Thinking In Hymns

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with T. Bryson Smith about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6.6-19, Luke 16.19-31). Bryson serves at Good Shepherd UMC in Richmond, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ministry mistakes, wrestling references, theological mortgages, singing our faith, unknown words, deliverance, using the right tenses, cultivating community, ridiculous love, money, and the end of the game. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Thinking In Hymns

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Unknowable – A Wedding (Renewal) Homily

Matthew 6.25-34

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the filed, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the filed, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” Or “What will we drink?” Or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for such things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. 

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No one knows what they are doing when they get married.

Everyone thinks they know what marriage will look like because they assume that everything is like how it is portrayed in the movies. Which, most of the time, never shows the marriage, but only everything leading up to it. We, then, bring to the altar all these preconceived notions about what our marriages will be when the truth is none of us know what we are doing.

Allow me to present a resounding example:

I asked Rosina a few months ago if she could remember what it was that drew her closer to Nathaniel all those years ago. She charmingly brought a finger to her chin and furrowed her brow only to declare that the thing that most attracted her to him was his hair.

His hair, huh?

Where is all of that hair now?!

We have no idea what we’re doing when we get married because we, as people, are forever changing. That’s why the act of Christian marriage is one of the more bizarre things any of us can do, because we know not what the future holds and yet we make a promise, a covenant, to face that future with another person.

Now, I want to be clear that most of you here know Nathaniel and Rosina better than I do simply because you’ve known them longer than I have. But I do know that all of us here can attest to the fact that your marriage is nothing short of a miracle.

It is a miracle not only because neither of you really knew what you were getting into but also because Rosina has had to put up with all your nonsense all of these years Nathaniel! She really is the pastor of your family because she knows what real forgiveness looks like.

I’m only kidding around. 

It is a miracle because all marriages are miracles. God sees us, really sees us, with all of our idiosyncrasies, and all of our needs, and all of our faults, and all of our failures, and says, “Why not put these two together? They can probably figure it out.”

And figure it out you have.

But let’s get back to the beginning shall we? You two are here, after all, to renew your wedding vows and there’s no better way to do that than by remembering how you got here.

The story goes that one of Nathaniel’s cousins had a salon and one day Rosina walked in to get her hair done. Now, Nathaniel had seen her around town before this momentous meeting took place, he told me that he still loves the way you walk (!), but when he saw her in the salon he knew he had to do something.

To be clear, most enterprising young men would think of a witty remark to offer, or would simply ask if the young woman would like to go out sometime. But no, not Nathaniel. Instead he had it worked up in his mind to make a grand gesture. So what did her do? He paid for her hair.

For a complete stranger!

But he knew it would take some time for it to all wrap up so he decided that he could come back later to reveal his plan and see if his kindness could land him a date.

I can only imagine how puffed up your chest must have been that afternoon as you walked around town. You must’ve thought you were the smartest man alive.

And yet, when Nathaniel returned to the salon, Rosina was long gone!

Rosina left with a free hairdo and Nathaniel was left with the bill!

Eventually they did meet up with each other, they decided to go out together one night, and the spent the entire time talking to each other.

And now here you two are all these years later.

I know, for a fact, that neither of you could’ve have predicted where your relationship would take you. 

For instance, Nathaniel, there’s no way you could’ve known that after applying to the immigration lottery for years and years that Rosina would win on her first try. 

There’s no way either of you could’ve anticipated leaving most of your lives behind in Ghana to try out a new life here in the United States. 

There’s no way you could imagined having the incredible children that you have.

There’s no way you could’ve known that one day you’d be standing in front of a pastor as old as you two have been together renewing your marriage vows!

Your entire relationship has been one with mountaintops and valleys. You both can look back over the years and remember both the laughter and the disappointment. That’s what makes marriage work. You know that you don’t know anything. But you cling to one another in the midst of the mystery.

And here’s what you have to show for it. Turn around please, and take in this view. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. For here, in this space, you are forced to confront the strange truth that your marriage was never really up to you in the first place. Everyone in this room has played a part to bring you back to the covenant you made so long ago. 

Sure, we could chalk it up to your great sense of style Nathaniel, or we could attribute it to your marvelous hair Rosina. Or still yet we could give credit to Nathaniel’s loyalty and honesty, or even Rosina’s passion and faith.

