Faith Without Walls – Always Start With Why

John 17:20-23 – ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

We are here today because God’s love is bigger. Bigger than all our fears and failures. Bigger than the limitations of our lives and relationships. Bigger than anything we could ever imagine. God breaks down the walls between us all and MAKES… LOVE…POSSIBLE. We live and move and have our being in the strength of God’s love each day. That’s why we gather to worship. That’s why we go out to serve. Before we are ANYthing else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough in the love of God.

There is not a single more important starting point for my first chance to preach here in Cypress than this fundamental conviction. We are here because God’s love is bigger. I’m excited to finally have the chance to preach here in Cypress. We found out about the move just before Easter, so it was about 3 months of anticipation before the moving truck showed up and then another couple of weeks getting settled before finally showing up for worship and fellowship at the church. My wife Sallie and I are thrilled to finally be immersed in the life of our new church. I want to say thank you to each and every one of you who has made us feel so welcome and at home.

When Pastor Tony invited me to do a three week sermon series starting today, I knew immediately where I needed to start. We live in a world in which far more often than not, we have no idea why we do what we do, beyond maybe the desire to be happy for one more day. Our world is in many ways designed to keep us distracted from ever asking the most important questions about our lives and our future – there are enough things to keep us busy so that we rarely have enough time to stop and rest. There are enough things to buy so that we rarely have enough resources to stop and be content. There is enough brokenness in the world so that we rarely have enough trust to reach out and ask for our own needs to be met.

But God’s love is bigger. Before we are ANYthing else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough in the love of God. That’s why we come here to worship. That’s why we go out to serve. For the last three weeks, Tony has been challenging us all to go out and meet God on aisle 5. We have been given homework to go out to our favorite supermarket type place and look upon our fellow shoppers as children of God. We’ve been asked to recognize that God is not locked up inside the walls of this building – God is already out in the world waiting for us to come alongside.

For the next three weeks we’re going to explore the most obvious next question. Once we have met God on aisle 5, how is our faith challenged and changed? In other words, God is not locked up inside the walls of this church building. What does faith without walls look like?

One of THE biggest reasons we Christians are SO often SO bad at experiencing a faith without walls is that we jump from the command of Jesus to go, straight into practical strategies for success. Jesus said go – so we better offer clear and simple answers to anyone who asks a question; nevermind whether we actually find the answer satisfying. Jesus said go – so we better get our numbers up by doing bigger and better events; nevermind whether those events actually have any point or purpose. Jesus said go – so we we better take a trip to the far corner of the earth; nevermind whether our neighbors across the street are just as loved and adored by God as the village overseas.

We never dwell long enough on the question of why? Why is our faith worthy of our lives? Why should a random person care what I have to say? Beyond the numbers and the budget and event planning, what is our goal in going out beyond the walls? We don’t ask this kind of question nearly enough. And there are some very concrete reasons why – lack of time being the biggest. We don’t have time to sit around and think when there is so much work to be done. Some of us may not feel like we have the right level of experience or the right training or the right skills to offer much toward the conversation. And there is no shame if you cannot right now explore the question why, for whatever practical reason you might hold.

But there is at least one more fundamental reason within all of us, one reason that we so rarely pause for long enough to ask why. A faith without walls pushes us to see that God loves each and every one of us. God loves each and every part of us. That’s why we we are here today. But making that claim touches on some of our most basic fears in life. Fear that I’m not good enough. Fear that I’ll always be alone. Fear that everything I hold dear could be gone in an instant.

That God loves me, gives me something I think I might lose. God loves me, faith tells me. Yeah but, the fear responds, maybe you’re not good enough to keep it. God loves me. Yes, but everyone eventually leaves. God loves me. Yes but I’m going to screw this up just like I did with my marriage or my career or my kids. Fear can be a powerful voice. It feels safer to simply say the words than to dwell long enough to know whether we actually trust the depth of God’s love.

