Flipping the Script

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.

Click here for the scripture reading.

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.

Resurrection People

Click here to listen to this sermon for free at fpcboonville.org

Acts 4:32-35

Today, as many of you may or may not know, happens to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  The story of the Titanic is one of the most well-known tragedies of the 20th century (I am, of course, referring to the actual ship and not the movie… although the movie was pretty bad).  I am proud to say that I was a Titanic enthusiast long before the film came out.  I was just a little kid in 1985 when the wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard, the legendary ocean explorer.  When I was learning to read, my mother bought me a copy of a kids’ book called Titanic… Lost and Found!  Later on, my very first “grown up book” was The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard.  I even own a small piece of coal that once sat in Titanic’s boiler room.  It was recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the ocean.

In addition to the popularity of James Cameron’s blockbuster film, I think there are many reasons why the story of the Titanic continues to haunt our collective memory and imagination.  One could easily call it a “multi-faceted tragedy.”  On the one hand, it is a story of foolish human arrogance: unwavering faith in “progress” and technology that led to calling the ship “unsinkable,” even though it obviously was not.  On the other hand, it is a story of human vanity.  Titanic’s builders used the cheapest and most brittle of low-quality iron in their construction of the ship’s hull.  They preferred to spend their money on lavish decorations like gold-gilded dinner plates and the magnificent grand staircase that we saw in the movie.  Some scientists have theorized that, had the ship’s hull been made of sterner stuff, it might not have buckled as badly after striking the iceberg.  The ship would still have gone down, but it would have happened much slower and allowed more time for rescue ships to arrive and save lives.  But, in my mind, the greatest tragedy of the Titanic is that it is a story of human prejudice.  Great pains were taken to maintain the distinction between the upper and lower class passengers on the Titanic.  They were not allowed to mix under any circumstances.  There were still many in that day who believed in the inherent superiority of upper class people over others.

These class distinctions were maintained, even after Titanic received her fatal blow from the ice berg.  The crew shut iron gates in the hallways to keep the lower classes below deck.  As a result, people in steerage were blocked from getting to the lifeboats.  Meanwhile on deck, lifeboats for first class passengers were being lowered only half-full.  Apart from the crew, most of those who died on the Titanic were from the lower classes.  This, to me, is the single most tragic fact of the Titanic disaster.  It represents an almost total breakdown in human community.  Artificial distinctions and privileges were maintained, even in a life-or-death situation.  I can’t think of anything else that takes us farther away from what God intends for us as a human family.

It’s easy for us to sit here this morning, look back in time, and shake our heads at their prejudice.  We think we’ve evolved beyond that.  In some ways, we have: most folks these days have dropped the overt sense of aristocratic pedigree that once dictated social relations in Europe and North America.  But, in other ways, we in 2012 are still very much as our ancestors were in 1912.  We still like to categorize ourselves and write each other off for being different from one another.  Some of our distinctions are obviously trivial, such as preference in music or sports.  Other distinctions, like those involving politics and religion, seem to bear more momentous weight in the public sphere.

Looking at the bitterly divided state of things in our society and world today, it seems to me that we too are guilty of maintaining artificial distinctions and privileges among ourselves, even in the face of dire consequences.  Folks seem only too willing to write one another off as “those people” and forego the gentle arts of communication, coexistence, and compromise.  Even after one hundred years, it seems that we have not yet learned our lesson.

I believe the sacred scriptures of our religion offer us an alternative vision for human community.  We read this morning in our passage from the book of Acts a very different scene from the one described on the deck of the Titanic in her final hours.  We are told that the members of the early church were “of one heart and soul.”  So deep was their commitment to God and one another that they abdicated their rights to private property.  Yet, we are also told, “there was not a needy person among them.”  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds a whole lot more like a hippie farm than a church!

In the midst of this “experiment with socialism,” the text tells us that there is something else going on that is of paramount importance to the church’s identity.  It says that they “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”  Somehow, this singular activity of testifying to the resurrection was central to everything else that was going on in their community.

What I find interesting is that the text of Acts doesn’t tell us what they said.  It doesn’t tell us how the apostles and early Christians testified to the resurrection.  To be sure, this is something that Christians continue to do to this day.  Some folks try to “testify to the resurrection” by constructing historical and scientific arguments for the likelihood that Jesus got up out of his tomb and walked the earth again.  Some folks simply tell the story over and over again (like this church does at Easter).  But the most important way that people (back then as well as now) “testify to the resurrection” is in the way they live.

