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Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Our lesson this morning finds the great patriarch Jacob with his family. He sends them across the shallow ford of a river, spending the night alone. At least, at first he is alone, but he ends up wrestling an unnamed man all night long. The man figures out that Jacob is a fierce competitor, so injures his hip. Even with that, Jacob persists, telling the man: “I will not let go of you until you bless me.”

We are never told the identity of the man, but by virtue of everything else that happens in the story, we learn that he was some kind of angel or manifestation of God. He tells Jacob that his name is now “Israel”, which means “God-wrestler.” And Jacob names the place “Peniel”, which means “face of God.” Whatever it was that happened in the encounter, Jacob saw it as something holy, worth remembering and preserving, devoting the whole episode to God and his relationship with God.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

We have spent the last two months taking a closer look at worship: what we do, why we do what we do, why we do it in the order we do…In short, worship is meant to flow seamlessly from beginning to end. It begins when we gather – when we meet up in the parking lot, in the lobby, in the pews, as the music plays.

Somewhere along the way, we move from gathering to preparing: we praise, we confess and come clean, we are reminded of the absurd gift of undeserved grace, and share that peace with each other.

We encounter the Word of God: read in Scripture, sung in anthem, interpreted in sermon, made visible in baptism and communion, present in the Word made flesh, Jesus himself. From there, everything we do is our response to this meeting with the living Christ: we pray, remember what we believe in creeds, recommit our resources and ourselves to the work and desires of God.

And from there, we are sent. The hour or so of worship draws to a close so that the service begins. We go out to serve God in Christ, reaching out to a broken world in need of healing. And then, one week later, the people gather, and the drama begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What this overview fails to account for is the fact that faith isn’t always easy. As the popular phrase puts it, one of the goals of faith is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In other words, this whole act of worship is one that is meant to take on both our brokenness and our complacency. Worship should be where we find both healing and prodding.

At least, that’s the hope. That’s my hope. If we spend the whole time agreeing with each other, then all we have done is luxuriate in self-righteousness, self-centeredness, and self-justification. On the other hand, if we only remind ourselves of how imperfect, how far off the mark we are, then we end up denying the God-crafted beauty that lies within each of us. Worship, instead, ought to be a balance between these two extremes: meeting us and embracing us as we are, but not content to leave us there, and so nudging, pushing, pulling us into other and better and more faithful ways of being.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Each of us has our own encounters with the challenges of faith. Whether it’s the personal pain of broken relationships or undeserved hurts, or the desperate cries of “why me” in the hospital or by the bedside, or the glimpses of agony at a culture, a society, a world so full of injustice and wrongdoing and cruelty…if we take faith with any level of seriousness, we know it’s not a “happily ever after” fairy tale. It is, instead, a reality complicated by both joy and heartbreak, sometimes in the very same moment.

A few years ago, my friend Jim was driving his father to his sister’s rehearsal dinner. His father required the assistance of a cane to get around, and had been in poor health; but none of that was on their mind as they made their way to the celebration. Suddenly, Jim’s dad was having extreme discomfort. It turned out that he was having a heart attack. Jim pulled the car over and called 911, but it was too late. The next day, as the family gathered for the wedding, Jim took his father’s cane and walked his sister down the aisle.

I can only imagine the swirl of emotions at that moment: rejoicing at this celebration, but grieving the devastating and sudden loss; overcome with the agony of physical absence, but comforted by the symbolic presence of what is unseen.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think God visited this suffering on Jim and his family. I don’t, for a moment, pretend to understand why the world works the way it does, but I know that God’s desires good and wholeness and peace. And when the world is troubled by evil and brokenness and wrongdoing, God’s heart is the first to break. God does not cause suffering; but if the cross at the center of our faith means anything, it’s that God is at work anyway, shaping that moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice.

In their moment of pain, Jim and his family grabbed a firm hold of God, refusing to let go, no matter how much they were hurting. Their faith had taught them that God had joy in store for them ultimately. I am sure it didn’t feel like it at the moment; but they knew to hold tight for that blessing.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

There is a larger story that surrounds our morning lesson, one that helps to frame it in surprising ways. Jacob’s encounter with the wrestler comes as he prepares to face his twin brother Esau for the first time in ages. If we remember, Jacob had twice betrayed Esau, getting both his inheritance and his blessing. The night of his wrestling is the night before he is to meet Esau face to face. He is understandably terrified. He knows he has wronged his brother, and he fully expects revenge. No wonder he spends the night wrestling with the divine, if not with his own conscience and history.

