Monday, July 31, 2006

“Beyond Your Wildest Dreams”[1]

Psalm 145:8-18; Ephesians 3:14-21

Psalm 145 is one of my favorite Scriptures. I like it because it tells us about a God who sounds very much like the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, the God who sends rain on the just and the unjust, and who makes the sun to rise on the good and the bad alike (Matt. 5:45). I like it because, in a way, I think it preaches the good news of the Kingdom of God—that God’s merciful kingdom embraces the whole creation and God’s grace extends to all humankind.[2]

A Tale of Two Readers. I’d like to tell you a “Tale of Two Readers.” Bible readers, that is. Readers of this Scripture, Psalm 145. The first reader is my wife, Kristi [I have her permission to share this with you, by the way]. She was raised in a very conservative Christian church in North Texas. She went to Sunday School and Church throughout her childhood and adolescence. She grew up studying the Bible and hearing the Bible preached. The other night, I asked her to read Psalm 145 and then tell me what she thought about it. At first she simply said “It sounds good!” When I pressed her for a more specific response, she said, “It describes God as I hope he is.”

The second reader is David R. Blumenthal, Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University. In a very fine article on Emory’s website, Professor Blumenthal describes how the early Jewish rabbis made this particular Psalm prominent in Jewish worship by requiring it to be recited three times a day![3] He quotes a saying from the Talmud that explains why this Psalm should receive so much attention in Jewish worship. According to a certain Rabbi Avina, it was because Psalm 145 contains the verse, “you open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:16).

Out of all the verses of the Bible, the rabbis of the Talmud picked this verse to describe who God is. Professor Blumenthal’s explanation of this is that this Psalm is so important “because it contains the verse par excellence which speaks of God’s grace to the world.” The Talmud goes on to say that “whoever recites [Psalm 145] three times each day is sure to be one of those who dwell in the world-to-come.” Blumenthal’s reading of this is that praying Psalm 145 is already a way of “entering” the Kingdom of Heaven—or at least getting a taste of it!

Entering the World to Come. Two Bible readers. One reader comes away from this text hoping that what it says about God is true. Another reader sees the central truth of faith—that God is gracious and merciful to all!

Now, what you have to understand about the first reader [my wife] is that she’s very honest. She’s not going to come away from Psalm 145 without noticing the wonderful way that it speaks about God’s grace and constant love and mercy—to all people. But she’s also not going to definitively say that’s what the Psalm is about because she knows full well—as you and I know—that there aren’t many Christians these days who actually believe that!

I find it surprising that a Jewish scholar reads Psalm 145 as an affirmation that God’s tender mercy embraces all creation and that God’s love includes all people—what I would see as a kind of preliminary proclamation of the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed![4] On the other hand, I dare say that many Christians who, just like my wife, went to Sunday School and grew up studying the Bible, would hesitate to ascribe to God such generous kindness and all-embracing love!

But when you think about it, maybe I really ought not to be surprised that the rabbis of the Talmud or Jewish scholars today would hear in Psalm 145 what I would see as the good news of the gospel that Jesus preached. After all, they start with the same perspective about God as Jesus did—that God always has been “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 145:8).[5] And always will be. They sing praise to the same God that Jesus did. The God who is good to everyone and who showers compassion on all creation (Ps. 145:9, NLT). The God who is “all mercy and grace,” whose trademark on all his works is love (Ps. 145:8, 17, The Message).[6] The God who is trustworthy in all his words, upright in all his deeds, and who always acts only in faithful love (Ps. 145:13, 17, NJB). The God who “helps the fallen and lifts up those bent beneath their loads,” who opens his hand and satisfies the hunger and thirst of every living thing (Ps. 145:14, 16, NLT).

I don’t know specifically where we in the Christian tradition lost touch with that view of God, but I think it’s high time we come back to it!

