Faith Stories: Forgive

3/13/19

Luke 23:34a – Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’

Isaiah 64:1-9
64O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Do you really believe it when we say that God is big enough and strong enough and loves enough to forgive us for anything we could ever do? I don’t just mean are you willing to say the words or does it sound like the right set of beliefs for a Christian to have. I mean do you feel forgiveness? Do you know with all that you are that we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough no matter what we may have done or thought or said – no matter how often we fall short or turn away or fall into the same old habits that we’ve been struggling with for years. Do you really expect that God has and will forgive?

That’s a hard question to answer. On one hand I know the answer should be yes. I’ve read the stories, I’ve grown up in church, I’ve dedicated my life to leading a community called church – a community that is defined more than anything else by that very conviction. The church is the body of people that has not other reason for existing than the reality that the forgiveness of God through Christ sets all things right and makes all things new. Church is the invitation to take part in God’s mission to make it real – to spread love and forgiveness across the globe. If the church is not making the love and forgiveness of God real and present in the world, it has no reason to exist.

This is the life that I have chosen – to lead God’s people to experience that love and forgiveness that is our very reason to be here in the first place. And yet, I struggle all the time with the expectation that God really is that strong – that God’s love really goes that deep – that God really does set all things right and take every mistake I make or tragedy I face and reshape it in the palm of His hands to make something beautiful and new. I know it is true that God forgives, renews, brings healing and wholeness – but that doesn’t make it easy to feel forgiven and whole all the time. I’m just another person on the same journey together with you…

And one of the most common fears people have is the constant nagging in the back of our heads saying that we’re not enough – not smart enough, not accomplished enough, not thin enough, not nice enough, not generous enough, not musical enough, not tall enough, on and on down the list I could go. I’ll bet just about all of us could name at least one or two ways we feel like we aren’t something enough. And those stories we tell ourselves so easily take control of our expectations.

When we play the tapes over and over in our heads, I’m not enough, I’m not enough, I’m not enough, we often start to make that mantra a reality. It’s easier to fail on purpose than to risk the possibility that we might not actually succeed. It’s simpler to just make the story a part of who we are than it is to try and prove to the world that we’re more than our past mistakes. The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt says I made a mistake. Shame says I am a mistake. Guilt is something that can be forgiven and that can teach us how to live better. Shame is something that colors the very way we see our self in the mirror and shame only tears us down.

As a culture, we’re so good at shame that we rarely leave open the possibility for change or forgiveness. From time to time we see terrible accusations made against beloved public figures and we have no idea what to do with those accusations most of the time. Shame plays a profound role in why those reports so often seem to come out in clusters. Some of it is internal shame for victims – I should have acted differently OR I shouldn’t have put myself in the situation OR I should be stronger than this. Then, the shame game comes from the response toward victims – You should have worn something different! You shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation! You should have quit or left or run! The stigma around being victimized can feel worse than that of abuse itself.

On the flipside, you can tell quite often which of the accused feel the guilt that makes change possible and which do not. Shame may seem like the polar opposite of pride or arrogance, but it’s really more like the flip side of same coin. Shame is the internal arrogance to think you know how bad you are and arrogance is the external desire to shame everyone but yourself. And from certain of the accused, the shame and arrogance are unmistakable. Lashing out and demanding control is so, so often a symptom that there is something inside that we cannot bear to face. It’s easier to pretend that everything is OK than to face the stories our shame wants to tell.

If we are ever going to find health and healing, we have to learn to move beyond the cycle of shame – we have to learn to expect that forgiveness is not just a buzzword, but is a vital part of setting all things right and making all things new. It takes the humility of guilt to be able to admit when we make mistakes and be willing to learn from others how to move on. It takes the willingness to give up control and place our trust and future in the hands of someone else. In short, it takes the vulnerability of love to find healing and wholeness. And vulnerability is just about impossible when we don’t expect to be loved, if we are finally seen for who we are.

The stories told by shame keep us hiding our true self and longing to control every little thing – we should be better than this, we should be wealthier, we should have cleaner homes, we should never be late, we should never have to ask for financial help, we should, we should, we should…the list goes on and on. And by the time we’re done shoulding all over ourselves, we’re too tired and miserable to have anything left for anyone else. Shame tells a destructive story – but there is no shame in love – there is no should.

God’s people have always told a different kind of story – a story not based at all on shame and control, but on forgiveness and love. As we explore the bigger story into which God has invited us throughout the season of Lent, we start tonight with one small piece of that story. The prophet Isaiah lived and wrote in a time of great change and expectation. At the start of the book is a great deal more fear and sadness at the loss of God’s promise with this people. By the end of the book we start to see much more hopeful signs and reminders that God will never abandon God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the people time and time again that God will be faithful no matter how many times they fall short. Isaiah reminds them that God is big enough and strong enough and loves deep enough to overcome all our fears and failures and make us new each day. Prophecy, like the words we read from Isaiah, is often misunderstood as a simple exercise in future telling – a long time ago someone said “x” would happen and a not quite so long time ago “x” did actually happen. There can be some value to that way of thinking, but the vast majority of what makes prophecy so significant is that it teaches us how to see the bigger story that God is writing. Prophecy invites us into God’s bigger story no matter what stories we tell ourselves about the world around us.

