Sermon: A New Thing

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I led worship at Redmond UMC on July 3rd, 2011, while our new pastor Cara took the weekend off after having spent the previous weeks at Annual Conference and moving her family of five from Seattle to Redmond. The Matthew passage from the Lectionary spoke well to transition and discernment in times of change, so it was easy to adapt to where the people of Redmond UMC are. This sermon was very much directed at the people of Redmond UMC, but I believe that if you can impose examples from your own life as you listen, there will be wisdom for any listener in how we can discern whether changes are good, and also how we address psychological roadblocks to needed change.

Click to listen

The actual sermon is from 0:22 to 31:25. The first 20 seconds is me apologizing for accidentally reading a portion of a scripture that I didn’t plan to read. The end is me describing, praying over, and inviting the congregation to join in a Love Feast. Yes, that does mean the sermon is over 30 minutes long.

Well, I may be biased, but I think it’s worth 30 minutes of your time!

If you’re still not convinced, here’s the basic outline of the main points. The sermon is so much more, however:

Three ways to discern whether the new thing is good

  1. Faith Like a Child — curiosity, openness, innocence, but also hardship and vulnerability. Trusting completely in God
  2. What criteria will we use? — Human criteria or heavenly criteria? “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” and “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16). Fruits of the Spirit (Galations).
  3. Test everything, hold onto the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

Obstacles to embracing the new thing, even if it is good

  1. Fear of unknown; fear of failure and Success (Marianne Williamson quote). Courage is not the absence of fear. WE do it together.
  2. Love for the “old wineskins” (Matthew 9).
  3. Being too comfortable, building up wealth, not wanting to relinquish our social power

Sermon: The Word of God

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This sermon was preached originally on January 3rd, 2010, at All Pilgrims Christian Church. I preached an updated version of it on January 2nd, 2011, at Magnolia United Methodist Church. The manuscript is from the 2010 worship service, and the audio is from the 2011 worship service. As usual, I recommend listening if you are able, because vocal tone and inflection is important in the preaching event.

Audio: Word of God; January 2011 Sermon by Katie Stickney

The Word of God

Text: John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These are the first words of the gospel of John, the only gospel that starts out with such cosmological, poetic language.  The other three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tell the story of Jesus’ life in much more down-to-earth ways.  These gospels begin with stories of people doing things in the world.  Some talk about Mary’s pregnancy, Jesus’ birth and early days, others include lists of Jesus’ ancestors.  John begins with the cosmological language: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

If these words have a familiar ring to you, it’s probably because they also begin the first book of the Scriptures—the book of Genesis.  Genesis chapter one, verse one, begins: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” and the passage goes on to describe what God did each day of the first seven “days” of creation.  Genesis starts out by saying that in the beginning God created. In the beginning, God existed. In the beginning, God simply was. John, who is attempting in this gospel reading to convey to the hearer who Jesus was, refers back to the early language of Genesis.  For John believes that Jesus, being God’s son and being God himself, was always with God.  John’s claim here is that the person of Christ existed always, not only during the life of the man we know as Jesus.  That Christ was present back in that creation story recorded in Genesis, and even that everything came into being through him.  John says: All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

All of the gospels tell us about the life, ministry, and love of the man Jesus.  John in particular focuses on the divine nature of Jesus, on the belief that Jesus was himself fully God.  Church tradition tells us that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully God.  Frankly, in some of the other gospels, one might not even get the “fully God” part of that.  It is in this book of John where the “fully God” part of Jesus’ nature is really expressed.  This is who John believes that Jesus is—fully one with God in heaven, fully divine, but emptying himself of part of his divinity for a period of time to come and dwell among us on earth.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  This part of the passage would have been the most shocking to the original hearers of this message.  In those days, that which was of the spirit and that which was of the body were sharply divided.  “flesh” was the term used to describe that which was of the body, and it signaled by definition that which was devoid of God.  In this category folks would put our desires, our sexuality, our hungers, and our sin.  One of the primary tasks of the religious folks of this time was to try to rise above “the flesh” and be spiritual, which was synonymous with being loving, self-denying, and holy.  To say that God’s Son, the Christ, took on the flesh was quite a radical thing to say.  In that sense, John was disagreeing with folks who want to make this sharp distinction between the flesh and the spiritual.  No, John is saying, the flesh is not something that we should try to run away from!  Jesus himself came to us in the flesh so that we could better understand God’s love for us.

Better understanding God’s love for us was the primary purpose of Jesus coming to us.  This is why Jesus here is referred to as the Word.  Jesus’ presence with us was a way for God to communicate with us that God loves us.  The Greek word used for “Word” here is logos which could be translated in many ways, including simply “word,” or speech, discourse, language, thought, reason, message, account, document, or book.  All of these involve communication.  All of them involve trying to convey a message from one person to another.   Jesus is the Word of God and that word is Love!

