(a sermon for May 13, 2017, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on 1 Peter 2:2-10)
I have a question for you to ponder this morning, and it’s this: Who are you?
Seriously… just who are you, anyway?
It’s a question that truly does require some pondering, for it’s one that can well be answered in a multitude of ways. The first and most obvious answer, I suppose, comes in a name: for instance, “Who am I? I am Michael Lowry.” But then again, that simply gives rise to more specific answers; like, “I am Michael Lowry who lives in beautiful Concord, New Hampshire,” or as it happens in my case, “I’m Michael Lowry, pastor of East Church,” which inevitably leads to the question, “So… is that Reverend Lowry, Pastor Lowry, Father Lowry… and yes, I’ve even been asked this… Rabbi Lowry?” So granted, the title might vary from time to time; but at the heart of all those titles lay at least part of who I am!
Because yes, there’s more to me than just that; I’m also Lisa’s husband; I’m “Dad” to Jake, Sarah and Zachary; I’m still very much my mother’s son (in fact, there are places up in northern Maine where I am still known primarily as “Keith and Sylvia’s boy”), I’m Dale and Sylvia’s son-in-law, and around this neighborhood I’m afraid I’m also known as Ollie’s person (Ollie is our Jack Russell terrier!). I’m also an uncle, a brother-in-law, a neighbor and friend, a member of the United Church of Christ who happens to be a New England Congregationalist at heart; I’m a music lover, guitar player and singer of John Denver tunes, and, oh, by the way? I’m now the bearer of two brand new titanium hips that I’m told will set off airport security in a single bound! I’m a person who works reasonably hard from day to day, who probably… no, strike that… certainly worries way too much about stuff I can’t do anything about, and who sometimes despairs as to the state of the world. But that said, I’m a person who loves and who knows how blessed he is that he is loved by others… that’s who I am, and so much more besides.
But enough about me (!)… the stated question was, after all, who are you?
You see, what I suspect is that your answer to this question is at least as deep and layered as mine; likely even more so! For such is the tapestry of our lives: who we are, friends, is revealed by a lifetime’s worth of experience and the wide array of relationships we’ve had with others along the way. How we “identify” ourselves so often ends up being the sum total of all that we’ve seen and moreover, by how we’ve been seen by others. In fact, for better or worse, it could well be said that who we are is largely informed by what we’ve been told we are; by our parents, our children, our nation, our jobs, our friends, our schools, our culture, even our bank accounts.
This is no small truth, friends, and sadly, it’s not always a positive one. There are so many, maybe even some who are sitting here today, who deep down in their hearts truly believe themselves to be less than worthy of any kind of love or respect, or who have come to think of themselves as somehow inadequate and no good at all; and this, all because somewhere along the way, someone identified them as such by their hurtful words and through an attitude of degradation. Who am I? There are those among us who cannot even answer this question because all they’ve ever heard all their lives is that they’re nothing: the kind of condemnations that have all too often been reinforced in the kind of deep seated cruelties and societal prejudices that sadly pass from generation to generation.
So isn’t it good news that amidst all those who would tell us that we’re nobody and amongst all those who would seek to degrade and marginalize for the sake of their own self-assurance that there is a single voice that belligerently shouts forth that as God’s cherished children we identify as something far greater than the world can every understand; that as believers, “we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Who are you? Who am I? We’re mortal… mortal and rejected in so many ways, and yet we are chosen and precious in God’s sight. No matter what anyone else might have to say about it, no matter how the powers and principalities of this world might choose to define it or seek to diminish it, this is our identity. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” That’s who we are, beloved; that’s who you are!
