It’s a Dog’s Life

This weekend I was asked to officiate the wedding of an amazing young couple.  I’ve known the bride for her entire life, and have really enjoyed spending the last year helping the two of them prepare for this big day.  It was the first time I’ve ever participated in a ceremony with someone whose role was to be “the dog handler”.  Rick and Megan’s faithful companion, Reese, preceded the bride down the aisle.  With their permission, I am sharing the sermon from the wedding.  The primary text for the ceremony was I Corinthians 13.  I hope that the format of this message does not impede its truth.

So for a couple of months I’ve wrestled with the task of trying to pull together a wedding sermon for Rick and Megan. If you’ve been to a wedding here before, you know that I often try to find a concept or an image to hang onto, or an example that will make the message real and more memorable. I have to admit that I was stumped so badly that one afternoon last week I sneaked over and had a few words with their dog, Reese.

“You’ve got to help, girl.  There’s a big problem!”

“What is it, Pastor Dave?  Is Timmy stuck in a well?”

“What? No! What is it with dogs and Timmy being stuck in a well?  No, this is serious. I need some help coming up with an idea for a wedding sermon for Megan and Rick.  I figured that you know their relationship better than anyone.  Can you help?”

At once Reese warmed to the invitation.  She smiled, and pulled out her reading glasses and lit her theologian’s pipe.  “Now, Dave, tell me: what’s the text from which you’re working.”

I started to say that the couple had chosen to sit with I Corinthians chapter 13, but was interrupted when Reese let out a growl and snapped off her glasses.  “Oh, for crying out loud,” she said.  “Paul? You’re listening to the Apostle Paul?”

I was flabbergasted.  “Um, Reese – is there a problem?”

She glared at me and said, “Philippians 3: ‘Beware the dogs. Beware the evil doers…’  Seriously, Dave, our kind has fought for centuries against that kind of species-ism, and this guy keeps putting it out there…  Words matter, Pastor Dave.  You should know that.”

I replied, “Yeah, I get that, but I didn’t pick this reading. They did.  And look, Reese, I’m not gonna lie.  I’m stuck here.  And Rick and Megan, well, they really look up to – um, they really love you a lot.”

That seemed to calm her down, and she got quiet for a moment. “Dave, you’ve known Megan longer than I have, and we both love Rick.  Come on – this isn’t rocket science.”

She continued, “I Corinthians 13 is about how we are called to treat each other in relationship.  Ever since these two have started sniffing each other, I’ve tried my best to show them, in my own example, what love requires.  Every day, I’ve tried to hammer some point of this home for them so that they could see it and maybe imitate it.”

I stared at the wise dog blankly.  “What are you talking about, Reese?”

She sighed, and said, “OK, Pastor Dave, I’ll break this down for you since your human minds move so slowly.  No wonder it takes you seven years to do what we can get done in one! Sheesh.”

“Every day, when Megan gets home, what am I doing, Dave?”

“Um, well, to tell you the truth, I have never thought about that.”

“Of course you haven’t. No human ever has.  But ask Megan: no matter what I might have been doing during the day, the minute I hear her car pull up I’m wagging, I’m jumping, I’m slobbering… Do you know why I do these things?  Because I love her.  Sure, I was taking a nap, dreaming about that basset hound over on Virginia Ave., but when she shows up – or Rick, for that matter – I put what I’m doing aside for a couple of moments and I pay attention to her.  And do you know what?”

“Tell me, Reese.”

“It’s working.  You should see it – they are paying attention to each other!  I’ve seen them put down those stupid little screens and talk to each other.  Sometimes they even slobber all over each other.”

“And even a guy as dense as the Apostle Paul would say that when you pay attention to someone, you notice things.  So when one of them shows up and seems to be upset, or sad, or needs – I don’t know – a little extra cuddle or something – I can do that. And if I can do that, surely they can do that for each other, right?”

I nodded pastorally.  “You’re making a lot of sense, Reese.  Especially for a talking dog.”

She wagged her tail and continued, “Here’s something else that I’ve noticed, Dave.  It ties in with Paul’s advice to keep on growing and keep moving in life and in faith. Sometimes when they come home, one or the other of them will say something about being tired and just wanting to rest.  They sit on the couch and they turn on the television, and then it’s like they’re just gone, you know?  They tune out, and it’s like they are not there anymore.    When that happens, it’s up to me to remind them that there’s a big world out there.  I mean, there are paths to hike, friends to meet, fire hydrants to smell… we can’t stay inside our homes or ourselves all the time…  I hate to say this, but if you ask Megan, she’ll tell you that sometimes she gets a little irritated by the fact that I’m always pulling on my leash when we’re out.  I think we all need someone to push (or pull) us along from time to time so we don’t get stuck.”

