This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5, John 14.23-29). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including hymnody, marriage, vikings, dreams, communal discernment, ecclesial friendship, world-turning, the joy of judgment, Eugene Peterson, fear, timelessness, church architecture, peace, and endings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Lamb Lamp
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the 5th Gospel, visible vindication, marital imagery, Good News For Anxious Christians, judgment as transformation, sentimentality, spiritual gifts, communal confirmations, the atonement, and new wine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Operating System Of The New Testament
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Tell me about your last fight.
That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.
There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything.
There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.
But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”
To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”
I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.
And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”
Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.
Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.
Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.
Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.
And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.
This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One.
I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.
And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.
We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.
And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.
And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.
So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.
Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.
Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?
When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…
I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little twinge of vulnerability.
I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.
And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.
However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.
The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!
In the end, that’s Advent.
More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.
Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.
That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me.
Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents.
Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.
Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!
Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.
Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.
This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.
I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!
In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.
And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.
But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.
And that’s a big if.
But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.
And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!
That’s wild stuff.
It’s what we call grace.
Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.
God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.
Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.
That’s not just great news, its Good News!
Happy New Year! Amen.
1 Corinthians 12.12-13
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Two years ago I stood before you, Mike, and a whole bunch of family members and I brought you two together in, what we call in the church, holy marriage.
What makes it holy has nothing to do with those getting married and everything to do with the Lord who makes your marriage intelligible.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I can very distinctly remember the phone call I received way back when Mike asked for your hand. I can also remember that as soon as we hung up, I prayed and gave thanks to God.
I did the same thing the day you got married.
I gave thanks to God because your marriage to one another makes no sense outside of the God who delights in our coming together to become something new.
In the church we call that grace.
Today I give thanks again not because you’ve rejoiced with your partner for the last two years, or that we had such an awesome time at your wedding; I give thanks to God because your marriage is a sign, and a reminder, of the Spirit’s presence with us.
It forces people to confront the truth that your joining together points toward the unity in community that is the Trinity.
On the day of your wedding, I did my best (read: failed) to hold back tears when I watched you walk down the aisle. I grabbed your hands and placed them on Mike’s and asked you to make promises with each other about the future, a future that you could not possibly predict. I even made a joke (Jason Micheli did as well) that as Stanley Hauerwas teaches, “we always marry the wrong person.” We marry the wrong person because none of us knows what we’re doing when we get married. That we stay married to strangers who we never fully understand is yet another reminder of God’s grace.
On the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians bickered among one another about whatever it meant to follow Jesus. They refused to share communion with each other, they argued about who was really part of the new covenant, and they very quickly reverted back to the ways of life prior to Jesus interrupting their lives.
All which prompted Paul’s letter to the church regarding the “body with many members” discourse.
Today, preachers like me, use 1 Corinthians 12 to talk about how the people of a church just need to get along. After all, we all have different gifts we bring to the table.
But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve thought those same words being meant for those who are married.
Two years ago, I told you and Mike that you were becoming one flesh, I talked about how the body of Christ would be made visible through your marriage to one another, and I even hinted at the fact that the promise you made was a reminder of God’s promise to remain faithful to us.
No matter what.
God has been with both of you in every moment of your marriage and was there long before you even met each other. God, in God’s weird way, brought you two together to remind the rest of us what grace, love, and mercy really look like. Because if a marriage isn’t filled to the brim with love, grace, and mercy, it will never work.
What I’m trying to say is this: the covenant of your marriage is a reminder of the power and the necessity of the church. The church (for all her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the promise you made to each other. The church, itself, is a covenant and promise from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as the bridegroom. We, who call ourselves Christians, make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and brought to fruition in the empty tomb.
In your marriage you two have experienced what Christians experience every Sunday in worship: through hands clasped in prayer, the breaking of bread, the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the preaching of a sermon.
Your marriage is a reminder of God’s marriage with us. And for that I give thanks.