This first Epistle of Peter, from which our text is drawn this morning, was addressed to a group of early Christians living and ministering somewhere in the Mediterranean world, most likely in the Roman provinces where Turkey exists today. These were people brand new to the Christian faith; frankly unfamiliar with the ideal and reality of living in Christ and serving Christ; and that’s why they get compared here, and I should add not unkindly, to “newborn infants,” longing “for the pure, spiritual milk.” Understand they believed; they “identified” as followers of the risen Christ, but you also have to know that it wasn’t an easy identification, for these new Christians were essentially living as strangers in a strange land, facing persecution both direct and subtle at every turn. History tells us that for the most part, these believers were being dismissed as little more than religious fanatics; in the words of one 1st Century Roman leader, as purveyors of a “perverse and extravagant superstition.”
Men, women and children; all rejected by the world, and yet, as the Epistle makes clear, they were “chosen and precious in God’s sight,” set apart by the Lord as “living stones” to “be built into a spiritual house,” after the manner of Jesus Christ himself, the very cornerstone of this whole new world. Men, women and children; all called as “a holy priesthood” to proclaim the mighty acts of God in that strange place where they were to dwell; to continue the reality of Christ’s own life and ministry in their lives and living! But more than an honorary degree, so to speak, this identity as “God’s chosen” represents how every expectation of the world and its power structure gets turned upside down and inside out, all because of these heretofore mis-identified people who are now the royalty of God’s own kingdom!
In other words, friends, never mind what those who’ve rejected you have said you are! What this epistle makes clear is that while once you were nobodies, people with nothing in common, now you are the church! Now you are family; now you are God’s people, and that says it all; that tells the whole story, because that’s who you are! By the grace of God made manifest in Christ’s resurrection, this is the identity that permeates and recreates anything and everything we’ve come to assume ourselves to be.
The truth of our baptism is that it’s not about what we ought to be, or should be, or what we can be if we only try a little bit harder. Our baptism in the risen Christ asserts who we are: we are a new creation, a new people. We are a holy nation; we are royalty because God in Christ says so. We are God’s own with no doubt or hesitation about it at all; and that is good news indeed. But understand: with this clear identity comes the challenge to live that way, right here and right now, both as persons and as a people of faith
Even here at East Church, in our own little corner of God’s Kingdom, we are that holy nation; we are the people called to proclaim the mighty acts of God: at home, at work, in our relationships with our families and as friends, in the ways we that we seek to shape and change the structures of culture and society. We are the church; and as the church, we’re the ones who “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” whether that happens in lifting the fallen and working against injustice in the world, or if it come to pass in some random act of kindness or simply offering up a shoulder to cry on. You want my opinion? This is what’s going to move us through these very difficult and downright confounding times in which we live; this is what creates the atmosphere of peace, and justice and love in the world; it’s knowing who we are and then living out of that identity; and it starts right here in this place and with us. As G.K. Chesterton once put it, “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.”
In his book with a great title, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, William Willimon tells the story of little boy named Clayton; who when asked what kind of party he wanted for his fifth birthday, replied that he wanted a party in which everyone invited was a king or a queen. So he and his mother went to work building a whole array of silver crowns, each one made of cardboard and aluminum foil; then purple robes made of crepe paper; and finally, royal scepters built from sticks that had been spray-painted gold. And on the day of the party, as the guests arrived each one was given his or her own personal crown, along with a robe and scepter; thus becoming a king or queen. It was all very regal; there was ice cream and cake of course, followed by a majestic procession up to the end of the block and back. Everybody had a wonderful time; and the best part was that not only did everyone look like kings and queens, they got to act like kings and queens!
And that night, when the guests had all gone home, things were all cleaned up and as Clayton was being tucked into bed by his mother, Clayton said, “I wish everyone in the whole world would be a king or a queen – not just on my birthday, but every day.” Well, Willimon goes on to say “something very much like that happened two thousand years ago at a place called Calvary. We, who were nobodies, became somebodies. If we could all believe that, perhaps we could start acting like that.”
It seems to me, beloved, that we would do well to believe that. To know who we are, not just on Sunday mornings when we’re in church and it’s easy, but every morning and all throughout every day as we seek to live out of that identity.
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
That’s who we are, beloved. So may we go forth as the people of God with lives of faithful service in Jesus’ name.
And in that, as always, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry