The greatest failure of the Christian Church is the choice to center rules and beliefs over love and relationship…
…Rules and beliefs can only ever reflect the truth on which our lives are actually built – it never goes the other way around. And if that truth is our fear and anxiety and grief and uncertainty, then anything we say or do will always be built on a foundation of sand. We’ll always find ourselves one short step away from throwing Jesus off a cliff rather than admitting that we’re hurt or afraid. It won’t matter how great the arguments are or how far back the rules go. The words we write on a page or recite in the creeds – the lines we draw or the rules we follow – they will never be more than imperfect attempts to put words to the love and relationship of a God who goes far beyond words.
We see it in Luke when God shattered yet another box in which we tried to contain God’s promise. We see it in Paul’s letter to Corinth as he offers a line by line reminder of how far they fall short. In both scriptures we are reminded that we’re not going to fix all the problems. We don’t get to define the sides and decide the winners and sit back while God follows our most common sense expectation of how God should act next. We do it all the time in countless ways and I’m convinced that thinking we can start with rules and beliefs is the greatest failure of the Christian Church as a whole.
But this is also the good news of our faith. It’s not up to us to figure it out. We don’t have to solve all the problems or make the best arguments or define the right rules or do or think or say anything at 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. This is the sure foundation on which we stand, the reality on which we can build a life of faith and a church for Jesus Christ. Because the greatest of these is love.
Hasselback waffle potatoes. You may not know what they are, but they are the source of my greatest shame. OK, that’s not really true. But there is a story about Hassleback waffle potatoes that I would much rather hide from than share publicly. Unfortunately, the sermon title for today is “No More Hiding.” And I don’t know how to be true to that message if I don’t start by telling you a story about Hassleback waffle potatoes.
The date was Sunday, March 7th, 2021. One week ago today. I was at home with Sallie and Hutch, preparing to make dinner for the family. The adventure began innocently enough as I opened our recipe app and started gathering ingredients. The primary ingredient in Hasselback waffle potatoes is your standard Russet baking potato, peeled, and cut into pieces. Those potato pieces are soaked in butter and garlic and salt and a few other things and then baked in the oven until they are crispy, golden, brown perfection. The secret to their crunchy, buttery goodness – is that each potato piece is cut into a thin rectangle, and then you use a knife to cut a grid pattern all across the surface. That grid allows the buttery, tasty goodness to soak into the potato and give it a crispy, almost fried texture in the oven. That grid is what makes them so delightful. That grid was absent from my Hasselback waffle potatoes. But none of that is the embarrassing part.
The embarrassing part comes in at the point in the instructions that say to lay out a chopstick next to the thin potato pieces. You can use the chopstick as a guide for making the grid pattern. The chopstick stops you from accidentally cutting all the way through with your knife… That’s not how I read the instructions. I read that I was supposed to use the chopstick to help cut the potatoes, but not cut them all the way through. And somehow I also missed that they were supposed to be fairly thin squares.
I found myself with little half inch cubes of raw potato, diligently stabbing each one with a chopstick, from at least two different angles. When Sallie saw the finished product on her dinner plate, she immediately knew something had gone terribly wrong. Instead of crunchy, buttery goodness, we had cubes of mushy potato, with two small holes in the side. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought it was a good idea to try and cut a raw potato with a chopstick. Raw potatoes are hard. Chopsticks aren’t made to cut things. I can’t even begin to tell you what I was thinking.
You can probably imagine why I would say that Hasselback waffle potatoes are the source of my greatest shame. Again, it’s not really my greatest shame, but looking back on that moment does force me to ask one very serious question – why didn’t I ask for help? After 10 minutes or so of us both laughing at my absurd choice to stab potatoes with a chopstick, that was the first question Sallie asked me. And it is the question that I have spent most of the last week asking myself.
There’s a level at which I didn’t ask because of stress and exhaustion. Raising a two year old is not for the faint of heart. He was quietly watching TV or playing in the other room while I was cooking. I know in part my brain thought the worst idea would be interrupting a happy moment because who knows what might happen next if he lost focus on what he was doing. But I still could have texted Sallie. Or googled. Or done anything other than stab raw potatoes with a chopstick.
At a deeper level, I have to confess that I occasionally do absurd things because I struggle to embrace the fact that I am not perfect. I like to pretend that I’m smart enough or talented enough to figure out and do anything I put my mind to. I don’t need to ask directions when I can figure it out for myself. I don’t need help when I should be able to solve the puzzle on my own. I can do anything if I think and try hard enough. And that attitude may sound like pride or arrogance, but I can guarantee you 9 times out of 10 it’s my own insecurity. It’s a whole lot easier to pretend I can do anything than it is to admit that I’m only human. It’s easier to say I’m amazing than to let anyone see the fear I carry inside. Which is precisely why it didn’t even occur to me to ask for help. And precisely why I thought it was reasonable to stab raw potatoes with a chopstick.
To be clear, culinary mistakes are not going to make or break my self esteem. But all those insecurities and fears underneath the surface just might. The most frustrating part is that the more we push down and suppress and try to hide insecurity and fear, the more powerful they become. And the more powerful they become, the more likely we are to do absurd things.
Thinking back, I can vividly remember moments when those very same fears were running the show. As long as I’m telling embarrassing stories today, I might as well share one more. I didn’t date at all before college, but I did develop a few major crushes. I almost always played it cool, which is to say I was so terrified that I almost never shared my feelings with anyone. None of that is the embarrassing part.
The embarrassing part is remembering one of the few times when I did share my heart. It was sometime in high school when I decided my best option was to sit down and hand write a letter, complete with poetry, to express the depth of my feelings for a good friend. I don’t think we had even spent a moment alone together or said a word to each other without other friends present. But I wrote that letter…poem included…stamped it, and put it in the mail. An eternity later, she wrote back. As you might have guessed, we stayed friends.
I may not have learned much about dating before college, but I will offer this one tidbit, free of charge today – confessing your love for someone out of the blue, via poetry and the postal service is great for movie plots… and extremely unlikely to work out in real life. It would have been far better to start by asking her on a date or at least having a one on one conversation about SOMEthing, really a conversation about ANYthing before bearing the profound depths of my heart in a multi page, handwritten letter through the mail.
I know there were other options that would have made for a better starting point, but what I remember more than the letter was the fear. The thought of taking a more reasonable step was crippling. To look her in the eye and hear “no” felt like the most devastating outcome I could imagine. So for a long time I said and did nothing. And the more I held back, the more I felt like everything was at stake. So I hid my feelings even more. And the more I hid, the more afraid I was that she would confirm my fear that I’m not good enough or worthy enough to be loved. Obviously I know now that no single person could ever define my worth or lovability. But my teenage brain wasn’t developed enough to understand it back then. And to this day I still struggle to feel it at times. I don’t remember what finally did it, but at some point the pressure of hiding was so strong that sending the letter seemed like the best option.
Hiding from our fears and insecurities leads us to do absurd things. If we’re self aware enough to see it and strong enough to admit it, I’ll bet we can all name a few of the things we’ve done to avoid feeling things we’d rather hide. A midlife crisis might be a distraction from grief over what we thought life was going to be. That constant fight we keep having with a friend or spouse is a way of avoiding the fact that we feel unloved and unappreciated. A character from a TV show I used to watch flew to Yemen to avoid having to admit he wanted to break up with a girlfriend.
Today’s Psalm reminds us that people have been hiding from themselves and refusing to deal with their feelings for centuries. Psalm 107 begins by encouraging God’s people to “give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His steadfast love endures forever.” Then it offers illustrations of the absurd things God’s people have done instead of accepting and celebrating the steadfast love of God. Our reading for today offers that beginning call to give thanks and then focuses on one particular illustration from verses 17-22. In verse 17 we read, “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.” I’ll read that again in case you didn’t catch it [READ AGAIN].
