A Sermon on Judas, Jesus-love, Marriage Equality, and Faithful LGBTQ Presbys

“A Love We Can Grasp”

**Originally preached at the Jazz service at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago on March 22, 2015. This sermon is part of a Lenten series called “Were You There?” which follows particular characters that Jesus encounters on his way to the cross. 

Matthew 26: 14-16, 47-50

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.’ At once he came up to Jesus and said, ‘Greetings, Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

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In the Gospel according to Disney version of Jesus’ story, we would know Judas is the bad guy right from the start. We would be able to tell because he’d look a little less sunny than all the other disciples. He would probably have shadows under his eyes and a slight frown permanently plastered onto his face just like Scar from The Lion King or any number of other Disney villains. And so from the very beginning, long before Judas’ act of betrayal, when he was just another follower of Jesus hanging out with his friends, we would take one look at him and say, “That guy is trouble.”

In fact, that is more or less the way he is presented to us in Matthew. The first time this gospel mentions Judas is when the twelve disciples are summoned and sent out by Jesus. They are named one after another—Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, Phillip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, another James and Thaddeus, Simon and then, finally, Judas—described to us as “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”

The moment he enters the scene, he is pegged as the villain. We perceive every moment of his story through the lens of the betrayal we know he will eventually enact. So much so that we might begin to wonder why Jesus even kept Judas around. “Can’t you see he’s the bad guy? Look at those shadows under his eyes and his constant frown! Isn’t it obvious?” To us, Judas is only ever one thing: the betrayer. And as far as we’re concerned, nothing else about him matters.

Except that, Jesus doesn’t have the Disney version of his story—or even the Matthew version. And long before Judas commits the heinous act that will ultimately subsume every other facet of his identity and make his name synonymous with betrayal, he is first just one of Jesus’ followers. He is one of Jesus’ friends.

I wonder about the Judas that Jesus knew. An ordinary man who summoned within himself the courage—along with his fellow disciples—to cast off the trappings of his ordinary life and follow a radical young rabbi. I wonder if he was good at making jokes to lighten the tension when disagreements broke out among the disciples, or if perhaps he was the deep thinker, always critically considering problems they encountered from every angle before offering up a pragmatic solution. I wonder how many other genuine kisses of greeting preceded the one that he gives Jesus in the garden that fateful night? How many times did he sit up late with a weary and troubled Jesus in a borrowed house, and offer the solace of quiet company?

I wonder about the Judas that Jesus knew. Because he was more than a betrayer. He was so deeply broken, but he was more than just that brokenness. He was a friend and a follower. He was a human being. Just like us. And just like Jesus, who loved him.

The risk, I think, in only seeing Judas as the Betrayer, is that it makes us think that that—betrayal—is what his story is ultimately about. But it’s not. The story of Judas—human, complicated, broken, just-like-us Judas—is ultimately a story about love. The love that Christ has for him—the same love that Christ has for all of us.

In the garden, Judas offers Jesus a kiss and calls out to him, “Greetings, Rabbi!” His final word to Jesus is “Rabbi” which means teacher. It is as if, even in this dark moment of devastating deceit, he is asking Jesus for one more lesson. And Jesus offers one. He replies to Judas, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Even after Judas has become the betrayer—even in the exact moment of his most grievous transgression—Jesus names him as friend. The final message that Jesus leaves his wayward disciple with is “you are, above all, beloved.”

There is not a moment when Judas is left alone in his despair. The greatest tragedy of his story is that he can’t feel this truth—he goes to his grave drowning in his own brokenness and grief, not being able to understand and know and receive that he has already been forgiven. Jesus’ message to him is clear in these final words, even if he can’t hear it. “I know you are going to hurt me, I know you are going to mess up in the worst possible way, and I still love you.” Jesus’ love for Judas is truly a love that bears all things—even the very worst thing. And it is the same love that Jesus has for Peter in his denial, for all the disciples in their flight, and for all of us—no matter our brokenness. It is the love that drove Jesus’ ministry, that gave him strength to face all that Good Friday would bring, and it is a love that, ultimately, endures and transcends death itself.