Your Big Brother
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.
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.
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.
Psalm 118.1-2, 19-24
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
For some strange reason we treat the Bible like a textbook – as something to be mastered. It’s why people are forever starting these foolish campaigns to “Read the whole Bible in a year.” I mean, good for you if you want to try it, but reading through the Bible in the year mostly guarantees that we will either resent it in the end, or we will have forgotten most of what we discovered.
Instead, the Bible begs to be considered, slowly, delicately, and above all, faithfully.
When we encounter scripture this way, as servants of the Word rather than masters of the text, we begin to see things we never saw before.
It’s like the way you two can look at a building and see things that most of us miss. You have taken the time, slowly, delicately, and faithfully to appreciate what might appear insignificant to the rest of us. And yet you know, without very particularly important elements, this room would not exist, nor would it have stood the test of time as it has.
But I’ll get back to this room a little later.
For now, I want to keep our minds firmly planted in the strange new world of the Bible. For it is a strange new world, one that opens up to us something new whenever we enter it. Whether we’re standing on the banks of the Red Sea with Moses or we’re walking around Jerusalem marveling at the buildings and stones with Jesus, we find ourselves in this book and sometimes we’re not sure if we like what we see.
Of course, there are those good and holy moments of profound beauty and clarity, but the strange new world of the Bible is equally coarse, and broken, and flawed.
It is all of those things precisely because we are in it.
The writer of Psalm 118 has been steeped in the strange new world. The writer knows that God’s steadfast love endures forever even say, in the midst of exile, or persecution, or marginalization.
It requires a willingness to believe in, or hope for, things not yet seen to keep a faith like that.
Which makes things all the more complicated when the Psalmist, inexplicably, declares the stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone.
It’s probably better to let the two of you speak of such architectural language, but for the sake of your wedding I will just make the point that there is good reason to reject certain stones. The cornerstone, after all, is the one upon which the entire building will stand. Any imperfection or crack warrants a plain dismissal because it is simply not up to snuff.
And yet, we learn that the stone rejected for its brokenness is precisely the chosen cornerstone!
Or, to put it in frighteningly applicable words, your marriage has a bad foundation.
I, of course, do not mean to imply that there is something wrong with either of you. You’re just plain old sinners like the rest of us. However, you have come to this place, with these people, to stake your claim on a marriage upon which Christ is the broken foundation.
Marriage is strange; two people willing to make a covenant into something they cannot possibly comprehend.
I like to put it this way: we always marry the wrong person.
Not because you two aren’t right for each other, but more so that we never really know who we’re marrying; we just think we do. Or even if we marry the right person, whatever that means, part of what makes us who we are is that we change.
Brent, turn to your beloved bride and take in her beautiful glow. Jane is better than you deserve – she calms all anxieties, and keeps your life together, which we all know is a herculean task. Moreover, Jane adores your incredible family, and I promise she will be the most fiercely kind person you will ever meet.
But she will change. And yet, Brent, you are making a covenant to be for her knowing full and well that she can and will change.
Your turn Jane – take a good look at your handsome soon-to-be husband. Brent is better than you deserve – he regularly puts your needs before his own. He is filled with what appears to be a never ending amount of love to give. Moreover, he goes out of his way, particularly with his crazy travel habits, to make sure that you two always have time to be together.
But he will change. And yet, Jane, you are making a covenant to be for him knowing full and well that he can and will change.
Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
That is why, at the heart of what we are doing here, is the formation of a holy covenant binding you two, and all of us with you, together.
So take a moment now, and turn to take in this room. One of the reasons churches and chapels used to be designed this way is that the room is cruciform, it takes the shape of the cross. And to have everyone facing each other is a theological witness that we are to look upon one another through the cross.
Sadly, this type of worship structure is all but gone. We’ve decided that its better to all stare at someone like me instead of looking through the cross at one another.
