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To whatever extent it is fair to differentiate between “masculine” and “feminine” ways of being in the world, it is almost always the traditionally feminine (cf – nurture, emotional connection, vulnerability) that is far more capable of embodying the kind of discipleship to which Jesus call us. Moreover, the traditionally masculine (cf – authority in leadership, theological/doctrinal writing, dispassionate detachment) is only capable of reflecting or creating Christ like disciples to the extent that the culture in which those words and forces operate is already deeply shaped by and grounded in the community of love and acceptance made possible by the feminine contribution.

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I’m confident one of the greatest growing edges of Christian life and practice is learning how to actually love one another. Basic relationship skills take a backseat to pristine statements about things like God, love, sin, or holiness. If the church is to truly be the place where love is found and healing takes place, far more emphasis is needed on understanding how people actually live and relate to one another. If we are to value the contributions of more than those who write down the words, we have to embody the primacy of relationship and community more than the failed project of modern rationality.

Faith Without Walls: Not in Control

Luke 10:29-37 (The Good Samaritan)

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

I want to start out with a little experiment. Close your eyes – imagine a bright and shiny afternoon. Birds in the air. A nice cool breeze. You see a dad driving down the road with his kids in the back seat. Smiling faces. Enjoying the beautiful day driving with the windows rolled down to feel the air. You can hear them singing your favorite song at the top of their lungs. The dad looks back at the kids for a second, so happy to share this moment with his kids. And as he turns his head back around to face the road … what happens next? Eyes open. How many said he crashes into a pole? Goes off a cliff? T boned by a truck? I’m sure there are lots of yesses out there – and lots of people too embarrassed to admit you thought the same thing.

Brene Brown is one of my favorite authors and researchers into human emotion – she calls this phenomenon catastrophizing. She says that she used to gaze upon her infant child and no matter how much joy and hope she would feel in that moment, her mind would also jump to worst case scenarios. What if the house catches fire tonight? What if a flood washes away the nursery? What if all sorts of horrible things happen? For a while, she felt like she must be a horrible mother because she couldn’t help but think about all these awful possibilities for her precious child. But her experience is far more common than not. The greater our sense of joy and hope in life, the greater the likelihood that we will experience the fear of everything coming crashing down.

In some ways fear is second nature to us. Humans, like most animals, are hardwired to run from danger. Scientists have actually done brain scans to help understand how we respond to various sounds or images. They’ve found that our brains are capable of sensing that something is wrong and initiating a fight, flight, or freeze response before our conscious mind has had a chance to figure out what’s going on. Our bodies can literally start turning to run before our brain knows what’s wrong.

This is an incredibly valuable skill to have … if you are fighting for survival on the plains of the Serengeti. If you see the grass begin to rustle, it’s a good idea to run the other way immediately. You don’t need to pause long enough to analyze whether or not there is a lion waiting to pounce on you. Just run. There is no downside to playing it safe. Of course, the people in this room pretty much never find ourselves on the Serengeti. Those hardwired survival skills don’t do us much good when it’s really just a family member or maybe the lawn guy we hear rustling in the grass.

We almost never need the same capability of split second decision making these days; but it remains a deeply wired part of who we are. Maybe flying down the freeway it comes in handy to have a great reaction time, but the problem arises when we view all of life through that very same self protective system. We have a tendency to look around and subconsciously run everything and every person through that same kind of filter – is this normal or not? Is that person safe or evil?

We often aren’t even conscious of the criteria we’re using to draw the dividing lines. When we have a gut feeling that we shouldn’t trust someone, it’s usually something our brain has noticed but can’t put into words. If you get the feeling that someone really can’t be trusted but can’t say why, it’s usually for the best to go with the feeling. We notice way more than we can put into words. But with this reality comes a responsibility. In a way, we are wired to assume that “not normal” is roughly the same as “evil and dangerous;” and at the same time Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Every time we encounter someone who looks and talks and acts differently than us, there will be a temptation to assume the worst; even if we aren’t consciously aware of why.

