The sermon for week April 17, 2016
Do Not ResuscitateI’ve found it is difficult telling people that I’m a pastor. Even after 6 years, I sometimes hesitate telling people what I do because it conjures up all sorts of images and assumptions in them that I then have to deal with.
Yet the British pastor J. John has a great way of telling people what he does. He sat down next to a stranger on an airplane. They exchanged pleasantries, as to where they are ultimately heading and he asked what she does. She told him, and then she asked what he does and he said, “WELL…
“I work for a global enterprise.
She said, “Do you?”
“I do! We have outlets in nearly every country of the world.”
She said, “Have you?”
“Yes, We have! We have hospitals, hospices, and homeless shelters. We do marriage work. We’ve got orphanages and feeding programs. Educational programs. We do all sorts of justice and reconciliation work. Basically we look after people from birth to death and we deal in the area of behavioral alteration.”
She said, “WOW!” which was so loud lots of people turned around and looked at them. And then she said, “What’s it called?”
And J. John said, “It’s called the church. Have you heard of it?”
Yet the church isn’t what it was. Many are closing. Study after study says people aren’t joining. We here in this church have a budget crisis, and we’re set to send out letters to ask you for more money to support what we do. Is the church as we know it dying? Yes.
I recently watched the movie The Big Short, a movie about the housing crisis and financial collapse of 2008. One character in the movie said, “We live in an era of unprecedented fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball... What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.”
Are we better than this?
We put no one in jail after the collapse. We haven't passed any regulations or done any other actions to keep another big failure from happening again.
It’s no wonder my generation doesn’t trust institutions. And church is one of those institutions. We the church have covered up scandals with pastors and children, pastors and congregants or office staff or other pastors. I just read of a priest gambling away $500,000 meant for refugees. This was reported in late February, and no charges have been filed (Hicap). The man who was the Catholic bishop in Boston in 2002 during the first big sexual assault scandal in the movie Spotlight isn’t in jail—he's working in the Vatican now (Boeri).
The UCC claims to be a place of radical inclusion, yet we gather nationally Sunday after Sunday as a largely all white crowd. In the long and proud heritage of this congregation, we haven’t had a female senior pastor. Sure, a few associates. All of our pastors have been white and to my knowledge, straight. So are we really a place of radical welcome and inclusion that we hope to be?
Our institutions are in a panic now. They are wondering how to attract more people. How to keep on living. They are looking to be resuscitated.
Yet today’s story in Acts is not resuscitation, it’s resurrection. Peter does to Dorcus what Jesus did to Lazarus. After all the stumbles and messing up and getting it wrong, after walking away from being a fisherman and getting a new name, and after denying he ever knew Jesus: Peter gets it right.
After being asked by Jesus three times if he would, “Feed my sheep,” after watching his resurrected friend and teacher ascend into heaven. After experiencing the glory of Pentecost and preaching in Jerusalem, Peter does what only Jesus has done before. He raises someone who was dead.
I can’t understand this. I have no idea how this happened or if it really happened. My modernist brain wants to make this story fit what I know and what I think is scientifically possible, but it can’t. So it wants to dismiss it or put it in the category of metaphor.
I don’t want to be a weird Christian who fears death and thinks of it as an enemy. I don’t want to be like a family my friend Sage ran into when she was a hospital chaplain. A man had died. The family was mourning. The wife and children had held his hand and told the man that they loved him and he’d be missed as he died. Then the cousins came in, and Sage had to go and find another family member who was lost and walked out of the room. When Sage returned, the cousins were pounding on the man saying, “Get up. In the name of Jesus, I command you to live.” While the family was huddled in the corner.
Sage asked the family if they were ok with this and they said, “No, make them stop.”
Sage asked what the cousins were doing and they cited the stories of Lazarus and Dorcus and how they were going to raise this man up too with their faith. Sage said, “No, you’re not. The family doesn’t want you to.” And she had to end up calling security to escort the cousins out of the building (Sage).
I don’t know how resurrection works. I don’t think I’ll ever resurrect someone nor am I planning on it. I don’t want to be like those weird cousins in the hospital, freaking people out with my magical thinking. Yet if I see it happen or am a part of it, I’ll rejoice because with God all things are possible. Despite that story, I do believe that the church is in the business of resurrection! But let’s be clear, God is in charge from start to finish. Yet we are called to work toward God’s purpose and try to bring a little heaven to earth. So while I respect the cousins for trying, I mourn that they missed where the resurrection could have really happened. They could have brought life to the wife and children of the man. The chance for resurrection might not have been in the bed, but it was in the room.
I do believe we are here to bring life. To be Easter People in a Good Friday World. I don’t know how this happens, sometimes it’s a literal thing: addicts go into recovery, marriages are saved, or people given only months to live are healed. And when death comes, lives are celebrated and we speak of how we have seen God at work in the lives of the departed. We help the family and friends of the dead begin life again, if those aren’t literal resurrections, I don’t know what is.
These things are also metaphorical. Confirmands find their faith, teens find meaning, young adults discover their purpose. People find themselves in the midst of a divorce and find that they can hope, trust, and love again. The young and the old and everyone in between are reminded that they are children of God and to love God and neighbor, every neighbor. People wounded by religion find that they can heal and ask questions and won’t be shamed for it.
We are a place where Transgender people don’t have to show id before they use the restrooms. I am so mad about these laws being past. I thought we were over this sort of thing. The very next story in Acts is Peter going to Cornelius the Centurion’s house. Not only is Cornelius a Gentile, he’s also part of the Roman Elite forces which will soon be ordered to kill Christians. Yet Peter has a dream and in verse 28 he states, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” I thought we were better than passing discriminatory laws, I really did. If only there was a place which gathered all people. If only there was a place where we could dream dreams and we see visions of how life can be and work toward it.
Do you know a place like that?
Church, we are a global enterprise! We have hospitals, hospices, and homeless shelters. We do marriage work. We’ve got orphanages and feeding programs. We have educational programs from Sunday school to founding Harvard and Yale and in this area Heidelberg, Defiance, and Oberlin Colleges. We do all sorts of justice and reconciliation work. Basically we look after people from birth to death and we deal in the area of behavioral alteration. We bring life.
We do amazing things, and God is not done with us yet! Yet we won’t be able to live into what God has for us if we aren’t willing to die. Because here’s the truth of the matter: The church is always dying & always being resurrected.
Don't settle for resuscitation.
If you don’t know how, that’s ok. I don’t either. We’ll learn together. We’ll leave the literal up to God and work on the metaphorical. If we do one or the other, the world will be more blessed than if we do nothing.
We are gearing up for life. With the work of our Natural Church Development, our outreach programs, the work of our cabinet, trustees doing remodeling and bringing air conditioning to our rooms downstairs, our children’s programs which are exploding, our family ministry and youth ministries which are beginning to catch fire, we’re gearing up for life! We are bringing in speakers through our Chidester Lecture Series and next week with Nidal, a Palestinian, who will talk about how water is used as a weapon in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. We are trying to do new things and think and dream of new ways of being.
We know the truth.
The church is always dying & always being resurrected.
We won’t settle for resuscitation.
We are practicing resurrection.
Boeri, David. Where is Cardinal Bernard Law Now? WBUR, NPR Boston. Published 9-22-15.
Hicap, Jonah. Priest Admits to Gambling Away $500,000 Meant for Refugee Sponsorships. Christianity Today.
J. John Video can be found here.
Sage: She added “when I told the cousins to respect their aunts wish to stop, they questioned my faith in Gods power. I responded with something like ‘We are not in charge of Gods will. Perhaps Gods will has already been done’”
The Big Short