But the truth of the matter is that these people, and the Lord Almighty, have done more for your marriage than you could possibly imagine.

Now back to me. 

When we were meeting to plan out this whole covenant renewal I asked both of you to consider an interesting question. Most of the time when I’m marrying a couple I ask them to imagine what marriage is, or what their marriage will look like. 

But the two of you have been married for awhile now which meant I got to turn the question around. So instead of asking you to imagine marriage I asked you to consider what advice you would give to other people getting married.

Who could be better at offering advice than those who have already journeyed through the crucible of marriage?

And I loved your answer: “You need to have patience! It’s the most important thing in the world because patience can fix anything. And you have to pray. Marriage is hard, and you can’t do it on your own, you need God with you.”

So what do all marriages need? Patience and prayers.

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It would seem to me, therefore, that we haven’t changed much since the time of Jesus. The disciples were a bunch of worriers. They worried about everything. And do you know what the only good that can come from worrying is? More worrying.

And Jesus decides to speak directly into their anxieties and their fears with words that have resounded throughout the centuries: Don’t worry about your life! Think about the birds of the air… do you think they spend all their time flying so high filled with worry? No. They are fed and that is enough. When will you ever learn that you have enough?!

Do you think that by worrying you can add one minute to your lives? Of course not, worrying takes away life. 

Think instead upon the grace of the Lord, who cares not about your faults and failures, who worries not about your faithfulness or grace, but who satisfied to shower life and life abundant down upon you for no good reason at all. 

Stop worrying about tomorrow! God is in control. God knows what you need. And God provides.

This was the first passage that came to mind when I began considering your covenant renewal. Because you two are the type of people who know, more often than not, that all of the good in your life, your friends, your family, your faith, never came from you in the first place. Sure, you two look good, you are clothed better than Solomon in all of his glory, and yet you hold a humility that Solomon never knew.

You two see, better than most, how truly blessed you really are. And, more importantly, you know that you can’t take it for granted.

In my life I have rarely encountered two people for whom their joy is as infectious as yours. 

It doesn’t matter if I’ve preached the worst sermon of my life, Nathaniel, you are always waiting in the narthex to cheer me up. 

It doesn’t matter if I’m going through all kinds of stuff in my life, Rosina, because you always great me with a tremendous smile and encourage me to be grateful.

It’s one thing to talk about how all these people have played a role in your lives, and in your relationship, and in your marriage, but its another thing entirely for all of us to praise God for putting you two in our lives. Your commitment to one another has given us a glimpse of God’s commitment to us – an unwavering, joyful, and even at times ridiculous connection that will go on forever.

However, lest we give you two too much credit, all of the good that has come from your marriage came first from God. God gives more than we deserve. God loves us even when we do not love him back. God has turned the world upside down for us in the person of his Son so that we might always walk in the glory of the resurrection.

I see and I feel and I know resurrection in this life because I know both of you. I can believe in impossible things because you two shine the light of Christ through your lives each and every day.

So, Rosina and Nathaniel, thank you for blessing us. And may the Lord continue to bless you in your marriage such that you are filled with a prayerful patience that can lead you through even more surprises. Amen. 

For The Love Of God

Luke 13.31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting our demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

On Friday afternoon, a man parked his car in front of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He calmly walked into the building while the community was in the midst of prayer, and he pulled out a gun. However, right before he began firing the first victim’s final words were spoken aloud, “Hello brother.”

By the time the extraordinarily unprecedented acts of violence came to an end, 49 people were dead, and another 48 were in the hospital being treated for injuries. Some of whom were young children.

New Zealand’s Police commissioner spoke on television during an evening news conference that night to share the horrific news with the country and he urged everyone to avoid mosques and encouraged all mosques in the country to close their doors until they heard from the police.

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What a horrifically horrible thing to take place. The reverberations of such were felt across the world as mosques here in the US had extra security for their Friday and weekend services. 

Sadly, many of them already have to have security for their worship services.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we were told that this place, our house of worship, was off limits because of violence? Can you imagine how it would feel in the pits of stomachs if we were told to avoid churches because they were no longer safe?

