Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.
I got to do some traveling this week with a team that’s doing some research for our presbytery’s camping ministry. One of the places we visited, in addition to being a Christian summer camp, is also a wildlife refuge for injured animals.
As a staff member was showing us around, she introduced us to a male duck and told us that he is “fully imprinted.” Not being very knowledgeable about animals, I had to ask what that meant. She said that many animals, shortly after birth or hatching, form an identity bond with the first creature that cares for them (whatever the species). In this case, the duck in question was hatched and cared for by humans, not other ducks.
“So,” I then asked, “does that mean this duck thinks he’s a human?”
The staff member replied, “Yes, he does.” That’s what “fully imprinted” means.
I find this idea terribly fascinating: this duck had an early experience with humans, and that experience continues to shape his sense of identity today. Of course, he’s still a duck and not a human. He looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck… he’s a duck! But in his little duck brain, he looks at us and thinks to himself, “I am one of you.”
It’s not all that different for us humans, either. We, no less than that duck, have a tendency to build our idea of who we are based on past experiences. In this morning’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter meets a group of people who have done just that.
They were a community of widows living in the Israeli city of Joppa, on the coast. Widows in that culture were extremely vulnerable to poverty and exploitation, especially if they didn’t have living (male) relatives to take them in. The early Christian church became well-known for supporting these women and incorporating them into the life of the community. In the context of the church, these vulnerable women were able to band together, support one another, and take an active role in the ministry of the church. Some scholars speculate that this community of widows might have even served as a basis for the ministry of nuns and convents, which would appear much later in history.
The event that has prompted Peter’s visit to this community of widows is the death of one of their own. A woman named Tabitha, well-known as a seamstress, had become ill and died suddenly. Peter was invited to come and pay his respects.
What I find most fascinating about the story up to this point is that these widows form a community that has been brought together by their common experience of grief. Each of them has lost someone important to them, most likely a husband. They all know full-well what it means to say goodbye to a loved one. And here they are again: brought together by grief, and saying goodbye to one of their own.
Just like that duck I met this week, their past experiences (of grief and loss) has shaped the way they see themselves today. And this new experience (of losing Tabitha) only serves to confirm their sense of identity (as “losers”). They have come to see themselves as “the ones who lose people.”
Now, enter the Apostle Peter.
Peter was staying in the nearby town of Lydda and was invited to come and pay his respects after Tabitha died. Like most pastoral visits to bereaved people, Peter visits with the community and hears stories about Tabitha’s accomplishments. The biblical text doesn’t say, but maybe he brought a casserole? And, of course, like all pastors do on bereavement visits, he prayed.
And that’s when things got really interesting.
The text tells us that Peter “turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”
Through Peter, God has flipped the script for this community of widows. Experience had taught them to identify as “losers,” brought together by their common experience of death, but that’s not who they are anymore. Their identity is now rooted in something far deeper than death. As St. Paul says I his letter to the Colossians, their identity “is hidden in Christ with God.” They are Christians. They are the baptized. They are the ones who have passed through the waters of death and have been raised to new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit. That is who they are now, and nothing in all creation, not even the power of death itself, is able to shake them loose from that identity. This is the truth that Peter has come to proclaim to Tabitha’s companions.
It is also the truth that Christ is proclaiming to us today, through this text of scripture. Who we are is not confined to the sum of our parts or the sum of our past experiences. Like the women in this story, we too are the baptized, whose “life is hidden with Christ in God.”
This truth flies in the face of everything the world throws at us in this life.
This American culture we live in brainwashes us to identify with our money and our possessions, whether we are rich or poor. It also tempts us to identify with our accomplishments in life, be they many or few. But that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:
“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
That is who we are.
The people around us might try to pigeonhole, scapegoat, or oppress us because of our race, ethnicity, social class, national origin, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Some of us are excluded or made to feel less-than because of these things about ourselves that we did not choose and cannot change. They call us names that I dare not repeat in church because that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
That is who we are.
Past experience might tell us that we are “losers,” who will never fit in, and will never amount to anything in this life. But that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:
“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
That is who we are.
Past experience might tell us that we are unlovable, but God tells us, as God told Jesus at his baptism:
“You are my Son (or Daughter), the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Just like Peter with Tabitha’s companions, Christ stands among us today in Word and Sacrament, bringing new life where we had given up hope. We can no longer afford to identify ourselves with our past experiences, like that duck at the nature center. We have to find our identity with who we really are in Christ.
We are the baptized: those who have passed through the waters of death and been reborn to life in the Spirit. The waters of baptism have washed away every other name or label that we might be tempted to identify with. Now, there is only Christ. Paul writes, in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Through the sacrament of baptism, you have become the hands and feet of Jesus in this world. Baptism is not just a rite of initiation into church membership; it is also an ordination to ministry. Once we have realized the significance of our baptismal identity in Christ, we are sent out into the midst of the culture we live in. We are sent to expose the cultural lies that trick people into identifying with anything other than who we are in Christ.
Now, I want to ask you a serious question: Can we believe this for ourselves, as Christians? Can we believe it for ourselves, as the Church?
This is a challenging time to be a Christian in this culture. Most denominations and congregations, ourselves included, are facing a steep decline in membership, participation, and financial support. Many, like us, are facing the loss of our buildings and full-time clergy. The temptation for us, at this point in our shared experience, is to identify with these peripheral things. One video we watched in our Tuesday afternoon Bible study called them “the 3 B’s: Buildings, Budgets, and Behinds.” If those things are how we measure success, then we are no different from the culture around us. We are like the community of widows in Acts: huddled together around our shared experience of loss; pining after the good old days.
But the truth is that we are not those things. The truth, in this Easter season, is that Christ is risen and living among us today, breathing new life into us, flipping the script, and unraveling the twisted knots of death, so that we can begin to find our identity, not with our past experiences or present circumstances, but with Christ and Christ’s mission in the world.
And Christ’s mission is ever and always the same:
To proclaim to the ends of the earth, in word and deed, the good news that “I love you, and God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Be blessed and be a blessing.