Something unusual happened this past week. The church got some positive press — and specifically our church — the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church body with which this congregation is affiliated. In a season in which the press and the culture have bought into a particularly negative narrative about who the church is or isn’t, we finally got some positive press.
At the churchwide assembly in Milwaukee this past week a vote was taken. The assembly holds the highest legislative authority in our denomination. So when a vote gets taken — the public square pays attention. This year the assembly voted to become a Sanctuary church body. Now what that means exactly remains to be seen. I’m confident that there will be documents dedicated to the definition and that resources will be made available to congregations to help us understand what this entails. For now, the vote signals a commitment to serve and support migrant children and families in communities across the country. It was preceded with action as 700 Lutherans marched to ICE offices praying and proclaiming a way of peace and protection for all.
I’ve only read about this. But it’s not hard to imagine that not everyone at the assembly voted yes. Immigration issues are complicated. Not even experts can agree on the best way to fix our broken system. But our church went out on a limb, spoke out in faith, that the status quo isn’t acceptable. While we may not yet have an identified plan for the crisis, we must, in the meantime, stay committed to care for the other, welcome the stranger, and act with the same love God has first shown us in the life of Jesus Christ.
In a sermon preached at the assembly, Rev. Bradley Schmeling, pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran in St. Paul, recalled the advise from another bishop, at another assembly, just before the results were announced for another issue with which the church was wrestling: “When you hear the results,” Bishop Mark Hanson said, “please receive the news in silence recognizing that there is both deep fear and deep hope in this moment. Let us just breathe together… that God’s Holy Spirit would enter into our hearts and minds with peace that passes all understanding.”
It sounds so simple. And yet it’s a step, taken in faith, we too easily miss. To remember to breathe; to invite the Spirit in; to be open to God’s presence in the sound of our shared breath — united in God’s gift of life.
In today’s reading, we are overhearing a prayer that acts as a deep breath for faith. The author wrote the letter to the church in Ephesus addressing fears around unmet expectations and anxiety about how to be the church. It’s been a while since Jesus lived, died, resurrected and ascended. More time has passed than they had anticipated. What was God’s plan in the meantime? It seemed their faith was being tested. They wrestled with questions about faith.
We started a new sermon series last week called, “Is there more to life than this?” in which we’re raising faith questions that have been around for centuries. If any of you participated in Alpha last year, the questions in this sermon series come from that curriculum. We’ll be doing Alpha again at the Minneapolis campus this fall. You’re welcome to participate for the first time, to do it again, to invite a neighbor or friend. We’ve received positive feedback from last year’s experience. People appreciated the space for honest conversations in matters of faith and doubt and the privilege to get to know people better.
Today’s question comes from that series: How can I have faith? And truth be told, the question kind of rubs me the wrong way. I hear it as a set-up that implies there’s a certain formula that guarantees faith. If we don’t “have” it, we just need to work harder to find it or get it. But that’s not how faith works. Faith isn’t something you can get; it’s a gift that God gives. Faith isn’t something you can hold onto; it’s a gift through which God takes hold of you.
John Ortberg writes in his book “Know Doubt” that “faith is an exercise in strategic uncertainty. Faith is not simply holding beliefs. Many people, when they consider faith, think, I believe that God exists, or Scripture is accurate, or Love is the greatest virtue. But at its core, faith is not simply the belief in a statement; it puts trust in a person. We all think we want certainty. But we don’t. What we really want is trust, wisely placed.” 
Every one of us knows trust can be tricky. It’s hard. Trusting someone always involves some risk. You make yourself vulnerable. You let go of control. You open yourself up to uncertainty. Trusting another holds the potential for rejection or betrayal. But trust is also necessary for relationships to be healthy. Trust paves the way for intimacy, connection and belonging. When you trust another you give a little of yourself away, and in doing so, you just might discover that you’re not alone.
The opening verses of the letter to Ephesians assure the community of believers that even as they wonder about faith and God’s plan, they can be assured God blesses and God loves, and that God’s plan has already been revealed in the life and work of Christ: to reconcile the world to God that all creation be healed and that all the world would know God’s love. They are included in God’s plan and called to act on Christ’s behalf for the sake of the world. The world remains far from God’s vision in its fullness. But we catch glimpses now and then. In every act of compassion, hospitality, generosity and love, the reality of God alive in the world is revealed through us.
It may surprise you to learn that the prayer we overheard in today’s reading isn’t personal. The prayer is for a community of believers. Every “you” in the text is plural. This is a prayer for the church, for our church, for this church as we, like the community of believers in Ephesus so long ago, wonder about what it means to be the church today.
The prayer doesn’t provide a list, that once the items are checked we will have faith. The prayer doesn’t identify expectations that need to be met or obligations that must first be filled. It doesn’t reveal a formula for faith. There’s nothing in the prayer that hints at a self-help project or required self-improvement regiment.
This prayer invites us to experience the wonder and expansiveness of God’s grace and to wisely place our trust in God who loves us. The prayer promises that God will fill us when we’re empty, make us strong when we are weak, and keep us rooted and ground in love, even as we experience the chaos of a culture caught up in climate crisis, gun violence, racial bias and so much more.
So hear this prayer from the Bible for you. And by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, keep on keeping on good church: show up for each other, speak out on behalf of others, challenge the status quo, wrestle with the hard questions at the intersection of faith and life, provide care for those who are hurting, pray for those in need, feed the hungry, sing of God’s goodness and mercy and rejoice in the gift of faith that is received in a relationship with Jesus who is the Christ. You are rooted in love, good church, and through you God’s power is at work to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine. For that we give God thanks and praise. Amen.
1 – John Ortberg, “Know Doubt,” pg. 137