Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and inspires our time together.
One of my fondest memories growing up was reading the newspaper. To be clear, I was only interested in the Comics. I loved “Garfield”, “B.C.”, “Hagar the Horrible”, and “The Wizard of Id.” I really loved “JumpStart” by Robb Armstrong because it showed a black family that was not unlike my own. I hated “Dilbert” though. The dry, office humor was beyond my child mind. My absolute favorite comic was a classic – “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz. I identified with the grating reality of Charlie Brown’s lack of self-confidence. Charles Schulz created what would become one of my favorite “Peanuts” comics 10 years before I was born in 1976. In this comic, Snoopy sits down to write a book on theology. Charlie Brown says, “I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy thinks to himself, “I have the perfect title.” The title for his book on theology was “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”
This morning I want to reflect on the idea of God outside of our familiar places. It strikes me that this idea is especially timely in a couple of ways.
First, we are worshiping in the Undercroft for the second week in a row while we patiently await the completion of some air-conditioning repairs upstairs. I’m not sure how it feels for you, but this whole space feels really disorienting to me. I have gotten used to preaching and celebrating Eucharist upstairs in the Nave. Up there I know who sits where, where I need to stand, and how I need to move, but this entire space feels foreign to me and I must admit some nervousness in the moment. Patterns and familiarity are helpful connection points to God; and, God often moves beyond the boundaries our well-worn paths.
It is also true that our church is also stepping into some unknown spaces as we discern how God might be calling us to be “Church” in the 21st century on the corner of Meyer Boulevard and Wornall Road. While there are many conversations, both locally and globally, about what it means to be a person of faith in a rapidly shifting, increasingly secular world, we are still making this new road by walking it, blazing new trails of ministry and mission into the unknown. Patterns and familiarity are helpful connection points to God; and, God often moves beyond the boundaries of our well-worn paths.
I could go on and on, naming other areas of anxiety-in-the-unknown of our common life, and many of you have examples of it in your own life. Kids who were once knee-high to grasshoppers are now leaving home and going away to college, or parents and loved-ones who were once self-sufficient are requiring greater levels of care, or jobs that once seemed so secure are now feeling increasingly less-so. Patterns and familiarity are helpful connection points to God; and, God often moves beyond the boundaries of our well-worn paths.
It feels very unsettling then, particularly in the midst of ever-heightening anxiety, to read our Gospel where Jesus is giving Peter, and whoever else will listen, a verbal smackdown. “You think I’ve come to peace? Think again! I’ve come to bring division!”
Not exactly the Jesus many of us think we need right now. We want the Good Shepherd – the one who promises to lead us through the shadowy valley of death or the Messiah – the one who promises to fight for our cause and save us.
But the Jesus we are given a glimpse into today is one who refuses to be tamed and told what to do, one who resists our insistence on neatness and orderliness. This is a Jesus who colors outside of the lines and is proud to do so.
Maybe what warrants our exploration isn’t Jesus’ words or actions here, but our own insistence that Jesus play be our rules. Where does that come from? Why do rely on it so heavily? And how might we move beyond our own well-worn paths in order to experience the mystery of God all around us.
I’m not sure how you might feel, but my own insistence on God playing by my rules comes from my own discomfort with a God I can neither define nor control. I feel small when face-to-face with such awesome, unspeakable power and mystery. To put it another way – I feel completely out of control, which runs against the grain of my wiring to control, to name, and to define. As a popular quote describes, “God created man in his own image, and man returned the favor.” This feels very true for me. I am happy when God thinks like me, holds my political views, and upholds the causes dear to me own heart; but I become incredibly anxious and angry when God refuses to play by my rules.
