Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rejoice the Lord is King!

    Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done -- When you pray that each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, for what is it you are praying?  How many times do you say the Lord’s Prayer each year?  How much do you think about what you are actually praying?
     As you have no doubt figured out by the change in colors, today is a bit different.  Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  It is actually the last Sunday of the church year.  Next week, we start Advent.  The Feast is rather new to the Church.  Pius XI created the feast back in the 1920’s as a way of protecting the world against rising secularism.  The chief concern was that a number of anti-Christian dictatorships were spawning around the world.  The Pope hoped that the rulers of nations would be reminded that the Church should be free, that they owed their power to Christ, and that the people in the pews would be strengthened in their faith.  Looking around our parish, our community, our country, and the world, we can see just how effective this day was in protecting the world against that rising secularism.
     I think it is also a challenge for those of us born in the United States.  It is part of our DNA not to trust nor to tolerate kings.  They had they chance and failed miserably, at least from our perspective, in the Revolutionary War that spawned our nation.  Tom Bracket, the TEC Evangelical Officer that some of us met a couple years back at our diocesan convention, wondered aloud last week where our prophets have gone.  I think part of the seeming loss of prophets is our efforts to democratize God.  We don’t trust monarchs, and we don’t trust people who claim to speak for them.  Most parishes operate by committee.  I just returned from a meeting of the diocesan Board of Directors and the All Commissions’ Day.  Convention was just a month ago, and we had to elect delegates to our General Convention.  We have enshrined democracy in our ecclesial polity.
     Understand that we have done that precisely because of those who have abrogated their responsibilities or proven that they were not speaking on behalf of God.  Many monarchs became tyrants.  Rather than ruling for the good of their subjects, they ruled for their own personal benefit.  And for every pastor hard at work trying to lead his or her congregation into the ministries to which God calls them, it seems as if there is a Jim and Tammy Fay Baker, a Jimmy Swaggart, a Robert Tilton, Jack Schapp, a bishop who failed to oversee his clergy, or someone else to distract the country from some of the good work being done in our churches.  Placing our faith in individuals almost always never works out well.  They almost always begin to put their self-interests ahead of our own.  Almost always.
     Today we remind ourselves that there is One in Whom we should place all our trust, our Lord Christ.  Today we remind ourselves that He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The world might not yet recognize that simple truth, but it will one day.  Our reading from Luke might seem a bit out of place to you.  Our reading about Jesus’ crucifixion seems more appropriate to Holy Week.  Why do we read it now?  Perhaps you remember the story of the two brothers, James and John, who ask Jesus to sit at His right hand and His left hand when He comes into His kingdom?  Yes, I know Matthew says it was their mother who interceded with Jesus, but the question is the same.  How does Jesus answer them?  He asks a question after telling them they do not understand what they are requesting.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?  Naturally, the brothers respond that they can.  Jesus tells them that they will drink and be baptized, but the spots at His right and His left have already been prepared for others.  James and John are, of course, disappointed; the other Apostles are mad, most likely because they did not think to request that honor for themselves.  And Jesus instructs those who follow Him that He is a different kind of king that the Gentile kings with which they are familiar.  There will be no lording over others in His kingdom; the greatest will be the ones serving the most.
     Jesus has a number of counter-cultural teachings, but few are this absolutely crazy by worldly standards.  Jesus is even re-ordering our understanding about power.  How do we accumulate power in the world?  In days past, we often resorted to brute force.  Armies were used to determine who was more powerful.  Brute force is still used in some cases, especially bullying, but we have “evolved” a bit.  Nowadays, power is closely related to wealth.  We notice that wealth in our country, despite our constitutional protections and claims to the contrary, that there are two legal systems and two educational systems and now two health care systems.  Money gives us all kinds of advantages.  We can get better defense in criminal or civil claims; we can get a better education; and we can get better doctors and health care.  The poor can get a defender; the poor can get an education; the poor can get some health care.  But does anyone really believe it is a level playing field blind to the trappings of wealth and power?  And yet Jesus is insistent that serving others to the glory of God will be the hallmarks of greatness in His kingdom.  Is He delusional near death?
     Notice how a couple loose threads are nicely tied up here on the cross.  I commented a moment ago how nearly all individuals will often disappoint us.  Not Jesus, though.  Jesus is near death.  He has been beaten and cruised.  He has been whipped and mocked.  Now He is hanging on a cross awaiting His death as people mock Him.  And the people who mock Him, though they do not know it, provide what amounts to a diabolical messianic temptation.  If you are the Son of God . . . If you are the Messiah . . . Could Jesus save Himself?  Absolutely.  You and I can do little to change our human condition.  When we hurt, we have to let the body’s healing powers work.  When we are cut, we have to let the body heal.  Were we imprisoned, we would have to let the legal system and time works their course, if we want to experience freedom.  Jesus, though, as fully human and fully divine, could simply will Himself down.  Or He could call upon the angels to slap the “you know what” out of the mockers’ mouths.  How does He respond?  He wills to remain on the Cross and see His effort through.  More amazing, though, He prays another time to His Father.  Father, forgive them.  They do not know what they are doing.
     Can you imagine?  Can you imagine the force of will required to stay on the Cross for our sakes?  Can you imagine the compassion in Him for Him to be able to make intercession on behalf of you and me and those mockers, all of whom put Him to death?
     And look a bit deeper at another loose thread.  Jesus states that the spot at His right hand and His left hand have already been prepared.  Notice anything about the positions of the thieves?  He is in the middle.  They are on His right hand and His left hand.  Where does Jesus come into His kingdom?  Right here on the Cross!  That is why James and John cannot share this position of honor.  He is to be crucified for their and all our sakes, but they still have work to do.  They will be commanded to go into the world proclaiming His death and Resurrection and baptizing disciples into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit after that Easter experience.
     These thieves, and their attitudes toward Jesus, also instruct us about the God Man whom we rightfully call Lord and Savior.  Even though one shares in Jesus sentence of death, he chooses to mock Jesus.  The other, though, recognizes Jesus’ wrong execution and His authority.  He rebukes the other thief and then asks Jesus to remember Him when He comes into His kingdom.  Like Pilate, who writes the inscription placed over Jesus’ cross, and the centurion, who testifies upon the world’s shuddering at Jesus’ death that He was the Son of God, a thief understands Jesus’ power and authority.  And such is our Lord’s compassion that, even near the end of His life, He grants pardon to the one who seeks it and the assurance of eternal life.  His last words are words of compassion and grace, testifying as to His true character, His true love for all in this world.  And you and I are the beneficiaries of that character.  You and I stand this day as redeemed, by virtue of His Cross.  We have laid down our lives and asked Him for a share in His eternal kingdom, not unlike that request of the thief.  And, just as He did with the thief, He has promised to raise us all to new life with Him!  Maybe now you have a different understanding of that hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross?
