we all experienced together. And every once in a while I receive the greatest compliment a pastor can ever hear: “I heard God speak to me today.”

But, of course, the narthex can also harbor the resentments that percolated during the service. A wrong word, or phrase, or reading, or hymn can stick with us and boil over when we finally have a chance to let it go. I see the same arguments and disagreements manifest over and over again in small and subtle ways.

A few months back I was observing the strange space that is the narthex following worship, when a new family walked up to shake my hand. They had recently moved to the Woodbridge area and were looking for a new home church. They expressed their joy with our worship and how welcomed they felt. And though we talked about a great number of things, our conversation ended with the father saying, “But we really need to know your opinion about homosexuality, and this church’s opinion about homosexuality.”

Since then, it’s happened three more times with three different families.

And in every one of the conversations it was abundantly clear that however I answered the question would determine whether the family would come back the following week or not.

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As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. In some churches this means that pastors prevent openly gay individuals or couples from becoming members of the church. In some churches this means that pastors refuse to baptize or offer communion to anyone who is openly gay. And it means that in all churches an openly gay individual is not supposed to be a pastor, and that pastors may not preside over same sex unions.

As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

There are, of course, some churches within the UMC who ignore the language and do whatever they can to welcome those who are gay, and because we, as a church, are not united in our theological convictions about those who are gay, the church is struggling to find a way forward.

There are those who want the language to remain and for stiffer penalties to be enacted against any pastor or conference who violates the tenants of the incompatibility of homosexuality.

Maybe they want uniformity.

And there are those who want the language to disappear all together and to be fully inclusive of anyone who is gay.

Maybe they want uniformity too, just of a different flavor.

And there are those who wish to remain in the middle, they want a church where people who believe it is incompatible, and those who believe it is compatible, are able to sit down in the pews together to worship the living God.

            Maybe they just want everyone to get along…

The language surrounding the incompatibility of a human being in Christian teaching is strange and wrong. To say that who someone is makes him or her incompatible with what we do as the church is oxymoronic in a way that is indescribable. So much of Jesus’ ministry, and Paul’s too, was founded upon finding people who were once told they were out and showing them how God in Christ brings them in. The message of Jesus is one where we are made one, regardless of any other identification.

And the incompatibility of Christians, at least the way some use the language, is now also applied to those who believe that individuals are incompatible. Some will use places of power and privilege to say that those who are gay are incompatible. But others will use similar places of privilege to say that if you believe someone is incompatible, then you are now the one who is incompatible with Christian teaching!

The infighting within our denomination about identity such that some are in and some are out, that some are compatible and other are incompatible, is antithetical to the Good News made manifest in Jesus Christ.

            Friends, no one is incompatible with Christian teaching. No one.

            Or, perhaps better put, we are all actually incompatible with Christian teaching. Not because of our sexual orientation, not because of who we love, but because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Paul begs, truly begs, us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we were called. And we will never be worthy. None of us.

We, like Paul writes, are so tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, we are moved by trickery. We look out at whatever the other is, and we are so quick to pull out the label of incompatibility.

            But it is in using that label we become the thing we so label!

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Here is the truth spoken in love. You and I, all of us here, we are broken and battered disciples. We are incompatible with the one born in the manger and delivered from the tomb. We have grown apart and ignored the call to grow into him who is the head, into Christ. It is Christ who joins all of our incompatibilities and knits together every ligament of our greed and our sinfulness and our judgments and builds us up in love.

Hear Jesus as he speaks to us throughout the centuries, hear his voice in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. He is not just being nice and asking us to be a little kinder, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Jesus didn’t get killed for saying we ought to love one another. Jesus got hung on a cross for calling out the sinfulness of the world and the sinfulness in you and me; The shouts of “crucify!” came because the crowds knew that the message of Jesus would disrupt the power dynamics in which they were most comfortable.

Even today, Jesus speaks to us and disrupts what we think we know about who is in and who is out. Because the truth, the hard truth, is that none of us should be in. None of us.

And yet, this meal, what we call Christ’s communion, is offered to all, as surely as Christ is for all, as surely as all of us are not divided in him, but all of us belong together and brothers and sisters.

