Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19.
If lectionary readings are followed by congregations, then every three years we read the same Scripture lesson on a Sunday. What caught my attention this time around were the words about Peter. Peter stood up to tell this group of people the hard news of Jesus’s death and resurrection and the fact that they had to move on so the scripture could be fulfilled. Peter also stood up to the fact that they all needed to carry on as well. Yes, it was Peter who stood up to share this difficult news in the face of their loss and grief in this time of transition.
Why him? Why now? We all know of times Peter did not stand up — those times he denied Jesus rather than stand with him — those times it was easier to just blend in with the crowd rather than to be known as one of Jesus’ disciples. Perhaps we can best identify with Peter at those times in his life when he was very human and when he chose to be safe. Perhaps it is easier for us to identify with the Peter who acted out of fear and weakness in denying Christ than it is for us to see ourselves walking in the sandals of the Peter who was strong and decisive. Maybe we feel small and ineffective beside this Peter — the one who stood up and announced that the scripture must be fulfilled and then went about making that happen? The Peter that stood up that we read about this morning is the Rock, the Cornerstone, the Foundation and the model for us and for our churches today. Imagine! God uses God’s people in mysterious ways and chooses sometimes the least likely.
Have you ever experienced a situation or conversation where later you said to yourself: I wish I had said this . . .; or I wish I had done that? The brilliant answers or actions so often come hours or even days later when we think how we coulda, woulda, shoulda handled the situation. Sometimes we get that wished-for second or third chance, and if we learned anything from the prior experiences we may act differently at the next opportunity.
So, maybe that’s why Peter became so good at standing up and being counted. Peter, the Rock, had made mistakes — more than once — and he had proved his humanness — more than once, he had been forgiven — more than once, and he had grasped the opportunity to try again, and so, he stood up. He knew Jesus was counting on him. As Jesus prays for the disciples in our Gospel lesson for today, he asks — that they will be protected in a hostile world, filled with joy, that they be protected from evil, and that they will be made pure and holy by truth. But speaking the truth, even in love, is not always an easy thing to do, yet Peter stood up and spoke the truth. Jesus expected Peter and the others to continue his ministry. To do that they needed strength and commitment, a faith in Jesus the Christ and the belief that Jesus was counting on them.
I know I have done a lot of things I thought I wouldn’t do when I knew someone was counting on me, or when someone else believed in me more than I believed in myself. Perhaps this is true for you, too. Certainly, when we have the belief and support of others — friends, family, even an entire community, we have strength we did not know we even had.
We have many role models who have stood up for causes that are not always popular with the status quo. Many people have stood up and spoken out and have suffered enormous consequences because of a belief that challenges everyday thinking and everyday understanding. Some role models are larger than life — Nelson Mandela comes to mind, for instance.
Some were just tired, like Rosa Parks who needed to sit down at the end of a long day. It was simply fatigue that sparked the flame for integration in this country. She was tired — not only physically — but emotionally and psychologically and spiritually from being treated in a way she knew no human being deserved to be treated. Rosa Parks stood up when she sat down on the bus in a place reserved for whites only. Beyond that initial un-thought-through moment, Rosa Parks and the movement for integration received support and strength from communities — both black and white. That does not mean it was any easier to stand up, but once you have the courage to stand up for what you believe, often the support you receive from community gives you the strength to continue.
Not quite a typical Mother’s Day story, the following is a story that no mothers should have to deal with — ever. Several years ago UCC clergy had an opportunity to travel to El Salvador just after the ceasefire had taken place. The wounds of twelve years of war were still harsh, but the hope of the people was the powerful all-encompassing force of the day. This group of clergy met with a brave group of mothers searching for their missing children — they were motivated by family and love, rather than politics. These are the Mothers of the Disappeared, Tortured and Assassinated. The clergy heard their gruesome, horrific stories of children who were taken from their families — some tortured and many killed. Then these clergy heard of the support of and from one another and the support they had received from the church.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, one of the first clergy to openly support the poor and oppressed in El Salvador, including the Mothers of the Disappeared, was assassinated for his position. In the Lutheran Church, Bishop Medardo Gomez was arrested, jailed and persecuted for his support of the poor and oppressed. Bishop Gomez needed the support of North Americans and Europeans to travel with him to reduce the likelihood of violence. These people stood up and encouraged others to do the same.
The community of the Mothers of the Disappeared, Tortured and Assassinated knew there was no other thing that they could do but to keep standing up and speaking out. They stood up and spoke out against the injustice that was taking place in their country — no matter what the cost to themselves. And now it looked like peace was becoming a reality. It was a bittersweet peace for they had paid a very high price, but they knew they had also played a very important part by standing up and not giving up in the face of threats and violence.
A colleague of mine recalls the story told by Susan Classen, a Mennonite, and volunteer health worker in El Salvador during that time, who told of going through some papers one day and coming across a poem written by Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian Bishop whose work was in solidarity with the poor. The poem is entitled Do Not Forget.
In a fabulous
I had to admire
The anonymous string
By which the whole thing
Was strung together.
Susan went on to tell of her visit that afternoon to the office of the Mothers of the Disappeared, Tortured and Assassinated. She spoke to a woman who told her of how her husband, four children, and grandchild had been killed by Salvadoran security forces. She said, “My life is like a necklace, the beads would have gone rolling all over the floor with the suffering I have experienced if it were not for the work I do with the Mothers of the Disappeared, Tortured and Assassinated. God has given me this support group which is like the string that holds the beads together.” Susan said she went home and reread the poem and understood more clearly what the author was describing — community.
In a fabulous
I had to admire
The anonymous string
By which the whole thing
Was strung together.
Do you remember hearing about Matthias in our second reading this morning? He was the new kid on the block — the replacement for Judas. Can you imagine how he must have felt? According to what we read Matthias had traveled with Jesus’s followers during Jesus’s ministry. So he did have some experience but he was not one of the 12 chosen by Jesus. After prayer they drew straws and that is how Matthias was chosen. Regardless of how he was chosen, Matthias is expected to stand up, speak out, tell the story. He will need the others to teach him, to support him, to help him feel as though he belongs. The string that holds the beads together will need to be strong. A supportive community will be an important ingredient for an effective ministry for Matthias.
And, for all of us, too. Sometimes we are challenged in ways that seem impossible to us — thrust into situations or positions we don’t feel ready for. The metaphor of beading, inspired by the poem we heard earlier, ignites our imagination. Perhaps we can imagine that some of the hard and difficult places in our lives can be seen as individual beads that are placed in the strands of our lives. Some of these beads can be illnesses, death, or a variety of losses — jobs, homes, well-being. The difficult times are strung alongside those joyful times and give our lives balance. Yet, sometimes the challenges are those times we stand up for ourselves when we have been treated badly. Sometimes the challenges are those times we stand up for others when we see or hear injustice in our world. Each time we stand up for others we add another bead to the strand.
But more significant than the beads are the strands that hold all of this together. It seems to me that our work and responsibility as individuals and as a community is to strengthen what holds it all together. We do so by prayer. Intentional, daily prayer, and also in an on-going and growing faith in Jesus, as well as an awareness of the working of the Holy Spirit. And also by continuing to be a part of a striving and supportive community, like First Christian Church. So when we are faced with the risk of standing up, speaking out, telling the story we are able to do so with the knowledge that the community will be here like the unbreakable strand that holds the beads together in the fabulous necklace of the body of Christ.
May God continue to bless you and First Christian Church, and strengthen the needed strand that is this community — not only in your own lives, but here also — in this city where your voice, love and outreach is needed. May it be so. Amen.
Copyright DMC, 2018.