     With all due respect to those who would mock Pius for a seemingly futile effort to keep the forces of secularism at bay and even to those who, like Tom Wright, want to contend that Ascension Day is really Christ the King Day (I would argue that our Lord is crowned on Good Friday and seated upon His throne on Ascension Day--similar to how we consecrate bishops and then seat them at their cathedra), I find I like the reminder offered by focusing on the fact that Christ is king.  As Americans, who tend to think of king or queen as a four-letter word, we are reminded that heaven will not be run by committee.  We will have His mind, HIs eyes, His ears, and His understanding.  We will be new creations in Him, and we will lovingly and joyfully embrace His will being done.  We will be joyful and thankful servants of the King.
     More importantly, though, we are reminded that He calls us to embrace a different kind of power.  While the world will chase after the trappings it values, be it force of arms or physical strength or wealth or whatever, you and I called to give up those values and embrace our Lord’s.  We are called to have compassion on those around us and to serve them in His Name.  We are called to feed, to clothe, to teach, to care, to pray, to cry, to do whatever He gives us insight to see is needed that others might be drawn into His saving embrace.  Yes, people might try and take advantage of our compassion.  Yes, people may mock us for ignoring whatever the world currently values.  Should we expect to be treated than our Lord?  And here is the absolutely crazy thing, if He asks us, we can even lay down our life for the benefit of the other, confident that we will be restored to life, just as was our Lord and King!  We can be a soldier, a first responder, a teacher, a doctor, or just a good samaritan.  And we can make that ultimate sacrifice in His Name, certain that He possesses power even over death!  That is the reminder this day, that we re subjects of a King who came not to be served but to serve, and who came not destroy lives, but redeem them!  So, in the words of our hymnal, Rejoice the Lord is King!  Your Lord and King adore!  Rejoice, give thanks and sing, and triumph evermore.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jesus the Prophet and its implications . . .

     There will be a lot of sermons today on the inevitability of God’s plan.  Rightly so, people will try and tie the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD to the assassination of JFK, this being the fiftieth (yes, fiftieth) year since that tragic event; to the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001; to the events surrounding Katrina and Sandy and the recent storm that slammed the Philippines; and maybe even to some particularly local tragedies.  The idea will be to remind listeners that no matter what happens, no matter how bad things really seem to be going, God is still in control.  That is, of course, always a good sermon reminder.  Sometimes, life’s events seem to be so overwhelming that we forget our Lord has already redeemed us.  For many today, it may be even more appropriate.  Not a small number of people wonder whether our country will be able to survive our debt.  Two or three decades ago, it would have been as impossible for Americans to consider a world without us; now, after tons of personal bankruptcies brought on by bad spending habits and economic forces, people wonder whether the shining light of our democracy is fading.  It is important that we remind ourselves that, whatever happens, God still is committed to all of us who claim Him as Lord through the work and person of His well-beloved Son.  No event on earth can frustrate His promise to us.
     I wanted us to focus, however, on a different lesson in today’s readings from Luke’s Gospel.  In truth, part of my motivation stems from a Facebook discussion I had with some other clergy, theologians, and parishioners.  There was a bit of discussion about whether the signs of our Lord’s Second Coming are upon us.  After all, we have two comets in the east-southeastern dawn sky.  We just had a super storm slam the Philippines.  I’ve lost track as to how many official wars are happening right now, never mind the constant combat that some are seeing despite the lack of a formal declaration of war.  Certainly our companion dioceses of Swaziland and Nzara remind us that hunger is an issue for our brothers and sisters there.  We in the Midwest have experienced a couple harsh droughts the last two summers.  I have not heard which one is “rampant” this year, but I figure there will be another deadly flu epidemic at some point in our future, be it swine or bird or some other animal flu.
     And what of Jesus’ other warning, the persecution and imprisonment and killing of Christians?  I am not a huge acceptor of the claim that we Christians in the United States are persecuted.  We are, to a degree.  Yes, I understand that we are forced, through the new healthcare plan, to fund procedures and practices which we or many of our fellow brothers and sisters consider immoral.  I think, to the extent that many have raised their voices in the election process and availed themselves of the legal system in an attempt to make sure our rights were not abridged, we have made it clear what we support and what we do not.  The same is true for other, let’s call them social decisions.  Pick an easy issue around here, gambling.  I think the voices that predicted years ago the negative consequences of allowing gambling have born fruit.  I would imagine that, some day in the future, if we survive our city councils, sociologists will look back on our decisions and scratch their heads.  The same might be said of other more controversial issues.
     The fact of the matter, brothers and sisters, is that we are not really persecuted.  Or, if we prefer, maybe we should testify that we are persecuted-lite.  We have the right to speak.  We have the right to run for office.  We have the right and the opportunity to make our opinions known and to debate them in the public square.  It is a sad, but undeniable fact, that we have often lost.  Yes, we are sometimes mocked and teased for our positions, but, in losing, nobody is burning down our churches as they do in some countries in the world.  Government or quasi-government forces are not bursting into churches and gunning churchgoers down.  Obama supporters were not rounding up Romney supporters and killing them and taking their property after the last election; similarly, Bush supporters were not rounding up Gore supporters and treating them likewise.  Clergy are not being hauled off to jail or prison camps in an effort to kill a congregation by removing its head.  Spend some time talking to Bishops Elinah or Samuel, where the despot rounds up all who offend him or army groups kidnap your sheep.  That, brothers and sisters, is persecution.  That, brothers and sisters, is costly discipleship.  Talk to an Anglican brother or sister in Pakistan; speak with a Coptic Christian in Egypt; engage a Christian refugee from Iraq if you want to begin to understand the persecution of which Jesus speaks in this passage.
     The passage our lectionary editors chose for today is interesting because of the debate that can come from them.  As I have mentioned already, we can wonder whether the signs are aligning, signifying His imminent return.  In our discussions last week, I spoke of how futile it is to guess the moment of His return.  The same Christ who prophesied the utter destruction of the Temple in 70AD also gave us a couple other instructions regarding His return.  He tells these same disciples that only the Father knows when He will return; He promises in many places that His return will surprise everyone like a thief in the night or returning bridegroom; and He also instructs us that His return will be obvious, glorious.  We do not have to worry about missing His return.  All the world will know it!
     The passage is also interesting because it focuses our attention on Jesus as prophet.  In the Christian tradition, we acknowledge that Jesus is the Prophet, the Priest, and the King.  Next week we will look at His role as King, and we often spend time discussing how He sacrificed Himself to atone for our sins.  We tend to neglect, it seems to me, our discussion of Jesus as Prophet.  We discuss it around the Transfiguration, when He appears with Moses and Elijah, but we tend to not pay close attention to the role for the rest of the church year.  Jesus is teaching the disciples, and by extension us, of what we are to expect when we pick up our crosses and follow Him.  Has any generation of disciples ever not experienced persecution?  No.  Has any generation never heard of wars?  Natural disasters?  Signs even in the heavens?  Even His death?  No.  In a sense, verse 32 of this chapter is repeated over and over, although it is beyond the scope of our reading today.
