August 21, 2005

Click here to read Romans 12:1-8.

There is a lot of commotion these days about spirituality. “Spirituality” has become a sort of alternative choice for people who lack interest in religion. The wider culture prefers spirituality over religion, that’s for sure. There are the sayings—“Religion is for people who are afraid of Hell, and Spirituality is for people who have already been through it.” And then there are all the countless folks who proclaim that they are “Spiritual, not religious.” What bothers me about this is not that people claim a Spirituality beyond the boundaries of religious faith. What bothers me is the implicit assumption that one is either spiritual or religious—that there is no such thing as a Christian spirituality!

A noted professor used to confound his seminarians with the question, “Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?” This professor was trying to get his students to consider the ramifications of grace. Through grace, we accept the invitation to be in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Through grace, we recognize that our Creator God is loving, merciful, and forgiving. Through grace, we are saved from fear and liberated from sin.

Now what?

Grace was at the front and center of Paul’s understanding of the ministry of Jesus, and he stridently defended the notion that it is God’s grace, not our works, that save us. But Paul refused to allow that grace to be abused. He believed in the importance of human response to God’s grace. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is an attempt to answer this question, “Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?” And I believe that this answer is a Christian spirituality, something to be practiced faithfully as a response to God’s amazing grace.

The passage begins with an appeal for Christians to remember God’s mercy. God’s mercy is the foundation of our whole relationship with God. Despite our astounding capacity to do the wrong thing, God loves us and yearns to be loved by us. Despite our atrocious treatment of Christ Jesus, God breathed new life into him on Easter morning. God’s mercy is like the air we breathe: ever-present and essential.

It is shamefully easy to forget how radical God’s mercy really is. Imagine a world without light, a world in which our whole lives were cloaked in darkness and fear. Or picture a whole lifetime with no laughter. Our every hope and our every joy is a signature of God’s grace, the gifts of a loving and merciful Source of all Being.

How else can we respond to the mercy of our new life in Christ but with heartfelt thanksgivings?

Thanks-giving is not passive. It is the act of recognition and gratitude. It is the nucleus giving a pulse to our praise. But we are not called to contain our praise to just Sunday morning. We are called to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

God only wants this much from us: our whole beings, mind, body, and soul. God is not content with half-hearted discipleship. The only reasonable response to God’s amazing grace is to give our whole lives to God. The living sacrifice to which we are called is none other than the call to love Jesus and to love the way Jesus loves. To love God the way Jesus loves God. To love our neighbors the way Jesus loves them. To love our enemies the way Jesus loves them. This is Christian spirituality. When we love Jesus and love as Jesus loved, we open ourselves to the will of God. We relinquish any pretense that we can live our lives for our own purposes and surrender ourselves to that which is holy and acceptable. The Disciples pastor Jan Linn writes, “Anyone who takes Christian spirituality seriously is making a commitment to pick up the cross of unconditional love, which is the ultimate sacrifice a Christian can make” (The Jesus Connection, 52).

This is not a spirituality for the weak-hearted. This is a tough and gritty spirituality, one that refuses to allow us to ignore the world and all its pain. This is also an embodied spirituality, one that demands that we praise God with our voices and our muscles. Christian spirituality insists that we respond to God with fullness and commitment, integrating our whole beings into the work of emulating the love of Jesus.

The next verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans almost seems obvious. If we are truly called to present our very bodies as living sacrifices to God, if we are bound to do the work of loving like Jesus, however could we dare allow ourselves to be conformed to the world? The world has its moments of sweetness and light. As Madeleine L’Engle writes, “Nothing is too secular to be sacred.” But just as surely, there are a lot of cracks and fissures in this broken world. Our culture laughs at the notion of unconditional love. Our culture says that what makes us lovable is not that we are Created by a merciful God who extends boundless grace. Our culture says that what makes us lovable is health, wealth, beauty, and success.

Don’t doubt the power of the world’s ideas about love. There are whole industries built to help people conform to the world’s standards of lovability. Not young enough? Try this cream. Not handsome enough? Mask it with this slick car. No matter what your weakness, be certain that someone is out there ready to sell you the perfect antidote.

Health, wealth, beauty, and success are great. They just don’t matter in the divine economy. Regardless of what any television evangelist may tell you, they are not signs of God’s favor. They are incidentals: transitory, irrelevant. When we take up the cross of loving unconditionally the way Jesus loved, we necessarily give up our stock in narrow and superficial definitions of love.