In today’s reading, God’s people are offering hopeful words about the power of God to set things right and return to a place of power. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” The passage begins with these words of longing – desiring miraculous and incredible signs from God as a reminder that God is still in control. Just a little further on, we hear Isaiah say “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” God’s people have clearly seen what God is capable of and are longing to know the fullness of that power and presence again.

And then we come to the really remarkable part of the story. Isaiah says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” There is no pretense of righteousness or holiness here. No whitewashing of how far short God’s people have fallen from the life God desires. Isaiah goes on, “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Iniquity is another word for wickedness, evil, sin. The depth of the ways they have fallen short are not hidden from God, but shown in the bright light of day.

And what does Isaiah hope for, but forgiveness – he concludes “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay. You are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” You don’t get to the point of speaking these humble words unless you expect that forgiveness is not only possible, but already a given. It is without shame or arrogance that Isaiah recalls God’s mighty works and prays that God would again forgive their sin and mold them into something beautiful.

The story we tell ourselves is far more often than not the story we will see playing out when we look at the world around. If we tell ourselves a story of shame and tell ourselves that we’re not enough, there will be little chance to find anything but reminders of how far short we fall. But if we learn to see through the eyes of Isaiah – if we learn to see the world through the story of all that God has done for us, then we may begin to find the healing and wholeness God desires for us each and every day.

We don’t have to hide all that we are from God as though we could ever be good enough to earn our way into heaven. Love is never earned. Forgiveness is never in our control. But when we learn to expect the wondrous love of God that makes even the mountains tremble, that is when we will be bold enough to let our deepest self be seen and heard and loved and forgiven.

It’s one of the hardest things in life to really and deeply trust that there is no room for shame in the love of God. I know what to expect from the deep and wide love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. But I still need to be constantly reminded that it is OK to be seen for the broken and imperfect child of God that I am. As we continue to prepare our hearts and minds throughout Lent, expect more from God by worrying less about whether or not you are enough. Through Christ, God offers healing and wholeness and forgiveness. In Christ, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Expect nothing less.

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

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.

Great Expectations – A sermon for the start of #gc2019

2/24/18

Exodus 16:1-5
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’

What do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? That might just be the single most important question that we should explore at every age and stage of life. When expectations aren’t met, we rarely have better answers to give others than dramatically oversimplified sayings. It starts with small things. I remember back in 2010 being so glad to be an adult. I was out of seminary and in a career where I could support myself for the first time in life. It was going to be this pristine time where I had life under control and no longer had to save allowance for months to get what I wanted – and then the house and car broke down in the same month. And my dad was ready with his quite helpful answer – Welcome to adulthood!

He meant it as a joke… mostly… and Sallie and I recovered fine. But too often that simplistic kind of throw your hands in the air answer seems to be about the best we can offer, especially when life isn’t as easy or predictable or simple as we expected. Baby won’t stop crying? That’s parenthood! Boss being a jerk? At least you have a job!

And when we don’t simply shrug our shoulders and say too bad, it’s often because we want to give clear purpose and meaning to the struggles of life. I have to admit, there are few things I personally find less helpful when something bad happens, than for someone to say, “don’t worry, it’s all part of a bigger plan.” Whether or not it is part of plan, it still hurts. And that knowledge does nothing to help. More often than not, I’m better off recognizing how often things just sort of happen. And how present God is in the midst of it all. I know God is present every step of the way and that God’s heart breaks every time any one of ours does. Being held when things are not what I expected makes far more difference than being able to name some sort of master plan or purpose behind them.

The best answer we can offer when little things don’t turn out as we expected is usually the simple gift of presence. We can show up for our loved ones and be willing to sit with the pain or anger or grief or betrayal or whatever else they are feeling. No pithy words needed. No attempt to reveal some greater puzzle being laid out in time. No rush to fix the problem and move on to the next thing. Just the gift of presence and the willingness to hear whatever needs to be said. Patient presence is often the greatest gift we can offer when reality falls short of our expectations.

But still that question remains, what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? A pastor friend of ours told us a story that I will never forget. Unmet expectations nearly derailed his marriage. He had been married for a while at the time and things were going alright as far as he was aware. Then came a Saturday morning that started just like so many others, but eventually changed everything. He was playing video games on the living room TV. She was busy rushing around the house cleaning and getting other chores done.