     The truth of His prophecies, brothers and sisters, are not just academic exercises.  How were men and women in Israel to determine whether one was a prophet?  Prophets could say nothing which contradicted God, and their prophecies had to come true.  Israel was commanded to take prophets very seriously.  If someone claimed to be a prophet, Israel was instructed to judge their words against God’s torah and against the prophesied event’s occurrence.  If they prophesied an event that did not come to pass, they were to be considered false prophets and killed.  They were not to be tolerated in Israel.
     Now, in our story today, along comes this rabbi who is teaching in the very center of what should have been the spiritual heart of Israel.  What does He say?  As magnificent as it is, it will be utterly destroyed.  Those hearing this statement were clearly disturbed.  In their collective memory is the story of the Exile and return.  God has allowed His house to be destroyed once.  It was not a good time for them.  Along comes this miracle worker from Nazareth who prophesies its utter and complete destruction.  Who wants to revisit those times?  Who, listening, really wants to think that the unthinkable could happen again?  Who does He think He is claiming that God’s house of worship could be taken away . . . again?
     Those of us who study history know that this prophecy is one of the reasons for which the Sanhedrin convicts Jesus of treason.  In their efforts to convict Jesus of blaspheme, they will try to cite this prediction.  We also know that Jesus is proven correct.  Judea rebelled against Rome in 66AD.  It was a relatively modest conflict by length of time.  The end result was that Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman legion in 70AD, after a dreadful period of warfare and occupation.  Those more interested in this war can turn to Josephus and his account in the Jewish Wars.  Josephus describes survival for the Jews in stark terms, going so far as to write that the Jews consumed the flesh of dead babies and children in order to survive.  Looking at your faces, I can see that you now understand why Jesus goes on to lament that the period will be especially brutal for nursing moms and soon-to-give-birth women.  He tells all who hear this prediction that they should flee to the hills, when they see the encamped army, to avoid the coming devastation that will ultimately destroy much of what they hold dear.
     Jesus goes on to comfort those who hear His prediction.  Times will be bad.  All will seem lost.  Even then, in the midst of the devastation, God’s people will have reason to hope.  One day, He will return and the world will tremble.  In that day, if we are alive to witness it, we are to rejoice because our salvation is upon us!  What others will dread, we will look upon expectation.  Of course, that day is at some point in the future.  As expert as Jesus is about prophesying, he is far more focused on the day to day living of His disciples.  We are not told to sit and speculate; we are told to go and make disciples through daily living.  People are, in part, to be drawn to Him by our faithful lives.  Not just our words, but our examples, even our examples in the face of catastrophes, will entice others to join His people.  It is a powerful passage, to be sure, but it derives its power not just from the fact that Jesus accurately forecasts an incredible event in Israel’s future.  As our Collect reminds us today, there must be something for us to hear, to learn, and to inwardly digest from this passage.  What could be a message for us today?  What is the power which it hold for us this day?
     It seems to me that the passage ought to cause an interesting response from three different modern groups.  For those among us who are seeking this Jesus, to see if His love for you is true and able to be believed, this ought to be one of those passages that reassures you.  One of our claims about our Lord is that He was raised from the dead by God.  He is the first fruit of the world to come.  Imagine the honor and glory!  Do you think God would bestow that upon a liar, upon someone undeserving?  Christianity rightly claims that Jesus of Nazareth was unique because of the Resurrection.  There are, however, other stories which are meant to draw others into the conversation.  For some, it may be the healing miracles; for others, it may be the feeding miracles; for still others, it may the realization that Jesus foretold events.  If His prediction about the Temple proved true, what else might be true of His predictions?  What other messages from God might He have born?  Put differently, His role as Prophet might well begin a conversation with those who do not yet call Him Lord.
     Another modern group which must confront this passage is the descendants of the Jews.  Hear me carefully, I am not at all a fan of browbeating people into believing in Jesus.  I am one of those who believes that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be a light to the world and a nation of priests.  When we condemn the Jews for the crucifixion; we are in reality condemning our own family.  When we condemn Jews for being Jews, we condemn the people of our Lord.  Jesus challenged those who walked apart, but He was eagerly willing to love them into His kingdom.  Not quite two chapters prior to this passage, our Lord laments the fact that Israel missed the time of His coming to her.  We do well to remember His example.  Nor, however, am I a fan of condemning others by avoiding the difficult questions and allowing them to continue in error.  If Jesus truly is the Son of God and Son of Man as He claimed, and if He truly was raised from the dead as His disciples testified, those of us with Jewish friends can use this prophesy, its use by the Sanhedrin, and the Resurrection to challenge some assumptions of faithful Jews in our lives.  Did Jesus utter these words?  The Sanhedrin, the group that really plotted to have Jesus killed, themselves testified that He did.  Did the prophesy come true?  Absolutely.  What does that suggest about Jesus’ relationship to God?  That He really was a prophet.  More importantly, though, if even those who opposed and ultimately condemned this Jesus testified that He made the prophesy and history teaches us its accuracy, what else might be true of His claims?  That He is truly the messiah.
     Of course the strongest message in this passage is for His disciples.  Before His return, before even these portents and signs occur, we will suffer persecution because of Him.  Notice, we do not need to provoke others.  They will be at enmity with our Lord because of who He is.  We will suffer simply because He is our Lord.  They will hate us simply because we believe Him to be the messiah.  We will be arrested and brought before the powerful of the world.  We might even be betrayed or abandoned by our families.  How should we respond?  Should we be afraid?  Should we reconsider?  No.  Our Lord promises, just as He will after the Resurrection, that He is always with us.  He will give us words; He will give us wisdom.  And in the end, simply for running the good race, for persevering in our faith, for struggling to do what He commands, we will gain our lives.  We may lose these bodies and see these mortal frames perish, but we will live forever with Him.  And as we reminded ourselves last week, that future with Him is nothing like we have ever experienced.  What is to come is beyond our wildest dreams or hopes.  And we will continue in that blessed state for al eternity.  That is His promise; His promise is sure.
     To those of us who are His disciples, there is also a warning.  He tells us not to be deceived.  People will come along and claim to be able to interpret the signs and even to be Him.  We need not worry about missing Him, about being left behind, about anything regarding His Second Coming.  Though His return will be sudden, it will not be hidden.  Our lectionary editors choose not to read part of the warning, but it is part of this teaching in Luke.  The cares of the world are real.  This world really does cause pain and hurt.  But we are not of this world.  We are only sojourners here, travelers looking expectantly toward that day when He takes us to His Kingdom.  If we are not attentive, He teaches, it is possible that we will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life and find that day like a closed trap.  We are called to gather together to worship, to pray, to exhort, to teach, to study, to comfort and be comforted in times of mourning, and to celebrate in times of joy, always cognizant of His imminent return and with no reason to fear that day, and always, always mindful that He has entrusted to us the responsibility of inviting others into His kingdom.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Here's your invitation . . .

Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way,
Lead us from night to never-ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
And glory, laud, and praise be ever Thine. -- Last verse of God of our Fathers #712

     Our lesson today speaks to the refreshment and hope that we have in God.  You might be wondering why I would say that, given that it is a reading about Levirate marriage and the Age to come.  It is a bit about the former and more so the latter, but it also speaks to the hope that all of us desire, the longing that we all feel.
     The Sadducees decide to take a try at Jesus in this encounter.  As everyone knows, the Pharisees and Sadducees got along about as well as DC Republicans and DC Democrats.  Neither side had much use for the other.  Though I hesitate to use our terms to describe them, the Sadducees considered themselves the true instructors of the torah.  The Sadducees only accepted the writings of Moses as foundational to their faith.  This willingness of other groups, such as the Pharisees, to use other writings and even summaries to convey the instructions of Yahweh, was simply unacceptable in their eyes.  After all, they had the writings of Moses, what you and I call the Pentateuch, to guide them.  As far as they were concerned, only Moses had spoken to God directly.  Only Moses had climbed the mountain, encountered the burning bush, received the torah of God, and heard His voice in the great theophany after Israel’s deliverance from slavery.  The Pharisees, of course, have had their turn.  They have tried to prove to the crowds that they are God’s chosen leaders.  Having been stumped by their tax question, whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, they are silenced.
     Now, the Sadducees want to prove to the crowd that they are the ones who understand God best and are best equipped to put this local yokel pretending to be the messiah nonsense to rest.  They use as an example what many of us would be extreme.  They seem to be making up a story about a woman who marries a man who dies childless.  As a member of a righteous family, the younger brother takes the widow, his former sister-in-law, as a wife and agrees to father a son on her who will be the inheritor of his brother’s estate.  This practice, which may seem abhorrent to us in the modern West, is known as Levirate marriage and taught in Deuteronomy 25.
     Why would God teach His people to do such a thing?  Part of the reason would be pastoral for the woman involved.  As we have much discussed, the life of a widow was tough in the Ancient Near East.  God reminds us of just how marginalized widows were when He describes Himself as loving the widow and the orphan.  Israel was supposed to care for widows because God loved them and because their life was extremely harsh.  So, one purpose of this marriage was to care for someone who, most likely otherwise, would be unable to provide for themselves.
     The other reason for Levirate marriage we, sitting on this side of the cross, would describe as Sacramental.  Think back to your Confirmation Class.  What is a Sacrament?  Don’t worry, if you can’t answer, I think most of us in the room go with the “Once saved, always saved” doctrine of Protestants.  Failing to remember the right answer probably won’t cost you!  I bet if I start the answer most of you will join in: A Sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and visible grace.  When you and I gather each time around this altar and celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that we a taking part in a pledge of God.  In reality, when we gather for the Eucharist, we are reminding ourselves that Jesus is here and is coming again.  It is the parousia of the Gospel, but that is a message for another day.  
     Participation in the Eucharist reminds us, especially the high sacramentalists among us, that we are His people and that He is our God.  Imagine how you would feel were you forbidden to receive the Sacrament.  Possession of the Land served the same function in Israel.  How did they know that they were chosen by God?  How did they know that His promises to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were still in effect?  By possessing the Promised Land.  Israel’s presence in the Land signified to them that Yahweh was really in control and that He was still honoring His covenant with their ancestors.  Perhaps now you might have a better understanding why the Exile was so hard.  Being dispossessed of the Land signified to them that God had abandoned His promises to them.  It was a spiritually crushing development for those who tried to keep His covenant.
     Back to the issue of Levirate marriage then.  How did one make sure that a family did not die out?  If a man was killed by disease or in war before he had fathered a child on his wife, how was Israel supposed to view that family?  We know from Scripture and from our own experience that, when something bad happens to people, others assume that God is somehow punishing them.  Think of the man born blind at birth to show forth God’s glory when Jesus heals him.  People assumed that his parents had sinned greatly.  That was blindness.  What would have happened with dispossession of the Land, especially given its pre-sacramental understanding.  Now, perhaps, you understand another reason why God gave Israel Levirate marriage.  In addition to providing for the widow, it reminded people of the Covenant itself.  No one was excluded from God’s covenant, even when affected by unexpected and untimely deaths.  God’s covenant was always in effect!
     So, back to the challenge of the Sadducees.  The Sadducees believed that the idea of the resurrection of the dead was simple foolishness.  In our reading today, they use as their example the dilemma of Tobit.  Tobit, if the name seems unfamiliar to you, was one of those books rejected by the Jews but accepted by the early Church as Scripture.  You and I would say the book belongs to the apocrypha or the deuterocanonical books.  The Sadducees, of course, would have rejected the book out of hand as it clearly was not written by Moses.  But it would have been a well known story.  A righteous man, who tends to the needy and dead during the exile, needs a wife for his son.  Living in Nineveh during the Exile, finding an Israeli wife for his son, as commanded by the torah, will be very challenging.  A distant relative shows up to take the son to find a wife.  The distant relative has in mind a girl who has had seven husbands.  You see, on the wedding night of each of her marriages, a demon named Asmodeus has appeared and killed each of the bridegrooms.  Robin has chosen the sheep’s sarcasm today for our Order of Worship, but think about the underlying kernel of truth in the sheep’s statement.  What would cause brother three or four or six or seven to keep God’s instruction and marry their older brothers’ wife?  Faithfulness and righteousness.  Common sense told number four or five, at least, not to marry her.  Yet still they follow through.  Now, all the brothers, all the men, are dead.
     Tobit presents a huge pastoral problem: The son of a blind man in a foreign land needs a wife; a woman exiled herself has already gone through seven husbands.  Imagine what their neighbors thought.  Imagine what they thought.  I will never be able to marry.  Who will want me?  Why has God abandoned me and my family?  I don’t want to spoil everything for you, you really should read the book, but the young man, Tobiah, meets the girl, marries her, consummates the marriage, gets rid of the demon, and comes home with his new bride to the joy and happiness of his faithful father, Tobit.  And, best of all, the reader is informed how God took an active role in bringing this cursed widow and exiled son of a righteous man together.  To all outward appearances, both of these individuals and their families had been abandoned by God.  Yet God reminds them and those familiar with the story that He can save.