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, not by conforming to the world. When we respond to the grace bestowed on us by God through Jesus Christ, we risk everything. We risk everything because our whole world changes. No longer are we the center of our own private universe. We are transformed by mercy, regenerated by grace. Making the commitment to follow Jesus and adopt the greatest commandment as our living sacrifice means that we are no longer the same broken individuals, but we are part of the Body of Christ, freed to love and serve.

I want to return to the question at hand. “Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?” I think all too many people view our response to God’s grace as something that takes place in a split second. For evangelical Christians, the moment in which one accepts Jesus as the Son of God and his or her personal savior is too often frozen in time and compartmentalized from any sort of ongoing life of faith. For mainline Christians, the somewhat awkward notion of “membership” in a community of faith is too often considered the extent of one’s religious commitment. Both are mistakes because they fail to evoke the embodied Christian spirituality to which we are called.

As witnesses of God’s grace, we must respond with more than nominal commitment or momentary passion. Once the mercy of God is made real to you, once the love of Christ gets under your skin, there is no other reasonable option but to praise the Holy One.

The soul of Christian spirituality is discipleship, the ongoing process of being transformed and formed by the life and ministry of Jesus. The backbone of Christian spirituality is grace. The heartbeat of Christian spirituality is love.

By the mercy of God, the grace of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, may we be a transformed and transforming people, growing always in commitment and passion to love as Jesus loved. Amen.


The Teachable Jesus

Click here to read Matthew 15:21-28.

What a story we have before us today! The story of the Canaanite woman’s faith might conclude with a miraculous healing, but it begins with a surprising and confounding incident in which Jesus is more than a little bit rude. When you hear this story, do you cringe at the part where he calls the woman a dog? I certainly do. Nowhere in my set of preconceived notions about how the Son of God should behave does it allow for Jesus to be cranky or mean. Of course, our preconceived notions don’t always serve us well when it comes to interpreting the Holy Bible. The gospel is proclaimed in this passage as clearly as it is proclaimed in the scriptures that portray Jesus merrily welcoming children. We just have to open our hearts to God’s intentions the very same way Jesus’ heart was opened.

The context in which this narrative unfolds is an old one that is repeated all too often in history, one that we can open up the newspaper and read about any morning. Animosity between groups of people rooted in religion, culture, race, language. Animosity that is stoked by mistrust and violence. Animosity that is passed down generations until no one even remembers how the hatred started. This is the kind of relationship the peoples of Israel and Canaan enjoyed. They were enemies, pure and simple. In fact, a common insult for Canaanites was “dog.” One can imagine that Jesus heard his fellow Israelites toss that term of degradation around quite often, and you can bet the Canaanites had their own choice words for Jews.

Jesus clearly understood that he had a ministry to do. He understood that he was called to teach, heal, and redeem God’s people. But he did not understand who God’s people were. He had a blind spot that was fueled by the misunderstanding and hatred between Jews and Canaanites. That is, until a certain Canaanite woman set him straight.

The exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is painful to read. The woman was faithful from the start, referring to Jesus as her Lord and the Son of David. There is no “if you are the Lord and Son of David,”—which is how the disciple Peter addressed Jesus in our reading from last week. With the Canaanite woman, there is no question, no need for proof. She addressed him with absolute respect and with full belief that this man had the capacity to heal her tormented daughter. Can you imagine how far that woman’s heart sunk when she was rejected by Jesus? Yet she persisted. This woman’s faith was great enough to bring her to her knees in front of the one who dismissed her. It was when she was prostrate in front of her Lord when the salt was poured on the wound. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. This woman had made herself completely vulnerable to Jesus, and just as she had lowered her head to “where it is possible to smell exactly what the Rottweiler had for lunch” (Mary Hinkle, Pilgrim Preaching), he likened her and her fellow Canaanites to dogs. There is no pretending that the words of Jesus were anything but an insult. In Ancient Jewish culture, dogs were not looked upon favorably. Jesus was not referring to well-loved family puppies when he conjured the image of dogs begging under the dinner table. In Jesus’ context, dogs were wild, unclean, and dangerous animals. Here is where anyone else would have given up. Anyone but the desperate, faithful, wise Canaanite woman, that is.

