Unforgivingness

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

It’s hard to talk about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a difficult subject because there are always two sides to forgiveness: The one offering it and the one receiving it.

We, as the beautifully flawed people we are, are uncomfortable with the subject knowing that we have done things that require someone else forgiving us, and we have encountered people who have wronged us to such a degree that we have not offered them forgiveness.

Which means that no matter how we come to the subject, it leaves us squirming in our pews.

It’s one thing to offer forgiveness – it gives us all the power in the world. We can draw out the pardon until our transgressor begs and pleads. We can lord it over our spouses, or our children, or our co-workers, or even our fellow church goers with a vindictive hand.

Receiving forgiveness it a whole other thing entirely. Even if the action is genuine, we can be left feeling as if the scales will never be even again, and we can walk through the rest of our lives with a shackle to a mistake from the past. 

But we’re the church! Forgiveness is supposed to be easy, right?

Hey Lord, um, suppose someone in the church sins against me. Let’s say they talk about me behind my back and spread a vicious and totally untrue rumor. How many times should I forgive them? Does seven times suffice?

Hey Pete, seven is a good number, but why stop there? You should forgive seventy seven times.

I don’t know about you, but I can jump on board with a lot of this Christianity stuff. I’m all about the taking care of the last, least, and lost. I believe, with every fiber of my being that Jesus was raised from the dead. 

But forgiving someone seventy seven times? 

C’mon Jesus.

But, of course, forgiveness is not some moral requirement hanging out in the middle of nowhere. Forgiveness is all sorts of confused and tied up with the raising of the dead. Otherwise, forgiveness is just crazy. 

It goes against just about everything we stand for in every other part of our lives.

There are just some things that are right and some things that are wrong. If someone does something wrong well then they have to do something right to make everything good again.

But forgiveness, at least the kind that Jesus talks about, is a gift offered to the foolish and the undeserving, not a reward bestowed upon the perfect. 

Take the crucifixion… 

God asks for no response to the cross, there’s no moment when Jesus is hanging by the nails and says, “So long as all of you get all your lives together, I will raise from the dead for you.”

There’s nothing we have to do before God offers an unwavering and totally covering pardon. 

But, this doesn’t really jive with our sense of fairness and justice and yet, according to God’s mercy, the only thing necessary for our forgiveness is the death that sin has caused in the person of Jesus.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection contain all the power necessary for the strange thing we call the church.

And, for some reason, forgiveness is one of the most difficult things to talk about even though it is at the heart of what it means to be the church.

The emphasis from Jesus in this little prelude to the parable with Peter is that forgiveness is unlimited. 77, for lots of biblical reasons, is as close to infinity as we can get theologically.

But who really wants to forgive something or someone infinitely?

Which bring us to the parable. 

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The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay the king back, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold away to the next highest bidder.

Jesus, ever the good teacher, starts the story with the law. There are some rules that people have to follow, because life has to be fair. The king is a bookkeeper, like the rest of us. He knows and remembers who has wronged him and to what degree. If you play by the kings rules, if you follow his directions, all will be well.

But if you break the rules… well, we all know what happens if we break the rules.

And then the slave speaks, having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

And we already have questions. How could a slave possibly pay back that amount of money? Why would the king ever let him accrue such a debt like that in the first place? But the Bible doesn’t respond to our queries, the story is all we’ve got.

So how does the king respond? Having just ordered him to be sold along with everything else in his life, having just responded to sin with sin, he simply waves his hand and the slave disappears into his own suffering oblivion.

Or, at least, that’s how the story is supposed to go. We’re supposed to imagine the king as a tyrant smiling diabolically as the slave is dragged out kicking and screaming.

But that’s not the story Jesus is telling. Instead, the king takes pity, releases the man, AND forgives all his debts!

The servant has done nothing more than ask for grace, and grace is what he receives. But it is a grace greater than he ever could have imagined. His slate has been wiped clean, for good. He has been freed from every shackle around his ankle, from the fear that has kept him awake at night, from everything.

That alone would be enough for an incredible parable, a profound witness to grace and mercy. But, of course, that’s not the end.

And before we get to namesake of the story, we are compelled to pause on the action of the king. He offers this incredible forgiveness without much thought. He doesn’t retreat into his antechamber to weigh out the profit/loss margins about the debt, he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisors, he just forgives the debt, and not only that, he leaves the book-keeping business forever. 