     The Sadducees, who reject this book as part of Scripture, no doubt look at the ridiculous problem it creates for those who believe in the Resurrection of the Dead as one of their justifications for rejecting it (the primary reason being it was not written by Moses).  If the Resurrection of the Dead is real, as some thought and some rejected, whose wife will she be in the after-life?  In asking the question, they expect no answer.  They have sat in their ivory towers and debated the wisest of their age for generations now.  The Resurrection of the Dead is fantasy.  And by forcing the “Rabbi” from Nazareth to answer the question, they will prove their intellectual and moral superiority to the crowd, and diminish this carpenter’s son in the process.
     No doubt Jesus’ response shocked them.  They wrongly presume that the after-life will simply be more of the same.  The drudgery of this world will continue, the only difference being that it will simply never end.  Jesus challenges that notion.  In reality, He points out that this world is so affected by sin that they cannot begin to understand the world to come.  He instructs them and us that in the world to come we are like the angels.  There is no marriage because it is no longer necessary.  Marriage exists here in part to create future generations, but in part to keep us from sinning.  Those desires you and I rightly call lust do not exist in the world to come.  There, we are recreated to understand His mind, to see with His eyes, and to hear with His ears.  We are no longer, in the world to come, affected by the Fall.  We are totally, completely redeemed!  Everything about us is reordered to glorify God as He intended when He created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden.
     It is a qualitatively different life those who are considered worthy of living in that age will get to experience.  Our liturgies remind us of this truth, even if we are like the Sadducees and forget the difference between this world and the next.  In our rite of Morning Prayer we often remind ourselves that God can do far more than we can ever ask or imagine.  In our concluding collects after the Prayers of the People, we sometimes remind ourselves that He offers good things for which we dare not ask, or, in our blindness, we cannot see to ask. We are so blinded and affected by our sin that we lose sight of the life, the glory, to which He calls each and every one of us.  We get so caught up in the world we experience that we lose sight of the fact that our Father in heaven intends good for us.  Actually, He intends far better than what we would call great.  All that we experience on earth falls far short of what He had in mind when He created us and placed us in the Garden.
     It is for that reason when Matthew and Mark recount this story that Jesus reminds the Sadducees and us that they do not understand the Scriptures, nor do they understand the redeeming power of God.  They do not understand the Scriptures or the redeeming power of God because they live on the wrong side of the Cross and Resurrection!  And the very example they cite foreshadows that which they do not understand!  In general terms, what is the story of Tobit, which they reject?  A father sends his son, in the company of a heavenly spirit, to find a bride, redeem the bride by defeating the tormenting demon, and bring her safely home.  Sound familiar?  What is the path that Jesus is walking?  The Father sends the Son, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to find His Bride, the Church, redeem her by defeating the powers of sin and death and hell, and then bring her safely home to a great celebration!  In other words, Tobiah’s journey prefigures Christ’s in a very real way.  Now you know why the early Church considered Tobit part of Scripture, and you know why you should read the book.  Tobit told the story of Christ, a few centuries before Christ walked the earth.
     Ironically, the Sadducees are trying to use a story which should help lead them to recognize the Christ among them to try and prove wrong the very thing He has come to accomplish.  They want to use the story of Tobit’s daughter-in-law to mock and disparage those who believe in the Resurrection of the Dead; Jesus has come to conquer death and to demonstrate that the Resurrection is real!  Talk about cross purposes!  And that is why Jesus tells them they do not understand the Scriptures nor the power of God.  He is here to accomplish the very thing they reject.
     Why is it important for us to understand that the Resurrection is real?  Because it should inform all our actions and be the source of our hope.  I mentioned at the beginning of this how easy it should be for us to understand the spiritual condition of Sarah (the bride) and her family and the spiritual condition of Tobit and Tobiah.  To all outward appearances, they have all been abandoned by God.  They are dispossessed of the Land and living in exile.  Finding a spouse in such a condition was nigh impossible for those wishing to live as God commanded.  Spiritual forces of evil are even arrayed against them, to help make them a byword of their neighbors.  Heck, poor Tobit was blinded simply for doing what God demanded of all of Israel!  In the story of Tobit, two families are outwardly restored to God’s favor.  The rest of the world might have thought them abandoned by God, but God paid close attention to all their travails and sufferings.  In the end, through a simple marriage, hope is restored to two families.  Yes, it took an archangel to ensure that hope, but God sent Raphael for that very purpose.
     Our lives are sometimes like Sarah’s and Tobiah’s.  Each of us, I dare say, has experienced those moments of doubt, those moments when the Enemy’s whispers seem a shrill roar in our ears.  Let’s be honest, some of us are wondering about His love for us now.  In this community we have questions of provision, questions of health, difficulties in relationships, sufferings of addiction, and any number of other outward appearances which might make us feel that our Lord has forgotten us.  Worse, the sufferings that we experience might be used by His Enemy to convince others that we are cut off, that there is no use to trying to be faithful because the world wins as God sleeps or ignores “His people”.  It is in those dark moments of our own walk or in the walks of others that the Resurrection literally shines like a lighthouse on a foggy shore or a spotlight in a dark theater!
     What God did for Sarah and Tobiah was pretty cool.  He redeemed their lives and their families through a marriage.  What does He promise us?  We, too, will be redeemed as participants in a wonderful marriage!  The image that Scripture uses over and over is the idea of the wedding feast.  Christ comes to redeem His Bride.  She may wear a soiled  or ripped gown, She may be of questionable moral conduct, She is most certainly not worthy of His love--Still, He comes to redeem Her!  As part of that Bride, you and I share in that redemption.  All of us have issues, to be frank we have subscriptions, which make us unlovable.  Yet even when we rejected Him, He came and died that we might know love and its transforming power.  And to remind us all that everything can be redeemed by Him, God raised Jesus that Easter morning so long ago.  The message to us was simple: If He can conquer death, what in our lives can He not overcome?
     Now you and I stand, by virtue of our baptism and Christ’s faithful work, in the assurance of His promises.  We gather week in and week out to remind ourselves that He is coming again.  The Body we eat and the Blood we drink are just a hint of an appetizer as to what is promised us!  What is promised us is qualitatively different than anything we have experienced on earth.  As human beings constrained by space and finances, our wedding feasts are limited.  We agonize over who to invite, what food to serve, what drinks to offer, and what music to play as we celebrate the nuptials of those in our families.  Feelings can be hurt; people can feel put out simply because of those constraints with which we must deal.  Our Lord has no such problem.  We know from Scripture that He ferments the best wine!  We know from Scripture that the dance, the perichoresis, of the the Trinity and the Redeemed is unlike anything seen here on earth.  We know that our joyful noises can be music to His ears.  In ways unimagined or not understood by us, God can take our cacophony of tastes and likes and create a symphony whose harmony cannot be heard on earth.
