This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Exodus 3.1-15, Psalm 105.1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12.9-21, Matthew 16.21-28). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and one of the hosts of Crackers & Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including middle names, Shea Serrano’s Movies (and Other Things), stinky feet, witnessed suffering, qualitative differences, hardened hearts, exhortations, wedding promises, and the loss of self. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Finds Us
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
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
The family gathers around the casket, muttering prayers under their breath imploring the Lord to keep the rain clouds at bay. The new widow is dressed appropriately in all black, her mascara is flowing down her cheeks, and she is clutching at the chest of her dearly departed husband’s brother.
Like anyone else, the family isn’t sure what to do with their grief. Some of them forcefully push their hands into their pockets, others try desperately to hold back tears, and still yet others stand stoically as if nothing happened.
But, none of them, not the mother nor the father, not the cousins or the nieces or nephews bat an eye as the widow drives off in the limo nestled a little too closely with her brother-in-law.
2 years later the same family, though a little grayer than before, gathers in the same cemetery only a few paces from where they were last time and the scene feels eerily familiar. So much so that a few of the guests note how the pastor inexplicably uses the same homily as he did the last time around. The widow is now widowed twice, with two dead brothers buried by the old oak tree. This time the family wonders which brother will step up to the plate, and sure enough before the occasion ends she is driving off in another limo with another brother.
A decade later the woman runs out of tears for all of her dead husbands. She went from one brother to another, all seven in fact, and not a one of them had given her the baby she so desperately craved. The waning and remaining family members try their best to show signs of grief and sadness, but the scene has become so familiar that they were kind of looking forward to it. These funerals had replaced the Thanksgiving table as the occasion for family catch-ups and story-telling.
The priest is now feeble and old, and he had taken on an apprentice in the last few years hoping he would be the one to replace him. The two with their black robes and white collars politely shake hands with the family and make their way back up to the country church. The older priest struggles up the hill and sighs before noting that the next funeral will probably be for the woman, suspecting her of an imminent death caused by a broken heart. To which the younger priest wonders aloud, “Father, to which husband will the woman belong in heaven?”
There’s no telling how many times I’ve read this story or heard this story. It’s a powerful moment in Luke’s gospel when the Sadducees try to beat Jesus at his own game by sharing their own little parable. They are but another drop in the ocean of those who questioned the audaciousness of Jesus’ claims about the kingdom of God, the totality of grace, and the resurrection of the dead.
And for as many times as I’ve heard the story and even told the story in moments of worship and even counseling, there is a detail that has bothered me to no end.
I mean, I understand what the Sadducees are trying to do with the question, they want to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. And okay, the woman seems to have some rotten luck. But no one seems to want to point out the obvious! Are we sure she’s not a murderer?!
Seven men marry her and seven men die! Those are pretty bad odds! The Sadducees are consumed by this idea of who she’ll be married to in the resurrection and I’m over here far more concerned with whether or not she was a serial killer!
And yet, its a story meant to point at something else. Like any parable it takes on these larger that life characteristics that intend to point us as something bigger. The story might as well have been that a woman married one man, who then died, and then married the man’s brother who also happened to die, who then would she be married to in the end? But that’s not nearly juicy enough! Particularly not when you’re trying to take down the guy who had the gall to tell stories about a prodigal son and a faithful shepherd and a good samaritan.
Questions are important things. And, sadly, we often limit their importance to the answers they provide. But questions contain their own answers. To ask a question is to reveal, to disclose something about the person asking the question. There is no such thing as a question that is morally and intellectually or even politically neutral.
Imagine a spouse returns home from work a little later than usual and their partner asks, “Did you get the groceries?” Behind that question are a bunch of assumptions, perhaps the person forgot or has forgotten them before. Maybe the question is really pushing toward why the spouse was late. And so on.
Or imagine a kid returns home from school with a tear in his eye and asks his mother, “Why are Johnny’s parents getting divorced?” Of course, there is an obvious nature to the question, but behind the question there is perhaps the fear of his own parents getting divorced, or it happening to him in the future, or what’s going to happen to his friend. And on and on.
Questions have agendas whether we like to think they do or not. Questions, before they are even answered, imply something about what is important, what is true, and they are all full of assumptions.
Jesus is asked a question. To whom will the woman be married to in the Resurrection? The implication, the question behind the question, is that these people do not believe in the possibility of any resurrection and they want to trap Jesus in his places.
Jesus has two choices in terms of an answer. His first option would be to pick or specify which of the seven brothers would be the partner in the great beyond. Jesus could pick her first husband, or her last husband, or the one right in the middle of the whole thing. But none of them make particularly good sense because ultimately, 6 of the former husbands would be left hanging in the wind.
And then there’s option number 2: Jesus could admit that the Sadducees have a good point – they might be on to something with the inherent assumption in their question. The woman can’t be the wife of any of the brothers in the resurrection so therefore there must not be a resurrection!
But Jesus doesn’t go with either of those – instead he breaks through with an answer previously unthought of. He simply asserts the resurrection is a whole new ballgame to which the present rules and assumptions about marriage no longer apply. And he doesn’t stop there, he takes is a step further to claim that even the Torah proves the resurrection. You see, since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were not all alive at the same time, and for God to be their God they must all be alive together in some other-than-earthly state, it means that the resurrection is real, and its real even for them.
For Jesus, the whole focus here is to build up anticipation of his passion, his own death and resurrection. He’s not trying to paint a picture about whose still with who on the other side of death. Instead, he’s merely asserting a radically powerful truth, the people we marry and bury in this life don’t belong to us in the resurrection.
And that’s Good News.
However, for some of us this might, in fact, sound like bad news. We shudder to think of a time where we will lose the people we’ve taken hold of in this life – we don’t want to imagine a moment in which the person wearing the ring is no longer bound by that ring.
But that’s exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus is trying to overturn.
Its why we say, “Till death do us part.”
The Sadducees, in their question, held desperately tight to a understanding of relationships such that women literally belong to men as a wife would belong to her husband. They understood women as property, something to be traded and treated as such. I mean, their question about marriage in heaven might as well have been about who a cow would belonged to in heaven having been sold over and over again in this life.
Jesus said, “In this age people are married and are given in marriage. But I tell you in the age to come this woman with be equal with even the angels, she will be a beloved daughter of God – nothing more, less, or else.”
What a Word! Just mull on that for a moment! Imagine what it would’ve been like for the woman in the story to have heard those words of the lips of Jesus, hell imagine any woman today in an oppressive or overwhelming relationship. She would have known that in the age to come, in the kingdom Jesus’ inaugurates, she would not be defined by the man she married, she would no longer be defined by anything other than the fact that she was a child of God.
Friends, there are people, great numbers of people who need to hear what Jesus has to say. This little nugget of the gospel could bring them a remarkable sense of peace.
Jesus changes everything. This is the story I want to tell people when I hear them talk about their better half, or their lesser half. No one becomes less of a person when they get married. Or at least they shouldn’t. We are unique and beautiful and wondrous because that’s exactly who God created us to be. And yet, of course, we were made to be in community, but that doesn’t mean we lose part of who we are by being connected with other people. If anything, the point of connection is to give us the freedom and the strength to flourish as God made us.
The Sadducees carry their own assumption. Whoever this Jesus guy is, he’s just bringing more of the same. He’s coming in here with his promises of a different world and a different future. But they can only see that in the terms already dictated by the world.
And then Jesus walks up, listens to their question that’s really an accusation, and says, “Excuse me! A new world is colliding with the old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, a thing beyond even your wildest imaginations. In this world, the world you’re so wedded to, the world of the here and the now, there is death. But in the world I’m bringing there is life and life abundant! In this world, right now, people are owned, people are belittled, people are made to feel less than whole. But in the world to come, all people are children of the Living God.”