The next day, as Jacob limps his way across the expanse toward this unknown fate, he sees Esau coming toward him with 400 men. Fearing the worst, Jacob went first, bowing down to the ground as a sign of his contrition. What Esau does next is the gift: he runs to Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, and kisses him. The brothers embrace and weep. In an amazing twist, all is forgiven. Esau is overjoyed to meet Jacob’s family, this incredible collection of nieces and nephews. He rejects Jacob’s attempts to give him cattle, saying that God has already blessed him greatly. After this tender reunion, the two brothers go their separate ways, now reconciled through Esau’s gracious mercy.

In a sense, Jacob had to come to terms with himself before he could come to terms with his brother. The night-long wrestling was, in many ways, a manifestation of Jacob’s wrestling with who he once was and what he had done. Expecting to meet Esau the next day, there is no doubt that all that had transpired between them had come flooding back in overwhelming anxiety, fear, loathing, humiliation, embarrassment. It’s no wonder he slept little, if any, and came away in pain. Even so, through it all, he demonstrated fierce tenacity to his faith, holding on for dear life. Not only would he have to come clean to Esau; he would have to do so with God as well.

Friends, there is a gift of faith in the struggle with faith. It would be one thing to face reality and come away hopeless, with the sense that God has given up on the world, that humanity is doomed, that the planet will cure us as the virus we behave like. That kind of pessimism, as honest and realistic as it might feel, is actually the cop out, the easy route. Because if we are really doomed, what’s the point in being faithful? Why bother with any of it? Why waste an hour on Sunday morning? In fact, why eat well, exercise, befriend, volunteer, be kind?

The harder path, the faithful path, is the path of Jacob and Esau. Like Jacob, it is real honesty, the soul-searching for the wrongs we have done, even if we have to wrestle them through the night. It sends us to our knees, begging for forgiveness when we have wronged another.

And like Esau, it recognizes that past wrongs pale in comparison to the blessings God has given. It forgives – not because doing so is an easy way to forget the past, but because it is the hard work of coming to terms with what has been. And, in so doing, we find amazing freedom!

Faith is not always easy. But it is always worth it. There will be times when we emerge smarting, limping; but the promise is that we will come away singing, rejoicing, worshiping, praising.

Amen.

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ImageAt table with our enemies.

The scene shifts in our 23rd Psalm this morning. The Lord, Yahweh, is not only our shepherd, but also our host. We are welcomed into the heavenly abode, where a table has been spread before us.

The meaning of the phrase is not immediately clear. Is the table spread before our enemies so that we might sit together? If so, that’s a radical notion of reconciliation. Or is it that this is all done so that our enemies might see how beloved we are, a kind of meal-based rubbing it in their faces? If so, that seems to be petty, but also pretty satisfying.

Keep in mind that the psalms are, by and large, prayers. Whatever you might think about their authorship or the purpose and meaning of Scripture, these prayers were prayed by people. Human beings, like you and me. That doesn’t take away from their power at all, or that they were Spirit-led in their writings. Each week, we gather as a community to read and re-read these passages, assuming that they have meaning not only for the time in which they were written, but also for the time in which we live. And I don’t think this is possible unless God is intimately involved in the writing – and the reading.

If we are honest, though, we know that our prayers are not always on the mark. We pray for things all the time that we should know better than to pray for. Like any obsessed Braves’ fan, I know I have asked God to intervene in playoff action every now and then. Do I really think that the balance of the universe hangs on whether or not Craig Kimbrel gets another save? Probably not…

The point is this: the prayers of the ancients were no better or worse than our own. And there were times when they prayed for the vanquishing of a foe when, perhaps, they ought to have been praying for something a little more eternal, lasting, holy.