“Ah, I see.  Are you saying that a good relationship keeps you moving and growing into maturity? That all of us, sometimes, need each other to help us get into healthier patterns of life?”

“Yes!” she barked, and then she even licked my cheek. I tried not to notice.

“And there’s something else I should say, in case Rick mentions anything.”

I nodded, encouraging my canine friend to go on.

“Listen, when he takes me out and we run into a bunch of other dogs, well, sometimes… it’s just… Look – he’s likely to say that I don’t get along well with other dogs.  I think he’s got the wrong idea.  What I’m trying to say is that at this point in my life, I don’t needa lot of other dogs. I’ve got those two.  It seems to me that love and marriage is about identifying someone special who is a gift from God in your own life, and paying special attention to and cultivating that relationship.  Of opening up to that one in ways that you are not open to anyone else. I’m just showing him what it means for me to be faithful, that’s all.”

At this point the dog looked at the clock and said, “Listen, Dave, you’d better get out of here.  Megan’s liable to be home any moment, and I’ve got a couple of things to get done before I start fussing over her again.”

I thanked Reese, and as I made my way to the door, she said, “Dave – are you going to be using the traditional language for the declarations of intent and the vows and so on?”

“I think so,” I said. “I can’t see any reason not to.”

“Perfect!” she smiled.  “You’ll be using a word that describes what I’ve been trying to give them ever since we got together.  You’ll be asking them if they intend to pledge their troth to each other.”

“I will indeed,” I said.

She continued, “Most folks there will have no idea what that word ‘troth’ means.”

“Tell me about it,” I sighed.

“Troth is what I’ve been giving these two: unconditional love and acceptance, loyalty, faithfulness, and honesty.  Troth is about promising to give the best of yourself to someone else, and to grow the parts of you that aren’t the best.  Troth is what Paul wrote about to those folks in Corinth, and it’s what I’ve been trying to show Rick and Megan for years. Now, you and the folks at church can help confirm them in their vow to pledge and keep troth with each other forever. It’s what they want, it’s good for the world, and it is all rooted in the love of God for his people.”

I headed for the door and put on my hat.  With my hand on the knob, I turned, and there she was, waiting expectantly.  I felt like I should say something more than “thanks for the talk,” but I wasn’t sure what it was…

She gave a single bark, and said, “Go ahead Dave, you can say it. It’s all right.”

“Say what?” I replied, reaching in my mind for the right words.

“Who’s a good girl, Dave?”

“You are, Reese.  You are.”

Now, Megan and Rick, you can choose to believe that little story or not.  At the end of this eventful day, I’m not sure how much of it you’ll remember anyway. So let me just conclude my message with this thought: you know that people can treat each other poorly – sometimes so poorly that we use the expression, “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way that she treats him…”  Let me ask you, in the name of Christ, to reverse that.  Let me ask you to treat each other the way that your dog treats you. To make a daily, spiritual practice of honoring each other, accepting and loving each other unconditionally; be steadfast and loyal; keep troth.  If you do that, you will fulfill the will of Christ in your lives, enrich your marriage, and work toward the intentions of God in our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

Put On Love

The reason for this trip to Chile was, in large part, so that our family might have the joy of sharing in the wedding that our Chilean “daughter”, Elizabeth ‘Mandy’ Arriagada Dölz was celebrating with her beloved, Matias Carrasco Mella.  They further honored me by asking me to share in the preaching of this event.  I thought that readers of this blog might enjoy the message preached in both English and Spanish, as well as a few photos of that event.

Put On Love

On the Occasion of the Marriage of Mandy and Matias

26 November 2016

Santiago, Chile

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

 

In 2010, our family had the opportunity to make our first visit to Chile. We were so excited to come to see Mandy’s family and community! There were tickets to be bought, clothes to pack, and activities to plan. One thing you should know about my family is that my wife is the “planner”. She makes lists, and usually, our daughter, Ariel, and I do them. So she made a packing list for our trip, and made us promise to bring everything on the list.

One of the items on the list for this trip, which included not only Chile, but some of the rain forests of Peru, was a hat. “Bring a hat that will keep the sun out of your eyes and the rain off your head,” she said.

This is a classic hat.

This is a classic hat.

So I brought a hat. It’s a great hat. I love this hat. It was a gift from some friends in Africa.

And, as you can see, it does the job. It will keep away the rain and the sun just fine.

Except that when we arrived at Mandy’s family’s home, when I unpacked, she said, “What’s that?????”

“It’s my hat.”

“You can’t wear that! It’s not a good hat!”

