Collateral Beauty

I preached this sermon on September 11, 2016, “Rally Sunday,” the first Sunday of the church year.

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Again, let me give a shout out to our youth group here in worship this morning. The freshmen, including my daughter Abby were “kidnapped” by the older youth at the crack of dawn this morning and taken to Friendly’s for breakfast.

Seeing it through Abby’s eyes, I am reminded that high school brings a whole host of new experiences; every day Abby comes home with stories and questions that cause me to recall my own high school experience 40 years ago!

The other day she asked, Dad, what’s a pep rally? I have no idea what a pep rally at Simsbury High is like, but back in the day, at Satellite High School in Satellite Beach, Florida, the whole school crowed into the gym on a Friday afternoon dressed in school colors. An emcee would get us worked up with a loud, enthusiastic, introduction. I was in the pep band and we would play a few of our most rocking songs; “The Horse,” does anyone remember The Horse? Mark? (Mark plays a few bars of The Horse on the piano) Cheerleaders would lead us in cheers; students on opposite sides of the gym would compete, “We’ve got spirit yes we do…” Players would be introduced with great fanfare. It was all meant to convey the power and strength of our team and school and encourage us on to victory in the big game that night! We were the first and the best!

It sometimes seems that Rally Sundays are meant to be big pep rallies for church.

Our various choirs and musicians present inspirational music (Mark plays a few bars of The Horse). Your ministers are the cheerleaders. Heck, we could even introduce our team; “Ladies and Gentleman, our quarterback (i.e., President), Cindy Braunlich!” The crowd goes wild! This morning could set the tone for the whole year, reminding us that we are powerful and strong! We are the first and the best!

Indeed, First Church is considered a large, successful church, like that powerhouse high school football team that contends for the championship every year. And we have “stars” in our congregation, individuals who are the best in their positions. After eight months, I’m still astonished by how much this church and our members achieve.

Though it would be a stretch to equate Paul’s letter to Timothy to a pep rally, his words here are meant to inspire and prepare the early church for success and victory. And thought of in this context, Paul’s words would seem to be the worst kick-off to Rally Sunday ever. As the emcee, Paul introduces himself as a former blasphemer (that means he insulted God), a persecutor and man of violence (meaning that he had been a terrorist who tortured and killed Christians), and the foremost sinner. Instead of leading a cheer of “We’re number one!” he kicks off the pep rally with “I’m the worst! The number one sinner!”

As strange as it may sound to our modern sensibilities, this letter was intended to call the church to victory by reminding it that it cannot succeed on its own strength and power. Only after Paul acknowledged his own weakness and dependence was he able to answer God’s call to mission and ministry, and he is calling on the church to do the same, to put its faith in God, not itself.

And as strange as it may at first sound to our modern sensibilities, this is the appropriate starting place for this morning’s Rally Sunday. Our starting place is not strength and power and achievement, but recognition of humanity’s limitations, acknowledgement of our individual and collective weakness and failure. In the words of the hymn, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, “I am weak but thou art strong. Jesus keep me from all wrong.”

Paul is leading a cheer for the early church and for us. Give me an S – Give me an I – Give me an N – Give me another N – Give me an E – Give me an R – Give me an S. What’s it spell? SINNERS! Say it again! SINNERS! One more time! SINNERS! (Hold up sign, “Let’s Go Sinners!” as Mark plays “Charge” on piano.)

Understand that we are not celebrating or cheering on sin. But rather, when we acknowledge our limitations, God’s grace empowers us to do extraordinary things in spite of ourselves, to function as God’s team, the body of Christ, in the world, winning justice for underdogs everywhere!

I saw a trailer for a movie that’s coming out in December, called Collateral Beauty. A father, played by Will Smith, tragically loses his young daughter. Mired in depression he begins writing and mailing letters addressed to time, love and death. Though expecting no response, the Smith character is visited by each of these, time, love and death, in the form of three people who engage him in response to his letters. That’s all I know about the movie, but I was struck by the title, Collateral Beauty. An obvious play on the term collateral damage, which refers to the unintended death and destruction that occurs as a result of war. A bomb lands too close to a hospital and kills innocents, that’s called collateral damage. The term collateral beauty speaks to the surprising, unintended acts of beauty that are set in motion by God’s grace in spite of our human failings, our sin. It’s a lovely turn of a phrase. Collateral Beauty.

So maybe, we aren’t meant to cheer our own or the church’s success and accomplishments on Rally Sunday, but instead invited to tell stories of the collateral beauty that God births into the world in spite of our limitations. I read just such a story on Friday, shared on Facebook by one of our members, Robin Batchelder.

Robin writes:

So I just had an “incident” at the grocery store. I was going a little slow cause I had just walked/ran about 5 miles. I am sore. The woman behind me said “hurry up slow poke” normally I would have been pissed, instead I turned to her and made sure I had her attention. I said to her “I hope that you find peace within yourself, enjoy the rest of your day.” Many people heard me and started applauding. Know your words in a minute can make or break someone’s day. I chose to have them make mine. I was approached in the parking lot by a woman with her children. She thanked me for having her kids witness the beauty in such a dark world. I think this has changed me forever.

Now Robin doesn’t mention God’s grace in her story. But she does acknowledge that, “normally, I would have been pissed.” I would suggest that that thing that allows us to rise above our “normal” bad behavior is, by definition, God’s grace.” And then look what happened; collateral beauty runs all over the place, gets all over everyone and everything. People smile and applaud. A woman thanks Robin for setting a good example for her kids. We don’t know about the woman in line, but we can be sure that some of that collateral beauty spilled on her too. And we can rest assured that the collateral beauty that God’s grace set in motion that day continued to flow in the lives of those who witnessed Robin’s actions.

This is, of course, the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. I came across an article written on the fifth year anniversary in Bates Magazine. I know we have some Bates graduates in the church. In the article, Why 9/11 Stories Matter, Jonathan Adler explores the value of telling stories. Americans in particular, says Adler, love to tell redemptive stories, “narratives that weave together the reconstructed past, the perceived present, and anticipated future in an attempt to provide our lives with some sense of unity and purpose.”

Though his is not an article about Christianity, ours is a faith tradition of redemptive storytelling. Of course the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the archetypal redemptive story, and Paul’s conversion and call is also a story of redemption. Robin’s is a redemptive story. And now, fifteen years after 9/11, we are finding redemptive stories to tell – stories of relationships formed, good acts inspired, lessons learned – stories that reveal the collateral beauty that triumphs over humanity’s worst.

And finally, Baptism, tells a redemptive story. In a moment I will invite the Mauke family up to baptize their precious Parker James. Now to be clear, little Parker himself does not require redemption. Some 1600 years ago, the church father Augustine put forward the concept of original sin, the idea that we are all born with sin within us. But I don’t believe it, not for a second.

In the Gospel of Matthew we find the story of people bringing children to Jesus in hopes that he might bless them, but the disciples rebuked the people for doing so. They didn’t think Jesus should be wasting his time on children. But when Jesus heard what the disciples were doing, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the Children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the realm of God.” And Jesus took those children in his arms and blessed them.

So, while we are born innocent, blessed and beloved, who could argue that we are born into a sinful world, a world that begins to exert its influence upon us from our earliest moments? In a child’s life, Baptism becomes a symbolic first telling of God’s redemption story, a story of grace and the collateral beauty that no darkness can ever overcome.

On this Rally Sunday and in this year to come, may this be the story we tell, a story of God’s grace that forever calls us beyond our “normal” bad behavior to be the body of Christ, the church, empowered to be agents of God’s love and beauty.

I invite the Mauke’s to come forward with Parker James.

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