“Yes, Lord,” she says. She calls him Lord. Could you have called him Lord? This man, who you know to be the Son of David, the Messiah, who had just implied that you were not a human being at all but a dog—could you have called him Lord? Still submitted to him as the master of your life, the object of your love, the teacher of your spirit? “Yes, Lord,” she says. “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And Jesus’ heart was changed. Jesus eyes were opened to the will of God. What God wanted turned out to be even more radical than Jesus had ever imagined. God’s dream for Jesus was not to teach, liberate, love, redeem, and forgive only the people in his own culture. Rather, God sent Jesus into the world for the whole world— to bring the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven to all people, everywhere—even the ones he had been brought up to mistrust. Only a Canaanite woman with great faith in the Son of God could have taught Jesus the lesson he needed to learn.

We so often forget that our Rabbi, our teacher, had teachers as well. Remember that story of the teenage Jesus who went missing in the gospel of Luke? His parents searched for three days only to find him “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Surely, someone taught Jesus how to use the tools of his trade, mentoring him in the craft of carpentry and guiding him through his apprenticeship. Someone taught Jesus to read the Hebrew Scriptures. The lesson Jesus learned from the Canaanite woman may have been a dramatic and painful one, but it was not the first time another human being taught him a lesson. What we see in the Gospel of Matthew today is a living Jesus who embodies the humanity and divinity that Christians believe make him so worthy of our love and our trust. This Jesus is divine—our Lord, the Son of David, the one to whom God has sent his Spirit, “the one whom God has anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). But this Jesus is also a human, a teachable human.

I love this scripture for so many reasons. I love the fact that in an time when women’s voices were rarely heard, the words of the unnamed Canaanite woman were preserved. I love that the woman is vindicated, that the way she was treated was overturned, that her great faith was honored, and that her beloved daughter was healed. But most of all I love that we see a Jesus who is teachable.

I think we are most alive when we are learning. An infant learns her mother’s comforting touch. A third-grader learns to write the letter “Z” in cursive. A medical student learns how to detect and treat cancer. A widow learns to live joyfully without forgetting her loss. And the Son of God learns that his Holy Parent’s love cannot be contained within human boundaries like race, culture, and gender.

As much as any scripture read in the early dawn of an Easter morning, the story of the Canaanite woman’s great faith convinces me that Jesus is alive. Certainly, the resurrection narratives and Paul’s eloquent letters about the Risen Christ are helpful reminders that Christians proclaim that Christ Jesus lives. But sometimes I think we forget that Jesus lived before his death and resurrection. We allow the pages of the Holy Bible to become so two-dimensional that the larger-than-life person of Jesus becomes a sort of silhouette, an empty shadow that only mimics the living, breathing, healing, teaching, and learning Jesus. If we do not remember the vitality and wonderment of Jesus before his death, however can we believe that he lives even now? It is in scriptures such as this, in which Jesus struggles and succeeds to follow God’s will, that we see the seed of eternal life taking root in this fully human and fully divine Son of God.
I opened this sermon with the promise that the gospel is proclaimed in this passage as clearly as it is proclaimed in any scripture. There is indeed good news today. In this scripture, Jesus learned from the faithful Canaanite woman that the love of God is withheld from no one. The teachable, living Jesus learned that in fact there are no dogs scavenging for crumbs under the table. All of God’s children are given the gifts of God’s abundance. One and all are offered grace. One and all are among God’s beloved flock of sheep. One and all are invited to the feast of the Kingdom of God. May we all have such faith as the Canaanite woman—and may we all be as teachable as our living Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.


The Miracle is Faith

Click here to read Matthew 14:22-33.

I’ve been looking forward to preaching about Jesus walking on the water for a long time now. I’ve been carrying around a snappy opener for years. I’m here to tell you today that I have seen it done—and I have walked on water myself. I supposed this needs some explanation. I used to be a camp counselor. The first task of the season was to build a dock in the icy cold waters of Lake Silver. Well, one year we underestimated the amount of rain that would fall on Southern Michigan. When the rains started, the dock had a good 8 inches on the water level. But the water rose. And rose and rose. By the time August came around, our poor dock was completely submerged. Each day as the kids filed out for swimming lessons, it appeared as if each and every one of them had been seized by a miracle.

