John 17:20-23 – ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
We are here today because God’s love is bigger. Bigger than all our fears and failures. Bigger than the limitations of our lives and relationships. Bigger than anything we could ever imagine. God breaks down the walls between us all and MAKES… LOVE…POSSIBLE. We live and move and have our being in the strength of God’s love each day. That’s why we gather to worship. That’s why we go out to serve. Before we are ANYthing else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough in the love of God.
There is not a single more important starting point for my first chance to preach here in Cypress than this fundamental conviction. We are here because God’s love is bigger. I’m excited to finally have the chance to preach here in Cypress. We found out about the move just before Easter, so it was about 3 months of anticipation before the moving truck showed up and then another couple of weeks getting settled before finally showing up for worship and fellowship at the church. My wife Sallie and I are thrilled to finally be immersed in the life of our new church. I want to say thank you to each and every one of you who has made us feel so welcome and at home.
When Pastor Tony invited me to do a three week sermon series starting today, I knew immediately where I needed to start. We live in a world in which far more often than not, we have no idea why we do what we do, beyond maybe the desire to be happy for one more day. Our world is in many ways designed to keep us distracted from ever asking the most important questions about our lives and our future – there are enough things to keep us busy so that we rarely have enough time to stop and rest. There are enough things to buy so that we rarely have enough resources to stop and be content. There is enough brokenness in the world so that we rarely have enough trust to reach out and ask for our own needs to be met.
But God’s love is bigger. Before we are ANYthing else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough in the love of God. That’s why we come here to worship. That’s why we go out to serve. For the last three weeks, Tony has been challenging us all to go out and meet God on aisle 5. We have been given homework to go out to our favorite supermarket type place and look upon our fellow shoppers as children of God. We’ve been asked to recognize that God is not locked up inside the walls of this building – God is already out in the world waiting for us to come alongside.
For the next three weeks we’re going to explore the most obvious next question. Once we have met God on aisle 5, how is our faith challenged and changed? In other words, God is not locked up inside the walls of this church building. What does faith without walls look like?
One of THE biggest reasons we Christians are SO often SO bad at experiencing a faith without walls is that we jump from the command of Jesus to go, straight into practical strategies for success. Jesus said go – so we better offer clear and simple answers to anyone who asks a question; nevermind whether we actually find the answer satisfying. Jesus said go – so we better get our numbers up by doing bigger and better events; nevermind whether those events actually have any point or purpose. Jesus said go – so we we better take a trip to the far corner of the earth; nevermind whether our neighbors across the street are just as loved and adored by God as the village overseas.
We never dwell long enough on the question of why? Why is our faith worthy of our lives? Why should a random person care what I have to say? Beyond the numbers and the budget and event planning, what is our goal in going out beyond the walls? We don’t ask this kind of question nearly enough. And there are some very concrete reasons why – lack of time being the biggest. We don’t have time to sit around and think when there is so much work to be done. Some of us may not feel like we have the right level of experience or the right training or the right skills to offer much toward the conversation. And there is no shame if you cannot right now explore the question why, for whatever practical reason you might hold.
But there is at least one more fundamental reason within all of us, one reason that we so rarely pause for long enough to ask why. A faith without walls pushes us to see that God loves each and every one of us. God loves each and every part of us. That’s why we we are here today. But making that claim touches on some of our most basic fears in life. Fear that I’m not good enough. Fear that I’ll always be alone. Fear that everything I hold dear could be gone in an instant.
That God loves me, gives me something I think I might lose. God loves me, faith tells me. Yeah but, the fear responds, maybe you’re not good enough to keep it. God loves me. Yes, but everyone eventually leaves. God loves me. Yes but I’m going to screw this up just like I did with my marriage or my career or my kids. Fear can be a powerful voice. It feels safer to simply say the words than to dwell long enough to know whether we actually trust the depth of God’s love.
When I was a kid, I was what you might call a bit of a nerd. I was born in Victoria Texas to John and Karan Wester. My only sibling Justin is 3 years older. I don’t actually know what it would mean to have a normal childhood, but I at least always thought of my life as pretty normal. My dad was a power plant engineer and eventually manager. My mom stayed at home with us kids for a while and eventually worked in the church as my youth director before going back into the teaching world. I am at least a third generation United Methodist and a third generation Aggie, which mostly just means that I love tradition and don’t like change.
But it wasn’t just change that I struggled to deal with growing up. I was something of a nerd. I made good grades and was blessed enough to work straight through high school to college at A&M and onto seminary at Duke Divinity School before becoming Commissioned and finally ordained United Methodist Clergy. I succeeded at every step… but I can still tell you that almost 20 years ago I missed one question on my high school freshman english midterm exam. The cask of amontillado was the short reading. Dramatic irony was the correct answer. Point of view was the answer I chose. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I used to tell the story of my english midterm in the hopes of a few laughs and perhaps to humble brag just a little. More recently, I’ve started to face the fact that I remember that midterm far too clearly for comfort. I remember it because to this day, I still find myself being an unrelenting perfectionist. If I make one tiny mistake, if I fail to meet the expectations of someone I love, I feel like I’ve broken the world. At times, I hide behind a mask of intelligence or self deprecating humor. I do so to hide the fact that I don’t always trust that I am good enough to be loved just as I am.