At some point, the chores came to a halt and she’d had enough. She was angry and gave him a piece of her mind. She was busy doing all the important work around the house and he was lazily playing his pointless games and doing nothing to contribute. That’s the way their first real fight began. He had some choice words to say in response and everything just escalated from there. It turns out, in his family growing up, Saturdays were reserved for doing whatever you wanted. So if she was doing chores, that’s because she wanted to do so and it wasn’t his fault.

In her family growing up, Saturdays were always the day for cleaning and laundry and whatever else needed to get done. She figured he was just being a jerk by making her do everything. We all bring expectations from our childhood, many of which we don’t even realize are unique to the way we were raised. And if we never voice our expectations to the people we love, we’ll almost always wind up fighting over things they may not even know about. Even what it means to fight is dramatically shaped by our expectations.

For my friend telling the story, this first real fight brought him to life. His parents fought all the time growing up and this felt like the first time his marriage was actually real. She, however, was distraught by the whole thing. She was convinced that their marriage was pretty much over. They had both lost their cool. They had yelled and screamed. Her parents had never said a cross word to each other in front of the kids in her whole life. She expected that every married couple was happy enough not to fight and with one real fight all hope was lost.

Of course not all couple fight all the time; his parent’s fighting just gave them plenty of work to do to find forgiveness and healing. And there are no couples who never get upset with each other; her parents just had their fights in private. But we only know what we know and our expectations naturally flow from what we’ve experienced. Being aware of our expectations is one of the single most important skills for learning to cope when life doesn’t live up to them. If my friend and his wife hadn’t figured out their expectations and figured out how to make their own kind of life together, they wouldn’t still be married so many years later. When marriage didn’t live up to their expectations, they had to compromise on the things that don’t matter…  and build on the things that do.

They made the changes that make a marriage. But still that question remains, what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? Sometimes it’s not just a relatively small thing like a broken down car. Sometimes it’s about even more than a marriage. Sometimes everything about your day to day life can change completely. And the weird thing about being human is that change can feel very wrong, even when change is absolutely for the best.

God’s people named Israel were confronted with one of those jarring challenges to their way of life. For them, it was an incredibly positive change that had them questioning everything. Our reading for today finds God’s people on the journey toward Mount Sinai, halfway between slavery in Egypt and the giving of the law. The people complain that they are about to starve and God responds by raining down manna from heaven.

A little background to understand what’s going on – all the way back in chapter 12 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God sets this whole story in motion. God called Abraham to go to the land that God promised to show him. So Abraham left his homeland and went. The rest of the old testament revolves around the promise of this land. Sometimes God’s people are faithfully living in the land. Other times, they are in exile, meaning for one reason or another they are kept far away, unable to know the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Exodus represents one stage of that journey. At the start, God’s people are enslaved in Egypt. By the end, the people are on the verge of entering the land once again. Through mighty signs and wonders, God frees the people from slavery in Egypt. Along the way, God hands down the law at Mount Sinai. The law may not sound all that exciting to our ears. Law sounds like restrictions that we’d rather avoid at all cost. For God’s people, the law was what gave shape and meaning to their lives. It was the reminder that God would never leave them. It was one of the single most important ways for God’s people to feel close to God.

We catch up with this story halfway between that moment of freedom from Egypt and the law being handed down at Sinai. God’s people are complaining in the desert, as they have done multiple times on the trip already. Halfway on the journey, as far from Egypt as they are from Sinai, this is where the people are confronted by the fact that freedom isn’t living up to their expectations. What to do? Keep moving toward the fulfillment of all that God has promised? Or go back to be slaves again in Egypt? The choice should seem obvious. Go forward! Seek the promise!

And yet, for the umpteenth time, we find God’s people complaining instead. Through signs and wonders they’d been brought out of Egypt and through the desert. They’d already been given water from a rock and sustained for weeks. But again they complain. “At least in Egypt we had food to eat. Why did you bring us out to die in the desert?” God’s response is both more beautiful … and more disappointing than you could possibly expect. God says I will rain down manna from heaven each and every day. I will give you precisely what you need to sustain you for the journey until my promise is fulfilled.

This is such a beautiful and intimate moment. God will daily supply the people’s need, like a parent feeding an infant who could not survive otherwise. God gives this free gift of sustenance for the journey and will ensure that nothing can stop his people from arriving at their destination. This is an amazing and beautiful moment!

But I have to say this is not exactly the ideal response I would have hoped for if I’d been on the trip. Ideally, a bus with air conditioning would have pulled up and finished the journey by nightfall. Instead, for the next 40 years, every… single …day… their food for every…single… meal would be mostly tasteless flaky bread-like stuff called manna. It filled their stomach, but had to get old quick. And they walked through the desert over the course of an entire generation, 40 years just to arrive at the doorstep of the promise.

Their journey through the desert was BOTH a great reminder of God’s faithfulness and power, AND a harsh reminder that the journey from here to the promised land is neither easy nor instant. It was a great blessing to be free! But surely nothing like what they expected when they were praying for freedom in Egypt. When their expectations weren’t met, they complained against Moses and against God time and time again.