Jesus sees more than we can. He knows that the cross is waiting for him and he knows that the tomb won’t hold him. He knows that we are far too content with the status quo and that we still treat people as if they are less than whole. And so he says, “Come to my table. Take some bread and wine. See in this meal how the labels we place on ourselves and others start to disappear. This is the beginning of the end. But of course there really is no end. Because God is the God of the living. And whether you are married or buried, to God you are alive.” Amen.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When he was invited to the dinner party he knew it was a mistake. To begin with, he had never been to a dinner party before and this one was being hosted by all the religious big-wigs in the area.
But the invitation had come nonetheless, and the host wanted him to be there.
He mulled over the possibility of going for a few days, weighing out the pros and cons. From what he could tell, it would be a boring evening. These weren’t really the type of people known for being fun. But they were the people with power, and he apparently had a place at the table. So he decided to go.
When he got to the house he was immediately overwhelmed with the opulence. It was as if it had been taken right out of a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, and he was worried about touching anything and everything.
He had spent hours fretting over what to wear, and even though he settled on jeans and a button up shirt, he was clearly underdressed. The men were in suits and the women were in long flowing dresses.
Nevertheless, he politely tiptoed through room after room, with the occasional nod toward one of the other guests until he heard a simple bell ringing from the other side of the house, and assumed the time had come for the dinner party to begin.
He entered the dining room and was bombarded by the bartender who wanted to know his order.
“Got any wine?” He asked.
“Why sir, we have the cave filled to the brim with a great variety of years and regions! Shall I make a recommendation?”
“How about you bring me a glass of the stuff that you can’t get rid of, that’ll be fine.”
And with that the bartender started off in a fit of rage.
The man then turned toward the dining room table and took in its perfection. The settings were beautiful and the napkins looked as if a professional origami artist had spent hours creating unique folds for each plate. He felt all of the eyes in the room on him as he made his way over to the table, but before he could pull out a chair, the man next to him winced and reached for his lower back.
“Something wrong?” He asked.
The man was doubled over now and said, “I threw my back out this morning and I thought I had worked it out but now I feel like I can’t move.”
So he took the man by the hand, led him over to the table, pushed some of the plates and cups and cutlery out of the way, and laid the man down. He fussed around for a few minutes poking here and there while muttering a few things under his breath and immediately everyone gathered around in a tight circle with their jaws on the floor.
“Has he no decency?
“Where are his manners?”
And finally, the host entered only to exclaim, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
The man looked up from his make shift examining table and simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it was your kid, or your spouse, who was hurting, wouldn’t you drop everything to do something about it?”
And no one said a word.
The man with the back problem promptly got off the table, now fit as a fiddle, and the hired help rushed in to put everything back in its proper place.
With a wave of the hand the host encouraged everyone to find their seats so the feast could begin.
And yet the man, who had already offended everyone in the room, noticed that all the guests rushed to get to the seats as close to the host as possible.
He stood there in silence, observing the frantic frenzy of power dynamics, and contended himself to remain silent until they noticed that he had not taken the remaining seat.
And so it was in the midst of a profoundly uncomfortable silence that all the eyes fell upon him once again.
“Hey, the next time any of you go to a party, don’t sit in the best places. Someone more important than you might’ve been invited, and then you’re going to have to give up your seat to go sit in the last place. So, don’t you think it would be better to start off at the end, and that way the host can come and raise you up to a better place?”
Again, no one said a word.
The man took it as a sign that he should keep going.
“Where has all the humility gone? There is a great and wonderful joy, known only to a few, that comes with humility. It comes not because humility earns you anything, but it brings a newfound sense of joy from not having to be in control of every little thing. You can finally enjoy the party instead of trying to be responsible for it.”
The other guests started to fidget uncomfortably in the chairs.