It is so easy to get caught up in this game that we play. It so hard to confront our deepest fears and failures. Rather than bring those things to the surface and deal with them, we put up walls around our hearts – we stick to the practical – the tried and true sayings – the concrete strategies that let us say and do all the most “Christian” things without ever having to let down the walls.
But if we want to follow the God we meet not just inside the safety of our church, but also on aisle 5, the walls have to come down. If we’re going to build bridges into the life of our community, the walls have to come down first. If we’re going to live out our very first core value and Be in Authentic Relationships, the walls have to come down.
In John 17, we find Jesus offering an extended prayer to the Father shortly before his death and resurrection. Jesus is praying about the horrifying events that are about to come. He is praying for his disciples and for everyone that will hear of God through them; praying that the truth and the glory of God would be fulfilled and complete. John is not at all the easiest gospel author to read, but he is revealing the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son through this prayer. And John is zeroing in on the reason Christ came to earth. Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
“That they may all be one.” No six words better express why Jesus came to live and die and rise for us all. We get wrapped up in our favorite catch phrases and pet projects and in the way things have always been. Humans love clarity. We love the feeling that we’ve got God all figured out and we know exactly what to expect from here on out. But at the end of the day, God’s love is bigger than any of the boxes we like to place God in. God’s love is stronger than death itself. Christ came so that we may all be one.
There is no room in the oneness of God for us to put up walls and hide who we really are, from God or one another. If we are to be one body, one faith, one community, there is no room for walls at all. We have to learn how to take the risk of letting others in.
I told the 930 service about my favorite Disney princess during children’s time on my first Sunday. Christie had the kids ask a few getting to know you questions and I said Moana was my favorite, but we didn’t get into why. On some level, it is just a great and enjoyable movie. But it also beautifully illustrates a deep truth about who we are and how we live. Moana is by no means a “Christian” movie at all, but it conveys at least one aspect of the gospel message more powerfully than I’ve seen it anywhere else.
I don’t know if you have to give spoiler alerts for movies more than a year and a half old, but this is your fair warning for spoilers ahead. Moana is the princess of an island people. She grows up hearing the legend of Maui, the demigod who stole the heart of Te Fiti and with it the power of creation and life itself. Maui was immediately struck down by Te Ka, a monster of earth and fire. The heart was lost, Maui was banished on an island, and without Te Fiti’s heart, death and darkness spread across the world.
Most of the movie follows the epic journey of Moana. She is determined to stop the spread of death and darkness so she sets out to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti. Eventually, she joins forces with Maui and the two fight all sorts of evil monsters and villains on their quest to return the heart to its rightful place. In the climactic scene, the two are confronted by the scariest, most dangerous, most powerful villain of them all – Te Ka, the very same monster of fire who initially defeated Maui and largely set the whole story in motion.
I want to share that final scene with you now. Moana has found a way around the monster Te Ka and has just set foot on the island of Te Fiti. She found the heart, traveled the world, defeated monster after monster, and is finally just a short climb away from restoring Te Fiti’s heart.
A woman wrote about watching this climactic scene for the first time. She was sexually abused as a child and was only beginning to try to work through the trauma she had suffered. Her therapist told her that she often simply checked out and numbed herself because she was far too terrified to feel her feelings. Reflecting on this scene she wrote:
I see my pain as a monster of fire. I am so afraid of it. I want to stay far, far away. But it is a part of me. I have had to work so hard to get back to that place. To walk toward the fire, instead of running away. Back to that four-year-old little girl. To tell her that what happened to her does not change who she is. To sit in that pain for the first time in 27 years. I cannot turn away. I must approach the monster, touch its face, and tell it the truth. May I be as brave as Moana as I face what is part of me, but does not define me.
You are not defined by your darkest hour. You are greater than what has been stolen
from you. It is never too late to heal. It is never too late to make a fresh start. It is never
too late to have your heart restored.
Getting down beneath the surface; seeing and admitting our fears and failures; feeling the pain of trauma or loneliness or wondering if we are good enough – that’s one of the most terrifying things to do in life. Sometimes it feels like there is a fire monster just below the surface and letting anyone close enough to see it will only result in disaster. But that is exactly why God came to live and die and be raised to new life.
Beneath it all; before we are anything else we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. Before sin enters the picture, before fear and failure rear their ugly heads; we are beloved children of God – wonderfully made, relentlessly pursued. If we don’t first experience the love that makes us one, we can’t possibly hope to let down the walls of our hearts; to build bridges into the lives of our neighbors and our community; to find the power and the joy of a faith without walls.
We are here today because God’s love is bigger. Bigger than all our fears and failures. Bigger than the limitations of our lives and relationships. Bigger than anything we could ever imagine. God breaks down the walls between us all and MAKES… LOVE…POSSIBLE. As Moana approaches the fire monster in that final scene she sings:
I have crossed the horizon to find you. I know your name. They have stolen the heart from inside you. But this does not define you. This is not who you are. You know who you are.
Through the cross of Christ God says once and for all, I am yours. You are mine.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.