We Need To Talk

Mark 10.2-16

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.

Divorce papers.

She was almost 8 months pregnant.

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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.

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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. 

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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?

Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak

Devotional:

James 5.13

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

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 On Friday evening I stood in the sanctuary with a wedding party and was attempting to guide them through a rehearsal of what would be the wedding ceremony on Saturday evening. The bridesmaids, of course, were attentively listening to my directions and promptly moved through the church accordingly while the groomsmen, of course, were joking with the groom and trying to distract him from everything we were doing.

We finally got to the portion of the rehearsal when I lined everyone up by the altar and gave the bride and groom a glimpse of what would be said and done during the exchanging of vows, when one of the groomsmen leaned over to the groom and made a jesting comment about his weakness and inability to get the thing done. To which the groom triumphantly declared, “No! Seven days without prayer makes one weak, and I am strong!”

Which just so happened to be the words on our church marquee when he arrived for the rehearsal!

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When should we pray? Some might say that prayer is necessary when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness of life and we are in need of the light. Some will say we need only pray when we actually need something. And still yet some will say that we should pray only when we are in a place to properly praise the Lord before asking for something.

Sadly, prayer is often made out to be a conditional proposition in which we must be in the right place, or we must offer God the right words or phrase in order for it to become efficacious. 

However, prayer (at least according to St. James) is something that we should do, regardless of the circumstances. Pray when you are suffering, and pray when you are cheerful. Pray when you are alone, and ask other people to pray for you when you’re in community. Prayer, in and of itself, is not something that can or should be relegated to particular times and moments. Instead, it is something we are called to do without ceasing.

For it is in prayer that we are made strong in our faith, in our convictions, in our beliefs that we are who God believes we are. 

So pray when you are up and when you are down. Pray when all is well and when all is hell. Pray when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Pray until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied.

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. 

Silence Will Sustain Your Marriage – A Wedding Homily

1 Kings 19.9-13

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

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Let’s get a few things out of the way. You two, are without a doubt, the coolest couple I know. You’re hip, and fun, and just the right amount of edgy. You eat at really awesome restaurants, you spin the best vinyl, and you both often dress the way the rest of us will five years down the road.

I know this is especially true for you Parker. Because, though we’ve known each other since elementary school, when we played house league basketball and you ran around with your bowl haircut, it was in middle school that you began wearing girl jeans, white belts, and black skinny ties. That might sound a little ubiquitous now, but I promise you were the only one in our school who dressed like that.

Liz, I cannot speak to your sartorial habits from your youth, but I can affirm that you’re sense of wonder, in particular regarding the literary world, is cooler than a cucumber. Back after my own wedding, when you and Parker were visiting us, I was trying to brag about how well read we were as a couple, when you asked if I had read anything from Elena Ferrante. And, not only had I not read anything, I hadn’t even heard of her. And then when I expressed an interest in learning more, you simply left me a your own copy without even waiting to see my reaction.

You two are too cool.

And, in addition to being cool, you two have got to be the best gift-givers I’ve ever known. Parker, you sent me a framed business card from Elvin Jones when I got ordained. For those of you who are uninformed, Elvin Jones was the greatest American Jazz drummer of the post-bop era, and he played with Coltrane. When our son Elijah was born you two sent us his very first vinyl record, and a vintage copy of a recording of Elijah Rock. And you’ve never come to see us without bringing an assortment of toys for our dog Tennessee.

And that’s just a sampling of what you’ve showered me with! I am positive that if we took the time, most of the people here would be able to share similar stories of your gracious gift-giving abilities.

You two are cool, you care very deeply for the people in your lives, and just as you have given so much to all of us, now you come here to this place, at this time, to give yourselves to each other.

James Baldwin wrote about his discovery of love being the key to life while in the midst of starving.

This is no accident.

There is something about absence that draws us to existence. In our weakness we are bound together in ways we can scarcely imagine, both as individuals, and as entire communities. And it was through Baldwin’s hunger that he discovered the overwhelmingly transformative power of love.