“It’s a great hat! It does everything a hat should do!”

But she wouldn’t budge. She told Mandy to take me out and help me find a new, better, hat for our trip.

Mandy took us to the market, and I saw all kinds of caps. So many different styles and shapes and sizes.

img_2732

This is a markedly better hat!

And then I saw this hat. And I liked it. And when I looked at my daughter and at Mandy, they said, “Oh, Dave, you look like Indiana Jones!”

Now know this: I like Indiana Jones. I think he’s smart and brave and creative… But the hat was more expensive than any other hat. So I said, “no… it’s too much.”

And they said I should buy it, but I didn’t because of the cost. And Mandy looked at me and she said, “Listen, Dave: being Indiana Jones isn’t cheap, you know…” And Mandy bought me this hat.

And I LOVE this hat. I wear it a lot. It’s been to Chile, Peru, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Korea, New Zealand, Malawi, South Africa, South Sudan… It’s been all over the world. And when I wear it – even to cut my grass – I feel a little bit smarter, braver, and more creative. The hat helps me to feel, well, a little more like Indiana Jones.

I’m telling you that story, not so much because I want you to know why I wear my hats, but because you know what it means to put on a piece of clothing and be changed a little bit. When you are getting ready to watch a big football match, you wear the jersey for your favorite team. Why? Because it helps you to cheer for them; it helps you to connect with them in some way.

Similarly, when we get ready for church, we often put on special clothes. The priest or pastor wears a number of symbols to remind him and us that we’re in a different place, and many worshipers get dressed in their best clothes to worship.

And look at today: Mandy is wearing a “wedding dress” – a special uniform that says a lot about who she is and who she hopes to be. Mandy and Matias will be wearing rings for the rest of their lives – little bits of gold or silver that don’t really DO anything… but they remind them, and us, and everyone else that they are people who make promises.

When the Apostle Paul was writing to his friends in Colossae, he told them to pay attention to the things that they were wearing. In fact, he asked them to wear compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience – like an outfit. Put those things on as you walk around, he said, and sooner or later you’ll find that just like me wearing the hat makes me feel like Indiana Jones, wearing those things helps us to act like Jesus.

At the end of the day, Paul said, “Put on love.” Make love your garment. Seek to do right by the people around you, and love them.

That’s what we want you to do, Mandy and Matias. You’ve been together for a long time. You’ve known for a long time that this is what you’ve wanted – but for whatever reason, it’s taken you seven years (?) to do it. I know, Mandy, you thought I was taking a long time to pick out a hat back in 2010, but this is longer. A lot longer. So let me tell you: being married isn’t cheap. You may have been smart to give it so much thought and planning. Nobody should just jump into a decision like that.

But now that you ARE married, let me encourage you to wear these things. Sometimes when we get something new we wear it for a little bit and then we come home and stuff it in the closet. Don’t do that with your promises and your hopes and your dreams. Put on love. Wear these promises. Wherever your marriage takes you, seek to act, every day, in grace and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience with each other.

I’m here to tell you that you won’t always LIKE your spouse. And she or he won’t always be right. And she or he won’t always be wrong. Those are the times when you need to be especially careful to put on the love that you’ve had for so long. To wear it. And to allow it to change your hearts so that you both continue to grow closer to each other and to the Lord.

Put on love, my friends. It’s not cheap. But it’s worth it. All day, every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Some of the congregation in attendance...

Some of the congregation in attendance…

The Deacon invited me to share in the blessing of the couple.

The Deacon invited me to share in the blessing of the couple.

As the marriage was declared.

As the marriage was declared.

Vístanse de amor

Por lo tanto, como escogidos de Dios, bendecidos y amados, envuélvanse de afecto entrañable y de bondad, humildad, amabilidad y paciencia, de modo que se toleren el uno al otro y se perdonen si alguno tiene queja contra otro. Así como el Señor los perdonó, perdónense también ustedes. Por encima de todo, vístanse de amor, que es el vínculo perfecto. (Colosenses 3:12-14)

En el año 2010, nuestra familia tuvo la oportunidad de realizar nuestra primera visita a Chile. Estábamos muy emocionado por conocer a la familia de Mandy y sus cercanos!. Pasajes que comprar , ropa que empacar y actividades a planificar. Algo que necesitan saber de mi familia es que mi esposa es la “planificadora”. Ella realiza una lista para nuestro viaje y nos hace prometer que llevaremos todo lo que dice la lista.

Uno de los puntos de la lista para este viaje, que no solo incluye para Chile , sino que para las selvas tropicales de perú, fue un sombrero. “Lleva un sombrero que aleje al sol de tus ojos y la lluvia de tu cabeza”, dijo Sharon.