Jesus demonstrated love to the people he was with.  He unconditionally accepted and loved everyone around him, even when they abandoned or betrayed him, even when they were caught in sin.  He even asked God to forgive those who crucified him!  But his life wasn’t the only way that Jesus demonstrated God’s love for us.  Just coming at all was a demonstration of this love.  If Jesus was truly with God, and was God, always, then choosing to come to earth in the flesh was a choice Jesus made to limit himself.  There is a term for this, which theologians like to use, called kenosis.  Kenosis is the Greek word for emptiness and when used to describe Christ it means that he emptied himself of certain aspects of his divine nature in order to assume a human nature.   By definition God is infinite—we can’t pin God down with language or images, because whatever we use to describe God, God is always so much more than that.  By choosing to reveal Godself in a human form, God had to give up some of the infinite nature.

There are three things we need to address here in talking about Jesus emptying himself and coming to us in human form.

First, what I am describing to you here is one way of understanding the person of Jesus, and not necessarily every Christian believes these exact things.  You don’t have to believe or agree with everything I’m saying here.  In fact, what’s important is not so much whether this is all exactly how it happened or not, but rather the important thing is the truth this story conveys about the deep and unconditional love that God has for all of us.  This story has been with us for centuries, that God became limited so that God could communicate God’s love to us.

Second, this isn’t just a pretty story.  Jesus’ choice to empty himself of some of his infinite nature, some of his divine power, was not just in being alive as a human man but also in dying a human death because the “powers that be” in his culture were not able or willing to accept the truth of his message.  The love Jesus demonstrated here is not just a warm fuzzy feeling.  It is truly a love which is willing to experience hardship, sorrow, and pain in order for others to find ways of truly living.  As John describes it, Jesus was the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness had not overcome the light—we know that, because we know that Christ is still alive and with us today.  And yet Christ also did not eradicate darkness.  There are still many ways we all experience darkness in our lives, and it can often be very difficult to accept the message of God’s love for us—not only because it is often hard to feel worthy of that love, but also because that love often challenges us in our comfortable places, to go out and do things that are scary or painful.  The kind of love that Jesus demonstrates is the kind of love that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable… but most of us here in this room have some areas where we are afflicted and some areas where we are comfortable.  God’s love is there to comfort us in areas where we are experiencing oppression and pain… but God’s love also challenges us in areas where we have gotten too comfortable or experience too much privilege.  The reward, though, of accepting and responding to this healing and challenging love is that we become children of God, adopted into a heavenly family that is full to the brim of the unconditional love that all of us seek.

Third, it is important to answer the question: Why would God have to be limited to communicate God’s love in the first place?  Why must there be a Word at all?

The answer to this question is simply that we are finite, embodied creatures.  We have bodies that have clear boundaries.  We exist in this form for only a short and finite period of time.  We do have sparks of the divine in us; the Holy Spirit dwells within us, but we also experience the world in embodied ways, through touching, hearing, tasting, and seeing.  Because we ourselves are embodied, we can only experience God in embodied ways.    Thus God came to us in the person of Jesus as a human being that we could touch, see, and hear.  While Jesus could not stay alive foreve in human form, his words were written down for future generations—that’s us!—to have something tangible to pick up and read (pick up Bible if possible).

Jesus isn’t the only Word of God.  Sometimes we refer to the Bible as the Word of God.  We don’t mean that the Bible contains the literal words of God, we mean that just as Jesus was a physical embodiment of God’s love, so too is the Bible.  The Bible is the Word of God insofar as it provides an experience of the living God and God’s love for us.  And the Word of God can be communicated through all sorts of other ways too!  You don’t often hear it in these terms, but truly, wherever we encounter an embodiment of God’s love, something that stirs us change our lives for the better, to help those in need of help, to be more loving, to seek justice, that is also a Word of God.  That means that music can be a Word of God.  A book, whether it’s written by a Christian author or not, can be a Word of God.  A website, a blog, a text message, a phone call can all be Words of God.  The beauty of creation in the changing color of the leaves can be a Word of God.  A pet that provides us comfort and companionship when we are lonely can be a Word of God.

And the coolest part is that this means that WE too can be Words of God for each other!  I had a professor in seminary, Fr. Keith Brehob, who said, “Each of you is a sacred Word of God, spoken only once.”   God spoke each of you into existence, with unique gifts, talents, and passions, and only you can love the world in the unique way that God made you to love the world.  As we enter a time of silence I invite you to think about what specific ways God may be calling you to speak God’s love into the world right now.  You are a sacred Word of God, and you have been created to speak God’s Word of love into the world.