But if God is not locked up inside these walls; if God is already present and active in the lives of all God’s children; then we have to put in the work to discern the difference between danger and diversity. If I had to point to one single thing that has held the global Christian church back in the last few decades it might very well be this – we far too often simply equate difference with danger; change is the same thing as evil. I told you two weeks ago, I’m a third generation Aggie and at least a third generation Methodist. I love tradition and I don’t like change; but God is not locked up inside the walls of the way things have always been.

Our life together is better when all God’s children find a seat around the table of grace. Just because someone doesn’t look or think or talk or act like us, doesn’t mean we can simply write them off as an optional part of the family of God. In Jesus’s day, one of the most hated, most offensive, most out of bounds kind of people was the Samaritans. The Samaritans were just close enough to jewish that an outsider might confuse the two, but to the Jewish people of the day, samaritans were radical heretics. Saying Samaritan is the same thing as Jewish is about the same as saying Star Wars is the same as Star Trek. If you don’t know the stories, you might nod along and say they’re pretty much the same. If you’re a fan of either, your blood pressure probably just rose 10 points.

Yet it is a Samaritan who plays the hero in one of the most well known stories of scripture. Jesus was speaking to an almost entirely Jewish audience and he had the gall to make the Samaritan the hero and the Jewish leaders into an example of what not to do. Jesus told the story –

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. This was a treacherous, wilderness road that anyone in the audience would know about. There were winding roads and mountain sides that often provided cover for thieves. The fact that the man was beat up and left for dead would not have surprised anyone. What happened next is what might start a riot.

A priest passed by the man left for dead. Then a levite did the same. I’m sure they had their reasons. Plenty of us might very well wind up doing the same simply because we’d sense something is wrong and be afraid it could be some kind of elaborate set up. We might be busy or distracted or pressed for time. There’s no point in blaming the priest and the levite too much for passing by. The Samaritan’s response is clearly the real point of the story. A Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

This is where Jesus really starts stepping on toes. The samaritan bandaged his wounds, put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The Samaritan paid the stranger’s medical bill and told the innkeeper he’d pay the rest whenever he returned. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ If you paid any attention at all, the answer to Jesus’s question is obvious. The samaritan, the one who showed mercy to the beaten up man left for dead on the side of the road, that’s who the neighbor is.

Jesus said, go and do likewise. Already it should be clear that this is a world upside down kind of challenging call from Jesus. We are so busy that most of us don’t have time to stop and care for the people who need it most. We are so focused on where we’re going that few of us would even notice if there was someone on the side of the road in the first place. We are so fearful that many of us would just assume a hurting stranger was inherently too dangerous to help. And no matter what our individual situation – we all have a lot to learn from this good samaritan… we all could stand to show more mercy and compassion for the people in our day to day lives.

Being this kind of good samaritan is such a catchy image that even random news organizations will use the title. A stranger doing a random act of kindness is often called a good samaritan and is rightly given credit for going out of their way to help someone in need. If you hear this story and find in your heart a desire to act with more compassion and mercy like the good samaritan, then great! That is a calling from God on each of our lives and I would love to help you respond to that call and find more ways to serve.

But I have to also say that taking this lesson from the story; assuming that we just need to be more kind to strangers in need – doesn’t actually push us anywhere near as far as Jesus wants us to go. Be merciful to strangers is a crucial first step and a deeply challenging call in many ways. But it also has a way of assuming a faith behind the comfort of walls. That kind of message lets us be the one in control. It lets us be the one who gets to decide whether or not to help the stranger in need. It lets us be the one who risks nothing by choosing to give up a moment of our time and a bit of our strength and then move on with life as it was before.

Reading the story closely shows that Jesus has something much more challenging in mind. The story comes up because Jesus is asked by a lawyer what we must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked the lawyer what he read in the law. The lawyer said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ So Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ This is where today’s reading picks up. The lawyer has given the right answer – in essence, Love God, Love Neighbor, and you will live. But, the lawyer asks, who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells the story of the good samaritan and leaves no ambiguity about who the neighbor is. The lawyer is taking our place to ask the question we’ve all thought about but don’t want to have to ask. Who is my neighbor, who are the people I am supposed to love? The neighbor is the good samaritan. Which means that we who ask the question are the guy left half dead in the ditch.