The king chooses to die to forgive the man.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the story – to forgive a debt as great as the slave’s is not just a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving that money back the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would be destroyed. 

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift, it’s a radically changed life through death. 

The king chooses to die to what he knew and believed and lived for his slave.

And the slave leaves the presence of the king, still on cloud nine, only to encounter a fellow slave who owed him some money, and when the other slave asks for the same mercy the unforgiving servant throws him into prison until he could pay off the debt.

We might imagine the unforgiving servant as a Bond-movie villain, the worst of the worst. Surely, no one would be so dumb as to receive such incredible forgiveness only to lord a debt over someone else.

But, in reality, the man is exactly what all of us are, people who are unwilling to let go of the old to embrace something radically new.

When the king catches word of what the first slave did, he summons him back before the throne. “What’s wrong with you? Have you no mercy?” And he hands the man over to be tortured until he could repay his whole debt that was previously forgiven. 

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The king chooses to die. Perhaps not literally, but the king certainly embraces a death to the way things were, for something new and bewildering. The unforgiving servant, on the other hand, receives the greatest gift in the world, but he refuses to die. He refuses to let go of the book-keeping that dominated his life.

To be sure, should this kind of radical forgiveness be instituted across the world, the world would be flipped upside down. Our federal government, our banking systems, just about everything that spins the world would implode upon themselves.

It is so shocking to think about this kind of forgiveness that we can scarcely even imagine it ever happening.

And yet, it already has!

Jesus is setting Peter up with this story, and all of us reading it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world by dying. 

He will destroy death by dying on the cross.

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

It’s like Jesus is shouting at Peter as loud as he possible can, “Unless you die to yourself, unless you die to your insatiable desire for payback, then you might as well live into the torturous existence of the unforgiving servant.”

Or, to put it another way, we will never ever be able to enjoy the gift of the resurrection, a gift handed to us for nothing, if we cannot face the absurdity of our own forgiveness. 

For it is in facing what we have already received that we cannot help but change the way we see everything else.

The king says, “You idiot! I died for you! But you were so busy making plans to collect for yourself that you didn’t even notice!”

And the end of the story is frightening, we cannot sweep it away. The king doesn’t just accost the man for what he did with words; he hands him over to a life of self-inflicted misery.

This parable contains as much mercy as it does judgment.

We, like the unforgiving servant, have received an irrational pardon. We have been forgiven from all that we have done, all that we are doing, and strangest of all, from all that we will do. 

But to live in the light of that kind of forgiveness, to see how God died for us without dying to ourselves to those former lives, will result in a miserable existence.

Out thirst for repayment and retribution will always go unquenched and it will drive us mad.

Without responding to our forgiveness with forgiveness, whatever our lives look like will far more resemble hell than they will heaven. 

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true; if there was a limit to the forgiveness, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus’ interaction with Peter, and the parable he tells to bring the whole matter home, demands that we become a people who can forgive each other. But that presupposes that we know we are a people who have first been forgiven. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Amen.

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Dis/grace

Devotional: 

Joshua 5.9

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. 

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Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Or do the saying goes.

The Israelites have wandered and wandered and they finally make it to the Promised Land. An entire generation has passed and even Moses himself is buried in the ground before God’s people make it to the land of milk and honey. Joshua, ever mindful of faithful leadership, marks the place of their transition from the past into a new future, and the Lord said, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

Not when the horse and the rider where overwhelmed by the rushing waters of the sea.

Not when the plagues rained down upon the Egyptians.

Not when Moses struck the rock in the wilderness and brought forth water.

The stone of disgrace is rolled away only when they finally make it to where they were going.

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And even in this powerful moment of newness, they are reminded of what took place back in Egypt. This is a reoccurring theme in the biblical witness, not just what happened in Egypt, but reminding God’s people what God did for them. 

We are tied to our histories whether we like it or not.

And in this moment God says, you are bound to your history, but you are not defined by it; today I roll away the disgrace.

Ten years before the Civil War took place in the US the Methodist Church split over differing theologies about slavery. Many/Most of the Methodist churches in the north believed that it was ungodly to maintain the institution of slavery where many/most of the Methodist churches in the south believe that slavery was instituted by God. 

The Methodist Church did not come back together until the 1930s.

That is part of the history of Methodism, a history that many of us would rather ignore or forget. Particularly in the state of Virginia, there are a good number of churches that were around when the split took place and they proudly display which version of the church they chose to identify with. 