“Look at yourselves. If you keep showing up at these things and only choose the best seats, you’re going to cut yourselves off from all the other places and all the other people at the table, who, in my experience, are the ones who have the most fun. I know some of you would rather die that have sit in the back, but dying to all of this is the best thing you could ever do.”
The man started to really feel the words bubbling up within him and he began swinging his arms with ferocity spilling wine all over the oriental rug.
He stared deeply into the eyes of everyone around the table, all of the winners of the community, people who were so self-satisfied with all they had done and earned, and he began to pity them. He instantly knew that, to them, this was the most important moment of their week – sitting around a table, jockeying for power, doing everything they could to impress the person to their left and right.
So he continued, “Just go ahead and die to everything you think you’ve done and earned for yourself. None of you are as good as you think you are anyway. And if, only if, you’re able to die to that, maybe you can actually start enjoying yourself.”
And he sat down.
Over the next hour the guests ate in silence as the courses of food were brought out in proper order. They were either so moved by his words or infuriated by them that they did not know what to do or what to say.
The evening quickly came to its inevitable conclusion and the guests began to express their gratitude to the host, promising to return the favor by having the host come to their respective places, and the man felt another rally coming.
“You need to throw away the book.”
“What did you say?”
“You need to toss it out to the trash and leave it there forever.”
“The one you’ve been keeping in your head about who owes you what. You’re so stupidly stuck in your bookkeeping that you’re trying to keep the world together and you can’t even see how quickly its ripping at the seams. Why don’t you just let it all go? I mean, what good does it do you to climb the social ladder by inviting people just to have them invite you back. You already have all of this. Next time, try inviting the wrong people. Think about how much fun you could have at the table surrounded by the last, least, lost, little, and dead. I promise you this: you will never really be happy until the bookkeeping stops, until you learn how to let go of your clenched hand, so that someone else can grab hold and bring you onto the dance floor of life.”
The guests, again, looked upon the scene with disbelief at a man with no sense of manners at all and they, along with the host, fumed.
“Anyway,” he began, “Thanks for the evening I guess. The wine was okay, the food was good, and the conversation was to die for.” And with that he left.
It was only then that one of the guests worked up the courage to ask the host a question: “Who was that guy?”
And the host replied, “His name is Jesus. And I could just kill him for everything he did and said tonight.”
If we want to take Jesus’ words from the parable at the dinner party literally, that’s fine, but it’s a quick recipe for a ruined evening. If we invite the wrong people over, they’re not going to invite us to their houses, nor would we really want to go to theirs in the first place. But, again, these parables aren’t here for us to understand how we are supposed to be living, but they function to show how God lives for us.
Jesus destroys the exceptions of the dinner party crowd and he does it throughout his ministry. He is a critical Lord, though we often forget that part of him. He’s critical because he wants to destroy all of our favorite and foolish expectations. Being first, found, big, important, and alive matter little in the kingdom of God. They matter little because Jesus didn’t come to make the first firster, or the found founder, or the important importanter, or the alive aliver. He came to raise the dead.
And we can die, we can die to the desire to sit at the best places, we can die to the bookkeeping that keeps us awake at night. We really can die to all of that because Jesus already has.
Look: It’s as if Jesus is sneaking into the dinner parties of our lives, seeing our jockeying and our comparing and our bookkeeping, just to whisper into our ears: “Why are you doing all of this when I already threw out the book on you? Why are you keeping score when God doesn’t? God already nailed all of your sins to my cross, past-present-future. Go ahead and die to all of that so you can finally start having some fun.”
So hear Jesus today, hear him through scripture and song and silence and sermon, hear him through the sacrament to which we are invited at the table. For as much as we would like to argue against it, we are the poor, the cripple, the lame, and the blind. We are the ones invited to Christ’s dinner party, an invitation we cannot repay, and he wants us to have fun. Amen.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Peter said, “Lord, are you tell this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to him, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. From every to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
The internet and social media have made us all hyper-aware of everything that is happening all the time. Because of these things we have in our pockets and purses we know what is happening, where it is happening, and before its over we can look through all of the comments about what happened and where.