People were sick and hurting because of their sinful and broken ways. And how did they respond when they felt pain and affliction? By loathing food of any kind until they drew near to the gates of death. God’s people knew they weren’t perfect and rather than ask for mercy, they starved themselves until they almost died!!! They were so afraid to admit fault, so afraid to be seen as imperfect, so afraid to stop hiding what they knew they’d done wrong that they brought themselves to death’s door. Hiding from our fears and insecurities leads us to do absurd things.
In truth, humans have done absurd things instead of dealing with our feelings since the very beginning. Adam and Eve were created in and for paradise. Yet they were afraid and thought they could hide from God and pretend they had not done the one and only thing God told them not to do. Some of God’s people wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt when all they had to do was ask God for water to drink. A little later, those same people built a golden calf to worship rather than ask God for a reminder of God’s power and presence. Ananias and Saphira were struck dead for trying to hide from their community. Zacchaeus hid in a tree instead of just walking up to Jesus.
Fast forward out of the bible, you can find King Henry the 8th creating the Church of England because he was so terrified that he wouldn’t have a son to carry on his legacy. Alexander Hamilton, and yes I do know this because of the broadway play, published a pamphlet detailing how he cheated on his wife because he was afraid people would think he stole money. Fear of change and losing power led our ancestors to allow slavery in a country that declared all men are created equal. And those same fears led later generations to create “separate but equal” institutions that were anything but. And those same fears still keep us, as a nation, from knowing how to acknowledge, much less resolve, the brokenness left behind by those systems. We do absurd, contradictory, harmful things when we can’t face our fear and insecurity.
In our Psalm, it was when God’s people were at their lowest – when they were “near to the gates of death” – it was only then that they finally cried out to the Lord. And God did what God has done every time we cry out. God saved them from their distress. God healed them. God delivered them from destruction. The more we push down and suppress and try to hide insecurity and fear, the more powerful they become. And the more powerful they become, the more likely we are to do absurd things. Finding an outlet for those feelings is the only path to healing.
A few days after the Hasselback waffle potato incident, I was finally able to admit to Sallie all the weight that I had been carrying. The weight came from assuming I can and should be smart enough to solve all the world’s problems – even in the midst of a once in a generation pandemic, even just a few weeks after the trauma of the winter storm, even while national politics seem so hopelessly broken, even with a toddler who has suddenly stopped falling asleep at night, even while trying to lead a church through a challenging season of discernment with no pre-packaged solutions.
Even with all that’s been happening, I felt sure on some level that I could and should be that smart. Pretending I can do it all lets me hide the anxiety and fear that tell me I’m not enough. Pretending I can do it all also led me to do something absurd rather than admit that I’m not smart enough to do it all on my own.
When I was finally able to name the weight I’d been carrying, I was finally able to start setting it down. Sallie didn’t have some grand solution or prepared speech to get me through it. She simply held me. She let me cry. She reminded me that she loves me and will continue to do so no matter what. And when I finally stopped hiding from my fear and insecurities, they finally started releasing their grip on me.
People often say that marriage is meant to be a reflection of God’s love for us. Whatever anyone else might mean by that, the only thing I’m absolutely, completely sure is true; is that marriage is meant to create the space where we are seen, where we are vulnerable, where we feel safe enough to name the most intimate parts of ourselves that we so desperately hide from the world; and to be loved all the more for it.
So often, simply finding the words and the space to name our feelings gives us an enormous amount of power to get unstuck and start to move forward. Bringing the actual contents of our hearts into the light, refusing to hide it no matter how embarrassing or scary or anything else, letting someone we love see deep into who we actually are – is in itself a profound source of healing and change.
Being seen… and known… and loved by God is the starting point of every change worth making in our world. Through the grace of our God there is no reason to hide. We have nothing to prove, no test to pass, no possible way to separate ourselves from the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. 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.
Today, we are invited to give thanks for the steadfast love of our God. We are invited to celebrate the fact that God’s love endures forever.
God’s love endures when we pretend like we have it all under control AND it endures when we admit that we’re struggling.
God’s love endures when we are productive and joyful and feel like we’re doing exactly what we were put on this earth to do AND God’s love endures when we make the same mistakes and fall into the same old habits that we’ve tried to leave behind a thousand times.
God’s love endures through all seasons, in all places, for all time. AND yes, God’s love endures even if we’re so desperate to hide our insecurities that we mail off a love letter, stab a raw potato with a chopstick, or do any of the thousand other absurd things that people have been doing from the beginning of time.
Today, we give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. There is no reason to hide.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Hear this, all who live. Come gather together, receive what sorrow gives.” This opening line might just be one of the most beautifully offensive lines we could hear in a song. The song was written based on the opening verses of the book of Joel. These words beautifully illustrate a profoundly important call to mourn well. I don’t know of a less American, a less modern Christian, a less in tune with the way we’re usually told to do things call than this. But, the entire book of Joel is written to express this one significant calling that we so often miss. God’s people are called to mourn well, because doing the work of mourning is life giving.
“Hear this, all who live. Come gather together, receive what sorrow gives.” One of the greatest blessings I receive as a pastor, is the invitation to walk with families through some of the most difficult moments of their lives. As weird as it may be to say, doing funerals is one of my favorite job requirements. To prepare for a funeral, the most important thing I do is simply listen to the stories of someone’s life. In talking about the loss of a father, a sister, a child, or a friend, I am usually told more real and significant stories in 15 minutes than I’d get in an entire lifetime of small talk. There is something so beautiful about simply sharing the stories of the people in our lives who have deeply impacted and shaped who we are.
In those moments, when I have the chance to sit and speak with loved ones, I’m given the profound gift of sharing in the work of mourning. It is life giving to tell the stories of the people who have written so much of our story. But outside those moments, I find that we rarely do the work of mourning well. No one ever really teaches us how to mourn well, if at all. Usually, we push to go one of two ways – pretend it doesn’t hurt or pretend it didn’t happen.
To pretend it doesn’t hurt, we have a well developed language for minimizing pain. There are all sorts of little sayings we might offer – “at least they’re in a better place.” “It’s good because they aren’t hurting anymore.” “It was just their time to go and it’s all part of the plan.” Whatever truth there may be in these sayings, I find them just as dangerous as they are helpful. It is comforting to know a loved one is no longer suffering, to know they have found the healing arms of the Lord. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. And the more we latch onto the comforting sayings, the more we risk simply burying the pain of loss that needs to be expressed.
To pretend it didn’t happen is usually a much simpler process. We simply don’t talk about the person we’ve lost at all. To mention their name or acknowledge the loss is too painful to risk. Occasionally, it is actually stated that we don’t talk about them. Far more often, we proactively self censor so as not to make someone else sad. If we don’t bring it up, the logic goes, then it doesn’t have to hurt anymore. The problem with either strategy is that grief doesn’t resolve that way.
We live in a world that so often expects us to put a clock on grief. It is implied, if not outright stated, that we are supposed to be able to move forward and get over our sadness in some absurdly short amount of time. But if we are grieving the loss of spouse, a parent, a child – of someone who means the world to us – that grief may be a part of us for the rest of our life. There is no ‘acceptable’ time to get over a significant loss. If you have ever felt shame about how long it has taken to grieve a loss, I want you to hear very clearly that there is nothing more normal or human than going through the ups and downs of grief. It takes most people at least a year just to begin to accept a new normal, and there is no timeline on how fast anyone has to go.
Masking the pain with happy language or refusing to say anything at all will only bury the wounds beneath the surface. Grief will come to the surface, whether we acknowledge its existence or not. Grief may come out as anger or fear or the inability to focus on anything or anyone in front of us. Grief often bubbles back up on birthdays or anniversary dates or holidays. Grief comes up at our favorite places, while eating our favorite meals, while doing our favorite activities. The process of mourning is a necessary part of healing from the wounds of grief and that process takes time. To reach out for help and learn how to heal from loss may be the most essential thing we can do in life.
