Sue, John, and the Love of God

Every wedding is a special occasion.  We know this because of several reasons.  People tend to dress up for weddings.  In a world where business casual now includes denim, people dressing up is kind of a big deal.  Not that you can tell it, but even I wore a suit today, which is a rare feat.  People buy gifts for weddings.  John and Sue have specifically asked us not to bring gifts, but I’m sure a few of you out there picked up a little something for the happy couple.  People give up a portion of their weekend to come to a wedding.  “Time is money,” the old saying goes, and even on what was a dreary Saturday, giving up a portion of your free-time must mean that these two people are special to you.  Every wedding is a special occasion, but in all the weddings I’ve done over the past decade of ordained ministry, this one seems to be a little bit extra special.  I know that this event is extra simply by the sheer number of people, both within Christ Church and in the wider Bowling Green community, who have shared with me their excitement and joy for these two people.  Sue and John are beloved, and today, we gather to share in the joy of their coming together in Christian Marriage.

I am also keenly aware that this event is extra special because I’ve been a nervous wreck about preaching today.  I joked earlier this week that I thought I was more nervous about preaching the Parker-Wilson wedding than the Presiding Bishop was to preach the Royal Wedding earlier today.  As I read through the lessons, looked through the service, and prayed for Sue and John this week, I became more and more aware of the specialness of this and every wedding ceremony.  The marriage rite is unlike anything else we do in the church.  Neither Mother Becca nor I are really the officiants today, but rather, it is John and Sue who do the sacramental work. Their coming together in marriage, seeking after mutual joy and affection and grounded in love, is an outward and visible sign of God’s never-failing love for every one of us and for the world that God has created.

In just a few minutes, we will pray for John and Sue.  We will ask God to give them wisdom, but they have plenty of that already.  We will ask God to help them grow in love, but their lives have long since been dedicated to the cause of love.  We will ask God to help them reconcile and forgive when the inevitable disappointments and failures come their way, but they already know forgiveness to be the hallmark of a strong marriage.  Most importantly, it seems to me, is that we will pray that their marriage will be a sign of Christ love to this sinful and broken world.

In his sermon for that other wedding that took place this morning, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, noted that “There [is] power in love. Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate for living when nothing else will.”  Today, we gather to celebrate the power of love.  Love that has guided these two in their lives all along.  Love that has been shown in their families.  Love that has been shared with thousands of students.  Love that has been deeply known by their many friends.  And love, which in John and Sue, I see lived out every day, shown to the world by way of loving service, compassion, and care.

Every one of us knows John Parker and Sue Wilson to be living, breathing examples of God’s love as individuals.  What makes today so special is that from here on out, those individuals will become one flesh, and in so doing, will offer us a new way to see God’s love at work in the world.  Today, they bring with them all that has come before.  They bring two long and loving marriages, two dedicated families, years of life as widow and widower, serving the world and the church.  All of those pieces come together in this day, and from here on out, their love for each other will serve a sign and symbol of the way in which God’s love can overcome all things: bears all things, hopes all things.  We all know how special this day is.  That’s why you are here.  And so, this afternoon, we give thanks for the love that Sue and John have known in God: love given to one another, to all of us, and to the world God has created.  May the Lord bless us all this day with a deep and abiding sense of the true love that endures.  Amen.

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The Irrational Logic of Love

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Under normal circumstances, the use of circular logic is not recommended.  It is a logical fallacy to use the end to justify the question at hand.  Describing the love of God, however, is not something that can be defined by logic.  God’s love is, as I’ve said elsewhere, prodigal.  It is poured out in abundance, with reckless abandon, such that all of humanity, good and evil, believer and heathen, sinner and saint, fall within the reach of God’s saving embrace.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one of those moments when the irrational logic of love becomes abundantly clear.  Well, clear as mud anyway.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  (John 15:10-12)

If we keep the commandments of Jesus, we will abide in his love.  OK, great, so what are the commandments of Jesus?  To love one another as he has loved us.  Right, so we love like Jesus loves in order to abide in Jesus’ love?  That’s a lot of love.  So much love that these words from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died fill me with a mixture of comfort and fear.  There is no way I can love my neighbor like Jesus loves me.  Yet, I take some solace in the promise that if I do, I will abide in Jesus’ love, for it is out of that love that I will be able to love.

Wait… what did I just type?

