Thursday, May 8, 2014

“A New Creation” - May 11, 2014

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

There is a Peanuts cartoon where Lucy and Linus and Charlie Brown are lying on the ground looking up at the clouds.  Lucy says, “Aren’t the clouds beautiful?  They look like big balls of cotton.  I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by.  If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the clouds’ formations.  What do you see, Linus?”

Linus says, “Well, those clouds to me look like the map of British Honduras on the Caribbean.  That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor.  And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen.  I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.”

Lucy says, “That’s very good.  What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”  And Charlie Brown says, “Well... I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie but I changed my mind.”

We can look at the exact same thing, and yet what we see can be very different.  If I asked everyone to look out window and tell me what you see, someone might see a white SUV, someone else might notice that SAE mowed the lawn.  Another might notice someone walking down the street and another might surmise that there was a big party down the street last night, judging by the beer bottles.

It is not just that we notice different things and interpret what we see differently.  There are also instances where what we are able to see is limited by what we believe is possible.

A small example of this is when you see an acquaintance in a place where you don’t expect to see them.  You see the cashier from the hardware store when you go out for dinner, and you think you know this person but can’t quite say how you know them.

This phenomenon is also true of our broader outlook on life.  Albert Einstein once said, “We see what our theories permit us to see.”  We don’t just have experiences and then go shopping around for a theory that makes sense of our experiences; we have certain expectations of what we might see, and these expectations, these theories, determine what we are capable of seeing.  In other words, our vision is limited, or governed, by our imagination. 

In today’s scripture, Paul argues that being in Christ changes the way we see the world.  It changes the way we see others and it changes the way we see ourselves.  “If anyone is in Christ,” he says, “there is a new creation.”

Growing up in the church, I heard this verse from a young age.  I had always heard this in the sense that if someone followed Jesus, if someone experienced the love and grace of Christ, then they were a new creation – their lives were radically changed.  That understanding is OK as far as it goes, but it’s not exactly the sense of the text.

A literal translation would be, if anyone is in Christ – new creation!  Not just that that person is a new creation, but all of creation is new.  The New English Bible maybe translates this the best: “If anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world.” 

It is not that the world actually changes, but our life in Christ enables us to see the world in a different way.  We see the world in a different light, through new eyes.

A company called Second Sight has received FDA approval to begin U.S. trials of a retinal implant system that gives blind people a limited degree of vision.  It’s being called bionic eyes.  Roger Pontz, a 56-year old Michigan man, is one of just four Americans so far to be fitted with this system that uses a digital camera that looks like dark sunglasses.  How is the bionic eye working out? 

“It’s awesome,” he said in an NPR report two weeks ago.  It’s exciting - seeing something new every day.” 

That is the kind of change Paul is speaking of.  A whole new world.  He goes on to say, “We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view.”  His point is that rather than seeing from our own narrow perspective – with all of our prejudices and self-interest and bias - God’s spirit enables us to see others, to see the world, in a new light.  It’s not that we are perfect or free from self-interest, by any means, but as we are in Christ, more and more, a new spirit guides our judgments and vision.

You may remember the movie Nanny McPhee.  It’s about a widower with a bunch of obnoxious, incorrigible children who have run off 17 consecutive nannies.  They are terrible kids.  Or, it’s about a group of sacred, hurting, grieving children who need someone to listen to them and care about them.  It all depends on how you look at it.

Anyway, one day Nanny McPhee just shows up at the door.  And she isn’t much to look at.  She has warts on her face and something kind of grotesque on the end of her nose and one big tooth that hangs down.  She is just plain ugly.

The children try to run her off, as they have all the other nannies.  But she will not leave.  She tells them, “When you need me but do not want me, I will stay.  But when you want me but no longer need me, I must go.”  As the movie progresses, the children grow in their respect and then love for Nannie McPhee, and her appearance begins to change.  “Didn’t she used to have two warts?” one child asks.  And in the end, she is a lovely woman.  But the question is kind of there in the viewer’s mind: did she change, or did the ones looking at her change?  Was she perhaps beautiful all along but no one could see it?

To be “in Christ,” as Paul puts it, is to have our vision, our imagination, expanded so that we may see the world more as God sees the world.

Lots of people find themselves in difficult situations.  Folks can find that their lives are a mess and people can make what appear to be terrible choices.  And the reason they have made those choices is often, “I had no other option.”  “That was all that I could do in my situation.”  But so often our options are limited because our vision is limited.  How do we know that we don’t have another option?  Maybe the problem is not limited options but limited vision.  Maybe we are stuck in the “human point of view,” as Paul puts it, when what we need is to see a whole new world.

Fred Craddock told about a former theological student of his, Jim Strain, who writes screenplays.  Strain says that his theological background, especially a class with Craddock on the Parables of Jesus, impacts all of his work.  He wrote a screenplay for the old TV show MASH.

For those too young to remember, MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.  The show was about this army hospital unit in the Korean War – it was a great show with all kinds of colorful characters.  There was a chaplain in that MASH unit who was a Catholic priest, Father Mulcahey, and Jim wrote an episode involving the priest.