And so now I ask you two to look out on all who are here. Look at them through the broken cornerstone that is the cross. Your marriage is about more than just the two of you. Everyone here has already promised, they have covenanted, to hold you to your covenant. Their presence and promise is a testament to what they see, know, and believe about the two of you, and it is not something you can take for granted.
But now eyes and ears back on me.
When the three of us talked about today I asked you to consider what you thought you were getting into. And you said that marriage is a sacred thing to share in which we become totally bound to and with one another. Moreover you described it as a complete promise and connection to the person with whom you are now standing. And finally, you described marriage like a history: it holds and ties everything together.
Theologically speaking, those were pretty good answers. In fact, they might be the best. In the church we call it something like the diachronic witness – it is a declaration that moves through time in such a way that we are connected to the past, present, and future all at the same time.
I’ve done a lot of weddings, and for the longest time I believed that where people got married didn’t matter. In a church? That’s fine. Out in a vineyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.
Not only does it has this theologically intriguing style, it is also within the oldest college building still standing in the U.S.
And, I should knock on wood, it has caught fire three separate times in its long history, and yet the exterior walls remained after each fire such that they were able to build again.
Thats a pretty good metaphor for a marriage!
What I mean to say is that at the cornerstone of your marriage, is the person of Jesus Christ was was rejected by those with whom he encountered for a great number of reasons. And yet it is precisely because of his brokenness, his humanity amidst his divinity, that he rests at the foundation of all of our lives and your marriage.
This bad foundation is thus what can and will sustain you through the journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married, because there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Just as there is no perfect building.
The broken foundation of the one who mounted the hard wood of the cross frees you from the marital expectations of the world and instead invites you into the mysterious covenant you are about to make.
Marriage is strange but it is at the same time wondrous. It is wondrous because it is less about us and more about what God does in and through us. Which is why the psalmist has the confidence to declare that this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Only a God of impossible possibility could have stitched your stories together into one.
Only a God of reckless grace could look upon your flaws and all of ours and still say we are enough.
Only a God who sees perfection in imperfection would lay Jesus as the cornerstone of your marriage.
This truly is the day that the Lord has made, which is why we can rejoice and be glad in it, with you.
And so, may the God of grace and glory, God of the beginning and the end, God of life, death, and resurrection sustain you in your marriage, knowing full and well that the foundation is bad, but that’s what makes it good. Amen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an outspoken pastor and was decisively opposed to the reign of Adolf Hitler and Germany’s complicity in providing the power and leverage Hitler used to decimate parts of Europe. Bonhoeffer’s theological convictions against Hitler eventually got him locked up in prison, though he befriended enough of the guards that he was able to write and receive letters from his family.
In May 1943, while held in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote a sermon for his niece Renate and long time friend Eberhard Bethge’s wedding. The sermon is beautiful and appropriately faithful:
“Certainly you two, of all people, have every reason to look back with special thankfulness on your lives up to now. The beautiful things and the joys of life have been showered on you, you have succeeded in everything, and you have been surrounded by love and friendship. Your ways have, for the most part, been smoothed before you took them, and you have always been able to count on the support of your families and friends. Everyone has wished you well, and now it has been given to you to find each other and to reach the goal of your desires. You yourselves know that no one can create and assume such a life from his/her own strength, but that what is given to one is withheld from another; and that is what we call God’s guidance. So today, however much you rejoice that you have reached your goal, you will be just as thankful that God’s will and God’s way have brought you here; and however confidently you accept responsibility for your action today, you may and will put it today with equal confidence into God’s hands.
“As God today adds God’s ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes’ , as God confirms your will with God’s will, and as God allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, God makes you at the same time instruments of God’s will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In God’s unfathomable condescension God does ass God’s ‘Yes’ to yours; but by doing so, God creates out of your love something quite new.”
