Sermon: Rising to our Destiny
Texts: Acts 9:26-43; Revelation 7:9-17
Date: May 12, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
“Destiny.” Is that a word you find yourself using much? Besides those occasions when you are discussing our neighbors to the south, Tacoma, the City of Destiny, that is. When we lived in Tacoma—a perfectly pleasant city except for the occasional “aroma of Tacoma” from the pulp mill—we were mildly amused by the moniker “City of Destiny.” It’s a pretty big name to live up to; I’m not sure Tacoma quite succeeded. But maybe it will do so yet.
The scene in Revelation’s vision—now, that sounds like a City of Destiny. The New Heaven and New Earth have not yet descended in Revelation’s narrative, but the great multitude surrounding the throne of God reminds one of a great international city, a true City of Destiny, a metropolis gathered and formed for the purpose of rejoicing.
Poet David Whyte’s little essay on “Destiny” in his book Consolations got me thinking about this vision as an image of destiny. He writes, “Destiny always has a possessor, as in my destiny or your destiny or her destiny, it gives us a sense of something we cannot avoid or something waiting for us, it is a word of storybook or mythic dimension.” Among other things, speaking of destiny “grants us a sense of our own possibilities.” Destiny can have a bleak side, if you think you are “destined” to fail. But Whyte suggests that whether you are dreaming of triumph or some fated failure, the everyday essence of the idea of destiny has to do with the way the we perceive the future influencing the way we live our lives. He writes, “Two people, simply by looking at the future in radically different ways have completely different futures awaiting them no matter what their immediate course of action. Even the same course of action, coming from a different way of shaping the conversation will result in a different outcome. We are shaped by our shaping of the world and are shaped again in turn. The way we face the world alters the face we see in the world.”
I think he’s right, that the way we face the world alters the face we see in the world. We have probably all met folks who meet strangers and telegraph a great deal of caution, a sense of “stranger danger” just in the way they look at someone new. At the other end of the scale, we have met people who think of strangers as friends they just haven’t met up to this point, meeting others with a sense of openness and curiosity. Most of us fall somewhere between those poles. But I can see where being on either of the extreme ends of this spectrum would alter the way they face the world and alter the way they shape the world or allow themselves to be shaped by the world.
David Whyte, who speaks of life itself as a kind of conversation, goes on to say, “Strangely, every person always lives out their destiny no matter what they do, according to the way they shape the conversation, but that destiny may be lived out on the level of consummation or complete frustration, through experiencing an homecoming or a distant sense of exile, or more likely some gradation along the spectrum that lies between. It is still our destiny, our life, but the sense of satisfaction involved and the possibility of fulfilling its promise may depend upon a brave participation, a willingness to hazard ourselves in a difficult world, a certain form of wild generosity with our gifts; a familiarity with our own depth, our own discovered, surprising breadth and always, a long practice and robust vulnerability equal to what any future may offer.”
I’ve been musing on Whyte’s ideas about Destiny in light of the vibrant vision we heard from Revelation. There is such a sense of homecoming in that vision, which draws from a host of earlier prophetic visions of the ingathering of God’s people. I find the description of the heavenly metropolis, the radiant City of Destiny so stirring: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” [Revelation 7:9]. Suppose we viewed this ingathering of people from all nations, all tribes and peoples and languages, as our Destiny? I believe we could faithfully add some expansive categories to the vision as it was expressed by John the Revelator—all religions, all races, all sexual orientations, all gender expressions, all economic classes. A great multitude that no one could count, standing before the throne of God in an ecstasy of joy. Suppose we heard this Destiny calling from the future in such a compelling way that it would call forth from us—to borrow Whyte’s words again—our brave participation, our willingness to hazard ourselves in a difficult world, a wild generosity with our gifts, a discovery of the our own depths and breadths, a practice of vulnerability equal to the destiny to which we are called?