Baldwin, of course, is most known for his writing on race and identity, his work “The Fire Next Time” still haunts me to this day, but the selection from Baldwin you chose for your wedding, I believe is indicative of his entire work. It was a profound love for humanity that compelled Baldwin to speak so candidly about her failures. It was in the recognition of our shackles to one another, and our freedom from one another, that he experienced the mystery of glory.

There are few things more glorious in this world than two people making the profound covenant that you two are about to make. In your words, in your prayers, in your promises you will enter into that mysterious state that both confounded and excited Baldwin, this paradox in which your bondage will mean your liberation.

It is just as Rilke says, if you learn to love the expanse between you, if you learn to accept and cherish the paradox we call marriage, then you will experience the impossible possibility of see each other as a whole AND before an immense sky.

Your relationship began over a shared love of books; both evidenced in the readings your chose for your wedding and your gift giving. Though, as many of us know, Parker you did everything in your power to learn as much about what Liz liked, including books, just so you could keep talking to her. And in case anyone here doesn’t know, Liz slept through the first date.

But you both kept trying; you took steps closer to one another with your intellectual curiosities and you took steps away with your own experiences. You ventured out to new and strange places together, and then back to places of comfort and familiarity. And that give and take, the binding and the liberating, is what eventually brought you right here.

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Parker, you are an extremely grounded person, almost to a fault, and I am grateful that Liz keeps you comfortably off the ground. She pushes you and challenges you in ways that would make Baldwin proud, and she loves how dedicated you are to others.

Liz, you bring a sense of wonder to your relationship that is truly wonderful. You seek out new adventures, embrace creative moments, and you excel at being in the moment. I am grateful that in Parker you found a partner who both affirms your beautiful brain and can make you laugh better than anyone else, except for maybe Lenny Bruce.

A few weeks ago, the three of us were talking and I asked both of you to consider what you think marriage actually is. I challenged you to create your own working definition of what marriage could be and this is what you said: Marriage is bringing new worlds to each other.

I like that. I like it a lot in fact. Because that’s precisely what God brings to us.

In the story of Elijah we discover the strange new world of God’s reign. Elijah is afraid, he is in fact running for his life when he comes to the cave, when he hears the probing question from the Lord, “What are you doing here?” God promises to be present for the prophet, and from the safety of the cave Elijah experiences the great wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, and even the silence. But God is not in any of those things, not even in the silence.

However, it is only in the silence that Elijah is able to hear the question for the second time, and truly began to ponder his answer, “What are you doing here?”

When I asked you two if you wanted anything particular to happen during this wedding celebration, you said silence. How perfect! In a world hell bent of berating us with sounds and words and arguments, you wanted time to shut up and listen. You wanted the silence in order to appreciate the sacredness of this moment, so as to not give yourselves over to the ways of the world.

Silence is rare in God’s scripture, but silence is not absence. Silence is often the perquisite for the most profound discoveries we could ever hope to experience. It is in the silence before the first note of a song that we enter into the strange new world of anticipation, it is in the silence shared between two friends that sets them forth on a path to the strange new world of a relationship, and it is in the silence shared between all of us right now that God asks the most important question of the strange new world you two are about to embark upon, “What are you doing here?”

Shutting up might just be the thing that sustains you in your marriage.

But, it’s not just about being silent so that the other can speak and you can appropriately listen, it’s about shutting off all the noise under which we are suffocating. Silence is the beauty of self-reflection that allows us to see who we really are in order to give ourselves to the other. Without silence, we are just clanging cymbals making noise in the void.

In your marriage built on silence, you will find speckles of the divine in the other. Those speckles will shine forth in intimate moments shared in the silence of your apartment, in the rare silence of a subway ride, in the silence shared during a meal, and even in the silence as you prepare to fall asleep in your shared bed.

Silence might just sustain your marriage.

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? That’s okay. In the backyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.