I think Psalm 145 describes what Paul says: that God’s love is beyond our capacity to imagine. One popular Christian song says, “I can only imagine” what it will be like to finally experience that love in the presence of God. But Psalm 145 reminds us that God’s grace and mercy and love are beyond our wildest dreams!

[1] A sermon preached 7/30/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] H. J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 549: “Psalm 145 is an important milestone on the way to the NT proclamation of the [kingdom of God].”

[3] David R. Blumenthal, “Praying Ashrei: Meditations on Psalm 145,” BLUMENTHAL/AshreiArticle.html

[4] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411: “What our God has created He will also uphold, and sooner or later control by His Grace.” See also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 181: “God works toward the fulfillment of every creature and toward the bringing-together into the unity of his life all who are separated and disrupted.” See further Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 178, 244; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-39, 57, 151; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 76, 85;

[5] See Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 351-439 on “the Perfections of the Divine Loving.” See esp. pp. 352-53, 357, 363, 375, 383-84, 391-92, 407-408, 422-24.

[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1.352: “God is gracious, merciful and patient both in Himself and in all His works. This is His loving. But He is gracious, merciful and patient in such a way—because He loves in His freedom—that He is also holy, righteous and wise—again both in Himself and in all His works. For this is the freedom in which He loves.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 244.

Monday, July 24, 2006

“Just Like Me”[1]

Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-56

The world that Paul inhabited was just as torn by disunity, strife, and hostility as ours is. From the Jewish perspective, everyone fell into one of two categories. Either you were one of the Jewish people, who were God’s chosen ones, or you were a Gentile. Jewish people hated and despised Gentiles as “dogs.” Nor was that kind of thinking limited to the Jewish people. For example, from the Greek perspective, everyone was either a cultured Greek or a crude Barbarian. This kind of either/or thinking still largely defines human existence: no matter who you are, you’re either one of us, or you’re our enemy.

The Wall. In Paul’s world, the Temple in Jerusalem reinforced the division of all humanity into Jewish versus Gentile. To be sure, there was a “court of the Gentiles” where people from all nations could worship the one true and living God. But between the “court of the Gentiles” and the “court of Israel” there was a gate with a warning inscribed on it: no Gentile was allowed to enter the Temple on pain of death![2]

Paul uses this very concrete image of a “dividing wall” to express the effect of Jesus’ death on the cross. Through his death, Paul says, Jesus tore down the “wall of hostility” that literally and figuratively divided the Jewish people from the rest of the peoples of the earth. The point is that those who like the Gentiles of Ephesus were formerly excluded from any part in God’s life now have full and free access as members of God’s family to all the blessings of God’s kingdom.

Paul’s gospel is that all of the worst hatreds that have divided humanity through the ages have been nullified through Christ. Christ created a new humanity out of all the divided, angry, hostile, groups of people that populate our planet: a whole new humanity at peace with themselves, with one another, and with God. In this new humanity that Christ has created, everyone has a place —including Central American dictators, South American drug lords, and Middle Eastern terrorists.

New Walls. Now, if Christ has potentially overcome the most intense hatreds that have divided humankind throughout history, you’d think he could overcome the things that divide us right here in Dickinson, Texas! Surely the peace that Christ can create even between Israelis and Palestinians should somehow trickle down to us! But like every other grouping of human beings on the face of the planet, we have problems communicating with each other, we have issues that divide us, and we harbor hard feelings toward one another. In front of God and everybody.

Christ died to create one new community out of all humankind. He broke through all the closed circles to openly show love to all.[3] And that means that there really is no place for any of the various “isms” that we use to justify our own existence over against others and which therefore in reality divide us.[4]

And yet here we are creating whole new “walls of hostility”! What are we supposed to do about that? Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have a web page called “Spirituality and Practice.” One of the “spiritual exercises” they recommend is that any time you catch yourself criticizing someone, you use the phrase “just like me” to help you remember how much you have in common with that person.[5]

For example, “He always likes to be in control of things” should be followed by a humble and heart-felt, “just like me.” Or “She has no clue what’s going on in the real world,” should immediately move to the admission, “just like me.” Or “They don’t know the first thing about worship, … just like me.” You get the idea.