This is an amazing love. But perhaps the most amazing thing about it is, this is a human love. So often we describe the love of Christ as this divine love beyond all comprehension. But it is essential to everything that Jesus Christ was that even as he was indeed divine, he was also absolutely, fully human. That is why it is so important to look beyond our archetypal understandings of this story—beyond betrayer and divine savior—and see that there in that garden was a young rabbi and his dear friend and a deeply human, messy, painful love that would somehow overcome the most destructive kind of hurt and brokenness. This is the kind of love Jesus has for us. And it is not a love that is beyond us; it is a love that we can grasp.

We miss something deeply important when we think that loving Judas and us comes easy to Jesus because he is the Son of God. Jesus was a human being standing in that garden, watching one of his closest friends hand him over to death. Let us not doubt for a second that it hurt like heck. That it was hard. But Jesus does it anyway. Forgives Judas. Offers grace and mercy. Not because it was easy or because he was God, but because in his genuine, organic, blood-pumping heart, he loved Judas too much to ever turn away from him.

The love that claims us and never abandons us is real, tangible, human love. This is a love we can understand and feel in our bones and it is even a love we can embody. We know what this love feels like. Think for a moment of a time when you were loved in spite of something you’d done.  Now think of a time when you loved someone else in spite of something they’d done. This is deep, powerful love. It is the way that Jesus loves us and it is the way we are called to love each other.

We’ve seen this kind of love. I’ve seen this kind of love.

This past Tuesday evening, I was sitting in this very sanctuary listening to a well-respected scholar named Diana Butler Bass speak about hope and love and a new great awakening in the church. This lecture was a part of the NEXT Church Conference, a yearly gathering of Presbyterian faith leaders and others who come together to share and dream about the new ways the Spirit is at work in the church and in the world. In the middle of this woman’s talk, word came through that our Presbyterian denomination had voted to embrace marriage equality for same-gender couples.

This move came through an amendment to our governing document which would clarify our definition our marriage as “a commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” This shift began in earnest with an approval by our national assembly last summer, and required an affirmative vote from a majority of our regional church groups—called presbyteries. The 86th (and last necessary) presbytery—called Palisades in New Jersey—voted yes on Tuesday night. After a tense and silent 15 minutes in which more and more of us gathered received word from texts and tweets that the amendment had passed, someone finally interrupted Diana to announce the news and the entire sanctuary erupted into joyous cheers and a standing ovation.

That moment was one of the most powerful and life-giving moments of my life, and it immediately took me back to another pivotal experience only 9 months earlier. Last June, I also sat in a large room surrounded by Presbyterians. It was our national gathering, called General Assembly, and our commissioners were voting for the marriage amendment that would eventually make its way to presbyteries and finally be passed this week. That day, I sat in the back of the room with other non-voting observers in a section filled almost entirely with LGBTQ Presbyterians.

When the vote came through and it was announced that 71% of people had voted in favor of marriage equality (a larger margin that we ever could have dreamed) there was an audible sound around the room. For most it was a gasp of disbelief and celebration. But in my section of queer Presbyterians, that sound was intermingled with the weighty exhale of older LGBTQ Christians who were seeing this day after more than four decades of faithful struggle to be fully recognized and included in this church they loved.

That night I stood with many of them in a hotel suite, each of us taking turns to offer champagne toasts about all that had been accomplished, and the ever-brightening future that awaited us. As I listened to my forebears share stories about the years and years of work that had led to this moment, as well as the ordination of LGBTQ pastors only a few years earlier, I was overwhelmed by the enduring love they held for the church.

A love that once empowered gay Presbyterian pastor, David Sindt (who was later a faithful member of Lincoln Park Presbyterian here in Chicago), to show up at the 1974 national General Assembly and hold up a sign that boldy asked, “Is anyone else out there gay?” A love that compelled Rev. Janie Spahr to marry a number of same-gender couples even though doing so jeopardized her ordination and embroiled her in lengthy and painful judicial processes.