I don’t know if everyone knows this, but we are gathered in the middle of a labyrinth. Christians have been using abyrinths for at least 1,000 years as a way to experience the divine. The journey to the middle of the maze is one marked by contemplation, reflection, and silence. It is a journey to a new world, one in which you can’t imagine, one in which without silence becomes meaningless.

It is therefore perhaps the most appropriate place to have a wedding. You two are preparing to embark on a long journey to the center of the labyrinth we call marriage. It will be filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and in the silence of your journey you will find each other, and God will find you.

God always find us.

When Elijah stepped forth out of the cave, the stench of burning wood was still in the air, the boulders were crumbled into rocks, and the trees were split in two. The silence after the dramatic allowed him to really hear the question, “What are you doing here?”

And here we are, millennia later, and God is asking both of you the same question.

I’d like you both to look out at everyone gathered for just a moment. Their presence is an answer to God’s question. They are here because they believe in the impossible possibility of your marriage. They see in you what you have discovered in one another, and it will be through their hopes and dreams and prayers that your promise will be sustained in times of drama and in times of silence.

But at the end of the day, marriage is a mystery. It is like the paradox of being bound together and simultaneously being set free. It is like an empty tomb that stands a stark declaration about the defeated power of death. It is like the labyrinth in which we stand. It’s only something we can figure out while we figure it out.

Marriage is like the mystery of new worlds joining together.

So, my friends, it is my hope and prayer that you two recognize how profoundly mysterious your marriage will be, that you will cherish the moments of deep silence, and that you rejoice in the strange new worlds you are bringing to each other, and the strange new world that God has brought to you. Amen.

We Always Marry The Wrong Person – A Wedding Homily

Ecclesiastes 4.9-12

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

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From my perspective, which is to say the Pastor’s perspective, weddings are better when you really know the couple. Worshiping and celebrating together is always joyful and full of excitement when you’ve taken the time to get to know the people who are entering into the wedded covenant.

But when you know the couple as well as I know the two of you, it becomes that much harder.

What can I possibly say to the two of you that I have not already said before! I know the two of you too well to make the language of love and commitment intelligible because I cannot look at either of you with unbiased perspectives. I have memories of both of you stretching back so far that standing here before you, tasked with speaking the truth about what you are about to do, feels like an impossible assignment.

However, unlike so many weddings where you might hear the fluff about how love is all you need, I can be more vulnerable and honest with both of you, and everyone else here, because I’m actually going to see you again!

I told both of you months ago that regardless of whatever scripture you picked for your wedding, that I reserved the right to chose my own as well. This was not meant as a slight, I know you two know the scriptures well enough to pick a proper wedding text, but I also know both of you enough to what another scripture that gives light and life.

Luke 5.1-11

“Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

The Three-Fold is not quickly broken and Jesus Gone Fishing.

Jesus and fishing are like a match made in heaven, on earth. Throughout the New Testament people go fishing all the time and they never, ever, catch a single fish unless Jesus is with them. Fishing was so important to the early Christians not only as a way to survive, but they also carved out the sign of a fish in the secret catacombs to let fellow disciples know it was a place of worship.

It’s clear, at least in the witness of scripture, that Jesus liked fish: the first disciples were called after a night of fishing, Jesus fed the 5,000 with just a handful of fish, and Jesus first meal after the resurrection was broiled fish over a charcoal fire.

It’s only fitting that Forrest proposed to Katie while on a fishing trip. And, Jesus was definitely with you, because you actually caught her.

That’s when everyone’s supposed to say “Aww.”

And for as much as Jesus liked fish, and fish have become inextricably connected with the Christian faith, fishing has also become the de facto metaphor for romantic relationships. People say things like “You caught her” or “Don’t worry, you just need to work on your moves and maybe you’ll get a few bites” or “Of all the fish in the sea, I’m so glad you swam to me.”

We’re stuck with that language whether we like it or not. And the truth is, relationships, and in particular marriage, is much more like fishing than we give it credit for. However, it cannot be boiled down to a nice and cute and cliché Etsy print that you could hang on the wall.

The deep and profound truth of marriage is this: We always marry the wrong person.

