a wedding sermon

Though it may be inappropriate of me to be saying it, much less today, at this event, in front of all these people, I kind of suspect that the two of you are a little backward. Sorry, again that may be inappropriate, but I’m not too good at keeping my mouth shut on these things, nor do I believe that trying to follow the standard patterns and mythical romantic guidelines is exactly what we should be up to anyway.

So I’ll go ahead and say it again, and even with some rejoicing, that the two of you are a little backward. You seem to have love out of order, the reverse of the typical pattern that we’re led to expect. And as a first example, there’s that reading from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a reading that told us “Love is not breathlessness, It is not excitement, It is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any fool can do.”

That exactly contradicts much of the mushy sentimentalism that is typical in weddings. Mostly these are seen as days about wedded bliss and honeymoons and extravagance that is intended to reflect the overwhelming emotion of two people head-over-heels in love. Wedding speeches (at least of the American variety) tend to center on how great it is that the couple has found happiness in each other. But this reading you chose argues against all of that and turns it on its head. It calls those popular gooshy wedding moments simply foolish. “That’s just being in love,” it says, disparaging the notion that being in love is the most amazing thing a person can experience.

Instead, the reading goes more to the roots, to the heart. It seeks for when all that sentimentalism is burned away, and that being bound together then is when it really matters and what is really important and worthwhile. Love isn’t really about being happy together, but is about being together through the sadness and struggle and worry as well as the happiness, to share the joy as well as sorrow, sickness and health, richer or poorer, in the exact sentiment that the old vows are supposed to guarantee for each other, through the effortless parts of the journey and the challenges, as you will promise to each other in a moment.

But even more than this surprising reversal of the common demeanor of weddings, I’d say the two of you, Trevor and Stephanie, had it backward long before today. I’d say you were in some ways backward about this from the very beginning, back when you met in Nashville in what has begun to feel like many long years ago. Back in those days when you were first meeting each other and getting to know each other, you were each facing trauma and difficulty, of loss and separation, of death and endings. And so somehow, right from the very start of it all, you were there for each other as support and relief, through a really hard time, and I expect responding and helping and not simply as a diversion or distraction or vacation from your problems.

Having established your relationship on such firm footing, on actual dedication and devotion to being a benefit to each other and not only on what makes you happy, it makes only logical sense that you’ve progressed through all of that to arrive precisely here and now. The progress has also involved deliberation and difficult decisions, on being a blended family with Brady and on how schedules might possibly work and living arrangements that will mean changes of an international scale. It’s involved sorting through that with others and inviting us who are gathered around you today also to be part of that adaptation and change and intentionality and commitment that your love means.

A further word on this gathering: I suspect many of you know, but in case you didn’t, Trevor and Stephanie are already married. In order to work on citizenship and paperwork issues and such, it’s already a done deal, a sterile little process in an office. The deed is done. So we could say that this is moot, that I’m not getting to serve as an official witness, that there’s no signing of marriage licenses and nothing today that will be registered with the county clerk at the courthouse.

But it’s not like today doesn’t matter. The legal stuff wasn’t the only point or the main point for Stephanie and Trevor. The civil ceremony made the marriage “legit,” as they say, but they wanted this gathering as a chance to focus on love. This is the chance to practice what life ahead will mean, the practice (in the characterization of our Bible reading, from Romans 12:9-16) of loving each other, of being family, of giving and receiving support, of mutual affection, of loving what is good, of patience and perseverance, of hospitality and harmony, of rejoicing—for certain—but also of compassion that wouldn’t ignore weeping. This whole mix of our complex and beautiful lives: that is what today is about. And without the fullness of it, not only would we be trying to ignore reality, but we’d also be trying to ignore the blessing of God, who is with you to provide for times of happiness, but also to bring you through sorrow, to sustain and surround you, and to triumph in love.

With that, I invite the three of you now to pour sand in a unity ceremony, a visual representation of the grand beauty of lives mixing and coming together as family, and all contained in the clarity of God’s embrace.

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No Big Boss in the Sky

(Luke7:1-10; Galatians1:1-12)

Who’s the boss of you?

It’s a question first raised by sibling rivalry, of my little sister protesting, “you’re not the boss of me.” But it also grows up out of childhood, as you almost certainly have felt the weight of being bossed around. Occasionally we may get to be the boss, but feel it much harder when we’re the ones being bossed. Similarly, when you’re remanded into the custody of the authorities, that’s not a good thing.

This authoritarian pondering is prompted by the term “authority” in our readings, both in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches and in our Gospel reading. It appears right away in Galatians, that Paul is an apostle not sent from human authority.

