Second Acts Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
April 10, 2016 Third Sunday of Easter
Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19
My April Epistle newsletter article says,
In the coming months, I hope you will understand what it means when you hear me say:
“Hooray! We have a disagreement!”
“Hooray! We have hurt feelings!”
“Hooray! We’ve got ourselves a conflict!”
It does not mean that I am really glad for disharmony or pain. You know me better than that by now, I hope.
I am just so eager to practice using the new skills we are learning together that can transform disagreements, hurt feelings and conflicts into a stronger, closer, more beloved community through a process of healthy communication!
I wanted you to laugh when I said those three “Hoorays,” but I was serious, too. We have been blessed with three opportunities in the past month to practice these new healthy communication skills outside of the workshops, and the result has been not only a satisfactory resolution of the conflict but also a strengthening of our relationships. Something truly amazing and transformational is happening as we learn how to be more Christ-like in our ways of being together.
There is still one more workshop on April 23rd if you have missed the first two. The Diaconate and Board of Mission and Social Action urge everyone to attend. People have been coming out of the workshops filled with joy. You have to witness it yourself to understand it! (To register go to: http://bradforducc.org/calendar-page/healthy-communication-and-beloved-community-events/)
The scriptures teach us we can always say “Hooray,” when we have struggles or hurt feelings or make mistakes, either as a church or as individuals.
Paul was an expert on this “Hooray” theology in the face of seemingly horrible circumstances. He learned the hard way to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances.” (I Thessalonians 5:18)
In today’s passage from Acts the Pharisee Saul was completely on the wrong track, chasing the loving, kind followers of Christ and arresting them and having them stoned to death. On his way to do that in Damascus he was thrown to the ground and blinded by a flash of light that rendered him powerless. Then he had the humiliation of being healed by one of the people he had come to Damascus to arrest and kill. Finally he had the most humbling experience of all: he became the Apostle Paul, the leading spokesman and organizer of the very sect he had hated and persecuted.
If anyone has the authority of experience to tell us to say “Hooray” in the midst of our trials, it is Paul, but he is far from alone. The Disciple Peter could testify to this wisdom, as we heard today in the story from John, and Mary Magdalene certainly could, and Mary the unwed teenage mother of Jesus, and if you look back through the Bible you see others like Jacob, Joseph and Moses who all learned that God will lead us through our hard times or wrong times to say “Hooray!”
As Bishop Desmond Tutu writes in The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, “The Bible is full of stories of reckless, immoral and criminal people who transformed their lives, who became saints.”
The Bible could not be clearer in what it is saying to us: instead of being glum when things are going badly, instead of despairing at our imperfections or weakness, we can turn to God and rejoice in the knowledge that God can still use us to do good in the world. We can have second acts of compassion, mercy and lovingkindness no matter what we have done in our first act.
Please note, it is not that God will make us perfect so that we are worthy of being used for some good, it is that God repeatedly chooses to use those who are not worthy by human social standards! God can use particularly well those who have suffered deeply,and those who have done great wrong and know it, and those who are humiliated and humble.
The Apostle Paul put it this way: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (I Corinthians 1:27f)
There is no question that God works in this upside down and backwards way. The question is, why? Paul says it is “so that no one might boast in the presence of God. God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (I Corinthians 1:28-31)
Paul said, “A thorn was given me in the flesh…. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:7-10)
To understand why God works this way we need to step back and think about who or what God is, and what God wants to accomplish. God is the source of love and life and light. The purpose of God’s creation is to let there be light, and let there be life, and let there be love.
Reality is as simple as that, truly, but we humans come along and make it about other things. We make it about power or wealth or honor or status, we make the purpose of life into self-aggrandizement, a greedy grab for all we can get of whatever it is that makes us feel worthy.
Jesus tried over and over again to get us to abandon the selfish human worthiness-seeking way of life and turn to God’s way. He said we had to lose our life to gain life. He said, “Do not judge.” He said blessed are the meek and poor in spirit and those who are persecuted. He said the greatest of all would be the last of all and servant of all.
Yet human nature being what it is, as long as things are going well for us, we tend not to take Christ’s way seriously. As the Psalm says, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” It took a fall from human success for the Psalmist to turn back to God. Then the Psalmist could write, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O God, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
Paul would have advised the Psalmist to give thanks and say “Hooray!” even as he fell, because if he turned to God, it would work to the good.
We can think of God in many different ways to make sense of this.
We can think of God as a teacher who is patient with her pupils and lets them make mistakes so that they finally learn.
We can think of God as a parent who imposes consequences on his children when they do wrong so that they will choose more wisely in the future.
Or we can think of God as an intelligent force or sacred way that flows through the universe. To be immersed in following that way brings love and life and light to us and feels right, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whereas to stray from the sacred way leads us into trouble even when we prosper, and feels all wrong.
However we think of God, we can see that the advantage to making serious mistakes or suffering hardships and becoming humble is that we learn not to trust in things that are not God. We learn to turn instead to the unconditional forgiveness and force of love that are God, and trust that they will help us up after every fall.
I have told the story in the past about the monk from the great Orthodox Christian monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. The monk stopped in a small Russian village on a journey. The villagers gathered around hoping to hear stories of some of the amazing miracles that the monks performed on Mount Athos. “Tell us what you do there,” they asked. The monk paused and thought and finally said, “We fall and get up, we fall and get up, we fall and get up.”
God chooses the weak and the lowly to be the greatest saints. Through the process of falling and getting up they grow more dependent on God and become more useful to God.
Amazing things are happening in this congregation right now. They are not happening because any one of us is perfect. They are not happening because we as a congregation have been successful in the past. In fact, they are happening precisely because we have had troubles and conflicts and grown humbler. We have fallen and gotten up.
Amazing things are happening here because in the midst of our struggles we have turned to God and asked who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do. We have listened deeply and come up with our Identity and Aspiration Statement (see http://bradforducc.org/). We have renewed our vision of where the sacred way of love and life and light is leading this particular congregation at this particular time, including to healthy communication and beloved community and a thriving Sunday School and Mission and Social Action and music and a more beautiful building and all the good we are doing in so many ways.
Amazing things can happen in our individual lives as well. The things we think of now as our greatest obstacles to grace are the very things God will use to transform us into greater instruments of grace.
God is a God of second acts, of second chances, of resurrection following every crucifixion, of helping us up after every fall, and our part of the transformation is to open ourselves to it, to believe in it, to yearn for it, and to say hooray without ceasing in complete faith that the second act will happen.
Paul did not mean that we would never suffer or face death—he suffered floggings, prison, shipwreck, humiliation and crucifixion. Yet he knew to the very core of his soul that “all things work together for the good for those who love God and want to serve God’s purpose.” (Romans 8:28) That is our task, to keep seeking the love and life and light of God in our heart, come what may, always wanting to be more loving and be like Jesus, in our heart.
Let us turn our heart in that direction now in silence…
The Benediction, adapted from Philippians 4:4-7:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!
Let your humble, compassionate lovingkindness be known to everyone.
Remember that God is always near.
Do not worry about anything! Ask God for whatever you need, giving thanks at the same time.
Do this and be blessed with the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. May that peace guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever more. Amen.