I think that might be the case with our Psalm text today. While the meaning may be unclear at first blush, a deeper look clarifies that the author is writing about retribution. The table is prepared for me – not me and my enemies, just me. And the table is prepared in the presence my enemies – the word in Hebrew does not mean “near”, but against them. What the psalmist wants to say is that this table is mine, and nobody else is even gonna get so much as a crumb from it. That may be the case, but I’m not sure that’s what God wants to say.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. When we look at the whole of Scripture, there are lessons that point to God giving victory over foes and against incredible odds. And when that happens, the victory is God’s. And there are lessons that point to God’s presence even in the midst of defeat; because the victory is still God’s, no matter where we might be for the moment.

What we also see, time and time again, are incredible stories of unlikely forgiveness and reconciliation. Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury their parents. Jacob and Esau’s bitter sibling rivalry gives way to the embrace of brotherly love. King Cyrus of Persia frees the Israelites from their Babylonian Captivity, and the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt with the help of Assyrians and Phoenicians. Judas, the betrayer, is at the table when bread is broken. Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who put him to death. Saul, the persecutor of early Christians, becomes one of their leaders.

Whatever the psalmist might have intended, the overarching story of salvation is that enemies do sit at table together in the kingdom of God.

Some of you have heard of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini. In 1943, his B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He spent 47 days on a life raft before he was rescued from the sea…by his Japanese captors. He spent the next two years being tortured in a POW camp. That experience tormented him for years, and his life story was all too familiar to those who have ever experienced the horrors of war and post-traumatic stress: nightmares, addiction, broken relationships…Somehow, along the way, he was convinced to go to a Billy Graham revival. Right then and there, he became a Christian and began to understand what forgiveness means. Since then, Zamperini has returned to Japan several times, seeking out former captors so that he could experience that forgiveness face to face. And at the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, he was invited to carry the torch, as the Japanese crowds cheered him on.

I don’t know what Louis Zamperini is made of. But I do know that his life story finds its inspiration in God’s story. And that is the story we see in our Scripture lessons today, where enemies meet in the most unlikely of ways.

Take the amazing story of Naaman, the head of the Aramean army. Ancient Aram and Israel were rival nations – we read about that in our lesson, as an Israelite girl is taken captive by an Aramean raiding party. Through their prisoner, the Arameans learn about the powerful Israelite prophet Elisha, who might just be able to cure the general’s leprosy. Much to the chagrin of the Israelite king, he does. There is no requirement of a non-aggression pact, no cease fire is signed. Elisha provides for Naaman’s healing, and he refuses to take payment for it.

To get an idea of how insane this is, imagine for a moment that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al-Qaeda, comes to Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City for free cancer treatment. It’s unthinkable – and yet, here it is: an enemy general is healed of leprosy. And the purpose is to give witness to the holiness of Yahweh, the divine shepherd.

Even though the scene in Luke is less military, it is no less unbelievable. Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. A crowd gathers to catch a glimpse of the infamous rabbi. Among them is diminutive Zacchaeus, the tax collector. He is well known, and despised, by all around him. Tax collectors, after all, were Jews who took money from other Jews and gave it to the hated Roman occupiers. He is, in short, a traitor. When Jesus calls him down from the tree, I can’t help but wonder if the crowd think Zacchaeus is going to get his come-uppance. Instead, Jesus wants to be his guest, elevating Zacchaeus’ status right there in front of God and everybody. And, perhaps most importantly, he does all of this before Zacchaeus offers to repay everyone he has swindled. A relationship with Jesus does not come as a result of righteous living. Instead, a relationship with Jesus paves the way for doing what is right.

The kingdom of God, therefore, operates very, very differently from our own world. Enemies sit at table together: Barack Obama and Edward Snowden; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Alex Rodriguez and anyone on the planet. It is a concept that absolutely baffles the imagination. If God is the host, then God is the one who gets to send the invitations. We may not like everyone on the guest list, but remember: it’s not our party.

Where does this leave you? Imagine yourself in the place of the psalmist. You are ready to sit down at this fantastic spread. You are looking forward to rubbing it in the face of your worst enemy. Suddenly, you realize that God has set another place…for them. Who is it? An ex? A former neighbor, or co-worker? A nameless, faceless other? What is it that wells up within you? Repulsion? Anger? Surprise? Joy? Forgiveness? Are you already looking for another table or calling for the check?