We are bound to that history, but we are not defined by it. God is still pushing us into new places with new ideas and new theologies. Some of our Moseses will be buried in the past and new Joshuas will have to stand to lead us into places unknown. 

But we cannot forget who we were, otherwise we are doomed to return.

Saved In Death

Devotional: 

1 Corinthians 15.36

Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 

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There are two types of stories we can tell in the church. 

1. There’s a lifeguard who has just ruled that the surf is no longer safe for the visitors at the beach. He ascends to the top of his vaulted chair until the wind dies down but then he hears a few people shouting down the beach. As he glances toward the commotion, he sees fingers pointed out toward the ocean, and he immediately grabs his binoculars and discovers a woman in struggling to keep her head above water. He then rushes down toward the water, swims as hard as he can against the current, grabs the struggling woman, and drags her to safety on the shore. Countless observers watch as the winded woman expresses her gratitude toward the life guard who has saved her life.

2. Same as the first, except when the lifeguard makes it out to the water, he is unable to overcome the pull of the water, and the drowning girl, and they are both pulled below the surface. The crowds on the sand wail in fear and sadness. However, on the lifeguard stand, attached to a clipboard, was a note with the following words: “Everything will be okay, she is safe in my death.”

This two-type typography comes from Robert Farrar Capon who notes that we can tell both of these stories in church, but we are FAR more inclined to tell the first. It has a happy ending, there is a noble hero, and the crowds get to witness a “miracle.” But, upon comparison, there’s nothing that miraculous about it. Sure, the drowning woman has been saved, but she has only been saved to eventually die in the future. Sure, the lifeguard appears heroic but he was doing nothing more than his job. Sure it appears magical and powerful, but it doesn’t really result in any profound changes; people will still swim in dangerous oceans.

The second version leaves us uncomfortable. Its ending appears tragic, the hero dies, and the crowds witness a tragedy. It strikes us as a rather dark tale, and certainly not one that we want to hear about in church on Sunday mornings.

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And yet the second story is the story of the gospel!

We are not saved by Jesus only to die again in the future – his death defeats death. 

We are not saved by being better swimmers (studying out bibles, praying our prayers), because the waves of life will keep crashing on us regardless.

One of the most important, and least talked about, aspects of faith is that we are saved in our deaths, not in our attempts to live better and more faithful lives.

When we start to realize that the second story is our story, other parts of the puzzle begin to fall in place. We are no longer trapped by the feeling of having to be perfect for God to love us. We are freed from believing that any of our sins (Any!) have the power to separate us from God’s grace. We break away from the crazy idea that we have to be morally perfect to earn God’s favor.

If all we tell is the first story, then Jesus really is nothing more than a lifeguard who saves us only for us to die again.

But if we tell the second story, the challenging and truthful and even dark narrative, then Jesus’s death really is the thing that bring us life. 

Back To The Middle

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

My college campus ministry was going nowhere. 

We had a solid band that played some of the newest Christian music.

We tried exciting and new initiatives to reach out to other students on campus in order to get them to join us for worship on Sunday evenings.

We even tried to create series around relevant topics like recent blockbusters or culturally important topics.

But we just had the same people showing up week after week.

We never had a real conversation about it, but there was a feeling in the air that if we weren’t growing, then we were failing. 

Every summer I’d go home to work at the church that raised me, and every fall I would return to school with new ideas about how we could get new people. 

And sometimes it worked. We’d be setting up for worship in one of the local United Methodist Churches that let us use their space for free, and a college student would walk in explaining that he/she wanted to check us out.

Our spirits would soar in joyful hope and anticipation, but then of course we would be incredibly nervous for the rest of the service hoping they’d come back next week.

But they almost never did.

During my final semester of undergrad we decided that the only way to really reach new people was to start over. 

Literally.

We scrapped everything and began with a clean slate. 

The ways we had been “doing church” no longer worked, so we decided it was time to make a new church.

The core group met over at a bagel place in town, and even though I was soon-to-graduate, I attended in order to offer my opinions about how the church might re-create itself.

Our leader pulled out a pad of paper and started by saying, “If we’re going to do this, we need to create a list of what we believe. We’ll put it all together, put it online, and that way people will know what to expect when they come join us.”

Perfect. Back to the basics.

So we went around the table and people started throwing out their ideas…

I believe that the church should welcome everyone no matter what.

