Archives For Marriage

In about a month my little corner of the United Methodist Church (the Virginia Annual Conference) will be convening an event called a ‘Day of Holy Conversation on Sexuality.’

Isto Es: We’re talking about the ‘homosexuality issue’ in the Church.

While I hope the event bears fruit and I plan to participate as well, my fear is that it will be yet another church gathering where we talk about homosexuals in the Church rather than talk with- or, better, listen to- homosexuals in the Church.

No gay Christians will be among the official presenters at the Day of Conversation.

(I asked and then politely advocated)

I understand that putting together an event like this for so many disparate parties is a sisyphean task so I can grumble but not begrudge their decision.

But here’s something every pastor knows and everyone who volleys soundbites should know:

Homosexuals exist in the big -C- Church.

Worshipping. Leading. Fellowshipping. Grieving. Serving. We baptize them. Hand them the Eucharist. Confirm them. Bury them.

The reality in the Church is marriage is the only thing we don’t do for them/with them.

Gay Christians have existed in every little -c- church I’ve served, from the lucky-to-have-30-on-Sunday congregation in Jersey to the prison congregation I ‘chaplained’ to my present congregation just outside DC.

You could double the size of that Jersey church if you just rounded up all the congregants I’ve known with gay children. And I even know a few at the church where the Day of Conversation will be convened.

Something else every pastor knows and every partisan on TV should know:

Most people in churches have no problem with those gay Christians in their congregation.

In the flesh, grace almost always trumps doctrine.

So regardless of how one feels about the ‘issue’ and what one thinks the Church’s position should be on it, the fact remains that gay Christians aren’t simply ‘issues.’

They’re not reducible to an issue because they’re people.

They are fruit-bearing (yes, they are) parts of Christ’s Church.

Are they sinning members of Christ’s Church? Sure. But so am I.

I suspect the reason this ‘issue’ is so painful and difficult for the Church is precisely because gay Christians are a part of all our congregations, because their faith bears fruit and because church members bear them much love and friendship.

But that’s exactly the reason too, I think, that they deserve to have their Church listen to them.

All of that is just prologue to say that I think this video, already viral in the church nerd world, gets at the ‘conversation’ exactly the right way. Props to the saints and sinners at House for All.

In case the video doesn’t load on your computer, you can find it here:

We Are The Church from Angie van Broekhuizen on Vimeo.

171607016-1024x683Yesterday, as you’re no doubt well-aware, the Supreme Court tacitly recognized the lawfulness of same-sex marriage by declining to hear cases regarding it. According to the Washington Post, the only demographic still solidly against same-sex marriage are white Republicans (men mostly) 65 and older. It just so happens that’s the dominant demographic in the Christian Church, portending that this issue will not go away for Christians even as it continues to be irrelevant to everyone else.

RogersEugene Rogers, author of Theology and the Christian Body, makes what I think is a solid, grace-based argument for gay marriage that moves beyond trite appeals to ‘love’ and ‘inclusivity’ that too many progressives commit.

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke?

Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

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It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness?

Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others.

Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another.

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational.

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires.

Conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.

But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings.

I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

In preaching, I work hard never to make myself the hero of a story. The rules of rhetoric require it. Even with those anecdotes where I did say or do the right, bold thing, I will instead labor to make myself sound like a d@#$, putting those right, bold words in to someone else’s mouth. I don’t want listeners to think I have a messiah complex and thus miss the message of the actual Messiah.

But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t flatter me in a sermon.

My friend, Taylor Mertins, recently shared a story about me and my family in his sermon on Exodus 2. While embarrassing, it was warmly intended and warmly received. You can check out his blog here, and here’s a post he wrote this summer for Tamed Cynic on what he learned during his first year of ministry.

Without permission, here it is:

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Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

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Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him.Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

Making Love…a Verb

Jason Micheli —  July 28, 2014 — 3 Comments

10494562_881661191848427_6390847377076382822_nOne of the gifts that comes with serving in one congregation for an extended period of time is watching kids whom I’ve baptized grown in to youth and seeing youth become adults, going off into the world and, sometimes, getting married.

Sometimes to each other.

This weekend I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for two special people, Will Gerig and Becca McGraw. I met them when they were both youth in the youth band at church, shortly before they started dating.

Here’s the wedding sermon I wrote for them.

The texts were selections from the Song of Songs and Colossians 3.12-17.

Will and Becca,

Let’s just say I can’t believe the kids I knew in the youth band are now old enough to get married.

And let’s just say I can’t believe I’m old enough to be marrying the kids I knew in the youth band. I’m old enough to have been at this a while.

For example, I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate it’s around 70 times- 70 times that I’ve stood in sanctuaries like this and announced ‘Dearly Beloved.’

By my best guesstimate it’s around 63 times- 63 times I’ve had to suffer through 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient, love is kind…’) as the scripture passage despite registering my strenuous objections with the bride and groom.

By own best guesstimate it’s around 3 times- 3 times my notes have blown away with the breeze at an outdoor wedding, which makes it 3 times that I’ve lost my train of thought and called either the bride or the groom by the wrong name.

2 times- by my guesstimate that’s how many times the bride has been so late to her wedding I started to seriously wonder if she’d show at all.

     And 1 time- 1 time I’ve had to stand up front with a fake smile plastered on my face as a 12 year old boy, whose voice is newly in the throes of puberty, tries to make Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ sound worshipful.

     God I hope that remains the only time.

I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate about a baker’s dozen of those occasions have been for close friends of mine, friends from in and out of the congregation, people I know pretty well.

I even presided at my college roommate’s wedding in the chapel at UVA, which I’m guessing Will must’ve vetoed as a location for your own wedding since he still hasn’t come to grips with Virginia Tech’s massive inferiority in all things.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and many of those weddings were for people I knew pretty well.

But to the best of my memory, my best guesstimate is that out of all those weddings- all those brides and grooms, all those rings and ‘for richer for poorers’- I haven’t known any of those couples as long as I’ve known the two of you.

Nearly 10 years. Will you were 8 and Becca was 7 if I remember correctly.

I remember one of my first conversations with Becca. She was sitting on the parking slab outside the youth wing here and alluded to a crush she had on some boy whom she chose not to name.

And I remember hoping, whoever he was, that he was a nice guy because Becca seemed to be the sort who deserved a nice guy.

And I remember Will coming up to me, the new pastor, to introduce himself. I remember thinking Will was kind of corny and a little bit shy but thoroughly sincere; in other words, he was completely different back then.

I remember treading bacteria-infested water in Belize with Becca as she gave me advice on what makes for a good confirmation class and what makes for a bad one.

I remember the many worship services where, after it was done, Will would come up  to me and give me his deadpan assessment of the sermon and I would leave having no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and some for folks I knew pretty well but none for a couple I’ve known as long as I’ve known you.

I mean, out of all those 73 or so grooms Will is the only one who has ever patiently waited inside my tent simply to scare the pants off of my wife.

