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 faithfulness of God

Way back, when I was in seminary, I studied Greek.  While I continue to use it occasionally in sermon prep, I couldn’t tell you the alphabet by rote and I don’t remember many of the rules for conjugation.  What I do remember are key details, things which help us understand a deeper meaning that isn’t present in the English translation, and more importantly, I remember how and where to look things up.  One of the memories that floods back in occasionally has to do with prepositions and how they can mean many different things in Greek.  For example, when we read of “faith in Christ” it could also mean “faith of Christ,” such that we are saved not by our own ability to put our trust in someone who lived, died, and rose again 2,000 years ago, but because of the faithfulness of that same person to live, die, and rise again.

This came flooding back into my consciousness this morning as I desperately looked for something new to write about.  Now in our fourth (fifth? I’ve honestly lost count) week of apocalyptic parables and imagery, it seems difficult to find a new way to riff on Jesus’ command to “stay awake.”  As I read the lesson from 1st Corinthians, I was drawn to this image of God being the faithful one who calls us into relationship.

As the Biblical story unfolds, there are a hundred or more places where God could have (should have?) given up on humanity.  As the Eucharistic Prayer puts it, “again and again, you called us to return,” but due to our own pride and/or apathy, we have repeatedly failed to live into the dream of God.  Sometimes, it was whole nations that failed.  More often, it is the hearts of individuals who stray from the Kingdom of God.  Yet, despite our ongoing resistance, God is faithful, inviting us back into relationship, and always ready to receive us into the arms of God’s saving embrace.

Advent seems like an appropriate time to spend sometime prayerfully considering the faithfulness of God.  As we prepare ourselves for the gift of salvation, born on Christmas Day, it makes sense to focus less on what role we take in that salvation, and to be mindful that it is by God’s steadfast faithfulness that, in the fullness of time, the Son comes into the world.  It can be hard, the whole “it isn’t about me” thing, but in a season devoted to preparation, it seems the right thing to do.

The King we Need, not the King we Want

Today’s sermon is posted on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


I’m always amazed at just how quickly November arrives.  It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating Mardi Gras and preparing for Lent.  Now, here we are at the end of the church year, once again celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.  Well, celebrating might not be the best word to use here in Year C when our Gospel lesson comes from Good Friday.  As we close out the church year and ponder what it means to call Jesus the King of kings and Lord of lords, this year, we do so with the stark reality of his death at the hands of Rome and the complicity of the Jewish leadership right in our faces.  It makes me wonder, in light of Good Friday, is Jesus the kind of king we want, or the one we need?

Questions about Jesus’ kingship are particularly difficult to answer for us 21st century Americans because our understanding of kings and queens are based mostly on history books and British tabloids.  While we might admire Queen Elizabeth II for her long reign in England, her monarchy is very different from the role of kings and queens historically.  Her’s is a constitutional monarchy: she rules with the help of an elected Parliament and Prime Minister.  This sort of power sharing has not always been the case.  More common throughout history is the absolute monarchy, a situation in which the king or queen is the sole ruling authority in the land.  In the Bible, we hear the story of Pharaoh in Egypt as an absolute monarch.  Sol, David, Solomon and the other kings of Israel and Judah were the same.  In Jesus’ time, Augustus and Tiberius, while technically Roman Emperors, served with the same sort of iron fist that we tend to think of with the absolute kingships of folks like Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France.

When the mocking soldiers called up to Jesus on the cross and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When the religious leaders laughed at Jesus and said, “If he is the Anointed One of God [a royal title if I’ve ever heard one] let him save himself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When one criminal derided Jesus and asked, “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us” he had a particular image of kingship in mind.  All these were expecting the King of the Jews, the Anointed One, the Messiah, to be a man of power, arriving with a great army who would overthrow Rome and bring about the peace that Jerusalem had lacked for so long.  They expected a king like those they had known, men who ruled with power and might, horse and rider, sword and shield.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus was and is a different kind of king.  That he was the King of the Jews, there is no doubt.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Anointed One of God, but his kingship is unlike anything the world has ever seen.  His throne is not made of gold.  It does not sit in the throne room of a palace built from marble, exotic woods, and precious metals.  Instead, as Luke’s Passion Narrative so skillfully suggests, Jesus’ throne is two roughhewn wood planks, formed into the shape of a cross.  He doesn’t sit on his throne in luxury, but rather hangs from it in agonizing pain.  Yet from this throne, wearing a crown of thorns instead of gold, Jesus makes two royal proclamations.