When I was a kid, I was what you might call a bit of a nerd. I was born in Victoria Texas to John and Karan Wester. My only sibling Justin is 3 years older. I don’t actually know what it would mean to have a normal childhood, but I at least always thought of my life as pretty normal. My dad was a power plant engineer and eventually manager. My mom stayed at home with us kids for a while and eventually worked in the church as my youth director before going back into the teaching world. I am at least a third generation United Methodist and a third generation Aggie, which mostly just means that I love tradition and don’t like change.

But it wasn’t just change that I struggled to deal with growing up. I was something of a nerd. I made good grades and was blessed enough to work straight through high school to college at A&M and onto seminary at Duke Divinity School before becoming Commissioned and finally ordained United Methodist Clergy. I succeeded at every step… but I can still tell you that almost 20 years ago I missed one question on my high school freshman english midterm exam. The cask of amontillado was the short reading. Dramatic irony was the correct answer. Point of view was the answer I chose. I remember it like it was yesterday.

I used to tell the story of my english midterm in the hopes of a few laughs and perhaps to humble brag just a little. More recently, I’ve started to face the fact that I remember that midterm far too clearly for comfort. I remember it because to this day, I still find myself being an unrelenting perfectionist. If I make one tiny mistake, if I fail to meet the expectations of someone I love, I feel like I’ve broken the world. At times, I hide behind a mask of intelligence or self deprecating humor.  I do so to hide the fact that I don’t always trust that I am good enough to be loved just as I am.

It is so easy to get caught up in this game that we play. It so hard to confront our deepest fears and failures. Rather than bring those things to the surface and deal with them, we put up walls around our hearts – we stick to the practical – the tried and true sayings – the concrete strategies that let us say and do all the most “Christian” things without ever having to let down the walls.

But if we want to follow the God we meet not just inside the safety of our church, but also on aisle 5, the walls have to come down. If we’re going to build bridges into the life of our community, the walls have to come down first. If we’re going to live out our very first core value and Be in Authentic Relationships, the walls have to come down.

In John 17, we find Jesus offering an extended prayer to the Father shortly before his death and resurrection. Jesus is praying about the horrifying events that are about to come. He is praying for his disciples and for everyone that will hear of God through them; praying that the truth and the glory of God would be fulfilled and complete. John is not at all the easiest gospel author to read, but he is revealing the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son through this prayer. And John is zeroing in on the reason Christ came to earth. Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

“That they may all be one.” No six words better express why Jesus came to live and die and rise for us all. We get wrapped up in our favorite catch phrases and pet projects and in the way things have always been. Humans love clarity. We love the feeling that we’ve got God all figured out and we know exactly what to expect from here on out. But at the end of the day, God’s love is bigger than any of the boxes we like to place God in. God’s love is stronger than death itself. Christ came so that we may all be one.

There is no room in the oneness of God for us to put up walls and hide who we really are, from God or one another. If we are to be one body, one faith, one community, there is no room for walls at all. We have to learn how to take the risk of letting others in.

I told the 930 service about my favorite Disney princess during children’s time on my first Sunday. Christie had the kids ask a few getting to know you questions and I said Moana was my favorite, but we didn’t get into why. On some level, it is just a great and enjoyable movie. But it also beautifully illustrates a deep truth about who we are and how we live. Moana is by no means a “Christian” movie at all, but it conveys at least one aspect of the gospel message more powerfully than I’ve seen it anywhere else.

I don’t know if you have to give spoiler alerts for movies more than a year and a half old, but this is your fair warning for spoilers ahead. Moana is the princess of an island people. She grows up hearing the legend of Maui, the demigod who stole the heart of Te Fiti and with it the power of creation and life itself. Maui was immediately struck down by Te Ka, a monster of earth and fire. The heart was lost, Maui was banished on an island, and without Te Fiti’s heart, death and darkness spread across the world.

Most of the movie follows the epic journey of Moana. She is determined to stop the spread of death and darkness so she sets out to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti. Eventually, she joins forces with Maui and the two fight all sorts of evil monsters and villains on their quest to return the heart to its rightful place. In the climactic scene, the two are confronted by the scariest, most dangerous, most powerful villain of them all – Te Ka, the very same monster of fire who initially defeated Maui and largely set the whole story in motion.

I want to share that final scene with you now. Moana has found a way around the monster Te Ka and has just set foot on the island of Te Fiti. She found the heart, traveled the world, defeated monster after monster, and is finally just a short climb away from restoring Te Fiti’s heart.

[MOVIE CLIP]

A woman wrote about watching this climactic scene for the first time. She was sexually abused as a child and was only beginning to try to work through the trauma she had suffered. Her therapist told her that she often simply checked out and numbed herself because she was far too terrified to feel her feelings. Reflecting on this scene she wrote:

I see my pain as a monster of fire. I am so afraid of it. I want to stay far, far away. But it is a part of me. I have had to work so hard to get back to that place. To walk toward the fire, instead of running away. Back to that four-year-old little girl. To tell her that what happened to her does not change who she is. To sit in that pain for the first time in 27 years. I cannot turn away. I must approach the monster, touch its face, and tell it the truth. May I be as brave as Moana as I face what is part of me, but does not define me.
You are not defined by your darkest hour. You are greater than what has been stolen
from you. It is never too late to heal. It is never too late to make a fresh start. It is never
too late to have your heart restored.

Getting down beneath the surface; seeing and admitting our fears and failures; feeling the pain of trauma or loneliness or wondering if we are good enough – that’s one of the most terrifying things to do in life. Sometimes it feels like there is a fire monster just below the surface and letting anyone close enough to see it will only result in disaster. But that is exactly why God came to live and die and be raised to new life.

Beneath it all; before we are anything else we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. Before sin enters the picture, before fear and failure rear their ugly heads; we are beloved children of God – wonderfully made, relentlessly pursued. If we don’t first experience the love that makes us one, we can’t possibly hope to let down the walls of our hearts; to build bridges into the lives of our neighbors and our community; to find the power and the joy of a faith without walls.

We are here today because God’s love is bigger. Bigger than all our fears and failures. Bigger than the limitations of our lives and relationships. Bigger than anything we could ever imagine. God breaks down the walls between us all and MAKES… LOVE…POSSIBLE. As Moana approaches the fire monster in that final scene she sings:

I have crossed the horizon to find you. I know your name. They have stolen the heart from inside you. But this does not define you. This is not who you are. You know who you are.

Through the cross of Christ God says once and for all, I am yours. You are mine.

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

Great Expectations – A sermon for the start of #gc2019

2/24/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Saints 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 3:14 Christianity

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

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

John 3:14-21

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

One Word

Whether we’re concerned with technical theological terms or popular seasonal greetings, the words we use matter because the God we worship lives. Our words are either an aid or hindrance to seeing the living God; the One Word Who changed everything.

One word is the difference in our life together. One Word is the difference between love and hate, between light and darkness, between life and death. One Word makes all the difference.

John 1:1-5

Fools In Love – 2018 Easter Sermon

Fools In Love – 2018 Easter Sermon

A follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control…

We are invited to be fools in love with the Lord, living in the knowledge that all is set right in Christ, even when all the world seem to be more broken each day. We’re invited to embrace our weaknesses when the whole world seems to assume that might makes right. When the world tells us to lie and to hide our true selves behind possessions or jobs or trophies – we’re invited to be vulnerable, sharing our stories, exposing our wounds because through the wounded body of Christ, the whole world finds healing.  

4/1/2018

Mark 16:1-8

16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

A follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control. A guy named Paul wrote letters to the churches he helped start in Rome, Philippians, Corinth, Galatia, and several other places. These letters make up a significant part of our Bibles and deeply shape the way we think and talk about the Christian faith. Paul was a deep and philosophical thinker who wanted to work out a very precise definition of who Jesus is and what it means be a faithful member of the body of Christ.

So often, when people talk about Christianity and what it means to be Christian, Paul’s letters are quoted. And it is his deeply academic and systematic ways of thinking that shape our approach to learning and growing in Christ. We like to have our precise belief statements and moral systems – we like to have a verse, usually from Paul, to back-up our precise and everlasting conclusion.

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul says in Romans – therefore if we really believe Jesus is Lord and say the right prayer, we’re guaranteed to get into heaven. Or from Philippians – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Therefore, we might think, I will score the winning touchdown in my next game because – Jesus. “Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. Therefore, no 4 letter word should ever leave your lips.

It is so natural and so deeply human to love acting like we’re professional Christians, completely in control, knowing all that there is to know about what to do and not to do, totally ready to condemn all those others, over there, those pagans and sinners who flaunt the clear and obvious words of scripture. And when we inevitably fall short of our clear and precise understanding, there is always forgiveness and grace, ready for us after we knowingly fail to be the perfect professionals that we have decided God must want us to be.

But, a follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control. We so often try talking like Paul and refining our systems and building our little boxes into which we like to fit all of life. And when we do that we forget that long before any attempt at putting words on a page is a profoundly absurd and nonsensical claim – that not only did God come to this earth to live our life and be one of us, but that God in flesh was killed on the cross, condemned like a criminal, and on the third day, he rose from the dead, and left an empty grave for his followers to find.

The cross of Christ is the ultimate reminder that we are not in control of our lives and futures – we are loved beyond measure and invited to trust in the one who calls us His own. It’s strange the way we so often treat a relationship with Christ more like a pop quiz than a friendship. I’ll admit when Sallie and I got engaged, I had her take a test. I made sure she knew and agreed about when I was born; and she had to believe that I won not one, not two, but three tennis tournaments in my life. And last, I wrote a 90 page thesis paper in college – so I made sure that she read the whole thing and could quote at least 5 or 6 of the most important sentences. Needless to say, she passed with flying colors, and the last 10 years together have been flawless.

Now…….No…I didn’t really do any of that. She might have passed most of it, but I’m fairly confident Sallie would not be with me today if I had really made her read my thesis paper. It’s absurd to think that reading a book and memorizing a few of my accomplishments and basic life history has any real impact on the relationship we share. Obviously, we find out new things about each other every day – we could probably answer just about any question about each other anyone else knows. But that knowledge comes from building a life together – not the other way around.

Only after we experience life together do we start to form the stories we tell. Facts and figures are woven together into memories that give shape and meaning to life. Everyone has a few stories that define their life and relationship more than any others. Some of these are the stories that we tell at every family gathering, year after year. Some are the stories that we only share with small groups of our closest friends. Some are the stories we keep locked hidden inside our hearts, afraid to tell anyone at all – maybe 1 or 2 people in the whole world know. As we experience life and relationship, more and more of these memories and stories form who we are and how we love one another.

[Most often referenced story is – Corn Dog.

Another often quoted story – Don’t know anything about my life.]

These are the fun stories we tell all the time in my family. We laugh, we remember, we get in a few playful jabs and we bond as a family or group of friends just fine. Closer to home are the struggles and challenges we go through – sometimes with beautiful endings, sometimes with no resolution.

[For me, it would be the story of the one and only question I missed on an english midterm – in 9th grade. The reading was the cask of amontillado – the correct answer was dramatic irony. I still can’t quite let that go.

Even more present than that – the rollercoaster of infertility – so many ups and downs but mostly just indescribable stuff that doesn’t exactly feel good or bad, but it sure does feel a lot – helped when so many others shared their stories too]

Then there are those stories that I’m tempted to keep deep inside, the feelings that are so hard to admit to myself, much less anyone else. These are usually the stories of the fear or guilt or hurt or unmet needs that lay beneath the surface of the stories we tell others.

– I can’t quite let the english midterm go because there is a part of me that is an unrelenting perfectionist. Every once in a while it still happens that I make one mistake and fear that I’ve broken the whole world. The english midterm is the kind of story I used to have to laugh about because if I admitted the inadequacy I really felt I’d cry instead.

Then there’s the devastation of dealing with infertility for months and really years – and getting that one final negative result. I’ve let Sallie down. I’ve let my parents down. I’ve failed to do the one thing our bodies seem most programmed to accomplish in life. How do I love my life if it can’t be what I’ve desired so deeply for so long?

