The People With Nothing to Lose

Acts 9:1-22
© Stacey Steck

Another week, another school shooting, this one a little too close to home. Two people dead and four injured at the hands of someone who apparently thought he had nothing to lose but his life, and I guess that didn’t matter too much either. And so he took the lives of people who matter to someone, and who matter to God, and, in the big picture, must matter to us all. People with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world, aren’t they?

This morning, we are introduced once again to the character of Saul, the Pharisee who would have loved Guantanamo Bay. As a frontline agent in a first-century War on Terror, Saul could have used such a place to detain the Christians he tracked down for daring to have an allegiance at odds with his own. Notwithstanding the story of Stephen, one of the earliest martyrs who was simply stoned to death in the street, we might imagine that post-capture, there was some interrogation taking place, some attempts to smoke the terrorists out of their “caves,” or the other such places in which Peter and the other disciples were camped out. Then, after all the information was extracted, the punishment could be meted out, maybe even without the secret and shady trial Jesus received. After all, since he had already been convicted, his fellow co-conspirators would be too. Why bother with due process or pesky little things such as truth or evidence. These people had to be eliminated. They were a threat. They were willing to do anything for their God, even die. From Saul’s perspective, they had nothing to lose, not even their lives, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.

In the early days of the church as recorded in Acts, we get a picture of what the early Christian community was like, what they valued, how they conducted themselves. These were a people empowered by the Holy Spirit who had given them the power to heal the sick with their touch, as Peter did with a crippled beggar. These were people who had overcome the powerful sentiment of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine,” and, overcoming it, had decided to share their goods in common, that all might eat. These were a people who publicly proclaimed that they owed an allegiance to a higher authority than the emperor or the high priest when they said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” These were a people who dared to speak the truth to power and criticize those responsible for the death of Jesus, saying, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” These were a people who did not have a fear of death, that most valuable instrument of torturers everywhere, that understandable human desire to cling to life that has caused many a torture victim to reveal information. Such a people, such an Easter people, had to be eliminated, they were a threat, they were dangerous, for they had nothing to lose, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.

The world doesn’t know what to do with people as dangerous as that, with World War II Japanese kamikaze pilots willing to make suicide runs that crash their planes into the sides of ships, with the David Koreshes of the world who don’t surrender when surrounded by the FBI, the ATF, and half a dozen other government agencies, with fundamentalist Islamists who strap explosives on their bodies and detonate them in crowded marketplaces, with the campus, concert, and church shooters that seem to be multiplying like weeds. The world doesn’t know what to do with these people who act like they have nothing to lose, and so the world does what it does best when it cannot comprehend something: it exerts its will and unleashes its violence and tries to put an end to what it feels is threatening it. Sometimes that violence works and the threat goes away, but most times the threat just grows and grows and justifies yet more violence in a never-ending spiral of death and destruction.

And so at the beginning of our story in Acts this morning we find Saul acting out the world’s fear. That he is doing it on the part of the religious establishment rather than the political order need not concern us. In those days, the leaders of the religious establishment had a symbiotic relationship with their Roman overlords, and keeping the peace, even in this vigilante style, was part of the price of occupation. If Caiaphas the high priest couldn’t keep things under control, the Romans would find someone else who could, and so it was in the best interests of those like Saul to quash anything that resembled a threat to their privileged position. And Saul has been successful in his anti-terror campaign and he’s on his way to smoke out of their caves even more of the faithful when he meets his maker on the road to Damascus and suddenly everything changes, the persecutor becomes the persecuted, and the man with everything to live for now has nothing to lose, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.

At first glance, it might seem strange to describe Christians as people with nothing to lose, especially when we consider the experience of the early church, and perhaps our own experiences of church, both good and bad. The pictures of the Easter community we glimpse in Acts are wonderful, the kind we’d want to hold on to: we read that “the whole group of those who believed…were of one heart and soul…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold…Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” That sounds like something worth living for! That sounds like Thyatira! Those of us who have experienced church conflict know just how valuable are those moments and seasons of unity and oneness of Spirit. God has given us the wonderful gift of community and it’s worth holding on to.

Yet at the same time, we know that this community is but a foreshadowing of a banquet even grander, the one to which all the saints of every time and place are invited. We know that since Christ is the first-born of the dead, we will follow as his risen siblings. We know there is a new Jerusalem a-comin, one with a river of life as bright as crystal and streets paved with gold transparent as glass. We know, as Jesus reminded us, “that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” and that “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” We know all of these things and we know that we’ve already gained far more than we could ever hope for from a source which will never take it away, never take it away, and so we are able to live life as if we have nothing to lose, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.