Friends, this faith stuff is not for the faint of heart. And don’t misunderstand me: there is much, much more to reconciliation than simply sitting down at a table together, “letting bygones be bygones.” If you have read any of the stories of those who have experienced such a healing, you know the courage and pain it involves. From South Africa’s post-Apartheid challenges to prison system programs here in the U.S. for victim-offender reconciliation, forgiveness is hard, hard work. And there are times when reconciliation can only possible beyond the grave, because it needs God’s first-hand involvement that badly. No matter what, if we want to call ourselves Christians, then, at the very least, we need to recognize this: at the heavenly banquet, there is room for all. No matter the distance that might lie between you and your enemy, the distance between you and God has already been bridged; because the victory belongs to God, and God alone.

Amen.

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Have you ever been excluded?

It was my first youth group trip, a weekend retreat up in the mountains. I knew a couple of the kids, having gone through confirmation with them the year before, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was “friends” with anybody in particular. And for the first half of the trip, I got the distinct feeling that I was on the outside. It wasn’t that anyone went out of their way to exclude me, or that people were intentionally shutting me out. It was much more subtle than that – what I remember now, many years later, are the inside jokes, a single line of which would send the whole room into fits of laughter.

And then, over lunch one day, I heard one of the other kids quoting a Monty Python routine. Nerd alert! Well, by the end of the meal, he and I were as thick as thieves, reciting whole scenes verbatim in our worst British accents. I had a friend now. The rest of the group’s inside jokes didn’t intimidate me; I had my own, now.

Have you ever been excluded?

Exclusion comes in many forms; and even the most innocuous versions, like that of a church youth group, can be difficult. But some are quite insidious – exclusion because of race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, physical appearance, political affiliation, age, family situation.

The one thing that they all have in common is that they all make the point: “You are not welcome, because you are not like us.”

The lesson from Genesis this morning comes at the very end of such a story of exclusion, and is a reminder of the violence that exclusion can bring. Joseph is one of the twelve sons of Jacob, the one who wrestled with the angel a few weeks ago and came away broken and blessed. And if we remember the story of Jacob the father, he played favorites. He gave Joseph that fantastic, multi-colored coat, and Joseph seemed to lord it over his brothers.

I’m not sure how successful you can be as one excluding eleven, but Joseph gave it his best shot. And his brothers reacted violently against him. They first plotted to kill him, but decided on the much more “humane” option of selling him into slavery. And now, all these years later, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s right hand man. All is forgiven in this instant of reconciliation and embrace, Joseph himself clarifying the moment’s theological significance: what his brothers intended for ill, God used to save them from themselves.

Exclusion can lead to violence. We know the examples of this in our own world:Rwanda; Somalia; Sudan; South Africa; Afghanistan;  Israel/Palestine; Yugoslavia; Northern Ireland…and it reaches our own shores: the shame of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, to name two of the more obvious examples.

Where does it come from? What creates this desire to include some and exclude others which can cause violence both overt and subtle? I’m not sure, but I think it stems from trying to answer the question “Who’s in?”

We are guilty of categorization. And what’s odd is that our categorization often leans toward defining ourselves by what we are “not”. When I lived in Chicago, being Presbyterian mostly meant “I’m not a Catholic.” Here in the South, it means, “I’m not a nitwit.”

And far too often, I hear us at OPC say about ourselves that “I’m not a member of a mega-church.” It’s often easier to say what we are not. So what is it that we are? Who are we at our core, and how does that define us? And how does it help us answer this question that seems to obsess us so: “Who’s in?”

The lesson from Matthew this morning sheds some light on this. I find it to be one of the most intriguing and difficult texts in the New Testament. At first brush, Jesus seems to be playing against type. He is in a foreign land, a land of Gentiles, non-Jews, people who most certainly are not “in” as the people of Jesus’ time and tribe would have defined it.

And as this Canaanite woman comes to him seeking mercy, he first ignores, then rebuffs, and finally insults her before she is able to get the result she wants, healing for an ailing daughter. Does even Jesus get sucked into playing the game of “who’s in”?

