Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14th 2017
1 Peter 2:2-10
I had the great honor and privilege a few weeks ago to visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
The Arizona was one of the first ships bombed in the attack on December the 7th, 1941. The ship sank within minutes, killing over 1000 sailors, most of whom remained trapped inside. It is a very painful moment in our nation’s history.
The memorial is quite well-done. It straddles the sunken remains of the Arizona, and allows visitors to quietly look down and reflect, not only on the events that happened, but also on the fact that this is a burial site, sacred to the memory of all those whose remains still lie within the ship. As you stand there and look out over the water, eventually you notice little black droplets of oil that occasionally bubble to the surface creating a slight oil slick. They are know as the “tears of the Arizona,” and it is actually oil slowly leaking from the ship’s fuel tank. The Arizona has been submerged for over 75 years, and still it continues to leak oil.
For those that lost loved ones on the Arizona, the drops of oil are a continual reminder of lives cut short, and a loss that remains, even after decades. As I was looking down, prepared with my camera to take a picture of the leaking oil, I noticed a fish swimming into my shot, and then another one, and another one. Finally, a whole school of fish swam by and I realized, that of course, the sunken ship has now become a living and active reef. Despite the fact that oil and marine life do not mix, for whatever reason the leakage remains restrained enough here to allow new life to flourish. I quickly snapped a few pictures to remember the moment.
As I boarded the boat to ride back to the shore with the other visitors I thought to myself: “isn’t it ironic: here is a battleship, built by humans as a display of our own power, and destroyed by other humans equally as a display of power. The memorial is a testimony to how much we value human life, and a reminder of how little we value it at times. And the ruined hulk sits at the bottom of the bay, a symbol of the death and destruction that we humans are capable of, and yet it is now surrounded by new life.”
It was the Second Sunday of Easter, and we had just come from church and hearing the story of the risen Christ appearing to doubting Thomas, and here in front of me was a different, but equally powerful symbol of resurrection that I could almost touch. As I got off the boat back at the museum, it was as if I could almost hear God talking to me and saying: “you see, I am the author of life and death. Life belongs to me. I choose when to give it and where to give it. You humans may try to usurp my power. You may take the life that I give, but I, and only I, have the power to give it back again.”
It is true that a sunken ship turning into a living reef swimming with new life, is not the same thing as a dead human body miraculously coming back to life again, but it does illustrate an important point: God is in control of life. Life belongs to God, not to us. We humans are always entrusting our lives to the wrong things; we trust in the wrong things to save us.
We mortals, we are so prone to reject the true cornerstone of our life. We put more faith in our own power and our own abilities, than we do in God, who is the one, true living cornerstone. But only God has the power to save us. Only God can transform death into life. We can build houses and ships and walls and buildings and fortresses, but only God can build life.
We can destroy things, but God always has the power to build them back up again. We can sink a ship, but God can transform that vessel from a coffin into a crib; from death into life.
The Romans thought they had finished the job when they sealed the tomb over Jesus’s dead body; they were sure that they had destroyed him, but they were wrong. God is in control of life. The Romans didn’t know that Jesus and the Father, the author of life, were one. In trying to display to the world their strength and power, the Romans killed countless people, but in this one poor carpenter they finally met their match. They came face to face with a life that they could not defeat.
Jesus said to Philip “whoever has seen me has seen the father.” In Jesus we are given a glimpse of what God is like: not only in his teachings, but also in his life and actions. And what we learn time and time again is that God will not be restrained by our expectations, nor does he wait for us to understand before he takes action. He repeatedly shows us that he can create new life in the places where we see only death. Not only can he do it, he’s the only one that can do it. Life belongs to him.
In the Book of Acts we are told the story of the first deacon, Stephen. A faithful man condemned on false charges, he was dragged out of the city to be executed by the mob. And as he looked up, expecting to see death raining down on him from above in his accuser’s stones, what he saw instead was Jesus. And rather than use his dying breath to condemn those who were taking his life, he decided instead to use it to forgive them and to entrust his life to the only one who had the power to give it back again: Jesus.
If God can do that for Jesus, he can do it for us too, all of us. If he can give new life to the lifeless shell of a sunken battleship, I believe he can also give new life to his children that were trapped inside. Although the Arizona Memorial is lovely, I am not really impressed with what humans can do. Sure we are pretty clever now and then, but no sooner do we invent something good or build something good, when that fallen nature of ours takes over and we find a way to destroy it or use it for evil. But God, God never ceases to impress me, he can always take that evil we do and make it good again. God and only God can transform death into life. Life, all life, belongs to him.