Matthew 25 Sermon Series Part 1: Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

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Part 1: Matthew 25 Sermon Series, Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
Preached at Magnolia UMC on 8/1/10

Audio Clip: Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

Transcription of the audio (note that it is not a manuscript, so listening to the audio is recommended if possible):

Our scripture for this morning is from Matthew chapter 25, verses 1-13:

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

When I was a freshman in college, I used to have really vivid dreams.  I’ve always had vivid dreams, but this year in particular… I think I had a lot of anxiety because it was a new thing going off to college, being away from my family for the first time.  I loved the independence, it was great.  But I had a lot of losses.  I missed my family, I missed my high school friends.  I missed my dog.  So it was kind of a hard time as well.

One of the common themes of these really vivid dreams I was having was some kind of natural disaster that was impending, that I knew was coming.  So, I had warning that an earthqake was about to come, or a big tsunami was going to overcome the place where I was.  I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know when, it could be any minute.

So, I’d be in my house, and I’d be scrambling for those items that are so beloved, that we’d want to take with us into the next life.  But my room was always a complete mess, so I couldn’t find anything.  I was scrambling through my messy room, looking for cherished items, with knowledge that at any moment an earthquake would come and destroy my house, or a tsunami would come and crash over my house with me in it.  In these dreams I always woke up before anything terrible happened.

I think what these dreams were about was that I was feeling anxiety about not being prepared for the changes that were taking place in my life.  I wasn’t ready; my house wasn’t clean.  I didn’t have those sacred objects ready to go, at a moment’s notice.  I was scrambling to find those things I needed to have with me while I was going through this major change in my life, symbolized in the dreams by an earthquake or tsunami.

I think this kind of anxiety about feeling ready for the things that life brings us is not just experienced by college freshman.  I think a lot of us have dreams like this or feelings in our waking lives.  I know one of the most common dreams, for example, is to show up somewhere like work or school without our clothes on.  We aren’t prepared, we have put on the clothing that we need to be ready to be where we’re supposed to be.  Another common dream that especially folks in school have is being in a class, taking a test that they forgot to take a test for—again, a dream about not being prepared.

These kind of dreams are so common, and it is so common for us to have anxieties in our waking life about being prepared for changes that may come or things that may happen, and I think that this parable we read this morning really speaks to this anxiety we have about being ready.  That’s what this parable is about—people who are ready, and people who aren’t.

We have ten bridesmaids.  Now, I think a lot of times people think of this story as being about how the groom is coming and the groom is going to choose one of these gathered women to marry.  But actually what’s happening is these are truly bridesmaids, not potential brides.  The groom is coming with his bride.

If you think we make a big party out of weddings these days, you haven’t seen the parties that happen back in those days when it was time for weddings.   It would be a week-long party at both households—the groom’s household and the bride’s household.   The main moment, the big climax of the wedding, was when the groom would take his groomsmen, and they would go to the bride’s house, where the party with her family is going on, and pick her up to take her back to his house.

In these days, weddings and marriages were about the patriarchal family structure, where the oldest male of the household is the head.   So the women, when they got married, rather than creating a new household the way we in American culture do it—creating a new household with in-laws on both sides—back then the woman was leaving her own family and joining the family and household of her husband’s family.

So the moment that he would go pick her up and bring her back to his house symbolized and literally was the moment she left her family and came to become a member of his.

The bridesmaids were women in his family welcoming her as a new sister, cousin, aunt, mother.  We know that the bridesmaids were told to wait.  The groomsmen’s role was to go with the groom to pick up the bride.  The bridesmaids’ role was to wait and be the “welcome wagon” when they returned.  To be there with light (in the darkness), open arms, and celebration to welcome the new bride, the new member of the family, and of course to welcome the groom back.

Then the bridesmaids would join the rest of the wedding party in entering the groom’s house and continuing the party.  The bride and groom would go off and do what bride and grooms do, and then when they came back out the marriage would be officially consummated.  The party then would continue for days.

So, in this particular story, the groom has left with his groomsmen to pick up the bride and he’s delayed.  We don’t know why he’s delayed.  Maybe the party at the bride’s house was particularly fun and they didn’t want to leave.  Maybe she had a hard time saying goodbye to her family.  We’re not sure why, but he’s delayed.

So the bridesmaids are waiting and waiting, thinking, “okay, he hasn’t shown off, and we’re kind of tired.”  So they all start to doze off, until they hear someone announcing, “here he comes!  Wake up!  Get ready!”  Five of the bridesmaids brought plenty of oil, so they’re ready to go.  They’re ready to light their lamps and welcome the new member of the family with joy.  The other five are not ready—they don’t have enough oil.  They ask the others, “hey, give me some of your oil, I don’t have enough!” but the response they get is, “sorry, we don’t have enough to give you.”

So five go off to find oil somewhere, which is a little strange.  The idea of there being a store of some kind open this late where they could buy oil seems a little strange—I couldn’t find anything in the study guides that I have that talked about this.  So I don’t really know what’s going on there, but the point is they had to go away to get ready and then come back.  But as we know, they weren’t ready on time, so when they get back they knock on the door and say, “okay, we’re ready now, let us into the party!”  and the groom responds, “no, you weren’t here when I arrived, you’re not welcome in my house.  You didn’t welcome me and my bride.  You weren’t there.”