It’s more central and emphatic in the Gospel reading when the centurion contacts Jesus with a message, “I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers and slaves under me” who obey my orders. This man is a master of slaves and is a military commander in charge of 100 soldiers. He is accustomed to being obeyed. In fact, his words to Jesus on authority could almost be paraphrased in that boot camp cliché “If I tell you to jump, you say ‘how high?’”

Even as we’re remembering on this Memorial Day weekend those who have submitted to such strict military authorities and sacrificed themselves under an obligation to others, we’re also confronted with the question of whether Jesus is that type the centurion commander seems to expect as he puts Jesus in his same own position. Further, would we also expect that God is the big boss in the sky, Mr. High-and-Mighty, who’s in charge of where we go and what we do?

Though it’s a popular image, that’s not the good news of God or the Jesus presented to us in the Bible. Again, God’s authority is not as the one to boss you around, generally making you do what you don’t want to do.

I did some sleuthing this week on the word “authority” to reveal for us where this term, this idea does and does not apply. In his Gospel, Luke uses the word 15 times, and a fair amount of those are not very complimentary. It is for the rulers and authorities opposed to Jesus. It’s for King Herod’s jurisdiction. Those who arrest Jesus on the night he was betrayed he called “authorities of darkness” (22:53). The worst example is when the devil tempts Jesus by offering to give him his authority over all the kingdoms of the world.

(With that scary thought about Satan and kingdoms, it’s helpful and relevant to think of what Jesus discusses when he refers to his own kingdom or the kingdom of God. He doesn’t say, “My kingdom can beat up your kingdom” or even talk much about power and glory. Instead, his kingdom is compared to a tiny mustard seed and the invisible work of yeast and a wide open picnic. It’s like someone who has property and children stolen away, he says. And the kingdom is for the poor and for children. None of that sounds very bossy, does it?)

On the other hand, Luke does say that Jesus has authority, and even that he has authority “over.” His authority is in his teaching, in his word, and is the authority to forgive sins. He has authority over demons and diseases. His power is to heal. (The centurion must not mean this aspect, since Jesus’ authority over sickness is a different category, not equivalent with soldiers and slaves serving under their master.)

We’ll come back to good news about the authority of Lord Jesus, but let’s look now to Paul, in Galatians and elsewhere. I’m a fan of Paul. I believe he mostly gets our faith right in a way we’ve hardly captured since. That’s usually a minority view. Often he’s disliked as anti-woman, anti-gay, pro-hierarchy, pro-establishment, self-serving. I’d argue against all that, in part based in this look at authority.

First, we could note that the Greek word for authority doesn’t even appear in our reading today. What it actually says in the original is, “Paul, an apostle not from humans or through humans but through Jesus and God the Father who raised him from the dead.”

At any rate, there are other times where Paul does talk about human authority. One perhaps overused passage from Romans is that we should “obey the governing authorities.” With Christians through history, we can discuss to what extent that’s a faithful concept versus when we might be obligated to resist government or question authority.

But also we should hear a stunning reversal of any notion that God endorses authorities. 1st Corinthians says the end is after Jesus “has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” (Destroyed authority!) “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (15:24-26).

That view of wiping out the authorities and getting rid of them as the goal of God’s kingdom is in some essential way central to Paul’s theology and also his ecclesiology, his view of the church and what we should be up to under the model of God and the Spirit’s influence. Rather than a structure of authority, rather than bosses in charge, even rather than bishops and big wigs, Paul favors community. He’s not for an authority. He’s for the koinonia, the communal sharing, the give-and-take of this all, the mutual relationships. That, not isolated imperiousness, is what represents and proclaims God.

That’s probably some of how we should be hearing this start of his letter to the Galatian churches when he says it comes from Jesus and not from humans. That isn’t to claim a special spiritual vision that overrules any human perspective. In a way, it’s just the reverse. He’s saying that all of those human methods and manners are trying to rule over, are trying to be structures of new authorities, trying to keep you in place with guidelines to be obeyed. He’s even saying that religious institutions from humans are trying to do something Jesus didn’t show us and God doesn’t want from us. When religion insists that some are holy and some aren’t, that there are insiders and outsiders, that certain behavior qualifies you for definite rewards, that God loves some better than others, these pious-sounding authorities end up obscuring the good news and are—as the Bible and Luther used the term—anti-Christ.

This also gives insight to our Gospel reading. Against a perspective that the centurion commander and Jesus reciprocally recognize and compliment each other as fellow bosses, more appropriate and logical is to notice the phrase “I am not worthy.” On the one hand, in spite of being a powerful boss—a muckety-muck who had done good things, who was praised  by the locals for building the synagogue and well-established with community leaders—on the one hand, he doesn’t try to claim credit for that. He declares himself not worthy.