And of all the photos I have on Facebook from mission teams in Guatemala, Will is the only one to pretend to behead me with a machete from behind.

Of all the weddings and all the couples, you two are the only ones I’ve spent a week with at a monastery in France, singing and praying and hiking and posing awkwardly for photos as all Europeans do.

I remember whispering to my wife in our tent one of those nights at the monastery, both of us thinking you two seemed perfect for each other, that even then your relationship was healthier than most people who’ve been married their whole lives.

And I remember that last night in France as we slept on the airport floor awaiting our flight and you two lay there holding hands when you thought no one else was awake or looking.

I’ve known you guys a long time.

Long enough to know how you two feel about each other.

Long enough to know how you two feel today.

Long enough for me to feel nearly as happy and ecstatic and joyous as you feel.

But then, today at least, that begs a question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

     If love is a feeling, how can you two promise that to each other forever?

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     The bride in the Song of Songs says that ‘love is as strong as death’ as ‘unyielding as the grave.’

She sings, in fact, that ‘many waters cannot quench love’ nor ‘rivers wash it away.’

Earlier in the song she confesses that her groom’s love for her has the power to make her beautiful and lovely.

But again- there’s the question: if love is just a feeling how can she describe it like that?

 Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over.

You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Amen.

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Just kidding.

But, it gets worse. When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And the night before he dies, when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’ And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’ And in a different letter Paul goes so far as to command husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another.

Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another.

They’re imperatives. They’re commands.

Here’s the thing.

     You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.

     You can only command an action.

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In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, something we fall into (and out of).

The culture has so shaped us that that’s how we hear a scripture like the Song of Songs.

     The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, even in an erotic love poem like the Song of Songs, love is an action first and a feeling second.

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You know me well enough to know I’m trying to sound unromantic.

I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And you can ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

     Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. That’s what ‘for better, for worse’ is all about.

Paul says: ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ so that ‘the peace of Christ may rule in your hearts.’

     In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it.

So, in your relationship you may not feel gentle but you act gentle.

You may not feel compassionate on a given day but, just as you would a child, you listen and show them compassion.

You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.

You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.

I’ve known you two longer than any of the 73 couples before you. I know how perfect you are for each other. I know how you make each of us better too.

But even the two of you- you can’t promise each other the feeling of love.

That’s not the covenant you make today.

     The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day.

     Love is something you do and today you promise to trust the doing, to trust the doing transform to transform your heart.

Again and again.

Day out and day in.

     That’s the promise.

And that kind of promise…

It doesn’t just take two people. It doesn’t require the perfect relationship.

It doesn’t take a feeling. It takes faith.

It takes faith, I think, because that kind of love?

That kind of love is exactly how Jesus loves us.

rainbow-cross_aprilMy nook of United Methodism recently resolved not to resolve (yet) a proposal to change our denomination’s official language on homosexuality, opting to curate a ‘conversation’ instead.

Like a virtual, online Sisyphus, here’s another modest attempt to push the burden forward:

Those who oppose gay marriage in the Church- or even gay membership in the Church- most often do so by citing homosexuality as a sin. Indeed the ‘S word’ predominates much of the discussion on sex.

Homosexuality violates the Levitical codes and while Jesus never speaks of homosexuality neither does he single the subject out for one of his ‘you’ve heard it said’ segues.

While much is made of how scripture views homosexuals as sinners, little commented upon is how marriage’s purpose in the Church- it’s vocation (i.e. it’s calling)- is the healing of our sin.  Our sanctification.

Under this view marriage, same sex couples would appear to be prime candidates for the very covenant denied them by the Church- and for the very reason they’re so denied.

Sanctification is a theological term that describes one’s growth in grace; it is the process of growing ever more holy in the love of God.

Sanctification is a theological term that describes one’s growth in grace; it is the process of growing ever more holy in the love of God.

It’s living with the Other and learning to them nonetheless that we learn to love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Married love conveys and communicates to one another and to others something of the grace of God thereby growing us in grace.

The Orthodox Christian tradition, following St. Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding and reading deeply in the Song of Songs, has understood marriage and sexual intimacy to be a means of sanctification, an entering into Trinitarian love.

Marriage allows for Christians’ sanctification for it creates the space and time for eros (intense but self-centered love) to become agape (charitable, other-directed love. In this fashion, married love teaches Christians how to love as God loves.

Marriage is medicine by which the Spirit heals our sin-sick selves.

Married couples do not stay the same people they were on their wedding day. The binding covenant of Christian marriage provides the context-the confines- in which Christians can grow in holiness by growing in the love of someone other than themselves. In this way, Christian marriage makes visible to others the Holy Spirit’s active, invisible work in our midst.

If Christian marriage is also understood as a means of grace and sanctification, then to deny that source of grace to same sex couples is to withhold the medicine for sin under the auspices of sin.

Thus, to deny that source of grace to same sex couples might be understood to frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

And if you know your bibles, then you know that grieving the Spirit- not what ones does under the sheets- is the only unforgivable offense.

RogersAs Dr. Eugene Rogers my very first theology teacher at UVA writes:

The question of same-sex marriage therefore comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges, but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry, because marriage embodies and carries forward the marriage of God and God’s people. 

To deny committed couples marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine.

It deprives them not of a social means of satisfaction but of a saving manner of healing.

Those couples who approach the church for marriage–and those whose priests prompt them to marry—are drawn there by the marriage of Christ and the church, which alone makes it possible for human relationships to become occasions of grace.

Couples who delay or are denied marriage are like those who previously waited for deathbed baptism; they unaccountably put off the grace by which their lives might be healed. 

There is no question of whether the marriage of Christ and the church is available to sinners, but only how it is so. 

Because the love of God for God’s people is real, and the declaration “this is my body given for you” is true, the church needs as many witnesses as the Holy Spirit and its mission may draft. Same- and opposite-sex couples who want to marry in the church bear witness to the love of God for God’s people and to the power of that love to atone, reconcile, and heal. Not that they can do those things by their human power alone, but the Spirit can attest their witness to the atonement and healing of Christ. 

rp_rainbow-cross_april2.jpgEarlier this week I posted a reflection regarding my frustration that my denomination, the United Methodist Church, is so reticent to ameliorate its stated position on homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgAs my sympathies with Barth’s criticisms suggest, I would caution that too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build a new polis, a new society in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

For, as James KA Smith says,

‘baptism smashes open our families of birth and ‘opens us up to the disruptive friendships that are the mark of the Kingdom of God.’

Perhaps this sounds sweet to you, but the early Church took it quite literally, raising children in their parents’ stead if those birth parents failed to live a faithful Christian life. Even today, if taken seriously by Christians it would bear difficult ethical implications. I’ve written elsewhere how baptism, not questions of individual rights and choices, is the proper lens through which Christians should confront an issue like abortion as Christians. If more Christians took seriously the baptismal stipulation that we are now members of one another, then there might be fewer women left vulnerable and alone in a situation where abortion seemed a necessary choice.