Because it is not just the death of a loved one that causes the pain of loss. Any time we lose hold of normalcy or an expected future, grief is not far behind. Loss of a job, a family move, losing trust in a close friend, kids going to college, even something as normal for students as moving from one grade to the next… so many experiences in life create the pain of loss. Very rarely are we taught the gift of how to mourn loss well. But to do the work of mourning is life giving, because the grief that comes with loss may be a part of us forever.
That reality may be the simplest way to understand the purpose of the odd beginning to the book of Joel. “Hear this!” Joel says. “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” This is very clearly a rejection of the “it didn’t happen” strategy. The very first call of Joel is to tell the story. To speak about what happened. To remind generation after generation about the reality that was faced.
Joel continues by saying what happened- “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” What happened was a very devastating, very painful experience of loss. 4 different types of locusts are named as the villains in this story. Thanks to pesticides, crop protection measures, and the simple fact that almost none of us grow our own food we almost never have to worry that a swarm of locusts will come along and devour our supply of food. In the time of Joel, a plague of locusts was an unexpected and unstoppable force. There was almost nothing more terrifying or devastating that could have happened to God’s people in that day and time.
Joel describes that very devastation in stark terms. Describing the locust invasion, Joel says, “a nation has invaded my land, powerful and innumerable; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vines, and splintered my fig trees; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches have turned white.” Joel even goes on to say in chapter 2 – “out in front of the locusts the land is like the garden of Eden. But after them it is a desolate wilderness. Nothing escapes them.” I can’t imagine a more clear rejection of the “it didn’t hurt” strategy.
Locusts would have been more devastating and destructive than every hurricane and flood we’ve seen in these last few years. Locusts would have threatened life itself for countless men and women. From front to back, Joel is exploring this cataclysmic kind of event. He tells God’s people to grieve, to mourn, to lament…to remember. Joel clearly considers it a gift to the next generations to remember and tell the story of this devastating event. There may not be a more odd and beautifully offensive message in all of scripture. Gone are any attempts at pretending this didn’t happen or this didn’t hurt. There is no sugar coating, no pretending, no getting around the incredible pain of loss felt by God’s people when locusts came and destroyed every bit of food they expected to harvest.
“Hear this, all who live. Come gather together, receive what sorrow gives.” As strange as this message may seem, it is born out of a conviction at the heart of the Christian life. At the heart of our faith is a single story that we remember and tell more than any other. It is the story of our God who came to live by our side and be one of us and show us how to love one another. But it is also a story of devastation, a story that cannot be told without a cross, a story that we remember and tell every time we gather around the communion table. Because it was at that table that God offered the promise of new life through death itself.
It is a story we remember and tell because it is the most essential reminder of who we are as children of God. God could have chosen to be the untouchable Lord above all things. Instead God chose to have His heart broken to mend every scar we bear and heal every wound we cause. In the cross of Christ we find that there is no pain we could feel, no depth we could reach, no challenge we could face where God has not already gone before. We gather and tell the story of our crucified Lord, in part, because it reminds us that every time we grieve, God grieves with us.
Perhaps the single most healing part of the grieving process is being able to tell our part of the story – how we have been affected, what we fear we are losing, how our life will never be the same – and to find ourselves embraced by another child of God. In finding the community in which to tell our stories, in all their raw emotion and reality, we begin to receive the gift that sorrow brings; we begin to find the embrace of the love that knows no bounds and never ends.
Telling our stories helps us recognize that the people we’ve lost are forever a part of our story. We begin to see how inseparable the pain of loss is from the beauty of life together. To pretend it didn’t happen or pretend it didn’t hurt is to deny that those we have loved and lost have made us who we are; it is to deny the ways our loved ones will always live on in us.
No matter what the locusts of our lives may be trying to take away, God is always faithful and will always be by our side. We are always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, by all the men and women who have gone before us, by the people who make us what we are and show us a love that is stronger than death. And we are always invited to tell this story. It is this very story we tell today on All Saints Sunday. It is a story of love and loss, a story of joy and grief, a story that finds its completion in the table of grace that is set before us.
On this all saints’ Sunday, we gather together to receive what sorrow gives. What sorrow gives is the reminder that we would not be who we are without the men and women who have gone before us. What sorrow gives is a celebration for that of the faithful saints which lives and grows in each of us. What sorrow gives is the embrace of the community around us that will continue building on their legacy, even long after we’re all gone.
The story of the faithful saints, the story of the people we mourn today, this is our story. So hear this! The Lord our God is by our side. Hear this! The faithful saints we celebrate today will live and grow in each of us. Hear this! We are invited to remember and tell the stories of the people who have made us what we are. And today we give thanks that our story finds completion in the hands of the one who came to live our life, to die our death, and to raise us up to everlasting life. We gather to tell our story in all its high and lows, in all its joy and sorrow; to tell our story in celebration of all the saints, in thanksgiving for the foundation of God’s love on which we stand.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. I want to start by sharing the story of a photo to illustrate this profoundly important point.
First, a very close up crop of the photo below – looks like a potted plant. Some small pink flowers, plenty of green behind so probably not taken in the dead of winter. Not much else all that worth saying about it unless maybe you’re a botanist and could name a species and maybe then guess a location.
We zoom out. Below you can see the potted plant on the far right hand side, it hasn’t changed at all. Now we see a group of 5 people who look like they’re probably friends. They’re sitting in front of a body of water – so maybe it’s a park. Based on the clothes, my suspicion is right that it’s at least not a cold winter day. Overall it seems like a pleasant and enjoyable setting for a chat with friends.
We zoom out one more time. I have to imagine the smoke in the background, rising from the New York skyline is a fairly unforgettable image for many of us. The photo was taken on September 11th, 2001. This photo appeared in publications shortly after that day and sparked national outrage. “How could a group of people so casually sit and relax when one of the worst terrorist attacks in history was going on in the background?”
What can’t be captured in the photo itself is what was actually in the minds and hearts of the group pictured. If we could zoom out to that level, we’d see what they shared in interviews after the event. They said they couldn’t believe their eyes either. They said they were in a moment of shock and panic. They weren’t relaxed or enjoying themselves at all. They were trying to process a tragedy that would have profound implications for their lives and ours.
It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. So many times in life, it happens like it does with the story this photo tells…the different ways of describing what is happening aren’t exactly right or wrong per se. They simply do the best they can with the information available. The more we zoom out, the more we know. The more we know, the more we have a full picture of what happened. But the great challenge in life is that people always disagree about what pieces of information actually count and whose voices are worth hearing. And even if we agreed on what we’re seeing, we could never be sure that we have a full enough picture to really understand what’s happening.
This may seem like a very theoretical exercise, but it is an essential part of understanding our world right now. I’d argue most of our inability to talk to people across our various, present divides comes from our choices about who to listen to and what to accept as true. The details we’re willing to include in the stories we tell, dramatically shape how we live and relate to one another. The vast, vast majority of our actions and decisions aren’t good or evil per se. Most of what we say and do involves a million tiny, often unconscious choices about whose voices are centered… about whose experiences are taken into account… about what our goal is in telling those stories. Where and when we are raised, the communities with which we identify, our life experiences, and so many more factors lead us to radically different conclusions about whose voice is heard and what to do with the stories we hear.
Those choices we make based on the stories we tell are almost never exactly good or evil, never exactly right or wrong choices. But it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. Almost everything you learn and everything you try to do in response can change. Psalm 51 provides a perfect example of how this process changes what an honest prayer of confession is and what it teaches us. We’ll view this story at four different levels.