The parable ends with Jesus saying, “keep awake,” because we don’t know the hour or the dya.  We don’t know when the groom will come and we will be asked to be ready.

There are a couple ways we can interpret this story to have meaning for our lives today.  One of the ways is to put ourselves into the shoes of the hearers of this message—the people Jesus was literally talking to that day.  These folks—the disciples and other folks who might have been listening to this—were under the impression that the apocalypse, the end of days, the return of Christ, would happen in their lifetime.  They didn’t think this was some far-off possibility.  This could literally happen any minute, and will probably come “before I die.”  That was their understanding.  So, they heard this story as a literal admonition to be prepared because truly, at any moment in your life, Christ will return, and you will face the trials that come with this apocalypse, or Armageddon.

Now we’re hearing this story 2,000 years later, so we know that that didn’t actually happen.  However, we could still think of it in those terms—that there could still be an apocalypse in our lifetime, an end of days, return of Jesus, Armageddon.  So we could hear this still today as they did, as an exhortation to be ready for that.

Another way to look at this is that all of us die at some point.  All of us cross over from life on earth to whatever comes next, that great mystery.  We’re not really sure what we’re going to encounter, but we may have some sense that there will be an accounting for our lives.  A moment when we come face to face with God and discuss with God what we lived our life like.  We may think of this as an exhortation to be ready for that—be ready for the moment you pass on and are held accountable for the way you lived your life.

A third way I can think of how we might think of this is a more general preparedness for what could come at any moment, in terms of movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Most of us have a sense that God is with us, the Holy Spirit is here in our midst, whether we feel it or not, but we don’t necessarily feel like God is literally telling us every little thing to do.  I didn’t necessarily feel like God was telling me what I should eat for breakfast this morning or what type of shampoo I should buy at the grocery store yesterday.

So we don’t really feel like every aspect of our lives is controlled or led by God.  But, there are times where the Holy Spirit moves into our lives and calls us to something.  Sometimes when we use the word “call” we are thinking only of a call to ordained ministry.  And I do know there are people in this room who are sitting with that potential call.  But, there are tons of other ways that God calls us.  We may be called to a particular vocation, called to a particular career.  We may be called to reconcile a relationship. We may be called to go to a certain place or do a certain thing.  There are many ways that God’s call may come in our lives.

Are we prepared for that?  Are we ready?  Do we have clean rooms, metaphorically and literally, where we would be ready at the drop of a hat to follow a call that God places on our lives?  Have we let go of physical things, relationships, idols that we have created that may come between us and our ability to follow God?

That can be a challenge, to think about, what things in my life am I holding onto so tightly, that if God were to call me to move, to go, to do something, and I had to let something go to do that, would I be able to?  Could I let go of my home?  Could I let go of Facebook?  Could I let go of… you name it.  You know what’s on your heart that you’re holding onto really tightly.

So, these are three different ways we could potentially interpret this scripture.  And I think all three are valid.  All three of them are ways we may really truly be being called to be prepared.  And maybe there’s others, maybe there’s a fourth way to interpret this that I haven’t thought of.  I’m not here to tell you what to think of this scripture, I’m only here to relay what it says.

This scripture is a parable that comes in a long line of parables that Matthew writes, that Jesus shared with his disciples.  The parables are put together in an order.  In the next two weeks we’re going to be looking at the two parables that come after this, and talk about how they inform each other.  But this morning, I just want to focus on the crux of this parable, which is how are we prepared, how are we getting prepared, and how are we being prepared?

Finally, at the end of this story it says, “keep awake.”  I find this kind of an interesting thing to say, since all 10 of the bridesmaids fell asleep.  Even the five that were prepared, they dozed off too, and when the call came, “here comes the groom, get ready!” they were fine.  So, the problem is not literally that the bridesmaids fell asleep, the problem was not that they rested.

If we go back to the original Greek here, what’s been translated as “keep awake” can also be translated as “keep watch.”  This, again, means to be prepared, be ready.  So, the cool thing there is that we don’t have to spend our lives anxious, wondering, “am I ready?  Is this shampoo that I’m buying going to make me ready for the Holy Spirit to come into my life?”  No!  There are certain sort of large-scale things that we might need to do to get ready—buying oil was what those bridesmaids needed to do—but beyond that, when you are ready, when you get things sorted out, you can rest.  It’s okay.   You can go to sleep.  You don’t have to sit there anxious, all the time, “am I ready?  Am I going to be let in?”  Yeah, you’re going to be let in!  And you know, sometimes you might get ready and then six months go by and you start to slip on some things and may need to get ready again.  So, it’s a process, but the point is you don’t have to be anxious about this all the time.  You don’t have to say awake all the time.  You can sleep; you can rest.  We can trust that if we have opened ourselves up to be ready to hear the call of God, that if we’re engaging in some kind of discipline to keep ourselves prepared, that we can rest in that knowledge that when the groom comes, we will get to enjoy that party.  We don’t know what the party will look like, but it’s going to be a good time.  Amen.