All of us are poor sinners and all of us are rich through Christ’s mercy. In our incompatibility, we are made one. Amen.

Comprehending The Incomprehensible

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“Tell me about your prayer life…” has got to be some of the most ridiculous pastor lingo I’ve ever heard. I mean, who else would ask someone a question like that? I am rarely, if ever, happy about my “prayer life.” I consistently feel like I could be a better prayer, that I could spend more time in prayer, and that I could get more out of prayer than I usually do.

And, to be honest, I’m not even sure how I learned to pray in the first place. Maybe prayer is like learning to read. I know that at one point in my life I didn’t know how to read, and now I do, and I’m not really sure about the magic that made it possible.

Tell me about your prayer life… How would you feel if I asked that question, right now, right here in the sanctuary and made you stand up to answer? Exactly.

And yet, for all of the difficulty and frustration and confusion that surround prayer, it might be the most important thing the bible has to offer us.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father and I pray. Paul here in Ephesians is no longer offering sound ethical advice, he’s not providing visions for the organization and structure of the church, he is simply describing his prayers. For the church. For us!

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I think, like reading and so many other things, we learn how to pray by observing other people pray.

Maybe you pray like Paul… You get down on your knees and you use all the right language to elevate the divine qualities of God. You earnestly yearn for the people around you that Christ might dwell in their hearts. And that, above all, you pray for the world to know the breadth and height and depth of Christ’s love.

Or maybe you pray like my buddy Will: Woah God, how great was the weather today? Thanks! I mean, like, really awesome stuff. The way you had the clouds moving and the Sun! The Sun! It was like just bright enough but not too bright. You know what I mean? Of course you do! You’re God! Well, anyway, thanks.

There is no wrong or right way to pray, though there are certainly things that are better to pray for than others. The point isn’t so much how we pray, but that we pray at all.

Years and years ago I was helping a church in North Carolina and one of my responsibilities was visiting some of the older and retired members of the church. Many of them were what we call shut-ins, in that they could no longer make it to church for worship or fellowship, but they still felt very connected to the church.

So I would bring a copy of the latest bulletin and sit down with someone for an hour for nothing more than a conversation, and we would always end our time in prayer.

One of my regular visits was to a retired pastor, and he was easily my favorite. We got to know each other pretty quickly, and every time we got together he would offer me a sage piece of advice regarding my future vocation in the ministry. He told me story after story about his successes and failures. He told me what passages to avoid in the bible, and he even told me about the time a police officer had to drive him home after a funeral wake because he didn’t know the punch had alcohol in it.

Anyway, one afternoon I went to go visit him and our relationship had grown to such a degree that I regularly walked into his room at the retirement home without knocking. And as soon as I stepped through the threshold I saw him kneeling by his bed in a posture of prayer.

What a holy sight to behold! This man, after all the years of praying and serving the church, was still just as dedicated to communing with the divine. But the more I took in the scene the more uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t want to just leave without saying anything, and I didn’t want to just keep standing their awkwardly by the door, so after a minute or two I decided to join him by the edge of the pray and start praying too.

            I slowly crept across the room and lowered my knees to the floor and centered myself before I overheard the prayer of the retired pastor… he was snoring.

And, of course, I tried not to laugh, but then again I found myself at a loss for what to do. What would happen if he woke up while I was trying to slide out of the room? What would he do if he opened his eyes and saw me kneeling on the floor right next to him? I decided to very gently rub his back and he immediately opened his eyes and said, “Amen!”

Tell me about your prayer life…

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus because he was filled with joy that all followers of Jesus Christ are part of God’s family. No longer is there “us” and “them.” There is no “insider” or “outsider.” All have been made part of the new family in Christ Jesus. And Paul’s response to this profound revelation is to get down on his knees and pray! He knew that trying days were ahead, that it would not be an easy thing for the church to accept, the incomprehensibility of a new family made up of all, and he knew that he could not give the church what it needed to be sustained by himself.

The church relies on God, not itself.

That’s a tall order in today’s world and in today’s culture. We are told from childhood to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can be anything we want to be, and that it’s all up to us. But the message of the gospel is in fact the opposite. You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can’t be anything you want to be, and it is not all up to us.