On a very straightforward reading, we find a powerful offering of prayer from a remorseful heart. Psalm 51 begins – “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” This is the confessional prayer at the heart of a Christian life. Every time we gather we are invited to admit our mistakes knowing that God mends our broken hearts and makes all things new.
The psalm goes on, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” The movement from confession to hope, from admission of guilt to restoration of joy – this might just be the single most consistent cycle in the life of God’s people. Psalm 51 provides beautiful imagery to capture the heart of this very movement. This is, plain and simple, a powerful and honest prayer of regret.
We zoom out. There are subheadings you have probably noticed if you’ve ever opened a Bible. Below are the subheadings in the version I typically use for study. You’ll notice there are three lines before verse 1 begins. The first is psalm 51, simply giving the number of the psalm.
The second says “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon.” The third says, “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” You may or may not know that none of those three lines would have been found in the very earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Original manuscripts were written in Hebrew and didn’t even bother to include spaces between words. The numbering system of chapters and verses was added much later. The second line, “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon” was added when my particular Bible translation was created, probably in the late 1980s. You may find a similar line in your own translation or you may find something totally different or nothing at all in its place. It’s simply a topic marker to help name what various paragraphs and stories are about.
The third line is most interesting for our purpose today. “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This heading is far more ancient, going back at least 2000 years or more. These headings are found in early Bible manuscripts but were not assigned numbers when chapter and verse numbers were added much later. Why that is the case could take weeks to explore. For today the important takeaway is to realize how this heading helps us see the larger picture. Psalm 51 is not meant as a generic prayer of confession; it is meant to show us the heart of David, this man after God’s own heart, just after he was confronted about his most shameful act.
David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and she had become pregnant. Then, rather than owning his mistake, David attempted a cover up. And when that failed, he had Bathsheba’s husband, named Uriah, killed. Nathan confronted David about his shameful conduct and exposed the errors and/or crimes David had committed. This is the context of the heartfelt prayer of confession that we read in Psalm 51. It’s about like zooming out from the potted plant to the level of people in the park. What we find doesn’t fundamentally change, but there is a whole new level of clarity offered about just how bad the sins were… and about just how deep and powerful the love of God can go to heal our deepest wounds. This powerful prayer is seen to be a profound act of humility by one of the most powerful of God’s servants.
We zoom out again. One of the difficult things to recognize when we read scripture is how deeply shaped the stories are by culture and authority. The stories we read are told by the people with some level of power and influence. The stories usually center the experiences and voices of the few most powerful or influential people involved. That claim isn’t a knock on scripture, it’s just an important truth to embrace if we want to understand the world of the Bible. A lot begins to change if we’re willing to hear the same stories through the eyes of the secondary characters.
Very little detail is offered about the beginnings of Bathsheba’s story. She is simply seen by David, taken to the king’s house, and only speaks her first words through a messenger when she discovers later that she is pregnant. There’s nothing in the story to imply that adultery is actually the right word. David, as king, has complete authority over her life. The prophets had warned God’s people that this would be the case when they begged God to have a king. The prophets said, “when you’re a king, you can do anything you want. Grab the women you want, send the sons off to war.” But God’s people still begged for a king. And the warning of the prophets came true.
Only one of the participants here had any desire or say in what happened. To hear the prayer of Psalm 51 in light of the power dynamics at play is to hear a very different kind of prayer. I’m honestly not sure what we’re supposed to do with a line like, “Against you alone oh Lord, have I sinned.” I don’t know what to do with it but it sure sounds different in this light. If the only voice we’re willing to hear is the one powerful enough to have his words written down, then we miss an incredibly significant piece of the story. We are clearly still looking at the same picture, it is still a humble prayer of confession from a powerful man; but everything changes when we imagine David’s prayer through Bathsheba’s eyes.
We zoom out one last time. We started with the heartfelt prayer of an unknown person. We saw that it is David’s prayer that we are invited to imagine. We were challenged to imagine that same story through Bathsheba’s eyes. But now we have to step back farther; far enough to see that the effects of David’s actions echo much farther out.
In many ways, Nathan confronting David is a watershed moment in the history of God’s people. There are twists and turns and ups and downs all over the place before and after David. But up until David did what he did, the general trend was in favor of God’s people taking control of the promised land and becoming who they were supposed to be. After David did what he did there is a downhill slide toward defeat. God told David the sword will not depart from you…and it didn’t; all the way up until God’s people were defeated, removed from power, and exiled from the land.
David’s actions set in motion a cascade of events that would dramatically alter the lives of his entire nation for generations. But the effect on one specific individual might just be more heartbreaking to me than all the rest. By the time Nathan confronted David, Bathsheba had conceived and given birth to a child with David. Nathan told David, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” That tiny, innocent baby died just 7 days later.
There are plenty of thorny theological questions raised by this moment. Did God take the child as punishment? What would it say about God if so? Is it better to say God merely let it happen? I don’t have time to adequately address all the follow up questions that are certainly worth asking, but I’ll just say this. Everything I know and have been taught about God tells me that God absolutely does not take away our loved ones or punish us with grief as a response to things we do. The idea that God does so is a way that we try to make sense out of a sometimes senseless world. God’s desire is for us to find hope and healing, never to punish us or cause us pain.
But here’s what I also know to be the case; our actions have consequences far beyond those we might intend. And coming to grips with those consequences can be one of the most complicated, challenging things we do in life. When I look into the eyes of our precious little 9 month old Hutch, I cannot bear the weight of imagining that anything I do will cause him lasting harm. Yet I also know every parent makes plenty of mistakes in their own special way all the time. Believing that we are responsible for the harm of our loved ones can easily lead us into a spiral of shame. It is far easier to simply deny their pain than to accept that something we did could in any way be related.
Our willingness to believe the difficult truth is proportional to how much we can stomach. In other words, when someone’s pain is too much to fix, we’d rather ignore their voice than grapple with a wound that can’t be easily healed. We’d rather tell a different story than face the possibility we did anything wrong. And it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. But brokenness is never healed simply because we deny that part of the story exists. Silencing the voice of pain is about the surest way to cause long term damage.
No matter who intends what or what the actual causation may be, it is vital that we do not close our eyes to the suffering of others. Racism, sexism, classism, and all the other isms of the world are the same kind of complicated, deep seated, daunting problems on a societal level. Some would rather pretend like the problems are fixed; others cannot help but name their pain.
Refusing to look beyond our side of the story, refusing to hear the voices of the powerless, refusing to accept that we are yet sinners in more ways than we know … to do so is to hide from the grace of God. To do so is to seek control rather than forgiveness. It is to do exactly the opposite of what Christ did upon the cross.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the vulnerability of our God. Jesus did not come to tell us that things really aren’t that bad. When people lashed out at God and blamed God for everything, God’s ultimate response was not to shout down our misunderstanding, misrepresenting, mistaken words and actions. In the cross of Christ, God instead humbled himself to our level. God said very clearly, “There is no where you could go that I have not already gone. There is no shame you could feel that I have not already felt. There is no brokenness you could cause that I have not already healed. I feel what you feel and my reckless love is strong enough to overcome it all.”
The vast majority of the decisions we make and the ways that we hurt each other do not mean that one side is good and the other side is evil. Far more often than not, especially in a partisan and divided time like ours, each of us are choosing to value different voices and different parts of the story. These are not exactly good and evil decisions but they dramatically change the way we feel about the people involved and what ought to be done in response. In our quest to heal the wounds of our world, we could all stand to remember how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include.
An honest prayer to God invites us to never run from the things we have done or left undone; it requires that we listen even to the voices that make us question our own self perception; it deeply challenges us not to pretend to be better than we are; it forces us to trust in the one who leaves the 99 just to find us.
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise.” In other words, we are invited to embrace our imperfections, to admit the harm we cause, to listen to the stories of others, and to trust that God’s love goes deeper. To trust that even though we fall short in ways we don’t intend and maybe don’t even know, God’s reckless love is still for us.
