Six Weddings and a Funeral for My Arrogant Discipleship
“One midnight hospital vigil, one funeral, one new job, one dead mouse under the kitchen sink smelling up the whole church, one brave parishioner kind enough to deal with said mouse, one interview with the paper, one never-ending church directory project concluded, two sermons written…and six weddings. A week in the insane and fabulous life of being a priest.”
That’s what I posted on Facebook last night thinking over the adventure of the last seven days.
Last Monday when I looked over my calendar and across the expanse of the week ahead, I could never have imagined everything that would transpire.
I thought it would be relatively quiet, organizing everything I need to arrange before I go on vacation, making sure the wheels of the parish will continue to turn while I’m gone.
Little did I know that in one short week I would have some of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my ministry thus far, and learn that I was completely wrong about my own role in them.
It all started on Wednesday afternoon. The day had already been full.
I had coffee with a Methodist colleague in Shelbyville, then went over to St. Luke’s.
I walked in the door and something smelled hideous, I mean, just stomach-churningly awful.
A parishioner, Denise Rodenhuis, arrived about the same time I did to do some gardening work on the church grounds, and you all know Denise, she’s not about to let a foul-smelling mystery like this go unsolved.
So she was the one to track down the neatly caught in a mousetrap but already significantly ripe mouse under the kitchen sink.
Once my squealing died down, she nobly offered to dispose of him and clean up the aftermath in some hope of dispelling the smell.
Then another parishioner arrived to work on replacing the dead bulbs in the fire exit sign for which we had been cited by the Shelbyville Fire Department.
Then a parishioner called my cell phone in crisis because her husband was out of town and her car was broken down at work and she needed help.
Then the Wednesday afternoon ladies Bible study arrived.
Meanwhile, the church land line phone is ringing roughly every three minutes, but every time we pick it up, all we get is an electronic beep accompanied by clicks and hisses.
I’m starting to wonder how I’m going to manage the planning for the funeral I have to do the next day when I haven’t even spoken to the funeral home, but so far, this is a normal level of crazy in a typical day of parish ministry.
In between talking with Denise about the ongoing de-mousing, trying to arrange a ride for my stranded parishioner, and telling the Bible study ladies to just take five minutes to visit with each other, I’d be right with them and we’d get started, I missed a call on my cell phone that went straight to voicemail.
I listened to the message, and it was Paula calling to tell me the ruling had come striking down the ban on same-sex marriages, she and Robin were headed over to the courthouse right away, and could I join them?
We had talked about this ahead of time, knowing that a ruling might come, but I wasn’t expecting it that day.
I had already asked the Bible study ladies if we could meet for a half hour instead of an hour because I was planning to come over to Franklin to work on the funeral planning.
My first thought was, “Wow! This is awesome!”
My second thought was, “I think the bishop has some restrictions on using the same-sex blessing liturgy, and I could get in trouble for this.”
And my third thought was, “Forget the regs, my parishioners need me. If I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. God is giving me this opportunity and I’m not wasting it. Where are my keys?”
So I hit the road to Franklin and the courthouse.
And oh, how beautiful it was to see the joy on Robin’s and Paula’s faces.
We stood there in the courthouse basement, Carol and Marti standing there in support as their witnesses, and how could anything have been more right, more true, more full of the Holy Spirit, more an expression of God’s will, than this marriage?
I felt so keenly the honor and the privilege it was to share this moment with these women whom I love so dearly, and to be the vessel through which God’s grace flows to place the sacramental seal on their love.
That moment in and of itself would have made it a day to remember, but then Tammy and Jane, the couple who had gotten their license right before Robin and Paula, said, “Can you marry us too?”
It didn’t even cross my mind to say no. “Of course!” I said.
And Robin and Paula served as their witnesses.
Then Myra and Sharon came in and said, “Can you help us too?”
The tide of grace just kept building and building, Vicki and Joyce, Troy and Joshua, Beth and Ruth Anne, each serving as witnesses in support of the next couple.
And I simply couldn’t believe that God was allowing me to participate in this outpouring of exuberant love undergirded by deep commitment.
No one was wearing a tux or a gown.
People had arrived from a day at the office, mowing the lawn, taking the kids swimming.
But all of them knew that this was the moment for which they had waited for years and years, and they seized it with joy.
As I stood out on the courthouse lawn, watching these couples fight back tears as they made their vows, I realized I had gotten the gospel for this Sunday all wrong.
Jesus talks in our gospel today about welcoming, and we think of ourselves as a welcoming church.