Por lo tanto traje un sombrero: es un asombroso sombrero, amo este sombrero. Fue un regalo de algunos amigos de Africa y como uds. pueden ver, hace su trabajo. Me aleja de la lluvia y del sol muy bien.

Excepto que cuando llegamos a la casa de Mandy y desempaqué, ella dijo: “¿Qué es eso??!!”

“Es mi sombrero”, contesté.
“No puedes usar eso!!, no es un buen sombrero!!!”..
“Es un muy buen sombrero !! Hace todo lo que un sombrero tiene que hacer !! ”

Pero ella no se rendiría , Ella le dijo a Mandy que me llevara a encontrar uno nuevo y mejor para nuestro viaje.

Mandy nos llevó al feria donde vi una gran variedad de gorros. Tantos estilos, formas y tamaños distintos.

Entonces vi este sombrero y me encantó. Al mirar a mi hija y a Mandy, ellas dijeron: Oh, Dave, te pareces a Indiana Jones!!!

Sepan uds. que me encanta Indiana Jones. Pienso que es inteligente y valiente así como ingenioso… Pero el sombrero era mucho más caro que cualquier otro sombrero. Por lo que dije “no… es demasiado caro”

Luego me dijeron que debería comprarlo, aunque no lo hice por el alto costo. Mandy me miró y exclamó: “Mira Dave, ser Indiana Jones no es barato, ya tú sabes…”, y ella me lo compró.

Pues adoro este sombrero. Lo uso mucho. Ha estado en Chile, Perú, Israel, Jordania, Egipto, Corea, Nueva Zelanda, Malawi, Africa de Sur, Sudán… Estuvo alrededor de todo el mundo. Y cuando lo uso -incluso para cortar el pasto- me siento un poco más inteligente, valiente e ingenioso. El sombrero me ayuda a sentirme…bueno…un poco más como Indiana Jones.

Les cuento esta anécdota, no para que sepan por qué llevo mi sombrero, sino para que sepan lo que significa colocarse una prenda de ropa y transformarse un poco. Por ejemplo, cuando están preparándose para ver un gran partido de fútbol, uds. usan la camiseta de su equipo favorito. ¿Por qué? Porque ayuda a alentarlos; los conecta con ellos de alguna manera.

Igual que cuando nos preparamos para ir a la iglesia, generalmente nos colocamos una tenida especial. El cura o pastor lleva varios símbolos que nos recuerda que nos encontramos en un lugar distinto y muchos de los adoradores se arreglan con sus mejores tenidas para rendir culto.

Y miren hoy: Mandy está usando un “vestido de novia” – un uniforme especial que dice mucho de quién es ella y quién espera ser. Mandy y Matías llevarán unos anillos por el resto de sus vidas – un poco de oro o de plata no hace mucho en realidad… Pero les recuerda, y a nosotros también, así como a todos que son personas comprometidas.

Cuando el apóstol Paul, les escribió a sus amigos en Collossae, les dijo que pusieran atención en lo que estaban usando. De hecho, les pidió que llevaran compasión, amabilidad, humildad, gentileza y paciencia- como una prenda. Dijo: colóquense estos cosas como en cualquier ocasión, y tarde o temprano, encontrarán que – tal como yo con el sombrero me siento igual a Indiana Jones- al llevarlas puestas nos ayuda a actuar como Jesús.

Al final del día, Paul dijo: vístanse de amor. Hagan del amor su prenda. Hagan lo correcto con las personas a su alrededor y ámenlos.

Esto es lo que queremos que hagan, Mandy y Matías. Llevan mucho tiempo juntos. Han sabido por mucho tiempo que esto es lo que querían – pero cual sea la razón, les ha tomado siete año (?) hacerlo. Mandy, sé que pensaste que me demoré mucho rato para elegir un nuevo sombrero en el 2010, pero esto es mucho más. Entonces déjame decirte que estar casado no es barato. Seguramente has sido muy minuciosa en pensarlo y planificarlo. Nadie debería simplemente saltar en una decisión como ésta.

Sin embargo, ahora que ESTÁS casada, déjame alentarte a llevar estas cosas. A veces cuando obtenemos algo nuevo lo usamos un rato y luego volvemos a casa y lo guardamos en el clóset. No hagas eso con tus compromisos, tus esperanzas y tus sueños. vístanse de amor. Usen estos compromisos. Donde sea que su matrimonio los lleve, actúen cada día, en gracia, con bondad, humildad, gentileza y paciencia el uno con el otro.