And yet, we don’t have to imagine what that is like.

Whether it’s a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque, we know what violence can do to places of worship.

Charleston.

Pittsburgh.

Sutherland Springs.

And those are just the places in the last few years.

Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent – the season of repentance and introspection. In scripture we confront the tones of abject disappointment from the Messiah as the cross get sharper and sharper on the horizon. 

Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to come home. 

Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do. 

Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one that we adorn our sanctuaries with.

Are we surprised that as Jesus’ ministry progresses, his frustrations increases just as the obstacles standing in his way increase?

The political and religious establishments are threatened by this poor rabbi and his message of the new kingdom. Can we blame them? They know what it means to be in the places of prestige and power and then this wandering Jew shows up with his ragtag group of followers with talk of the meek inheriting the earth.

Which makes this passage all the more strange. It’s rather particularly peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.

“Go away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Are they really worried about him? Or is this but another part of their political machinations to ultimately get him killed?

Scripture doesn’t answer our questions, but it is clear that Jesus is determined in spite of the warnings, to reach his goal. No cunning fox and no city of rebellion will keep him from doing what he must do.

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In fact, those two will ultimately be responsible for Jesus paying the ultimate price in his ultimate place.

During the season of Lent, the scriptures appointed for us compel us to keep our eyes on the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is now on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end of this marathon of ministry. And Jesus loves Jerusalem.

But it is a strange love.

He compares his love for the city to a mother hen’s love for her chicks. 

Even though Jerusalem has responded to God’s love with rebellion, with selfish ambition, and with violence.

Somehow, Jesus holds that two incompatible things together.

He loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.

And though it’s hard for us to admit, the same holds true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our rebellion, it such that it eventually leads to his death.

Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward Jerusalem, and all that it holds for him, which of course means that Jesus is on an unstoppable journey toward us, the very people who still persist in following our own way.

One of the most difficult things to reckon with in the gospel accounts is how much the ministry of Jesus transcends all of our understandings of right and wrong and first and last and good and bad. It cuts straight through the margins that exist in our world and creates something so new, so very new, that we are still afraid of it, even all these 2,000 years later.

Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus is unwavering and persistent in his desire to bring in those who were once cast out, to raise up those once beaten down, and to gather near those who were once lost. 

Which, ostensibly, sounds like good news.

And yet, it’s as if we haven’t heard it.

Or, at the very least, we act as if it isn’t true.

The kingdom of God is always bigger than we can imagine. Or to put it another way, the scope of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are always larger than we limit them to be. 

But, throughout history and even today, the longer we make the table, the more upset we become.

The man who marched into the mosques last week leaving a trail of blood in his wake did so with white supremacist slogans painted on the side of his weapons. For whatever reason, he could not imagine a world in which those whom he killed had any worth or value.

The same holds true for just about all of the expressions of religious violence that have taken place in the world. Whether it was the young man who walked into Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the crusades, to the massacre of 6 million Jews, to just about anything else we can remember or imagine, they, in some way, boil down to the fact that people could not stand being with other people. 

There was a story that was reported following the attack at the mosques in New Zealand that received very little coverage. While news outlets were entering the foray of gun control debates and whether or not political leaders would denounce white nationalism, the entire Jewish population of New Zealand agreed to close their doors for Sabbath observance on Saturday – not out of fear or the expectation of violence, but simply to be in solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters who were told not to enter Mosques.

Think about that for a moment.

An entire religious institution agreed that rather than doing what they wanted, rather than continuing to maintain the status quo this weekend, they would choose be in solidarity with those who were marginalized and attacked. 

Meanwhile, these two groups, in other parts of the world, have absolutely nothing to do with one another and are often at the forefront of antagonism.

The violence that took place in the mosques was absolutely unprecedented, but so too was the response of the Jewish community in New Zealand. 

In many ways, that’s what the work of Christ looks like. It is beyond out ability to imagine or even comprehend. It is a willingness to be with the very people who rest at the root of our frustrations. It is a witness to a faithful belief that all really means all.

Or, to use the words of another preacher:

No one is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

Each person’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in humankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bells tolls,

It tolls for thee.

And yet, how many days will it take before most of us are distracted by the next problem or the next tragedy? How long will we continue to keep certain people far off while gathering in the people we like?