We cannot do this thing we call life on our own. And we certainly cannot pray on our own.

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Paul prays for the church to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is no easy thing! But Paul prays that we might comprehend the incomprehensible WITH the saints. It is something we can only do in community, and not in isolation.

The more time I spent with the retired pastor, the one praying in his sleep (or sleeping through his prayers), the more I learned what he was really like. Because for the first few months he was what I would call his Sunday morning self, the person he used to become on Sunday morning for everyone that once showed up at his church. He was able to keep the smile for the hour we were together and send me on my way with what felt like a benediction.

But after a couple months I saw behind the curtain and I learned about his loneliness, his broken family, his fears and failures. I encountered who he really was as I discovered his inner self. And the hardest discovery of all was learning that he felt as if he had moved beyond the love of God.

The great theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the fact that there is no nation, no tribe, no family, and no person who is beyond the love of God. This may sound obvious, but it can be very difficult to believe. Particularly if you’ve lost the community, or family, or church that helped to make that love feel manifest.

Even on our best Sundays here at Cokesbury, we, the gathered people of God, bring together a myriad of secret hurts, private humiliations, and lost hopes.

After only being here for a little more than a year I can stand behind this altar and look out at the truths many of you have shared with me. I see the broken families and the betrayals, I see the terror and fear about unknown futures, and I see the pain and loss of people who used to sit in these pews. I know so many of the secret shames and private failures that are contained in isolation and I know that the ultimate fear is about what happens if any of it gets out.

And yet we keep showing up. We keep carrying our own weights and disappointments. We put on our Sunday selves, we keep the smile for the hour we are here and then we are sent away with a benediction.

But what would happen if we revealed our truth to the church? Now, I don’t mean we take turns standing up at the front and airing out all of our dirty laundry. But think with me for a moment… how could this church change if we treated it like the church Paul prays for, rather than just a place where we hang out for an hour on Sundays?

Paul prayed for the church to know, above all else, the love of God in Christ that surpasses all knowledge. Paul prayed for Christ to so dwell in our hearts and minds that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul prays for us to imagine the unimaginable, to know the unknowable, and to comprehend the incomprehensible.

If we pray for our church, if we pray for Cokesbury like Paul prayed for the Ephesians, then we do so by praying for a communal experience of the love of God in heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then we pray for the church to come to grasp the truth of grace; a truth that is utterly massive and beyond all earthly reason.

            God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so it is for that reason, that we bow our knees before God the Father, and we pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that we may be strengthened in our inner beings, that Christ may dwell in all of our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray for the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

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We pray this so that all of us might know that no one, NO ONE, is beyond God’s love. Not even us. Amen.

Expecting The Unexpected

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Words are important.

What we say often shapes what we believe and, perhaps even more importantly, it shapes how we behave.

Take the common words we all offer together after the scripture is read in worship: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. We say those words week after week, and if you’re like me, you don’t really think about what we’re saying.

But those words are really important, and they say a lot about what we think theologically.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

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But what about those difficult text from the bible? What are we supposed to do, or say, or believe about the scriptures that make us uncomfortable? Should we be thankful for something that makes us squirm?

But Jael took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the tent peg through his skull, until it went down into the ground and he died. (Judges 4) The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission (Timothy 2). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

What are we communicating to young people, or those individuals who are new to the faith, when we say we are thankful for God’s Word when perhaps we’re not?

Additionally, words mean different things to different people based on a variety of different contexts. What you can say to one individual, and how it is received, is not the same as what you could say to someone else.

I have a long habit of adapting words to particular contexts and individuals. For instance, during vacation bible school, when dozens of young children are in our building, I’m not breaking out the bible stories about tent pegs being driven through skulls, or rules about genitalia, or verses about women’s subordination. Those kids, like the scriptural story today tells us, are like Samuel and they do not yet know the Lord.

Similarly, if I’m teaching a Sunday School class to seasoned Christians, I’m not going to just talk about how nice it is that God loves us. It’s true, but that kind of simple affirmation alone doesn’t challenge us to be any better than we were before we heard it.