These thoughts and questions become the lens by which we view our life and choices – they become the stories that we repeat over and over again to tell us who we are.

The sum total of all these stories does far more to shape how I see myself and the world than anything else possibly could. No amount of academic knowledge; no clear and definitive statement of beliefs; no amount of practice pretending to be happy – will ever change a thing. We cannot change our past any more than we can control our future. But control was never the point. Our knowledge and strength and force of will were never meant to be strong enough to control the outcome. A follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control.

What changes everything is when we finally experience the love of Jesus Christ that never ends and cannot fail. When the story of God’s love and acceptance becomes the most important story we tell about ourselves, nothing will ever be the same. Even when the whole world around us seems to be devolving into a chaotic mess of fear and division, we know that God is faithful to the end. God will set all things right and make all things new because Jesus Christ is risen.

The story of Easter redeems and transforms each of our stories in the image of God’s love. Christ came to tell the story of God’s love and redemption to anyone who would hear it. He set aside a group of 12 friends to live life together. These were the 12 with whom Jesus shared almost every struggle and challenge throughout the course of all that he did on Earth. And upon the cross, we even receive a brief glimpse into the very depth of Jesus’ soul as he cries out My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.

The story of Easter is all our story – the sure foundation upon which we all stand. The empty grave is that moment when God packaged up all the stories we tell about ourselves – from the funny stories we love to tell to the more impactful memories we share with friends to the fear and doubt we try to hide – all of it is wrapped up in the cross of Christ and transformed on Easter morning. The empty grave is God’s absolute declaration that we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Through Jesus Christ, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. And when we know what that feels like – when the story of God’s unimaginable love and unbelievable grace becomes the most important story we tell about ourselves, we start to look an awful lot like fools in love.

That first Easter morning, three women went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus for a proper burial. Their Lord and friend had been beaten and flogged and crucified on Friday. Now, it was Sunday and they didn’t even know how they would get into the tomb, but they knew they needed to go. When they arrived, the stone had been rolled away and the grave was empty. A young man dressed in a white robe told them, “Do not be afraid. Jesus Christ is not here, he has been raised. Go tell the others, Jesus will meet you in Galilee!” Mark tells us that the women ran away in terror and excitement and said nothing to anyone.

This is where the earliest copies of Mark’s gospel ended. An empty tomb. Terror and amazement. The women running away with no idea what they’ve just witnessed or what any of it means. At the core of the Christian faith is this absurd claim that God came and died and was resurrected to new life. You can work your whole life to try and figure out the details – there are entire fields of research set up to prove exactly what happened and how we can know with certainty – and yet the spread of Christian faith begins with this group of fools in love – the three women at the tomb and the 12 disciples right after.

It wasn’t structured beliefs and academic pursuits that convinced them to give their lives to the spread of the good news. It was knowing the power of a love that defeated even death itself. It was experiencing the life of the risen Lord that changed everything. The story of the empty grave is our story, and it touches and transforms every part of who we are.

We are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. The cross of Christ reminds us there is no shame, no hurt, no brokenness, no fear, no failure that God does not embrace within himself. The empty tomb reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, the love that takes each part of the stories we tell against ourselves and offers new life instead.

We are invited to be fools in love with the Lord, living in the knowledge that all is set right in Christ, even when all the world seem to be more broken each day. We’re invited to embrace our weaknesses when the whole world seems to assume that might makes right. When the world tells us to lie and to hide our true selves behind possessions or jobs or trophies – we’re invited to be vulnerable, sharing our stories, exposing our wounds because through the wounded body of Christ, the whole world finds healing.  

Be fools in love this Easter season. Open your heart to the Lord and trust that whatever scars we bear or wounds we cause, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. We are embraced by the love that conquered the grave and no one can ever take that away. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how well you can articulate the faith – what matters is that we are held in the outstretched arms of the one who knows our names and has called us his own. Jesus Christ is Risen!

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