I remember when Ali, my wife, and I began the adoption process for the first time. In an initial interview, the social worker asked us why, when we had no known biological need to do so, we were choosing to adopt.

Our answer was quite sincere and it’s one I recall every time I preside at the font: that, as Christians, we believe in baptism and baptism suggests that adoption is just as ‘normal’ a way as biology to constitute a family.

Because of baptism, so to speak, water is thicker than blood.

cake_topper_c-445x287This past weekend I presided at the wedding of a friend and former youth in my church, Taylor Mertins.

While I officiated the worship service, I signed no license from clerk of court nor did I announce during the liturgy ‘by the power vested in me by the State of Virginia.’

That’s because, tired of marriage being a political football, I gave up credentials to serve as an agent of the state when it comes to weddings.

Since the blog readership is about 10x what it was when I posted this over a year ago, I thought I would pull it out from the vault…

 

Two exchanges with congregants have been running through my mind the past week. This may agitate some.

Take a deep breath, give me the benefit of the doubt, and trust that this is all the fruit of a good faith wrestling of theology and conscience.

Exchange #1

There’s an engaged couple in my congregation who recently asked me to perform their wedding ceremony this summer.

Nothing unusual about that, right?

I do weddings all the time. It comes with the territory.

Here’s the thing.

They’re already getting married in May.

In the Caribbean.

When they stand in front of me- in July- to exchange vows of Christ-like, sacrificial love they will already be married.

As far as the State goes, they don’t need to do anything else. Their- secular- wedding in the Caribbean is good enough for the State of Virginia.

It’s just not good enough for them.

For this couple, Christian marriage isn’t the same thing as marriage as its defined by the State.

And how could it be, really?

Christian marriage is marriage in the name and likeness of Jesus, a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah.

By definition that sort of marriage will (or, at least, should) always be distinct and peculiar from the wider pagan culture.

This couple is intentional enough about their faith to sacrifice the time, effort and expense to do, essentially, a do-over in our sanctuary with me presiding in the name of Christ.

I do weddings all the time. And I can tell you that’s unusual as hell.

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

How is it that Christians spend so much time and vitriol in the public square advocating for the preservation of “biblical/Christian marriage” when even this couple in my congregation knows, or at least intuits, that the present legal understanding of marriage bears no resemblance to what Catholics call a ‘sacrament’ and what Protestants call a ‘covenant?’

Exchange #2

Last week a friend, who shall remain anonymous, lamented to me how their child soon will be getting married to their partner in a locality in which same-sex unions are legal.

This friend lamented not their child’s wedding.

This friend lamented that their child, a lifelong United Methodist and who’s been with their partner nearly as long as I’ve been married, cannot have a Christian ceremony.

(I’m not going to get into the arguments pro/con about homosexuality. You can do a search on my blog and read everything I’ve ever written on the question.)

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

What if it was the other way round?

What if my Church didn’t have this position on marriage? What if the United Methodist Church permitted committed, faithful homosexuals to marry?

If it did, then I still wouldn’t be able to perform those weddings because the State, the State of Virginia, would still consider them illegal.

And that, we would say, is crazy.

My Conclusion from Exchanges 1 and 2?

Why in the world is the Church allowing, and in very many cases encouraging, marriage to be kicked around like a political football?

I don’t want conservatives telling me marriage is between a man and a woman when Abraham had more than one wife and Jesus didn’t have any.

And, I don’t want liberals tellings me that marriage is a right. We can debate whether it is in the legal sense, but for Christians, marriage is much more than that. It’s a vocation.

No matter how one feels about marriage and homosexuality, surely Christians should find it odd that we would allow the secular State or the pagan culture to tell us what constitutes the definition of marriage.

Just as we can disagree about homosexuality, Christians can disagree over the particulars of the Eucharist.

But would Christians EVER turn to the State to define the meaning of the Eucharist for us?

Would we EVER think it normal for a government document to be signed by the pastor every time the sacrament of communion or baptism is performed?

Would we EVER waste time lobbying the government to define the Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation or immersion as the proper mode of baptism?

Of course not.

But then every time a couple gets married, I have to sign a marriage license.

And every time I do I’m acting not as a vicar of Christ but as an agent of the State.

And every time, signing that document makes me feel weird because in both the Old Testament and the New prophetic critique of the government is part of the priestly role {See: Jesus, innocent victim of the government].

eucharistwallpaper1024So these two exchanges have prompted me this week to do something I’ve toyed with for some time now:

Today I called the Clerk of Court to surrender my wedding credentials.

This means I’ll no longer able to perform ‘legal’ weddings. In other words, couples whom I marry will be married in the eyes of God just not the State. Couples will have to get a justice of the peace to do that for them.

My priestly role is now untethered from Red/Blue social politics.

It’s another hoop for couples to jump through, admittedly, but then it won’t take them any more time than they’ll spend taste-testing their wedding cake. 

And anyone who does jump through the hoop will be that much more likely to treat their wedding like that couple who’ll say ‘I do’ in July for second time. 

This time in Christ’s name.  

 

 

 

 

 

taize1This is from my friend, Elaine Woods:

Last Tuesday, my divorce became final.

On Saturday (4 days later), my son was accepted to West Point.

Talk about drama in one week!

Although these two events may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, I like to think of them as a continuation.  New beginnings leading to renewed hope.

Tuesday marked the end of a 23 year marriage (although in reality it ended years ago). Nevertheless, its finality closed the book on my marriage and thrust me into a new chapter in my life.

I approach this new phase with excitement, hope, uncertainty, and melancholy.  I fondly recall memories with the bittersweet taste of gratitude for their existence, and yet, disappointment at their endings.  I look at photos and smile.  Then cry.  Then smile again.  The pictures are reminiscent of times past.

And yet, love never ends; it just transcends into different perspectives.

I’m hopeful for the future.  I couldn’t have done this if I wasn’t.  I believe I’ve been gently led in this direction, where growth and joy will flourish and manifest in ways untapped before.  It will require inner strength and perseverance.

I know my faith will guide me.  I believe in the Holy Spirit and its power.

Although many people are uncomfortable talking about the Holy Spirit (and may consider it a bit suspect), the Holy Spirit has been a part of the Christian faith for centuries.

stainedglass247lIn the Old Testament, there are numerous times when we are told that the Holy Spirit was specifically made available to certain people.  Moses was guided by the Holy Spirit.  Gideon, Joshua, Saul, David, Isaiah, Zechariah, and many others are said to have had the Spirit of the Lord upon them.

In the New Testament, the early Christians told the story of Jesus and referenced the Holy Spirit in many important events.  The birth of Jesus is due in part to the Holy Spirit.  At Jesus baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him.  Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit and later, returned to Galilee “in the power of the spirit” to begin his ministry.