Some of you took part in our Connect group last Spring, reading the book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. The author, Kenneth Bailey, walked us through some of the parables and stories of the New Testament, helping us to see them with the benefit of a mindset closer to that of those at the time of Jesus. And one of the texts he wrestles with is this very lesson of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.

Bailey points out that this meeting has to cross two social boundaries of the day: the first, that between Jew and Gentile; the second, that between man and woman. To get a glimpse of how women were viewed at the time, hear this quote from Ben Sirach, written about two hundred years prior: “A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness; women give rise to shame and reproach.” Not exactly material worthy of Susan B. Anthony…

What Jesus ends up doing, Bailey says, is taking the disciples through a process of confronting their own deeply held prejudices and, in the process, learning something about the nature of faith.

The very first word’s out of the woman’s mouth are a statement of faith not only in Jesus’ power as healer, but also in his identity within the broader salvation story. She calls him “Lord,” a theological title, and also “Son of David,” a statement of both Messianic and Jewish significance. Jesus’ response is utter silence, as would have been the custom of a rabbi of his day. She is not only not Jewish, she is not a man. She is not worthy of response.

The second moment comes, when the disciples beg Jesus to get rid of her, he draws the ethnic line in the sand: “I came to the house of Israel.” It is a rebuke of her on tribal grounds, even though she seems to know his national significance better than his own people do.

The third moment is the most uncomfortable: she persists, and Jesus calls her a dog. Dogs in the time of Jesus were not objects of affection. They were a step above pigs in terms of cleanliness. The term “puppy love” would have been an oxymoron. Dogs had two roles: vicious guards, or slimy scavengers. It is the latter which he calls her, because you don’t starve your own children in order to feed those who feast on garbage.

And this is the critical moment in the story. Remember that Jesus isn’t on home turf. He is in foreign territory, and has just called this woman “filth” in the presence of her own people.

Bailey’s analysis of the story is most critical here, saying that Jesus is holding up a mirror to the disciples by putting this woman through the ringer, giving them a very uncomfortable lesson in self-reflection. We can almost imagine them recoiling in horror, “Well, we might think that, but we wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, and we’re certainly not going to say it out loud!”

It is at this moment that the woman becomes the teacher. She responds, using Jesus’ own words against him with a flicker of humor: “Even the filthy dogs get the table scraps. You wouldn’t deny scavengers the chance to scavenge, would you?” And at that, Jesus responds in an outburst of joy: “Great is your faith! Let it be done as you desire.”

At this point, even the most thick-headed of the disciples would have recognized what is at stake. Nowhere in Israel have they seen the kind of character that this woman has exhibited, the courage to demand she be taken seriously, the risk she takes on behalf of her daughter’s well-being, the faith she has in the power of Jesus as healer, Messiah, and divine Lord.

It takes a while for the lesson to sink in, but is a short distance from this moment to Peter’s realization that “God shows no preference,” to Paul’s proclamation that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek…male nor female,” and to our own Presbyterian affirmation that God “calls men and women to all ministries of the church.”

There is no exclusion in the true body of Christ; God’s community embraces all.

Or, as the American poet Edwin Markham put it, reflecting the perspective of one on the outside:

He drew a circle to shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in.

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring what it means to exhibit Christian hospitality, to evangelize with integrity, to live faith lives that are truly invitational. And so today is merely a starting point, as we recognize what it is we are inviting people to. Our calling is to be a community not merely of inclusion, but of divine embrace. And in that distinction is all the difference: on the surface, Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is a lesson in confronting stereotypes, how we so often make assumptions that allow us to put people in boxes or dismiss them altogether.

And yet, the gospel is never just a superficial morality tale. Instead, it is a lesson in how we recognize faith in the most unlikely of places. Life comes out of death, love out of fear, salvation out of hopelessness, wisdom from the mouth of a Gentile woman. We embrace the other not because we want to be politically correct, but because we want to risk the possibility that we might gain heavenly wisdom.

This is the community that God has created, the circle that Jesus has drawn. And this is what we invite and welcome others to. Who’s in? Are you?

Amen.

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The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:

Some choices are clear: like, never stand under a tree in a thunderstorm.