The church is supposed to be a supple and open avenue to God’s ways in the world such that we can delight and rejoice when God moves outside of our expectations and reaches people where they are rather than assuming that they’ll figure it all out on their own.

That’s one of the reasons that we keep coming back to do this strange and wonderful thing we call worship. For Samuel it took God’s calling in the night three times, and the wisdom of a mentor, to help him know that God was encountering him. For some of us, it takes a lifetime of Sundays before we hear it.

Of all the stories in the bible, this one, this nighttime calling, might have the most ominous beginning: The Lord’s Word was rare at that time. This meant there were few prophets, decent sermons were all but gone, and the Lord seemed to be nothing more than an idea. And yet it is precisely at this time when the Word was rare that God intrudes and upends expectations.

When we have communion we, like many Christians, are invited to the table, we confess our sins, share signs of peace, and then share the bread and the cup together. While you all line up in the center aisle and make your way toward the altar, I will adapt the words I use as I offer the body of Christ. For some of you, well seasoned in your faith, I can say the words that have been said for centuries: “The body of Christ, given for you.” But for others, saying something like this only produces more questions, and so I will adapt the words, and instead I might say something like, “The gift of God for you” or “This is Jesus” or “God loves you.”

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A few months ago we had a fairly typical Sunday service, the sermon was around a B- quality, the hymns fit well with the theme of worship, and then we moved to the table. We said and did what we always do, and then we feasted. I offered the body of Christ to all who came forward and there was a young girl who I’d never seen before, and when I tore off the bread I said to her, “God loves you.” And then I kept serving everyone else.

When our service ended, the young girl’s mother shook my hand on her way out of church and then she said words I’ll never forget, “That’s the first time my daughter’s ever had communion. Thank you.”

And I couldn’t help but think, “What if that was the first time she ever heard that God loves her?”

Years from now I can imagine that girl graduating high school and entering college. Though fully endowed with a message of faith and love here in this place one Sunday, she never steps foot in a church after that day for one reason or another. High School is tough for her as she wrestles with her identity and wondering if life is about more than what she has experienced. The good grades never feel good enough, the friendships never feel close enough, and no matter what she tries it always seems like something is missing.

So without really knowing why, she applies to some university, and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new chapter will be better than high school.

Sadly, it’s not. College life for her is filled with even more people, and she feels less and less connected. She falls through the cracks of campus life and spends far too much time alone in her dorm. She still believes that life must get better but she’s not seeing any indication of it. One night, however, her roommate invites her to a campus ministry service. She reluctantly attends, and is truly underwhelmed by the experience.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Gospel, whatever that means. She sits and listens attentively but she knows that she’ll never come back. But right before the service ends, the pastor brings out a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately, the girl is brought back to that morning when she walked down the aisle in this church when she heard a bearded man wearing a long black dress talking about communion. While her mind is flooded with memories from the past she makes her way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out her hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus while the pastors whispers just loud enough for her to hear: “God loves you.”

But, sadly, I can imagine that even after that profound moment of the past catching up with her future present, the knowledge of God’s love doesn’t stick. The girl continues through school and eventually meets her husband. They get married shortly after graduation, and move to a new city for work. Years pass, and even though all of the things on the outside look perfect – she has a few children, a steady job, and a home – she still feels like something is missing.

She tries to find fulfillment in her life: She joins young professional groups, she volunteers at the local soup kitchen when she has time, she even helps start a community garden. But nothing seems to fill the void she feels.

One day, however, a neighbor invites her and her family to the local United Methodist Church. She laughs while responding about how her mother dragged her to a UMC one Sunday morning when she was a kid but the neighbor is persistent and she eventually agrees to go to worship.

The woman sits with her family in church on Sunday morning. She stands when she is supposed to, sings when everyone else does, she even bows her head and mutters some version of a prayer under her breath. She listens to the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and too repetitive. And then the pastor moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ offers without price. The pastor says, “This table is the one true place we can find who we are and whose we are, because in the bread and cup we discover grace. We are living in a time when the Word of the Lord is rare – but at this table you can hear God calling, because here you find the God whose finding you.”

