Sermons

Saturday, August 12, 2017: The Wedding of Erika Sidney and Matthew Carek

A few weeks ago I was presented with an exciting opportunity and a difficult decision, it was a job offer that would take me from the work of being a solo pastor to a new position on a large staff that could open up new horizons in my career, but would also require me to give up some of the ways of operating that had become easy and familiar after a decade of working alone.

Know Your StorySo I called my bishop to ask for some advice, and what he said has stuck with me as wise counsel for anyone standing on the forward edge of a commitment, as Matt and Erika are this afternoon. He said, “Know your story. Know why you’re making this decision. Understand that change is hard, but that when you know why you’re making a hard decision you approach that hardship as an opportunity for growth.” He went on to tell me that over the years the people who get themselves into the worst trouble are those who’ve forgotten their story. He said, “Once you’ve forgotten the story that drives your decisions, you begin to feel and act like a victim of your own life.”

So the question that needs to be asked as you step into your future is: what is the story you will tell about your marriage? How do you understand the decision you are making today? Why are you making it now? What will you do when this decision becomes difficult to sustain (as it almost certainly will at some point)? What story can you tell that will help you face life’s hardships as opportunities to grow closer together?

One of the benefits of being our age is that we each have enough story behind us already to know that life follows its own rules. It routinely defies our hopes and expectations just as surely as it refuses to conforms itself to our worst fears and prejudices. Life has its own lessons to teach us which, if we can stay open to receiving them, become chapters in a story that is uniquely our own.

That said, there are some truths we hold in common as we each do the work of sharing ourselves with each other; there is some wisdom to be passed down from generation to generation, from couple to couple, as you stand before this community of people who possess volumes of hard-earned experience about life. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d share four truths my parents shared with Kerry and me on the day of our wedding that I now pass on to you:

Life is Full of Wonder and MiraclesFirst — life is full of wonder and miracles.

I still remember the Greyhound bus ride from Minneapolis to Des Moines made the fall of Erika’s first semester of medical school. I was reading a novel of some kind, I suppose, and Erika was reading a textbook — on, what, biochemistry? — when she turned to me and said, “Wow! My entire relationship to oxygen has completely changed!” It occurred to me that her relationship to oxygen had actually remained quite stable, but that her understanding of that relationship had been transformed.

This is one of the gifts of marriage — that you can turn to each other, over and over again throughout the course of your relationship and share how the ordinary things of life have all of a sudden become extraordinary again. Your relationships to each other, to your careers, to your families, to your bodies, to your politics, to your selves will change over and over again, and you have the opportunity to share all of that with each other. “In the press of daily life, may you know the blessing of time and attention for one another that love may deepen and flourish.”

Life is HardSecond — life is hard.

There is very little in life that robs us of our power to act more quickly than the assumption that things are supposed to be easy. Childhood isn’t easy, growing up is messy, and #adulting (as it’s now called on Twitter) is a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved and obstacles to overcome. We can’t be blamed for wishing that marriage could be an oasis from the challenges that come at us outside the home, but it’s not likely.

Instead, the blessing marriage proposes to offer is a place where your efforts to grow beyond past limitations are supported, your struggles along the way receive a sympathetic hearing, and your failings are met with grace and forgiveness. “In the twists and turns of life, howling winds and jagged edges of every sort, may you be blessed with patience and kindness, resilience, insight, gratitude, and great love, enough to carry you through to safe and healing harbors.”

Relationships are messy & complicatedThird — Relationships are messy and complicated

In her brief but brilliant poem, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” the African American poet Lucille Clifton writes, “they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine”

All across our country in places like Charlottesville and Chicago, and right here in Denver and Boulder, I’m sure, we are doing violence to one another because we refuse to allow for the truth that each of us is having a very different experience of reality. The social contract that is supposed to bind us together has been ripped apart by a politics of amnesia in which we keep insisting that women, and people of color, and immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and every other person who’s ever known what it feels like to be pushed to the side, remember their own story from the point of view of people who know them the least.

That dynamic plays itself out in our marriages as well, and it may well be that we will not be able to reconcile to one another in public until we’ve learned to do it in the privacy of our homes.

So, when you find yourself most certain that your version of events is correct, that your perspective on what’s happening is most needed, that is the very moment when you should stop and cultivate a deeper curiosity about what your partner knows, what they remember, how and where and from whom they learned those things about how the world “really” works.

Then, “when disappointments and disillusionment come, and threaten to make a home in your hearts, may you be blessed with the memory of all that drew you to each other, and all that you most love and enjoy in each other’s company.”

Life is short and preciousFinally — Life is short and precious.

It is tempting to think that there will always be enough time later to create the memories that will strengthen our children, or cement our friendships, or nourish our marriages — but, in truth, none of us is given any more or less time each day, and none of us is given the assurance of tomorrow. So, each day is an exercise in values-based budgeting. Who and what gets your time and attention; who and what does not?