I’ll bet you thought you didn’t have a single thing in common with that UNC Charlotte shooter, that man with nothing to lose. But you do. The truth is that we have a lot in common. He has family. We have family. He got angry. We get angry. He got frustrated. We get frustrated. We’re a lot alike. Yes, there’s a difference. We haven’t grabbed our guns and shot anyone. But let me suggest that not only do we have something in common with him, but that maybe we should have even more in common with him than we think. That we should make it our business to be as dangerous as he is. Because we too have nothing to lose. When you’ve gained it all, what is there left to lose?

Do you feel dangerous? Do you feel menacing? Are people afraid of you? Does anyone perceive you as a threat to their well-being or national security? Does the government have a “file” on you or Thyatira? They had a file on Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who led a people with nothing to lose. Christian leaders in places like China are watched by their governments because they lead churches full of people with nothing to lose. You see, the mere existence of people who are determined that “we must obey God rather than any human authority” and who act in decidedly countercultural and non-violent ways, is just cause enough for persecution and violence. Imagine what awaits those who have the audacity to proclaim aloud and publicly the value of human life over economic interests, the power of God over the power of the state, and the witness of grace and forgiveness over fear and violence.

The early church must have been doing something right. You know you are on the right path when the powers that be get provoked to action against you. From a certain perspective, the early church really was like a religious terrorist group whose behavior confronted the dominant culture in a very challenging way. Mind you, it was the peaceful nature of the movement that caused so much turmoil, and not any violence, but it nevertheless created quite a stir among those with the power to do something about it. You see, the impulse to cling to life no matter the price, that best instrument of the torturer, is the same impulse to seek life that is authentic and compassionate and just. And given the choice, most people would choose the life demonstrated by the early Christian community over that of Empire or that represented by those who sold out the lives of others to save their own, as did Caiaphas and his lot. Empires and fiefdoms don’t stand a chance without the odds stacked in their favor by violence and persecution. And so they use the means at their disposal to dispose of the threat.

It so happens in this story that God put an end to one persecutor’s anti-terrorism career, but like the mythical beast of the hydra, multiple heads spring forth when you cut off one. There is never a shortage of troops for such a purpose. Indeed, Saul, who we will come to know as Paul in subsequent chapters, finds that he now has nothing to lose and is therefore a threat worth eliminating. God even promises him a life of persecution when Jesus tells Ananais, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Be that as it may, there is still far more power in the hearts of those with nothing to lose than in all the weapons of Empire, and the fact that we read today of Paul’s new identity and not Caesar’s iron rule tells us much about that power. Paul’s own life tells us that God has not left us defenseless even if our shields don’t ward off physical blows. God has not left us unprepared for the battle, even if our weapons are but love and grace. Indeed, Christians are the most dangerous people on the planet, if we really practice what Jesus preaches.

You may be flashing back to the beginning of this sermon when I named such people like campus shooters and kamikaze pilots as dangerous people with nothing to lose, and then went on to identify ourselves as being in the same lot. What should cause you concern is not that the church may actually be like those people and those groups who return violence with violence, or that Empire doesn’t really care if there is a difference between types of dangerous people and punishes both equally. What should concern you is if there is no one after you, if you are not on anybody’s terrorism watch list. Is your lifestyle as a Christian a threat to anyone? Does it make people question their choice for the values of Empire or do we make it easy for them by living those values in our own lives? Remember what distinguished the apostles and their followers. Remember what made them dangerous in the eyes of Saul and Caesar. Remember that it was that they loved one another in such an authentic and sincere and genuine way that people could see a real alternative for their communities and were choosing it.

On the road to Damascus, Paul learned that he had nothing to lose, that on account of the same Jesus Christ he was persecuting, he had gained the life Christ died to give him, a life about which he could later say, in his letter to the Philippians, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” Indeed, for as many people as he had killed and imprisoned, Paul was far more powerful and dangerous a man as a Christian than as a Pharisee. He was the best kind of dangerous, a peaceful and loving witness that helped people like us know that we have nothing to lose. May God help us to be as dangerous as Paul, because, you know, people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world. Amen.