And on the other hand, Jesus is not blinded by this being a foreigner, or an unclean outsider, or even the occupying, oppressive enemy. Jesus does not claim those make the man unworthy, should not exclude him from blessing and community, do not cut him off from the work of God. That God’s work is not dependent on our self-evaluation or human standards of worth is exactly the heart of our faith, the faith Jesus is amazed at or admires in the centurion. You, too, may cling to and trust there is not anything you are and nothing you aren’t, of what you’ve done or failed to do that determines God’s presence with or work for you.

That brings us to one final piece to wrap up reflections on authority. I began by noticing the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” arises often among children. Well, one of my nephews tried it on his dad, who promptly replied, “actually, I am the boss because I’m the dad!” Thinking of parental care, this perspective from Jesus and through Paul reorients authorities for us, not to be authoritarian and bossy but to be in the role for guidance and compassion, a discipline that teaches and doesn’t just punish, a source of blessing striving to heal and to overcome death. This is why calling God Father or Mother fits much better than titles of Almighty or Ruler. And we should always remember when we call Jesus “Lord” it is simultaneously redefining the term as embodied in one who serves and loves and laid down his life for the sake of others.

Similarly, then, besides the role of parents, there are many among this congregation who are bosses, or supervisors, or leaders in charge. And this faith shapes how we live into the roles. It isn’t about power over or acclaim or thinking yourself better than you ought. Instead, it is a role to serve, to do that Jesus work with his authority to forgive and teach, to overcome disease and evil, to struggle to the end against death. In this way, through your life and through Jesus, being handed over to the custody of the authorities finally may be good news!

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Separate Unions

sermon on John17:20-26
I may be warped by competitive spirit of playing the card game Uno too much, but I’m apt to hear this reading as a challenge more than a blessing, which generally isn’t the best way to hear from Jesus.
 
On this 7th Sunday of the season of Easter, the last before Pentecost, the assigned Gospel reading is always from John 17, a chapter that is entirely Jesus praying. And the summary of his prayer, is Uno—one—unification—that we may be one as Jesus and his Father (as he prays) are one. (Today is among great times to pray “Mother” instead, though for different reasons.)
 
Anyway, as I said, I wind up tempted to hear that “oneness” as a challenge. Ostensibly about teamwork, this feels like competition, that it involves ranking and comparisons, with a starting place in trying to highlight marks of unity. That’s an easy temptation, since there are plenty of positives to highlight: for example, a week ago I was at our South-Central Synod of Wisconsin ELCA annual assembly, a great gathering of the 145 local ELCA congregations, to focus together on God’s mission and our work in the world. It was also a chance to feel part of the larger whole of our 3.7 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That could be a good mark of unity. Or, I suppose, it might conversely be identified as circling the wagons and hanging out with those of like mind. The basic fact that we’ve got a denomination could be an indicator of past divisions and schisms and ruptures.
 
Another apparent approach in highlighting positive examples of union would be right here as Madison Christian Community. We could claim we’ve got it figured out better than most. As you who have been through The Road Ahead process or any amount of history in this MCC know, we aren’t joined together with Community of Hope United Church of Christ because we’re the same or find it so darned easy to get along. No, we know there are differences and ongoing disagreements, maybe even about fairly fundamental distinctions, and yet we continue striving ahead. More, we continue celebrating ahead. As we share worship services the next two weeks, you may find some things aren’t the way that you’re used to doing it, but still find it important that we are sharing, that we’re joined, are continuing to come together to practice community. That could be a good mark to highlight.
 
For broader ecumenism, I would name the Wisconsin Council of Churches, with 18 member denominations all striving for a common ministry focused on church unity, peacemaking, and justice. Wider still, we might think of interfaith groups seeking religious harmony around intersections of Christianity.
 
Or, aside from official functions, there are the sorts of relationships in my family that maybe you’re also used to navigating—my Roman Catholic in-laws, my Episcopal father, my United Methodist grandma, my somewhat Buddhist New Age-y uncle, besides the agnostics and those who just don’t get around to much religion. So do we consider a positive mark of unity if we don’t have fistfights at family gatherings, or because we manage to live in a generally diverse society?
 
We have to ask that to understand what Jesus means or wants in us “being one.” Is his vision just that we don’t have too tough of a time not killing each other? Do we pat ourselves on the back because we’re not breathing threats and fear and hatred against others? Jesus must desire more than that we’re merely nice in church parking lots, or stop splitting churches apart over ethical conundrums, or are able to show up for community prayer vigils after a disaster. So is he seeking complete unanimity?
 