Decide, now, to give the best of yourselves to one another and not the leftovers. Do not delay in naming what you need from this life and expect from each other. Do not let your desire for other people’s approval or fear of their opinions keep you from creating the life you long to live. Know your story. Know why you’re making this decision. Understand that change is hard, that this marriage will be hard, but that if you commit to it and to each other, you will be treated to wonder and miracles and blessings too many to count.

Erika Matt wedding

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Sermons

Homily: The Wedding of Evan Holmes & Stasia Lizanich

Texts: Ephesians 4:1-3  +  “One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII,” by Pablo Neruda  +  “I Want Both of Us,” by Hafez

The poet Hafez describes the Great Love we are gathered here to celebrate with an image so absolutely fitting for this moment that I want to read the first line again:

I want both of us to start talking about this Great Love as if You, I, and the Sun were all married and living in a tiny room.

Logan Square Comfort Station: The site of Evan and Stasia's wedding

Logan Square Comfort Station: The site of Evan and Stasia’s wedding

Reading through the order of service for the wedding, and imagining us all hearing those words in this space, my imagination kept catching on that phrase, “a tiny room.” What a tiny room this is, and still large enough to hold you, and your families, and this marriage that has already begun. Isn’t it extraordinary how much life can fit into a tiny room?

Of course size is relative. I grew up in central Iowa, a land of spacious yards and long driveways, thinking I lived in a modest home because there was only one bathroom for the four of us to share in our three bedroom house. But to my sister, who’d spent the first five years of her life as a foster child in a one bedroom apartment with five other people on a military base in Bangkok, Thailand, our home was a palace. She must have thought we were extraordinarily wealthy, which we were, relatively speaking. Size and wealth both being such relative terms.

So it seems that any room might be considered a prison or a palace, and what seems to make the difference is the spirit you choose to cultivate within yourself and the purpose toward which you put that room.

For the apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians from the confines of a prison cell, the tightness of his quarters doesn’t seem able to constrain his purpose.  Recognizing that his audience is composed of people with different backgrounds and different gifts, he encourages them to remember that their differences exist in order to serve the unity of the greater whole to which they belong.  Paul is convinced that, having been united with God through their baptism into Christ Jesus, the purpose of Christian community is now to join God’s eternal work of reconciling the world’s deep divisions and restoring the bond of peace. To accomplish that purpose, he calls the community at Ephesus to cultivate a spirit of humility and gentleness, patience and love.

That kind of unity, the unity that reconciles deep divisions, is the hard and joyful work of marriage — in which a mystical, spiritual reality becomes more real through careful attention to mundane details.  That’s why I love your pairing of Pablo Neruda’s love sonnet with Hafiz’s ode to household labor.  Neruda speaks to the unifying power of love with the kind of poetry we might expect from the Gospel of John as he imagines that in your love “there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close.” But Hafiz draws us the roadmap for getting to that kind of sacred union as he locates the holiness of love in the everyday tasks of life, “helping each other to cook, do the wash, weave and sew, care for our beautiful animals.”

The truth is no matter how large or small your home, no matter how much or how little money you have, marriage is a tiny room. Whether that rooms ends up feeling like a prison or a palace will have everything to do with how you attend to mundane facts of the other’s holy presence in your life. Over and over in the years to come, your marriage will keep you in close quarters with each other’s differences — differences no less profound than the ones that troubled the church in Ephesus, differences no less contentious than the ones that characterize our own neighborhood here in Logan Square. You already know about the differences that drew you to one another, and you are beginning to discover the differences that will challenge you as you make a life with one another, differences that at times will make the bonds of marriage feel tighter than any tiny room. In the face of such deep and abiding difference, the hope of unity rests in your commitment to treating each other and your own selves with great humility, gentleness, and patience so that love can flourish.

IMG_0886Of course it is easy to commend these virtues to you, and perhaps it is easiest of all to commend them to you on your wedding day, when you’re already inclined to believe in and hope for the best in yourselves and one another. The challenge lies in practicing these habits of the heart once the fancy clothes are back in the closet, the flowers have wilted, the photos are in their album on the shelf and the rings have become tarnished. When you begin to count the days since he last did the dishes, or she did the laundry; when you lie awake at night listening to the sound of the other’s breathing, and all it does is keep you awake.

What are the habits, the disciplines, for maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” when those days come, as they inevitably will?

It is my conviction, based on my own faltering experience, that in those moments we find that unity is actually best preserved by remembering the diversity, the difference, that drew us together. In our most difficult moments, when we cannot agree on how the money will be earned, or how it will be spent, or where we will live, or even why we fell in love, the path forward depends on our ability to turn away from our futile hope that our loved one will someday become just a little bit more like us, and to turn instead toward wonder. To wonder who this mysterious other is, this enigma of body and spirit who exists like a plant whose bloom happens inside, out of sight, so that we can only intuit but never conclusively know when they are blossoming.

