1 Peter 2:2-10
By Rev. Linda Dolby
Each of us comes here today with different experiences, different histories, different labels, different names.
Who first told me? Who first told you? Who are you? Who has told you who you are?
Was it your parents, when they shook you and scolded you and told you to behave? Or your teachers, when they told you to go sit in the corner or the hallway for stepping out of line? Was it your boss, when he asked you to do the project over again and this time get it right? Or maybe your children made you feel stupid or they looked at you as failure? Has someone added up a pile of words telling you who you are? Over-working, over eating, over-spending, under-achieving, under-giving, under-loving?
Some of us have been told that the color of our skin makes us inferior. And even though our minds know better, our hearts, our souls bear a deep wound. Some of us have been told that we aren't smart enough, good enough to amount to much. Some of us have been told, sometimes by the church, that who we are is an abomination to God. Some of us have been told, one way or another, that God doesn't much care about you. Words hurt. Words can tear us apart. I would go so far as to say that words can and do destroy persons. We say from our earliest childhood days, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But they do.
The Apostle Paul wrote "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." Sadly, we have all learned all too well a litany of self-condemnation, taught to us by a world - and too often by church experience - that tells us that we are miserable and wretched.
There is a different story, though. It is a story that washes away all the familiar and hurtful and hateful refrains that call us unworthy and unloved. This story is written in I Peter, 2:9-10 and answers in a different way the question who are you?
"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God's chosen people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."
Of course – this is who we are! This is the way God defines us. Our God sees us as chosen, as royal, as holy, as God's own beloved, embracing us with mercy and empowering us to be merciful and just. This is the true story of who we are.
When out of jealousy, cruelty. fear, or insecurity, others may call you names and utter all sorts of unkindness about you, remember who you are. You are not defined by them. You are named and claimed; chosen and called by God! Sons and daughters of royalty, holy ones, dear and delightful ones! Who, in God's name are you? You are one who belongs to God who chooses you, names you and claims you.
This is the Good News of the Gospel. We are God's own. It all comes down to grace. We know that all by ourselves we stumble and fall. But in God's eyes, we are loved, chosen, adopted, and anointed.
St. Peter wrote these words to the earliest groups of believers. He was writing to all those "chosen and destined by God." The earliest Christians needed to know who they were as God's church. The Greek word for church is ekklesia, the "called out ones."
One of the unfortunate things about the English language is that we have one word that is for the individual and the collective 2nd person - you. In French, the individual you is tu and the plural you is vous. In Spanish, tu and vosotros. Peter is writing to all the people in the church: you - together - are chosen, all of you, together, are God's priests - all of you, together\are a holy nation, God's own people. All of you, together) are church - the called out ones.
Why? Why were they called out? Why were they church? So that they might declare the wonderful deeds of God. The people needed to know who they were so they could proclaim to others who God is. That is the mission of the church: to proclaim, through word and deed, the wonderful acts of God. As Emil Brunner said, the church exists for mission as a fire exists for burning.
The great tragedy is that sometimes the church forgets and abandons its mission.
There once was a little church in Texas that was doing just fine until a huge Petroleum company asked if they could prospect on church property. The church met, prayed, and decided that it would be OK as long as 10% of any profits came to the church. Well, the company drilled and found a huge field of oil right underneath the church; and the money began pouring in. First they fixed the roof, then they carpeted the sanctuary. Then they put a wing on the parsonage and a steeple with a cross on top above the church entrance. But the money kept pouring in. Finally, they had a congregational meeting. A motion was made to divide up the profits between the members. That motion passed unanimously. Immediately another motion was made: that there be no more new members in this church.
They forgot who they were and why they existed. Contrast that church with another, St. Luke's UMC in Oklahoma City. 21 years ago, Pastor Robert Long was in his office at St. Luke's. Suddenly he heard a deafening boom and felt the building shake. He ran outside, looked to the south, and saw thick, black smoke billowing up about a mile away. He had no idea the smoke was coming from the deadliest terrorist attack that had ever happened on American soil. He did not know a two-ton bomb made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil had blown the front off the nine-story Murrah Federal Building and heavily damaged more than 200 other buildings. He did not know 168 people were dead and hundreds were injured. But this much Long did know - people were in trouble and needed help the church alone could offer. Wiithin minutes, he and his staff were listening to news bulletins and thinking about problems people were facing and how St. Luke's could help. Since the church was near the bomb site and had plenty of space, Long phoned the American Red Cross and offered use of the building. The Red Cross accepted, and moved in by noon. Soon the church's Christian Life Center was filling up with residents of nearby apartment buildings and retirement centers that had shattered windows and cracked walls and were no longer safe to live in. Since their homes were now part of the crime scene, residents of nearby buildings were not permitted to go back inside even to get clothes and other belongings. Most came to St. Luke's with only the clothes they were wearing.
Hundreds of volunteers came to help the Red Cross care for the 300 temporary residents, preparing more than 2,000 meals a day for those living at the church and for rescue workers who were risking their lives searching for trapped survivors. Church members brought blankets, pillows, clothing and other essentials.
When the pastor was asked how he accounted for St. Luke's responding so faithfully, he replied that reaching out and caring for people was at the heart of the church's culture. "St. Luke's is more than a century old," he said, "and if you look back through our history you will find that our people have always believed we are called to be involved in the world and to care for one another. When a disaster happens, our people jump into action."
When asked if he asked the trustees for permission before inviting the Red Cross to make St. Luke's their disaster response center, Long said it never occurred to him. "We had just built our new Christian Living Center and redecorated our fellowship hall," he said. "Suddenly clothes were hanging from our chandeliers. People were eating everywhere, our carpets were getting trashed. About $5,000 worth of our kitchen equipment went out of our building and was lost in the chaos. But, I didn't have one member come up to me and say, 'Oh my gosh, Pastor, look what's happening to our facility.' Nobody was complaining. Everybody was saying, 'This is what we are here for."
St. Luke's not only provided a place for people to eat and sleep. The staff and scores of members sat with people who were grieving and listened to them tell who and what they had lost and express doubts about how they could live through it. "We didn't offer easy answers or pretend to be fixers," explains Long. "We just listened with loving hearts. I was fascinated by how much this meant to people. Later we got numerous letters from those who had been here. What they thanked us for most was not the food or the lodging or the clothes, but for our people who came and sat and listened. Many of them said, 'It was so nice to have somebody listen to me. It helped me so much. I didn't feel so alone."
That's what it means to be church - one with open hearts, open minds and open doors. That's who we are - on a mission from God. Pastor Long concludes: "The most important thing a church can do in advance of a disaster is to plant the seed and nurture the growth of a caring community that understands that the call of the gospel is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, listen to the lonely, and express compassion in every other way possible to everyone."
Who are you? You are accepted, loved, belonging to God. Who are we? We are God's people, accepting, loving and inviting others, through word and deed, to belong to God too. That's who we are. That's our mission. May it be so. Amen.
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