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    Mar 08, 2020

    A Step (audio unavailable)

    A  Step (audio unavailable)

    Speaker: Rob McClellan

    Series: March 2020

    Category: Lent

    Audio unavailable

    Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

    1What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

    13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

    16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

     “A Step”

              Anthropologist William Ury once said, “Four thousand years ago, a man and his family walked across the Middle East, and the world has never been the same since.”[1] He was talking about Abraham, the central figure in each of today’s readings.  Ury is both an anthropologist and a negotiation expert.  He used that story as common ground when working in the Middle East.  Ultimately, out of that work, Ury used Abraham’s story to inspire a pilgrimage he led with Jews, Christians, and Muslims from 10 countries through Southern Turkey; Aleppo, Syria, named after Abraham; Jordan; Jerusalem; Bethlehem;  and finally Hebron, where we are told Abraham is buried. 

              Such a journey would have seemed impossible when Ury’s work started, so how did they pull it off?  It two years of preparation and study at Harvard, and then there came a point when they needed to step out in faith, not entirely sure how it would go. 

    I head an interview last week with a man named Nik Wallenda.  Wallenda is a tightrope walker who comes from a long line of aerialists (not all of whom have been successful by the way).  He holds eleven Guinness World Records, having tightrope-walked across Niagara Falls, over the Little Colorado River Gorge just outside of Grand Canyon National Park, and across two skyscrapers in Chicago, breaking records for the steepest tightrope between two buildings and for—yes—the highest tightrope walk while…blindfolded.  I am officially sweating.  The interview came as he was promoting a tightrope walk across a volcano.  I can’t even...    

              Wallenda said something interesting in the interview.  He said that hardest part is getting yourself to take that first step.  It’s not that it’s a harder step physically.  Wallenda trains in harsher conditions than he performs, practicing in winds of 90 miles an hour knowing he won’t actually walk in anything above 45 miles per hour (scaredy cat).  What’s hard is that first step because it’s turning his conviction into action, a step of faith that hopefully does not become a leap of faith.

              When I was younger, someone compared faith to belief in this way:  Belief is saying, “I think this chair will hold me, based on what I know of chairs and what I assess of this chair in particular.”  Faith is sitting in it.  That simple explanation captures it.  Of course, to make the point they brought out a rickety chair, and all I could think was not all faith is well-placed, and that is so.  Is faith merely taking risks and assuming it will work out the way you want, that you won’t be let down?  Is that what Abraham did?  Is that what Paul is recommending?

              Many of us are taught some form of this, what I call “young Christianity”:  If you just pray, if you just do the right thing, if you just stay in line, it will all work out.  I have to admit there are ways in which it taking a certain positive and trusting approach does seem to attract good things.  Then again, I believe it works…until it doesn’t.  Then the fall is great.  Has young Christianity ever let you down?  You don’t get what you deserve, your love is unrequited, someone gets sick and doesn’t get better.  These can all become crises of faith if you have a certain kind of faith.  The result is your whole system crumbles and you recognize just how fragile it all was. 

    Fragile is the right word.  Ted Peters, Lutheran theologian writes about what he calls the fragile soul.[2]  The fragile soul is a life built on establishing some system which has requirements that if you only meet then you will be safe, protected, okay.  It could be a moral system.  It could be a set of achievements.  It could be how many good deeds you rack up.  None of these things is bad.  In fact, they can be quite good and useful, but a robust soul they do not make.  Peters says we are after a robust soul and any system we create in order to manufacture a robust soul by winning approval will ultimately crumble beneath us like that rickety old chair.  We all know the anxious do-gooders.  They do wonderful, charitable things beyond themselves, and thanks be to God, but they never seem satisfied, are never at peace, and their affect creates disruption even as they try and cultivate peace or justice or wellbeing.  We all know people who try and be good, try to be faithful, but when something goes wrong it just unravels, understandably.  We know people who are incredibly driven, but they never arrive at a satisfying destination and they burn through everything in their tank and in their path.

    The robust soul is not defined by the external.  It can only come from the internal reality of our ultimate acceptance by God.  Peters uses traditional theological language.  He says, “I believe justification-by-faith is the single most important and life-giving truth.”[3] What does that mean?  Saying faith justifies sounds like one more thing to do:  have faith.  But, Peters isn’t talking about gripping ever tighter to a set of precepts.  In fact, his understanding of faith is more like letting go.  It’s letting go of all the “have tos” “supposed tos” and “shoulds” that we employ to try and earn our acceptance.  For Christians, faith is simply and profoundly trusting that in Christ we are okay, not our belief in Christ, not our knowledge of him, not how well we measure up against him, we are okay in him, full stop.  