A love that has led More Light Presbyterians for years to enlist Presbyterian volunteers of all kinds to knit rainbow colored stoles, like the one I’m wearing in celebration today, in order to promote visibility and equality within our church.

It’s a love that compelled countless gifted queer people clearly called to ministry to give up their chance at ordination in order to speak truth in love to their denomination. And a love that compelled countless others to painfully hide deep essential truths of their identity so that they could continue to minister to the church they served. Such love has empowered so many beloved queer children of God to say to this church, “I know you will hurt me. I know you will mess up in the worst possible way. And I still love you.”

Looking in the faces of many of these faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Presbyterians that night last June, and remembering this week many, many others who died long before they ever saw any justice in the church to which they so committed themselves—I found myself more convicted than ever that the love Jesus Christ has for us and for Judas and for this world is an incredibly human love that we can grasp and even, God-willing, embody.

I’ve seen it. And it is powerful. That kind of love is the reason that I stand before you today as the first out openly bisexual woman ordained in my Texas presbytery. It is the reason I was one of the very first queer Presbyterians to begin and end my seminary process in a church that would ordain me. And now it is the reason I will never officiate a wedding in a church where I cannot also get married. This amazing love can transform the world.

It is the kind of love that sees the very worst brokenness in people, but doesn’t stop believing in the best that they can be. It is the kind of love that says “I don’t understand, but I’m not giving up on you.” Embodying this love doesn’t mean accepting injustice or withstanding abuse, but speaking and fighting against such things because we know that they make us all a little less human. Such love compels us to dream of a better world even when all we can see around us is pain and betrayal and destruction. It is the kind of love that death itself could not destroy and that will ultimately overcome everything that would seek to destroy it and us.

It’s not merely a happy coincidence that we can grasp and embody this love. In fact, Jesus stakes the coming of his kindom on his deep, enduring conviction that we can and will love each other as he loves us. So when Jesus and his love for us feel too far away, let us remind ourselves of that love by so loving one another. Let us find strength and inspiration in those who have set an example of such love. Let us trust in Jesus’ last lesson for Judas and for us and know, “You are, above all, beloved.” And let us trust that this love can transform the world and bring the kindom ever closer. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. What a gift that it is ours to grasp. Amen.

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To My Home Church on the Passing of Marriage Equality in the PC(USA

Today I thought of you and I cried. They were not the same kind of tears that I cried three years ago when, just a few months after my coming out, I realized that you would not journey with me into my future as a queer pastor. Those tears, when I transferred my membership and ordination process away from you and to a more welcoming congregation, were tears of deep loss, grief, and heartbreak. These today were more like the tears I shed nearly 20 years ago beside a campfire on a church retreat as I felt a sense of unquestionable belonging.Today they were tears of boundless joy and hope. Because today, this church denomination that you taught me to so love and to whom I have pledged my life and calling finally became an institution that will honor and recognize my love, no matter what it looks like.

One day, I will fall in love and covenant to share a life with someone else, and, whatever their gender, I will do it in my church. My church. And as I sat in a sanctuary today filled with Christians dreaming about the future church, this amazing, newly-true reality of my life brought tears to my eyes. And then I thought of you. And I wished that I could know that you would share in my joy. I wished that realizing my marriage would be recognized and blessed by my church didn’t come with the painful caveat that it may never be in the church that raised me. The church that loved me first.

I have thought of you many times in the 3 years since we parted ways. On my path to ordination I have said again and again that I feel called to ministry because my childhood church was my home and I believe everybody should get to feel that way about church. And it’s the truth. You were the first place that I ever felt fully loved and claimed and held. In all my awkwardness and weirdness (and as yet unrealized queerness), you wrapped me in embrace and acceptance. You taught me to believe in a God who loves us without condition or boundary. You planted that truth deep, deep in my soul, not through the words you said or the theology you espoused, but through the love you embodied. You are the reason I believe so strongly in a church where all are embraced and celebrated in the fullness of their being.