I have no idea where I first heard this, but I’m sure that it was as a small child. It’s one of those safety lessons we learn when we’re young with the hopes that we might make it: don’t stand under a tree when there is lightning. Don’t touch the stove. Don’t put jellybeans in your ears. You know, the basics.

I don’t know how many of you have ever had the opportunity to put these things into practice, but they’re not always as easy as they might seem when you’re in a real world situation.

When I was in high school, a good friend of mine lived on a farm in Norcross. The land itself was a family heritage, but farming had faded into the family lore. Every year they had a huge July 4th celebration, and what had once probably been a cow pasture was no set aside for the softball field, the grandstand, the picnic area, and the fireworks show.

I would often end up there early in the morning to help with set up. One year, I remember, it was raining; and raining hard. We decided to wait it out in this one guy’s car. I don’t remember his name or anything else; except that he was a racist. Now, it’s one thing to talk to someone who harbors prejudices out of ignorance – there’s always hope that you can enlighten them. It’s another thing altogether when someone claims to have studied the issues and feels that their prejudices are well-grounded. This guy was one of the latter.

So, we had a choice. We could stay in the car with the Grand Wizard, or we could stand out in the open and get soaked. We made some excuse that it looked like the rain was getting lighter and piled out of the car. I honestly don’t remember if it was lightning then or not, but we chose to stand under a nearby grove of trees. Within two minutes, there was a flash, a crack, and a tree no more than five feet from us split in two. Now we had three imperfect choices:

  1. Stay under the trees, despite what mom always taught us
  2. Move out into the open, where we would be the tallest thing around
  3. Go back into the Mel Gibson-mobile

Have you ever found yourself in a no-win situation? Do you feel like you’re in one now? There are those choices that are obvious ones. But there as so many more that remain unclear. Perhaps you’ve even taken the time to make up a list of pros on one side and cons on the other, there still doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice. It could be deciding between a job opportunity and a place that feels like home…or between providing for children or making headway on debt…or between physical health and emotional health…or between styles of worship and music and preaching and church. What are we supposed to do when there’s no “right” answer?

I suppose one place to look is our Genesis reading, a good ol’ Biblical sibling rivalry. The twins battle it out for family favor, and their struggle divides the whole family in allegiances. In the excerpt we read this morning, the crafty Jacob convinces the short-tempered Esau to trade in his rights as the first born for a simple meal of bread and lentils. From where we sit, the lesson seems somewhat easy, and perhaps it is – the short-term gain is not worth the long-term loss. Esau’s mistake is a failure in critical thinking.

And yet, are we sure we would have made a different decision? Maybe…but we’re not Esau, are we? And we all know on some level how desires and cravings can short-circuit our ability to make the right decision. The most extreme example of that is addiction, a reality that touches many of our lives directly or indirectly. But there are choices we make every day where we engage in cognitive dissonance, knowing what we ought to do but doing the other thing because it just “feels” right or because the fleeting takes precedence over the eternal.

There is an inherent challenge in the choices we make because of the freedom we have. I’m not talking so much about our political freedoms, although I’m not not talking about them, either. To mention one, it often seems that freedom of the press has not led to a more just society or a more transparent government, but rather to a sensationalized fascination with the titillating details of public figures who have done nothing to deserve our attention.

But what I’m really talking about here is the freedom of which Paul writes in Romans, this freedom in Christ. Paul’s basic argument goes like this: before Christ, our relationship with God was all about the law. God gave us a set of laws to follow, most famously the Ten Commandments. And our relationship with God was based on how faithfully we followed that law. If we followed it perfectly, then we were in good shape. But if we blew even one point of the law, then we were in trouble. And that’s the problem, as Paul sees it. We are most definitely going to blow it.

Prior to his radical conversion to the way of Christ, Paul was a Pharisee. He was one of those jot-and-tittle law guys, obsessing over every detail, building law upon law upon law in order to keep the people in this legally righteous relationship with God. But what that approach masked, and what the arrival of Christ blew wide open, was that the root of God’s true relationship with humanity was one of grace. Mercy. Forgiveness.

