Wedding Crashers

October 14, 2018

Series: October 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Hebrews 4:12-16

12Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

14Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Wedding Crashers

          I was in San Francisco for a wedding last weekend and it was a glorious occasion in a beautiful part of the city.  It was an evening wedding, so I brought back my young son to the hotel to be with a sitter between the service and the reception.  Standing out the hotel waiting for a ride, I noticed a man walking toward me on the sidewalk.  Judging by his appearance, I gathered this was someone who lived on the streets.  Rather than walk past me on the sidewalk, he made a wide loop, stepping instead on the street.  I felt uncomfortable, thinking my suit sent the message to him that I didn’t want him near me or maybe my white skin; perhaps it was the part of town we were in.  Somewhere he had gotten the message that people like me didn’t want people like him near.  Once he passed, he stepped back on the sidewalk and went over to a bowl placed near the hotel door.  It was there for dog-walkers.  One at a time he dipped his hands in the dog bowl to cool and wash them, and then he was on his way.

          What a distance there was between the two of us.  The sharpness of that reality crashed right into the wedding experience, not ruining it—we’ve become quite adept at navigating these realities—just making itself known.  Jesus addresses social distance all the time.  In today’s passage from Mark a lawyer approaches him, disingenuously the commentators tell us, looking to show that he lacks nothing in his religious observance.  Almost, as far as Jesus is concerned, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk. 10:21). 

The rich one is disheartened and departs.  The teaching becomes more difficult for the reader who continues:  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 25).  You’ll hear all kinds of interpretations of that line, that “the eye of the needle” was the name for a gate to a city, one a camel needed to bow down in order to enter, or that the camel was a kind of knot that would be difficult to fit through the eye of a needle.  I would caution against such attempts to soften Jesus’ teaching.  I will make no attempt myself.  It is simply, and in my judgment intentionally, a challenging teaching, at least to the relative few in the world who have a lot.  I will suggest, however, this teaching is about more than what at first we might think, and that it’s not about Jesus hating rich people.

We hear Jesus’ words as condemning or damning, but I wonder if they aren’t merely describing a deeper reality, one that in fact contrasts two realities.  Here’s what I mean by that—maybe Jesus isn’t rooting for a reality so much as pointing one out.  Take Jesus’s words at face value.  He is pointing out that is something about being rich that gets in the way of inhabiting God’s kingdom.  If “kingdom” language gets in the way for you, use “reign” or “realm” of God. 

What gets in the way?  As one commentator puts it, “A disciple cannot be a rich person with all the accompanying complex socioeconomic ties and relationships.”[1] The obligations and expectations of the rich person, the number of other people and allegiances to whom they are beholden encumber them in such a way as to prevent their ability to truly follow Jesus into God’s way of being, God’s realm.  Two ways of ordering relationships are at odds, and it has to do with power.  As another commentator elaborates, “Jesus is asking the man to divest himself of all his goods once and for all and so deprive himself of the role of benefactor.”[2]  A benefactor may be charitable, but in doing so the benefactor also reinforces their power over the beneficent, and reinforces the relationship of inequality.  This is the underbelly of what we call philanthropy, where those with the resources retain disproportionate control over society’s agenda.  Philanthropy, you could say, is profoundly antidemocratic. 

What is the reign of God like?  It is where power functions differently.  Unlike the dominant culture in Jesus’ time, and our own, God’s reign is about connectedness, mutuality, and a trust in natural divine provision not a social construction of scarcity that spawns violence.  You can’t enter God’s reign based on connectedness if you are captive to a system of separateness and hierarchy, and that is where the rich one in the story chooses to remain.  It is where I was as the poor man circumvented me on his way to the dog dish.

It is where people all around Oneil Batchelor lived every day.  Batchelor, an immigrant from Jamaica, was the same age as many of the students at Georgetown where he worked as a janitor.  “There was this space, like ice separating us,” he said of the distance between the students and him.  That distance persisted for close to a decade and then Febim Bellamy, a business student from India broke that ice.  They shared their experiences of being an immigrant.  They talked about politics, history, business, and music.  Bellamy came to Batchelor’s church and met his 6-year-old daughter.  Bellamy said once he truly saw Batchelor, he couldn’t help but see the others, others who were all around him.  There was:

  • The woman who vacuumed the library, Menuna Tackie, from Ghana who studied in her free time for her citizenship test.
  • The cook in the dining hall, Jose Manzanares, who witnessed family members killed in El Salvador, much like our own beloved Jesus who cares for our building here.
  • The dining hall cashier Umberto “Suru” Ripai, who hadn’t seen his family in South Sudan for 45 years.
  • There was the crossing guard on campus, Anthony “Tracey” Smith, who always smiled even when others didn’t smile back. Smith’s father had been killed in a cross-walk, and so he decided to dedicate his life to protecting pedestrians by becoming a crossing guard.  Now, there’s a story of Christian vocation if ever there were one.