I haven’t seen a lot of movies depicting the gospels, but I’m willing to bet that the scene in which Jesus walks on the water makes it into most biblical films. Not only is the image of a human being taking a stroll on open water visually thrilling, but I bet those set-designers have a lot of fun creating believable illusions. Yet regardless of how fancy the special effects get, we all know full well that whatever actor is playing Jesus is either strung from the ceiling or standing on hidden floorboards. Our amazement is dependent on our ability to suspend disbelief.

This scripture is one that trips up a lot of contemporary readers of the bible. Some folks accept the terms of the miracle, consenting that the supernatural is an element of the realm of God. But others find the story untenable—clearly an exaggeration that makes believing in the Christian faith an embarrassment in the modern world. Yet with a lot of biblical stories, the pearls of wisdom in this story are found beyond the perimeters of literalism. So we don’t have to ask ourselves and God “did this really happen?” We don’t have to look for the seams revealing the illusion behind the miracle. We can approach this scripture with our whole minds and hearts, faithfully discerning God’s Word for us.

The gospel lesson today is about a miracle, but the miracle is not the act of walking on water. The miracle is about fear and faith. There are ways to read this text that proclaim that fear and faith are mutually exclusive attitudes, that we can only have one or the other. There are ways to read this text that judge Peter harshly for his doubt and fear. There are ways to read this text that dismiss the resounding drumbeat of one’s heart when that which one fears most is present. But I don’t want to read the text that way. The gospel is anything but superficial platitudes. If Jesus tells us not to fear when fear is a normal and natural response to danger, he must have a very good reason.

To be human is to experience fear. Newborns reflexively startle at unexpected movement. Children face a host of fears—vampires and dinosaurs if they are lucky, hunger and abuse if they are not. We are so easily headlocked by fear. Some are paralyzed by fear of failure. Some are assailed by waves of financial anxiety. Some are frightened of flying, or enclosed spaces, or spiders, or being alone. Some live in the shadow of violence or the valley of illness, forced to constantly acknowledge the real possibility of death. We are inundated with rational and irrational reasons to fear. And we respond to these reasons with rational and irrational actions. As the devastation of September 11, 2001 unfolded, guns sold out in Iowa. The intention of terrorism is not simply to harm those in the immediate path, but to send waves of fear throughout a whole people. We can drown in those waves, as Peter learned the hard way.

The narrative unfolds as the disciples are navigating very dark and stormy seas. Interestingly, in this story about fear, Matthew makes no mention that the disciples were afraid of the turbulent waters. These were men accustomed to the sea, men who made their living off the fish of these very same waters. The disciples were terrified not by the churning waves, but by Jesus. Never mind that this same Jesus just engaged in the healing of the sick and the feeding of 5,000 people with only a few loaves and fish. Regardless of their decision to follow Jesus, and despite Jesus’ power to mediate the presence of the Divine through his ministry, they still didn’t have a grasp on the identity of their teacher.

When Jesus started walking on the water he tapped into a primal fear. Only God walked on water, right? In the book of Job, God tramples the waves of the sea. In the 77th Psalm, God makes a path through mighty waters. So Jesus was either a ghost or the Son of God, and the shivering fear those disciples felt had them convinced of the former. I don’t know about you, but I’d be trembling with terror, too, if I thought I saw a ghost coming toward my boat in the middle of a nighttime storm.

But then, Jesus speaks. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” And he says this immediately, reaching out with words of comfort to quell the fears of his friends and followers. But it wasn’t enough for Peter. Peter’s fear and faith were braided together into the need for certainty. The proof he wanted proves to us that he had considerable faith. After all, one does not step out of a boat in a storm if one is not relatively sure that a miracle is at hand. Peter’s little test for Jesus—and perhaps for himself, as well—is going just dandy until he realizes how reasonable it is to be frightened at this point. The wind is still tossing the boat and the sun is still far from breaking the predawn horizon. Poor Peter is suddenly burdened by the weight of reality, and it causes him to sink.

His next actions are too often ignored or misinterpreted. Peter cries out for help. He cries out for Jesus to save him. He might have lost his faith in himself as a result of his fear, but he did not lose his faith in the power of Jesus, who has revealed time and time again that the Spirit of God is within him. When I imagine the tenor of Peter’s cry, I imagine a man who is terrified yet still trusts that the one whom he calls Lord will be his salvation from the waters of his fear.