There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, a marker of our delivery from the captivity to Sin and Death. But, in it, we also discover our mutual rebellion from the one who came to live and die and live again for us.

There is a great leveling on the hill called Golgotha. Because until that moment, as Jesus says, the house was left to us. And, we can admit on our better days, when the house is left to us we like to chose who is able to join us in the house. We like to create our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is included and who is excluded.

But so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God. 

Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. 

It will be a place where every attempt at making the table longer results in more anger, in more vitriol, and in more violence. 

It will be a place of our own making, and therefore our own doom. 

God in Christ desperately desired to gather us in, all of us, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And again and again and again we were unwilling to do so. Whether it was our voice that led to the exclusion of others, or we ourselves felt the wrath of being excluded, the door remained closed.

So Jesus leaves the house to us.

But not forever. 

“Truly I tell you, you will not see me until the times comes when you say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Those are the words sung by the crowds waving their palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back on a donkey. Those are the same words we will be singing in a few weeks.

Jesus does not abandon us to our own devices and to our own houses. Instead he arrives in the strangest of ways and triumphantly declares, through his death, this is my Father’s house!

Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is so unlike us! He continues to work to gather all of us in even while we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing that we often choose the wrong thing or avoid doing the right thing. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we think the house belongs to us!

This Lenten season, it is good and right for us to confront the frightening reality of our reality. Whether its in New Zealand, or in our back yards, this world is full of people, people like us, who simply cannot fathom the other being our brother or the stranger being our sister.

But the cross is free to all, and from it flows a healing stream for all.

And all means all.

Whether we like it or not. Amen.

Love Is A Crazy Thing

Devotional: 

Jeremiah 17.9

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?

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Last night I frantically paced through the grocery store while looking for Valentine’s Day gifts. You might be thinking that I am a delinquent husband neglecting to properly procure said gifts with plenty of days to spare, but these were not little trinkets for my wife. Instead I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could hand out during his Preschool party today. 

Tucked away in the corner of the store were shelves upon shelves of pink, red, and white. And at the bottom were the kid friendly gifts and when my son saw a package containing Lightning McQueen pencils, he tucked them under his arm and triumphantly declared, “We’ve got our plan!”

This morning, as we were walking across the parking lot toward his preschool, he inexplicably looked up at me with his Valentines in his hand and asked, “Daddy, why do we give these presents?”

And I realized that I had yet to even explain Valentine’s Day to him.

In the moment I just offered a brief response about how it’s a kind way to show the people around us that we love them, but upon getting back to my car I couldn’t get his question out of my head.

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Because I know about Saint Valentine for whom the day is named, and it’s always been strange for me to reconcile what so many of us will do tomorrow with who he was.

There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. But perhaps the most famous was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought him his blind daughter and asked him to heal her – if Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.

So Valentine placed his hands on the girls blind eyes and her vision was restored.

Overcome by the miracle the judge eventually agreed to be baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.

Later Valentine was arrested again for his continued attempts to evangelize and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Though Claudius liked having Valentine around, he tried to convince the emperor to become a Christian and the emperor condemned him to death unless he renounced his faith.

Valentine refused the emperor’s request and was beheaded on February 14th, 269.

Later additions to the story imply that shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a note to the young girl he once healed and signed it “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspired the Hallmark holiday that tomorrow brings.

So what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of flower?

The prophet Jeremiah warns that the heart is devious above all else. It compels people to do incredible things, but it can also compel people to do horrible things. Who can possibly understand what love can make us do?

I often think it’s crazy to see the kind of stuff people will do tomorrow, including the amount of money that people will spend of trivial and fleeting items. But others will say that Valentine’s willingness to give his life for Jesus is even worse.

Love is a crazy thing.

It just also happens to be how God feels about us.

So much so that God in Christ, out of love, mounted the hardwood of the cross to die for us.

Happy early Valentine’s Day!

All You Need Is…

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

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. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 

Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. I can put in the hours of preparation, I can fall to my knees in prayer, but a lot of being a pastor is like fumbling around in the darkness.