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.
We are loved no matter what. Therefore we can bring all that we have and all that we are, we can bring our whole story, even the parts we’d rather hide from the world or deny altogether; we can bring it all to the foot of the cross, knowing that God will wash us whiter than snow; and God will make us new.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’
Two small copper coins. Two small copper coins were all the widow had to give. Two small copper coins would have been quite the remarkable contrast to the beauty, the opulence, the gifts adorning the temple behind her. Two small copper coins. This is not the donation you need to kickstart a capital campaign. This is not the kind of gift that is going to fund ministry for years to come. This is not a donation that the money counters would even notice when they went to collect at the end of the day. And yet Jesus says this nameless widow gave more than all the others.
In this brief encounter outside the temple, we are met by a nameless woman in scripture, who offers a profound witness about the difference God makes in our lives. This nameless woman deeply challenges our most common sense understanding of generosity. I’ll admit, as a pastor and in the middle of a capital campaign, there is certainly a part of me that is a little uncomfortable with her witness. Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all of them.” Two copper coins is worth more than all the gifts of the rich people.
I’ll admit there’s a part of me that thinks, “sure it’s nice, but you can’t keep the lights on if a couple of coins is all you receive.” And there’s a part of me that thinks Jesus clearly never had to worry about making payroll work out on a low giving week. I would imagine that there is a part of each of us that cannot help but associate a much higher dollar amount with “real” generosity. Especially in a nation built on capitalist assumptions and the creation of a kind of wealth that has never before existed in human history; especially here and now it’s only human to nod along with Jesus, while secretly hoping for a few extra zeroes to be tacked on when anyone is generous with us.
Two copper coins. That’s all this nameless woman had to give. And Jesus says she gave more than all the rest. “all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” I don’t know the exact exchange rate for the coins she put in, but it wasn’t much. Lepton is the greek word used for such a coin. A lepton is worth about 1/128th of a denarius. A denarius is worth a day’s wage. So a lepton was worth about 6 minutes of a day’s work. Not nothing, but not much. A lepton is the smallest and least valuable coin she could have given.
To understand why this nameless woman’s generosity is so significant is going to take more than our best common sense approach to money or accounting or exchange rates. Something much deeper is happening in Luke’s gospel. Something much more challenging and hopeful and significant is being shown in the witness of this nameless woman. Through the lens of Jesus, we can’t help but see that generosity is about something much more than just money or things. Generosity is a means of creating community. Generosity is a way to embody the self giving love of our God.
To see this, we start with something generosity is not. Generosity is not giving away the overabundance of stuff that you no longer need and might never have needed in the first place. Don’t hear me wrong, every time Sallie and I move we give away piles and piles of stuff. I’d venture to guess that a majority of us probably couldn’t say the last time we saw, much less used, about half the random junk in our houses. Cleaning out what you don’t need and donating it to a place that will put it to good use is a great thing. It’s just not generosity.
Doing something you need to do that just so happens to help someone else and make you feel better in the process is a win-win all around. But to rise to the level of generosity requires some sense of personal sacrifice, some level of acting for the sake of someone else even when that practice doesn’t benefit you more than the person helped. The rich donors at the temple were the ones who made a show of their giving – no doubt giving huge sums for the sake of recognition or the notoriety that would come. Generosity means putting others’ needs above our wants, not just giving once we have too much.
Next, we find the most straightforward part of this nameless woman’s witness. That part of her witness might simply be called the value of proportional giving. As a church, we’ve talked about and will continue to speak from time to time about proportional giving. Most commonly we talk about proportional giving in terms of a tithe. Tithing is an idea that goes back at least to the very beginning of the biblical story. Tithing to God is found already in Genesis, the very first book of the bible. Tithing means giving to God 10% of what we have been given.
Tithing shows up at various points all throughout scripture and has been an expectation or at least a goal for church members in pretty much all times and locations since the church started. I know how uneasy it can be to talk about money. Especially at times in life when it’s hard to keep up with bills and loan payments and then something breaks that costs $1000 you don’t have… especially in those moments any talk about tithing can feel harsh or judgmental. But part of the freedom and hope within proportional giving is that this is a community gift, not a personal requirement.
We are blessed to lean on one another in community with the expectation that we will all struggle from time to time. And we know that by choice, circumstance, luck, politics, and a thousand other factors outside our control, money isn’t equally distributed; we are only ever asked to give a portion of what we have received. The goal of a community tithing is much less about achieving the exact percentage point and more about trusting what is possible when we all play the role we can.
At the end of the day, we can’t get around talking about proportional financial giving. The Gospel of Luke talks more about money and wealth than prayer, the kingdom of God, or any other spiritual topic you might expect to find. Especially for Luke, our practical choices to support the community of Christ is an absolutely essential part of our witness. Financial support for this community is an essential part of continuing to do the work to which we have been called. There is no more simple, concrete way to show what we value than to see how we spend our money as individuals and as a church.
Here at Cypress UMC, we don’t lay down some sort of punitive requirements that you have to follow or else. If you’re a guest, we hope you see the value in what we’re trying to accomplish and will find some way to support what God is doing here. Our expectation of our members is that you will at least give some percentage of what you have been given, even if that starts out very small. Our hope is that you feel the call to tithe or work towards it. If everyone increased giving by just 1%, it wouldn’t radically change an individual’s lifestyle, but it would radically change what we’re able to do together. Proportional giving is a vital part of Christian community.
Within this reality is a more subtle but equally important lesson. Jesus said, “this woman has put in more than all of them.” Out of her poverty, she has given a gift that is more than all the rich people had to give. Jesus’ point is not just about percentage of income; more than that, we are better when the gifts of all God’s children are brought to light; even those we’re tempted to ignore or devalue.
How often in our quest to be generous do we stop to question our assumptions about what happens when we give? The vast majority of the time, at least for me, my default mindset in ministry is that I who have, am going to give something generous to you, who is in need. On some level, that dynamic is going to be a temptation in every attempt to be generous. We filled this entire room with toys and bikes and an incredible array of presents to give away at Christmas time. In just over a week, we’ll open the doors of our church to be overrun by 750 VBS kids coming to be blessed by an amazing and free week of singing and crafts and games and lessons. This afternoon, we’re sending an amazing group of highschoolers and adults to UM Army where they will put their skills to the test painting, building ramps, and doing anything else they can to serve the people of Liberty.
Each of these acts of generosity is a beautiful and powerful thing. But how often do we pause long enough to remember that all of God’s children are blessed with gifts worth sharing? How often do we find ways to bring to light the gifts of those we think we’re serving? How often could we recognize that the gifts they have to offer might just be more valuable than anything we could give away? Even asking the question is hard. At best, it usually leads to a sentimental notion that we have been blessed by that act of giving. So rarely do we truly recognize that two copper coins could actually be more valuable than anything we could offer.
This reality is most easily seen in the life of Jesus. On this side of the resurrection, after two thousand years of church history and theology writing and all sorts of other influences, we know that what Jesus did was the most significant gift that he could have offered. Jesus gave his life to give new life to each of us. But in that day and time, in that moment when he was doing the one thing that would change everything, in that moment even his closest followers failed to see the value in what was happening.
The disciples, like all God’s people at the time, wanted a new king. They wanted someone to rise up with military might. They wanted someone to rule over Rome. They assumed the way things had always been was the way they would always be and they simply wanted to have more money and power than all the rest. What Jesus did by going to the cross must have felt an awful lot like throwing two copper coins in the offering plate. And yet, Jesus gave a gift that no one knew they needed, and in so doing changed everything.
How often do we overlook the beauty of the gifts we have been offered, just because they don’t look like what we already think we want? In the witness of this nameless woman, we see that we are better together when the gifts of all God’s children are seen and valued; even the gifts we didn’t know we needed.