I had returned to the words of Bonhoeffer’s sermon many times (particular while preparing my own weddings sermons!) but every time I read it, I can’t help but imagine the pain of the writer knowing that he could not be there to celebrate the union of two people who meant so much to him.
According to the John’s gospel, one of Jesus’ first miracles took place at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when Jesus turned water into wine. In that poignantly beautiful moment God’s abundant grace was poured out upon the celebration of two people brought together in marriage, and yet we receive no details about the two brought together! It’s as if the gospel writer wants us to see that though marriage is important, the one doing the marrying is actually God almighty!
Or, to use Bonhoeffer’s language, when God adds God’s “Yes” to our “Yes” we become instruments of the Lord for both ourselves and for others. So, for as much as I wonder about Bonhoeffer’s disappointment from missing out on the festivities, I am reminded, through his words, that God is the focus of the covenant of marriage; it doesn’t matter if we are there to celebrate or not, because God surely is.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
She was almost 8 months pregnant. Her ankles were constantly swollen, the fatigue was nearly unbearable, but every kick she felt made it worth it. She and her husband had prayed and prayed and prayed for this baby, and in a month the baby would finally arrive.
Her parents lived states away, and she and her husband decided she should fly home for a quick weekend, one last chance to spend time with her parents before she herself became a parent.
The airports were challenging as she carried around a bunch of extra weight, but every eye that darted to her belly, and every strangers’ smile was enough to keep her moving forward.
Her parents enveloped their baby girl in their arms knowing that soon they would be grandparents and that their prayers had been answered as well. The time at home was destined to be a joyful reunion filled with the hope of the coming days, weeks, and months.
The day before she was set to fly home to her husband, she sat at the breakfast table with her parents. She held her mother’s hand on top of her belly, hoping for a quick kick that would surely bring forth a tear of unadulterated happiness, when the door bell rang.
In walked a young professional looking man, who walked straight over to hand her a large manilla envelope. But as his eyes moved to her belly, he froze in the middle of the kitchen. He muttered a barely audible, “I’m so so sorry,” deposited the parcel, and walked out of the house.
The parents and soon-to-be-parent slowly opened up the envelope.
She was almost 8 months pregnant.
Marriage is weird. Out of all the people in the world, among all of the possible conversations and interactions, some of us are brought together in a way that we believe we should make a covenant to be together for the rest of our lives.
It’s pretty strange when you take a step back to think about it.
I had a professor who loved to say that we always marry the wrong person. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with the individuals we marry, but that we don’t really know who we are marrying or what marriage really is until we do it.
Marriage is the weird and wild journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
And, for as many marriages as I’ve been blessed to preside over, I can’t help but wonder why people get married at all; particularly today. I’ve heard all of the reasons: “We love each other, “It’s the next logical step in our relationship,” “I can’t imagine marrying anyone else.”
But is that what marriage really is?
Love and logic ain’t enough.
A successful marriage, whatever that means, will never be contingent on the whims, or the romantic feelings, or the love, of those who are married. Love, as strong as it can be, is not enough to sustain couples in the midst of great tribulation. Love cannot make up for horrible lapses in judgment, terrifying domestic violence, or disturbing amounts of adultery.
Marriage is always about more than love. Marriage requires endurance, patience, hope, conversion, renewal, forgiveness, sacrifice, and reconciliation.
Marriage isn’t easy.
And that’s why more than half of all marriage end in divorce.
In the US the top three reasons for divorce have to do with money, children, and ironically enough, church itself.
All of these particular hangups stem from poor, or totally absent, communication. A couple disagrees about how to budget their money, or one of them gambles it all away without telling the other.
A couple disagrees about how to discipline a child or whether or not to have children at all.
A couple disagrees about the role the church should play in their relationship or their religious convictions can no longer harmonize with each other.
In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 per day, 16,800 per week, and 876,000 per year.
Divorce is one of the most remarkably prevalent occurrences in our culture and society to the degree that most of us have become numb to it, and we almost never talk about it in church.