So we come back to that question – what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? Small change, big change, for better or for worse, it doesn’t really matter. Every change in life, no matter how good and beautiful, comes with the loss of what we previously expected to be the case. When our expectations about tomorrow are not met, there’s always at least some small part of us that has to grieve the loss of those expectations. To live well is to embrace the art of grieving.

I recognize that’s probably a strange thing for a pastor to say. We’re often trained in church to keep the focus on the glory of heaven; to recognize that we are made new in Christ and all is set right; to praise and give thanks for the assurance of salvation because the battle is already won. On some level, that future focused hope and joy is absolutely at the heart of our faith. But life is actually lived in the tension between our expectations for the future and the reality of our present. No matter how joyful and hopeful and positive life is, we can be weighed down by disappointment when what we get is not what we expected. A life of faith requires us to lean into that tension, both maintaining hope in what God has promised to do AND finding joy in the daily bread that we are given.

For us, adopting Hutch has been the clearest experience of this dynamic I can imagine. We brought Hutch home almost three months ago. He is the perfect child and we both love him more than life itself. But 5 years ago when we started trying to get pregnant, we never could have imagined, much less expected that adoption would be how a child would come into our lives. If we didn’t learn how to grieve the loss of what we expected, then we would have never been able to appreciate the incredible blessings of the gifts we actually received.

I suspect that there is no more important lesson for us today as a church and denomination than this. Today begins a called General Conference at which delegates from around the world will try to make decisions that affect the future of our denomination. One of the central divisions facing the church, is that the church and world do not look like the church or the world of our childhoods; and we don’t know what to do with that change. As a 34 year old I can point out a hundred things that are fundamentally different than they were when I grew up. Some big, some small. Some for the better, others for the worse. I can only imagine how much different things are from 30 or even 60 years before that.

As children in the faith, whether we’re 9 months or 90 years old at the time; as children of the faith at some point we each take our first step on the journey to the promised land before us. And I’m willing to bet that for just about all of us the journey winds up feeling much more like wandering in the desert than arriving in the promised land. Change will happen and life won’t be what we expected.

If you find life in the church to be a pristine and perfect embodiment of the love of God, I guarantee you’ve never served on the interior design committee for a new sanctuary. I have. It’s not pretty. It’s just one small reminder that life in the church is not as pretty or perfect as we might have expected. If we don’t learn how to grieve change and imperfection, if we don’t learn the lesson from God’s people on the journey; then we might just wind up doing more harm than good to the church we love. We might do what the helicopter parent does to mold their child’s life into the life they wish they had, no matter what is best for the life of the child.

We are assured that the victory is won in Christ. The joy and hope of salvation are crucial promises that give life to our broken bodies. But change happens. People fall short. If we don’t learn to grieve the reality of unmet expectations, we’ll be miserable along the journey; we’ll be blind to the daily gifts that God rains down. As someone once said, church is often focused on what happens after we die. But at its core, Christianity is about what happens when we learn to truly live. In other words, where we’re going matters, but our entire life is lived on the journey from here to there.

I don’t have any idea what decisions will be made this week if any, but I’d offer one bit of biblical wisdom for the journey ahead. You might expect this will be the moment our denomination finally gets free from the cultural wind and doubles down on our foundation. On the other side, you might expect this will be the moment we break free from ancient rules that should no longer apply. You might expect anything in between or nothing at all to change. But whatever happens, God will still be faithful to His promise, AND our future will not look exactly like you expect. If we don’t learn to grieve the loss of expectations, we’ll never be able to experience the beauty of the daily gifts God will continue to rain down in our life together.

So what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? We have to put in the work to grieve the loss of our expectations. And then learn how to receive the immense blessings of all that God will continue to do. There are signs and foretastes all around of the amazing work God has promised to fulfill. There are a thousand moments a day through which we can be reminded of God’s continued faithfulness – even when all the world seems blind to the good work of God.

In our own lives as well as in the life of the church, our challenge is to trust in the faithfulness of God; to embrace the reality of daily bread; and to remember that there is nothing we can do that would separate us from the love of God. Take joy in the manna along the journey; take joy in the daily blessings that God is offering; and know that the promise of God is assured no matter how far we fall short along the way. Remember that God is with us, we are never alone. And God will be faithful to the very end.

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

All Saints 2018

Revelation 21.1-6
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

God is making all things new! There is no season of life, no experience, no event, no challenge we could face where God is not by our side, working to renew, sustain, and transform our lives and relationships into something beautiful. Revelation might very well be the most misused and misunderstood book of the bible, but if there is one consistent theme throughout, it would be this – God is making all things new. And no matter what we see around us, no matter what tomorrow brings, no matter how helpless or hopeless we might feel at any given moment; God is making all things new. God’s love cannot fail and never ends. These words are trustworthy and true.