This is not just a challenge to be a little more kind. It’s hard to adequately draw the analogy to how offensive Jesus’s message would have been. The samaritans weren’t just annoyingly similar to the Jews. The samaritans were the ones who were polluting the purity of what it meant to be Jewish. They were the ones challenging the Jewish memory of the way things had always been. They had the audacity to say that God was not centered in Jerusalem.

As a nation we’re divided enough that I don’t feel comfortable trying to draw too clear an analogy to the offensive nature of a Samaritan. I’ll simply ask you imagine whoever it is that you see as the root of the problem. Who is it that is polluting what it means to be us? Who is perverting the good, right, and joyful way things ought to be? Who is removing God from the one place God is needed most? Jesus tells us that very person is our neighbor. That person might just be the one who is needed to save our lives. I cannot imagine a more challenging or offensive way for Jesus to make the point about loving a neighbor than the particular story he told.

When we try to love our neighbors from behind the safety of our church walls, we have this way of assuming that we are the ones who have everything the world needs and it is our job to go out and show them what they’ve been missing. We have all the answers, we have all the gifts, we have all the resources, we have all the power, we are in control. And our neighbors can take or leave what we have to offer. We never stop long enough to realize what it means that God isn’t locked up inside these walls. God’s love is bigger than the little boxes we draw.

We aren’t supposed to be the hero of the good samaritan story. We’re supposed to be half dead in the ditch, not in control, dependent on the generosity and gifts of our neighbor to keep us breathing, even if that neighbor is someone we instinctively despise. That is a fundamentally reversed approach to the work of the church. Faith without walls assumes that the gifts of our neighbors are just as valuable for our life together as anything we have to offer to them. Faith without walls assumes that our goal in sending out work teams isn’t just to fix houses; our goal is just as much to encounter the work that God is already doing through the lives of the neighbors we meet.

Faith without walls requires an incredible amount of trust in the Lord. We are not the point or center of God’s story any more than our neighbor who has not yet set foot in this building. Living with that kind of trust – encountering God in the wrong kind of person can be one of the most terrifying things we ever do. Fear so often arises before we even have the chance to form a conscious thought about another person. We see difference and are hard wired to assume it’s a lion on the serengeti. But so much more beauty is possible if we let go of fear and learn to trust.

Trusting in the Lord doesn’t mean that we come to know every right answer and every right strategy for what to do next. Trusting doesn’t mean that we will never doubt again. In fact, the opposite of trust is not doubt. The opposite of trust is control. Control is what happens when fear arises so we hold on tighter and strengthen our grip on the way things have always been inside the safety of our 4 walls. Trust is only possible when we give up control and learn how to accept that the gifts and experiences and hopes of all God’s children are just as valid as our own.

Our life together is better when we love our neighbors, near and far. It is better together when that love is not simply shown in token acts of kindness, but when we start to recognize that our very life depends on bringing the gifts of all God’s children to light. Faith without walls doesn’t lead us to act for others because we are in control. We act because God’s love bridges the gap to our heart and empowers us to do the same for our neighbors.

In a world that is increasingly based on fear of our differences, one of the most profound things we can do is join together in the sacrament of communion. This is a table to which all of God’s children are invited. We are not in control of who God will bring to the table. When someone different shows up it is one of the most human things possible to immediately respond in fear, to pull back, to assert control. Faith without walls requires that we don’t settle for fear and control; that we take the time to learn how to trust in what God is doing; that we hear the words of Jesus, knowing that sometimes it is the very person we hate the most that will be the one to save our life.

We are not the ones in control of the world. We are not the ones who have all the answers or all the gifts or all the power to bring God’s kingdom now. But we are invited to the table of grace where God will show up, where God offers strength for the journey, where all God’s children are made new. God changed everything, not by taking control through a mighty show of power but by giving up his very life to empower new life for us all.

 

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.

Faith Without Walls – Always Start With Why

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.

[MOVIE CLIP]

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.