I agree, but I also believe that the church should have expectations of what it means to live like a Christian.

I believe that the people who join us should agree to believe what we believe.

By the time it came to me to say something we already had three pages front in back with a list of our beliefs. 

And almost none of them had anything to do with God.

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Now I would remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the gospel that I proclaimed to you, which you received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved. 

I passed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.

Christ died for our sins.

He was buried in the ground.

He was raised on the third day.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once. 

Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The least of the apostles.

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not our behavior.

Not even a list of beliefs.

But a story.

The story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again.

And he appeared to the disciples.

Now, I know that if you’re like me, you’re heard this story a lot. So much so that we just accept it as is without giving it much thought. But, seriously, what was Jesus thinking?

He is resurrected and shows up for Peter! You know, the one who denied him!

Don’t you think Jesus would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective? For maximum results in spreading this new religion, you don’t waste your time talking to someone off the street, let alone a denier. You’ve got to go to the movers and shakers, the powers and the principalities. 

The ones who get things done.

If Jesus really wanted to shake up the world, why didn’t he go straight to the top?

Our Jesus, the one whom we love and adore, didn’t go to the emperor’s palace, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple waiting for crowds to gather in wonderment and awe.

The resurrected Jesus showed up right in front of the very people who abandoned him.

Think about it for just a moment – The most incredible thing in the history of history has taken place, and Jesus appears before the same ragtag group of would-be followers who misunderstood him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.

Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his very betrayers.

To us.

Of all the people, Peter and Paul are the ones to whom the resurrection is made as clear as day. Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer. A denier of the faith, and a killer of the faith.

It would have been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but the Good News is that he rose for them, and for us.

Churches are forever trying to figure out how to reach new people. They’ll take a good hard look in the mirror, and trim back the fat of whatever it is they were doing so that only the lean meat remains.

On Sundays the music is always easy to sing, everyone wears comfortable clothing, and the pastor will tell a story about how to find something better for your lives.

Not that far from us is a relatively new church that meets in a movie theater on Sunday mornings. They have a rock band that sets up by the front, and when the appointed time arrives they jam away for three to four songs while the words appear on the screen.

And when they finish a man will appear, not in person, but on the big screen as well and he will talk for 15-20 minutes about how God wants you to be the best you. 

The band will stand back up for one more song, and then its over.

And they are bursting at the seams.

Week after week more people show up wanting to know how they can make their lives better, and week after week more people have to sit in the aisles because they run out of space.

And the church should be doing what it can to reach new people, even those who are caught up in the never-ending desire to make their lives better.

Except that’s not really who we are, at least according to the Bible. The Gospel isn’t about how we can get better by getting closer to God, though it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Gospel is about how groups of bad people come together to cope with their failure to be good.

But that doesn’t sell, and it doesn’t drive people in through the doors. It doesn’t ring well as a promotional slogan or fit nicely on a bumper sticker. It doesn’t compel people to go home and invite all of their neighbors back for next Sunday.

And yet the story of Jesus Christ doesn’t revolve around people trying to find God and find themselves along the way. 

Over and over again the Gospel is the truth that God keeps seeking us despite our worst, and even our best, intentions.

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God is the shepherd who doesn’t shrug his shoulder when one of the fold is missing – God goes out and does whatever it takes, risks everything if necessary, to find that missing sheep.

God is the father who does not sigh in disappointment about the wayward son. He reaches down into the muck and mire of life in order to grab the prodigal son so that he may rejoice with his father forever.

God is the sower, who regardless of how bad the weather looks or the soil appears, keeps tossing out seeds in the hopes that they will grow into new life.

We Christians might like to think that we’re good, and always getting better; that we have special access to something the world otherwise ignores. 

But at the heart of being a Christian is the recognition that something has happened to us, in spite of us. The risen Lord came back to us.

We might not be able to pinpoint it, or even describe it, but we are here simply because Jesus did not give up on us, nor did he abandon us. 

Jesus found us, grabbed us, and forgave us.

What is of first importance for Christ’s church? 

To the poor and wretched and struggling Corinthians, who were failing at being the church, arguing daily, and refusing to welcome the other as brother and stranger as sister, Paul takes them back to the middle – to the decisive and most important moment in the middle of history – Easter.

Paul reminds them, and us, that when the gathering of Christians happens the risen Christ finds them. Not the other way around.