See, the love of God is irrational.  We who would follow Jesus are invited into that irrationality.  We are called upon to love beyond our means precisely because it will teach us to rely on God who is love.  We love because God loved us first, and it is in that relationship of receiving God’s abundant love in order to share it with the world that we ultimately experience the fullness of joy that is our promise from God.

So love the world recklessly and extravagantly, just as God does, because God loves you recklessly and extravagantly.

It is all about love

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Some thirteen years later, I can still remember sitting in my homiletics class critiquing the sermons of my colleagues.  Between that and a similar practice in our liturgics practicum, to this day, I am incapable of simply attending a church service.  My eyes are always looking for things I would do differently.  My ears are always fixed on ways I would have preached the text.  When I get frustrated with this inner critic, I think back to those homiletics classes and remember that one time that I really got bent out of shape with a classmate who preached a sermon entitled, “it is all about love.”

“We don’t have a good working definition of love,” I said, indignantly, “so to preach ‘its all about love’ is to only exacerbate the misunderstanding.”  More than a decade later, I still stand by that critique, but I see how maybe I could have helped more by suggesting a working definition of love rather than just throwing my hands up and saying, “quit with all this love garbage.”  With our Presiding Bishop’s inaugural sermon forever floating around the internet as an Episcopal meme, it seems that maybe Sunday’s epistle lesson is begging Episcopal preachers to spend some time talking about Christian love.

Not including the two times John refers to his readers as “beloved,” the word love appears no less than 26 times in 15 verses.  Twice, the author simply says “God is love.”  It would behoove us, I think, to help people understand what this means.  In every case, all twenty-six times, the Greek word translated as love is agape.  Agape describes a love that is deeper than feelz.  It isn’t just about butterflies in your stomach or safe-church-side-hugs or I’m-ok-you’re-ok-crappy-theology.  Agape love is about giving oneself for another.  It is a kind of love that has to be decided upon.  It is love that requires action.  It is a self-sacrificial love that seeks the betterment of the one who is loved.  Agape love is the love that brings Jesus to earth in the form of a human being.  It is the love that takes him to the cross that we might have life eternal.  It is the love that invites us to share the Good News of God with a world that desperately needs it.

Before you spend 12 minutes talking about love this Sunday, please spend twice as much time considering what agape means for the people in your pews.  Our Presiding Bishop is right, if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God, but there are so many different, sometimes unhelpful, definitions of love, that we owe it to our people to unpack what it all means.

Why the wilderness?

This is the sermon that I wrote to be preached on Lent 1, Year B, 2018.  Because of a death in the family, I will be away from the Christ Church pulpit, and so it will go unpreached.


You’ve probably seen the picture by now.  It has been posted all over social media.  Every news outlet on the planet has shown it.  It was taken by Joel Auerbach of the Associated Press and it is of the mother of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, sobbing, embracing another woman who is also in tears, with the familiar black mark of an ashen cross on her forehead.

Parkland School Shooting Joel Auerbach - AP

It is perhaps the most poignant portrait of anguish that I have ever seen.  Having been reminded earlier in the day of her own mortality and need for God, hours later, this faithful woman found herself standing in the wilderness, lost, and in search of hope.  It has been less than a month since western Kentucky had to endure its own wilderness moment when a fifteen-year-old student at Marshall County High School opened fire in the commons area before school began on January 23rd.  There were no ashen crosses that day, but the images are unsettlingly familiar by now.  Students running for their lives away from their school, a place that is supposed to be one of the last remaining safe havens.  And parents, their eyes somehow both keenly focused as they search for their children among the mass of humanity and yet also blankly staring into space, in shock, and unable to take in what they are seeing.

Of all the photographs I’ve seen after a school shooting, and by God, I’ve seen way too many, the image of this Parkland, Florida mother with the sign of the cross on her forehead just will not go away.  Like most priests, I ashed my fair share of people on Wednesday.  Those who came to the altar rail were in various stages of life.  Some came at 7am, eager to rush off to work.  Others came at noon, as their schedule allowed.  Some were older, a couple were so small as to be held in the arms of a parent or grandparent.  As those familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” echoed through the Nave, each of us was invited in that moment to meet God in the wilderness.  For most of us, that wilderness is a creation of our own imagination.  It is the wilderness of no chocolate or red wine.  It is the wilderness of extra Bible readings or longer prayer times.  It is the wilderness of Lenten fasts and disciplines, wherein we meet God on our own terms.  The mother in that photograph began her day thinking she would be entering a wilderness of her own design, when, without warning, she found herself driven well beyond her comfort zone, out – way, way out – into a wilderness of fear, unknowing, and agony.