Listening to and discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit can come all at once or over time.  When you keep coming back to a certain thought; when doors open that were once closed; or when options become possibilities, you know the Holy Spirit is busy at work in your life.  This happens through earnest prayer.  Praying to our Lord and Savior will help to discern the voice of the Spirit. Even just inquiring about the Holy Spirit in your life is a first step.

If you’ve never heard God speak to you through the Holy Spirit, don’t worry. I believe you’ll begin to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit as your prayer life becomes more active and powerful. It’s easier to look back on your life and see the fruits of the Holy Spirit afterwards, rather than day in and day out.  Just remember, the Holy Spirit will never endorse anything that separates you from God.

Even if you don’t feel a “gentle nudge,” the Holy Spirit is still busy at work in your life.

My son applied to West Point during his senior year of high school.  Although he was a stellar student, participated in many extracurricular activities, and had glowing recommendations and a congressional nomination, he didn’t make the cut.  His dream of attending the United States Military Academy at West Point was over.

He was crushed.

He didn’t give up, however, but instead enrolled at another university.  He continued to pursue activities and academics with dedication and hard work. He became a member of the elite Corps of Cadets, and embraced his college experience with enthusiasm. During the fall, he applied again to West Point.

When the news came of his acceptance, we were all thrilled.  Thrilled that through faith and hard work, my son learned not to give up on his dreams.  He learned to redirect, to venture out into uncharted territory, and to find new avenues to discover.

As I continue on my journey, I hope to be as brave as my son.  Major life changes tend to make us feel vulnerable, fragile, and even raw.  We may not feel anything for a while, let alone the Holy Spirit. Take comfort in God.  Know that the Holy Spirit is at work bringing relief, joy and peace to our lives.

Christ promised to his disciples before leaving them that he would pray to God and ask for another Comforter (meaning the Spirit) who would love and guide them forever, just as he did with his disciples.

I believe him.

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever.     John 14:16

 

 

 

WV-logo_rgbIn the Church world, no matter what side you are on at some point this week you found this to be outrageous, embarrassing news.

First, World Vision, a global Christian non-profit announced it would no longer discriminate against married gay persons per the policies of their employees respective Christian denominations. Not to mention, World Vision is headquartered in a state (Washington) where gay marriage is legal, making WV a potential target for discrimination lawsuits and thereby jeopardizing the millions of children and impoverished people in the developing world aided by WV.

Not that that actually matters because droves of conservative Christians (or just plain old conservatives) responded by pulling their sponsorship of children in protest. Nice!

It’s not like Jesus ever said anything negative about those put ideological purity above compassion towards those in need.

Wait…well, crap, I guess Jesus did teach about it (See: Samaritan, Parable of)

But that’s why the epistles of Paul more important!

In response to the backlash- and understandably not wanting to throw the world’s vulnerable children under the partisan bus- World Vision reversed its decision.

That I’m sure their decision was carefully planned and discerned and backlash anticipated yet STILL the vitriol was such that they had to do an about face in 24 hours says a lot about the bullying in the American Church on this single, freaking issue.

I get that people disagree about issues of marriage, sexuality etc. I really do.

But let’s be honest.

Just the other night, I was watching the Ken Burns’ Civil War film with my boys.

Haven’t seen it since I was in Middle School. In the first episode, Sam Waterston quotes a Protestant pastor (Methodist, I think) in the South  (Virginia, I think) speaking about how due to the context of slavery the Church amended [willingly] its MARRIAGE LITURGY AND VOWS.

‘…until Death- or Distance- do us part…’

The idea that marriage has been a bible-based, a-cultural institution until only recently is patently, objectively false.

The suggestion that 2 gay Christians who are faithful to each other poses the gravest threat to said institution is repugnant when considered against other historical exigencies in which the Church as proved nimble in what constitutes “biblical marriage.”

Realizing full well that faithful Christians disagree about the issue of marriage and sexuality (as my denomination puts it), the World Vision clusterf#$% prompts me merely to point out this black/white, no wiggle room Bible Math:

# of Times the Poor Mentioned in Scripture: 400+

# of Times Homosexuality Mentioned in Scripture: 2*

*4 if I’m in a generous mood

 

The Gospel in Glasses

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2014 — 1 Comment

Jason PouringHere’s my sermon for Valentine’s Day based on Genesis 29:

Alright, so men, just so we’re looking out for each other: Valentine’s Day is in 5 days.  The last thing you want to do as a guy is forget Valentine’s Day or give the kind of gift on Valentine’s Day that implies you forgot about Valentine’s Day until the very last minute.

 

I mean, I’ve never done that, but I’ve got a friend who has and he tells me you don’t want to forget Valentine’s or give the kind of gift that says ‘Geez, I almost forgot about you.’

 

Valentine’s Day is crazy.

 

Did you know this year Americans will spend approximately 17.6 billion dollars on Valentine’s Day? It’s true.

 

And the average American will spend $126.03 on their special someone- an amount that makes me look ‘thrifty.’

 

Five days from today Americans will give 224 million roses to each other. They’ll spend 1.6 million dollars on candy, 4.4 million dollars on diamonds and the average American will spend $4.52 on a Valentine’s present for their dog.

 

And I haven’t even mentioned the Valentine’s Cards, which in 5 days will number about 145 million units- 145 million boxes of cards.

 

Hallmark alone will sell nearly 1500 varieties of cards.

 

And some will come with hearts and others with flowers. Some will be sappy and others will try to be funny.

 

And the kids cards will come laced with sugar and preservatives.

 

And all 1500 of those cards will look slightly different but behind every one they all have the same basic message.

The same basic message that the Beatles first gave us:

 

That love is all you need.     Love is all you need.

 

Now I know some of you are excited about Valentine’s Day and the last thing I’d ever want to do is burst someone’s bubble, but you know that’s a lie right?

 

It’s a nice sentiment for a pop song or a rom-com, but as biblical truth it’s what theologians call ‘complete crap.’

 

Far be it from me to be cynical, but the message that love is all you need is a lie. It’s not true.

 

Love, whether we’re talking about your love for your spouse or your love for your children or their love for you, is NOT all you need.

 

The money we spend on Valentine’s Day just reflects a culture that tells us love is what gives our lives meaning and value. We live in a culture that tells us you’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you; consequently, some of us will let any body love us.

We live in a culture that tells us if we just find the perfect person- or have the perfect child- then everything else that’s empty in our lives will be filled.

 

Love is all we need to live happily ever after.

Those are all lies.

You can call me cranky if you like, but you know I’m right.

Anyone who’s ever been married or had children knows love isn’t all you need.

 

On your wedding day you say with a twinkle in your eye: ‘Of all the people in the world, I choose you.’

 

But after the day you say ‘I do’ there are other days when you just want to pull your hair out and scream: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you?!’

 

Just ask my wife.

 

So, no. Love is not all you need to live happily ever after.