Most of the popular stories and retellings about Revelation are fantastical portraits of the end times. They tell stories of war and tragedy and rapture and disease and dramatic events all leading up to God’s triumphal victory. I can’t do justice in a single sermon to all that’s going on in Revelation and I can’t break down all the many problems with how the message is so often portrayed. For today, I will simply challenge you to hear the words of Revelation 21 as a clear reminder of the point that runs throughout the pages of scripture; the point that is made with laser focus as Revelation ends. No matter what we face in every season of life, God is at work; God is faithful; God will be faithful to the end, making all things new. God’s love cannot end and never fails.

I’m not going to argue at all about what Revelation tells us to think about the end times. The more important point is not to get excited about what may or may not happen at an undetermined time in the future. The far more significant message is one of hope for the present moment. The far more significant message is to be overwhelmed by the presence, the faithfulness, the love of God that cannot end and never fails. Because we are invited to love as God first loved us. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. A little over 4 years ago Sallie and I started to experience the true risk of love in a profoundly new way.

I don’t really know why, but for the first 6 or so years of our marriage we didn’t think kids would be in our future. It wasn’t that we didn’t like the idea of kids or being around them…we simply didn’t see parenting as a part of our future. We figured we would be a different kind of mother and father to all the kids in our lives. I’m sure plenty of you know that there is something beautifully simple about getting to be the cool aunt or uncle. You get to play and have fun and spoil the kids with gifts and with love; and when something goes wrong you get to hand the kid back to mom and dad. We knew we’d at least play that role in our churches and families.

I’ll never forget the moment a little over 4 years ago when everything changed. There was no discussion, no grand plan or carefully reasoned argument that changed things. Shortly after our third niece was born, Sallie and I were simply sitting alone, and without any build up or lead in Sallie looked at me and said, “I think we should have a baby.” And I said, “Me too.” And that was pretty much it. We went from contentment with our life to the pursuit of parenthood in about 5 seconds.

In a very real way, the decision to try and get pregnant was the beginning of loving our unborn child. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. For us, it hasn’t been an easy journey. We knew there were some potential medical hurdles that we might face. Sallie was diagnosed with PCOS or Polycystic ovarian syndrome. Plenty of women with PCOS get pregnant, but it is often a difficult journey to do so.

For the first 8 months or so, our doctor recommended a focus on getting healthy to give ourselves the best possible shot. So we did. For the next 8 months or so we started trying on our own just to see if there was any chance that it might happen easily and naturally. It did not. After that, it was on to the fertility specialist. There was still no reason why we couldn’t get pregnant, but the doctor told us it was best for us to go straight to the specialist given the PCOS diagnosis.

We each did some tests to be sure nothing else was wrong and then came about 5 months of working with the fertility doctor. We had at least weekly appointments for much of that time. When I say we, of course, I almost exclusively mean Sallie. I didn’t actually do anything more than drive and support her throughout the process. They monitored everything and prescribed medication and did everything possible to help us conceive in the old fashioned way. Still nothing happened.

Along the way, every failed pregnancy test hurt just a little bit more. It reminded us that we still had that much longer to wait to meet this child. Our child. The child who didn’t even exist, but was already loved more than words could express. Every time we tried and every moment we failed made us realize that we loved our unborn child just a little bit more. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do.

About 2 and a half years ago, we got the worst call we’ve ever received from a doctor. We had just finished our final monitored cycle and we were still…not…pregnant. There was no reason why we couldn’t get pregnant, but it hadn’t worked. IVF was the next and only real option with the fertility specialist. By this point we were so crushed by the endless cycles of hope and disappointment that we needed a few weeks to decide what to do next. We didn’t and still don’t have any problem with or objection to IVF, we just had to decide what was right for us.

It was at a gathering of clergy spouses where Sallie had another moment of clarity that changed everything for us. We had talked from the time we were dating about the possibility of one day fostering or adopting a child. We have always felt it is our calling to be a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. We still don’t know exactly what that will mean for our future, but that’s always at the very least meant that we are more than capable of welcoming and loving a child who does not share our DNA.

The clergy spouses prayed with Sallie for peace and for strength to figure out what came next. I was waiting in the car to drive her home when their meeting finished and as soon as she got in, Sallie looked at me just the way she had 2 years before and said, “I think we should adopt.” And in that moment I had the exact same sense of peace and resolve that I’d had 2 years before. I said, “Me too.” Our love for our unborn child simply shifted from a biological child to one that will join our family through adoption instead.

Without skipping a beat, our love for the child who did not even exist, grew that much more. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. If you’ve never adopted a child, the most important thing you probably need to know is that the process is one big roller coaster ride of emotion, excitement, and waiting. We did our initial application in the Summer of 2016 and were placed on a wait list. Our agency tries not to keep too many prospective parents on the list of those ready to adopt.