The point is that whenever we justify or rationalize the hostilities and differences that divide us by claiming that we’re in the right and “they” are in the wrong, we are conveniently overlooking our own shortcomings. You know those annoying traits that we’re embarrassed about, that we’d really rather not acknowledge, that make it all too clear that we make just as significant a contribution to any conflict as “they” do (whoever they are)!

No Walls. If true spirituality is about learning to serve one another in love because of the love we have been given,[6] then we all have a ways to go, don’t we? We all tend to get caught up in looking at life as if it’s all about me.[7] That one recognition ought to be sufficient to remind every person in this room that we are all still learning what it means to love God.

I want you to imagine a person you don’t really care for sitting right next to you in worship today. Then I want you to think about someone you really despise. Imagine him or her sitting on the other side. Then you may be getting close to the idea of what worship is about!

We all could use a fresh dose of humility in light of all that Christ has done for us. The fact that we all fall short reminds us to renew our commitment to demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ in a world that is already so broken and fragmented by fear and hate that it’s tearing itself apart.

[1] A sermon preached 7/23/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 15.11.5

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 120-21.

[4] Ibid., 182-89. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 251.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 31-39; Frederick Schmidt, What God Wants for your Life, 169, 179-88; Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 98-99, 103-4; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 258; Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3: Life and the Spirit, History and the Kingdom of God, 151, 178.

[7] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 186-89.

Friday, July 21, 2006

“The Earth is the Lord’s”[1]

Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

It’s sad but true: our gospel at times is not very good news to people who are outside the church. The “standard” script has been something like this: “we’re all sinners, and we deserve to be punished; God really does love us, though, so he sent Jesus to die, to take the punishment we deserve, so that we could be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” What most people hear when we present this message to them is “You’re no good the way you are; If you don’t change, God is going to get you; If you believe like me, act like me, hang out with me, become like me, then you get to go to heaven when you die. If you don’t, you’re going to hell.”

I think the Scriptures contain a very different gospel—one that truly is good news. Our Psalm text alludes to it. “The earth is the Lord’s” means that all that is belongs to God, both by virtue of creation and by virtue of redemption. It means that God not only reigns over all things but also cares for all things. It means that God not only deserves praise from all peoples, but also will be praised by all peoples.[2] That idea of reigning is one that is also hard for us to grasp. According to the Psalms, the nature of God’s reign is one of righteousness and justice. When God comes to reign, it means life, it means peace, it means salvation![3]

The idea in the Psalms that all peoples are blessed, they witness God’s saving work, and they acclaim him in worship may sound strange to those of us who have been taught the traditional “gospel.” However, the Psalms are not alone in this. This understanding of God’s redemptive purpose runs consistently through the whole Bible. From Genesis to Isaiah to Jesus to the Book of Revelation, the good news is that God is working to establish his reign world-wide, a kingdom which will bring “justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.”[4]

What about judgment? There is an amazing consensus that God’s plan of salvation encompasses both the judgment of all humankind as well as the ultimate redemption of the whole created order, including all humankind.[5] Yes, redemption includes judgment. That may seem like an oxymoron, or a contradiction, but that is the way the Scriptures present it. The Scriptures clearly teach that all of us will be held accountable for our lives. They teach that God’s justice will be carried out—universally. But judgment and punishment are never the last word in God’s message to humankind. In a sense, judgment prepares the way for salvation—it is always intended to lead to repentance and reconciliation.

That seems to be what Paul talks about when he speaks of gathering all things together under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). Paul believed that the return of Christ would be a day when, after judgment, the entire created order would be reconciled to God and restored to its rightful place under the lordship of Christ.[6] He believed that there will come a time when “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” and that in the end God would be “all in all.”