A final piece of this nameless woman’s witness is worth drawing out. It is something that is presumed within all that I’ve said thus far, but is worth making explicit. If we have nothing, then we have nothing to give. That much should be obvious, but it’s worth sitting with for a moment because it can be so easy to hear Jesus’ words and miss half the point. Jesus says that the woman, “out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” We can hear those words and assume that the real goal should always be to give 110% – to give until it hurts and then keep going. We might see that Jesus gave his very life for us and assume that the point is to make the same sacrifice in any way that we can.
The problem is that Godly generosity is about relationship, not money or things or acts of service. Giving generously is not an end in it’s own right – generosity is only a means to creating the community that God desires for us to know. If we all give until it hurts and then double down to give even more, we’ll eventually just resent one another for failing to carry enough of the weight. Relationship is only born when we experience the mutual growth and trust; when we see generosity that tears down walls and makes us all stronger.
Hurting people hurt people. Healthy people help people. Jesus gave all that he had and all that he was, but he did so out of the abundance of a love that knows no bounds and never ends. He did so to bind all our hearts together in that very love that created life itself. If we don’t care for ourselves, if we don’t come back to the source of life and love, if we just keep giving and giving and giving without any attention to ourselves, then we will burn out, run out, and otherwise have nothing left to give.
Godly generosity is not giving away stuff we didn’t need or want anyway; it involves at least putting others’ needs over our wants. Godly generosity doesn’t rely on dollar figures or magnificent gifts; it relies on giving an amount proportional to what we have been given first. Godly generosity doesn’t simply mean giving what we already think we want; it means bringing the gifts of all God’s children to light. And Godly generosity doesn’t leave us empty; it invites us to come back to the well of love and grace to be renewed time and time again.
It’s only fitting that we explore this profound witness of generosity on Father’s day. Parenting well is one of a handful of endeavors in life that requires a special understanding of generosity. Parenting presents the call to learn how to give generously – to give not for the sake of power and not out of resentment; but to give for the sake of your child. Sometimes that involves giving out of abundance and at times it means giving out of poverty. Even the very best among us, can only do the best we can with what we have been given.
But we gather to worship each week and we build our lives upon the cross of Christ because the source of life itself already gave all. He gave a generous gift we didn’t even know we needed and brought new life for us all. We come to the source of our strength knowing that no matter how far we fall short, no matter how many times we have been let down; here we are met by the one whose generosity knows no limits. Here we find the source and hope for a community in which all our faults and failures are embraced, transformed, and made new.
One nameless woman gave two copper coins. And in so doing, she reminds us of the generosity that God makes possible. The love that binds our hearts together is stronger than death itself. That love is at the heart of a generous life.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
When I arrived at FUMC Texas City, I was a wide eyed young pastor, as ready as I could be to take on my first senior pastor job, with no idea what that actually meant. I was met there by some of the most kind and faithful people I’ve ever known. I want to share just one of their stories with you today. Her name was Audrey. Audrey was in her late eighties when we arrived, but she was still full of life and joy and humor. Audrey came to most of the weekday bible studies we did and was always willing to help in whatever ways she still physically could.
Maybe most of all, I enjoyed that she always called me the vicar. Vicar is what you call the parish priests in the Church of England. Audrey was a war bride. She would tell the story of how she met her husband when he was stationed in England. They fell in love and got married. They feared for her safety there, but his time in country wasn’t over yet. So Audrey loaded onto a ship alone that was headed for America. On their way out into the Atlantic, all the passengers were forced to wear their life vests and hunker down inside. They would come to find out much later that their ship had been chased by a German Uboat for miles.
Thankfully, they made it safely across the Atlantic to New York, where Audrey changed boats to one headed for Galveston Texas. In Galveston, Audrey met her new in laws for the first time ever. They took her in and cared for her like their daughter until Audrey’s husband made it back from the war. Audrey’s husband passed away well before I arrived in Texas City, but she stayed put until shortly after her 90th birthday party. After that point, she moved to an assisted living facility to be closer to one of her children. About 2 years later, she returned to Texas City for good to be buried next to her husband.
When she finally made the decision to move from Texas City after decades of living in the exact same home, it was incredibly difficult to watch her go. We went by her house one day just before she moved so that we could check on how she was doing and how the packing was going. We sat and reminisced over a variety of things and heard a lot about her new place. The most exciting thing for her, or at least for her daughter, was that Audrey’s new place would finally have a dishwasher; after living into her 90s without one. I happened to see this little plaque on the dresser in the room where we were talking – it says “there’s no man like my father… except my grandfather.” It felt pretty accurate as a gift for a future child, so she offered it to me.
I tell the story of Audrey because her story perfectly illustrates the single most difficult thing I experience in being a pastor. Having known Audrey is one of the great treasures of my life in ministry. And having said goodbye to her is one of my deep wounds that will stick with me forever.
I’m finding more and more as I grow into this career that the one and only thing that truly matters is the relationships that are built along the way. Preaching, bible studies, travel, meetings, reading, bar b ques, singing, outreach and on and on and on – all of it is just a means to the only end that matters; just a means toward building relationships, with God and one another; with you here in this room and with our neighbors near and far.
And yet……I cannot help but know that there will come a time when the very best relationships we have built, will be the source of my greatest pain; whether that be because one of us moves, someone dies, or something else radically changes; and change will come. It is no small thing to open your heart enough for it to be broken. It is no small thing to know the outcome going in, and choose to love anyway.
In the book of Job, we encounter a nameless woman who gives witness to this very kind of love. Job is a somewhat strange and unique book of the Bible. Job is a man who is righteous in every way. He had a good life with a wife and kids and property and animals and wealth and everything a man could want. Satan bets God that Job is only so faithful because of his good fortune and God takes the bet. God allows Satan to take away all that Job holds dear, even his own health. It is in the process of losing everything that we encounter the very brief appearance of Job’s wife.
A couple of quick comments are probably worth making before we move forward. Satan is the Hebrew word for adversary. When Job was written, satan was by no means meant to represent the pure manifestation of evil who runs around with a red pitch fork. Most of our images of Satan or the devil or evil come from much later traditions, many of them after the Bible was completed. For today, don’t worry too much about exactly what to do with the idea of God and Satan hanging out and making bets; just try to accept this as the set up to put the storyline in motion.
The second note is that there are lots of questions raised by the storyline itself. Why would God allow this to happen to Job? Can God be fully good if this is what God chose to let happen? Answers will be hinted at as we explore the witness of Job’s wife, but these are largely questions the book itself doesn’t care to resolve. Like so many other places in scripture, the book of Job asks and answers the questions it wants and ignores most of ours. For today, I simply ask again that we accept the story as it comes to us and explore what we learn in through this strange and unique story.
We come back to Job’s wife. Over the course of 42 long and winding chapters, mostly consisting of speeches offered by Job, his friends, and God; Job’s wife is given only 11 words to say. She is then rebuked by Job and the story moves on. If you blink, you might miss her. And yet she has a profound witness to offer if we are willing to look just a little closer.
Job’s wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips. There’s an easy and all too common way to read what is happening here. It goes something like this – Job, the sinless example of all that is good and holy in life is forced to overcome the temptation of his own wife telling him to curse God. She is fickle and he is steadfast. She is a failure and he is the righteous person we should aspire to become.
That reading is no doubt so common because it simply takes for granted that what the text says is how the world does and should work. Without stopping and sitting with this moment, there’s no way we would expect to find anything more than a fickle wife and a steadfast Job. She tells him to curse God. Job says no and we’re even told that he did not sin with his lips. Case closed. Except there are two related problems with accepting that the situation is just that simple.