YES! — Wedding Homily — 2 Cor 1:20

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I had the privilege of officiating the wedding of an old friend this last weekend.  It was my first time “flying solo” at a wedding though I had co-officiated two previous weddings, and what a blessing to be part of my friends’ lives in this way.  Below you’ll find the full text of the wedding homily.  Before that, though, I’ve included the poem that the bride’s brother read right before it, so that it will make more sense.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

– e e cummings

I just love the first verse of that poem.  I thank You God for most this amazing day.  This truly is an amazing day, not just for Ailey and Ritchie but for all of us, to be honored by sharing in their joy as they commit to sharing their life together in marriage.  I thank You God for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky.  And literally, we really do have this sort of “leaping greenly spirits of trees” as buds and blossoms are coming on the wings of an early spring, and this weekend we are graced with a gorgeous blue sky.  It’s like the whole earth is celebrating with us!

And the last line of that poem thanks God for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.  What better way to describe the marriage covenant—natural, infinite, yes.  There is a naturalness to the way that I see Ailey and Ritchie interacting.  They are comfortable in their own skin around each other, accepting one another’s weaknesses as well as strengths, and accepting the growing edges of their relationship right along with it’s tremendous joys.  There is an infiniteness to the love that these two share; it is unconditional and uncontainable.  And they come together today to say yes to life together, to say yes to one another.  And we come, as a community, to say yes right along with them, yes to each of them, and yes to their new life together as husband and wife.

This reminds me of a passage from 2 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 20: For in Christ every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through Christ that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God.  This scripture tells us that, through Jesus, God’s promises were yeses.  Jesus’ life is an affirmation that God says yes to human living, to the point of living among us for a time, experiencing all of the joys and sorrows, the pains and celebrations that human life has to offer.  In Christ God expressed unconditional, uncontainable love for us.  In Christ God said yes to us.

In just a moment, Ailey and Ritchie will say yes to one another, in their own words, in the marriage vows.  In this sacred moment, they covenant with one another to choose to say yes to one another, to the family they will create, and to their future life together.  The kind of love expressed between Ailey and Ritchie today becomes an example of the kind of love that God has for us.  Their love is like a shining light out into the world saying yes to love.  The love that they share, and the love that God has for us, is unconditional and uncontainable.  It is everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.

We thank you God, for most this amazing day.

A Joyful Noise — Wedding Homily — Psalm 100

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Psalm 100 (King James Version): Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.  Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing.  Know ye that the Lord he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; be thankful unto him, and bless his name.  For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

Whitney and Sam, we are all so thrilled to be here with you as you covenant with one another today.  You come to us with joy, in a sound relationship with a rich history. In this history of your relationship, there have been easy times and difficult times.  There have been fun times and there have been boring times.  There have been times where you were on the same page and times when you were in totally different books!  But in all the times, there was your relationship, growing stronger, closer, more intimate day by day.  Today is a different kind of day; today you are taking a new kind of step, embarking on a journey of a new way of being with one another.

Whitney and Sam met each other for the first time at a Chrysalis retreat in the fall of 2000.  At the time they met, they were both dating other people!  But such is the beauty of the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.  As both of their life circumstances changed and they both grew, mutual friends and church activities continued to connect them.  They remember fondly a dinner they shared with some mutual friends, where they wound up sitting together and experiencing some of those initial giddy sparks flying.  Slowly and tenderly over the following months, the relationship took its first steps in the form of a trip to the zoo, a Supertones concert, and holding hands while watching the movie Super Troopers.

This relationship has taken them many more steps forward, through a variety of experiences that brought you closer, till today, where we are all gathered here about ready to witness, in just a few moments, the two of you walking fully into a new way of being with one another.  The vows you are about to make are both an outward sign of an inward state of the relationship, and they will also speak something new into being.  Just as when we say “I love you” for the first time… we love the person already, but saying it speaks a new way of being into the relationship. So it is as well today.  You two have already gone through the kinds of ups and downs that might strain or even break an unstable marriage.  The vows you are about to speak are not new in the sense that they don’t speak to a new way of being you have never experienced.  You already are committed to one another, in sickness and in health… and yet even though the vows speak about the way you already feel and the commitment you’ve already made, the very act of speaking them, here in this place surrounded by your friends and family, will speak into being a new way of relating to one another.