Now, lest you two run away from me for saying something so heinous in the midst of your wedding, lest you scratch your heads as to how that relates to fishing… Let me explain.

So much of what the world tells us about marriage is destructively caught up in the lie that in marriage you will find happiness. I hope and pray that you two are happy in your marriage, but marriage itself is not indicative, or predictive, of happiness. We are told again and again that there is a soul mate for us out there, and that if we fish long enough we will find the “right” person.

We never really know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we marry the “right” person, just give it a little while and he or she will change.

Forrest, take a good look at Katie: Beautiful, intelligent, fierce. We both know that she loves you more than you love yourself. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing, she’s just deeply in love with you. But she’s not going to be like this forever. She’s not going to even be like this tomorrow. You, Forrest, are about to make a crazy promise – to love and share life with Katie knowing that you do not know how she is going to change.

And Katie, take a good look at Forrest. I know he’s as handsome as they come, but he’s not going to look like this forever. Sike, whom am I kidding, Forrest is going to look like he’s 18 forever! But really, he’s kind and committed and knows way too many random factoids that only make for good conversation when you meet strangers. He can tell you what state produces the highest number of toothpicks each year, and where are the best places to go urban fly fishing in the DC metro area. But he’s going to change. It is inescapable. And you, Katie, are about to make the same crazy promise – to love and share life with Forrest knowing that you do not know how he’s going to change.

            Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Marriage is only made possible when you know who you are such that you are willing to enter into the mystery of the other with your whole self.

8 years ago the three of us traveled to Guatemala together. We spent the majority of our time in Chiquisis, a small and remote village in the Highlands. We slept on old bunk beds, and woke up every morning to coffee as thick as porridge before we went out to work on building our stoves. As the leader of the trip I got to pair everyone in work crews, and I chose to work with you Katie, and I sent Forrest to work with my sister Haley.

I remember about halfway through the week, when the exhaustion and routine was so strong that we were able to work for hours at a time without talking, I interrupted you while you were mixing concrete and I asked you a difficult question: “Why Forrest?”

And I will never forget how you didn’t even look up, or pause what you were doing to answer, “Because he makes me feel like me.”

4 years ago Forrest, you and I went fly-fishing by ourselves in the middle of nowhere Virginia. We hiked and hiked up and down along the banks of the creek, we fished for hours and hours, and we never even saw a single fish. And I remember about halfway through the day, when frustration and the routine was strong enough that we hadn’t said anything for a long time, I interrupted you in the middle of a cast with a difficult question: “Why Katie?”

And I will never forget how you kept casting when you answered, “Because when I’m with her, she makes me feel like me.”

   I feel like me.

It is in the knowledge of self that you two come to this place on this day with a strange and beautiful and bewildering promise. To me it is a sign of God’s abundant grace and mercy that you two found partners who make each of your feel more like yourselves. In a world where we decipher far too much of our identities based on the people around us, it was through your joining together that you somehow became more fully the individuals God has called you to be.

When Jesus called Simon Peter by the lakeshore, he called the wrong person. What kind of Messiah calls a fisherman, who catches zero fish, to be a fisher of people? Why choose the one who shouted, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner” to be the first disciple? Everything about Simon Peter was wrong. Jesus chose the wrong person.

            But that’s exactly what made it right.

Throughout the gospels Simon Peter becomes the disciple who responds to Jesus’ healing, teaching, and preaching. Simon Peter is the one who confesses Jesus as the Messiah first. Simon Peter is the one whom upon whom Christ would build his church.

Not because he was a good fisherman, not because he was gifted with leadership potential, not because of anything within himself.

Simon Peter becomes the person God called him to be because Jesus was with him! Only when Jesus was in the boat did the nets begin to break under the weight of the fish. Only when Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God was Peter able to say, “You are the Christ.” Only when Jesus handed Peter the bread and the wine at the table was he able to become the rock of the church.

    Jesus’ presence changes us.