I’ve often wondered why it is that after his baptism, Jesus finds himself flung by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness.  It raises all sorts of difficult theological questions that God would hand God the Son over to the Devil for 40 days of temptation.  All sorts of bad theology has come out of Jesus’ wilderness experience.  It usually rears its ugly head in the aftermath of a tragedy and sounds something like, “Everything happens for a reason.”  “God has a plan.”  “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  All of which is absolute garbage.  Sure, nothing can happen totally without reason, but sometimes that reason has nothing to do with the people affected by the thing that is happening.  Sometimes that reason is greedy politicians or a angry young man or decades of doing nothing in the face of actual threats to our children.  Yes, God does have a plan, but I can assure you that God’s plan does not include the gunning down of 17 innocent people in a high school in Florida.  And if you look into the face of that mother, you can be damn sure that she’s smack dab in the middle of more than anyone should be asked to handle.

As she stands in the middle of the wilderness, flung there not by the Spirit of God, but rather by the devil and the powers of hell, the last thing this woman, or any of the families affected by any of the more than 270 school shootings that have happened since Columbine needs is a platitude about God’s plan.[1]  What they really need in that moment is for God to be there, walking alongside them in the grief, shock, and pain.  This is, I think, why Jesus is flung into the wilderness immediately following his baptism, so that he can be there when each of us finds ourselves in the wilderness because of illness, natural disaster, violence, abuse, harassment, degradation, or whatever else the devil and the powers of evil might throw our way.

On Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the Parkland shooting, I was in the car early, listening to Golic and Wingo on ESPN Radio as they interviewed Stugotz, a sports radio personality who lives within walking distance of Margory Stoneman Douglas High School.  They asked him what the feeling was in the community.  His answer reminded me that because of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, God is able to understand what these families are feeling.  It also reminded me that as the body of Christ, we are invited to stand there as well, to bring the love of God to those who are lost, wandering in the wilderness.  “Some of the acts of kindness I saw yesterday,” he said, “you know… it takes something like this to get us to act like that… Where we are ok with someone cutting us off.  We are ok with a car parked in the middle of the road because it is a parent looking for their kid.  We’re ok getting out of the car, on our own, to help a kid looking for his parents, which I saw countless people doing yesterday with kids that weren’t even their own.  You’d like to think that’s how we’d always treat people… The way people acted yesterday, I wish that was the way people would act forever.”[2]

According to Mark, Jesus didn’t have any choice in whether he would enter the wilderness or not.  He was thrown there by the Spirit and spent forty days living in that godforsaken place so that the next time someone found themselves in the wilderness, it couldn’t be godforsaken.  Jesus was there, wrapping his arms of love around those two mothers, gripped in fear and sadness.  Jesus was there, helping terrified children find their families.  Jesus was there, holding the wounded and the dying in their hour of need.  Jesus was there. Jesus is here, even as we feel lost and alone in a wilderness of anger, fear, and grief.  And Jesus invites us to be the body of Christ by entering into the wilderness where others find themselves to offer God’s compassion and love.

[1] Lauren Pearle “School Shootings Since Columbine: By the Numbers” ABCNews, 2/12/2016, accessed 2/15/2018 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/school-shootings-columbine-numbers/story?id=36833245)

[2] Stugotz, interviewed on Golic and Wingo 2/15/2018, accessed 2/15/2018 (http://www.espn.com/espnradio/play?id=22451096)

God looks us in the eye and says, “I love you.”

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.


There is something vitally important about being looked in the eye.  We’ve all been in those conversations where it feels like the other person can’t wait to get away from you.  While they may be talking in your general direction, their eyes are scanning the room, searching for an escape route or perhaps someone more important to talk to.  It can be disheartening to be talking to someone while they look around for anything else to do.  In my pastoral care training, they shared with us that the most overlooked people in the hallways of hospitals are the patients.  Rolling around in wheelchairs and on gurneys, their eyes are well below the eyeline of others walking the halls.  While any number of people may say hello to the person pushing a patient down the hall, very rarely does the patient actually get acknowledged.

