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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

September 29, 2019

Upon Further Review

Genesis 17:1-14; Acts 15:1-11

So the absolutely worst date I ever had was the first car date I ever had. I still feel sorry for that poor girl! We actually had gone steady when we were children, she in fourth grade and I in fifth. (Yes, that seemed like the thing to do when I was growing up in Farmville in 1975.) But years later, when I was 17 and she was almost 16, I bucked up my courage to ask her out on a real car date, and she said yes. And that one date was the living, breathing illustration of Murphy’s law: everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

I’ll try to keep this short for the sake of your actually hearing a sermon of some sort today, but it goes like this: I drove her in my father’s 1970 Oldsmobile fifteen miles through the country to Greenville, which was where you needed to go for a date that included something like a restaurant and a movie. I took her to a pizza place, where we ordered and waited, and waited, and waited, until the waitress came out to tell us that they had neglected to cook our pizza! Now, at that point it was too late to wait more, then eat, and make it to the show. So, I actually paid for the drinks and we left. We had enough time to go through the drive-through at McDonald’s so that we might have some sustenance for the movie. We sat in the theater parking lot to eat, and approached the ticket window in time to learn that my date’s chosen feature was sold out. So, instead of seeing Blue Lagoon we ended up watching Airplane! Now, if you’re old enough to remember those movies, then you know that we’ve reached disaster status by this point. But, I’m not done. You see, on the way home, about halfway home through the country, my dad’s 1970 Oldsmobile broke down. The water pump went out, and the car died, and the old thing silently rolled to the shoulder of the road. I would like to say here that the one redeeming element of the story was at this very point, because we rolled to a stop about fifty yards from the house of the only person I knew on that fifteen-mile stretch of road! (No cell phones back then, remember.) Thank you, God. So, I knocked on his door at about 11:30 p.m. with all the lights off, and the big, mean dog started barking, but the guy came to the door and let us use his phone, and my dad came and picked us up and drove back to our house and I took her in the car back to her house, and I don’t even remember what I said or what she said, but you know, at that point, it was just an epic failure. And here’s the thing: I never asked that girl out again. I was mortified. The only surprising thing about this experience is that I ever asked any girl out again. I can’t say I remember my second car date, but it must have happened, eventually. I mean, here I am, married for 23 years with two sons. I must have gotten over the trauma of it sometime.

Now, the sermon.

David Brooks quotes C.S. Lewis on this subject in his book The Second Mountain: “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it up carefully with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. . .” (The Second Mountain, 114-115).

I think that there is no more visceral analogy to faith than that: to have faith in God, and to become part of Christ’s church, is a risky investment. It makes a person vulnerable. To confess faith in God and to join Christ’s church will certainly mean having your heart twisted and possibly broken. Anyone who has joined the flawed family of faith will agree – some of us from the inside, having been healed, some of us from the outside, whose hearts have never quite been healed. But as much as I would love to reassure someone considering such an investment, as much as I would like to say, “Don’t worry; you’ll never be hurt here,” I can’t. C.S. Lewis was right: to love at all is to be vulnerable. But we live to love. We are born into families, into schools of love. We learn early on that love is precious and it is delicate; it can hurt and it can heal. The Bible tells us that God so loved the world that God took on flesh in Jesus. God willingly became vulnerable for us, and God would be horribly wounded for doing so.

God, in other words, did not wrap up his heart, avoid entanglements, lock himself up safely in heaven’s vault. God came to us, gave himself to us, bound himself to us in a covenant. If there is any message we have for this world, that is it. If there is anything we need to say to a person who struggles to believe, or who doesn’t really want to believe, it is that. We are made to love. We are made to live in community with others. The only way to be fully human is to take the risk to love, knowing that along with love comes hurt.

The earliest stories of faith in the Bible tell it that way. Abraham doesn’t appear as someone on a religious quest, desperately seeking meaning in life. On the contrary, God appears to Abraham. God makes the first move. God chooses Abraham. And God makes promises to Abraham and Sarah, and expects Sarah and Abraham to be loyal to him.

Lesslie Newbigin, the English missionary, called it the scandal of particularity. God loves the whole world by choosing one person, one couple, one nation. People love in the same way: particularly. People who marry, marry one person, not all people. People find their true selves not by gazing inward, but by living in trust, in vulnerability in actual communities.

David Brooks writes, “Individualism says, You have to love yourself before you can love others. But the second mountain ethos says, You have to be loved first so you can understand love, and you have to see yourself actively loving others so that you know you are worthy of love” (53).

Spirituality in the Bible is a shared, incarnate experience of giving and receiving, of trusting and being trusted, of confessing and forgiving. That’s because we believe that being human requires these things. And we believe that as long as a person avoids these things, avoids being vulnerable, it’s like locking your heart up in a safe.

Our congregation stands on the threshold of a new chapter in its life. We do so with great reason to be joyful, to be hopeful, to be excited about what comes next. People who demonstrate this much gratitude, this much love for one another, are poised to extend themselves in love to others. The pastor whom you have called demonstrates a deep love for the Lord Jesus and an expansiveness of heart that is winsome. Is there anything more that the Lord would want? You know as well as I do that the task before us is to bear witness to the love of God to a generation that has been hurt, that has trouble trusting, that has trouble committing. It’s not that young people don’t believe in God; it’s just that any human being can be skeptical about taking the risk to love. And we’re not asking people just to believe that there is a God; we’re inviting people to trust God, to be committed to God, in the only way commitment to God happens: within a community of faith.