Just as Jesus immediately spoke a comforting word to the disciples, he immediately reaches out his hand to rescue Peter, offering him the same gentle chiding he spoke to the disciples on so many occasions. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

There is no clear answer in the text as to whether Jesus is referring to Peter’s initial doubt that caused him to test Jesus’ identity, or whether he refers to the doubt Peter felt when fear overtook him on the waters. Maybe he refers to both. But in this same rebuke, Jesus recognizes that Peter has faith. A little faith. Perhaps faith the size of a mustard seed—but isn’t that capable of moving mountains when it comes to the economy of the Kingdom of God?

Beverly Gaventa writes that “to be of little faith… is to be among the disciples, struggling, asking questions, misunderstanding, fearing and starting all over again. It is, however, to be within the circle of those who have at least glimpsed who Jesus is.”

Peter called out to Jesus and was saved from his fear. How many times do we allow the chaos of our fears to prevent us from calling out to the one who can truly transform us from drowning doubters to worshipping disciples?

The problem is not that we experience fear. The problem is that we don’t always trust that Jesus will love and save us anyway. The only time Jesus dismissed the disciples’ fear was when their fear was directed toward him. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our fears offering words of comfort. The comforting words and extended hand of Jesus are there for us as individuals like Peter, called out for one reason or another into the crashing waves. And the comforting words and peaceable presence of Jesus are there for us as a church. Our little boat might be buffeted by the waves because the wind is against it. But the one who has the power to soothe the storm is in our midst. Just a little faith, brothers and sisters, is sufficient to remind us that Jesus awaits our cries with consolation and deliverance. Let that little faith move us as it moved through the disciples! Truly, Jesus is the Son of God. Thanks be to God!

Questions to consider: Do you struggle with biblical passages such as this one? Are you able to "get past" the literal and wonder at the underlying meanings of the text? What fears do you have that challenge your ability to trust God? What do you think about rethinking the notion of "little faith" to include the hope that a great tree emerges from the mustard seed?


July 31: Wrestling for Blessing

Click here to read Genesis 32:22-32.

I wish I could call the flower by name. Maybe you can imagine the variety of which I speak: strong, muscular green stalks rise up nearly three feet, crowned by large buds. A whole patch of these flowers were planted along the outside of the chapel at Claremont School of Theology. I had never seen them before, and to be honest, I didn’t think they were much to look at upon first glance. Not delicate like the ground-covering jasmine, not majestic like the Easter lilies blooming nearby. But each day as I passed by on the way to class, I noticed the struggle unfolding among those hefty green bulbs. Inside of each one a whole spray of purple blossoms grappled to emerge into the light. The struggle went on for days; at first, one particularly brazen blossom forced its way through the wall of the bulb. Day after day, I would check on the progress of the bulbs. At first it seemed like the teardrop-shaped buds would prevail; the petals were just so soft and young compared to the tough and weathered skin. But the blossoms persisted, and within a week the buds broke open completely to reveal flawless purple bouquets.

We Christians thrive on this kind of imagery. The impossible journey from death into new life is our favorite story. The seed is buried and matures into a magnolia tree. The recipient of baptism is immersed into water and reborn into new life in Christ. The body of Jesus is put into a tomb and resurrected on Easter morning. Whatever else we are, whatever else we do: the Christian Church is called first and foremost to be a witness to the unlikely miracle of regeneration, rebirth, resurrection. We are bound to practice faith where there is cynicism, hope where there is despair, and love where there is fear, because we have been gifted with God’s good blessing of new life through Christ Jesus.

Some folks receive the blessings of faith, the gift of new life, with openness and grace. I think David, the king and psalmist, was one of these open vessels for God’s blessing. Don’t get me wrong: David was a mess according to human standards, using his power in conniving and dishonest ways. But oh, those psalms! The ease with which David pours forth his thanksgivings and lamentations has always undone me. The words of the psalms bear witness to a speaker who knows the deep and abiding presence of a loving & merciful God.