If we are honest, a decisively difficult thing these days, we like Paul, are the least of the apostles, unfit to even be called apostles. 

In the last ten days, our state has seen its share of controversy. The governor’s medical school yearbook surfaced with a picture of a man in black face and a man wearing a KKK robe in hood all on his page.

The second in command, our Lieutenant Governor, has been hit with a number of credible accusations about sexual assault.

And the third in command, our Attorney General, also admitted to having worn blackface in the past.

That’s just Virginia, and it’s only the three most powerful political figures in Virginia, and that’s only in the last week and a half.

I could go on and on, and I have plenty of times, I love picking on politicians from the pulpit. It’s easy. And it’s easy because we so deify those who hold office. Governors, Representatives, Presidents, Senators, we hold them to a standard that we ourselves would not.

And then we are shocked to discover that they are flawed.

That they are like us.

And the great theological smack in the face, is that God died in Jesus Christ for them too. 

So we can do what we think we need to do. We can change what we do on Sunday mornings. We can make it more appealing (whatever that means). We can even blow up the church and start over from scratch. 

But of first importance, at the very heart of what it means to be who we are, is a story.

And not just a story, or even our story, but the story.

The story of God. 

Who came back for us. Amen. 

The Right Question – A Wedding Homily

Mark 8.34-37

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?

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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?

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. 

We Are Not David

1 Samuel 17.32-49

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried to walk in vain, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give into our hand.” When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.”

This story, right smack dab in the middle of 1 Samuel, might be the most well-known and retold story in the bible. It is simple, direct, playful, and full of enough action to please any audience.

While all the armies of Israel tremble before the giant Goliath, a little boy named David takes runs quickly, slings a stone, and strikes Goliath in the forehead.

Goliath is dead.

            Israel triumphs.

            Then end.

But the writer, the teller of the tale, fills it with far more details than that.

The Philistines gathered their armies for battle, a terrible sight to imagine for the fledgling Hebrew people. And there came from the camp a champion named Goliath, who was about ten feet tall, with a helmet of bronze, and his armor weighed 150 pounds.

Goliath is huge. It is abundantly clear that there is no one else like him. And he demands the Israelites send out a champion to fight, the winner will bring the great victory to their entire people.

And up pops David. Goliath demanded a worthy warrior, and he got a little shepherd boy. David was only at the battlefield bringing his older brothers something to eat. The king, Saul, is paralyzed with fear, and David offers to fight the giant Goliath.

Saul is incredulous, “You are you to fight this Goliath? You’re nothing but a little boy!” And thus God pops into the story for the first time when David responds: “The Lord who saved me from the lion and the bear will save me from the Philistine.”

David has nothing but a sling, a few rocks, and hope in the Lord. Saul tries to give him armor and weapons, but they only hold him back, so David rejects the tools of the trade and places his trust in the Lord.

With God’s help, David took the shepherd’s sling and one smooth stone and brought Goliath to the point of death.

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This little story is, I am convinced, the beloved story of all middle school age boys. I have yet to encounter a 13-year-old boy who did not believe this was the most important story in the bible. Perhaps middle school boys love this story because it is the beginning of bullying and they feel like they have to stand up against their own Goliaths every day. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that girls often hit puberty faster and therefore tower over their male counterparts to the point that they appear like mighty Goliaths.

But, if we’re honest, it’s not just a story for boys with BO and zits and cracking voices. This is the paradigm for so many beloved stories. It is THE underdog story.

            David defeating Goliath.

            Rocky. Remember the Titans. Rudy. The Karate Kid. Hoosiers. The Mighty Ducks. Slumbog Millionaire. Tin Cup. Cool Runnings. Revenge of the Nerds. I could go on and on and on. And those are just the movies!

We are beyond fascinated with underdog stories, with the Davids who defeat their Goliaths. We love rooting for the hero who appears to have no chance of winning. Maybe there is something in our humanity that bends toward the least likely victor who triumphs over evil.

And when this story is preached, when someone like me ascends to the promenade of the pulpit, the sermon is almost always about encountering our own giants. Preachers like me will look out at people like you and say things like: “We all face our own Goliaths. For some of us it’s depression, or debt, or directionlessness. And, like David, we just have to have faith that God will be with us, and that we will win.”