     And here’s the best part, brothers and sisters: We get to invite everyone and spend our Father’s resources!  This is not a feast which is limited.  We do not have to pick and choose whom we should invite.  In fact, our Lord commands us to go into all the world inviting all whom we encounter!  Think of that joyful responsibility for just a second.  Each of us gathered here who has accepted Christ as Lord is just like Sarah of the seven husbands or Tobiah.  We and our circumstances have been redeemed.  Our Father has even gone so far as to promise that all our sufferings will have meaning.  And feeling that joy at snatching life from the grasp of death, at finding that God loves us even when the world thinks otherwise, ought to inspire us to share that invitation far and wide.  We get a chance to share with those whom we love and those whom we meet far better than Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.  We get to share an invitation to a wedding feast the likes of which this world has never seen.
     How different will this feast be?  Only God knows for sure.  We only see and hear in shadows.  We know that the next Age will be different from this one.  There will be no sin, no crying, no suffering, and no death.  One thing which stands out, though, is its importance to our Lord.  Two thousand years ago, as He sat among His disciples and instituted this meal which you and I are about to share, what did He say about His own cup?  Our Lord eschewed the fourth cup, the Cup of Joy, at that feast and told us He would not drink from that Cup until the Wedding Feast.  Given His penchant for going to parties (remember, He ran with some crazy crowds and hard partiers), can you imagine what He has in mind for the Day when He breaks His fast?  Me either.  If the world to come had a need for police departments, I can only imagine how many precincts would have to respond!  What I do know is that it is our privilege, our joyful responsibility, to invite all those we meet to share in that eternal feast, to invite everyone to join us at that Party!


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Partying with the cloud of witnesses . . .

     We had another one of those lectionary screw-ups this week.  I did not realize it until last night, and it is one that falls squarely on my shoulders.  As most of you all here know, we celebrated All Saints’ Day and the Feast of All Souls Friday and Saturday, respectively.  Since Friday was All Saints’, we also celebrate it today, as it is a movable feast under the rubrics of our Prayer Book.  The problem, of course, is when the priest forgets to tell the church secretary where to find the readings for the feast day on the computer program.  As I got here for the Celebrate Recovery Eucharist, it dawned on me what had happened.  All Saints’ Day, for those of you who do not know, is one of those Seven days of holy obligation.  It is one of those feast days, like Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, when all Christians are expected to be in church celebrating God.  As such, our readings are always the same.  But, I did not think about it when Robin asked the invariable this or that questions.  So, we are left with the readings as if this was the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost and not All Saints’ Sunday.  
     Part of the reason for the hectic week was the Showers-Martin wedding.  Those who are my friends on Facebook know that Robin and I were just a tad annoyed that Kim and Joe were so late getting names and readings into Robin for the Orders of Worship.  I love weddings, though.  More often than not I am preaching to you all.  And, I am a bit sorry to say this, but preaching and teaching to you is much like doing it to the choir!  Oh, I’ll get a “that was a good one, Father” or “Not much sermon prep time this week, huh?” comments from you all.  Those who are unchurched or seldom-churched, though,  will wrestle with a good sermon or liturgy, particularly when they have enjoyed some liquid courage and/or think the numbers are on their side.  I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of that this past Thursday and Friday.
     A few of the comments and questions dealt with our celebratory attitude.  There was some concern that I might be shocked and ashamed at some of the partying that might go on, as if the coolers of alcohol weren’t a tip off.  Those who were concerned that I needed to fuss at the wedding party or to absent myself quickly were worried that God would somehow be dishonored by a good time.  For some of the comments, I was gentle.  I told them how I had reinforced among the wedding party that they were to be sober for the wedding.  I didn’t worry too much about the drinking on the bus on the way to the reception--no one was driving drunk.  I even teased that I had threatened to give a full-on Baptist sermon if they showed up drinking or drunk.  I must have looked convincing given the stress of the last couple weeks and the tardiness of Joe & Kim’s required information because most of the party behaved themselves.  After a few of those questions, I resorted to humor.  I reminded them I was an Episcopal priest and that where three or four are gathered there is always a fifth.  Sadly, humor seemed to confuse a few of them even more.  I even resorted to reminding them that we are all invited to the Lord’s Wedding Feast.  I assured them that no matter how good they thought this party was going to be, it would pale beside our Lord’s.  “There’s no drinking around God, Father.”  What about the wedding Cana?  “We are gonna get down on the dance floor, and God might frown on that.”  Really, I’m betting David’s in his loincloth still hopping around.  Needless to say, I had a fun time.  I had a ton of unchurched or infrequently churched or burned-out-by-church people asking lots of questions.  I even received some praise for choosing the best parts of weddings from television and movies for the service.  Just for the record, Hollywood takes our service; we don’t take theirs.
     Many of the comments were rooted in an understanding that we in the church are a dour people who serve a somber, scowling God.  Most had reason to believe that.  Heck, given the opinions expressed by a few of those present, they knew “Christian” people that lived as such.  I know we are few in number, and I know we do serious work around here, but I want to remind you of two important aspects of our worship.  Turn in your orders of worship to Psalm 32.  Notice the first two verses.  If you have been redeemed by Christ, God expects you to be joyful!  Hear that again, just in case you have dour Christian friends who tease you about being too playful.  The one who is redeemed is supposed to be joyful and happy.  The psalm is attributed to David.  As you all know, he had some big sins.  Yet, despite his sins, God chose to swear a covenant by him.  Because of David’s penitent heart, God chose to cause Jesus to enter history through David’s family.  David was an adulterer and a murderer and he wasn’t always the king he was supposed to be.  But whenever David was confronted with his sin, he repented.  He did not argue; he did not try and justify his actions.  He simply repented.
     Each time David repented and God accepted his repentance, David was overjoyed.  Having witnessed firsthand the reign and demise of Saul, his predecessor, David knew first hand what could happen if God withheld His mercy and His grace.  In reality, there was very little difference between Saul and David.  Both committed horrible sins.  Both let power go to their heads.  Both forgot they were to serve God’s people and, at times, used those whom they were supposed to serve for their own ends.  God withheld His grace from Saul, and Saul became a byword for failure.  Though the same covenant was available to Saul that was offered to David, Saul chose poorly.  Worse, he chose not to repent and found himself no longer in God’s graces.  And the Lord removed His Spirit and gave him over.  That informed David’s awareness.  That is why David is so excited, so overjoyed, whenever God forgives him his sins.  That is why David asks the “who am I, Lord, that you should permit me all this?” question.  It is also why David dances before the Lord, plays his lyre, and composes these psalms, or songs, to God.  He, like us, is a redeemed sinner.  God no longer counts his sins against him.  