The same is true of children.  The world seems to exist above their heads, literally and figuratively, as adults discuss things three feet higher than they are.  I was reminded of this over this past week after Lainey received a pretend ice cream and hot dog stand for Christmas.  The stand has an awning at the top, that is maybe three feet off the ground, so when I approached it to order a delicious ice cream sandwich, I found myself talking to the awning rather than the eager five-year-old who was ready to take my order.  It is only when I crouch down to her level that she and I can really enjoy the experience.  Over this past week, we must have played ice-cream-hot-dog cart a hundred times, and everybody got in on the action.  I noticed the power of making eye contact especially when my sister engaged Shopkeeper Lainey.  Lisa is a special education administrator in Philadelphia.  For more than a decade now, she has been dealing with children who are often overlooked.  As Lisa crouched down to buy another Philly soft pretzel from Lainey’s Snack Stand, I could see that this was her standard posture.  While most of us looked around for something to sit on, Lisa was perfectly comfortable crouching down to look a child in the eye, making Lainey feel special, loved, and cared for.

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I can’t help but see my sister crouching down to engage a child with special needs when I read the Prologue to John’s Gospel.  The language is certainly lofty, but the story it conveys is earthy and raw.  It is the story of how the God of all Creation stooped down to look humanity in the eye and share with us that we are special, loved, and cared for.  The story begins when all that existed was God.  In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were in a perfect relationship of love with one another.  The Word was with God and the Word was God, and as God spoke, the Word went forth and created.  The Word created the sun, moon, and stars, the earth and all that walks, creeps, and crawls upon it, the ocean and all that swims therein.  Finally, from the voice of God the Word created humanity, and the Breath gave us life, and the Triune God looked upon all that Creator, Word, and Breath had made and declared it very good.

From then on, God could have stayed far away and simply watched creation like a science experiment, but God didn’t do that.  God loves creation too much to leave us to our own devices, and so, throughout history, God has intervened in the hopes of keeping us in right relationship with God and with one another.  Through Abraham, he made a covenant that God would bless the whole earth.  Through Moses, he gave the law, by which we were to live in peace with one another.  Again and again, we failed to maintain those perfect relationships.  Again and again, we fell into sin.  Again and again, we proved that we needed extra help.  Through the prophets, God called us to return, but in time, it became clear that God was speaking above our heads.  The only way God could really get our attention was by crouching down, looking humanity in the eye, and saying, beyond the shadow of a doubt, “I love you.”  And so, in the fullness of time, the Word who is the light of the world, took on flesh and lived among us.  In his translation of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts this powerful verse like this, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  The good news of Christmas is that God’s very self was born for us. God took on flesh to live as one of us. He entered the messiness of this world, to the point of being born in a barn and laid in a feed trough. God didn’t stand aside, watching creation uncreate itself through the screen of his divine iPad. Instead, God stooped down from heaven and moved into the neighborhood so that he could look us in the eye and affirm that we are loved beyond all measure.

Over the course of our new liturgical year, we’ll journey through Mark’s Gospel and find out what it means for the Divine to stoop down to engage humanity face-to-face; for the Word that John speaks of in such lofty language to move into the neighborhood. In his haste to bring us the Good News, Mark will make us run through the details of Jesus’ life.  He will carefully focus our attention on Jesus’ ministry of service, beginning with Jesus being baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River and being declared as “beloved Son” by both a voice from heaven and the descending of the Spirit as a dove. Many miraculous events will follow: he will drive out evil spirits, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, make the paralyzed to stand up and walk, and even raise the dead to new life.  By way of several parables, Jesus will teach us what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  Over the course of his active ministry, Jesus will have no place to lay his head, and yet, out of an abundance of compassion, he will feed thousands upon thousands with scarce resources. He’ll find comfort in friends, be anointed by a stranger, terrorized by enemies, and tempted by the devil. Finally, he’ll be handed over by a traitor, spit upon by his enemies, tried by a coward, and killed at the hand of Rome, only to rise again on the third day. Jesus, the Word of God who took on flesh and blood, will not stand idly by while real life goes on around him, but instead he will experience the roller coaster nature of human life, taking it all into himself, redeeming the good and bad, highs and lows, joys and sorrows.