We really shouldn’t be surprised at this idea. After all, our gospel is a gospel of grace—of receiving something undeserved. It is a gospel of unconditional love, which creates in us the confidence that “this love lasts for ever and that it will not rest until it possesses us wholly”[7]

I am not ashamed to say that I believe that God’s ultimate purpose is to redeem all humanity. I really fail to see what is good about the news that those of us who are “in” will inherit an eternity of blessing in the presence of God, while those who are “out” are going to suffer an eternity of torment. The Christian hope is that God’s redemptive purpose will prevail. This is the message of the prophets, the message of the Psalms, and it is the message of Jesus: the fulfillment of God’s reign which brings salvation. The good news is that, despite all indications to the contrary, “God’s cause will prevail in the world.”[8]

It may seem like this is too good to be true. I think Karl Barth said it well when he remarked that we dare not claim such a wonderful hope as if we somehow deserve it. But he also said that we are commanded to hope and pray for it![9] So what are we to do? In light of this view of the gospel, the mission of the church is to demonstrate the reality of God’s reign.[10] We do that by, among other things:

•proclaiming the good news that God reigns and that his lordship will be fulfilled;

•bringing reconciliation, liberation, and restoration to those who are suffering;

•embodying and promoting the life of discipleship to Christ;

•entering into Christ’s sacrificial suffering for the sake of the world;

•manifesting the power of the new creation;

•acclaiming God as Lord of all creation in worship.

Though it sounds like a daunting task, we can rely on the promise that God will empower us to be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

[1] A sermon preached 7/16/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Psalm 48:10; 57:5, 11; 66:4; 72:19; 86:9; 96:1, 7; 97:6; 98:4, 7; 108:5; 145:21.

[3]James L. Mays, Psalms, 311.

[4] Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at

[5] Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6–10; see also Micah 4:1-3; Luke 4:16–21; 7:20–22; 17:20–21; John 3:3, 5, 16; Revelation 11:15–19; 15:3–4; 21:1–5; 22:1–5.

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:10-11.

[7] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, 344.

[8] Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120. See also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77, 190, 216.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.3, 478.

[10] Moltmann, 293.

“Unlikely Heroes”[1]

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Frodo Baggins is an unlikely hero if there ever was one. For those of you not familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic tale, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is a Hobbit. Hobbits, the leading characters of Tolkien’s tale, are called “Haflings” because they are half the size of humans—under 4 ft tall at most. They mostly mind their own business and remain unnoticed and insignificant in the eyes of more powerful characters like Sauron the evil lord or Saruman the treacherous wizard. Nobody would have guessed that Frodo could have borne the fate of all “Middle Earth.”

Frodo’s hidden strength revealed itself only in his weakness. In fact, it was his doubtful stature as a potential hero that enabled Frodo to slip into Mordor and carry the Sauron’s ring of power into the heart of Mount Doom to be destroyed. More valiant warriors, like Aragorn the heir-apparent to the kingdom of men, dared not try to carry the ring. Even Galadriel the elf queen and Gandalf the wizard refused it, because they knew that the ring would use their power for evil. Only Frodo, insignificant, weak, and unlikely Frodo, could save “Middle Earth” from certain destruction.

An Unlikely Hero. Jesus was an unlikely hero as well: he was an unconvincing messiah, an improbable savior.[2] He was so unlikely that the people of his very own hometown of Nazareth not only refused to believe in him but actually tried to kill him!

It may seem hard for us to imagine, but Jesus was nothing like what most of the people of his day looked for in a savior. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day expected a king who would lead them to freedom and prosperity by overthrowing the yoke of their oppressors. Jesus came as a humble servant, a teacher of righteousness, a friend of outcasts and sinners. Ultimately, he broke the grip of the “powers that be” by submitting himself to the worst they could do—a violent death.[3] But by his vulnerability, he overcame not only their power, but also death itself.