We don’t take it very seriously.
Many are quick to end their marriage whenever the first hiccups are experienced, but as Christians we are called to hear what Jesus had to say about divorce, which can be a bitter pill to swallow.
So, for just a moment, imagine if you were standing up here with me looking out at everyone else. If the church is at all average, half of the married people in the room either have already been divorced, or will be by the end of their days.
That is a frightening reality considering Jesus’ words.
Some Pharisees tried to test him regarding the law on divorce because Moses allowed men to write certificates of dismissal to divorce their wives. And during the time of Moses, and Jesus, receiving that certificate was just about the worst thing that could happen to a married woman because she would effectively lose all of her rights. She could easily find herself on the street begging for food or prostituting her body for income.
Jesus was deeply deeply concerned with the marginalized people within his community, and in this particular case women who were handed a signature that destroyed their lives.
Of course, we can all admit that things have certainly changed since the days of Jesus – but maybe they haven’t changed enough.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that day is one that still casts a great shadow over families, churches, and communities: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall lead his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus talked about this kind of stuff A LOT, and yet we in the church often avoid it at all costs. Probably because half the people in the church have, in all probability, experienced divorce.
But let us at least consider something Jesus said that is of paramount importance: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
God is the one who does the joining; we are the ones who do the separating.
Or maybe a better way to put it is this: Divorce is certainly not what God intends or hopes for, but there are times when there might not be another option. Times of horrific physical abuse, or traumatic adultery, can be nearly impossible to move through, but plenty of people get divorced for some of the most mundane reasons:
“Our interests have grown apart.” “We no longer communicate effectively.” “I’m not in love anymore.”
As long as we are human beings, divorce will be a reality. Which is to say, as long as we are sinners we will sin against each other. However, we worship a God of impossible possibilities who believes in us even when we do not. We follow a first-century Jew who believed in the sanctity of covenants even when we do not live according to them. We are empowered by a Spirit of truth, and renewal, and reconciliation.
Marriage is a strange and serious thing – it is perhaps one of the most strangely serious thing that any of us will ever do.
And we know the strangely serious dimension of marriage because it is one of the preferred metaphors for the relationship between God and God’s people.
Marriage is not normative for Christian people, and is certainly not the expectation. If any us discover someone in whom we believe God can keep us covenanted with, well then good for us. If we find ourselves moving through life without ever coming to altar to make that particular covenant, then good for us too.
But marriage, whether we experience it or not, is something we are all called to know because God has covenanted to remain with us.
God stands before us again and again knowing full and well how we have failed to respond to the promise. We regularly pursue our own desires, we sin against neighbors, friends, and strangers, and we forget what God was willing, and is will, to do for us.
Jesus was able to speak with such ferocious certainty and conviction about the virtues of marriage because Jesus is the one who holds fast to the covenant even when we do not. It was in holding on to the promise that Jesus found himself nailed to the hard wood of the cross while abandoned by the bride which is the community we call the church.
Marriage is a strange and serious thing. And so is divorce. Which is why we need to talk about it.
In every marriage there is the strange discovery of realizing we don’t really know the person we married. We move through tragedies and hardships, we experience mountaintops of joy and deep valleys of sorrow, and if we are still married in the end it is because we found the true nature of the God of covenant and hope.
Marriage, though we sometimes forget, is a radical and countercultural endeavor. Jesus subverted the expectations of marriage with the Pharisees because he believed married couples should exists in plains of equity. No longer would the patriarchal norms in which women had no autonomy be present in something like marriage (though we clearly still have work to do).
Marriage has to be more than something that can be ended with a simple piece of paper. But as long as that option remains (as it should in some circumstances) the church is the place where that broken covenant can be redeemed.
After she opened the envelope, it felt like a tornado ran through the house. Every part of her hopes, and dreams, and expectations felt shattered and annihilated.
The covenant was broken.