Lunatics for Jesus

Luke 24:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Easter is late this year. Ever wonder why Easter is what the Roman Catholics call a moveable feast, a holiday without a fixed date? Well, the date of Easter is calculated based on the appearance of the first full moon following the vernal equinox, which is March 21. Since the moon came full just this Friday on April 19, and since April 19 is the first full moon after March 21, we celebrate Easter this year on April 21, the first Sunday that follows. If you think that sounds complicated, it is, and this year is actually even more complicated than usual, but you’ll have to consult the Farmer’s Almanac to find out why. The earliest day in any year that we could possibly have Easter is therefore March 22, and the latest is April 25, and incidentally, only three times in the last 150 years has Easter fallen on even its second earliest possible date of March 23, the most recent coming just a few years ago. But in case you were wondering about Easter falling on its earliest day, the last time was the year 1818, and the next time will be in the year 2285. And finally, the date on which Easter is most likely to fall is March 31. But all that is an idle tale.

Some historians suggest that the reason this method of calculating the date of Easter was chosen had to do with the pilgrimages that people would take to the Holy Land near the time of both the Passover but also that vernal equinox, one of the days of the year when the amount of daytime and nighttime was equal. A long journey through a hot desert would be made easier by traveling at night, but that was difficult without our modern convenience of electricity, and so the next best alternative was sought, and that was the light of the moon. And so to accommodate the arrival of pilgrims, Easter was set as a moveable feast when the moon could offer its light, but also so that the pilgrims could take advantage of some of the cooler hours of the growing daylight. But that too is an idle tale.

The burning of Judas is an Easter-time ritual in many Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic communities, where an effigy of Judas Iscariot is burned. Though not an official part of the Easter liturgical cycle, the custom is typically a part of the reenactment of the story of the Passion that is practiced by the faithful during Easter. Customs vary, but the effigy of Judas is typically hanged (reenacting Matthew 27:5) on Good Friday, then burned on the night of Easter Sunday. And then there’s the Easter Bunny, and the decorated eggs, and the plastic grass, and the new clothes for Easter, and the lilies, and all the rest. But all those are idle tales.

Maybe by now you get where I am going. What do all of these idle tales have to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead? With the empty tomb? With two men in dazzling clothes asking “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” With remembering how Jesus had told them exactly what would happen? Well, from even that first day, the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the empty tomb, the angels, and all the rest, has been considered “an idle tale.” Remember? Mary and the other women return from discovering the great news of the empty tomb, and all that the rest of the disciples can do is think they were off their rockers. “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” To call it simply an idle tale was “actually a fairly generous translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word ‘delirious.’ So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense.” Perhaps it is telling that after Peter decided to see for himself the so-called empty tomb, and discovered that it was in fact as the women had said, that he went straight home, “amazed at what had happened,” but apparently not willing to open himself up to the same charge of delirium by broadcasting the same news as the women. Can you just imagine how those poor women felt, they who were the first bringers of the world’s greatest news, only to be told they were out of their minds?

The world is full of idle tales of two sorts. The first kind of tales are idle in the same sense as our story this morning, because they are considered “unbelievable,” or too hard to believe. They are not taken seriously because we think they are fashioned by seemingly fanatical and delirious people. UFOs, Bigfoot, La Chupacabra, the Loch Ness Monster, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. These stories are so far out, or far enough out that they are easily dismissed, even if they for a time capture the popular imagination. We don’t have a problem with idle tales presented as merely idle tales. Hollywood would cease to exist if we did. It is when we try to pass off as truth what seems too difficult to be true that charges of delirium are pressed.

The second kind of idle tale is the one that is idle because it seems superfluous, not necessary to live the kind of life to which one aspires. It can be easily dismissed so as to get on with the weightier matters of the day, or easily embraced to avoid the weightier matters of the day. The Kardashians come to mind. The Internet is full of such delirium and foolishness. At best, this second kind is a benign distraction, a little light entertainment to take the edge off a hard day. At worst it is an addiction, a means of checking out completely and submerging ourselves in a fantasy world in which we think we can avoid pain and heartache. But the tales are idle no matter which way we take them.

I think the resurrection is, today, an idle tale of both types. On the one hand, perhaps even more so than on that first Easter morning, we are disinclined to believe something so supranatural could have happened. We have two thousand years more knowledge of the way the world works, of the laws of nature, and the ways of science, how incredibly difficult is even the resuscitation of a dead body, much less a resurrection. In that same period, we have dissected and demythologized the Biblical texts, and found enough parallels to the story of Christ in other religions and myths to make some of us willing to believe that what we used to call miraculous is just borrowing from other competing motifs, or trying to one-up other worldviews. If the story of the empty tomb seemed fanciful to the ears of those who lived two thousand years ago, who, some would say, were far more inclined to believe in that kind of divine intervention in the first place, how much more ridiculous must it sound today?