Here’s another way to put it:

There is a separation between God and humanity. And there are two ways to bridge that gap. The first is law, whereby we make our way step-by-step across the gap. But if we miss even one piece of that law, we’ll never be reconciled with God. The second way is grace. And in grace, we do nothing. Nothing! It is God, in Christ, who makes that journey for us. And that journey sets us free. We are no longer stuck in the law; we don’t have to keep trudging across the legal bridge to God.

We are free.

And that’s the challenge! We are no longer confined. There is no longer a legal framework which binds us and to which we can submit every question that faces us so that it might return a definitive legal ruling to us. But by virtue of being set free, we are, as the translation puts it, out in the open, caught between hiding under the trees and being the tallest thing around. We are now exposed to the imperfect choices of life that face us day in and day out.

And that’s the paradox of our faith. Because we are free, because we are imperfect, because we will suspend our critical thinking in favor of short-term gain, because despite our every effort to make right decisions we will make wrong ones, God’s grace in Christ pursues us relentlessly. When we are faced with life’s imperfect choices, when those roads diverge in the woods, our choice may make all the difference. But the reality is that God will be with us no matter what path we take.

There are no perfect decisions. But God’s grace in Christ can perfect them for us. Far from being in a no-win situation, we are set free in reality where we cannot lose!

So feel free, free to give this life-in-faith thing a shot. We will make mistakes. We will mess up. We will make bad choices. And, most importantly, we will be free to see the grace of God at work in our lives. May it be so.

Amen.

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Don’t hold on. Let go…

This morning, we’re back in the garden. But unlike Thursday, where the garden was the place of betrayal, and unlike Friday, where the garden was the burial site, this morning, it’s simply a scene of confusion.

Mary Magdalene has gone to visit the tomb. A quick word about Mary. Centuries of interpretation have imposed upon her the identity of a woman of ill-repute. And while the gospels never spell that out, the fact that she is from Magdala, a port city (if you get my drift), is enough of an implication that this interpretation might be on target. And so, her visit is one of homage. This Jesus may be the first man who has treated her with the dignity and respect she deserves. He included her as a disciple. And now he’s gone…

But what’s worse is that his grave seems to have been violated. The stone has been rolled away. She runs in a panic to Simon and John who in turn go to check out the scene, leaving there as distressed as she. But Mary lingers. And she stays long enough to encounter angels and the risen Christ himself, but she is so distraught that she doesn’t even recognize him standing before her. It is not until he speaks that she understands that it is Jesus. And as she moves to embrace him, her grief turned to joy, he tells her not to hold on; but instead, to go back to the disciples and tell them the news.

How impossible that must have been for her! The one person who has treated her well, the one who has honored her as she deserved to be honored, was taken away by death. And now, it appears that this death was not real. But he doesn’t have time for reunions – don’t hold on. Let go. And go and tell the others what you’ve seen.

Don’t hold on. Let go…

For the past few months, we’ve been exploring this theme of “Packing Light” – in other words, in a world and in a culture where the accumulation of “stuff” is of the utmost importance, how do we be sure that we keep what is needful and eliminate what is not?

And therein lies the paradox: you would think that Jesus would be one of those things to bring along. And yet, here he is, telling Mary to let go. And that’s just it. In this exchange between the risen Christ and Mary, there is a lesson that sheds light on how challenging faith can be to our assumptions. Faith in God, faith in Christ, faith in something beyond ourselves, often feels like it’s just beyond our reach. So when we finally get a glimpse of it, when we touch it, even momentarily, when that moment of faith becomes real as comfort or dignity or joy or relief, we want to grab hold.

Like Jacob wrestling the angel, we want to hold on for dear life, demanding to be blessed. Or faith becomes a treasure, something we want to preserve for the rest of time. We want to put it in a display box where fingerprints and sunlight and the vagaries of an air-conditioned world will not be able to touch, to distress, to disintegrate, to devalue it.

But that gets us to the heart of the problem. Faith isn’t memorabilia: it loses its value when boxed in. Faith is faith only when it’s turned loose.

