There was a lot going on in the news this week. There was a Presidential debate. The Browns got a new owner. But what fascinated me the most was the report of Felix Baumgartner, no relation to church members of that name, as far as I know.
Felix Baumgartner is the man who jumped out of a capsule 24 miles above the surface of the earth. He free fell for close to 10 minutes going faster than the speed of sound. Then, he pulled the chord on his massive parachute and safely landed outside of Roswell, New Mexico (where we keep the remains of aliens and UFOs!)
I don’t know why Felix Baumgartner would do such a thing. But I am glad that he didn’t pass out, that his parachute opened, and that he is alive. The possibility of death was, to him, not a deterrent and he jumped. He trusted that he could do it and he did it.
In the newspaper on Tuesday, after Felix Baumgartner completed his 23 mile high jump, the Plain Dealer asked its readers on the inside page of the front section: “What stunt would you do, if you knew you would survive?”
That is rather fun to think about. I might want to sky dive, go diving in shark infested waters, climb Mt. Everest, bungee jump, buy a Harley, or run away and live in the desert for a while. I think knowing that I would survive would give me courage, confidence, an attitude – a different outlook on life.
Sometimes just living feels like a free fall. What would you do if you believed that “nothing separates you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” or that there is no condemnation? What would you do if you believed that you are justified, made right, sins forgiven, aligned (for that is what justified means) with God.
I think this should make us grateful, open, adventuresome, joyful, on fire for justice, energized to go find your gift and make an impact. This good news, this gospel fires me up and makes me want to tell others that they are loved just as they are.
I would hope that it would make me less judgmental, less condemning, more forgiving, more expectant and hopeful; certainly less fearful, or at least puts my fears in a larger context.
Here is what Paul does in Romans and particularly in chapter 8 and even more particularly in the last 9 verses of chapter 8. He lays out this magnificent claim which implies a magnificent invitation. God is for you. God has justified you. God does not condemn you or judge you. Jesus is even interceding for you, cheering you on: “Go for it John, Anne, Beth, Muriel!” Make a mistake! Sin boldly! It is OK.
There is no separation between you and God, except for the distance that you put, and even that distance is crazy because with God there IS NO distance – as the Psalmist teaches us: run to the farthest distance of the sea, or make your bed in hell – guess what – God is there. (Psalm 139)
Nothing separates you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not hardship, distress, nakedness, famine, peril, death, past, present, future, height, depth “nor anything else in all creation.”
How are you going to live your life if you believe that; if you put your trust in that; if you give your heart to that, if you put on those lenses of faith through which you will look at the world and interpret everything through that matrix, through that paradigm?
You see, to Paul, Christian faith is more than getting the answers right, more than intellectual knowledge. Christian faith is a bold declaration for living, a way of interpreting what you see. Paul invites you, and so do I, to try this set of lenses, this faith on for size. Take off that threadbare coat that you cling to that makes you think that God is judgmental, and convicting and that hell awaits. Take it off and throw it away. If it doesn’t fit, why do you keep wearing it?
If that is the coat you want to wear, ok. If the lenses of judgment and condemnation and narrow thinking are what you put on, so be it. If that is what you think Christianity is really about – you are wrong and you don’t hear this from this pulpit. But let me tell you that I am going to jump into the pool of grace, and the water is fine, come on in!
Lots of people put on the lenses of fear. But fear assumes a hidden narrative – that something can go wrong, that we are vulnerable despite our apparent safety. That will shape how you view the world, the election, and shape your choices and actions, where you live, where you send your kids to school.
Lots of folks put on the lenses of judgment. You worry about “those” people or “that” group.
Lots of people put on the lenses of cynicism. That gets so tiring.
I am sorry if you put yourself in these camps or know of folks who do. It is limiting.
Paul’s reaction to his encounter with the Risen Jesus (however that encounter manifested itself) was an “Aha!” moment. It confirmed what he had always really known that there was a God and God was active in the world and that God gave a damn.
Paul’s faith allowed him to see an amazing possibility: suffering is not a sign of God’s displeasure, not a judgment – neither is success a sign of God’s special blessing – but suffering doesn’t get the final say. There is hope beyond suffering.
Dr. Martin Luther King once said: “I believe that right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” Where did he get that? It is a banner shaped by the gospel of Christ and is far better than the alternative!
Pastor Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, who spoke to a Forest Hill group several years ago shared with us that he is not really an optimist because the word optimism comes from the root “optic” what you can see. What he sees is occupation and violence. But he has given his heart (he believes, he has faith) in a message of hope – that there is something redemptive beyond what he can see. And he will move towards that.
St. Paul, Dorothy Day, Dr. King, Fanny Lou Hammer, Mitri Raheb, like Emily Dickinson, “dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose.” Christian faith opens us up to possibility and hope.
What would you do, how would you live, what would you get involved in if Paul’s words were true for you, if you gave your heart to them? God is for you. There is no charge against you? There is no condemnation? Nothing separates you from love… even the worst that can happen is not ultimate – “things present, things to come, life death, angels, rulers, powers, height, depth, anything in all creation can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
Sure it brings up lots of questions – but what does it do to your heart? That is what I really care about. How is it going to shape your life? That is the $24,000 question.
I know that it is almost inevitable to read words like “chosen” and “elect” and “predestined” and “called,” and immediately assume that these mean that there are those who are not chosen, and not called, and not predestined, and not elected – so judgmental and so you toss Paul aside.
But what if that is the incorrect way of reading the text? Maybe Paul is not even thinking about the “them” – only about the you and the community that does see the world through the lenses of Christian faith, without condemning or judging those who don’t – are you willing to give your heart to a God who loves and doesn’t condemn?
My mother had a quotation box in the kitchen and when she would come across something of meaning she would put it on a 3×5 card and stick it in the box. I continue this tradition. I have one of her cards. I don’t know what happened to this young woman, a Ms. Kennedy, but she had suffered greatly. Ms. Kennedy said this:
“You’re going to think this is nuts, but becoming disabled is a marvelous thing to go through. Even if a lot of it is hideous, it’s a privilege, really, like an odyssey to hell and back.” And then she quotes Helen Keller: “Life is either a dangerous adventure or it’s nothing.”
If you are going to leap into the unknown, or move through the dangerous adventure called life, or jump out of a capsule at 24 miles, it is kind of nice to know that you are loved, not alone, and that there is light on the other side of the darkness. 3-2-1- JUMP!