My first wedding took place a few months after I arrived at my first church. I had done my due diligence with the couple, took them through the wringer of premarital counseling, I even walked them through the ceremony step by step, but when the actual moment arrived, I felt woefully unprepared.

I knew the expectation was that the bride was supposed to be kept away from the husband until that magical moment she she appeared by the door at the back of the sanctuary when the photographer knew to take a picture of the very-soon-to-be-husband crying as he took in his very-soon-to-be-wife in her wedding dress. So I sequestered the bride and the bridesmaids in a Sunday school room on the other side of the building, and I waited with the groomsmen in the narthex and greeted all of the friends and family on their way in.

When it felt like enough people had arrived and it was time to get things started, I pulled one of the groomsmen to the side and I said, “I’m going to go check on the girls so we can get this show on the road.”

I walked through the empty hallways until I could hear the girls laughing with gleeful expectation, and they told me they needed about 5 more minutes and then they’d be ready to go.

But when I made it back to the narthex, the groomsmen were missing.

Well, they weren’t missing missing. But they certainly weren’t where they were supposed to be. In fact they were already in the sanctuary, standing up at the altar, staring at the narthex doorway, waiting for the bridesmaids and the bride. 

And not only were the groomsmen looking back in anticipation, but so was every single person in the sanctuary.

Now, to be abundantly clear, five minutes might not sound like a long time, but it can feel like an eternity when the expectations are all caught up in the hopes and dreams of a wedding service.

For the first minute people politely smiled and waited patiently. But by minute two, the beads of sweat started appearing on foreheads, and by minute three, groups of people started fanning themselves.

I, trying my best to ease the tension, started walking down the aisle as slowly as I possibly could to make it appear as if this were all part of the plan. But even when I made it to the groom I knew there was still too much time, so I knelt down on the floor and started praying for the girls to hurry up. Because of the architecture of the sanctuary I strained to listen and eventually I heard their high heels scuffling across the floor in the hallway behind us, and finally, FINALLY, they stood in the back and we could get on with everything.

But, as it would have to happen, the first bridesmaid walked in the frame and seeing all of the eyes peering down on her, particularly with the added fear about a potential missing bride situation, she just froze in silence.

I subtly motioned for her to come forward, and then I eventually just started waving my hands out of frustration. And when she did start to move she walked down the aisle even slower than I did.

The poor pianist was running out of music to play.

Eventually the bride stepped onto the carpet, being escorted by her father and everyone stood in joy and excitement. The ceremony could truly begin, and after welcoming everyone into the space I said to the father, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

And he forgot what to say.

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We bring all sorts of cultural expectations with us into the big moments of our faith. Whether or not we’ve attended a lot of weddings, or funerals, or baptisms we certainly know what they’re supposed to look like because we’ve seen them in plenty of movies.

Many of us can remember any number of rom-coms in which the minister says something like, “If anyone should see why these two should not be lawfully married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Many of us can call to mind a great number of scenes in which an entire group of people are covered in black from head to tow, while standing in the rain, watching casket being lowered into the ground.

And many of us can immediately picture the Corleone family flanking the priest by the baptismal font for the infamous baptism scene in the Godfather.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done plenty of weddings, and funerals, and baptisms and to my knowledge none of them have been interrupted by a would-be lover stepping in at the last second, I’ve never been to a perfectly monochromatic funeral service, let alone a burial in the rain, none of the them have resulted in a mafia style massacre.

But those types of things make for great dramatic moments that keep us on the edge of our seats.

And, in the same way we bring our expectations into those moments, we do that with scripture as well. By my estimation this is done more with 1 Corinthians 13 than any other text in the Bible. I probably don’t even need to read the actual words before many of us will immediately think about big white dresses, and rented tuxedos. 

Love is patient, love is kind.

Can you smell the floral bouquets, and hear the nervous pitter pattered footsteps of the ring bearer and flower girl waiting to walk down the aisle?

The majority of us have heard these words before, and we think we know what they mean. They are so familiar that we can scarcely imagine them meaning anything else.

But their familiarity is also their downfall.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and I have held fast to one rule in all of them – I will preach on any text from the entirety of the Bible during a wedding ceremony, but I refuse to preach on 1 Corinthians 13. 