Once you get off the initial wait list, the vetting process is extensive and the cost is enormous, so we appreciated their reasoning even though we hated waiting. We were told to anticipate a full year or two at that stage, but in the spring of 2017 we got the call to move forward. I won’t bore you with all the details, but just a few months and a few hundred questions about everything we’ve ever done and everyone we’ve ever met and everything we’ve ever thought about parenting later, we were approved.

Generally, the way our adoption agency works, you provide a basic profile sheet. You then get a call when a mother is shown profiles around her third trimester and she decides she wants to meet and learn more about you. It is, however, possible to get a call that a baby has already been born and is in need of a home. So we were both on the edge of our seat, ready to go at a moment’s notice, and also trying to prepare to wait for what might feel like an eternity. Every day and week and month that passed brought with it the feeling that we still had no idea who this child would be, but we loved him all the more. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do.

A little over two months ago, we finally got the call we were waiting for. It was a Monday when we found out a mother had entered the program and was ready to look at profiles. The agency was supposed to meet with her Friday, so we were preparing to find out something in a week or so. Thursday morning I found out the meeting was cancelled, but they were emailing profiles. Thursday at 4:45, I got a call that mom liked our profile and wanted to meet us on Saturday for a meal in San Antonio. So we dropped all our plans and wound up meeting for lunch. About 15 minutes after lunch we found out she picked us and that in as little as 8 weeks we might bring a baby home.

It only took 6 days to go from wondering if anything was ever really going to happen to being chosen for adoption. Talk about a whirlwind of a week. Just over 4 years after realizing that we wanted a child; after 4 years of our love growing for this unknown child who didn’t yet exist…we finally knew he was on the way. To say we already loved him doesn’t even begin to express what was growing inside of us. And to love is most risky thing we can possibly do.

On October 19th at 9:01pm, Hutchinson Kyle was born. 7lbs. 21inches. There is a fear in plenty of people considering adoption that they will struggle to attach to the child in the way they would to a biological child. In the process of learning about adoption, we were reassured along the way that we would fall in love with our child over time. Many new parents can relate no matter how their baby was added to the family. Several have told me it was just a few hours after arriving home that they looked at their child and thought “OK, kid, it’s been fun. Where are you parents? When are they coming to pick you up?” The process of a child expressing a need and us being able to meet that need is at the heart of how attachment happens and love grows. Feeding, clothing, holding, changing, loving.   

I don’t know if it was just the path we took to finally meet Hutch, but we didn’t have the problem we were warned about. We were warned to expect that we might not feel the love on day one. That is totally normal. We were completely unprepared for how it actually felt to hold Hutch for the first time. Sallie would tell you she felt it in her body the moment she held him in her arms. Every ounce of love that had been building in our hearts hit us like a ton of bricks. No words could possibly express what it was like to finally hold our child in our arms.

That is the moment in my life that more than anything else expresses what it means to say that God makes all things new. All the hope and disappointment, all the effort and the failure, all the ups and downs, all the doctors and the paperwork later – all of it led to this moment. I could say that it was all part of some divine plan. I could pretend like the path didn’t really hurt because of how it turned out. But doing so would be running from the truth.

God does not ask us to put on a brave face or to hide from the trials we encounter. God invites us to experience real, authentic, risky love. God invites us to love in the way God first loved us. Instead of ruling from a distance or orchestrating some grand plan in the background, God came and lived by our side. God chose to experience all that makes us human. God gave His very life to make all things new. God loved us with abandon. And to love is most risky thing we can possibly do.

We got to spend most of that first Saturday taking turns holding Hutch at the hospital. It was an experience we’ll never forget. But now we’re back to the waiting game again. I won’t go into specifics, but the legal situation means that we have to wait at least 31 days before we know if we’ll actually get to bring Hutch home. There is a chance, that day may never come. Throughout the process of adoption, we’ve always known that nothing is final until it’s final. That is part of the roller coaster. We told ourselves we would not get too attached before we had assurance. That goal ended the second we held Hutch in our arms.

In reality, no matter what we tell ourselves about what love is or how it works, to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. To love is to open ourselves up to the possibility of loss. To truly love is to give up control of all that we are and trust in the hope of our future. On this All Saints Day, we celebrate the lives of all the people who took the risk to love us and make us what we are. We remember those whom we have dared to love and lost. The hope we have in this celebration of their lives is that they each now rest in the arms of the Lord; the one who makes all things new. They are now seated at the great banquet table of grace and love. At the table of grace we find the abundance of God’s love that cannot end and never fails.

At the table of grace, we find a tangible, concrete reminder that there is nothing we can face that God has not already faced before. In every season of life, in every joy and challenge, no matter what tomorrow brings; God is with us, we are never alone. In the face of every long wait and every challenge, is the assurance that God’s love remains steadfast. God took the risk to love us with abandon. And God invites us to love one another in the way that God first loved us.