     How many of us act like those Christians who are dour?  How many of us have driven the joy from our lives?  Have you ever considered the impact that a lack of joy might have?  If we have been forgiven, and all of us here have made that public proclamation of faith, why are we not more about joy?  Yes, God takes sin seriously.  Yes, we are all sinners.  But we are redeemed!  Our sins have been removed from us.  The blood stain of our sins, to use the words of Isaiah today, have been washed clean!  We should be happy!  We should be excited!  We should be joyful!  It is perfectly acceptable before God is we sing or play music or dance.  The bonds of our sins have been removed, and we should revel in His love and mercy and grace.  We should be as excited as when Nicole’s favorite football team snatches victory from the jaws of defeat when playing Northwestern.  After all, we have been snatched by Christ from the jaws of death.
     Now, that is not to say that we are not without understanding about events in the world.  Just because we choose to be baptized, just because we choose to follow Jesus does not mean we get a pass on the difficulties of life.  Nor does He instruct us to be unmindful of our suffering or the suffering of those around us.  Looking around today, I know there is much suffering among us.  Some of us are touched directly by health issues.  Death has come close to one of us this week.  Some of us are battling terrible financial problems.  Others are battling relationship issues.  Others are struggling with parents or children.  Many of us are engaged with pain and suffering in our various ministries.  Life really is a struggle.  Paul compares it to a weightlifter straining in agony to lift a heavy weight or to running a marathon.  We can face those struggles certain of our redemption, but they are struggles nonetheless.  Even then, of course, we are not without His mercy and Grace.
     David reminds us that our Lord surrounds us with songs of deliverance.  Have you ever thought about the singers of those songs?  I reminded you all at the beginning of this sermon that we have been in the midst of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days as well as a wedding.  All Saints’ Day is supposed to call to mind those who have gone to their reward with the Lord.  Many outside the Church believe we celebrate only those “famous” saints, but we really are called to celebrate all those who have gone before us, whether or not they are famous.  All Souls’ Day, by contrast, reminds us that we should miss those whom we love and see no longer.  Yes, we will see those who died in the Lord on the day of our appearing before Him, but it acceptable for us to miss them.  Jesus, after, wept at the death of His friend Lazarus.
    So who is cheering and singing us on, as we continue this struggle?  That company of heaven with whom we lend our voice each time we remind ourselves of the Marriage Feast to which He invites us.  Each of us is surround by a cloud of witnesses whose stories inspires us, whose love of the Lord encouraged us, and whose faithful witness enticed us to accept His invitation or to continue to follow Him in difficult as well as good times.  It may be your parents, your grandparents, Sunday School teachers you have forgotten about, neighbors, spouses, friends, and maybe a clergy or two who make up your cheering cloud.  Each of us has a witness or group of witnesses who first shared Christ love with us and who now joy the throng encourage us to finish the race, to complete the struggle of this life.  They know the promises to which we are called.  They know the eternal joy we are offered.  And in their love for us they want to see us there with them!  They realize the fullness of the mere pledge we experience each time we gather in worship.
     And, thinking to yourself, you might think you have only one or two people cheering you on and surrounding you in songs of victory.  If so, you forget the nature of His call on all of us.  Each of us is adopted by the same Father.  Each of us is promised a firstborn inheritance.  Each of us is a true brother or a true sister.  Those great saints, about whom we read, are every bit meant to cheer us on as those whom we knew in life.  I have no idea how the cloud really works.  It remains, in the end, one of those mysteries about which we cannot be certain this side of the grave.  Certainly, our loved ones who believed in God are with Him now.  And I would imagine that the awe and wonder and glory and majesty are not something from which they wish to avert their eyes.  But I can also imagine a scene in which our loving Father looks down and smiles or nods or in some way shape or form points out those on earth who are worthy of the witness of those gathered around Him.  Perhaps it is a grandmother’s elbow to the ribs of St. Peter, maybe it is a Sunday School teacher’s beaming visage next to St. Thomas, maybe it’s a parent’s “that’s my boy / girl,” or even a child’s “that’s my mom / dad,” maybe it is a stranger whom we have forgotten who lifts their drink from the Cup of Joy and toasts our efforts.  And as those ribs are poked or our saints gloat a bit about our faithful effort, those other brothers and sisters whom we will day meet take up the song, take up the cheer, rooting us on to the finish line, encouraging us to persevere.
     And, as if all that weren’t enough, were not far more than we deserve, still there is more to this story.  You and I are called to take up that song, to learn that cheer.  Such is the treasure that is entrusted to us that we are tasked with sharing it with others.  This is done, of course, with a sobering thought: if we run this race with endurance, if we fight the good fight, if we struggle to the end, you and I may one day be the saints about whom future generations look to in their earthly struggles.  It’s the ultimate pay it forward.  We are tasked with loving others into the kingdom just as our spiritual ancestors loved us into the kingdom.  And we are graced with the certainty of knowing that, if we do our jobs well, if we discharge our responsibilities faithfully, those who follow us will mourn our passing on All Souls’ Day and celebrate our final victory on All Saints’ Day, trusting that we are cheering them on and singing that wonderful song of victory!
     Brothers and sisters, it is going to be alright.  In fact, it is going to be better than we can ever imagine.  Whatever is weighing you down, whatever is causing you to struggle, He will redeem.  That is His promise to you, just as it was His promise to all those who came before.  Let’s make sure, as we finish out this church year, we focus a bit more on the redemption promised us, on the cloud that inspires us, and the Lord who drew all of us and them together into one big crazy family.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

A love which slays demons and redeems humans . . .

     I promised Kim and Joe and the wedding party that I would keep my words brief today.  we really could not figure out how to get the big wedding party up and down quickly, and I am not too big on punishing friends and family members whose only crime is to agree to be in a wedding party by making them stand for a long time--unless, of course, they are hungover from partying the night before.  As the bachelor and bachelorette parties were last week, there is no reason for me to be cruel today, is there, ladies and gentlemen?  Of course, most of those in the wedding party do not attend St. Alban’s, so they don’t know our normal sermons are nearly 45 minutes in length.  Short to us is a half hour!
     All kidding aside, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Kim and Joe had selected a reading from Tobit as part of the liturgy of the Word for this afternoon’s wedding.  I asked Joe how they came to select the reading, hoping they were familiar with the story.  Joe, at first, was proud to tell me that he had selected the reading.  As I asked a couple more probing questions, Joe looked like he’d rather be changing diapers than getting grilled by a priest.  I promise, Joe, I really was hoping you knew how appropriate the reading was to your and Kim’s story.
     I will not do the story of Tobit justice this afternoon, but feel free to read the book later, if any of my summary catches your interest.  The book of Tobit, for those of you scratching your heads wondering where in the Bible it is to be found, is part of the Apocrypha.  That means it is part of the collections of Jewish writings that the Jews rejected as part of the Old Testament, but that Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches accepted.  The story takes place after the Exile.  Tobit and his family are living in Nineveh (yes, the same Nineveh as Jonah’s).  In a country which is discussing the fate of illegal aliens nearly every day, we can well imagine the existence of Tobit’s family.  It’s tough.  They have been carried off into Assyria into Exile.  Like all those in Exile, Tobit’s and his family wonder whether God has been defeated in the heavens or, worse, has abandoned them for their unwillingness to keep the Covenant.
