Out in the Open

The service didn’t get recorded this week. sorry. But here’s a little special bonus message:[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/fail/10.mp3]

Some choices are clear: like, never stand under a tree in a thunderstorm.

I have no idea where I first heard this, but I’m sure that it was as a small child. It’s one of those safety lessons we learn when we’re young with the hopes that we might make it: don’t stand under a tree when there is lightning. Don’t touch the stove. Don’t put jellybeans in your ears. You know, the basics.

I don’t know how many of you have ever had the opportunity to put these things into practice, but they’re not always as easy as they might seem when you’re in a real world situation.

When I was in high school, a good friend of mine lived on a farm in Norcross. The land itself was a family heritage, but farming had faded into the family lore. Every year they had a huge July 4th celebration, and what had once probably been a cow pasture was no set aside for the softball field, the grandstand, the picnic area, and the fireworks show.

I would often end up there early in the morning to help with set up. One year, I remember, it was raining; and raining hard. We decided to wait it out in this one guy’s car. I don’t remember his name or anything else; except that he was a racist. Now, it’s one thing to talk to someone who harbors prejudices out of ignorance – there’s always hope that you can enlighten them. It’s another thing altogether when someone claims to have studied the issues and feels that their prejudices are well-grounded. This guy was one of the latter.

So, we had a choice. We could stay in the car with the Grand Wizard, or we could stand out in the open and get soaked. We made some excuse that it looked like the rain was getting lighter and piled out of the car. I honestly don’t remember if it was lightning then or not, but we chose to stand under a nearby grove of trees. Within two minutes, there was a flash, a crack, and a tree no more than five feet from us split in two. Now we had three imperfect choices:

  1. Stay under the trees, despite what mom always taught us
  2. Move out into the open, where we would be the tallest thing around
  3. Go back into the Mel Gibson-mobile

Have you ever found yourself in a no-win situation? Do you feel like you’re in one now? There are those choices that are obvious ones. But there as so many more that remain unclear. Perhaps you’ve even taken the time to make up a list of pros on one side and cons on the other, there still doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice. It could be deciding between a job opportunity and a place that feels like home…or between providing for children or making headway on debt…or between physical health and emotional health…or between styles of worship and music and preaching and church. What are we supposed to do when there’s no “right” answer?

I suppose one place to look is our Genesis reading, a good ol’ Biblical sibling rivalry. The twins battle it out for family favor, and their struggle divides the whole family in allegiances. In the excerpt we read this morning, the crafty Jacob convinces the short-tempered Esau to trade in his rights as the first born for a simple meal of bread and lentils. From where we sit, the lesson seems somewhat easy, and perhaps it is – the short-term gain is not worth the long-term loss. Esau’s mistake is a failure in critical thinking.

And yet, are we sure we would have made a different decision? Maybe…but we’re not Esau, are we? And we all know on some level how desires and cravings can short-circuit our ability to make the right decision. The most extreme example of that is addiction, a reality that touches many of our lives directly or indirectly. But there are choices we make every day where we engage in cognitive dissonance, knowing what we ought to do but doing the other thing because it just “feels” right or because the fleeting takes precedence over the eternal.

There is an inherent challenge in the choices we make because of the freedom we have. I’m not talking so much about our political freedoms, although I’m not not talking about them, either. To mention one, it often seems that freedom of the press has not led to a more just society or a more transparent government, but rather to a sensationalized fascination with the titillating details of public figures who have done nothing to deserve our attention.

But what I’m really talking about here is the freedom of which Paul writes in Romans, this freedom in Christ. Paul’s basic argument goes like this: before Christ, our relationship with God was all about the law. God gave us a set of laws to follow, most famously the Ten Commandments. And our relationship with God was based on how faithfully we followed that law. If we followed it perfectly, then we were in good shape. But if we blew even one point of the law, then we were in trouble. And that’s the problem, as Paul sees it. We are most definitely going to blow it.

Prior to his radical conversion to the way of Christ, Paul was a Pharisee. He was one of those jot-and-tittle law guys, obsessing over every detail, building law upon law upon law in order to keep the people in this legally righteous relationship with God. But what that approach masked, and what the arrival of Christ blew wide open, was that the root of God’s true relationship with humanity was one of grace. Mercy. Forgiveness.

Here’s another way to put it:

There is a separation between God and humanity. And there are two ways to bridge that gap. The first is law, whereby we make our way step-by-step across the gap. But if we miss even one piece of that law, we’ll never be reconciled with God. The second way is grace. And in grace, we do nothing. Nothing! It is God, in Christ, who makes that journey for us. And that journey sets us free. We are no longer stuck in the law; we don’t have to keep trudging across the legal bridge to God.

We are free.

And that’s the challenge! We are no longer confined. There is no longer a legal framework which binds us and to which we can submit every question that faces us so that it might return a definitive legal ruling to us. But by virtue of being set free, we are, as the translation puts it, out in the open, caught between hiding under the trees and being the tallest thing around. We are now exposed to the imperfect choices of life that face us day in and day out.

And that’s the paradox of our faith. Because we are free, because we are imperfect, because we will suspend our critical thinking in favor of short-term gain, because despite our every effort to make right decisions we will make wrong ones, God’s grace in Christ pursues us relentlessly. When we are faced with life’s imperfect choices, when those roads diverge in the woods, our choice may make all the difference. But the reality is that God will be with us no matter what path we take.

There are no perfect decisions. But God’s grace in Christ can perfect them for us. Far from being in a no-win situation, we are set free in reality where we cannot lose!

So feel free, free to give this life-in-faith thing a shot. We will make mistakes. We will mess up. We will make bad choices. And, most importantly, we will be free to see the grace of God at work in our lives. May it be so.