Faith Without Walls – No More Running

Jonah 4:6-11
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
9 But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ 10Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

God is not locked up inside the walls of the church. God walks by our side and is found even on aisle 5 of our favorite supermarket. What difference does it make to see the world through those eyes? That is the question we’re exploring this week and next. For three weeks, Tony guided and challenged us to go out and meet God in our favorite supermarket type place; to see the people we meet as children of God; to make it a way of life that we expect to find God outside the walls of this building.

Embracing the conviction that God is beyond these walls, I made the argument last week that we must always start with why. Whatever difference it makes to have faith without walls, begins with remembering why we bother to show up in the first place. Why is our faith worthy of our lives? Why should anyone outside these walls care what we have to say? We are here because God’s love is bigger. The sure foundation of God’s love and acceptance is what gives life its shape and meaning. Before we are ANYthing else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough in the love of God.

In some ways, this single claim is the only claim that really makes a difference for our life and future. If we don’t start with why – if we don’t begin with the assurance that we stand on a sure foundation of love, then nothing else we say or do will matter. Speaking or acting from any other starting place is like building a house upon the sand. There is nowhere else to begin… but we also can’t simply stop with the conviction that God loves me. Stopping here has a way of letting us off the hook – of convincing us that me and Jesus is all that matters when in reality God’s love is so much bigger than any one of us.

God loves each and every one of us. God loves each and every part of us. That much is true. There is nothing we can do that will separate us from the love of God poured out and perfected on the cross of Jesus Christ. But God’s love does not end with you and me. God’s love makes us one. One faith, one body, one community, one people. These are not just vaguely spiritual talking points. God gave his very life on the cross so that we may all be one. The more we know and experience the love of God, the more likely we are to offer that kind of love to the people in our lives.

Sallie and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary on July 19th. It was one of those celebrations in which you think to yourself, WOW, it’s been 10 years already? And at the same time, you think, 10 years? It feels like soooooo much longer. But seriously, we have built a life together and it’s hard to look back and remember what life was like before we got together.

We met at the Texas A&M Wesley foundation. I can still remember the first words she ever said to me, “You look just like this guy I know.” Robin Petty, I responded to her great surprise. He’s my cousin. We used to get confused all the time because we looked so much alike. You might be able to guess, by no means is Sallie and my story one of those “love at first sight” whirlwind romance kind of stories. We were friends for quite a while before we had any thought of dating.

What I’ve come to realize over the years is how little it matters that we didn’t have a storybook start to our relationship; and how much it matters that we make each other better versions of ourselves. I was the kid in college who didn’t really know what an emotion was, much less how to feel it in a healthy way. Sallie was the kid who struggled with perfectionism to the point that it was difficult to get things started in the fear that they would never be done well enough.

I’m not about to pretend like we no longer struggle with these and 100 other issues at times, but it is remarkable to think back on how different we are compared to the day we got married. Healthy relationships, healthy love has that effect on us. The true love of a spouse or friend or parent or child makes us a better version of ourselves. It empowers us to love all the people in our lives more fully. It’s a love that never ends with the two of us, but affects everyone around us.

If we stop with the claim that God loves you and me, it’s so easy to wind up with an unhealthy picture of love. Our world is full of unhealthy relationships masquerading around under the label “love.” Movies imply absurd things like ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ Family members might imply damaging things like ‘love means never saying no.’ Abusive partners will try to convince us of things like ‘I only hit because I love’ or ‘if you love me you’ll cut off everyone else and focus only on me.’

Unhealthy love can quickly strip away the best parts of our personalities, it drives us deeper into the unhealthy habits and patterns that we all carry inside. Healthy, Godly love makes us a better version of ourselves. It offers a sure foundation so that we never have to act out of fear or shame; so that we never think we have to earn our way into love. Real love is never earned, it is offered without strings attached and it never stops with you or me.