Bellamy helped bring to light the stories of these previously invisible people who make Georgetown run.[3]  Bellamy, you might say, had enrolled at Georgetown, but he had matriculated into the reign of God, as he helped to dismantle the barriers between us, just as Jesus did time and time again.

Jesus’ words cut right through our world.  They are meant to.  Hebrews says, “the word of god is…sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).  It also says that the word of God is “living and active,” and there’s the good news, for it is working in the world and it is trying to work in you, in us.  We might feel as though we cannot approach what Jesus is calling us to, but quite the contrary, Hebrews calls us to “approach the throne of grace”—it’s not the seat of condemnation; atop the kingdom of God is a throne of grace— “approach the throne of grace with boldness,”  not because of who you are, but because of who Christ is.  Christ has passed through the heavens on our behalf, is our high priest, and yet is the one who can sympathize with us in our weakness.  Remember, in the gospel stories, Jesus was tested, tempted with power and wealth.

I’m glad Christ can sympathize with my weakness.  Aren’t you?  Can you let yourself rest in the notion that Christ can sympathize with our weaknesses, every one of them?  We’ve been taught that our weaknesses are what separate us from God.  At the height of irony, religious communities have established themselves as the places you join when you overcome your weaknesses, or certainly where you dare not display them, when it is our weaknesses that become a portal and pathway to our connection with God through Christ.  Christians hold to this notion the divine presence is in Christ, the incarnation we call it, precisely because it makes God identifiable, relatable, and approachable.

          Approach is what Hebrews beckons us to do, not bashfully as if we are unsure if we deserve it, but “with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).  Why go tiptoeing to God when you can careen?  You’re not going to receive condemnation for your need, but a portion of grace.  When you acknowledge your need, give it over to God to Jesus, to Spirit—you can pick your term—to the universe, watch what comes back.

          A wedding is a beautiful thing to watch, not because it’s the only kind of love, or even necessarily the best kind of love, but it is one of the clearest symbolic expressions of chosen love in our culture.  I won’t go into the personal lives of the two I saw married this weekend, but I will say it is clear to those of us who know and love them and showed up to bear witness that they need each other.  We’re not talking about neediness, but completeness (my apologies to Jerry McGuire).  It’s the kind of need that says everything is better when the other is there.  You might say, I will say, that these two were each an answer to the other’s prayer.  I know not everyone gets the answer to prayer they want in that area, and maybe that’s why this union felt so powerful.

          It was a Jewish wedding, my first, and as someone who does weddings in another tradition, I was quite interested in the rituals and what they signified.  There’s more than I have time to talk about here—the way they circled each other upon processing, their gathering under the spiritual shelter of the chuppa surrounded by community, and of course the smashing of the glass at the end which single-handedly provided the allure to keep my son up 2 hours past his bed-time.  Perhaps the most moving part, however, came in a chant that was not only sung to us, but which we were invited in sing together.   The words were, “There is enough room for us all.  There is enough room for us all.  There is enough room for us all” (and they repeated it with joy).

          What a bold statement?  What a bold statement to make to this, our world.  There is enough room for all of us, and there is enough joy for all of us.  We don’t have to take.  We don’t have to hoard.  We don’t have to set the price so high only a few can partake.  There is enough. 

It’s not a sappy, sentimental, statement, as we so associate with weddings; it’s a powerful statement. 

It is a bold statement, a declaration of what is true and therefore what is false. 

It is a defiant statement to what we are too often taught in too many ways. 

It is a promising statement, both because it gives hope and because it expresses a commitment to live into sacred reality.

There is no more countercultural, radical, subversive statement one can make, a people can make, than to say of all the available options of how to order life, many of which come with generous advertising budgets and well-funded super-PAC like money, of all the available options of how I will choose to order my life, I choose love.  We choose love.

When we sang that chant, over and over again, something happened to the room, something holy entered that space and began flowing between us and through us, and it hit me that the real wedding crasher was the Spirit of the living God.  Amen.

 [1] The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994), 648.

[2] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina:  The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 2002), 303.