She moved back in with her parents for the remainder of the pregnancy, and when the time came to go to the hospital she was surrounded not by her husband, but by her parents and friends.
Every bit of her life felt lifeless until she held her baby girl for the first time. And though it certainly hasn’t been easy, and she still feels the sting of pain and betrayal and hurt on a regular basis, every time she looks into the eyes of her daughter she discovers something beautiful that came out of the darkness.
Weddings take place in the church because the church is strange compared with the rest of the world. While others might ebb and flow like a kite in the wind, the church stands for something that resists our subjectivity. The church is a willing witness to the sanctity of marriage, particularly in light of Christ’s willingness to beckon us back to the throne over and over again.
The church is where married couples learn what is means to remain faithful to something that they never really could’ve imagined.
The church is where divorced individuals discover a community that will remain steadfast even if their partner didn’t.
The church is also where the sinful partner can one day find a new home and hope of redemption on the other side of repentance.
The church is where single people who never feel called to the covenant of marriage embody similar covenants with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
The church is where the virtues of marriage and the destructive nature of divorce can be laid on the throne because being together is never really about us; it’s about God. Amen.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Stories are important. In life we use stories to teach children valuable lessons about what it means to be a person in the world. We are captivated by the narratives portrayed in both books and on the big screen. Stories can make us cry, they can make us laugh, they can take us out of ourselves, and they can teach us who we really are on the inside.
And, for better or worse, we are the stories we tell.
Your story, the one you two share, is a good one, and frankly one that I’ve found myself telling to other people recently. I mean, could it be any cuter to witness the marriage of a couple who met in the 2nd grade? Think about the Lifetime Movie Channel possibilities! Cameron and Victoria sitting across from one another at the table, helping one another with their reading or their spelling, only to now be standing across one another by the altar.
It’s a good story.
A relationship born out of childhood birthday parties in which the possibility of marriage was not even a twinkle in either of your eyes.
But then the story takes a turn, from the connection catalyzed in Featherstone Elementary School (just on the other side of the road from where we stand) to Victoria moving away.
The story then fast forwards to years and years later, in adulthood, when Victoria moved back into the area for family reasons. And what does she do? She takes the initiative and reaches out to the friend from elementary school. Why? Has she had a crush all of these years and she finally wants to bring it to fruition? Have they been sending love letters back and forth over the decade plus? No.
You were just friends, and friends spend time together.
And so you did. You reconnected and started telling each other stories of the lives you had lived in the time in between. You learned each other’s narratives, you discovered common interests, and varied perspectives.
And with more and more time passing, with more stories being told, you two spent enough time together than you started developing your own story. You went places together, you explored new adventures together, and you even went to parties together.
After one such party, or maybe it was before, (the story is debated), you two found yourselves in the car. All alone with your thoughts and your stories, when you, Cameron, inexplicably wondered, out loud, “Victoria, are we going to do this thing or not?”
That’s Cameron’s favorite story to tell. And though Victoria laughs and brushes it off, I think she secretly loves it. Because in that question the whole of you were, are, and will be was held in a moment of clarity. Cameron’s question was so much more than just the words he used…
Are we going to take the only logical steps in this budding relationship in which I am discovering the truth of myself in you?
Are we going to become the people God has called us to be, by being together?
Are we going to be in the relationship everyone already thinks we’re in?
Stories are important, they are at the very heart of who we are and who we can be. But for as much as stories are important, questions are too.
Jesus stood before the crowd including his disciples and he let them know what it would take to follow him, “Let anyone who wishes to follow me deny themselves and take up their cross. For those who want to save their life must lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, or for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
You can imagine the sounds of crickets chirping as the countless crowds wonder if they really want to follow this guy. I mean, who the hell wants to lose their life? And then he drops the question, a question filled with all sorts of other questions, a question upon which all of who we were, are, and will be is held in tension: “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life, indeed what can they give in return for their life?”
