Honest Regret

Date Given: 7/28/19

Psalm 51:1-17

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.

first crop photo for regret sermon

 

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.

second crop photo for regret sermon

 

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?”

 

third and full photo for regret sermonWhat 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.

Psalm screenshot for regret sermon

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.

Nameless. Witness. Generosity.

Nameless. Witness. Generosity.

Date Given: 6/16/19

Luke 21:1-4

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.

Nameless. Witness. Courage.

Nameless. Witness. Courage.

Date Given: 6/23/19

Job 2:9-10

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.

Nameless. Witness. Healing.

Nameless. Witness. Healing.

Date Given: 6/9/19

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.

Faith Stories: Forgive

3/13/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Without Walls: Not in Control

Luke 10:29-37 (The Good Samaritan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Faith Without Walls – No More Running

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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