The first is that the point of the gospel message is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ. This point is made over the course of the book as Job’s friends try to tell him what he must have done wrong to deserve punishment. For every explanation they offer, Job says no, I did not sin. I did nothing wrong. And no where is Job corrected for his idea that he has not sinned. As we are told from the very beginning, Job is a completely righteous man.
Instead of finding a sin Job committed, God finally comes to Job in a whirlwind and simply says “who are you to question me.” I made the oceans, I set the boundary of the land, I put time in motion, I made everything. How dare you question who I am? In the cross of Christ, God shows us the fullness of who God is. God is not the guy who keeps a tally of sin vs good deeds to be sure that the good we do outweighs the bad. Instead, God is the one who gave His very life to show us what love is. And in so doing, God overcame all brokenness and fear and separation and any of the ways we might fall into sin.
Job was great at not sinning, that much we see in his response to his wife. But the point of the gospel is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ.
Which brings us to the second problem with a simple reading of Job’s wife. A simple reading ignores the entire context in which she uttered her 11 words. Job’s wife had just suffered through almost all of the very same tragedies that fell on Job. They lost their land, their livestock, and their house. The lives of each and every one of their children were lost. As far as we know, she kept her physical health through the whole ordeal, but she had to watch her husband lose even that.
In her day and age, the only thing keeping her out of abject poverty was the fact that Job was still alive. Women could not own property. A woman starting out late in life husbandless and childless, without land or home or livestock; would have had no hope in her world. At best, she might have been able to beg for food or rely on the help of strangers. But without Job, there would be no guarantee of survival, much less any of the comforts or luxuries that she had known up to that point in life.
It was in this context, at the moment when she and Job had lost everything they held dear in life, after watching her husband lose even his physical health until suffering was the only thing he knew in life – that was the moment when she uttered those troubling words – “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” We have no way to know the full motivation or tone of voice she used. These 11 words are the only thing we have to even know that she existed, much less to understand who she was. We can’t know exactly what was on her heart, but I know that it would have been incredibly hard for her to love Job enough to let him go; to love him enough to see his suffering finally end in a way that would only multiply her own.
But that kind of love is the love at the heart of the gospel. Christ came into our world to love us beyond measure. He did so not by showing us how not to sin. Jesus showed us how to love by opening his heart to us enough for it to be broken. At the climax of his time on earth, he was forsaken by those he came to save. And the new life we have in him is born in the vulnerability of that very act of love. I don’t know exactly what Job’s wife was thinking and feeling, but her willingness to face life without Job sounds a lot more like the love of Jesus than anything Job did.
Far from simply being a fickle failure, Job’s wife represents the danger and challenge of loving another person with your whole heart. Can you love someone enough to let them go? Are you willing to love someone even though you know they won’t be around forever? These are the questions Sallie and I have to face every time I get moved to a new church. Every time we say yes, we are so blessed and so heartbroken at the same time. But most of the greatest blessings in life are simply not possible without taking the risk to open your heart enough for it to be broken.
We have a good friend whose story comes to mind every time I start to reflect on this hard life lesson from Job’s wife. There were, of course, no bets made between God and satan in her story, but she had to face a moment just as difficult as the one in which we encounter Job’s wife. Her husband went to the ER a few months ago with shortness of breath. He was quickly diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and the doctors went to work to fix the problems. For a few days things seemed to get better, until suddenly they became much worse.
Soon, her husband was forced to be on an ECMO machine, which basically means that he was put in a coma so that this machine could take the place of his heart and lungs. The machine was supposed to give his heart and lungs a break so that they could heal, but his condition wasn’t improving. He was transferred to another hospital where our friend received some of the worst news of her life. At some point after being put on the machine and before arriving at the new hospital, her husband had both a stroke and a brain bleed. The doctors did what they could to stabilize his condition and figure out treatment options.
Then came the meeting that changed everything. The doctors told our friend that the stroke had likely decimated the communication center of his brain. The right side of his body would likely be paralyzed. The best case scenario they could offer, if he survived a few necessary surgeries to remove the machines, is that he would be in assisted living for the rest of his life with memories intact, but no way to communicate, feed himself, breathe without assistance, or take care of himself at all. I’ll never forget the conversation we had with our friend as she had to make decisions that no one ever wants to consider.
Perhaps the hardest question the doctors asked – would she like to place a Do Not Resuscitate order in place. There were a variety of potentially fatal conditions that might develop in the process of removing the machines. Did she want them to do everything in their power to keep his body alive, even if the best recovery she was told to hope for was that he’d never be able to communicate or live at home again? Or if the worst started to happen, was she willing to let him go? She went from planning for the birth of their second child to a husband with shortness of breath to the most unthinkable question she could ever be asked in almost no time at all.
Sallie and I had several conversations trying to wrestle with how we could possibly answer the same question if we ever wound up in the same situation. What would love even look like in that moment? Does love fight for life to continue no matter what? Would it be loving for me to keep her around even if she could never walk or talk again…. Or would that just be my selfish desire at work? Would it make me a horrible person to be ok with her passing on so her pain would end and my life would be less complicated?
There are no simple or easy answers when faced with questions no one should have to answer. But there is a chance in every relationship worth having that we might one day have to give an answer. There is no way to experience real love without opening our hearts to the possibility of being broken. Very few of us will ever have to make the incredibly difficult decisions that our friend has had to make. But we each decide every day if we are willing to let each other in enough to risk the possibility of loss.
One nameless woman in scripture had the courage to open her heart to the possibility of losing absolutely everything that mattered in her life. And in so doing, she offers us an incredible witness to the courageous kind of love that Christ has shown for us all. Courage isn’t pretending like we can fix all the problems and face every challenge and get out of life alive. Courage is embracing our imperfections and knowing the difficulties ahead and choosing to love each other all the more.
When we talk about building bridges into our community as a church, we’re talking about having the courage to open our collective heart enough to be broken… enough to truly let our neighbors in. We are standing here today because of the incredible men and women who loved God and each other enough over the last 60 years to make this church what it is today. And we have the opportunity this week to put that love into practice, building a bridge for the next generation.
I want to challenge each and every one of you to open your heart to at least one child this coming week. Over 700 kids will descend upon the church for vacation bible school and we have the opportunity to love with the love of Christ. It is entirely possible that many of the kids will come for a week and we may never see them again. But we are still called to open our hearts in the way that Jesus Christ opened his heart for each and every one of us. We are called to love with abandon. Be courageous enough to love with the love of Christ. It is that kind of love that changes everything.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Matthew 9:20-22 – Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.
January 1st, 2008. I remember that day like it was yesterday. Sallie and I were staying at her parent’s lake house about 45 minutes outside of college station. We were engaged at the time and I had traveled back from seminary for a few weeks between semesters. My parents had come out to the lake as well so that we could all celebrate new year’s eve together. We had waffles for breakfast that morning and it felt like the perfect end to a nice family celebration. At some point my dad excused himself for a minute before walking back to the table where we were eating. When he came back he simply called my mom’s name, “Karan,” and they went into the other room.
I had no idea at the time, but that one simple word changed everything. My mom came back a moment later and told us that my dad thought he was having a heart attack. She and I immediately loaded my dad into our car and drove toward the nearest town. My mom called 911 as soon as we had service and we figured out where we’d be able to meet an ambulance. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared or driven so fast in my entire life. We finally made it to the agreed upon meeting spot and the medics began to go to work. They confirmed that it was in fact a heart attack and suggested taking my dad to the hospital by helicopter.
My dad left on the ambulance that took him to the helicopter. My mom and I made the drive back to College Station where we were met by Sallie, her parents, and a variety of other family and friends who had heard the news. My dad’s helicopter arrived at just about the same time we did and the doctors rushed him in to do what they needed to do. I’m grateful that the doctors were able to save his life and that my dad is still with us to this day. But there were so many moments along the way when I had no idea what the outcome was going to be.