Estoy aquí para contarles que no siempre te agradará tu esposo/a. Y ella o él no tendrá siempre la razón. Y ella o él no siempre estará equivocado. Esos son tiempos en los que deben tener cuidado en vestirse con el amor que han llevado por tanto tiempo. Llévenlo puesto. Y permítanle que cambie sus corazones para que ambos continúen creciendo para acercarse el uno al otro así como al Señor.

Vístanse de amor, mis amigos. No es barato, Pero vale la pena. Todo el día, todos los días. Gracias a Dios. Amén.

I am not the only one who thinks that's a snappy hat!

I am not the only one who thinks that’s a snappy hat!

Mr. & Mrs.!!!!

Mr. & Mrs.!!!!

Instead of place cards at the tables, the crowd was called out to stand for a photo with the couple, then ushered to their seats.

Instead of place cards at the tables, the crowd was called out to stand for a photo with the couple, then ushered to their seats.

The wedding ceremony started at 9 p.m. We arrived at the reception venue just prior to 11 p.m., and the party lasted until 5 a.m. Lucia made it until about 3 a.m.

The wedding ceremony started at 9 p.m. We arrived at the reception venue just prior to 11 p.m., and the party lasted until 5 a.m. Lucia made it until about 3 a.m.

No Deposit, No Return

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 1 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to divorce as found in Matthew 5:31-32, while also reading Malachi’s words to his community in Malachi 2:15-16.  

plasticislandStretched across the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a clump of material known as the Giant Ocean Trash Vortex. This is a collection of litter that has been brought together by the currents and concentrated in an area that is by some estimates twice as large as the state of Texas. About 80% of the material in that vortex comes from land-based activities in either North America or Asia, and the number one component is plastic. Some researchers suggest that as much as 26 tons of plastic is added to the ocean each year.

Why is there that much plastic in the ocean? Well, for starters, because there’s 260 tons of new plastic created every year. And why do we make so much plastic? For lots of reasons, but one stands out this morning: plastic bottles. Forget the detergent bottles and the salad dressing bottles – Americans throw away 35 billion water bottles every year.

Family-size-red-crate-whiteIt wasn’t always like that, of course. Fifty years ago, when you bought a drink, the drink came in a thick glass bottle, and the price you paid for it included a deposit on the container. You drank the beverage and then returned the bottle and got your deposit back; the container was washed and re-used. Around 1965, someone had the bright idea to sell beverages in bottles that didn’t need to be re-used, and the “No Deposit, No Return” industry was born. Manufacturers began selling pop and beer and juice and water in thin glass or plastic bottles that didn’t need to be returned. It was a little cheaper for the consumer and a lot easier for the manufacturers.

Despite Push From Environmentalists, Bottled Water Consumption Remains UbiquitousThere was, however, a side effect: there was an astounding increase in the amount of litter. Once the bottles had no value, people cared less about where they ended up. Within a very short period of time, the notion of what constituted an acceptable means of selling drinks changed, and empty beverage containers came to be regarded merely as “waste — unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the beverage they once contained.” Almost immediately there was a plan to mandate the collection of deposits on all beverage containers, but the retail food industry fought those changes tooth and nail. One New York grocer said that his business was “selling goods, not collecting trash.”[1] And so we have an island in the Pacific Ocean, larger than the state of Texas, comprised of garbage.

PhariseesIn Jesus’ day there was a spirited disagreement regarding sex and religion. One group of faithful Jews, led by a Rabbi named Shammai, taught that Deuteronomy 24  was a command to be taken literally, and that divorce was only an option following a gross indecency on the part of one’s wife. Another group, led by a Rabbi named Hillel, argued for a very broad interpretation of that passage, and so taught that divorce was an option for a man who was offended not only by his wife’s infidelity, but by the fact that she was a lousy cook, or she ‘dishonored’ him, or if she had the nerve to be less attractive than his new neighbor or co-worker.

I’ll let you take one guess as to who was a more popular Rabbi in those days – at least among men.

The teaching of Hillel reflected the presupposition that a marriage was not really about a relationship of trust and intimacy with another person – it was really about what I was liable to get out of it. I get married to the girl next door, and everything is well and good. And then someone else comes along – someone who is a better cook, or who lets me clean my fish on the kitchen table without arguing, or who never loses my socks in the dryer, and I am free to get rid of #1 and move on to #2, where I’ll be deliriously happy until #3 comes into the picture…

In other words, some of the most religious people in Jesus’ day were treating the wives of their friends the way that we treat empty Snapple bottles today: as waste – unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the usefulness they once contained.

BlessedNot surprisingly, Jesus has something to say about this.