Paul was also an unlikely apostle. By his own admission, there was nothing special about him. According to church legend, he was short, balding, had a crooked nose, and walked with a stoop.[4]

In fact, Paul the Pharisee had devoted his life to destroy the Christian faith. By his own testimony, he compelled Christians to blaspheme the name of Christ, and even killed some of them. But Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ was a different man altogether. He renounced the ways of coercion and instead followed Jesus’ example of sacrificial service. Rather than ruling his churches “with an iron fist,” he cared for them gently like a nursemaid. He allowed himself to be made a fool; he subjected himself to hardships and afflictions; he gave himself away willingly and freely.

Strength through Weakness. In our lesson for today, Paul speaks about a “thorn” in the flesh that was given to him to keep him humble. While he doesn’t define what that was, it is clear that it made his life more difficult. Paul asked the Lord to remove it and received the promise: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). I like the way the New Living Translation renders it: “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.” The Lord not only promised to sustain Paul in his affliction, but to use it to make him a better channel for God’s grace!

From the very beginning, God’s redemptive purpose has been achieved through unlikely means: a wandering, homeless immigrant named Abraham; a reluctant lawgiver named Moses; a suffering messiah named Jesus; a servant apostle named Paul. The same is true for us today.

What that means is that it is not our abilities that promote the Kingdom of God. In fact, I believe that our “abilities” have as much potential to interfere with the work of the Kingdom as to promote it. The problem is that we tend to rely on our abilities instead of the power of God. We think that the only way God’s Kingdom will come is if we have the talent, the persistence, or the energy to make it come.

But that is precisely not how God works! God’s Kingdom does not come into this world through human achievement or talent.[5] It comes only to the extent that the Spirit of God creates it.[6] “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty”(Zech. 4:6). “The Spirit of God makes the impossible possible; he creates faith where there is nothing else to believe in; he creates love where there is nothing lovable; he creates hope where there is nothing to hope for. … he makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”(Moltmann, CPS, 191) And the Spirit, like God, works best through our weakness.[7] The Spirit works through those who make themselves vulnerable, through humble service. The Spirit overcomes evil in the world through sacrificial love, just like Jesus did.

Today is set aside in the PC (USA) to recognize the work of small churches. As a “small church” we must recognize that the success or failure of the Kingdom of God in our community is not dependent on how hard we work, or how talented we are, or how well we use our abilities. Rather, it depends wholly and solely on the work of the Spirit.

So what are we to do? We are to actively cultivate the presence of the Spirit in our lives through regular practice of the spiritual disciplines. We are to rely on God’s grace to sustain us in our weakness. We are to seek to become channels of God’s grace, submitting ourselves to God’s purpose. We are to allow God to use our weakness to display God’s power. And the good news is that God will do so!

[1] A sermon preached 7/9/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 102; cf. also Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 164.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 131, 195, 212

[4] The Acts of Paul, 3.2; W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, 239.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.4, 396-97.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 191, 205

[7] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV,3, 742-45.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

“From the Depths”[1]

Lamentations 3:21-36; Mark 5:21-43

There will come a time in every person’s life when it will seem that everything you’ve believed in is gone. You look around at the world, and everything seems to go from bad to worse—the economy, the drug problem, violence, government. You can go on and on. Like David mourning for the death of Saul and Jonathan, you may want to cry, “How the mighty have fallen!”

Is God Against Us? The prophet of Lamentations was in a position like that. Everything that prophet believed in had been destroyed—his whole life had been turned upside down. His nation was in ruins, his beloved city of Jerusalem was besieged, and it seemed as if God had abandoned his people.

To the prophet, it seemed as if all of this was the result of “the rod of God’s wrath” (Lam 3:1). Indeed, he could say that it was God who besieged them, not the Babylonians (3:5)! He describes God like a bear or a lion, and says “he led me off my way and tore me to pieces” (3:11). He also portrays God as an enemy archer with deadly aim (3:12-13). He likens God to a conquering warrior who made him drink bitter poison or who beat him mercilessly to the point of breaking his teeth in the gravel (3:15-16). At the end of it all, it seems that all the prophet has is his bitter heartache over his beloved nation and city: “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord’” (3:17-18).