It wasn’t enough to keep the Beatles together.

It wasn’t enough to rescue some of your relationships.

And it wasn’t enough to keep Jacob’s life from unraveling and damaging everyone in it.

Speaking of Jacob, just as an aside, you need to appreciate the degree of difficulty I’m dealing with today.

 

A few of you may already know that I have a certain affinity for those silly, crude and even offensive parts of the Bible. So you should know that today’s scripture passage contains the Hebrew equivalent of the F-word, as when Jacob says to Laban: ‘I want to ___________ your daughter.’

In Hebrew, Rachel is described as having a ‘hot body’ while her older sister, Leah, whose name means ‘cow’ in Hebrew, is said to have ‘nice eyes,’ which is a Jewish colloquialism for ‘she has a nice personality.’

And then, to top it off, Jacob, the hero for whom the People of Israel are named, gets completely wasted and hooks up with the wrong sister.

Can you even begin to appreciate how difficult it is for me not run wild with this story and offend everyone in the process? It was all I could do not to title my sermon ‘Beer Goggles.’

 

As tempting as the silly parts of this story might be for me on other days, today I want to take the story straight up. I want to be serious.

 

Because once you push aside the preposterous Jerry Springer parts of the story, this story is more common and more relevant for our community than you could possibly guess.

 

By my conservative estimate, I’ve done about 1500 hours of counseling with couples during my ministry: couples jumping into marriage, couples struggling through their marriage, couples jumping into parenthood in order to fix what’s broken in their marriage, couples getting out of their marriage- after a long time or not long at all.

 

Confidentiality means I can’t tell you who those couples are. I can’t point to them or tell you if you’re sitting next to one of them, though some of you are.

But that doesn’t matter because I can tell you: when those couples come to my office, there’s a better than even chance their names are Jacob and Leah.

So, I think it’s important you know their story.

 

[Pull out two glasses. ‘Leah’ is half empty and ‘Jacob’ is full] 

 

Jacob and Leah’s story- it has everything to do with the stories they brought with them to their marriage. It almost always does.

The story starts with Jacob.

Jacob has an older brother.

Jacob’s Dad always preferred his brother to him. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

When you get past all the drama and bad decisions in Jacob’s life, that’s what it boils down to.

 

His Dad always insisted ‘I love you both the same.’

But even when you’re a child, you know better. You notice. You notice if your parent’s are really listening, really paying attention to you, really enjoying you.

 

So Jacob grows up in his brother’s shadow, and the anger and hurt Jacob feels because of his Father gets expressed as resentment towards his brother. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

And Jacob’s Mom, she deals with it the way all abusive families cope. She tries to compensate for what her husband won’t do. She turns a blind eye. She pretends the problem doesn’t exist. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

But that never works.

 

Eventually it comes to a head. It always comes to a head.

 

So when Jacob is older, he hurts his brother- in a way that can’t be taken back. And, if he’s honest, he does it to spite his Father.

 

In just one self-destructive moment: his brother hates him, his relationship with his Father is ruined forever, and his Mother is forced to take sides. She doesn’t choose his. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

Jacob’s never had his Father’s love. He’s lost his Mother and brother’s love. He has no sense of God’s love.

 

He has no one in his life. He has no direction to his life. He has no meaning for his life.

 

He leaves home, completely empty inside. [EMPTY his glass]

 

The next part of Jacob’s story starts at a well.

 

But it just as easily could’ve taken place at a college or a club. In an office or at a party. Or over the computer.

He meets a woman. [Leah’s CUP]

 

He takes one look at her and he convinces himself:

She can fix what’s broken in my life.

She can give me what I’m missing.

She can fill the emptiness inside me, he says. And he calls that love.

He’s like an addict, using the idea of this person to escape the pain in his own life, which makes him vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

 

Maybe he doesn’t realize it, but Jacob’s not looking for a soulmate.

He’s looking for a salve. Or a savior.

 

Jacob marries this woman, hoping she can fill what’s missing in him.

 

His need keeps him from seeing who she really is. He doesn’t see that she has an emptiness insider her too. [hold up her glass] and that she can’t possibly fill what’s empty in his life. 

 

[pour her water into his so that he’s only half-filled].

 

So after they get married, he finds that emptiness is still there inside him.

 

And that brings conflict. It’s not long before he’s shouting at her:

‘You’re not the person I thought you were.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

‘You’re not the person I married.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

‘Why can’t you be more like this….’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Eventually he stops speaking to her much at all. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Until finally Jacob’s married with children and discovers he’s even emptier on the inside than he was before and he’s long way from happily ever after. [EMPTY his glass]

Then there’s Leah’s story. [FILL her glass]

 

On the one hand, she’s the causality of Jacob’s need, but on the other hand, she does to him exactly what he did to her.

 

Leah grew up in the shadow of her little sister.

 

Her sister was a knockout, always the center of attention. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Compared to her, Leah was unlovely. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Or at least that’s how Leah saw herself; such that, she didn’t believe anyone would ever love her because she didn’t believe she was worth loving. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

And one day she meets a man, whose heart has an emptiness every bit as big as her own.

She meets him at a well, but they could’ve met anywhere.

 

Even though she knows he doesn’t really know her, doesn’t really see her for who she is, she marries him.

 

She marries him because she thinks he’s the only one who will ever marry her.

 

So she pins her hopes for happiness on this man, only to find one day that her emptiness is still there.

 

And that he can’t fill what’s missing in her life. [pour his empty glass into hers]

 

It’s not long before the marriage starts to suffer and strain from the emptiness both of them bring to it. [empty her glass completely]

 

So what’s Leah do?

 

She thinks children are the solution.

 

She thinks kids will fix her marriage and win her husband’s love.

So she has a little boy.

She names him Reuben, and she says to herself: ‘Surely, my husband will love now.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

But no, it doesn’t work that way. Never does. Though you’d be surprised how many think it will.

 

She tries again. She has another little boy. She names him Simeon.

And this time she says to herself, ‘Surely my husband will pay attention to me now, will listen to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But with each child she’s pushed further into unhappiness.

 

She has another boy. She names him Levi. And she says to herself: ‘With three kids, now my husband will become attached to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But kids can never fix what was broken before they were born.

 

Three kids later, Leah finds herself still empty on the inside.

 

 

It’s not in the story today, but I can tell you how the rest of it goes because I’ve heard it too many times.

 

Leah turns to her children to bring her the happiness her husband hasn’t, to fill what’s missing in her life, to give her life meaning and purpose.

 

But no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life. [EMPTY the shot glasses into Leah’s glass, should only fill her 1/4 of the way

]

And no kid should have to bear such a burden. They’ll only get crushed underneath your expectations.

Because if you look to your children for validation, to fill an emptiness inside you, you’ll need them to be perfect.

 

And when they’re not-because no child is- there will be conflict. [EMPTY Leah’s glass completely]

 

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

 

And a long way from happily ever after.