The Pharisaical culture that surrounded Jesus was concerned with possible grounds for divorce. They heard some of the Old Testament words, such as Deuteronomy 24, that allow for divorce in the case of “indecency” as commands to be followed. Divorce, while not a good thing in and of itself, was not a big deal, spiritually speaking. It was a messiness through which one went and then came out, most often with a younger, prettier, wealthier, better-cooking wife.

Jesus, on the other hand, was concerned with the goodness of marriage. He looked at the words of Moses and said that they were a “concession” because of the ways that people’s hearts are hardened. And then he put divorce in the same category as adultery.

And again, it’s hard to imagine anyone who actually knew Jesus would be surprised by this. Do you remember the so-called “ground rules” for Christian living as illustrated in the Beatitudes? Disciples are called to be poor in spirit, and meek, and humble. As St. John Chrysostom preached in the fourth century, “For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own?”[2]

Last time, we talked about the fact that Jesus branded lust a violation of the other person because it is selfish and manipulative. How much more is this casual dismissal of the marriage vows out of line with God’s intention?

Jesus condemns the ease with which his contemporaries sought to dispose of marriages because such behavior is counter to God’s intentions for the ways that we are supposed to treat each other. In doing so, he is very much in line with the prophet Malachi, who used the language of violence to describe the ways that his contemporaries were using divorce as a means to justify their own selfish behavior. In Malachi’s voice, God is even sarcastic as he compares the way that some of Malachi’s contemporaries changed their marriages the way that they changed their clothing.

So what are the implications for us? I mean, it’s good to hear that Jesus has little patience with those who treat covenantal relationships as though they are disposable, but what do these words mean to us, today?

More specifically, how do we hear these words right now? I mean, look around the room: there are a lot of people here who have gone through the trauma of a divorce. For many, this is an open, festering wound. What does Jesus say to us? How are we supposed to react when Jesus brings up this topic?

It’s times like these when I return to that astounding theologian of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Rocky Balboa. There’s a wonderful scene in the first Rocky movie where the aspiring boxer has received a chance to fight the champ. At first, he’s excited, but as the event draws closer, he is unsure. The night before the match, he leaves his apartment and wanders the streets, filled with self-doubt. Rocky visits his girlfriend, Adrian, who responds to his situation in a very Christ-like way:

Rocky: I can’t do it.Rocky

Adrian: What?

Rocky: I can’t beat him.

Adrian: Apollo?

Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin’ around, thinkin’. I mean, who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league.

Adrian: What are we gonna do?

Isn’t that amazing? She doesn’t try to talk him out of his fear; she doesn’t yell at him to train harder; she doesn’t give him a ‘dope slap’ and say, “Of course you can’t beat him – and you’re an idiot for even thinking you could!” She sits with him in the place where he is and says, “What are we gonna do?”

That, beloved, is the question that faces us this morning. I don’t care if you’ve been married for 60 years or you’ve never been on a date – when we consider the words of Jesus when it comes to covenant love, our best response has got to be, “What are we gonna do?”

peasants marryingMost of you have sat through at least one or two weddings for which I’ve been privileged to be the officiant. For the few in the room who’ve not been at one of those gatherings, let me tell you something that happens every time I stand up here, usually as the less-attractive person wearing a white dress: We talk about the ways that the community is invested in the relationship that we’ve come to bless, and about the ways that the community will be blessed by the marriage that is occurring.

I really mean that. When two people are in love, and they have their own little relationship, well, that’s great. I’m happy for them, and they generally appear to be pretty darn happy themselves. But when they announce that love and seek to walk with that love into the estate or covenant of marriage, then that love moves from being their own private possession to being a means by which they and the community together tell the story of God’s investment in the creation. Marriage is deeply personal, but it is not private – marriage belongs to the whole people, even though only two individuals are directly engaged.

With that in mind, then it seems as though the first thing that we do is to affirm that divorce is not God’s intent. The tearing apart of a marriage is painful and difficult and messy – it’s a place that nobody wants to be. Divorce is antithetical to a covenantal view of the other. That kind of breach in relationship is not a gift.

Having said that, of course, we do well to point out what I hope is the obvious truth: that sometimes divorce is the option that is least bad. Sometimes the marriage has been so eviscerated by abuse or neglect or violence that the only way forward is through the bitterness of separation and divorce. That’s just how it is, and many of you in the room know more about that than I do. Nobody ever gets married hoping for the joy of a divorce; but there are times when it’s the best way to move forward in the life to which we’ve been called.

In response to that, then, it would behoove us to commit ourselves to building a community where people are seen as beings of worth and value in and of themselves, rather than as objects for my own personal use or abuse. We need to create a climate where trust, not manipulation, is the cornerstone of relationships; a community where forgiveness is practiced. The church needs to be a place where our mistakes, our pain, or the abuse of our past does not define us and where models of faithful living and reconciliation are shared.