To give up the confidence of knowing for the humility of wondering is some of the hardest work we will ever do, especially in this world that so deeply trusts and values confidence, intelligence, even belligerence. And we won’t get it right away, in fact, we will go to our graves not having ever gotten it all the way. But if we can be patient with ourselves and one another, if we can be humble about what we know and what we are still learning, if we can treat each other with exceeding gentleness, then we might create the conditions for something beautiful to bloom in the tiny rooms of our own souls and wake to discover that after many meals have been cooked, and clothes washed, and melodies woven and stitched together, and children and elders cared for, that we have figured out how to live together with God in a tiny room that we cherish more than any palace ever built.

This is our hope for your marriage, Evan and Stasia, and for all the rest of ours as well.

Amen.

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Sermons

Homily: The Wedding of Yali Amit & Sara Spoonheim

Texts: Philippians 4:4-9  +  Tractate Baba Bathra (Talmud)

10577706_10152333696171232_2031940635_oI love Sara and Yali!  And I know you feel the same, you love Sara and Yali.  My love for these two is the kind of effusive, shameless love that gets middle-schoolers teased on the playground. My love for these two is the kind of love that compels sophomoric young boys to taunt, “if you love them so much, why don’t you marry them?!”  Well, I am, marrying them, so there.

The reason I love these two so much, the reason I suspect I’m not alone in my adoration, is that Sara and Yali, both together and individually, bring this feeling out in me. When I am with them, I feel more like myself, like the version of me I want to be for the rest of the day. When I’m with them I’m happier, I’m funnier, I’m more animated, I’m more attentive, I’m more generous. In short, I’m more alive. You’ve felt it too, haven’t you?

The quality of aliveness that I’m talking about isn’t an accident.  If I wanted to be really sentimental (as if I haven’t been already), I’d tell you it’s the love between them that evokes this, but that’s not entirely the truth. It’s what they do with their love, not only of each other but of the life they’ve been given.

This couple treats their life like a gift that matters.  Like King Monobaz from the Talmud reading, they invest themselves shrewdly in people and causes that have the potential to change the world. The wealth they are creating is not measured by the size of their home, or the prestige of their job titles, or the value of their combined accounts. It is measured by the communities they have created over a lifetime of action and activism. It is the measured by the scope of the vision they have for a world where poverty is met with generosity, where workers are treated with dignity, and where peace is established on the basis of justice.

To be in the presence of two people for whom the gift of life is understood as best spent tending to the lives of others, neighbors known and unknown, both near and far away, is to stand on sacred ground. I suspect this is what drew them to each other as well, the sense they each have that when they are with each other, they are standing on holy ground. On days like this, when the sky is blue and bright and the air is crisp, as we gather around these two as living signs of the communities that birthed them, that befriended them, that shaped them, that gave their lives purpose and meaning, we can all tell that this ground is holy.

But not all days are like this. Not all skies are blue and not all gatherings are this beautiful. We are not always this beautiful, are we? And sometimes the ground beneath our feet feels like nothing more than mud. Sometimes the person to whom we’ve pledged ourselves feels like nothing more than an obstacle. Sometimes we succumb to the allure of low expectations, the temptation to fail.

The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4) However, he immediately follows his exhortation to joy with encouragement that God’s people be disciplined in their outlook on life:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil. 4:8)

When Paul wrote these words, he was in prison awaiting death because of his commitment to a vision of the world that called for an overthrow of the empire in service to the commonwealth of God. I hear in his advice to others the very real struggle that he himself must have faced as he approached the end of his life.

It is hard work to be hopeful. It is exhausting to keep on behaving as though the world might someday be more than it is today. In our efforts to amend society, in our struggles to reform ourselves, it is so easy to become jaded. Our heartbreak can so easily degrade into resentment.

Our marriages are especially vulnerable. Who better to lash out at than the person who has promised to stay? Who better to neglect than the person who has vowed “from this day onward”?

So we are called to discipline, Yali and Sara and all of us. To set our minds on that which is true and honorable, just and pure, pleasing and commendable. To constantly be looking for what is excellent in one another, not out of some naïve denial of our inevitable flaws, but because we know that what we attend to will flourish. That if we want a more excellent marriage, a more excellent world, then we must commit ourselves to being students of all that is excellent in them.

In this, Yali and Sara, you have picked well. You are each inexhaustible students of creation. In the course of a single day you have been known to ride your bikes down to the lake, to spend hours lost in a book, to gather friends for another incredible meal, to pick up your fiddle or strap on your dancing shoes and practice your crafts. You consistently demonstrate such an awareness of the gift of this life, and you do not squander it.

I love this about you. I love that you are committed to a world made better not only by right politics and right policies, but by rich food and irresistible music and a full-bodied enjoyment of God’s good creation and everything in it. It is the marriage of Nina Simone and South African freedom songs. It is the ability to enjoy the present even as you work for the future, which is as good a definition of marriage as any.

With gratitude that God has given you to each other, and the two of you to all of us.

Amen.

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