As we heard on Christmas Eve, to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the Good News of Mega Joy of Christmas. God, who could have very easily sat back and watched as the creation he spoke into being destroy itself by selfishness and jealousy, instead came to earth and lived and died as one of us so that we might know how much God loves us.  Two thousand years later, the Incarnation still means that God is present in our joys and in our sorrows. God is present as we come to the end of 2017, whether we think back on it with fondness, or hope to forget it ever happened. God is present as we prepare for what 2018 has to offer, whether it is the joy of a child or grandchild, the promise of a new career, or the cold diagnosis of disease. God is present in the joy-filled songs at 10 o’clock and in the simple recitation of the liturgy at 8am. God is present in traffic on Scottsville Road, in the waiting room, in the shopping mall, and in school. No matter where we are or what we are feeling, the good news of Christmas is that God moved into the neighborhood in order to look humanity in the eye, to look you in the eye, and make sure you know that you are special, you are cared for, and God loves you.  Amen.

Keeping it Basic

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My favorite lyric right now comes from the track “Mouth of the River” on the new Imagine Dragons album Evolve.  Unfortunately, I can’t share the track with you because of copyright issues, but I promise you, if you buy the album, you won’t be disappointed.  Anyway, the lyric goes like this:

Oh I’m alkaline
I’m always keeping to the basics

I like this line for several reasons.  First, it is really nerdy, which I dig.  Second, it is really fun to sing, which I need right now.  Evolve is my running album and I hate running, so having fun things is good.  Third, it restores the word “basic” which has been co-opted of late as pejorative colloquialism to describe “middle class white women who are perceived to predominantly like mainstream products, trends, or music.” (1) or “someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.” (2)  I’ve never been a fan of taking words that are commonly used and making them mean something negative or hurtful.

As I listened to that lyric this morning, I was reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we will hear read on Sunday (see point one above).  From this passage, we receive the Christ Hymn, a recounting of not just Paul’s Christology, but his Christian anthropology as well.  In this lesson, heady as it may seem, Paul invites the Christians in Philippi and, by extension, us, to keep it basic.  Rather than thinking we know it all or are living lives that are perfectly in tune with God’s will, Paul calls on disciples of Jesus to humility, which was the example of Christ.  Though he was both God and man, Jesus did not lord his power over us.  Instead, as Paul says so beautifully, Jesus “emptied himself” and “humbled himself” and is therefore “highly exalted.”  Jesus kept it basic: he loved and he showed compassion, and he invites his disciples to do the same.

At the end of this passage, Paul admonishes his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Through Christ, the Spirit continues to be present within us, helping us to keep it to the basics, not worried about what others are doing, but working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  God at work in us is seen when we love and when we show compassion.  It may seem simple, basic (in the pejorative sense) even, but it is the way in which the Kingdom of God is built, one basic compassionate act at a time.

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

I’ve had Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” stuck in my head all week.  I’m not really sure why my mind is replaying this old song.  It may be because of my profound sadness at the latest Taylor Swift offering.  It might be the rash of “Feed the Pig” ads on ESPN radio that decry a 2005(!) statistic about American’s spending more than they are saving.  Most likely, it is the result of Sunday’s portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul admonishes his hearers that they “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Biblical thoughts on usury and indebtedness aside, this is helpful advice from Paul.  As I’ve said before, one of the best definitions of sin that I’ve heard came from an early elementary aged child who said that we sin when we aren’t loving.  I know this is true in my life.  Relationships, be they between me and another person or me and God, sour when my focus falls away from love.  Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by commanding us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we fail to live by that code of love, barriers go up, relationships break down, and violence and fear enter our world.

The trouble is, as Tennessee Ernie made famous, every one of us is “another day older and deeper in debt.”  So how do we change?  How do we work toward being more loving?  How do we avoid Saint Peter calling while we still owe our souls, not to the company store, but to the love of neighbor, enemy, family, or friend?  First, we have to admit that this just isn’t possible.  Sin is a universal human condition, no matter where we find our names in the book of life, all fall short of the glory of God.  Rather than trying to muster up, by our own strength, the ability to love our neighbor perfectly, instead we must rely on God and the perfect love that God offers us.  When we live in God’s grace, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, renewed through prayer and study, then, as Psalm 23 says, our cup will overflow with love for all through generosity and service.  Simply put, the way to stay out of a debt of love is to stay in relationship with God, and the way to deepen our relationship with God is through discipleship.  With God’s grace, we can take on the debt of love for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.