There was an instant during a recent wedding when I almost burst into tears in the middle of the sermon. It wasn’t because I was so happy for the couple preparing to enter into that covenant, and it wasn’t because I was so embarrassed by my preaching. No, what brought your pastor to the brink of tears that day was the sight of so many of you in the congregation at whose weddings I’ve been privileged to officiate. I was struck and humbled by the ways that you have lived your lives in the months, years, or decades since that day; the joys that you’ve shared and the pain you’ve endured; the hard places – including divorce – that many have been… and yet there you were, again, doing your best to live into the kind of community where people are free to make outlandish promises to one another in front of the rest of us, knowing that they are not alone in that.

What are we gonna do?

We have noted at several points in this exploration of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus does not intend either to point people to an impossibly high ideal or to heap shame and guilt on those who have somehow failed to live up to the standard that he appears to be setting. As we consider the brokenness of divorce and the pain that we can cause each other in relationship, let us remember that our calling is to rise up from our seats around the teacher after the Sermon on the Mount and create a community of disciples where all are valued and all are called to celebrate and honor covenants.

If the Pacific Ocean is full of the debris from billions of discarded beverage bottles, how much more are our lives swamped by the pain of broken promises, unfulfilled potential, and eroded trust? We gather here this morning and listen to Jesus, not because we claim to be less-broken than those who are around us, but because we know that if there is any hope for healing at all, it will come first from Him, and then from our willingness to treat each other not as objects of fleeting desire but as those who bear the image of the One who calls us into his body – the place of restoration and growth for generations yet to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Both quotes from this paragraph are from “A Pocket History of Bottle Recycling”, Atlantic Monthly, February 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/02/a-pocket-history-of-bottle-recycling/273575/

[2] “Homily 17 on Matthew”, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200117.htm

An Amateur Marriage

935160_731771048438_238573042_nMy friends Angela and Tony asked me to officiate their wedding, which turned out to be on the same weekend as the Pittsburgh Marathon.  As I studied the scriptures (Romans 12:9-13I Corinthians 13:4-13, and Mark 10:6-9), it seemed as though there were some parallels at work.  I offer this to all my friends who run and who are married…with Angela & Tony’s blessing and permission to share.

Do you know what this is?

bottorffbib

You may recognize it as facsimile of what could be a genuine Runner’s Bib Number from the Pittsburgh Marathon.  Each runner has a distinct number that will be used to track her or his time and other participation in the event. This year, you can design your own bib to be worn in the race.   As you probably know, the Pittsburgh Marathon will take place this weekend.  It’s estimated that 30,000 people will participate in one of the races connected with this event – the full marathon, the half marathon, the 5k, or others.  And you may know that in an average week, there are 41,426 marriages in the USA.  Those numbers are close, and I’m sensing that most of us know someone who is running in the marathon this weekend, and most of us know someone who is getting married this weekend.  So it seemed appropriate for me to compare what we’re doing here with what will be happening downtown in a couple of days.  So as we prepare to share in the formation of your marriage, I need you two to identify yourselves.

Angela looked a little shocked when I whipped out these numbers, but they both played along and even kept their "bibs" on throughout the ceremony.

Angela looked a little shocked when I whipped out these numbers, but they both played along and even kept their “bibs” on throughout the ceremony.

There are a number of similarities between getting married and running a marathon.  One that I hope springs to mind is the importance of proper preparation.  I hope to God that nobody who intends to get out there the day after tomorrow and attempt to run 26.2 miles will be doing so without having engaged in significant training.  Effective runners know that a race is preceded by months of proper diet, exercise, and other regimens.  The day of the race itself, there will be stretching and warm-ups and carb monitoring, etc.  In the same way, there are things that you do to prepare for your marriage.  You heard a number of these exercises in Paul’s letter from Rome.  Honor each other.  Be joyful in hope.  Be patient in trouble.  Be faithful in prayer.  Share.  Be gracious.  These are not merely good ideas.  These are not things you ought to get around to once your schedule settles down a little bit.  These are essential practices in which you can and should engage every single day.  Anyone who attempts to run the course of a marriage without engaging in these training exercises every day is likely to be about as successful at marriage as I would be on the Marathon course come Sunday morning – that is to say, an abysmal failure.