Don’t hold on. Let go…

This is exactly the problem with resurrection. Jesus isn’t Lazarus. As we read a few weeks ago, Lazarus died, and then Jesus raised him, but only so that he could go on to die another day. But not Jesus. And when Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, he wants to make it clear he’s not a figment, a ghost, an apparition. This isn’t simply a transformation into a spiritual reality. He invites Thomas to touch the place where the nails were driven. He eats with the disciples, breaks bread with them. He is not dead; nor is he mere spirit; instead, he is alive and real and physical, but not in the same way that he once was.

Resurrection isn’t the status quo. It is a total and utter transformation into a completely new way of being. The Jesus that Mary thought she knew isn’t the Jesus that stands before her in the garden. And that can be almost as terrifying as the idea that Jesus is gone.

Don’t hold on. Let go…

Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern gothic writer, constantly wrestled with questions of faith. She was distressed by the way that good people would do their best to domesticate Jesus, to box him in. But O’Connor knew that faith was risky. She put it this way: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” We may like to think that the purpose of faith is to keep us warm at night. But the risen Jesus defies our efforts to keep him limited.

Many of you know exactly what she was talking about. You’ve had that moment in your life where you think you’ve finally got Christianity figured out, that there are no surprises left. God is love, love your neighbor, and the rest flows from that. But then there’s that moment when you realize there’s a lot more to this than you ever imagined. God is love, yes, but God is also God. Love your neighbor, yes, but also love your enemies.

I’ve shared the story with you before of Will Campbell. Campbell was born dirt poor inMississippi. After serving in the South Pacific in World War II, he went to college and seminary and studied to be a Baptist preacher. His first call was to serve as chaplain at the University of Mississippi. In the mid-1950s, Will Campbell was fired for playing ping-pong with a janitor who happened to be black. From there,Campbell went on to work with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white member of its ranks.

In Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, he relates the story of the shooting of Medgar Evers, the young African-American who had integrated the University of Mississippi’s Law School. When Evers’ died from those wounds,Campbellwas with a close friend, who challenged the very assumptions of his faith. “Brother Will,” the friend asked, “Did Jesus die for Medgar Evers’ sins?”

“Yes, of course he did,” came the quick reply.

“What about that redneck Klansman that shot him. Did Jesus die for his sins, too?”

Campbell wrote of that encounter: “At that moment, I became a Christian.”

He visited Evers’ family, to bring them some hope in the good news of resurrection. And he then went to visit with that young Klansman in jail, to bring him some hope in the good news of forgiveness of sins and release to prisoners.

Campbell’s moment of conversion is embodied in another quote of Flannery O’Connor’s: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

Our encounters with the risen Christ defy our expectations and take us into uncharted, even terrifying, territory. Mary wanted to grab hold of the Jesus she knew and never let go. But the resurrection doesn’t allow for that. Maybe it’s that faith always keeps us guessing; but more likely, it’s that faith always keeps us stretching. Learning about God isn’t confined to Sunday School lessons for children. There’s no graduation from Christian Education. There is always more to absorb about how God works. There is always more to learn about faith than there is a lifetime in which to do it.

So where are we? We’re back in that garden, standing side by side with Mary, face to face with Jesus.

And in that encounter, it slowly dawns on us:
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

So let him go…

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(with apologies to Kevn Kinney for swiping the title)

I’m always struck by the power of the story of Jacob wrestling the angel: he bumps into a “man” and they wrestle until daybreak. The “man” injures his hip, and Jacob still refuses to let go until the “man” blesses him. He is given the name “Israel” and calls the place “Peniel,” so the man suddenly morphs into God.

I remember when Elizabeth was extremely ill; this was not long after we were first married. I was terrified, because she had to have surgery. And I confided to a friend that, among my many concerns, was the notion that my faith would not be able to take it. The friend replied, “If it’s faith, it’ll be there, whether you want it to or not.” The sky split open; light came streaming in; and I understood the nature of faith in a way that I never had before.

That night, I wrestled with God in my own way. And it was the story of Jacob at Peniel which anchored me in that prayer. “You know what I want,” I told God. “But no matter what, I’m not letting go.”

Elizabeth is facing another surgery in about a month. The details are very different, but it’s not surprising that this old memory would pop up at this time. I have a feeling God and I are going to have some long talks about all of this. But I ain’t letting go.

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