Father Mulcahey at some point became very attracted to one of the nurses.  And the attraction seemed to be mutual.  They started spending a lot of time together.  He had taken the vows of his priesthood - vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  But he was attracted to that nurse.  And the whole story was about that struggle.  In the end, he finally tells her that he cannot pursue this relationship because of his vows, and he reaffirms his commitment to God and the priesthood.

Jim told Craddock that he had an awful time selling the script.  He was told that he should change the ending, to make it more realistic.  “What would make it more realistic?” he wondered. 

“He goes for the nurse!  He disavows his priesthood!  Don’t you understand what people want?”  And Jim said, “No.”  He didn’t understand “what people want” because he had a different vision. 

Seeing the world with new eyes can be difficult.  It might even get us in trouble.

What if, instead of seeing rich and poor and old and young and students and townspeople and Democrat and Republican and gay and straight – what if instead, we just saw people – friends and neighbors?  What if we looked at others and simply saw children of God?

Pastor Christina Berry told about going to work every day, getting off the freeway, and there they would be, standing there with their cardboard signs.  “Homeless.  Need help. God bless.”  She wrote:

I knew that if I looked at them, they would come over to my car window, holding out their hands.  And I knew that the best way to help was to give my money to shelters and agencies.  I knew that what I was thinking wasn’t very charitable – “Why don’t you go get some help and get yourself a job?”  I also knew that what I was feeling --- a little bit of fear, and some disdain—was not really Christian, and I didn’t like that about myself.

So I decided to try to see those men and women as God sees them.  I decided that every one of them had once been a sweet little baby, held by a mother, gazed at by an admiring father wrapped in a blanket, waving tiny hands, and I decided that I would look at those men and women in that way.  And it just about undid me.  Every day, I would see the same man standing there disheveled, looking a little bit drunk, and I would think about him as a baby, some mother’s child, and it nearly broke my heart.  I tried to see him as Christ might see him, and I had to stop it, because it was just too sad.
Seeing with new eyes, with new vision, seeing that whole new world out there, can be very freeing, but it can also cause heartache.  And it can change things.  But first, it changes us.  Because our new way of seeing begins when we look in the mirror.

What do you see when you looking the mirror in the morning?  Most days, I don’t necessarily see a new creation.  I see the same guy with a gray beard and thinning hair and a long to-do list.

Too many people see someone beaten down by life, someone of little worth, someone who can’t get it right, someone who is not smart enough, not capable enough, not good enough.

But that’s not what God sees.  God sees beautiful children.  And not only that, ambassadors.  Ambassadors for Christ, who represent Christ to others and who work for reconciliation.

Today we are recognizing our graduates.  They are all very gifted people, in various fields, in various places in life.  WE are proud of all of them.  Graduation is a time when we may think about dreams for our lives – and that can be true for those of us who finished school a long time ago.

Pastor Brett Younger wrote about making a list of his dreams - his hopes for his own life.  I thought what he had to say was instructive.  This is what he wrote:

I would like to go overseas, to England or Israel.  I would like to teach in a school, preferably a seminary.  I would like to write a book that someone would actually publish.  I would like to play on a basketball team.  It would have to be a six foot and under, thirty years and over league.
I could resonate with some of those dreams.  (Although for me it would have to be a 50 year and over league).

But Younger then went on:

Then I stopped to review.  It was a pitiful list of dreams.  Everything on my list was inconsequential.  So I tried again.  I made a second list of what I would like to do before I die.  This time I wrote: I would like to love my wife passionately, ardently, with a love that brings her joy.  I would like to be a good father.  I would like to practice daily making my son laugh.  I would like to be a good friend.  I would like for (friends) … to know that if they have troubles I will be there, but also that sometimes I will be there for no reason at all.  I would like to be part of a church that catches a vision of the kingdom.  I would like to serve a church that sees the equality of all people and celebrates the grace of God.  I would like for Christ to teach me to live each day to the fullest.
Here are some dreams that really mean something.  I wonder – what kind of dreams do we have?  How big is our imagination? 

“If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  What are some of the implications of this new creation?

- We do not see the world in terms of dollars and cents.  It’s not that money doesn’t mean anything, but we don’t make choices based primarily on what will profit me personally the most.

- We value relationships at least as much as we do getting things done.  We do not measure success simply in terms of winning and losing, but we think about the impact of our actions on people.  As Paul tells us, we have been given a ministry of reconciliation – and let’s face it: in today’s world, reconciliation certainly seems like a new and different idea.

- We see others not simply as friends, colleagues, clients, students, nameless individuals, but we see others, both those we know and those we do not, as children of God.

- We are people of hope who don’t put limitations on what God might do.  Even when things look bleak, we remember that Good Friday was not the last word.

- And then, being a part of this community – being part of the body of Christ – means that together we develop a bigger imagination.  Our goal as a church is not institutional survival, not to stay in business, but to transform lives.  Our calling is toward the growth of persons and relationships, so that through God’s Spirit, we might make a difference in the world. 

Happy Mother’s Day!  Congratulations, graduates!  And while we’re at it, Happy Luxembourg Independence Day.  There is a special gift today for each of you: a whole new world.  Amen.