May 9, 2021
I wonder how many of you remember the contents of the message preached at your wedding service. If I had to guess I would say, not many. I don’t blame brides and grooms for that. There’s often too much mental and emotional energy being directed elsewhere for the couple to really attend to a sermon. Plus, there’s a party to follow and everybody knows that soon there will be cake.
I woke up on the morning of our wedding day and jogged 5 miles on the treadmill. I hadn’t done that in a year. My nerves were all over the place and I definitely felt, at least part of the time, like I was outside myself watching the whole thing happen. That said, I still remember the gist of the sermon that David Bartlett preached at the service.
It’s probably because there was something a bit shocking about it. He claimed that even with all that was going on in the world at that moment in 2003 – and he named some of whatever was happening – there was nothing more important to God than what we were doing right there on July 26 at the Church of the Assumption in Westport, CT. God had no greater joy, no greater priority.
Even to say it, and it wasn’t even my message, sounds embarrassingly egocentric. We might spend some time considering all the possible objections that come to mind, but we’d be better served thinking about Bartlett’s point instead. To be honest, I’m still challenged by it, and that has nothing to do with our marriage, in case you were wondering. Rather, it’s the message of God’s immanence, God’s intimacy, God’s presence in the small things, God’s life and joy all swirled into and blended within all our fallible expressions of human love. It’s the fullness of God shared out of an abundance of joy despite all that’s not joyful, all that needs divine attention, and the fathomless space endlessly expanding which contains infinite mysteries whose place in God’s mind we’ll never comprehend. How can this God, apart from grace, apart from a miracle of extravagant divine generosity and unbelievable choice, function in such a way as to be so intimately connected to the moments of our little days?
Apart from utter divine freedom and utter divine miracle there are no answers. So, the challenge is to accept it. It’s to accept that somehow this is the kind of God we have. It’s to accept that it’s God’s joy to be made small. That whatever it costs God to celebrate within God’s self our fragile human loves despite God’s utter independence of us, God joyfully pays it and has accepted the vocation of being “all in” even when there are other places to be.
In short, God is remarkably free to do what God wants, to express abundant grace, even when we cannot imagine that God would.
Angela and I weren’t overly encouraged after meeting with the priest who would do our wedding. I was serving a Methodist church at the time and she was attending a Catholic one. My congregation would be coming to the service and though an exception would be made for me to receive Communion as a non-Catholic, the priest wasn’t willing to announce exceptions for anyone else. Instead, he said, “This is a dynamic in your lives. You need to let it play out. I’ll do the Eucharist as I always do, and we’ll allow it to be what it is.”
We had hoped for Father Tom. He was the cool priest. Instead, we got the new guy and it was hard to tell if he was being cool, wise, or just a stickler (like: “hey, it is what it is; they can’t come. Life goes on.”) Anyway, in addition to the sermon, I remember pretty clearly how Communion rolled out. Angela and I received. The wedding party received. The Catholics came forward, and the Methodists kinda looked around at each other, wondering what to do. There was a pause and then one Methodist bravely came up the aisle and the priest handed her the host just like he did with everyone else. (Later she said, “Well, I saw your parents go, so I figured I could too.) Her coming broke the seal. All the Methodists came up too, and I looked at the priest to see if he was bothered. If he was, he showed no signs of it at all. He handed out Communion the way he always did, and he seemed fully at peace with allowing what was to be what it was.
As I saw it, it was a movement of the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t the Methodists breaking the rules and a priest looking the other way. It was my people, my church, there in support of Angela and me, moved by their love for me and mine for them, to risk embarrassment in order to join more fully in the celebration.
In the end I concluded that the priest was actually kinda cool. He was right, a split communion was a dynamic of our lives together and we would have to see what the Holy Spirit would do about it. If I had to guess I would say the priest was pleased by what he saw. In any case, it takes a healthy perspective and a mature faith to be able to put the Spirit’s will before your own and go where it seems she’s taking you. And, that’s exactly what he modeled for us.
We’ve seen a bit of that in the scriptures the last couple of weeks as well. Last week it was Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch who upon hearing Philip’s proclamation said, “What’s to keep me from being baptized too?” And Philip, perhaps to his surprise, said, “Actually, there’s nothing at all to keep you.”
You wouldn’t quite know it from the Acts selection today, but a slightly more extreme version of the same story happens again. This time it’s a prayerful Roman centurion named Cornelius. Exactly who he has in mind when he’s praying isn’t quite clear, but an angel appears to him and says his prayers have been heard by God. He’s told to send for Peter who at the same time has been having visions that don’t quite compute. Peter sees a sheet lowered from heaven with all kinds of non-kosher animals upon it, and he hears a voice that says, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter says, “No way that’s going to happen. I’ve never eaten anything unclean.” But the voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
That’s the message that’s on his mind as he responds to Cornelius’ summons. Cornelius has assembled his whole household, his friends, and his relatives. A whole crowd of Gentiles, whom of course Peter isn’t supposed to mix with. In fact, it is unlawful according to the traditions that Peter still holds. But the man explains the angel’s message to him and Peter responds that indeed God has told him that God shows no partiality. He proclaims the good news of Christ and in a moment known as the “Gentile Pentecost” the Holy Spirit falls upon all the Gentiles gathered in that household. The believers who came with Peter couldn’t believe it. How could this be happening for the heathens, the outsiders, the unclean? But it was happening, and right before their very eyes. Then, once again, we hear those words, “who is to prevent them from being baptized too?” This time it is Peter who says it, and once again despite a very long time of understanding the limits of God’s grace a certain way, no one is able to offer up a compelling objection.
At our Boost on Wednesday we did some thinking about the lives of a number of biblical characters and what they teach us about faith. At some point we wondered the same question about all of them. Why them? Why were they selected for the tasks God gave them? Why was Mary chosen to be Jesus’ mother? Why was Paul chosen to evangelize the Gentile world and author so much of our scriptures? Why was Peter chosen to be the head of the Church, the lead disciple?
Of course, we don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but thinking about the possibilities can be a fruitful project. It turns out I had done that a number of years ago. In a sermon from 2012 here’s what I found:
“Look at Peter. He is the head of the Church. He’s the lead disciple, and what he is called to do most is to discover. I don’t mean that he’s called to discover information or answers. I mean that he’s called to discover the very character of God. He’s called to something that is deeper than knowing. The one thing he knows is this God is always more than he knows. God is more in-love than he imagined, even in the face of Peter’s betrayal. God is more alive than he imagined, even bloodied and nailed to a cross. God is more generous than he or any of God’s people could ever believe, even embracing those who have never in all the history of their history been embraced. His fellow Jews are astonished by what God has done. His gentile brothers and sisters are overcome by the Spirit.”
Maybe Peter is chosen because he’s able to discover God’s more. Maybe he’s chosen because he’s able to embrace the new thing that God is doing, to accept God’s freedom to act with greater grace than what’s lawful, and to follow the Spirit in whichever way she blows.
It seems to me that these are pregnant times that we’re coming into as a church. For sure there’s uncertainty and the need to be careful, but our part of the world is opening up a bit and as we begin to re-enter I hope we’ll do so with a clearer sense of our need for community and the things in life that really matter. I hope we’ll be attentive to the new movements of God’s Holy Spirit and open to a fresh embrace of God’s utter freedom to lead us into acts of grace beyond our own limitations. In short, I hope we’ll be like Peter too.
 051312 sermon