There are so many sermons exactly like that… So many, in fact, that when I went looking for a sermon with a different angle, I couldn’t find one. And then I grabbed the texts books from seminary and the countless commentaries I have organized around my office, and all of them had the same thing to say: When we face our Goliaths, God will give us the strength to persevere.

But here’s the thing: We are not David.

Most of us here today are not even like the Israelites cowering on the corner of the battlefield wondering about their future. Most of us have never experienced a moment of fragility such that everything would be decided in a single stroke, by the least likely of people. Most of us don’t know what it’s like to put our whole trust and faith into something we don’t know.

If we’re anyone in this story, we’re Goliath.

Now, I know, this isn’t good news. We don’t go to the movies to root for the bad guy! We don’t like coming to church and hearing about how bad we are! But, and this is hard, when we encounter the strangeness of this story, when we start identifying ourselves with particular characters, we have to be honest with ourselves.

            We are not David.

A foreign country full of might and power is about to change the stage for the entire world. The Philistines have the army, they’re got the right weapons and armor, they even have a Goliath.

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The Israelites have nothing. They are a ragtag group of would-be followers of Yahweh with a king who can’t even must the courage to walk out onto the battlefield, with no hope except for the hopeless shepherd boy David.

We are like the Philistines. Most people in the world either fear us, or want to be like us. We hold all the cards, we’ve got the greatest military, and we hold a promise for anyone of a better life. We not only stand like a beacon on a hill for everyone else to see, we WANT to be the beacon that everyone else can see!

It’s been a strange week in our country. While I was spending time last weekend at Annual Conference with all of the other Methodist pastors and lay leaders in Virginia, the first images, videos, and sounds were released from the detention centers near the border with Mexico. Hundreds of children could be seen in cages made of metal with scattered bottles of water, bags of chips, and metallic blankets thrown randomly about.

But the audio clips somehow made it worse.

Recordings came to the surface of children screaming for their parents, some of whom were forcibly taken away while breast feeding, others were told that they were going to get a nice warm bath and never returned.

As more and more reporting came out, and more and more churches spoke out, the administration eventually ended their policy of separating families as a deterrent for illegal immigration.

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            And we still think we’re David.

But we are not David. We are Goliath. We look down at those who flee from absolute terror and say, “Come to us, and we will break your families into oblivion, we will treat you like the animals we think you are.”

And just as every Goliath does, we need our David. We need our defeater. We need to be struck dead in the forehead about our frivolity and foolishness. We need to be taken down a peg or two. We need the mirror that shows us who we truly are. For as much as we like to think we are not like the politicians who pursued a policy of family separation, this is very much who we are.

And, to be clear, this isn’t about who sits in the oval office, or what political animal is ruling the country; it’s about recognizing who we really are in the story, and not passing responsibility on to somebody else.

So we need a David. But we don’t need THE David, we don’t need the handsome shepherd boy of Jesse. No, we need the new David. We need Jesus.

            We need Jesus to smack us across the head not with smooth stones from the wadi but with the hard wood of the cross. We need to be brought low to the ground before we can be raised high. We need to be defeated in order to be redeemed.

The story of David and Goliath is so beloved because we inherently love seeing good win-out. We love it when the tables are unexpectedly turned. We love believing in impossible possibilities.

And there are times when we will feel like David. We will experience things like depression, and debt, and directionlessness, and they will feel like mighty Goliaths blocking out the sun. And, at those moments, we do need to keep hope in the Lord that we will prevail, not because of our own doing, but because God is with us.

But one of the things we never talk about, at least anymore, is how much we are actually like Goliath – the ways we Lord ourselves over others whether it’s a different race, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or socio-economic status – the ways we dismiss those at the border, or in another country, or in another community – the ways we demean those we deem unworthy.

So, for as much as the story of David and Goliath is a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our Goliaths, it is also a story about what happens to Goliath, what happens to us! God will not leave us to break down the oppressed and reject the weak. God delivers to us a little shepherd boy, born among the animals, to bring us down from the towers of power we have constructed for ourselves.

Jesus, thanks be to God, runs out to the battlefield of our lives and says, “No more!” Jesus grabs us by the collar and delivers the truth, the hard truth, “You are Goliath! But you don’t have to be.”

There is a way, a better way, the way.

The Lord does not save by sword and spear, the Lord does not redeem the world with giants and Goliaths.

The Lord sustains with water and Word, the Lord redeems us through a shepherd named Jesus.

And in God’s kingdom, even Goliaths get saved. Amen.