There is another category of believers, though, for whom faith does not take a straightforward path. Some of us receive the blessing of faith and new life kicking and screaming, terrified for what it really means to allow ourselves to know and be known by God. And yes, you may note that here I speak in the first person, for I attest that I am definitely in this second category of believer. Just as the purple blossoms struggled mightily to breach the green bud cloaking them from daylight, many Christians fight their way to faith. Like Jacob, we find ourselves on a dark night of the soul wrestling with a stranger we only later recognize as God.

The story of Jacob’s encounter with God at the place called Peniel is a weird and wonderful tale, the kind that is full of details even the most learned biblical scholars and historians can’t quite figure out. There’s the mysterious man who turns up in the night. There’s the strange twist of events in which Jacob’s hip is intentionally injured. There’s the unusual power the man has to bless Jacob with a new name, Israel. And then there is the most unexpected development of all: we realize with Jacob that the man is actually God, inexplicably making a midnight appearance as a wrestling opponent for our wayward hero.

This is the kind of story that embodies the beauty of the Holy Bible: it is clearly the product of another place and time, dense with elements rooted in a worldview vastly different from our own. And yet this foreign tale manages to accurately depict the timeless human struggle to encounter God.

My own wrestling match with God started when I was very young. I grew up in a good church, surrounded by good people. But I always felt confused about my relationship with God. I wondered why I could not feel God’s presence. It seemed to me that if all these people were getting up every Sunday morning and making the pilgrimage to worship, they must be having some tangible experience of God. I felt awkward while praying, unsure of how my monologues were different than talking to an imaginary friend.

When I was eight, my best friend confided to me that she and her family prayed every night that I would be saved. This shocked and terrified me. I thought I was okay—confused, perhaps, but otherwise okay. She explained that the faith practiced by my family wasn’t enough—that I needed to invite Jesus into my heart personally.

So I did. I invited Jesus to come into my heart. And I was dismayed to realize that I felt much the same. God was no less of a figment of my imagination. And so the next time someone invited me to accept Jesus, I did. By the time I completed middle school, I had marched down the stadium aisles at a Christian rock concert and a Billy Graham Crusade. Each time felt like I was trying to wrestle Jesus into a headlock and force him to take up residence in my heart. It just didn’t work.

I finally gave up. I decided to join the masses of people who proclaim a spiritual life without the fetters of a religious commitment. I was frustrated, perhaps even angry, with Christianity.

However did I end up here, cloaked in robe & stole, proclaiming the Good News of Christ Jesus?

I went back to church. I went back to church even when I did not believe, even when anger still burned within me. I went to Quaker meetings, Episcopal Eucharist, Roman Catholic Mass. And after time, I realized that even though I had given up on God, God had not given up on me. God had not released me from our wrestling match, not until I was ready to receive the blessing I longed for.

All those years I tried to coerce Jesus into my own heart, and what I truly needed was to enter into the heart of the Body of Christ. Within the space of faithful congregations, I surrendered to the presence of a real and living God, a God who is no more imaginary than the Pacific Ocean.

Through my striving with God, I have been blessed with a mustard seed of faith. And like Jacob, I have been given a new name, a name that bears witness to my covenant with a community of faithful brothers and sisters. God called Jacob to be Israel. And God called me to be a Disciple of Christ, to live out my decision to follow the way of Jesus within the covenant of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This has been clear to me ever since I first made the good confession of faith at Ledgewood Christian Church in Ohio, and the events and fellowship that unfolded at General Assembly in Portland were a joyful reminder that this expression of Christ’s church is truly my home. We at South Bay Christian Church are part of a vibrant and prophetic Christian body, committed to a vision of deep Christian spirituality, true community, and a passion for justice. And, in the words of Sharon Watkins, our newly elected General Minister and President, we are a church whose time has come.

This, friends, is testimony: a story that begins with thrashing in the night, alone but for the God who seeks us out and wrestles us into blessing. A story that does not end but is transformed into a greater story, a story full of light and faith and a new identity forged of hope and covenant.

I have shared part of my story of faith with you. But it does not matter so much that it is my story. If Jacob had wrestled with an ordinary man, we wouldn’t still be reading of his strange encounter in the night. What matters is that we wrestle with God, and God wrestles back. God meets us in our suffering, encounters us in our floundering, and matches our strength until we give in and receive the transforming blessing of faith and covenant. Doubt is converted to faith. Shadows are cast out by light. Isolation is redeemed by community. Death is overcome by resurrection. And what seemed like a wrestling match that would never end becomes a dance.