In that, we can’t help but notice the contrasts to our list of positives, the negative ways our efforts don’t go well. With so much brokenness and fracture, we’d have to feel we don’t quite measure up. So the ELCA has the most so-called “full communion” agreements between denominations. Yet we also witness that sharing communion is still divisive and complicated and hard to agree on. The other groups of Lutherans—who apparently should be our closest neighbors—are the ones with whom we have the hardest time. Or with Catholics, for all the decades of conversation and deliberation, maybe all the way back to the Reformation, still we can’t share enough officially to be able to come to the communion table together. In fact, just what happens with this bread and wine and how it can function and who is allowed have been among the fiercest and deepest of arguments between Christians throughout history. It’s a sad reality that this meal, this that we describe as communion—the very thing to bring us into union and make us one and unite us with the body of Christ—we can’t share this and so Jesus isn’t allowed to do his work. His efforts are somehow precluded or disabled.
 
At other tables, in contrast to Emily Tveite’s words about communal meals at the Lutheran Campus Ministry, I would say a frustrating example is at the Jesus Lunches. An event that is supposed to be about Jesus—and so should perhaps inherently have been about bringing people together—instead has served as a fierce mark of division, telling some students they don’t belong. As Sonja and I went to the gathering, I envisioned myself as part of Christianity that was about healing our separations and brokenness, bearing witness to how we should better be attending to each other. But my healing was thwarted, partially since I was standing on the same side of a barrier with the Freedom From Religion Foundation group offering pizza for an alternative “free thinkers’ lunch” and with signs that said “Any way you slice it, religion is divisive.” A lot of our hypocritical organized religious groups may have been accurately pegged by those signs, but not Jesus. Jesus was about crossing barriers and boundaries and being with those who had been excluded and harassed and offended. I find it tough to imagine Jesus actually wanting to be part of the lunch named after him, given the consequences for student wellbeing. In his words we hear today, Jesus acknowledges that his reputation and God’s is on the line in how the world perceives us.
 
With that notion of what he might reject or rebel against, we realize Jesus wasn’t and isn’t a bystander whining, “can’t we all just get along?!” Though we ought to be cautious on which side we place Jesus, we have to see there are vital dividing lines. In standing with the marginalized, Jesus stands against empire, against power, against economic bullies, even against religious institutions. In praying to his Father, Jesus prays and protests against patriarchy. So, still seeking to understand what kind of unity he’s fostering, it could be that he invites you in join his way, of what he stands for and against. But that still would leave plenty of challenge in this passage, where if you’re not with him, you’re against him and you’d better shape up. I suspect we’re not exactly eager to adopt a “his way or the highway” attitude about needing to agree with Jesus. It may leave us still further from realizing what kind of unity Jesus wants.
 
Our sisters and brothers in the Moravian denomination use the motto “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things,” charity. But even there, we could well be left arguing (even if arguing oh-so-charitably) on whether something is essential or not! Furthermore, having tried to list positives of joint agreement versus negatives of disintegration and dispute, that can’t be the end goal. It isn’t about tallying our points and credits. It can’t be that Jesus just wants us to play nice with each other and not pick too many inessential fights with our siblings in the back seat of the car as he and the heavenly Father continue driving down life’s highway.
 
By our official statements that have shaped Lutheran practice for just shy of half a millennium, we have said it isn’t any visible agreement that really matters. It’s not in looking or acting alike. It’s not about wearing matching worship vestments or using identical language or liking the same music or even really liking each other. What makes church, what unites us across divisions (we’ve said for 500 years) is that the gospel is preached, is that we hear Jesus as good news. We have that foundation of receiving Jesus, and gathered for that, it doesn’t matter how big the crowd is or when it happens or who is preaching or how they got ordained or by whom or their gender identity or sexual orientation or race or age or facial hair or grammar or creativity or any of that.
 
With that, we may notice that Jesus here isn’t trying to lecture or teach or instruct us on models of unity. In a verse Luther says should be “written in pure gold” (LW 69.101), Jesus is praying for us. That must change the perspective, that it can’t be about what we accomplish or how much accord we come to. That this is not just a competition or challenge also brings us, at last, to the good news. This prayer from Jesus promises unity not in those outward ways, but in love. The union that joins you is his love and God the Mother’s love. It isn’t in our behaviors that we are made one, but in being beloved. The blessing of his presence in you and among us is how we are united, is what makes us one. This is literally atonement, meaning this love is what makes us “at-one.”
 
Our unanimity, then, isn’t coerced or resolved. Rather, we begin and originate by very definition as unanimous; again, the word literally means “one Spirit,” animated in unison. Though we may continue striving in patience to bear with one another, the one Holy Spirit that binds Jesus to his Father also binds us to them and to each other and that Spirit continues to hold us. We may explore that and live into it. We may even more fully comprehend that we can never be separate, that amid this cosmic community, all life is bound together with every breath we receive and give back. In all this, we may struggle against the outward negatives and may hope for more of the positives to highlight this union. But we can’t create it and, by the love of God, we can’t undo it and so, at our center, we proclaim that life that won’t be stopped by wrongs, evils, or even death. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
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