    Faith is the radical letting go of that and leaning on the trust that we are fundamentally accepted, as one of the most important theologians of the last century Paul Tillich would tell us.  In his seminal work, The Courage to Be he says, “the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”[4]  We perhaps rightly recoil at the notion that we are by unacceptable, though I think many of us carry a degree of self-loathing from which Tillich’s comment is, in fact, meant to release us.  As Paul puts it, we may rest on grace, which is most certainly not a rickety chair. 

    This does not tend to produce lazy, self-absorbed individuals.  Rather, for most of us, it frees us for action.  Think of how much psychic energy usually spent on worry that could be released if we just stopped trying to prove our worth.  For most of us, that energy flows toward joyful service.  That energy becomes the source of the courage to do what is right, what is faithful.

    It still takes courage, but you are courageous.  Do you know that?  I wonder how many of us truly think of ourselves as courageous.  Don’t be fooled by appearances.  Sometimes the most outwardly confident are the most inwardly afraid, but we are all courageous.  I’ll prove it to you.  What do Christians traditionally say of Jesus, that Jesus is God made flesh, that God took on all the vulnerabilities of human living, of creaturely life, that God emptied God’s self of God’s power as Paul puts it (Phil. 2:6-11).  That’s quite an act of courage.  Well, somewhere in the great journey our souls chose to do that too, to show up in this world in this moment, exposing ourselves to all its vulnerabilities. 

    For some, Lent is about finding that courage again, as Jesus did when he stared down his tempter in the desert.  Lent is a journey that leads us to Easter, the resurrection, the ultimate display of the robust soul, one that cannot be shaken even by death.  Last week, on the first Sunday of Lent, we spoke about God as the one in whom we can safely hide, where we can heal, rest, be out of sight while we sort things out, while we can just be, with our guard down.  When we take the time to hide in God, we start to recognize our true core, our robust souls.

    When we are in our hiding place it doesn’t matter what career we have or had or will have.  It doesn’t matter how much we have earned or will earn.  It doesn’t even matter how much good we’ve done.  All of that falls away, which is incredibly freeing.  It’s scary when those things are stripped from us out in the open, but in our hiding place in God it’s totally liberating.  There we are left with the simple and profound truth (what other kind is there?) that we are, that by the grace of God, we are.  We exist.  If hiding in God or sitting before God is too abstract, think of it this way…Have you ever sat and looked out at a great vista, at a beautiful mountain or expansive view of the ocean and had that feeling of release?  What’s that from?  The mountain doesn’t care about who you are, the ocean isn’t impressed by your car.  They are indifferent and it is that indifference that teaches us external affirmation is not the primary point.  Our identity is not bound up with them.  We return to the Lenten journey year after year to learn and relearn that lesson, and that’s what allows us to take that all important first step on the many journeys we face in life.  Right now, many of us, maybe all of us, are facing a big first step of one sort or another.  As a people we are facing a number of big first steps.  This season of prayer to accept our acceptance is how we get ready to take that step.

    I wrote the first draft of this sermon on Wednesday morning, as is my custom.  As of then, Nik Wallenda the tightrope walker had yet to make his attempt across the volcano.  That was scheduled for Wednesday night.  I was faced with a decision.  I could wait to finish to see the outcome.  If he made it, think of the drama, of the lessons I could draw about the success that will come if you but step out in faith.  Conversely, if, God forbid, Wallenda were to fall, think of what I could say about the real risk of the faith to which we are called.  Look no further than the life of Jesus. 

    As it turns out, I didn’t wait.  I didn’t wait because procrastinating, which my younger self embraced like an Olympic sport, now gives me hives.  More importantly, I didn’t wait because it doesn’t matter.  Of course, it matters for the sake of Wallenda, but not as an image for faith.  Faith isn’t about making it; it’s about taking it, the step, the right step.  Walking across a volcano on a string is, in a word, dumb.  Is it brave?  Debatable.  What I think is brave is what you’re doing, walking on solid ground, trying to live lives of integrity wherever your walk takes you.  What I think is brave is doing what is right even knowing it’s not necessarily going to go your way.  Sometimes it’s brave just getting out of bed and putting your feet on the ground.  And while the young Christian faith will be rattled and undone by a misstep or a stumble, an evolved faith, a grounded faith, will not confuse its integrity with outcomes.  When you have that kind of faith you have all the freedom you need to step out in faith whether it’s to walk across the Middle East, a volcano, or your living room.

    Do you know the difference between Wallenda and you?  Wallenda used a safety harness.  Your next step will be more courageous.  Amen.


    [2] Ted Peters, Sin Boldly:  Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2015). 

    [3] Peters, 2.

    [4] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be 2nd edition (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1952), 164.