Love is NOT all you need.

 

 

Psychologists call this a lack of differentiation, a lack of the ability to be a complete, fulfilled individual within the context of a relationship.

 

But Christians-

 

Christians call this idolatry: Looking to others to give you what only God can give.

Let’s not beat around the bush. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been married or whether your kids are young or grown.

 

For a lot of us, this is the primary way we break the first commandment.

For a lot of us, this is the primary way we break the commandment: You shall have no other gods but God.

 

Scripture says God is love; it doesn’t say love is god.

 

You can’t replace God with your spouse or your partner.

And you can’t replace God with your child.

 

No spouse or friend should have to love you that much and no kid can.

Until you realize that, you’ll always be frustrated with your kids and you’ll never stop complaining that you thought you were marrying Rachel only to discover you’re living with Leah.

 

For some of us, our relationship or our children play too big a role in our lives precisely because God plays too small a role.

 

I mean, we forget that the first vows a bride and groom make aren’t to each other but to God.

 

If we make too much of our marriage, or of our relationship, or of our children, we make too little of God. And when we put too much pressure on our marriage and children, we depend too little on God.

 

I’m not saying you should love your spouse or your kids less. I’m saying you should love God more. Because the bitter irony is that when we make too little of God in our relationships, we cut ourselves off from the source of Love.

 

Trust me, this is just on-the-job knowledge: focusing too much on your marriage or your relationship or your children is the best way to undermine them.

 

I mean, some people need Jesus Christ to come in to their hearts not so they can go to heaven when they die but so their relationships here and now will stop being a living hell.

 

Because you can only be generous with what you’ve got in the bank to give. If your only source of meaning and love and purpose and happiness and validation and affirmation and worth is another person, then you can never really love them.

 

The only way to say ‘I do’ and keep on saying ‘I do’ day after day is to first be able to say: ‘I’m a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.’

 

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

Your friend can let you down, and sure it upsets you but it doesn’t undo you.

Because you know God will never let you down.

 

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

Your spouse can speak the ugliest truths about you, and you don’t have to run away.

 

Because that (the cross) has already spoken the deepest, darkest truth about who you really are and from that God said: ‘I forgive you because you have no idea what you’re doing.’

 

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

You can have patience with- and even forgive- the flaws and sins in someone else.

Because you know God has been gracious to you.

When God has the proper, primary place in your life-

Your spouse or your friend can take you for granted, and yes it will disappoint you, but it won’t demolish your self-image.

Because you know to God you are infinitely precious and worth dying for.

 

 

     [Pull out another glass and baptismal pitcher.]

 

There’s another story.

 

Jesus was on his way to Galilee, and along the way he stopped in Samaria.

 

At a well.

 

Jacob’s Well.

 

Jesus meets a woman there. She’s carrying an empty bucket.

 

But it’s the emptiness insider her that Jesus notices. The emptiness has carried her from man to man to man to man to man…

 

And Jesus says to her: [Pour water into glass, let it fill up and then overflow out on to the floor until pitcher is empty.]

 

I am Living Water.

 

What I can give you is a spring of water that never stops gushing, never stops flowing, never dries up.

 

I can fill you, Jesus says.

With love. With meaning. With purpose. With value and healing and worth and validation.

 

I can fill you, Jesus says.

So that you can give love, not need it.

 

And she left that day, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.

 

She learned that day what the Beatles never did and what Hallmark still hasn’t:

 

The only way to live happily ever after is to first be happy with who you are in Jesus Christ.

 

r662738_4757386Perhaps not surprisingly, my sermon 2 weeks on (homo)sexuality in the Church prompted quite a few people to ask me for names and titles of reading on the matter, readings with substance and depth. My first answer is always Rowan Williams‘ 10 page essay ‘The Body’s Grace.’ It’s the best theological reflection on sexuality, marriage and grace out there. The nuance of Williams’ argument points out Stanley Hauerwas‘ contention that the Church should stop arguing about homosexuality until it figures out what we mean by ‘marriage.’

Here, Williams’ examination of sexuality through the lens of grace reveals how little popular, ‘biblical’ books on sex and marriage like Mark Driscoll‘s Real Marriage pay attention that most central of Christian doctrines.

imagesHere’s a snippet. You’ll have to click over to read the rest. It’s worth it.

But is should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.

There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to “legalise” it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions.

When we bless sexual unions, we give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved, true; but we do this so that they may have a certain freedom to “take time,” to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can.

We should not do it in order to create a wholly impersonal and enforceable “bond”; if we do, we risk turning blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping. In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full “resourcefulness” and grace of sexual union.

I simply don’t think we’d grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.

Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.

Decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we’re meeting or what laws we’re satisfying. “Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing” (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!

I have suggested that the presence or absence of the body’s grace has a good deal to do with matters other than the small scale personal. It has often been said, especially by feminist writers, that the making of my body into a distant and dangerous object, to be either subdued or placated with rapid gratification is the root of sexual oppression.

I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy.

Thinking about sexuality in its fullest implications involves thinking about entering into a sense of oneself beyond the customary imagined barrier between the “inner” and the “outer” the private and the shared.

We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our “private” selves (as Paul said of mutual sexual commitment), and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification.

There is something basic, then as Freud intuited, about how we make sense sexually, basic for the fabric of corporate human life. But beyond the whole question of how the body’s grace is discovered is a further, very elusive question.

Sex is risky and grace is not discovered by all; and there is something frightening and damaging about the kind of sexual mutuality on which everything comes to depend – that is why it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything.

But, as I hinted earlier, the body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption.

To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.

lt is perhaps because of our need to keep that perspective clear before us that the community needs some who are called beyond or aside from the ordinary patterns of sexual relation to put their identities direct into the hands of God in the single life. This is not an alternative to the discovery of the body’s grace.

All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive.

Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God – that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.

There is the great freedom of the celibate mystic in deploying the rhetoric of erotic love in speaking of God; and, even more importantly, there is that easy acceptance of the body, its needs and limitations, which we find in mature celibates, like Teresa of Avila in her last years.

Whatever the cost, this vocation stands as an essential part of the background to understanding the body’s grace: paradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.

It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders. I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians.

And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.

It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this final part I want to offer some thoughts about this problem.

I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.

Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself.

If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.