Among the litany of faithful women and men named in Hebrews 11, the so-called “Hall of Faith,” are many people who had the same struggle. One of them was Moses – the greatest name in all of Judaism. Dr. Wil Gafney, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School, suggests that Moses’ proclivity to control, name, and define God is on full display in Exodus. As she recalls the story of Moses and the burning bush, she writes:
Once upon a time, a man encountered a burning bush ablaze with fire that did not consume the bush. Hearing his own name called not once but twice, the man entered into the conversation with the Voice coming from the bush. When asked for a name, the Voice-in-the-Bush said, “I AM/WILL BE WHO I AM/WILL BE.” When he came down from the mountain, naming the Voice-in-the-Bush, the man said, “He said his name is the LORD.”
Moses could not help himself. It was bad enough that he was hearing voices and seeing a bush that lit up without burning up; he could not tell people that the Voice had no name. So he did what any faithful person would do – he named it. He gave the voice a gender, a social status, and a hierarchy despite the fact that the Voice-in-the-Bush claimed none of that to theirself. Moses could not bear the messiness of the mystery. The allure of certainty was too strong.
In my own life, I find this temptation rings loudly for me, particularly in times when I am anxious or afraid. In those moments, I find that my prayers sound more like a “Honey-do List” for God rather than an interior posture of openness and receptivity to what God might be saying to me. In those moments, deep down I know that I am acting from fear, not faith. If I am honest, there are times I do not actually trust God to be God and so I feel as though I have to give God an assist.
Much like Abraham and Sarah, the story Fr. John referenced last week in his sermon. God said that Abraham and Sarah would have heirs to inherit their blessing but when the blessing delayed, they both felt as though they had to help God along.
One of the hardest lessons to learn on this faithful journey is that of letting go and relinquishing control. We are so wired to expect particular outcomes and goals. We are so attached to end-results and our own measures of success. But I wonder what we might be missing in the meantime. I wonder, instead of spending all of our energy swimming against the tide of God’s grace, what might happen if we relaxed into the ocean of God and trusted God to be God.
It is certainly harder than you or I might come to expect and I am certainly not speaking as one who has already attained it; but, I am aware that in my own life I tend to make a pretty big mess of things when I forget to let God be God. “Surrender” is at the heart of religion in general and Christianity in particular. “Take up your cross and follow,” Jesus says. He invites us to surrender our will to God’s, our idea of success to God’s call to faithfulness, our intended outcome to God’s ultimate desire.
And maybe we start there – at the level of desire. Dr. Howard Thurman, one of my favorite Christian writers and theologians, suggests that, “the experience of God… creates in me the desire to desire to give up more and more of that which impedes my growth and my development in the knowledge and the love of God.”
We may not possess the ability to open our hands and hearts to the mystery of God, but I deeply believe that the desire to desire that openness is a good place to start. If we can admit to ourselves how tightly we cling to smallness simply because we are afraid of God’s expansiveness, that might open our hearts wider to God’s love and grace for ourselves and others. If we can but admit that sometimes it feels like our relationship with God is like walking a tightrope, then we might be more open to falling…
…falling more deeply in love with God.
Too often the story the Church shares about our relationship with God rests on surety rather than faith, facts rather than the openness. We place the bar of relationship and connection to God so high that no one, not even the most faithful among us, can reach it.
And yet we are surrounded, encompassed as the King James Version of the Bible describes it, by a great cloud of witnesses who were just as screwed-up and uncertain as the rest of us, but managed to open themselves up and give themselves over to the ever-expansive love of God.
Jesus’ words today are a reminder that patterns and familiarity are helpful connection points to God; and, God often moves beyond the boundaries our well-worn paths. God does so in order to remind us of the proper order of things, that God is God and we are not, and that from that place of openness, we might open our hearts and hands in love and gratitude for the richness of the world around us and discover the presence of God in the most unlikely of places, in the places we are deeply afraid to admit that we just might be wrong.
What do you think? I’d love to hear about the strangest place you might have encountered God and what you learned in that experience.
 Wil Gafney. “Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 47.
 Howard Thurman. The Creative Encounter: An Interpretation of Religion and the Social Witness (Richmond, IN; Friends United Press, 1954), 122.