Some of this is good. We are more connected with people all across the world than we have ever been. Because of the instantaneous nature of communication and information we have been able to help those in need, we’ve been able to prepare for things we never could’ve imagined, and there is an invisible thing uniting us in ways previously impossible.
But, of course, a lot of it is bad.
A teenager posts a picture and is bullied for the rest of her adolescence.
An adult is radicalized through forums to commit horrible acts of violence.
Older individuals are regularly belittled for not being up to date with everything that, by definition, is changing faster than we can keep up.
We create and consume so much information today that, regardless of our age, we can barely recite that which we have received.
And, in a strange way, we are made most aware of all that we are missing.
In some circles this is called the “instagramification” of all things. We flock to places of social media, more often than not, to show all that is right in our lives when so much is wrong.
We gather the family together for a picture while on vacation and post it for everyone to know and believe that we have it all together, when in fact the family was screaming and pulling one another hairs just to get the picture taken moments before.
And when we see these images of friends, or family, or even celebrities we can’t but help to judge and measure our lives against what we see on the screen.
Jesus, in his strangely parabolic way, has us imagine that we are waiting for our best friend to come from from a wedding. A wedding we weren’t invited to.
Weddings are all over the place in the Bible, and are particularly profound in the New Testament. Consider: Jesus’ first miracle is turning water into wine at a wedding, and one of the last images in the Book of Revelation is the marriage of the Lamb to his bride the New Jerusalem.
Jesus, the master in the parable, the friend in ours, returns to us after a wedding. The story makes the claim that we are to be awake and welcome him in glory, and we will be blessed by his arrival because he brings the party with him.
Whether its the master with his slaves, or the uninvited friends, it is particularly striking that the one who has no reason to do much of anything, desires first and foremost to sit down and hang out, with us.
Jesus is crazy. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our dying, is the only good news around. And to make matters even more confounding, according to the Lord the sooner we die the sooner we can celebrate.
Now, of course, the ways we speak about and even conceive of our own deaths is inherently problematized – and yet, as Christians, our deaths are particularly peculiar. For, we are already dead. At least, that what we claim in baptism – By Jesus’ death in ours, and ours in his, we have conquered the whole rotten game of the universe.
The sooner we can accept that our lives have already been changed, irrevocably, for good, the sooner the party arrives through the door.
Therefore, we needn’t even worry about being invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake festering over whether we’ve been good enough, or popular enough, or even faithful enough. Our salvation, the party itself, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.
All we need to do is be like those who know the party is coming through the door.
It is the greatest thing in the world that our friend stumbles in to us in the middle of the night, perhaps in the greatest of moods a few sheets to the wind from the wedding reception.
See it and believe it: He does not come with sober judgments about why we aren’t good enough, or with grim requirements about what we have to do or how we have to behave to get a ticket in.
Instead he comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a nice bottle of red stashed under his arm that he clandestinely removed from the open bar, and before we can say much of anything he’s popped the bottle and is dolling out a full assortment of finger foods to quench every bit of our hunger.
It’s a strange story. One that we often ignore, overlook, or disregard.
But it is there and it is very much here.
We are blessed by the risen Lord, for he knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And this party is not far off and distant in both place and time from us, the party is here with us, right now. It’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice.
To return to our own parable, we’ve got our noses so stuck in our phones judging our lives against the lives of others that we can’t even here Jesus banging on the door.
And then Peter perks up: “Lord, is this story for us, or is it for everyone?” A worthy question, for we should want to know who exactly is supposed to be around waiting for the Lord’s party to arrive.
Jesus answers the question with a question, “Who is the manager that the master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their food at the proper time?
