V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Six young rock ‘n rollers from North Carolina came to town recently. They had just formed a band and came up for their first gig at Tree House Lounge, a small bar on Florida Avenue in Northeast. They kicked off their act and started rocking, and that’s when they discovered that almost everyone in the student crowd was from Gallaudet University; nearly everyone was deaf.
So while the band was bouncing around, trying to build intensity, cranking up the decibels, all but three people in the crowd were engrossed in their conversations, signing with each other, completely ignoring the band. When they finished a song, the three people who could hear clapped and cheered – made physical as well as vocal demonstrations of appreciation, and some of the deaf people briefly turned away from their conversations and looked at them like, “Are you ok?”
If I had been in the band, I might not have interpreted that as an auspicious beginning. I might have seen it as utter failure. The band spent the night at the home of one of my friends. The next morning, he asked them about their show, found out what happened, and suggested that it was a tremendous learning experience. The band found out that they could play a set in very difficult circumstances. It had tested and seasoned them. The band members themselves thought it funny, just one of those things that happens. They assigned a positive meaning to it.
We choose how to understand the events of life. Last week, someone used the back alley as a latrine, not an uncommon event, but it annoyed me. I interpreted it as a mark of disrespect and vandalism. I expressed some anger and disgust to John Reynolds, our sexton, and he responded evenly by considering how hard it is for some people, how they don’t have anywhere else to go. I took it personally, made it about me. John made it about the other person, a more gospel oriented interpretation that led to empathy and compassion. How we assign meaning to an event shapes our attitudes and our behavior.
When I’m at home now, I rarely pick up the telephone when it rings. We’re supposedly on the “national do not call registry,” but we still get solicitations and pollsters. I get annoyed being interrupted, having to turn my attention to the phone to have some cold caller try to sell me magazines or take up my time asking questions about healthcare.
I automatically assume, “They’re being rude, disrespectful.” I could choose to be less moralistic, less focused on myself, and say: “They’re just trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on their family table. They might even offer a fair deal.” The story, the interpretation I tell myself, deeply influences my behavior, my attitude. We all make those decisions, usually unconscious decisions, all of the time. If we work on telling ourselves more positive stories, our behavior changes in positive ways.
Incidentally, if you know someone who has made a living by doing cold calls for a decade or more, make friends with him.[i] Hang out with him, a lot. Studies show that long-time cold callers tend to be sunny, hopeful people, and being around sunny, hopeful people helps us be sunny, hopeful people.
Long-time cold callers have learned how to endure lots of disappointment and failure and stay positive. They’ve made thousands of calls, and people tell them off, hang up, and mostly say, “No thanks.” Experiencing so much rejection, they might tell themselves, “I’m a failure.” “No one will buy from me.” If so, they become defeatist and don’t expect to sell, and prospects will hear the defeat, the negative expectations. Pessimistic cold callers don’t last.
The hopeful and optimistic cold caller talks to himself in more constructive ways, explaining rejection as “he was too busy now,” or “she’s in a bad mood,” or “they don’t need it.” He figures that he is going to get twenty rejections for every positive response, and so after being rejected, he might tell himself, “I’m a step closer - only nineteen more rejections to go.”
The pessimistic and the optimistic cold callers start with the identical fact: rejection, but each tells themselves much different stories about it; they frame it, give meaning to it, differently. The optimist tries to find the positive in each call: “At least I kept her on the phone for a long time.” He doesn’t say, “She dissed me.” “She wasn’t fair to me.”
Frustration, defeat, rejection, failure are daily, ordinary experiences, and the meaning we assign to them matters enormously. We automatically, mostly unconsciously, connect them to larger narratives, to make sense of them.