With tears welling up in here eyes, tears she cannot explain, the woman walks forward. She remembers that day long ago at Cokesbury UMC, she remembers the night in college when she walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as she stretches out her hands the pastor whispers just loud enough for her to hear, “God loves you.” And for the first time she believes it.

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One of the hardest things in the world to accept is the fact that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we, more than anyone else, know what we have done and what we have left undone. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we believe that we are unworthy of the love of God we so often hear about in church.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it takes more than a simple affirmation from the pulpit, it takes more than hearing it whispered during communion, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard for the message to sink deep in every fiber of our being. We need to hear those words over and over and over again but they are true and remarkable and difficult.

When the Word of the Lord was rare during Eli and Samuel’s life, no one was expecting God to do something like call upon a young boy in the temple. The call completely disrupted his life not with peace, but with a call to disturb to the peace.

Why a kid? God does not call the equipped, God equips the called. God bypassed the expected and seasoned possibility of Eli, and went instead for the untrained and immature Samuel.

God does whatever God wants. But this story, this calling, is also about more than that. God loves upsetting our expectations.

God loves loving us, even when we do not love ourselves. Amen.

Flashing Forth Flames of Fire

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Imagine, if you can, that I was a middle student and I came to your office one day and asked you to explain the Trinity. What would you say?

I was sitting at a table surrounded by pastors and lay people from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and they were evaluating whether or not I had been effective in my first three years of ministry. This was one of the last requirements to be fully ordained, and get to wear a stole like this one.

So I was sitting there at the table having already fielded an hour’s worth of theological questions when I was asked to explain the nature of the Trinity to a hypothetical middle schooler.

What would you say?

The three most popular analogies for the Trinity are as follows:

The Trinity is like an egg. At one moment it is three distinct things – a shell, a yolk, and an egg white. Without all three it ceases to be an egg. However this fails to justice to the Trinity because it cannot be divided into parts, but the egg can.

Another analogy is that the Trinity is like water. Water, depending on external temperature, can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. And regardless of what state it is in, the chemical composition remains the same. However, this too fails to do justice to the Trinity because water can change into gas, or vice versa, but the Father does not become the Son or the Spirit.

Finally, there’s the analogy of the shamrock. St. Patrick was once said to have picked up a shamrock and say, just as there are three leaves, but there is one plant – so it is with the Trinity. However, this falls apart with the fact that the shamrocks have different parts and that is not true for the Trinity.

Pretend I’m a middle schooler and I wanted to know about the Trinity. What would you say?

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Today is Trinity Sunday. It always falls on the Sunday immediately following Pentecost and it is a time for us to confront our three-in-one God. It continues us throughout the period we call Ordinary Time until Advent. Many churches use this day as a teaching moment to help illuminate church doctrine about what it means to be Trinitarian. They might break out some water, or eggs, or shamrocks and do what they can to help all in attendance to understand what we believe just a little bit better.

            But here’s the thing – For as much as our God is a present and revealing God, our God is also incomprehensibly and uncontainably complex.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings! The voice of the Lord thunders, it breaks the cedars, the Lord shakes the wilderness, the Lord flashes forth like flames of fire!

The psalmist conveys to us images of the divine that have far more to do with destruction and devastation than with eggs, water, and shamrocks. Here we discover a God who causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare, such that all the people in God’s temple say, “Glory!”

Most of us have come of age in a world where the God of scripture has been conveyed to us through analogy after analogy, where professional Christians like me have endeavored to bring people like you closer to the divine, when the truth of the matter is that we cannot describe God, and God is the One who encounters us.

Our God cannot be contained by metaphors and analogies for middle school students – our God is as overwhelming as a windstorm leaving a forest bare, as frightening as a voice that can shake the wilderness, and as bewildering as flames of fire flashing forth.

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The church, the Bible, the Trinity, they are all confusing, and we can blame it on God. God reveals God’s self in ways we cannot imagine or rationalize, and choose to be God for us as Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way that it is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe.

And so, with all this confounding confusion, what can we say about our God?

Perhaps, we can say that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. We can say this because God chose to reveal God’s self to us in the person and incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus, like God, is anything but simple.