It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity.

closeup1 2We just wrapped our winter sermon series on marriage and love.
Too often when it comes to love, sex and passion people presume that the Christian tradition only has list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ On the contrary, the only Puritanical Christians were the Puritans. From the earliest of the rabbinic traditions to the earliest of the ancient Church Fathers, sexual ecstasy- and its preceding mutual vulnerability- have long been considered something like a parable for how God loves us.
God sees us completely as we are…naked…and loves us.
I asked my friend Janet Laisch to write a post showing how this has been reflected in Christian art:
PHD968While plenty of artists portray love, and only a few artists identify their inspiration as Song of Songs, only Bernini achieved in sculpture what Song of Songs achieved in writing: the physical expression of love is a gift from God which connects us with the divine and with what it means to be fully human. Similar to how the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem, is found in the bible, this erotic sculpture is found in a church. Both share an explanation of our union with God through the metaphor of erotic love. In 1645, Cardinal Cornaro commissioned Bernini to sculpt the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. Like all Baroque art, Bernini sculpted it to trigger a religious response in the viewer; though not all artists who created religious art were as deeply religious as Bernini.
The first time I visited the Cornaro Chapel, I was stunned by what I saw. At first glance, a holy light emanated from gilded heavenly rays above the sculpture and the entire sculpture floated so that the figures levitated on the cloud below them. Walking close enough to touch the sculpture and looking up, a secret window, hidden behind the wall revealed the actual light source. Touching the cloud, it felt like cold stone rather than billowy cotton which had been reinforced with concrete below and behind it to make this stone appear to be floating. Bernini achieved a masterful installation where the event appears in action like a scene in a play rather than stagnant stone. It will not surprise you that Bernini was not only the most celebrated sculptor in all of Rome, but also a set designer, painter, architect, gilder, glassmaker and playwright and he married “one of most beautiful women in all of Rome” who became the model for Saint Theresa. Combining these art forms, Bernini hoped to elicit a religious response in each of us.
IMG_15291
By looking, we too become voyeurs to Saint Theresa’s vision. Two theater boxes flank the sculpture on the left and right and realistic, portrait-like sculptures of the wealthy donor–Cardinal Frederico Carnaro–on the right side react to what we see together. It is important when defining this work to mention what it is not, this art is not pornography; it is inside a church. We are experiencing a holy vision first-hand. It parallels the Song of Songs 6:13, when people watch the woman lover, “Dance, dance girl of Shulam. Let us watch you as you dance. She responds, “Why do you want to watch me as I dance between the rows of onlookers?”
teresapeepers
In the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini expertly conveys different materials from a billowy cloud to feathery angel wings; the differences in texture make the image appear more real and more immediate as if it is taking place in front of our eyes. Bernini sculpted, in white marble, Saint Teresa and the angel. He cut away marble to reveal flesh–stone that appears alive rather than cold.  Bernini chiseled away from a block of marble to reveal flesh underneath. Bernini’s work characteristically captures a moment in time and appears kinetic: hair and drapery sweeping in the wind. His marble becomes flesh malleable and reactive to other marble. A marble hand depresses a marble body, clearly indenting the marble where the two stones meet. The difference between these two sculptures illustrates just how effectively Bernini made marble appear to react like flesh; below Bernini’s sculpture– a love scene from a pagan story, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which church fathers glossed in Christian terms starting in the Renaissance– is shown first while Rodin’s, from 1882, The Kiss, is shown second.

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

Like the Song of Songs, the theme of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is how erotic love and passion are analogous to what union with God must be like.  Theresa’s vision represents from Song of Songs, ” Asleep on my bed, night after night I dreamed of the one I love; I was looking for him, but couldn’t find him. ” For Theresa, who is a sainted nun, her union with the divine happened through a vision which she recounted in graphic physical detail. Saint Theresa wrote, “It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely…. In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim…. I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”
bernini-ecstasy-of-st-teresa-sPHD968
The male angel is indeed stunningly beautiful and he smiles, clearly deriving his own pleasure, as he looks at the nun’s beautiful face and lifts her robe slightly. With the angel’s other hand he holds an arrow, which he  points not at her heart as St. Theresa had written, but lower on her body.  St. Theresa’s head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her lips are parted. Her drapery hangs in a kinetic frenzy mirroring her physical experience. The floating cloud references the intensity of her pleasure.  The obvious reference to a physical, erotic union cannot be ignored. She experiences ecstasy through divine union in her mind, soul and body. Her faith in God only increases the intensity of her vision.
Remembering that the model for Saint Theresa is Bernini’s own wife adds to its meaning; he portrays his wife’s ecstasy resulting from this divine union. Bernini is both a passionate artist and a deeply religious man. When he married his beloved wife, he experienced a spiritual awakening, he changed, and he forever deepened his faith. Here he not only portrays Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy then, but also his own wife’s ecstasy. Here he invites God into every aspect of his marriage.  When we recognize this truth as well, when we too invite God into our own marriage, our love only intensifies and brings us closer to each other and to God’s plan for us.

 

 

 

Let No One Tear Asunder

Jason Micheli —  February 3, 2014 — 14 Comments

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend I concluded our marriage sermon series by reflecting on how the issue of marriage, in particular homosexuality, threatens to split the United Methodist Church.

In it, I tried to survey the four broad perspectives that exist within the larger Church and within my own congregation, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each view. Ephesians 2.13-22 was my text.

Here’s the audio. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

 

A Case for Gay Marriage

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2014 — 5 Comments

RogersThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

Today, it’s an argument from Eugene Rogers, whose book, Sexuality and the Christian Body, is the best theological treatment of marriage in general that I’ve discovered.

Rogers was my very first theology teacher, my very first religion professor. I didn’t go to college thinking I’d be doing this with my life and I wouldn’t be had he never entered my life and ignited my curiosity about God.

Here it is:

I want to consider gay marriage by first reflecting on the theology of marriage, and I want to reflect on the theology of marriage under the rubric of sanctification. This approach is consistent with the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which regards marriage as a way of participating in the divine life not by way of sexual satisfaction but by way of ascetic self-denial for the sake of more desirable goods. Theologically understood, marriage is not primarily for the control of lust or for procreation. It is a discipline whereby we give ourselves to another for the sake of growing in holiness — for, more precisely, the sake of God.

In this respect marriage and monasticism are two forms of the same discipline, as the Orthodox writer Paul Evdokimov has argued. They are both ways of committing ourselves to others — a spouse or a monastic community — from whom we cannot easily escape. Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings.

Rowan Williams has written, “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s [Son] makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created [and we marry] so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” Like all forms of asceticism, this is a high-risk endeavor. It can expose the worst in people — so that it can be healed.

Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God catches human beings up into the community of God’s Spirit and the identity of God’s child. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love.

Monasticism is for people who find a bodily, sexual sanctification first and foremost in the desirous perception of God. Marriage is for people who find themselves transformed by the desirous perception of another human being made in God’s image. In a marital or monastic community, the parties commit themselves to practicing faith, hope and charity in a situation in which those virtues get plenty of opportunity to be exercised.

This way of understanding the Christian life obviously takes seriously the embodied character of human life. And embodiment implies diversity. The Holy Spirit characteristically rests on bodies: the body of Christ in Jesus, in the church, in the sacraments and in the saints. As the Spirit forms the bodies of human beings into the body of Christ, she characteristically gathers the diverse and diversifies the corporate, making members of one body.