Christ is the third part of the threefold cord that is not easily broken. Christ is the one sitting with us on the boats of life beckoning us to throw the nets over one more time. Christ is the Lord of impossible possibilities.

Peter was the wrong disciple, just like we marry the wrong person, because we don’t get to control the people we love. We are bound to them and they are bound to us in the sanctity of marriage in ways that remind us over and over again that only through profound witness of faith can something so incredible become manifest.

Only when Jesus is with us on the boat, can we hope to catch some fish.

Now, I want you two to take a look at all the people here. They, like Jesus, believe in impossible possibilities. They believe in you. They are here as a witness and a testament to the individual lives brought to this place on this day, and they are the promise made manifest to hold you to the impossible possibility of your marriage.

Now look at each other one more time. Deeply. I hope each of your know how tremendously blessed each of you are to have the person in front of you staring right back, this old friend who has shared so much of life with you, this absolute stranger who is becoming your marriage partner.

Now back to me! Your wedded life will be filled with mountains and valleys, with monsoons and droughts, with good fishing days and bad fishing days. But no matter what, keep tossing the net and keep casting your rods.

Know, deep in your bones, that the Lord is with you on the boat, that the threefold cord is not easily broken, and that you need not be afraid.

We always marry the wrong person, but that’s exactly what makes it right. Amen.

To My Youngest Sister On The Occasion Of Her Engagement

Jeremiah 31.31-33

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

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I answered the phone yesterday afternoon to the delightful news of your engagement. You shared the where, and the how, and the when. I listened with my imagination and tried to picture the scene as it all unfolded. I contemplated the beginning of your relationship and all the mountains and valleys that led to the proposal.

And as soon as you hung up to call the next person on the list, I gave thanks to God.

I gave thanks to God not because you’ve found your partner, or that you were asked in accordance with your romantic desires; I gave thanks to God because your engagement is a sign (and reminder) of God’s covenant with all of us.

When the day of your wedding arrives, I will stand with the two of you by the altar, and I will ask you to make promises (read: covenants) with each other about the future. A future that you cannot possibly imagine. And I will save more theological reflections for that particular moment, but until that holy time, I will share this – there is a difference between the promise that is now present on your finger, and the promise that marks our hearts.

For centuries the people of God abandoned the ways of God. Rather than rejoicing in all the good gifts they received, they (just like us) wanted more. They wanted more power, more wealth, more esteem at the expense of their faithfulness, holiness, and convictions. They worshiped other gods, they rejected the covenant, they assumed that they could make it through this life all on their own.

And for that reason God established a new covenant.

It was a new covenant not because the first was flawed, but because the partner of the covenant was flawed. The covenant became a list of dos and don’ts such that they worshiped the Law rather than the One who gave the Law. Moreover, they began to see one another not as fellow brothers and sisters set apart by God, but as objects to be manipulated for individual gain.

In the fullness of time God saw fit to establish a new covenant through water and Spirit, the covenant of baptism, through which we are incorporated in Christ’s church. It is a sign of a promise written on our hearts that God will be our God.

It is not a ring on a finger.

That is a different sort of promise. That promise (of which you sent a picture to me minutes after the proposal) is a promise made between two of God’s people in anticipation of God’s promise being made manifest.

That’s not to say that God’s wasn’t there on the mountaintop when you shouted “yes!” with gleeful joy. God certainly was; just as God has been with the two of you in every moment of your relationship. But there is a new covenant coming, one made between the two of you in the sight of God, and in the sight of the community that will promise to hold you accountable to the covenant you are making.

What I’m trying to say is this: the covenantal moment on the mountain is a reminder of the power and necessity of the church. The church (for all of her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the kind of promises that you and your beloved have made, and will continue to make, with one another. The church itself is a covenant from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as bridegroom. We 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 exemplified in the empty tomb.

You two are now on a path that Christians experience every Sunday in worship, through every clasped connection of hands in prayer, in the breaking of bread, in the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the occasional sermon.

Your engagement is a reminder of God’s engagement (covenant) with us. And for that I give thanks to God.

 

Sincerely,

Your Big Brother