It is important to us to draw a distinction between ourselves and what we would consider unwelcoming churches, churches who would condemn and exclude people for their sexual orientation, for their gender identity, for their aspirations to ordination.
And so we’re used to using the metaphor of hospitality.
But the metaphor of hospitality is actually problematic.
Why? Because it places the church in a position of power.
When we use language of hospitality and welcoming people in, we’re implying that we’ve got it all figured out, that we’re on the inside and they’re on the outside, that they’re in a place that is lacking and they need to come into our domain, where we’ll show them how they really should be living.
Do you see how divisive that is?
Hospitality can be a good concept, we see it throughout the Bible, but as it exists in the church right now, it is virtually entirely unexamined and one-sided, and we need to do some thinking about that.
I finally understood after my experiences this week that Jesus figured out the problem with the power imbalance in the hospitality metaphor long before I did.
Consider our gospel today. I have been reading it for years as, “Listen, guys, make sure you welcome people. Welcome prophets and marginalized folks and kids and give them cups of cold water.”
I was once again placing myself in the position of power, the position of being rich with resources and grace that I would generously give away and thereby earn the right to pat myself on the back.
That’s not what it says at all.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples and he says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
We, the disciples, are the ones being welcomed, not doing the welcoming ourselves.
That puts a whole different slant on the concept of being church.
We’re not allowed to sit in our beautiful nave and our well-established ministries and our comfortable mindsets and wait for people to come to us or even reach out to people from our safe and controlled environment.
We don’t get to do the welcoming, because we no longer get to hold on to our power.
We have to be welcomed by others.
And oh, what a scary thought.
That means we have to go outside, outside the church, outside our familiar community, outside ourselves.
Remember when Jesus sent the disciples out two by two?
He told them to take no bag, no belt, no money for their purse.
True discipleship is a frighteningly vulnerable state of mind and way of life.
We have to abandon our place of safety and power, thus abandoning our ability to welcome anyone to anything, and we have to trust that strangers will welcome us, where we can then share with each other as equals and friends.
This is exactly what happened to me at the courthouse on Wednesday.
I wasn’t at the church. I was operating outside the familiar and comfortable rules.
I thought I was welcoming people into the church by performing these marriages for these couples, but that was completely wrong.
These couples were inviting and welcoming me into their lives.
They had such profound courage and trust and vulnerability, that they would welcome me, a total stranger, into one of the most important moments of their lives, courage and trust and vulnerability that I could only hope to emulate in my walk as a disciple.
They reached out and invited me into the most intimate space of their relationship, of their hearts, of their shared history, of their family—me, who represented the church, an institution that has done far, far more to harm and persecute and isolate them and their love than it has ever done to support them.
It brought and still brings tears to my eyes.
“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” Jesus says today.
I wasn’t the prophet in this situation, these couples were the prophets.
They had been proclaiming the truth of their love, the value of their love, for years and years, striking out for the future while the rest of society and the church lagged behind.
And they have received a prophet’s reward.
A prophet’s reward is persecution in their own time, and in the future, recognition of the truth they have proclaimed all along.
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward,” Jesus says.
I wasn’t the one out on that courthouse lawn giving anyone a cup of water.
These couples were giving me a cup of cold water, a rich, refreshing drink of grace and discovery and opening of my eyes, a profound gift of love and trust.
And I was a little one, so small in my understanding of what my role was as a priest and a disciple.
And so I did six weddings this week, and I actually did two funerals, one for our parishioner Margaret Emerson, and one for my own arrogance and bad theology.
Like Margaret will be resurrected, I know my pride and arrogance will be resurrected again and again, and I can only give thanks for the grace of God who makes their death holy, God who places me in these situations where I get a glimpse of the light.
The salvation I need the most is salvation from my own ego, and God’s light and truth, light and truth shining through people like the couples I married on Wednesday, cuts through my hollow superiority like a knife.
Never have I understood more how necessary death is to resurrection, and never have I been more grateful.
I am humbled and awed by the experience I had on Wednesday, and I can never thank these families enough for letting me be a part of it.
These couples had built lives of love together that weathered everything from the mundane chores of family living to crises of illness and death, when no one else recognized their commitment.
Then they welcomed me and they welcomed the church into that sacred space and asked for a blessing of it.
I was invited by them onto holy ground, brought to a place of having to confront my own self-congratulatory posturing about what I was doing, and remade in my understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Who exactly blessed whom out on that courthouse lawn on Wednesday afternoon?
Perhaps we blessed each other.
Perhaps that is what Jesus meant all along.
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