I’m a pastoral counseling student at Seattle University, and one of my classmates, John, recently pointed out that a marriage doesn’t really become real until the couple faces its first real challenge to the marriage.  This may take the form of finding out something about the other person you didn’t realize or don’t like, or it could take the form of an external force causing pressure and tension in the marriage that the couple must now navigate as a team.  It is at this point, John says, that the marriage is solidified.  I agree with my friend John, and I think that it is especially true for couples who don’t have long relationships or engagements before marriage.  Because in this case, rather than cautioning you to be ready for the “downs” as well as the “ups” together, I would say you, Whitney and Sam, already know this truth of married life.  You haven’t just had good times, it hasn’t all been the “giddy honeymoon phase.”  You have faced some serious challenges over the years, and you’ve done so with grace and integrity and in the face of those challenges your relationship has become stronger.  I could stand here before you today and caution you that it’s not “always going to be easy” and that “it’s going to take work.” But I don’t need to, because you already know.

I love that in the midst of a very tough year for the two of you, the scripture you picked for your wedding was one of praise to God.  Psalm 100 is a call to worship, encouraging people to come from whatever circumstances they find themselves in, to join together and worship God.  This scripture lifts up praise, and your choosing of the scripture is so telling.  It tells me that in the midst of pain, strife, and weariness can come praise to God.  And what better example of the unbreakable human spirit to hope and to live and to love than a celebration of a wedding in the midst of economic turmoil?  The external circumstances of the world may bring us security or insecurity, pleasure or pain, comfort or affliction.  But in the midst of that we are called to praise God.  By choosing this scripture, and choosing this time, to make these vows to one another, you are affirming the hope and joy that comes from God alone and is not dependent on external circumstances.

In a few minutes, as you make the wedding vows to one another, remember that just as the scripture you chose is a call to worship, so too can your marriage be a call to you both and to others to live fully into life, to live with hope and courage, and to love fully in the midst of whatever trials may come.  Let your vows be a joyful noise unto the land, declaring that God is an everlasting God of love, goodness, and truth.


Light of the World — Wedding Homily — Matthew 5:14-16

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Becca, Anthony, we are all so thrilled to be here with you as you make this commitment to one another today. You come here together, in a relationship that already has a rich history of ups and downs, fun times and tougher times, times of perfect harmony and times of not-so-perfect harmony.

I still remember the day that Becca first told me about Anthony. There was something different in her voice, and a different kind of sparkle in her eyes. It’s hard to put a finger on, and I don’t think she actually said “I think he’s the one” but something in her demeanor said that. She had never been quite so excited about a guy before. She told me they had been introduced by a couple of friends—it was only later that I found out that Anthony was supposed to have been set up with a different friend that night! But God managed to still draw these two together that night.

So here we are, celebrating your decision to embark on this new covenanted journey. What does all this mean? What is so special about what’s happening here today anyway? Well, we could probably spend all day talking about the nuances of what makes marriage a unique relationship, but let’s focus on one aspect of it—the way the love between two married people shines in the world.

Matthew 5:14-16 reads: ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The purpose of a light shining isn’t that the light itself be seen, but that it illuminates something else. According to this scripture, our light shines so that glory can be given to God. With regards to marriage specifically, I would say the light that shines from a marriage illuminates God’s love for each of us. A marriage is like a city on a hill—it is unable to be hidden from the world. The kind of love that you two will share in marriage can be a beacon of light illuminating the kind of love that God has for us.

What are some of the characteristics of this kind of love? To name just a few, mutuality, work, joy and play, a life-giving quality, and mystery.

When I say “mutuality,” I mean that it is a relationship between two persons who are equally empowered and equipped by God. Two persons who have unique gifts and shortcomings, unique strengths and weaknesses, both walking side-by-side, partners in God’s unfolding plan for their lives.
The two of you already know that relationships take work. The kind of love that we celebrate in marriage isn’t the love of pop songs and chick flick movies (though we’ve had our fun watching those together, haven’t we Becca?). It’s not Cinderella and Prince Charming riding off into a “happily ever after.” There will be times when life throws something difficult your way, and there will be times when your relationship itself encounters speed bumps of one kind or another. But the kind of love you are covenanting today will help you to work through those issues and face life’s problems together, with your shared strength.

Joy and play is an important one that I don’t think gets enough attention in our society. I mean, just look at Jesus—the very embodiment of God’s love for us. And we just heard about him performing his first miracle. Did you notice that Jesus’ first miracle was giving wine to people who were partying? Jesus was God’s love letter to humans, and that part of the letter says, “there are times when it is good to party!” But even when it’s not a time to party, there can still be playfulness and fun. So find times to let your inner child out. Play the Wii together, travel, heck, even have a food fight! Delight in the precious gift you are to one another.

When I say “marriages are life-giving” I don’t just mean in the sense that children may be born. I mean something more than that—that the love in marriages nurtures and sustains life. This may mean children born into that marriage, but it also means the lives of one another, of friends and family, and of the community in general. The kind of love in a marriage is nurturing in that it provides support and comfort, and it is sustaining in that it sees that the needs of each individual, and of the relationship itself, are met.