In recent months, I have watched from afar the upheaval that our moves toward LGBTQ equality have brought to your community. I have kept tabs. I have taken comfort in those among you who have offered me support and acceptance. I have hurt for those of you who have stayed in the midst of pain and struggle and a loss I know all too well. I have made a litany of the names of those who have left because my kind of love makes them not love the church enough to be a part of it with me. I have prayed for you. Hard. I have missed you.

And I have thought of the child I once was–the child you first welcomed home. That child would never have imagined there was a limit to your love or some truth within her that would make you turn away. For that I am so deeply grateful. It allowed me to root my faith in a God that loves all of her children without limits, queer and straight alike, and to believe in and work for a church that reflects that love. You taught me that such love was gospel truth, and I will spend the rest of my life preaching that gospel, and living into the hope that it preaches to you too.

Love (always),

Layton

You Are Not the Exception (A Lenten Sermon)

**Originally preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church on March 8, 2015 as part of the “Were You There” Lenten sermon series. 

“What really offends us is not what the incarnation says about God, but what it says about us. To recognize the radical character of God’s presence with us can only mean that we are valued, precious, and loved by God. Such an idea is offensive because we do not think of ourselves as loveable. Grace, when you come right up against it, is very difficult to bear.” – Cynthia L. Rigby (bulletin cover quote)

Mark 14:28-38, 66-72

28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” 30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, “Abba,[h] Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37 He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;[i] the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt.[k] Then the cock crowed.[l] 69 And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

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It’s just so Peter.

“Listen. Jesus, I hear you. I know you’re saying that everyone is going to desert you, but trust me, you don’t have to worry about me. Even though you say all will deny you, I will not. Even if it kills me. I will be the exception. Just you wait and see.”

It really is just so Peter, isn’t it? Reading through this passage with a friend the other day, we found ourselves having identical reactions when we got to Peter’s bold declaration of ambitious loyalty. At the exact same moment, we rolled our eyes, shook our heads, and chuckled quietly under our breath. I said, “If ever there was a perfect facial expression to encapsulate Peter, that’s it.”

After all, this is hardly the only time in Jesus’ ministry that his first disciple finds himself caught up in his own enthusiasm. That’s just who he is. It is the picture painted of him throughout all the gospels. Peter, first to be called and first to drop his net and his whole life and follow Jesus. Peter who can’t resist jumping out of the boat to join the Son of God in walking on water. Peter who wants his Lord to wash not only his feet, but also his hands and his head. Peter who doesn’t waste a second in responding to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

There is something admirable about Peter’s zealous and optimistic pursuit of faith, but somehow he always seems to miss the mark. He sinks because he doubts, his answer is never the one Jesus is looking for. In fact, Peter’s spiritual clumsiness is so consistent, that any time he opens his mouth, we already know he’s in trouble. He sort of plays like the goofy luckless fall guy in a classic sitcom.

It’s easy to see Peter in this way—as an exaggerated archetype of what not to do. But the truth, I think, is that his story hits a little closer to home than we like to admit. After all he’s driven in his pursuit of faithfulness by a desire for success and achievement and a deeply rooted conviction that he can be the exception to the rules. He rejects the status quo. He wants to be not only the first disciple, but the best disciple. He wants to prove to Jesus that he can be perfect in faith—and even though he fails over and over again, he just keeps trying.

And so while Peter may seem like the perennial bungler of the gospel, his moxie would make him right at home in today’s world. After all, we live in a culture that values exceptionalism and ambition as some of its highest ideals. We look to those who have doggedly pursued achievement and proven against all odds that they are indeed the exception. We call them role models and innovators and heroes and we seek to follow their example. Our slogans and mottos make it clear:

Be the best you can be. Just do it. Have it your way. Go big or go home. If you will it, it is no dream.