Turning a Corner. And yet, right in the midst of this bitter lament, the prophet turns a corner. He affirms that he maintains hope with the thought that “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:22-23).

It’s an amazing turn in this otherwise desperate situation. Everything the prophet loved was destroyed, and he believed that God was the one who had destroyed it. Yet somehow he managed to keep believing that God’s steadfast love never fails, no matter what the circumstances. He managed to keep believing that God is a God whose faithfulness never ends!

If you’re like me, you may very well wonder how in the world the prophet got from “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord” to “Great is your faithfulness”! How can you go from total devastation and hopelessness to trusting faith?

Perhaps he gives us a clue when he says, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (3:26). At first glance, that might not sound like much help. We think of waiting as a nuisance, the experience we have when we’d rather be doing just about anything rather than waiting. “Waiting” is what we do when we’re helpless to change the situation, when it’s the only option. We “wait” only when we’re forced to.

Waiting. But what we need to understand is that the kind of waiting he’s talking about is different from what we normally think of as “waiting.” In the OT, the term “wait” is a word of faith. It refers to a posture of trust, not one of anxiety or helplessness. To “wait” for the Lord in the Psalms refers over and over again to trusting God’s steadfast and faithful love when everything in life seems to have given way.[2]

Beyond that, we also have to understand what waiting is for in the Christian life. When we find ourselves in the “waiting places” of life, the temptation is to think that we’ll never get out of there. The temptation is to think that whatever it was that we once had but has been taken away from us is gone for good—love, joy, hope, all of it.

But the reality is that when we find ourselves having to wait, that’s when our faith is growing the most. The waiting place is the place where faith grows. “Waiting … is the foundation of the spiritual life”.[3] Like a tree that is dormant in winter so that its roots can grow deeper, like a field that is left fallow so that the soil can grow richer, waiting makes faith stronger, deeper, and richer. Waiting develops in us a level of faith that we may never have dreamed we could reach. It’s not easy. It’s not necessarily pleasant. But we don’t have to fight it, or fix it. We can rest in the knowledge that we are safely in God’s hands.

God is For Us! The waiting place is where we learn that God is faithful. And what does that mean? It means God loves us with a never-ending love, no matter what happens to us. It means God is always for us, never against us.[4] It means that no matter how much life may devastate us, God is always working to bring life out of death, to bring good from evil.[5]

[1] A sermon preached 7/2/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Ps. 27:14; 31:24; 37:7, 9; 62:1, 5; 130:5; James L. Mays, Psalms, 407 (on Ps. 130).

[3] Henri Nouwen, from Reaching Out, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 259; quoted from Simone Weil, First and Last Notebook.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, 385: “[God] is wholly Himself and true to Himself in the fact that he is true to us”; see also Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116.

[5] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 275.

“The Air We Breathe”[1]

2 Cor. 6:1-13; Mk. 4:35-41

Michael Moore, the (in)famous filmmaker and critic of American society, presented a controversial explanation of the violence in our culture in Bowling for Columbine. His thesis there is that ours is a fear-based culture, it has been that way from the very beginning, and that fear is behind the violence that plagues us. In the film, Moore caricatures the history of America in terms of fear. First came the pilgrims fleeing persecution. They were afraid of the Indians, so they killed them. Then they were afraid of witches so they burned them. Then they were afraid of the British so they passed the 2nd Amendment. The saga of fear continues through the spread of slavery to the invention of the Colt 6-shooter pistol and the creation of the National Rifle Association. I’m sure if he had made the movie a few months later, he would have had something to say about the current “war against terror.”

Whatever you think about Michael Moore, fear is a prevalent force in our world—much more prevalent than love. Mind you, I didn’t say fear is more powerful than love, but it is much more prevalent. The problem is that, when fear is allowed to define our lives, it has deadly effects. Fear makes us suspicious of everyone so that we retreat behind gates and walls and alarm systems rather than risking contact with strangers. Witness our current obsession with bigger and bigger vehicles, protected by steel beams and on-board panic buttons. We are so afraid that some of us have even resorted to driving what is a commercial equivalent of a military vehicle—the “Hummer.”