Finally, this love is a mystery. Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Once the realization is accepted that, even between the closest human beings, infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky.” I love this idea, that even though marriage is the most intimate human relationship we can enter into, we will still never fully know the other. That if a lot of us here are gathered again in 2058 to celebrate your 50th wedding anniversary, there could still be something new you’d learn about each other that day. That is just cool to me! I also love the image that we must stand back from one another before being able to see the other “whole against a wide sky.” And that we must learn to love this distance between us so that we can enter into that wonderful living side by side.

This mysterious, life-giving, joyful love that you two will share will be a beacon of light into the community. The love you have for one another comes from and points to our God who rejoices with us in good times, supports us in tough times, nurtures and sustains us, and however intimate and close God comes to us, always still somehow remains a great mystery. May you find yourselves wrapped ever tighter in this mysterious love in your years together, and may the community around you be blessed by the light of God’s love shining through your love for one another.

Above the Snow — New Years Eve Vigil Sermon

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So, did anyone make New Year’s resolutions this year? (solicit responses—get all typicals, and talk about how we make the same ones over and over)

I didn’t make any this year, but I did look through my old journals to find an example of some resolutions I have made in the past.

Jan 1, 1998. This year, I resolve to:

1. Be more on the ball with school-related matters. This means SAT’s, ACT’s, homework, etc. I’ve gotta give it my all–which I’m not doing right now–to get anywhere near God’s ideal for my future.

2. Be less critical and more loving towards my sisters and parents

3. Be a better friend to Cristina, Lara, Vanessa, Whitney & Nicole, and FORGET ABOUT MARK!

4. Talk to God more–Pray DAILY!!

5. Eat more reasonably, exercise more, and LOSE some WEIGHT!!

I made these resolutions when I was 16 years old, in the middle of my junior year of high school. I’d say they are pretty typical of New Year’s Resolutions. There’s the goal of weight loss, of being in better relationship with loved ones, of working hard, and of growing closer to God.

We tend to make the same resolutions year after year because we often fail at them. We look toward the new year with a feeling of a fresh start, and we carry into the new year high aspirations of what we would like to accomplish. But then, we fall into the same patterns of procrastination and laziness, and end up failing at our resolutions. This is also the reason that I personally didn’t make resolutions this year, and I had to go back eight years to find some!

I would like us to think about these resolutions, or any goals and aspirations. What is the source of these resolutions? Societal norms/expectations? Internal desires? God’s leading?

As Christians we can probably agree that the best basis for our resolutions, or other goals, would be God’s will or guidance in our life. So, a lot of people ask me this question: how can you hear God? Is it really that easy to just figure out what God wants you to do, where God is leading? I want to talk for just a minute about how we can listen in to that still, small voice.

One obvious way to do it is to read the Bible. We can look at the Psalsms of praise and use them as an example of how to praise God. The prayers of the prophets, Jesus, and others in the Bible give us an example of how we can pray. We can take advice from the Matthew 25 verse that tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned, for we are doing those very things to Christ himself. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Micah 6:8, which asks, “ what does the LORD require of you?” And the answer is as simple and complicated as, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The Bible gives us a great guide for living our life, and it challenges us to consider our actions and our attitudes more closely. But God is not limited to speaking through the Bible. We need to learn how to discern God’s word for our lives as individuals.

Each and every one of us is entirely unique. We have physical differences, our own personalities, likes and dislikes, passions, and communication styles. Just as we would communicate differently to a teenage daughter, a coworker, and the pharmacist, God communicates uniquely with us. God may use logic to an engineer, while he may use concepts to speak to an artist. God may use words, music, feelings, experiences, and many other things to speak to each of us individually. Would anyone be willing to share some of the ways God speaks to you? (elicit responses)

Thank you for your input. God spoke to Joseph through dreams, and the interpretation of dreams. I, and several people I know, also receive messages from God through dreams from time to time. Another way that God speaks to His people in the Bible is through angels. To Elizabeth and Mary God sends angels, to tell them that they are going to become pregnant with the children who would become John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ. While many people today may not be directly visited by angels, we can receive a word of God through the angels, the people, around us every day. God spoke to Moses using a burning bush, and in the same way, God speaks to many people through nature. Some, like the prophet Ezekiel and the Apostle Paul, received visions of grandeur. Perhaps that is like our visions and dreams that we have of doing great things for God. Whether it’s a voice from the sky or a gentle whisper, God can, and does, use all of his creation to speak. The key is: God is speaking to you.