The first comes immediately after he had been nailed to the cross and raised into the posture of his death.  Jesus looked upon the crowd around him.  He sees the soldiers, who have beaten him, ridiculed him, nailed him to a tree, and will cast lots for his clothing.  He sees the religious leaders, who have lied under oath, conspired with one of his closest companions, worked for months to trap him in his own words, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and now watch approvingly as he suffers for all the world to see.  He sees the crowd that just a few days ago welcomed him to town as a king, laying palm branches and cloaks along the road as they shouted out praises; the same crowd that had just that morning cried out for the release of Barabbas and shouted down Herod with chants of “Crucify him! Crucify Him!” the same crowd that is now getting what they thought they wanted.  Noticeably absent are his disciples, his closest followers, those who have seen his miracles, heard his teaching, and who first called him Messiah and Lord; they are hiding a safe distance away for fear that they might be next.  To all of them, there on the hill called the skull and those cowering in fear far away, Jesus declares pardon, saying “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus’ first official act as the King upon his throne was to declare absolution to all those who played a role in his death.  He forgives those who were actively involved like the soldiers, Pilate, and the Pharisees, and those who were passively involved like his disciples and the crowd.  Jesus Christ, the King of kings, leads through forgiveness.

His second proclamation happens later in the day.  After Jesus had hung there for hours under a sign that read “The King of the Jews,” one of the criminals being crucified beside him had the courage to ask for favor from his king.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  After hours of “if” statements, challenging Jesus to be the sort of king others wanted him to be, one man, convicted of a crime punishable by death on a cross, was willing to speak the truth.  Jesus responds with his second royal proclamation, promising salvation to the thief who believed.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus Christ will not be the type of king the world wants him to be, but instead, he is the king that we need him to be.  A king who leads through forgiveness, and as his second proclamation makes clear, offers salvation to anyone who asks for it, even and maybe even especially those who are well outside the bounds of proper society.

In his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criterion: faith.  This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was the King of the Jews, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom

Jesus is certainly not the kind of king the world expected him to be.  He led through forgiveness.  He offered salvation to the criminals, tax collectors, and sinners.  He refused to come down from the cross because he knew that the only way for him to exercise his kingship was through obedience unto death.  By not saving himself, he saved the whole world, and made paradise available for everyone: male and female; Jew and Gentile; slave and free; just and unjust.  From his throne of torture, Christ the King declares forgiveness for the whole world, setting us free from our bondage to sin to live and serve in his kingdom of love and compassion.  Thanks be to God Jesus isn’t the sort of king the world wants, but is exactly the king we need.  Amen.

The Gospel According to Solomon

In the real life version of Draughting Theology, we’ve spent the last five months (minus a break for Lent) studying the three epistles of John.  It has been a striking study in the dichotomy of the life of faith in the early Church between the overwhelming awareness of the deep love of God and the struggle (and at times, battle) to figure out the bounds of orthodoxy in this new religion.  This back and forth in the letters of John make for some interesting juxtapositions between “love your neighbor” and “the Antichrists.”

Last week, we finally arrived at what Raymond Brown says might be “the most famous saying in the NT,” 1 John 4:8b, “God is love.”  As Brown prophesied in his commentary on the Johannine letters, these three words took us down a path of conversation in which we wondered about the nature of God as God has revealed himself in Scripture.  The natural tendency seems to be to read the Old Testament as being all about a God of vengeance and the New Testament as being all about “God is love.”  Brown has this to say: “This outlook both misunderstands the biblical concept of justice as primarily punitive, and ignores OT passages that make hesed, ‘covenant love and mercy,’ characteristic of God” (p. 550).

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This is all still very fresh in my mind as I read the Track 2 Old Testament Lesson for this week and the great prayer of dedication that King Solomon prays over the Temple that he has built for God.  In the sight of all Israel, with his arms lifted heavenward, Solomon approaches God with these words, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart” (1 Kings 8:23).

Solomon is a wise man.  His words are spoken with intentionality, and so it is telling that he chooses to highlight the steadfast love of God (hesed) in this great moment of national, personal, and religious pride.  The Gospel according to Solomon, about as Old Testament a King as there ever was, is that God’s very nature is love.

What is the Greatest?

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There is a peculiar line in Sunday’s gospel lesson that I just can’t wrap my mind around in the NRSV. As Jesus is talking about his sheep that no one and nothing can snatch away from him, he says, “What my Father has given me is greater than all else…”  I found this to be an interesting turn of phrase, so I set out to look more deeply at the word translated as “what”.  I found that the NRSV seems to radically miss the point on this one.  The focus of Jesus’ attention here seems not to be the sheep that his Father has given him, but the Father himself.

  • … my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else (NLT)
  • My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all (NIV)

In dealing with this word “what,” Robertson suggests “Which” or a more colloquial, “As for my Father.”  He goes on to describe some Greek grammar that is beyond even my level of nerdery, ending with “The greatness of the Father, not of the flock, is the ground of the safety of the flock. Hence the conclusion that ‘no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.'”