I can say with absolute assurance that if something happens and we never get to bring Hutch home, it will crush us more than anything we’ve faced thus far. I could try to sugar coat it, but I’d be flat out lying. The hope we hold on to is that God does not plan for our pain or desire to test us. But God does make all things new. If the worst happens, God will be by our side. God’s love cannot end and will never fail. And we will still be invited to risk loving others in the way God first loved us; to risk loving in the way we have been loved by the saints who have gone before us; to risk loving in the way that makes all things new.

John 3:14 Christianity

A life of faith is truly lived when we refuse the glass bottom bridges and look right into the face of what terrifies us most – we are not in control of our lives and our world; we aren’t strong enough or smart enough or faithful enough to fix it all. But even when the storms of life are raging, God invites us to boldly step out and walk upon the water.

God invites to look over the edge, without a net, and learn to trust in the Lord. Look upon the cross of Christ, look right into that sign of all our fears and failures, and live! For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

John 3:14-21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

As we get older, something happens that enables our brains to start saying “Hey, jumping off this roof into the pool is a REALLY stupid idea.” The younger we are, the more invincible we usually feel. In college, I helped lead a week long mountain biking camp in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. It was me, the guy in charge who knew what he was doing, and 4 junior high boys – out on the trails, up and down the mountain side, 8 hours a day, for a whole week. I can assure you, I had a much healthier fear of injury than any of the junior high boys.

The climax of the week came when I followed the group down a 1 foot wide trail that dumped us out onto the paved road. The last 10 feet was about as steep a hill as I’d ever been on and the trail made an ever so slight turn to the right as it met the ditch on the side of the road. One by one our leader went down, then each of the 4 boys. I brought up the rear to ensure no one got hurt. I took my turn, riding the back break the whole time, down the last 10 feet, to the small jog to right where the trail met the roadside ditch. And somehow I didn’t make the right.

I’m not exactly sure what happened next, but as I reached the height of my jump, staring straight ahead into the blue sky above, no longer attached to my bike……. I remember thinking for just a split second – It’s OK. I had a good run. 20 years was a good life. For the record, I landed flat on my back, arms flailed out and not trying to break the fall, which was the best possible outcome. Nothing broke, and I was able to get right back on the bike and finish out the week. But that was a defining point in my life – after that moment,  I never again had trouble understanding why so many adults had such a healthy fear of doing stupid stuff.

In high school, I remember multiple rock climbing trips and rappelling walls. Rappelling is where you stand on the edge of a mountain or a tall tower, rope and harness attached, and let yourself fall backwards, often straight down, with just the rope in your hand to keep it from being a free fall. It was so awesome in high school. And my feet are tingling right now just talking about it. My father in law has had a healthy fear of heights at least since I’ve known him. In elevators with a glass wall, he always stares straight ahead at the metal doors. I used to tease him about it, but the older I get, the more I understand.

Gazing over the edge is a morbid curiosity for me now – I feel the fear inside, but can’t help wanting to look. The desire to look over the edge of the cliff, or the hotel railing, is at least exhilarating, and sometimes crosses the line into terrifying. There are countless tourist attractions that play on this tension inside of us. Glass bottom bridges at the Grand canyon. Observatories on the roof of the tallest buildings in the world. Amusement park rides. All giving the illusion that we are in immense danger, while also being some of the safest structures ever built. We are hard wired to love the excitement of being in danger, while at the same time making sure we are as safe as humanly possible.

We do the same kind of thing with the Christian faith all the time. Faced with the terrifying reality that there are problems in the world and that we cannot quickly solve them all, we make up simple moral codes, clear lines in the sand that act like a glass bottom bridge. We say things like Christians don’t drink, smoke, or cuss. We say being good means never doing all those things that all those other people do. We say just trust in the Lord and life is all sunshine and roses. Or we say what happens on the outside doesn’t matter – faith is just between me and Jesus.

We do just enough to feel like we’re making a difference, just enough to acknowledge that we feel like we’re not good enough, that we feel the need for something more in life. And as long as I’m trying to fix the little things – to be nicer, to stop getting angry, to never lie – as long as I try at these things and repent when I fail, that’s all that is asked of me. But when the problems seem too big, when we don’t have a simple solution or black and white moral requirement beforehand, we stay far away from the edge. What if I’m really not enough? What if pain or struggle or poverty or hunger can’t ever end? What’s the point of facing such huge questions if I may not ever get to an answer?

Rather than face our deepest fears or confront our limitations, we build glass bottom bridges. We get just close enough to the edge to feel like we’re making a difference, but we always keep our safety nets in place, we resist ever facing the dangerous conclusion that we might not know how to fix our lives or world. We offer simple moral guidelines and refuse to look too far beyond ourselves so that we never have to look over the edge, never stare into the reality that we don’t have all the answers and there are no quick fixes to all that’s wrong in the world.