When I look at that beautiful depiction of the early church, sharing what they have, meeting peoples’ needs, and generally being a community “of one heart and soul,” I am struck by that community’s similarity to Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, where “the last will be first” and “the greatest among you will be the servant of all.”  The powers-that-be of Jesus’ time were threatened by his message.  The crucifixion was their final “no” to everything that he was and did.  But the resurrection was God’s resounding “yes” that trumped the world’s “no.”  Truly, where God is concerned, love is stronger than death.  In this chapter of Acts, we have a community where people dared to love like Jesus did.  Their daily lives served as indicators that Jesus’ dream was coming true and that the life of Christ was alive in them.  Their lives together served as a living testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.

This reminds me of the words to an old gospel hymn:

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me

Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

You and I have not had the privilege of physically walking and talking with the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, as the early apostles did.  However, we are not therefore excused from the task of testifying to his resurrection.  We, who claim to be his followers in the world today, give testimony to the world through the presence of the risen Christ in our hearts.  When we allow that Christ-like love to have its way in our lives, it does something inside of us.  It puts us back in touch with the true meaning for our lives and the center of the universe.  We experience Christ, not as an historical figure who lived two millennia ago, but as a living and breathing presence in our midst today.  Like the hymn says, “He lives within our hearts.”

There is another hymn that communicates this same idea.  We sang it as our opening hymn this morning.  Did you catch the lyrics?

They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that can never ever die!
I’ll live in you if you live in me,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

Earlier in that same hymn, it says, “I am the dance and I still go on!”  Your life is a testimony to the presence of the living Christ in you.  Wherever faith conquers fear, Christ is alive!  Wherever equality dissolves prejudice, Christ is alive!  Wherever selflessness conquers selfishness, Christ is alive!  Wherever opposing individuals or groups sit down together to seek peace and understanding, Christ is alive!  God’s resounding “yes” trumps the world’s final “no.”  Wherever these dreams become reality in our lives, we show the world with our lives that Christ is a present and living reality, not just some inspirational figurehead confined to the annals of history.  Christ is the dance we dance.  Christ is the undying life within us.  How do we know he lives?  He lives within our hearts!  Just look at our lives and see!

This is good and empowering news for us, but it also bestows a great responsibility upon us.  We need to ask ourselves on a regular basis whether the lives we live, as individuals and as a church, are proclaiming a message of resurrection to the world.  We need to ask ourselves if we are living as resurrection people.  Are we practicing what we preach?  The great American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”

There are all kinds of big and little ways that we can live as resurrection people.  Some of us will change the world with our testimony.  Most of us will not.  All we can do, according to theologian William Stringfellow, is “live humanly in the midst of death.”  Our little deeds of compassion and care must carry the light for us.  We, through our actions, can create a small community of kindness around us that has the potential to outlast the empires of history.  The Christian church began as a small, persecuted sect in the shadow of the Roman Empire.  Yet, here we are, Christians still celebrating, worshiping, and caring together, centuries after the fall of Rome.  The presence of the risen Christ in us is stronger and more enduring than the dominating force of empire.

Then again, we never know what kind of impact our small acts of kindness might have on the world at large.  There is a story of a young black boy and his mother walking down a city street in South Africa during the reign of Apartheid.  There was a law then that black folks had to step aside when white folks passed their way on the sidewalk.  As this mother and son were walking along, they encountered a white man walking the other way.  As he drew near, the boy was shocked to see the white man step aside and lift his hat as they passed by.  The boy asked, “Mummy, who was that man?”  His mother replied, “That man was an Anglican priest and furthermore he is a man of God.”  The little boy would later say, “That was the day I decided that I wanted to be an Anglican priest and furthermore a man of God.”  That little boy grew up to be Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the pastor to a nation who helped to peacefully dismantle Apartheid and usher in a new era of equality for his country and set an example to the world.  Who could have predicted that his calling would be inspired by one small, illegal act of kindness and respect given one day on a street corner?  Christ is alive!  Christ is risen indeed!

I’d like to close with another story from the Titanic.  In the midst of all the arrogance, vanity, and classist inhumanity of that tragic story, there is the noble tale of Fr. Thomas Byles.  He was a Catholic priest on his way to officiate at his brother’s wedding in the States.  During the night, he was twice offered a space in a lifeboat, but gave it up to other passengers both times.  He said he would stay on board so long as there was a single soul in need of his ministrations.  He heard confessions and said prayers.  The last time anyone saw him alive, he was saying the rosary on deck, surrounded by a crowd of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.  There, in the desperation of that moment, distinctions between race, class, ethnicity, and religion were all erased.  It seems that only grace remained once the gravity of the situation set in.  I find it amazing that, even there, in the midst of this great tragedy, a small group of people encountered the eternal mystery of God together in ad hoc community.  Even as they walked together through the valley of the shadow of death, their lives “gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”