That’s a lesson some of us only learn the hard way; by living through unhealthy or even abusive relationships. We could probably all tell a personal story or two about unhealthy versions of love and the harm it causes. Knowing the stories doesn’t change the patterns, but it can help us begin to see what healthy love looks like. The stories we tell can be like a light in the darkness – reminding us that God’s love has so much more to offer if we just have eyes to see it. Jonah is one of the oldest and most compelling stories fighting against unhealthy love.

Jonah is one of those stories that most of us know so well that we rarely stop to consider how deep the story cuts. Jonah is a prophet – a spokesperson for God in the world. God calls to Jonah in the same way God almost always calls a prophet. God says qum lake, which means get up and go . The bible uses a specific formula for the calling of prophets – God says, qum lake, get up and go. And the prophet gets up and goes. Jonah follows the same pattern. God says get up and go. So Jonah got up. And went in the exact opposite direction of the call.

Jonah was supposed to go to Nineveh. Instead he went to Tarshish. Nineveh was a wicked and scary place, so Jonah tried his best to run the other way. He got on a boat and sailed in the wrong direction; but God wasn’t through with him yet. God sent a great storm on the sea and the sailors with Jonah cast lots to figure out why the storm came. The lots fell on Jonah who told the sailors to throw him overboard. They did and God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah and carry him to Nineveh. After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah was spit up on the shore.

God called again. Qum lake, get up and go. So Jonah got up and went. He told the wicked sinners of Nineveh to repent and, what do you know, they did so immediately. The king called a fast and in sackcloth and ashes the people begged for forgiveness from God. God forgave the people of the city and decided against any sort of punishment or repercussions.

I’d really love to stop here at the end of chapter 3. We already have the most memorable parts after all. If we stop here we have a slightly tragic hero who battles his fear to be faithful to the call of God. God keeps pushing and eventually Jonah goes and even through this fearful and faulty human, God brings healing to Nineveh and a great many people are saved through Jonah’s actions. That kind of story gives me hope in my own faulty gifts. I struggle plenty with the idea of walking up to strangers and speaking about anything meaningful.

It might surprise some of you to know I’m very much an introvert at heart. I could easily sit locked in my office for weeks on end without human contact and be just fine. I really like the kind of story in which God uses a mighty and powerful hand to work through Jonah even though his fear pushes him to run away from the chance to go and talk to scary strangers. In that story, God will use me even if I shy away from what scares me. And if I run too far, I trust that God will send a big fish to get me back on track.

Unfortunately, there is a chapter 4. Chapter 4 is what takes this from a fun story about confronting our fears and trusting God, and makes it into a warning against unhealthy expressions of love. Chapter 4 is what reminds me how much room I still have to grow. Our scripture reading today comes from this final chapter. After all that has happened, you might think Jonah would be happy. Instead, Jonah tells God “this is exactly why I ran the other way in the first place. I knew you were patient and slow to anger. I knew you’d let them repent. That’s not what I wanted at all.”

Jonah wasn’t afraid of talking to the wicked and evil people of Nineveh. Jonah was afraid that God would love them too. Unhealthy love has a way of keeping us turned in on ourselves. Unhealthy love fears the outsider or anything else that will challenge the status quo. Healthy, godly love empowers us to love others out of the abundance that we’ve experienced through love. All the way back in Genesis chapter 12, we find the fundamental calling that sets our whole story of love and redemption in full motion.

God calls to Abraham, qum lake. Get up and go to the land that I will show you. And Abraham got up and went. God said I will make a great nation of you. I will bless you and by you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. Blessed to be a blessing. Loved so that the world will know love. That is the fundamental calling that has always defined God’s own people. That is why Christ came to live and die. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, that is the truth we need as much as the air we breathe. But real…  healthy… Godly love never ends with us.

Jonah wanted to keep God’s love inside the walls of the neat and tidy boxes he had drawn. The 4 simple chapters of Jonah repeat the pattern that we find in just about every book of the bible. God is constantly faithful. And God’s people constantly fail to live out the kind of love God is. From the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau to the legalism of the Pharisees all the way to our discomfort with change in the church today, we’ve always struggled to remember that love does not insulate us from the world; love compels us out to love our neighbors near and far.