The same desire to defy the odds and achieve the unimaginable that drives Peter is embedded in our own cultural story. It compelled Martin Luther and the other early Reformers to dream of a different church. It emboldened the first Americans to dream of a new country rooted in freedom. It’s what convinces us that we can thrive as a church even in an age when mainline Protestantism seems to be flagging. It’s what convinced me that I would be just fine in my first Chicago winter, even though I’d never lived above the Mason-Dixon line or seen more than a couple inches of snow.

Just yesterday, President Obama offered a speech in Selma, Alabama reflecting on the 50 years since Bloody Sunday. His words pointed over and over again to the power of the unique American spirit and the legacy it has created. “boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit” he called us. “Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be.” This is so much of our identity and our story.

So perhaps that’s why we can find something in Peter’s relentless enthusiasm to admire—it is precisely the kind of success-oriented thinking that we value. And perhaps we find it easy to distance ourselves from his inevitable failures because deep down we believe that we will succeed where he does not. Peter may not be the exception, but surely we can be.

Except, when it comes to faith—we’re not. And if we read this story of Peter’s desertion and denial as an instruction manual for what not to do or how to succeed at faith, we’re missing the point just as thoroughly as he misses it. What Peter’s story so painfully illustrates is that we all fall short of who God calls us to be. We all fall short of perfect faithfulness. We are all broken. And we all fail. Even the first disciple. Even the best disciple. There are no exceptions.

In our success-driven world, this is a terrifying idea. But buried deep within this realization is a seed of hope greater than any we could earn in our own pursuit of perfection. Because our Faith is not, ultimately about what we can do. It’s about what is done for us. And not just for the very best of us or the very best in us. Not just for the gold-star, odds defying, exceptional parts of ourselves, but for the very worst in us. For the parts of ourselves that deny and desert. For the broken parts we don’t want to think about, let alone show God.

This is what Peter misses over and over again as he attempts to build his tower of faith on his own bold confidence. It’s what he misses when he so proudly declares to Jesus that though all will deny, he will not. Jesus isn’t telling Peter “don’t deny me.” He’s telling Peter, “You will deny me, but I am still going to die for you. I love you so much, you messy broken human being.” That is Grace. And that is where our faith rests.

Peter doesn’t want to think about failure. He doesn’t want think about human weakness or imperfection. Neither do we. We all want to be the exception. But Jesus isn’t interested in the exceptions. In fact, he refuses to be one himself. God incarnate, with all the power in the world to be exempt from human frailty and finitude and struggle, chooses instead to take on every ounce of our humanness in order to be with us and love us and claim us in precisely those broken places we fear we are most unlovable and unworthy of being claimed.

I wonder if Peter might have seen this—might have had the chance to know it deep in his bones, if he hadn’t fallen asleep that night in the garden with the other disciples. I can imagine him, all worked up and exhausted from the endless efforts to be perfectly faithful in increasingly difficult circumstances and he’s so tired and Jesus is acting weird and maybe he could just rest his eyes for a minute and then before he knows it—Jesus is yelling to wake him up and clearly he’s screwed it up again.

But what he missed in that stolen hour of anxiety-ridden sleep was a glimpse at the humanness of Christ. If only he had been awake to sit with Jesus and as he cried and begged and doubted and feared like we all do, might he have been able to see that Jesus is also with him in his doubts and fears and struggles—with all us? Maybe Peter would have realized in that dark hour in the garden that grace and faith are not about our achieving perfection, but about the perfect love of God: the kind of love that would compel God—in Christ—to enter so fully into human experience that in the face of death he could only ask in a trembling voice for the comfort of friendly company as he sat crying and praying in fear.

Peter sleeps through that moment, and soon after finds himself trapped in a courtyard, confronted by strangers and the deepest depths of his own brokenness. He denies knowing Jesus, again and again. And when he breaks down and weeps, I wonder if what he’s realized is not only his own foretold failure, but the grain of truth within his denial. Because he hadn’t really known Christ—not fully. He had been so focused on his own quest for success, that he failed to fully understand what Jesus was all about: why he came, who he was, and why he would die and rise again.