I’m not certain why the NRSV chose to translate this sentence the way they did.  It would seem odd, in a teaching that is so focused on the relationship of Jesus as shepherd and his disciples as sheep that he would in turn call the sheep “greater than all else.”  As we’ve seen this week, sheep are vulnerable, wandering, and seemingly dimwitted.  It isn’t the result of their own meandering that they arrive at the promised land, but thanks to the watching eye and careful attention of the shepherd to whom the sheep are given by the Father.

Thanks be to God that the Father is, in fact, the greatest.  If it were left up to me and my greatness, as Martin Luther says, “it would all be for naught.”

The Cost of Love

It might be fairly obvious by now that I plan to preach on Paul’s love hymn in 1 Corinthians 13 this Sunday.  Still, it doesn’t seem right not to at least touch on the Gospel lesson.  Like the Epistle, we’ll hear a continuation of last week’s lesson.  Jesus is preaching from Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth.  He offers words of comfort and hope: good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and in general, the year of the Lord’s favor.

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Needless to say, the crowd gathered is pretty stoked about these words.  Life in a backwater town under Roman occupation hasn’t been great.  Money is always tight, hunger is never more that a few days away, and the whim of the Pax Romana could change at any moment.  The Year of the Lord’s favor, a Jubilee when all was set right, would have sounded like music to the ears of the hard-pressed members of the Synagogue at Nazareth.  Luke tells us, the crowd spoke well of him and were amazed at his teaching.

If only he had stopped talking, but Jesus went on to say that this promise wasn’t just for Nazareth.  It wasn’t just for God’s chosen people, Israel, but for the whole world.  The Gentile Widow at Zarephath?  She’s included.  Namaan, the ungrateful leper from Syria?  He’s in.  Jesus tells the crowd that it is God’s desire to restore to right relationship everyone on the face of the earth.  This word is too much for the crowd to bear.  Their excitement turns to anger in a split second.  Their rage takes Jesus to the brow of a cliff.  This is the cost of love.

There is nothing we can do that will make God love us less.  There is nothing we can do that will make God love us more.  As great as these truths are for me, they can be really hard to hear when their meant for someone else.  The cost of agape love is that it includes everyone, everywhere.  God’s grace that covers me also covers Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.  God’s grace covers Bishops Spong and Duncan.  God’s grace covers bankers on a Wall Street and drug dealers on O Block.  This reality is too much for many of us to handle.  We’d prefer to decide who is in and who isn’t.  This vision of God’s love nearly got Jesus killed by people he grew up with, and it is the sort of vision that gets preachers in hot water as well, but it is the reality of God.

In Christ, the Jubilee has begun.  The work of setting all things right continues as God’s love overflows upon all of his creation.  This work is, as Paul says, a more excellent way, but God knows, it comes at great personal cost.  Jesus died because of God’s love.  We fight and scratch and claw at oppression, sexism, hunger, racism, and class warfare because we know that God’s love is bigger than we can even imagine.  Heck, God even loves a sinner like me.

The Extravagance of God

I received this birthday card from my parents this year.  That such a card exists is pretty amusing, that it came to me the week of Epiphany 2c, when we hear the story of Jesus turning water into wine, is downright awesome sauce.

We can debate the humor of this card in a post-Heather Cook Episcopal Church, but that isn’t really my point this morning.  Instead, what I find interesting in the story of Jesus’ first sign is how it points not only to the power of Jesus and solidifies his disciples understanding of who he is and what he has come to do, but that it also serves as a sacramental sign of the extravagance of God.

Preachers who have done their homework will know that wedding feasts in ancient Israel were serious affairs: often lasting days on end.  Jesus and his disciples have been enjoying the party when Mary (who goes unnamed in John’s Gospel) informs him that the wine has run out.  Having attended a few events where the line lasted longer than the food or drink, I’ve seen what kind of embarrassment this can be.  Nobody wants to be known as the party thrower who didn’t have enough to serve his guests.

At first, Jesus is reluctant to do anything.  “It’s not my time,” he says to his mother, but I suspect he’s thinking, “these powers aren’t for parlor tricks.  The Second Person of the Trinity didn’t come to do magic and keep people drunk.”  And yet, seemingly motivated by his mother’s faith in him, Jesus performs his first sign by turning upwards of 180 gallons of water into wine.  That’s roughly 908 and a half bottles of wine!  As if that wasn’t extravagant enough, Jesus didn’t turn the water into Charles Shaw’s Four Buck Chuck, but the best wine that the party goers had tasted all night.

Do you want to know how much God loves you?  908.5 bottles of the finest wine worth.  And then some.  The extravagant love of God is poured out as a never-ending stream.  In his first miracle, Jesus shows to lengths to which God will go to make that love known to us.  May you come to experience the over-flowing, over-whelming love of God.