I rather enjoy that message in light of Jonah 1-3. I get to picture faith a bit like the safety of  castle. I am home safe with God and every once in a while I will be called to muster the strength to go out and face the dangers of the world; to share a message of hope to a world in need. Go out and talk, come back and rest. That I can do. But there’s that pesky final chapter we still have to deal with.

That pesky final chapter forces us to see that God isn’t locked up inside the safety of castle walls. God is already outside, already at work, already challenging us to embrace faith without walls. God paved the way for Nineveh to repent and find a new and changed way of life. And for that Jonah throws a fit. Jonah sounds like an obnoxious, spoiled brat. But if I’m being honest, I quite often share that same attitude.

My greater fear isn’t inviting strangers to church. My greater fear is what happens when they say yes. What happens when someone that doesn’t look or act or talk like me wants to join my church family? What if God loving my neighbor isn’t just a nice, spiritual bumper sticker phrase but a challenge to embrace someone new as a member of my own family? New people bring change with them. If you’ve ever experienced a marriage in your immediate family, you know that even the most time honored family traditions will likely be affected to make room.

The most human thing we can do is run from the possibility of change. Faith behind the comfort of walls lets us pretend like we’ve already figured out all the right answers and have everything we need to be as great as God could ever make us. Faith with walls assumes that anyone who wants inside has to be like us first; they have to pass our test before we let them in. But God isn’t locked up inside these walls. God is calling us, just like God called Jonah, to get up and go; to meet God in the lives of the very people who don’t think and talk and act like us.

Faith without walls embraces the change that comes with a healthy kind of love. The truth is, no matter how great we may be already, we’re better when the gifts of all God’s children are brought to light and made to flourish around the table of grace. The more we know God’s love that has no bounds and never ends, the more room we make in our hearts and lives.

Sometimes it takes a trip across the world just to open our eyes to the reality of God’s love and the needs of our own backyard. But sometimes I worry that one time, far away events can be our own version of running to Tarshish. It’s not easy to put in the time and effort to love without walls. It’s even harder when people respond; when it’s not just a 5 minute conversation you’re getting into but you might realize God has already prepared another seat at the family dinner table.

Tragically, it can take a natural disaster to stop us from running right back to our comfort zone. As awful as Harvey has been for the area, the one good thing it brought was a reminder of our deep need for one another. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the stories I’ve heard about the work you’re doing to invest in the lives of our neighbors. You have embraced the challenge to not just run outside the walls of the church when you feel like it; you’ve been working on actually taking down the walls that keep us focused on safety and fear and comfort. You’ve already begun changing missions from a buzzword about a fun trip and instead you’ve started developing a missional approach to life and ministry. That’s one of the main reasons I was so excited to come onboard.

We worship a God who is so much bigger than the walls of our tiny little boxes. We worship a God who calls us out upon the waters and enables us to stand. We worship a God who put the weight of the world in his outstretched hands so that we would know the power of real, authentic, empowering, everlasting love. Healthy, godly love makes us better together. It never ends with us, but empowers us to share from the abundance we have been offered.

When we embrace a faith without walls, there is no more running away from what God has set before us. In Christ, there is no need for fear, no place for hiding. There is no pain and hurt, no cause for fighting. There is no more trouble, no more striving. There is no more heartache, only a life that is better together.

As we get back toward the start of the school year, we’ll have a variety of ways to open our hearts and lives to our neighbors. By supporting the general ministry of the church, you’re already supporting our efforts to host almost weekly mission teams and restore our neighbors homes from the damage of Harvey. We’ll also provide opportunities to take a step beyond. Chances to let a child into your heart through mentoring. Chances to welcome a stranger into your small groups through our open house. Chances to embrace our neighbors through community worship and events.

Healthy, godly love leads to faith without walls. Faith without walls means no more running from the chance to make God’s love more than just a buzzword. God loves each and every one of us. God loves each and every part of us. But that love does not end with you and me. It ends with all God’s children experiencing the abundance of life together. Embrace God’s call to seek a faith without walls.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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