In Jesus, God got physical, explicit, and peculiar. God came close to us, too close for comfort for many. Jesus is God in action. Jesus is God refusing to remain an abstract idea removed to a far off place. Jesus is God breaking forth from the shackles of God’s own divinity.

But, lest we fall into a day-dream version of God in Jesus through the lens of sentimentality… God is still the God of the psalm flashing forth flames of fire.

I once heard that God is at least as nice as Jesus, but the same holds true that Jesus is at least as frightening as God.

            And then we’re left with another question: Who is God’s peace for?

After describing the destructive power of the Lord, the psalm ends with a call for God to give strength to God’s people and for them to be blessed with peace. What about those who are not part of God’s people? What does this peace actually look like? Does God take sides?

The answers to those questions are as confusing an as ambiguous as the Trinity itself.

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The Lord blesses the sons and daughters of Abraham but they live in a time of famine.

            They are rescued by Joseph only to become slave in Egypt.

            Led by Moses they escape bondage to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

            Joshua delivers them to the Promised Land but they are never really at peace.

            There are wars after wars and the so-called “chosen people” lose just as often as they win. They are taken into exile, or forced to wait for loved ones to return home. And when they are reconciled, if ever, peace is the last thing on their minds.

We can read these stories over and over again in the Old Testament, we can encounter those elected and rejected by God, but we don’t have to look far to know that it is true – we war among ourselves all the time; father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother, sister against sister. And then we still ask, “Are we going to encounter the God of earthquakes, flames of fire, and whirling winds – Is God on our side?” Or, perhaps better put, “When will the Lord finally bless us with peace?”

Psalm 29, the doctrine of the Trinity, they both raise more questions than they provide answers. People like you and me have been struggling with these words and ideas for centuries, we’ve been tugged between the tension and ambiguity of God’s nature in the world and in our very lives.

We worship a God who blesses, but we live in a world where bad things happen to good people nonetheless. There is no easy and satisfying answer to the question of whether or not God takes sides, just as there is no easy and simple analogy for the Trinity.

We may never be able to avoid the confusing nature of faith completely. So much of what we do is based on a premise of mystery – we just happen to live in a world hell-bent on having an answer for everything.

If all this talk of trinitarianism and God’s frightening power seems a bit overwhelming, you are not alone. There are plenty of churches and communities that make this easier on the brain with simple analogies and ignorant assumptions. But there is no way for us to do justice to the marvelous complexity, the community in unity of the divine, without believing in the three-in-one God. We cannot worship God in faith without struggling and wrestling with the question of God’s preferences.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement struggled with his knowledge of God. He read all the right books and went to the right school, and even became a priest in the Church of England without believing in the faith he preached. He struggled and struggled to the point that when he asked one of his mentors what to do about leading a church without faith his mentor said, “preach until you get it.”

And it was 280 years ago this week that John Wesley wrote something rather remarkable in his diary: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God work in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had spent most of his life looking for God, when in the end God was the one who found him and warmed his heart. That moment changed everything, that society meeting on Aldersgate is largely responsible for the existence of the United Methodist Church today.

God comes to us, all of us, at any time and at any place, as Father-Son-Spirit. For some God flashes forth like flames of fire, and for others God’s flame is found in the warmth of our hearts. God finds us and, contrary to what we might want, God doesn’t answer all of our questions. Yet when God encounters we discover an assurance that this God is with us.

When the far-off One who has been brought near is us, when the wall that has been destroyed is the wall we build in a vain attempt to keep God out of our lives and off our backs, that’s when we start to know the Trinity.

Faith, however, will always remain a mystery. We will find ourselves confused by the God who finds us. Because, in the end, it may simply be too frightening to think about God’s peace, whatever that is. It might be too overwhelming to think that God is not on our side, or worse: God might be on their side.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as we leave scratching our heads, we do so with the hope that God will bless us with true peace – not as we know peace or wish to know peace; a peace that is always defined on our terms. No, this Trinity Sunday, we pray for the peace, the perfect peace, that is known and shared within the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.

            And, we may be so bold so pray, that God might warm our hearts in the process. Amen.