     Tobit is a righteous man.  That means, in God’s terms, that he cares for the poor and needy.  In particular, we learn that he often provides funeral care for the deceased, even when it costs him a hot meal.  The author of Tobit, of course, understands that no good deed goes unpunished.  Thanks to the well-aimed droppings of a bird, Tobit is blinded.  So, Tobit is old and blind and exiled.  He needs to find a wife for his son.  It sounds an easy task, but not for someone trying to keep the torah.  How does one find a wife faithful to Yahweh in a land of foreigners.
     Luckily, a distant relative appears and offers to take Tobit’s son, Tobiah, to find a wife.  This distant relative takes Tobiah to meet another distant relative named Sarah.  Sarah’s family has a similar worry about continuing their family line.  You see, Sarah has been married seven times!  Each wedding night, her new bridegroom has been killed by a demon named Asmodeus.  No one, and I mean no one, has been willing to be husband number eight!  Predictably, Tobiah is smitten by Sarah and marries her.  After some haggling with Sarah’s father, Raguel, Sarah and Tobiah are married, according to the torah.  As with any couple and in keeping with our festivities today, there is a feast and then a wedding night.  Thanks to some great advice from this distant relative and some fish parts, the demon is repelled.  The demon is actually restrained in Egypt, but that is a side tale.  Sarah and Tobiah arise from the marriage bed to kneel and pray this prayer of thanksgiving that we read today.
     The young couple and the escort return to Nineveh and Tobit.  It is there that the distant relative reveals himself to be the archangel Raphael, who stands in the presence of God ready to serve Him.  God has heard Tobit’s prayers and witnessed his righteousness.  Raphael, of course, bound the demon that had tormented Sarah and her family.  Raphael cures Tobit’s blindness.  And Raphael pronounces God’s blessing on the now combined families.
     As I said, I have only touched on highlights.  If you want to know more details, feel free to read the story on your own or, if you are particularly moved, see me after the service or at the reception.  The highlights should be enough for us to see the life and work of Jesus Christ, some two or three centuries before He walked the earth.  A father sends his son in the company of a heavenly spirit to find and redeem a bride--where have we heard that story before?  Now, Joe, you know why I was quite pleased with your selection, even if you did not know why.
     The reading for this wedding is appropriate in many ways.  In the big picture of salvation history, marriages between a man and a woman are supposed to reflect, dimly to be sure, the relationship to which we are all called with God.  A man and a woman, who think and process and express and internalize differently, submit themselves to God’s will for their lives.  Before God and those present and all those who will later witness their life together, the two begin a relationship of mutual servanthood that ought, ought to bring to mind the mysterious relationship we call the Trinity, three persons in one Unity.  Think of those best marriages in your lives.  My guess is that they each reflect a Unity that can be obtained only through mutual self-sacrifice and commitment.  Ask them, if you have the opportunity and the relationship, and you may learn that love is not the hot passions that society so promotes.  Love is a commitment, a determination to care for another even when they do not merit our love.
     More specifically to Joe and Kim, though, the reading speaks to some of those feelings they would rather not explore.  Both are children of the divorce culture.  To say that they were cautious to enter into marriage is a huge understatement.  They are both starting to squirm, afraid I will reveal too much of our conversations over the last few months.  Know this, both of you, every single one of us here has had those same worries.  We have all worried whether we were capable of loving another.  We have all worried whether someone else will love us in the way we so longingly desire.  Everyone here, whether they will admit it to you or not, has deep dark secrets that convince them they are unlovable in their own minds.  So, if anyone here busts your chops a bit about your feeling unloved or feeling worried about making a commitment to each other before God, remember they are dealing with their own insecurities.
     We have, of course, all seen the precipitating event which led to this moment as he walked down the aisle carrying a sign that read “Here comes our girl, Daddy.”  Some gathered here or maybe intentionally absent have realized that you two went about this a bit bassackwards.  We get married and then we have children--that’s the way it’s supposed to work, right?  Among your more Pharisaical friends, you may have heard tongues.  You might have experienced the same whispers as Sarah, who buried seven husbands before she finally met Tobiah.  You both realize his unlikely presence, and so I hope you are open to the supernatural wonder brought to mind in your reading.  One of the great things about God is that He is merciful.  But He is every bit the Redeemer as He is merciful.  Listening to your story and stories, I wonder whether without Baby Colton you two would be here today, committing yourselves to one another before God.  I do not mean, by any stretch, that I believed our Lord wanted you to do things the wrong way.  I believe simply that He used Colton’s miraculous conception, at least by science and medicine’s standards, to teach you both that you could love and that you were deserving of love.  That, Joe and Kim, is just an appetizer of the redeeming love offered by our Lord.
     To all of us present, of course, their commitment is evidence of God’s grace in their lives and in ours.  Through some time and effort and reflection, Joe and Kim have come before us all and God to declare their commitment to each other.  Like us all, they have fought with each other and with God.  Yet, in the end, they have surrendered themselves to each other and to our Lord.  And that is all He requires.  All He asks, whenever we sin and no matter how “big” our sin, is that we repent and return to Him.  Whether we are in lands far off from our family or nearer to home, He is ever present and ever ready to forgive all those who come to Him in faith.  And that, dear brothers and sisters, is the underlying purpose of marriage.  In these ceremonies, you and I are reminded of a Father in heaven who sent His Son to find and to redeem His bride.  Nothing, no power of Hell nor any bad choice we might make, can keep Him from finding us, if we simply call upon Him to save us.
     Joe and Kim, weddings are tough because they are intentionally public professions of a love which makes us vulnerable.  None of us like to admit we are vulnerable.  Society reminds us over and over to take and to seize our happiness.  You have rejected that advice in light of the power of the Cross over the grave.  For that I give thanks and praise to God.  I also give thanks to God for your well chosen words for this cloud of witnesses here gathered this All Saints’ Day.  Your story, your paths which have led to this day is no less remarkable than the story of Sarah and Tobiah to those privileged to witness them.  You have found each other, you have nurtured each other, and now you both have agreed to commit yourselves to one another that is meant to call to mind the covenantal love of our Lord to His bride.  And just as His blessings were upon Sarah and Tobiah, they are upon you both.  Your own bound demons testify to you that truth.  You son testifies to you that truth.  And, in the end, that He calls you His own assures you of that truth.  Remember, this ceremony, and the feast that will follow, for all the fun you and everyone will have, is just a shadow of the marriage feast to which He calls all of us.  Amen.