It’s all about love, and marriage has to be about more than love. Love, whatever it may be, is not nearly enough to sustain two people through the crucible that marriage is. No love is strong enough when we are stripped of all of our defense and all of our disguises. Love doesn’t help us when all of our imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.

So instead, I’ll preach a sermon in which the honesty about the difficulty of marriage will leave people squirming. Not because I get satisfaction out of it (well maybe I do), but because I don’t want people entering into marriage thinking its easier than it really is.

The other reason I refuse to preach on this text, much to the chagrin of some couples, is that it doesn’t really have anything to do with marriage in the first place, of even with love we feel toward other people.

1 Corinthians 13 is about God.

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The Corinthian Christians were abusing their freedom in Christ – they refused to share in common the kinds of things that were normative in the church, certain individuals were not participating in the joy of the community and still yet others were jockeying for positions of respect at the expense of the poor and the marginalized.

The differences within the body of Christ were apparently too difficult to overcome.

The church, since the earliest gatherings, has always been full of differing theological opinions, programs, organizations, missions, and ministries. And for most of the time, there has been plenty of room for this kind of diversity to exist peacefully.

But tensions always rise.

It happened in Corinth.

It’s happening in the United Methodist Church right now.

And it will continue to happen in the future.

Fights about space, or time, or money, or personalities, or even political proclivities infuse the church and lead to the kind of divisions that have haunted the church for centuries.

Social and cultural concerns press in upon the church and lead some to insist that its either my way, or no way. Which completely neglects to even consider that Jesus is the way!

When these things happen, Christians seem to have this incredible and blinding power of masking our self-interest with self-righteousness.

I’m right.

You’re wrong.

And this church ain’t big enough for the two of us.

Over and over and over again. 

And in the midst of this infighting, whether in Corinth, or now, or somewhere in the future, we Christians forget that there are most important things than being right or even being powerful!

Whenever we think we have gained everything by standing on principle, or dominating others, or simply being “right”, we have already lost it all.

If we want to be faithful, if we want to follow Jesus as the way, rather than believing we know the way, then this text stings in a way than it doesn’t when its read aloud at weddings. Because the passion of love and intimacy that we might reserve for those who exchange rings implies a willingness to not only know someone else deeply and truly, but also to be known by someone else deeply and truly.

And for us, this takes place between us and God.

This text isn’t about our love for each other, or even our love for God, but God’s love for us.

God is the love that holds up a mirror to who we are and reveals to us the stranger that we are to ourselves.

We, in and of ourselves, are not capable of the kind of love described for us by Paul. We are not patient, nor are we kind. We certainly aren’t free of envy or boasting. Not with our friends, not with our families, not with our spouses, and not even with our church.

The sentimentality of a patient and kindly love expressed at weddings ignores the active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering love that God has for us!

But whenever we come across this text, at a wedding or on a Sunday morning, it is always whittled down to another thing we are supposed to do. In the Bible, the Law is always a list of you must do this, or you must not do this. And it shows up in our lives all the time – all of the shoulds, musts, oughts, that we constantly hear in the back of our minds. 

And, like the expectations we bring to the Bible, when we encounter this call to love, it does not result in a kind of joyful and carefree freedom, instead it bears down upon us like the weight of the world.

Simply because we know we can’t do it. 

The Law and the call to love shines a painful light on all of our failures, all of our fractures, all of our fears. And so when we read this passage about love, the result is that we just kind of wind up feeling worse about ourselves.

But, and it’s a big but, Paul’s talk about love isn’t meant to be the Law. It’s not supposed to be a call to executing the loving order that’s detailed over these thirteen verses. It’s not meant to be a club that we swing around at other people for nothing loving us enough.

In fact, it’s supposed to the opposite of the Law…

It’s the gospel.

As a friend of mine wrote this week: It’s the Law that says, “Be loving.”

But the Gospel says, “You are loved.”

This often used marriage scripture isn’t about what we do, or even how we treat each other. It’s about how Jesus does these things when we cannot.

If God is love, then so is Jesus.

Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. 

Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Jesus never ends.

So, we can go and love the people around us. We can even love the people we hate. The world could certainly use a little more love. But there is a big difference between “be love” and “be loved.”

The former is the Law.

And the latter is the Gospel. Amen.

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. 

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.