And on the other hand we must ask how much more superfluous could the idea of resurrection be today, especially among those who have no idea what it is like to suffer, as the peasants disciples and followers of Jesus did? There seems to me to be more than a casual correlation between the depths of one’s suffering and the fervor of one’s faith. It is something like the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. And so, from our position of affluence, what need do we have for an omnipotent God when, for the most part, we control our own destinies? Who cares about God’s power when we have wealth and weapons? We don’t need anyone to save us, from either sin or suffering. The answer to any question we might have can be found on Wikipedia. If we don’t like the answer we receive there, we can find another with the help of Google. And if that fails, there is no end of telemarketers or pharmaceutical companies who can sell us something to ease our anxiety about not having all the answers.

And it is not just skeptics and atheists who question or dismiss the risen Christ as an idle tale. Faithful people too wrestle with the challenges of believing a miracle that seems a little hard to believe, and of believing it when there seems little benefit to believe it. Or at least those faithful people wrestle with living as though it is more than an idle tale of either sort. They accept the resurrection because they are supposed to accept it, because they honor the creeds in which it is included, because they had to say they believed it to make it out of Confirmation Class. But either some element of doubt, or the lack of a whole-hearted embrace of the resurrection of Jesus Christ linger in churches of every sort, even ours to be sure, and leave the story to be greeted anew as an idle tale by the next generation.

I began by describing some idle tales that fall into that second, superfluous category, tales about how and why the date of Easter is calculated, and about customs attached to this day we call Easter. We could just as easily celebrate Easter on every second Sunday in April, if it suited us, rather than on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox. We could dismiss pilgrimages as irrelevant since we know God does not reside in a specific place, but everywhere and in our hearts. We could leave behind all our rituals and customs of the season and focus more exclusively on this unbelievable resurrection. And we can do that, and probably should, because all of them are idle tales that distract us from what is really important: an encounter with the risen Christ who changes the rules of the game, who lives and reigns at the right hand of God the Father, who transforms our lives if we will but let him. The resurrection cannot be an idle tale in our hearts. It cannot be an idle tale in our lives. It cannot be an idle tale in our world. We must put anything that leads us to dismiss the empty tomb as an idle tale behind us in the same way that Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” when that disciple denied that this resurrection would happen. Put those Easter bunnies back in the closet!

But. But. Perhaps there is good reason that Easter is associated with the full moon after all. Perhaps it’s so that we might catch a little lunacy, act a little abnormally, behave like the resurrection really matters while the rest of the world denies it. The word “lunatic” is usually used to refer to people who are considered mentally ill, dangerous, foolish, or unpredictable, people whose lives themselves are an idle tale. The word derives, of course, from lunaticus meaning “of the moon” or “moonstruck,” because it was thought that the full moon made people act in strange ways because it disrupted normal sleep patterns. Philosophers such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder argued that the full moon caused a partial sleep deprivation that was sufficient to induce mania in susceptible bipolar patients, and seizures in patients with seizure disorders. Now, that’s an idle tale, but wouldn’t it be something if we who proclaim the resurrection were as struck by it as those who were once called lunatics were supposedly moonstruck. What might the world look like if we were delirious lunatics for Jesus, believing, and acting out our belief, that God changed the world once and for all, defeating death when our Lord was raised?

And what might our world look like if we were deliriously lunatic enough to put our faith into action like a pilgrimage for which we needed God’s guiding light? To make a commitment and honor it in front of all the people we pass by along the way, no matter whether it be labeled an idle tale? What if we lived our lives as a pilgrimage toward God’s vision for the world, letting nothing stand in our way of that goal, even if caring for the castoffs of society, or the air we breathe is considered superfluous? What if the resurrection was more a lifestyle than a doctrine? How delirious would you be willing to look? How many times have you heard the Easter Sunday story? And when’s the last time it made a difference in your life? Will we be like the women who went and eagerly told the disciples? Or like Peter, who went straight home and kept the good news to himself?

The good news of the Gospel is that God doesn’t call us to be delirious lunatics without having been one first. You see, God is the one who is delirious. God is the great lunatic. God is the one who did in Jesus Christ the unbelievable for the very people who thought it superfluous. God’s power isn’t limited by how unbelievable we may find it. God’s grace isn’t limited by how superfluous we may think it is. And God’s love isn’t limited by how idle a tale it may seem to us in our doubting moments, or the world in all its skepticism. God raised Jesus from the grave and made death the idle tale, once and for all. Alleluia, Alleluia. Amen.