We run the same risk. When we approach our faith through the lens of achievement and exceptionalism, we’re driven away from the parts of ourselves that feel too human, too flawed, too imperfect. But in so doing, we distance ourselves too from the truth of Christ’s all-encompassing love. And only when we confront and know that that love reaches into the darkest parts of our brokenness can we begin to understand what a tremendously unfathomable gift Grace is.

This past week, faith leaders and Christians from all over the country rallied together to protest the execution of a Georgia woman named Kelly Gissendaner. Kelly was convicted of conspiring with her boyfriend to murder her husband in 1998 and was sentenced to death. In prison, confronted with the very worst of her own brokenness, Kelly found God. She began taking theology courses and became penpals with Jurgen Moltmann—one of the most prominent theologians alive today. In 30 letters over a period of 4 years, they talked about sin and suffering and faith and doubt. Kelly became a spiritual leader among her fellow prisoners, providing guidance and love and comfort.

The temptation for us in hearing Kelly’s story is the same temptation we face in our own stories. We want to make her the exception. Certainly much of the protest against her execution has been rooted in the spectacular conversion experience she had and all the good it has yielded since. And it is a powerful story. But the truth is that many people find God in prison and many people have powerful, heartwrenching stories that go unheard or unappreciated because of their race, or sexual or gender identity, or simply because our system is just as broken as we are.

Kelly Gissendaner should live not because she is such an exceptional Christian, but because she is a child of God. And the real power of her story isn’t the uniqueness of her faith experience, but the universality of the Divine love to which it witnesses. A love which is never done with us and never lets us go, which fills every jail cell and holds every prisoner’s heart—whether held captive by bars or chains or fear or their own brokenness.

Kelly knows that she’s not an exception. Her faith is rooted in something much deeper—grace. She says, “There is only one who can bring a clean thing out of something unclean, or turn a tragedy into a triumph, and a loser into a winner. When this miracle occurs, and only through Divine grace, our life is not wasted. When blind eyes are opened, then we all will see the greater purpose.”

Kelly’s story and Peter’s story remind us not only of our capacity for brokenness, but also of the immensity of the grace that embraces us. Kelly’s friend Jurgen Moltmann says it this way, “When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness… God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Understanding the depth and breadth of Grace does call upon us to recognize that faith is not about our achievements or perfection. It calls upon us to accept and acknowledge that we do fail and fall short. But it doesn’t ask us to surrender ourselves to our own brokenness. Rather, it asks us to surrender ourselves to a hope bigger than anything we could ever imagine or achieve.

It is only once we have recognized the full meaning of Grace that we can dare to allow our faith to accompany us through the hard and heartbreaking parts of life where we can only manage to be our worst selves. And only once we have grasped the full depth of Grace and let it light our hearts can we summon the courage to go to all the difficult and terrifying places to which faith calls us: to the cross and through it and finally, to the kindom on the other side.

Perhaps this is what Peter discovered, when the dust settled from that courtyard betrayal and Jesus died and rose again and Peter’s tears finally dried up. Perhaps then he understood, finally, what grace really is. And went out in hope to live as the rock upon which Christ would indeed build his church.

Once we’ve felt the promise of Grace and understood how it binds us up with God and one another, we cannot be at peace with a world that is at odds with that Grace. Moltmann says, “That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”

Empowered by grace we strive not for our own achievement, but to be a part of what God is achieving in making all things new. A world loosed from the bonds of injustice and oppression, where all captives are set free and all inequalities abolished.

President Obama’s speech did talk about American exceptionalism. But it also named our call as citizens to be dissatisfied with an imperfect present and to claim our part in something beyond our individual selves. He said, “the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.”

Whether or not this is true of our call as Americans, it is certainly true of our story of faith. A story which is, at its core, the story of the sovereign God of all things choosing, in love, to be a “we” with us—all of us and all of who we are, no exceptions. You are not the exception. I am not the exception. We are not the exception. Not the exception to human fallibility or brokenness. And not the exception to the unfailing love and all-encompassing Grace of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.