The gospel of Jesus gives us a story to frame and understand all our experiences, but none of us chooses it all of the time.[ii] If we don’t choose the gospel, we associate our experiences with other stories, other themes. Some popular narratives in our culture: gotta look out for number one; or, get them before they get you; or, lots of money solves all my problems (the lottery fantasy); of, if things don’t go my way, I’m a failure. In our society, we try to find meaning in what we buy, in knowing the right people, in wealth and power and prestige. We can see life as a moralistic struggle between good and evil, or victim and oppressor. We can understand events as being part of a story where ultimately sin is always punished, and virtue is always rewarded. These are common narratives, and we use them to make meaning of events in our lives. None of those is the gospel story. Not one.
On Pentecost, Peter stood up and challenged the common narratives of his day. As we heard in Acts, the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, and they spoke in many languages. Many people were there, and they were perplexed, amazed, and wondered, “What does this mean?” Peter, full of the Spirit, raised his voice and gave his first sermon, re-framing events: “This is the truth; this is how to see things.”
First, most simply, the crowd sneered and accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter replied, “No! God has poured out the Spirit on us.” The disciples had experienced a vision of fire and wind, and they spoke in other languages in the ecstatic speech. They weren’t drunk, but feeling inspired, empowered, liberated, transformed; they felt united and exhilarated. Peter said, “We’re not drunk. This is God at work. That’s what’s really happening.”
Peter quoted scripture from the prophet Joel. People understood Joel as a prophecy about the deliverance of Israel, a great nationalistic triumph. That’s how they understood the feast of Pentecost, a nationalistic, patriotic festival about God blessing Israel. They felt themselves victims of Rome and interpreted Joel to be comforting them. They understood Joel to promise restoration of their national fortune.
Peter re-interpreted Joel and Pentecost, gave it new meaning. God will pour out his Spirit upon all people, not just Israel. God is doing a new thing and will restore all of humanity, not just Israel. Peter widened the scope of God’s work. It was blasphemy, heresy, dangerously radical. Peter explained Pentecost as being about inclusion, uniting people of many nations, many languages.
Peter challenged Israel’s sense of being a victim. It was easy for them to see themselves as wronged, as oppressed by the Romans. Often we like to see ourselves as victims; it often gives us a sense of being morally superior, better than whoever is not being fair to us. Peter gave new meaning to Joel and Pentecost: “God is pouring out power on you. Claim it. You are not helpless. Assume responsibility for yourself.”
In his Pentecost sermon, most importantly, Peter re-interpreted the story of Jesus. Israel had got the story of Jesus wrong. Jesus was not a blasphemer, not a common criminal, but the Messiah, the Lord. He had been crucified, but he was no longer dead. He was alive, resurrected; he had been raised up. Peter even had the courage to interpret this as not conflicting with Jewish tradition, but being predicted by King David. Jesus was Israel’s real, true expectation, instead of a narrow, nationalist glory.
Peter called upon them to repent. He called them to do what he had done. Peter had been weak; he had failed Jesus, denied him. But he didn’t let his failure define him; he repented and started again. He chose to see himself as God does, to see himself as part of the gospel story. He chose to understand himself not as a failure, but as loved and accepted by God, as being part of God’s plan and purpose, as a recipient of God’s grace and forgiveness. Peter defined himself by his relationship to God. He chose to see things the way God sees things, not the way other people see things. He chose the way of hope, not pessimism; the way of love, not malice; the way of trust, not fear.
On that day of Pentecost, Acts says that about 3000 people received Peter’s words and were baptized. Acts says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) They chose to see themselves differently, and that changed their lives.
Baptism says, “My relationship to God matters most. I choose to see myself the way God sees me, as part of his story, as part of his family, as his beloved child, precious to him, a delight to him.” As we go through life, we choose how to see ourselves, and we can let the values and anxieties of the world define us, or we can look to our relationship with God and find ourselves in the story of Jesus. That gives life.
V. Alleluia! Christ is risen.
R. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
[i] Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Optimism, Vintage (2006), pp. 98-99, on cold callers.
[ii] Anthony B. Robinson, Called To Be Church, Eerdmans (2006), pp. 64-69, on re-framing and Peter’s sermon.