One of those moments stands out above all the rest. It was just after the doctors had taken my dad back and before we had any real idea how serious his condition was. Family and friends were gathered in the waiting room inside. I was finally coming down from the rush of the drive. In that moment, it sunk in that there was nothing to do but wait, so Sallie and I walked outside together.
I don’t think a single word was spoken by either of us. I just knew that I wasn’t sure if my dad would live or die. Either way, there was nothing I could do about it. Sallie didn’t try to tell me it would be alright. She didn’t tell me to keep positive or look on the bright side or trust in the doctors or offer any other overused and simplistic words. Sallie just hugged me. She held me there outside the hospital as I started to ugly cry and all the fear and panic and stress and worry of the last few hours came out all at once.
That simple hug was more healing in that moment than anything else anyone could have said or done. I felt safe. I felt loved. I felt like somehow, someway, no matter what happened inside I was going to survive the day. Tomorrow would come, and I would be able to face any future life could throw my way. A simple touch from my wife to be, was more than I could have possibly asked for.
This moment is the moment more than any other that comes to my mind when I read the story of the nameless woman who reaches up to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. She had been suffering for 12 years and when she saw Jesus she thought to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” I don’t know if she had to fight through a crowd or if she just happened to be passing by when he was out in the open. But I know that Jesus felt the woman’s touch. He said to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” In an instant, she was healed.
This nameless woman provides for us an incredible witness to something far too easily and far too often overlooked in the Christian faith: in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.
This nameless woman is almost an afterthought in the way the story is told. When she encounters Jesus, he is actually making his way to a house where a young girl had just died. This nameless woman interrupts Jesus on his trip by touching his cloak, Jesus utters just 9 words to her in response, and then the story goes right back to focusing on the young girl who had died. If you blink, you might miss her. And yet this nameless woman reminds us of something about a life of faith that might just be more important than all of Paul’s letters combined: in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.
What is most remarkable about this passage may be just HOW often and HOW easily we overlook what really happens. The woman touches the cloak of Jesus. Jesus tells her your faith has made you well. And all we want to think about and talk about and analyze is the idea of faith rather than the power of touch. “…your faith has made you well.” Jesus comes right out and says the words. It’s not hard to see why we focus our minds and hearts on faith rather than touch. But the way we draw the distinction between faith and touch already undercuts the reality of both.
Faith, in the ways that we almost always speak about faith, is kept in the realm of philosophy or beliefs or morals. Faith as philosophy looks like the grand pronouncements of the brightest minds in Christianity. This view on faith might explore the most grand and fundamental questions of existence – what is the nature of trinity? How does evil enter the world? How can Jesus be fully God and fully human at the same time?
Faith as beliefs usually offers a bullet point list of the essential answers to those most fundamental and important questions. We believe God is creator of heaven and earth. We believe Jesus forgives sin and offers eternal life. We believe the Holy Spirit is present and active in the world. And then faith as morality is a way of giving clear and specific implications of those beliefs. Faithful Christians care for the poor and give back a portion of what we are given. Faithful Christians don’t murder, steal, or hate. Faithful Christians do and don’t do about a million different things. Depending on the time, place, and denomination you’re looking into the list could go on and on.
“…your faith has made you well.” Jesus said these words to the woman who was healed instantly. And far too often and easily we hear these words and start to explore faith as philosophy, beliefs, or morality. We ask the big and essential questions that have been asked for generations. We have conversations and bible studies and debates and go deeper and deeper asking all the right and important questions. And by the time we start to think we might be coming to a deep and lasting view of the faith we share… by then we’ve already forgotten the most essential witness of this nameless woman – in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.
The questions we ask, the beliefs we share, the ways we attempt to live it out – these are all important pieces of a faithful life. But none of that matters without first experiencing the healing touch of our Lord and friend. This nameless woman reminds us that faith shall make us well. But faith is not intellectual assent to propositional knowledge. Faith is not first in the realm of ideas or lists of dos and don’ts or any of the ways we so often speak about our faith. Faith is born in the desire, in the experience, in the reality of reaching out and touching the cloak of our Lord.
We put words to the world because doing so is one of the most basic ways to be human. But words mean nothing without presence. We talk and explore and question and write because these are the tools we have to capture and communicate the reality of our lives. But a million words can’t even begin to replace the power of a single well timed hug outside the doors of a hospital; the power of that reminder that no matter what tomorrow brings, we will be held, we are loved, we are not alone.
This nameless woman reminds us that at the heart of our faith is a God who looked upon the brokenness of the world; and rather than give a lecture, God gave his only Son. Rather than answer our questions, He lived our life. Rather than offer a list of do and don’ts, he offered to do the only thing that changes everything. God came so close that we can reach out and find a healing touch to carry us through all the seasons ahead. In the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal. Whatever importance or power there may be in the words of faith we say, those words only matter at all because God first came close enough for us to reach out and touch Him.
If I’m being honest, this should not be nearly as countercultural or controversial as it feels to say. We radically overemphasize words and arguments and statements of belief in the life of the church. But in every other part of my life, the power of a simple touch is obviously more meaningful, powerful, lasting, and important than anything anyone could ever say.
My wife Sallie is a marriage and family therapist. She has a few go-to exercises to help couples who are struggling to connect with each other. Quite often, one partner will express a problem or struggle they’re facing. And the other will be quick to offer the perfect fix to the problem – confront your boss; just ignore him; file a complaint! It’s amazing how easy it is to “fix” someone else’s problem. Only, a fix is not what the partner was asking for.
In one simple exercise, Sallie has the partner listening hold off on offering the perfect fix and instead they’re challenged to ask, “What do you need from me right now?” This gives the partner with the problem the opportunity to express their actual need and desire. And it gives the listening partner the opportunity to meet that need or desire rather than simply throw up a wall of advice or judgment. Quite often in most couples, the partner asks “What do you need from me right now?” and the other simply asks for a hug. Or to hold hands. They ask to be reminded that they are in this together and no one is looking for a way out and they just need to feel close to their loved one so they can find the strength to do whatever actually needs to be done.
When Sallie and I were in the height of our infertility struggles, I can’t tell you how often we leaned on each other in this way. There were no words that would help. There were no solutions to our problems, definitely none we were going to come up with that the specialists hadn’t already offered. What I needed from her time and time again was just to be held; to be reminded that no matter how hard this struggle became, it was never going to threaten the bond between us. The power of her healing touch meant more than words ever could.
The day after Hutch was born, we visited him in the hospital. Our adoption situation meant we couldn’t bring him home for a while, but we were able to go hold him. At the time, his birth mom hadn’t even signed away her rights. It would be 6 more weeks before we brought Hutch home with us. And it wasn’t until two days ago that the adoption became final and Hutch became legally, officially our son. But the moment we held him in the hospital we knew he is our son.
No legal status, no words no a page, no conversations with our agency could have possibly let us know that he is our son more than that very first touch, holding him in our arms. Holding him didn’t erase the previous years of pain, but one touch was more healing to our hearts than I could possibly put into words. Time and again in my life I am confronted with the obvious – in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. It is the day we remember that the Holy Spirit of God came rushing into the world, giving birth to the church and sending the disciples out to the ends of the Earth to share the good news of Jesus Christ. But perhaps more importantly, Pentecost is the reminder that God came close enough so that we could reach out and touch Him. And in the simple act of touch, is an incredible power to heal. One nameless woman in scripture offers a powerful witness; challenging us to embrace the nearness of our God.
At the heart of our faith is a God who would not be Lord above without also becoming a friend at our side. By the power and presence of the Spirit, even today we are held like a child. We are held in the hands that gave shape to our bodies and breath to our lungs. We are held no matter what tomorrow brings. We are held so that in the love of our God we will find health, and wholeness, and healing every day of our lives.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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.
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.