One of my greatest personal fears is that I’m not good enough. I like to be able to fix problems and finish projects. I struggle a great deal when I can’t get my head all the way around the outcome before beginning. Marriage has been a wake-up call and a profound blessing. It has broken me of the lie that I can fix everything in an instant. Just one example – I have this habit of holding on to anything that goes wrong. I’ll beat myself up for it and work and press and try until I finally make things better. I used to think beating myself up means I care; I thought the greatest sign of love is the refusal to cut myself slack until everything is perfect. What I’ve discovered time and again is that I’m really just terrified to give up control.

The tighter I hold on to my mistakes the less I have to look at the reality that I have hurt someone I love. Refusing to let go until I have fixed the problem is my own kind of glass bottom bridge. I would get just close enough to confronting my fear that I’m not good enough that I feel like I’m making progress. But I would never leave open the possibility that I really am not perfect. I could not bear the fact that no matter how hard I try, from time to time I really will hurt even the people I love the most.

Recognizing my need for control has been one of the hardest and most profound blessings of our marriage. I don’t remember the first time it happened, but somewhere along the way I finally had a moment in which I let go of my need to control the outcome of a mistake I made. I usually beat myself up internally so much that I forced Sallie to forgive. But this time I apologized and let go of the outcome. That was the moment I felt what it is like to stare over the edge of the cliff, to face my deepest fear that I am not good enough – and to be caught and held all the more for it.

These are the moments, when there is no glass bridge to pretend like I’m still in control, but I simply look over the edge, look into the heart of my greatest fear that I’m not good enough, and I find Sallie waiting for me there; more than willing to forgive, even if it takes a little time; more than wanting to remind me that I am loved no matter how many times or how far I fall short. These are the moments when everything changes. What makes our marriage work is not that everything goes right. What makes it work is that we are always standing at the edge for each other, ready to catch each other when we fall.

It is terrifying to look over the edge without a net. It feels like all that I am and all that I have is on the line. But looking over the edge is the only way to open ourselves to love and relationship. Giving up control is the only way to know what it feels like to trust. And giving up control is exactly what we are invited to do each time we look upon the cross of Christ.

“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life…For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness is an obscure reference to a scene from the exodus story. God’s people, recently freed from slavery, were complaining as usual. But this time, it seemed like God had enough of their complaining. God sent poisonous serpents among the people and each time someone was bit, they died. God’s people realized their mistake in complaining against Moses and against God and repented. So God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and put it on top of a pole. And when a serpent bit someone, they would look upon the serpent of bronze and live.

There isn’t nearly enough time to explore what we’re supposed to do with a strange story like this. Poisonous serpents sent by God? Looking at a bronze serpent provides healing? What? For now, I’ll simply say this – assuming the bible is a simple, clear, specific set of obvious, spiritual, moral instructions requires that we ignore a huge portion of what actually happens in the bible. The bible is not a pristine, clear cut justification for all that you already think and feel. The bible is way more than that. The bible is our invitation to let go of the white knuckle control we like to hold on our lives; and learn to trust in the Lord.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. The serpent in the wilderness was the very sign of the people’s failure. The serpents were a constant reminder that they had sinned and fallen short, time and time again. They were not good enough, strong enough, holy enough, trusting enough, and the consequences could not be more awful.  The cure was as strange as it was simple. Look upon the serpent and live. Stare right into the face of death, look upon the most terrifying reminder of their fear and failure…. and live. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. That whoever looks upon the cross may have eternal life. Whoever steps right up to the edge of the cliff and stares into the heart of our deepest fears and most shameful failures, receives new life.

The cross of Christ is God’s clear and unmistakable statement that a life of faith is not lived on glass bottom bridges. Faith and life are found when we are willing to come before God and one another, bearing our deepest wounds, admitting our worst mistakes, embracing that we will never be good enough to fix every problem on our own – and for that we are loved all the more.

I wish there was a formula I could offer – maybe a simple prayer to say that would guarantee that you experience the overwhelming power of trust in the Lord. But any formula or words I could offer would just be a glass bottom bridge. Christians are quite often some of the most risk averse people in the world. When life doesn’t fit inside the neat and tidy boxes we’ve drawn, we’re like the dad shaking his head at the stupid things his teenager did on a mountain bike. God invites us to stand at the edge; to give up our need to control the outcome…. to look upon the cross, and take the risk of trusting in the Lord.

A life of faith is truly lived when we refuse the glass bottom bridges and look right into the face of what terrifies us most – we are not in control of our lives and our world. We aren’t strong enough or smart enough or faithful enough to fix it all. But even when the storms of life are raging, God invites us to boldly step out and walk upon the water.

God invites to look over the edge, without a net, and learn to trust in the Lord. Look upon the cross of Christ, look right into that sign of all our fears and failures, and live! For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. In Him, everything will be alright. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.