I had a camper once, when I was a small group leader at Indianola, who used the following metaphor: Learning to hear God is like making a new friend. You give them your phone number, and they call you one day. You pick up the phone and say, “hello?” And they say, “hi, this is Jennifer, is Kathryn there?” You reply, “Hi Jennifer, this is Kathryn!” After some time has gone by, you find that when the phone rings and you answer, “hello?” your friend says, “Hi Kathryn, it’s Jennifer!” And still when more time goes by, you get to the point where you pick up the phone, saying, “hello?” and all Jennifer has to say is, “hey” and you say, “hey” back. At first, we may falter. We may need God to confirm that it is really God’s voice we’re hearing. But over time, we get to know His voice, better and better, to the point where all God has to do is say, “hey!” and He’s got our attention.

God knows each of us intimately, because he is our creator, and we are His works of art. Therefore, He is going to speak to you in the way that He knows you will be able to listen. So, unfortunately, I can’t give you a formula. I can’t tell you, “if you pray this prayer, sing this song, and read this book, then you’ll hear God.” But, I can tell you what your challenge is. You know that God is speaking to you, so your challenge is to learn how to listen. And if you still really need a starting point, the best one I can give you is this: “be still and know that He is God,” because what better way to listen than to quiet down ourselves?

On December 1, two things happened. I left Seattle for Kansas City, Missouri, where I was going to visit Saint Paul Theological School. I had felt God leading me there, even though I didn’t exactly know why I was supposed to go, so I had followed His leading. And, it snowed. As I was packing in the morning, the phone rang. It was my dad, who was saying that he thought that we should leave a little earlier than planned for the airport, and before he could finish his sentence, I looked out the window and saw that it was snowing. Gigantic, cotton-like snowflakes were drifting beautifully to the ground.

I was, quite frankly, devastated. Anyone who knows me well knows that I LOVE snow. And, living in this beautiful Pacific Northwest, we really don’t get much of it. We get two, MAYBE three good snows a year. So, here I was packing to leave for the much colder, much drier Kansas City, and the snow falling outside had the promise of bringing everything I love about the snow. All the forecasters were predicting that it was going to reach two inches, and stick for a few days. I had been eagerly anticipating the first snow—making plans for all the wonderful things I would do. I would play with my dog in it, build a snowman with my sister, take a walk with my camera. I watched the snow falling, with the promise of all these things, as I packed to leave. I was so devastated that as I stood in front of the windows at SeaTac airport watching the snow falling, my eyes even teared up. It was something I wanted so badly, right there in front of me, and I couldn’t have it.

So, I boarded the plane, buckled my seat belt, and before I knew it we were off the ground. Somewhere, in the middle of the clouds, the thought occurred to me, “pretty soon, we’re going to be above the clouds.” Now, I fly a lot, and living in Seattle this occurrence of flying in the middle of the clouds and then rising above them isn’t a new or noteworthy thing to me—normally. But that day it occurred to me that I would not only be above the clouds, I would be above the snow.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, I saw a burst of light here and there as we reached the top of the clouds. And eventually we reached the top of the clouds, and as we rose above the very top layer, beautiful, bright sunlight filled the cabin of the plane. I looked out the window to see a beautiful blue sky, with a few patchy clouds hanging off in the distance, and the dark gray snow clouds below me. And it occurred to me, that I was blessed to be one of the few Seattlites who would get to see the snow that day. Most of those people down there wouldn’t see the sun at all today, because they were down under the clouds, where it was snowing.

And truly, that’s where I wanted to be—down in that snow. Playing in it with my dog and my sister, taking a picture walk, enjoying the beauty of it. I didn’t want to be in the sunshine, I wanted to be in the snow! But God had something better for me. In that moment, God wanted me above the snow.

It also occurred to me that light is a very common and strong symbol for God. And what stronger image of light is there than the sun? The sunlight filling the plane cabin was like a metaphor for God’s light filling my life, even as I sacrificed what I wanted. I gave it up, but I was above it, quite literally, and I was in God’s presence as a result.

It did turn out that being at Saint Paul Theological School was exactly where I needed to be that weekend. I met some great people, learned some local history, and got some great pictures. But more importantly, I got a chance to see how seminaries work in general, and Saint Paul specifically, and it really helped me discern my call and where I need to go next year. So, there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s where I needed to be. God didn’t just have something “different” for me than what I wanted. He had something better.

As we look toward the New Year, we have a sense of a clean slate, a fresh start. We have goals, hopes, dreams—we have resolutions. But God very often has a surprising way of sweeping us off the ground, into a better, more perfect situation for us. When we turn our life over to him we find blessings around every corner and every day can be a new adventure. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to hear God’s voice—so that when He speaks, we will go with His leading. Sometimes we are right in line with God’s desires for us; for instance, perhaps God wants just as much as we do for us to work hard at what we do and to spend time with our loved ones. Other times, like when I wanted to be in the snow, God has other, better plans. They may require a sacrifice on our part, but they are always, ALWAYS worth it. As you enter into this New Year carrying all of your hopes, dreams, goals, and resolutions with you, please also take an openness to the possibility of God sweeping you up, off the ground, away from your own ideals, above the snow.