It’s not that we should never be afraid. The disciples in the boat with Jesus had a lot to fear in the storm.[2] The water was considered to be a “den of evil,” harboring all kinds of danger that could literally reach out and grab you at any moment. The disciples were courageous enough for simply working on the water. But they knew that the water posed the danger of sudden death, especially in the violent storms that so often struck the Sea of Galilee.

They were right to be afraid of the storm. But they forgot something very important—there is no place we can go that will remove us from God’s loving care. God is always as close to us as the air we are breathing.[3] Wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love.[4] As the masters of contemplative prayer remind us, all we have to do to experience God’s presence is to be silent enough to become aware of it. Father Thomas Keating, one of the most influential spiritual guides of our time, says that the point of our gospel lesson is that “Jesus is present in every storm. Since his protection is always present, there is nothing to be afraid of.”[5] When we recognize that God is never any farther away from us that the very breath we fill our lungs with, we can have the confidence to face everything life brings our way.

In order to do that, however, we may have to realign our values. If our most important value is to collect more stuff, that approach won’t work. If it’s to escape hardship or suffering, it won’t work. But if our ultimate value is to live in relationship with the God of life and love, then we can let go everything else, because nothing can remove us from God’s loving care. Those who love their lives, who hang on to them, who cling to them for dear life, ultimately lose them. Only those who let go of their lives find the life that is truly life.

I think that’s what enabled Paul to endure all the hardships he mentions. I’m sure there must have been times when he was afraid—you don’t endure all that he did without being afraid. Listen to the catalogue of his ordeals in the 2 Corinthians chapter 11:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. (2 Cor. 11:24-27)

Paul literally faced danger at every turn. Any one of the traumas he experienced would have been enough to turn him into a man who was afraid of his own shadow, as those who survive such things will readily attest.

But Paul knew that there was something in his life that was more powerful than any of those things—the presence of God! He says, “I am convinced that [nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). It was Paul’s conviction that nothing he would possibly encounter could remove him from loving presence of God. That faith enabled him to say, “None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. (Rom. 8:37, The Message)

Does this mean that we shouldn’t be afraid of the dangers we may face? Not at all. But we must not make the same mistake as the disciples in the boat—we must not let go of faith. No matter what we face, we must not forget that God is our ever-present help. We must not forget what the Psalmist affirmed:

Lord, you have examined me and you know me. You know everything I do; from far away you understand all my thoughts. You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions. Even before I speak, you already know what I will say. You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding. Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I get away from your presence? (Ps. 139:1-7, TEV).

No matter what happens in this life, we can remember that God is never farther away from us than a father teaching a toddler to walk (Hosea 11:3), or a mother gently nursing an infant (Isaiah 49:15).

The God who watches over us is the one who constantly cares for and nurtures all creation—plants, animals, rocks and trees, and people of every size, shape, and color.[6] God is never any farther away from us than the very air we breathe. We live in a “God-bathed world” where we can always be “totally at home and safe regardless what happens.”[7] When we learn to trust our loving God to sustain us no matter what, then we can face the future not with fear but faith, hope, and love.[8]

[1] A sermon preached 6/25/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Rev. Dr. Ted Wardlaw, “The Danger in the Water,” a sermon preached 7/20/1997.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann’s concept of God’s “interpenetration” of all creation; see Trinity and the Kingdom, 39, 104-5. See also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9.

[4] Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17.

[5] Father Thomas Keating, Reawakenings, accessed at

[6] Matthew 5:45; 6:26-30; 10:19; Ps 145:9, 15-16. Cf. also Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17, 98.

[7] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 61, 78, 90; cf. also Moltmann, Trinity, 104; Moltmann, God in Creation, 5, 96.

[8] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 79.