Another similarity between the event on Sunday morning and that which we celebrate this evening may seem obvious: there is an official “start” and there is a course laid out.  At 7 a.m. on May 5, someone will fire a pistol on Liberty Avenue and the runners will begin the trek that will take them through the entire city, crossing five bridges before entering the finish area in Point State Park.  In Mark 10, we read that a marriage begins with a “leaving”. We recognize that relationships are being redefined today.  You are no longer primarily a son or a daughter; you are most essentially a husband or a wife.  And while there is an official beginning, there is also a journey at hand: we are told that you “become” one flesh.  That word, “become” is important because it does not imply that there is some instantaneous change that takes place this afternoon – the guy in the black dress and white scarf stands up here and does a little heavenly hocus pocus and all of a sudden you are there.  No, there is a becoming.  You start today.  But you’ve got a long road in front of you.

Of course, what is the thing that the runners in Sunday’s race will long to see as the day grinds on?  The finish line.  No matter where they are in the city, they will be envisioning themselves coming down the Boulevard of the Allies, ready to enjoy the celebration of a race well-run, a race survived.  This might sound strange, since for the past ten months, you’ve been meeting in my study telling me how deeply in love you are, but I’m here to say today that love is the finish line towards which you are striving in your marriage.  Did you hear the way it’s described in I Corinthians?  Patient.  Unselfish.  It never keeps a record of evil, it never is self-seeking, it always protects, always trusts, always hopes.  It never fails.  I know that you are “in love” – but would you say that your love has achieved that kind of status yet?  I doubt it.  That kind of love comes to us when we have engaged in the training and pounded the pavement for a number of years.

So I hope you can see that there are a number of similarities between the marathon that will begin on Sunday and the marriage that begins this afternoon.  I want to close my message with the observation that there are two essential differences between that event and this one.

When someone registers for a marathon – any marathon – that person has to fill out a lot of paperwork.  That, of course, is no different than a marriage.  There are licenses, fees, and so on in both places.  But did you know that there are two classifications of runners in a marathon?  You are either an “elite” runner, competing for the trophy, the prize money, and perhaps a shot at the Olympics or some other world-class event, or you are an “amateur” runner.

An “elite” runner has to be able to point to a record of success in previous races.  She or he has to prove that they’ve run the course in a certain time, for instance.  One guideline suggests that an “elite” marathoner (male) regularly finishes the 26.2 miles in two hours and forty minutes.  I could probably do that…on a bike…downhill…  “Elite” runners have shoe contracts, they are featured in runner’s magazines, and hope to be able to make lots of money by defeating the rest of the field.

Amateur runners, on the other hand, are in it for the event itself.  While I’m sure that everyone who enters the race on Sunday could use an extra $8,000, nobody I know has any expectation of winning it.  My friends are just hoping to finish.
Listen, Angela and Tony, because this is the truth: every marriage is an Amateur Marriage.  I have stood in front of a lot of couples who have made the same outlandish promises that you’re about to make, and never once have I met a couple of proven, seasoned professionals who could point with confidence to all the reasons that they just knew they would make it.  Once, I did a wedding with my friends Ruth and Gene, who had been married for 51 and 48 years before their spouses died, and even they, with their 99 years of marriage experience, began as amateurs.  Every marriage is an Amateur affair.  Every marriage is launched, not on the basis of incredible past success, but on the reality of a promise – a promise that needs to be lived into and grown into and hashed and rehashed every day for the rest of your lives.

Which leads me to the other key difference.marathonmedal

This is a medal that is given to the people who finish the marathon.  It’s on a decorative ribbon, and it’s sufficiently impressive so that it can be displayed at the office or in your den, and when people come by you can point to it and say, “Oh, that?  Yeah, I finished the marathon.  Yeah, I ran it.”  These medals are given to the people who complete the race.  You don’t finish?  You don’t get a medal.  This is for successful runners only.

You know that we don’t give medals in marriage.  I hope you’re not walking into this thinking that you’re going to leave with a ribbon to put on your desk saying that you’ve done something.  Nope, when you’re married, we give you one of these the instant that you start:

6036189468_b0f46ff163  You need to wear this, starting now, to remind yourself and everyone around you that you are still running this course.  There’s no room in a marriage for sitting back and thinking that you’ve already done something.  Instead, you need to remember that you were here, and that you are heading for the finish line, and that while the course may seem like a difficult one on some days, it’s a beautiful run.

So, my friends, stay the course.  Keep practicing those things that Paul wrote to his friends about in Romans.  Remember the grace of becoming that Jesus promises to you – that each day, you’ll be at a different place in the course than you were before.  And know that love lies ahead – that when you run with grace, with hospitality, with joy, with forgiveness, with hope, with patience – that there is love along the way and that love only intensifies as you near the finish line.

You are a couple of amateurs.  You know that, right?  So work hard.  Be gracious when you stumble.  And keep running. And know that you are not the only people who have made promises today. Your friends, your family, your God – we are here.  And we will be.  Cheering all the while.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.