“Are we going to do this thing, or not?”
Cameron, please hear me when I say this, and please don’t let it go to your perfectly bearded head: Your question for Victoria is the same question placed before everyone who claims to follow Jesus. In that profoundly beautiful, and somewhat funny moment, you laid out all your cards for what would become this moment.
And when Jesus asked his version of your question, it paved the way for what would become the cross and the empty tomb.
I know that it might sound strange to be thinking about Jesus’ death and resurrection at a wedding. You might prefer to hear about love, or beauty, or even faith. And even though marriage might have all those things, marriage is really more about commitment, and courage, and even crucifixion.
Victoria, I never learned exactly how you responded to Cameron’s question, whether it was an emphatic yes, of if you merely beamed. But regardless, your answer is what brought both of you here. Your answer led you to into a relationship that was forged in the fires of commitment and courage and a sacrifice all too similar to Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and resurrection.
And your marriage will contain even more of it.
Marriage, the covenant in which you two are about to enter, is nothing more than the confusing claim and question Jesus offered the crowd. If you want to gain new life in your partner, if you want to step into this new reality, you’re going to have to deny something within you – a desire, a dream, a daring possibility. Because in just a moment, your lives will no longer be your own. They will become inextricably tied around and with the person standing before you, and as we say, for better or worse.
But the absolutely beautiful and breathtaking part of marriage is that those lives, those stories, never really belonged to you in the first place.
Cameron, you have an incredibly dedicated work ethic and you give every little bit of yourself to everything you do, to a fault. No matter what, you tend to put other’s needs first whether it means sacrificing something you want to do, or showing up for someone who might not show up for you. And you’re really funny, or at least you think you’re really funny.
But I, and Victoria, think that one of your greatest qualities is that you are remarkably even keeled even when it might feel like life is falling apart.
Victoria, you care about other people including Cameron more than just about anyone else. You embody what we in the church call discipled selflessness. You are definitely the planner in the relationship bringing a healthy dose of organization and purpose to all that you do.
And, you are extremely punctual, which is made all the more perfect and beautiful since Cameron lives in his own time vortex.
You two are really similar in a lot of ways, and in particular with your commitment to other people. And yet, you are also very different. Frankly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Cameron you are a hunter and the Victoria you are a crafter, and that you both have separate rooms at your house dedicated to these very different interests!
I keep waiting to hear about the mash-up of these things like Victoria taking the time to knit a camouflage scarf or Cameron building a tree stand with popsicle sticks and a hot glue gun.
When that inevitably strange compilation comes together, I want to see it!
You two are the stories you tell, varied and weaving stories that come together right here, and right now. But those stories never really belonged to you in the first place.
To take up the marriage language again, we are the story God tells, for better of worse. We are the characters in the great novel of salvation, in which every chapter is better than the last, one that goes on forever and ever.
God, for some reason or another, wrote your lives in such a way that you would now prepare to enter into the new blank page of the greatest story ever told.
And lest you two fall prey to the temptation to believe that this was all up to you, and will be all up to you, I want you to turn around for just a moment, and soak up this view. Far too many weddings are focused in this direction alone, and we miss the beauty behind us; the profound wonder of a community of people who made a covenant to hold you accountable to your covenant.
Your stories do not belong to you, because they also belong to all of these people, from and whom through God is penning this one.
When we met for pre-marital counseling, I asked you two to consider what marriage really is. Not according to the world, or your parents, or even a favorite movie – I wanted to hear what you think marriage is. And you said marriage is like having an extreme best friend, in which everything is out in the open. It is a strange and wonderful new beginning together.
And then you said that that getting married here, at this church, made perfect sense because we’re right across the street from where it all began.
How poetic is that?
And so may the author of salvation, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the beginning, middle, and end – bless you in your marriage so that you may continue to tell the story of you were, who you are, and who you will be.
So, are we going to do this thing or what?