The previous parable is certainly for all, but now the Lord put some things into perspective; the disciples are given a job, and those who continue in that line of work, dare I say pastors, are supposed to know their job.
Now, before we continue, I must confess that we have arrived a strange precipice, one in which Jesus is telling the future clergy (in a way) what they are to do. And yet here I am, your appointed clergy, preaching about what God has told me to do.
So, bear with me for a moment.
Pastors, the disciples in charge of the slaves as it were, are commanded to trust. Nothing more, less, or else. Pastors are not called to know everything, or to be enigmatically clever all the time, or to be fully of energy, or even to be talented.
They are to trust that the truth is in fact the truth. The greatest truth of all being that salvation does not come from a particular way of living or being. Which is a good word to those of us living in a world while drowning in efforts toward whatever we think life is supposed to be.
Contrary to what the televangelists proclaim, and pastors of all shapes and sizes, and even this one in front of you at times, the church does not exist to tell people like you to engage in acts of superior morality with the expectation that salvation will be your reward.
The foolishness of God is wiser than that.
God, more often than not, chooses what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise.
God, more often than not, uses fallible pastors to remind all of us that its the nobodies of the world, the last, least, lost, little, and dead who bring about anything we might call holy.
And so, as the only pastor in the room, I feel what can only be described as a sense of relief. After countless years in which people like me have been made to feel that forceful preaching, and masterful obedience, and perfect extraversion with just the right dash of introversion, is the name of the game – it’s nice to be reminded, here in this parable, that Jesus expects the preachers of the church to be nothing more than half decent cooks.
“Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.”
Food at the proper time. And, to be clear, we clergy are not gourmet chefs or even casino buffet coordinators, but just some Gospel minded cooks who can rummage through the pantry of the Word to turn out a half decent and nourishing meal once a week.
And we then could turn to look at the meal of preaching, the Word made flesh in a certain way, every week. But it’s much better than that. Because the greatest meal of all offered by the church has almost nothing to do with the preaching. In communion we find the sustenance that goes beyond all imagining – clergy need only serve it to those who are hungry.
So long as all of us, we who come to the table, get enough death and resurrection in our diet, so long as we are reminded with regularity that there is nothing we can do to earn it or lose it, then we will be, as the Bible says, filled.
And I wish we could end it there, but Jesus has more to say to Peter and the preachers…
“But if,” Jesus continues, “If the manager thinks the master is taking his sweet time in getting back, and therefore beats on the other slaves and get drunk, then the master will return and cut him into pieces.”
This is the moment that you can can offer up a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord that you’re not pastors.
To put Jesus final words another way: If the preachers decide to take matters into their own hands, if they make promises they can’t keep, if they abuse the weak in their midst, if they create systems in which people can earn anything for themselves in the realm of salvation, then they will be torn apart, from top to bottom, whether at the hand of God or by their own undoing.
Preachers, managers, cooks of the gospel, whatever we want to call them, are to do nothing more than sit at the foot of the cross with words of what God has already done. They are to share the meal waiting at the table, a meal prepared long before the preacher ever preached a sermon.
This whole parable, for the laity and clergy alike, comes down to trust.
Not a trust that God is going to come and sweep down and fill all the potholes in our lives, but a trust that God has already changed the game for good.
And when we’ve learned to live a life of trust, whether we wear robes or not, then we are living the life of grace. And in the life of grace, one in which we know what has already been done – something that can never be taken away – no matter how many doubts we have, or waverings, or questions, no matter how happy or sad we may become, no matter how awfully we sin – we simply trust that someone else, namely Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, we can say thank you Lord and that’s enough.
Our whole lives, from beginning to end, the mess that we are, they’re leading to our own inevitable death. And it’s all okay, because we’ve already died. It is Jesus who is our life, he is the one who comes for us from the wedding feast, he is the one who comes to us with the celebration under his arm and wants nothing more than to party with us. Amen.
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.
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?