Stephen Prothero, the religion professor, wrote an article several years ago in which he quoted his teenage daughter. She told her father “that her friends don’t want to be ‘branded.’ Nobody her age wants to be seen as forcing religious or political views on friends, and to declare oneself ‘Christian’ or ‘atheist,’ ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ seems pushy” (Millennials Do Faith and Politics their Way, USA Today 03/29/10).

It occurred to me that there is a painful challenge in our invitation to Prothero’s daughter and to everyone her age: we invite them to become part of Abraham’s family, not literally to be circumcised, but to be marked as belonging to God among a particular people. In one sense, we are inviting a person to be branded, in a way analogous to Jews wearing caps on their heads, or Muslim women wearing scarves, or someone who gets married wearing a ring. We are asking someone to make the risky move to commit to loving the God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus, specifically, exclusively, with all the vulnerability that goes along with it. Be baptized. Make the vows to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Don’t sit on the fence, affirming the value of all religions without practicing any particular religion; jump in, giving yourself in the only way that’s possible for a human. Love the whole by loving particular people. Risk associating yourself with someone, in order to be a blessing for everyone. That is a covenant.

The truth is that God’s people have wrestled with this call ever since God approached Abraham. The largeness of God’s love was always more expansive than God’s people could fathom. Even though it’s right there in the conversation – “I will make you exceedingly numerous,” “you shall be the father of many nations” – that truth always has been abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine. So the earliest Christians, who were Jews, ended up debating whether Gentiles should be circumcised or not. They knew God’s promise to Abraham, and they knew God’s command that Abraham circumcise every male of his family. But God’s purposes raced past their ability to perceive them. Apostles such as Peter and Paul chased after the Holy Spirit, sharing the Gospel farther and farther from Jerusalem, deeper and deeper into Gentile territories, eventually forcing difficult discussions about what it means to belong to God, and how that belonging is marked. The Jerusalem Council was the first church conference, the first debate among those people of goodwill about what God was doing in their midst.

You may imagine it to be something like those excruciatingly long breaks that now are a regular part of professional sports, when the officials stop the clock, leave the field of play, and circle up to look at the instant replay. Those folks who know the rules best, and who are best positioned to enforce them, sometimes require the help of further review, as they try to get it right.

To be honest, a careful reading of the New Testament leaves open the question about what the church decided that day in Jerusalem. To compare Paul’s version in Galatians with Luke’s version in Acts, one is left with the prospect that the church never did resolve the conflict. It’s highly likely that some Christians continued to believe that Gentiles needed to obey certain aspects of the Jewish purity laws, in order to be in fellowship with Jewish Christians; and that other Christians, such as Paul, vehemently disagreed.

We are left to acknowledge that the church always will wrestle with this question: “Who’s in and who’s out?” The church always will struggle to know what is required of a person to be part of this community of faith.

Terrence Malick’s movie To the Wonder left one reviewer calling Malick “a blend of director and Christian minister.” Early in the movie, the main characters, Neil and Marina, visit a medieval abbey on the coast of Normandy. “With its earliest building dating to the 11th century, Mont Saint-Michel is a magnificent symbol dating from the Age of Faith, when believing in the Christian God was second nature. Marina and Neil are duly impressed. Though they do not share the ready faith of the people who communed there centuries earlier, they are struck by a sense of transcendence. They climb the steps to the top of the abbey and come out on a courtyard with gardens and cloistered hallways surrounding it. ‘We climbed the steps . . . to the wonder,’ remarks Marina.

“[Yet] Throughout the movie, Neil and Marina struggle with the inconstancy of love and other exaltations” (The Christian Century, 06/26/13).

Might our own grounds and buildings be a place of pilgrimage for real people struggling with the inconstancy of love? Should we not take another look at what our ancestors have bequeathed to us – this sanctuary of amazing beauty, the tree-dotted hills around it, the orderly gardens that inspire wonder – and promise to welcome those who hunger and thirst for something they cannot yet name?

Do you doubt that even in an age when faith in the God and Father of Jesus is not second nature, do you doubt that all people still hunger and thirst to know and to be known, to trust and be trusted, to love and be loved by the One who made them? I don’t. I believe it with every fiber. And I believe it because Jesus Christ is fully human as well as fully God. In his incarnation, Jesus shows that to be human is to be vulnerable for the sake of love. Jesus in his incarnation shows that to be God is to be vulnerable for the sake of love.

C.S. Lewis said it: “If you want to make sure of keeping your heart intact, you must give it to no one. . . But . . . it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. . . The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers . . . of love is Hell” (Brooks, 115).

I don’t know where the Lord leads us next. I don’t know what surprises are in store, or what struggles we will face, or what disagreements we might engage. I do know that there are surprises in store, and struggles, and disagreements, because such is life lived in love. And such is the expansiveness of God’s purposes that to follow Jesus is to chase after the Holy Spirit.

God forbid that we never have to take a second look. God grant that our mission be so wonder-filled, and our community of faith so winsome, and we get so far out there, that sometimes we will have to stop, ask for time, and pause for further review; because to love at all is risky.

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