We can see the Holy Spirit working for a harmonious diversity as she hovers over the waters in creation. Let us suppose that “Be fruitful and multiply” applies to the commands “Let the earth put forth vegetation” and “Let the waters bring forth swarms” and “Let the earth bring forth everything that creeps upon the ground” (Gen.1:26, 1:11, 1:20, 1:24). In all these cases, the earth and the waters bring forth things different from themselves, not just more dirt and more water. And in all these cases, they bring forth a variety of things: one might almost translate the phrase as “Be fruitful and diversify.”

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons? Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit. But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side. It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

For large sections of various Christian traditions, blessing does not float overhead. Sanctification comes through concrete practices of asceticism, a discipline or training through which lesser goods serve greater ones. This asceticism is not a bizarre, antiquated Christian weirdness. Americans are already deeply if sometimes mistakenly invested in one kind of asceticism: dieting and working out at the gym are physical disciplines that are supposed to bring spiritual benefits. Indeed, they are supposed by some to bring the greatest of these, love. Surely there are more effective disciplines than those.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational. (The New Testament devalues commitments to one’s family of origin.) Even hermits and solitaries tend to follow the liturgy, the community’s prayer. The first hermit, Anthony the Great, emerged from solitude with an increased sociality, so that people were drawn to him. His “heart had achieved total transparency to others” (in the words of Peter Brown).

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

Christians will see such healing as the work of Christ. Many Christian traditions portray Christ as a physician who must probe people’s wounds in order to heal them. For example, St. Romanos the Melodist offers this account of Christ explaining his mission to his mother at the foot of the cross:

Be patient a little longer, Mother, and you will see how, like a physician, . . . I treat their wounds, cutting with the lance their calluses and their scabs. And I take [the] vinegar, I apply it as astringent to the wound, when with the probe of the nails I have investigated the cut, I shall plug it with the cloak. And, with my cross as a splint, I shall make use of it, Mother, so that you may chant with understanding, “By suffering he has abolished suffering, my Son and my God” (from On the Lament of the Mother of God).

For the risk of commitment to be worth it and to have the best chance of success, the community must have plenty of time and be made up of the right sort of people. Growth takes a lifetime. The right sort of people are those who will succeed in exposing and healing one another’s flaws.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?

The answer is no doubt as various as creation itself. But certainly same-sex couples find the right spur to vulnerability, self-exposure, and the long and difficult commitment over time to discover themselves in the perceptions of another — they find all this in someone of the same sex. Theologically, says theologian David McCarthy, a homosexual orientation is this: “Gay men and lesbians are persons who encounter the other (and thus themselves) in relation to persons of the same sex.” Some people, therefore, are called to same-sex partnerships for their own sanctification. Opposite-sex partnerships wouldn’t work for them, because those would evade rather than establish the right kind of transformative vulnerability.

The difference between members of a same-sex couple is not “merely psychological,” but also an embodied difference, if only because sexual response is nothing if not something done bodily. Difference cannot be reduced to male-female complementarity, because that would leave Jesus a deficient human being. Jesus did not need a female other half to be fully human. (This point raises the issue of what singleness is for, but that’s a question for another day.)

If this account is correct, then it turns out that conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification. But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways. It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast to his son, and sent his servants to those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” But they made light of it and went off . . . Then he said to his servants, . . . “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find. And . . . so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 22:1-13).

Not to celebrate same-sex weddings may also be morally dangerous.

5058886937_3bcf357e06_zThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

First today is this piece by John Milbank.

John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is without a doubt one of the most influential works of theology of the last 50 years. It sparked the Radical Orthodoxy movement and is the jumping off point of another nearly as important book: David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. 

Here’s Milbank’s argument:

During the course of recent debates in the British Parliament over the proposed legalisation of gay marriage, it has gradually become apparent that the proposal itself is impossible. For legislators have recognised that it would be intolerable to define gay marriage in terms equivalent to “consummation,” or to permit “adultery” as legitimate ground for gay divorce.

Thus, despite the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects, the legislators have been forced tacitly to admit the different nature of both gay sexuality and of gay sociality. But such an admission destroys the assumption behind the legislation and the coherence of what the legislation proposes to enact.

The assumption behind the legislation is that “fairness” must involve the application of universal rights to each individual in the same way and in the same respects. But this admission reveals that, in the current instance, such application would prove grossly unfair, inappropriate and unrealistic.

The coherence of the legislation depends upon erasing the clear distinction between civil union (which is already available for both straight and gay couples) on the one hand, andmarriage on the other. But if the binding and loosing of gay and straight marriage are stipulated in different ways, then in effect such a distinction has been reinstated.

The suspicion arises that the proposed legislation before the British Parliament seeks only an empty change in nomenclature – this is borne out by the fact that the intended circumscription of gay marriage is so diluted as to render it indistinguishable from gay civil partnership.

Why, then, should Christians worry, if this is all just a matter of terminology? Can we not live with differing definitions of marriage? Perhaps, in order to safeguard the churches from pressures to conform to the norm, we should now welcome a withdrawal from the churches of their rights as a civil marriage broker. This would leave the churches free, in their turn, to claim that only natural and sacramental marriage are genuinely “marriage,” while state marriage is mere civil union. They could trump secularisation by declaring that the era of civil marriage had been a failed experiment.

This may, indeed, be the direction that the churches now need to take. However, the graver fear surrounding the new legislation is that secular thought will not so readily let go of the demand for absolutely equal rights based on identical definitions. In that case, we face an altogether more drastic prospect. Not only would “marriage” have been redefined so as to include gay marriage, it would inevitably be redefined even for heterosexual people in homosexual terms. Thus “consummation” and “adultery” would cease to be seen as having any relevance to the binding and loosing of straight unions.

Many may welcome such a development as yet a further removal of state intrusion into our private lives, but that would be to fail to consider all the implications. In the first place, it would end public recognition of the importance of marriage as a union of sexual difference. But the joining together and harmonisation of the asymmetrical perspectives of the two sexes are crucial both to kinship relations over time and to social peace. Where the reality of sexual difference is denied, then it gets reinvented in perverse ways – just as the over-sexualisation of women and the confinement of men to a marginalised machismo.

Secondly, it would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.

And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.

For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so “cultural”) act of loving encounter – even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one’s very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this “grammar” would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice.

It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology. But this request is in principle intolerable for donors who gave their sperm or wombs on the understanding that this was an anonymous donation for public benefit.

The recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict involved here is all too evident and cannot be averted. In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated.

From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, only that the link in general should not be severed. The price for this severance is surely the commodification of birth by the market, the quasi-eugenic control of reproduction by the state, and the corruption of the parent-child relation to one of a narcissistic self-projection.

Once the above practices have been rejected, then it follows that a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage.

The fact that this optimum condition cannot be fulfilled by many valid heterosexual marriages is entirely irrelevant, for they still fulfil through ideal intention this linkage, besides sustaining the union of sexual difference which is the other aspect of marriage’s inherently heterosexual character.