To have this kind of picture of God’s realm—in this world or the next—is very different than picturing God’s realm as an exclusive club guarded by St. Peter as a bouncer. I recall an oldy-moldy Christian joke about heaven that speaks to a narrower destiny, a different vision: A person arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?” The person says, “Methodist.” St. Peter looks down his list and says, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” Another person arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?” “Lutheran.” “Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” A third person arrives at the gates. “Religion?” “United Church of Christ.” “Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” The new arrival says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?” St. Peter answers, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.” That’s poking a little fun at our Baptist siblings, but really, any of us could fill in that blank where we think only the folks like us are on the right track.
The great throne room vision of Revelation 7 where are all are gathered in a large, joyful multitude is so much more compelling. I had the pleasure of hearing a talk at Seattle University by Father Gregory Boyle on Thursday evening. He was assigned as a young priest to a parish in Los Angeles in a neighborhood torn by gang violence. He began looking for ways to reach the gang-banging community there as he grieved over the number of funerals he was called upon to lead—so many young lives lost to gang violence. Back in the mid-1980’s he found donors who helped him establish what became “Homeboy Industries,” a series of businesses (beginning with a bakery) where gang members could work alongside each other bettering their community, making money in a legal enterprise, and reconciling with one another. It has become an incredible successful enterprising ministry there. I loved the way Father Boyle spoke of his vision—to create a community of kinship so deep and wide that we would recognize God’s dream coming true. He quoted Mother Teresa, who said often that we belong to each other; the trouble is that we forget that we belong together. Boyle’s ultimate goal in all he does is to create this community of kinship where we understand how we belong together. If that kind of kinship happened, we would no longer be creating justice, we’d be celebrating it. Celebrating! Like the ecstatic multitude in the City of God, the city of our Destiny.
Father Boyle said frankly that we need a better God than the one we usually consider. We settle for a partial, lesser God; a puny, judgmental god. But the other God, the real God is out there, occasionally apprehended by the faithful. He recalled what happened after Dylan Roof went to a Bible Study at Mother Immanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot nine people. At the hearing just a few days later, a number of relatives of the victims and even one who had been wounded and survived spoke words of forgiveness and mercy to the killer. When we heard those words, Boyle said, we knew we were in the presence of the God we actually have. Sometime later when the killer Dylan Roof was executed in the name of God’s justice, that expression was coming back to the lesser God, the puny, judgmental God we settle for.
The God we have—not the puny god we settle for—is unimaginably tender, dreaming of kinship, dreaming that we would all be one. That’s the path of abundant life, the path of life that is stronger than puny death. We could read the story of Tabitha’s resurrection in this light. A picture is painted of a community of kinship in the church in Joppa, a close community that was especially blessed by this woman Tabitha (or Dorcas in Greek—a name that means “Gazelle” in English). Tabitha was indeed graceful like a gazelle, full of grace, “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” When she became ill and died, her close community mourned, especially the widows, many of whom were wearing clothes Tabitha had made. The feeling of loss over this woman who had woven them together with her good work was palpable. The community was so upset that they dispatched a couple of men in their number to fetch Peter from a neighboring town, hoping that he, who was out preaching the word and carrying on the ministry of Jesus, could do something.
Our Tuesday Bible Study noticed that Tabitha was called “a disciple” in the story, and they wondered if everyone was called disciples at this point, or whether this was something special—the way we think of the 12 named male disciples in Jesus’ original company. I believe I erred in telling the class that “disciple” had become a more generalized term at his point. I learned in further research that the Greek word used here, mathetria, the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple, is designated only for Tabitha in the New Testament. Whether by intention or accident, this exclusive use of the feminine form of the word disciple should alert us that Tabitha really was someone special.
The overarching story in the book of Acts is of the believers pushing the boundaries of the church wider and wider. The apostles are out literally doing the same kinds of ministry Jesus was doing—teaching, healing, exorcising demons, and even the occasional resurrection. The point is that the Spirit-infused members of the church pick up the story where Jesus left off. It’s rather remarkable how little fuss is made, text-wise, over the resurrection of Tabitha, in which Peter imitates Jesus, resurrecting this woman the exact same way Jesus resurrected a young girl in the book of Luke. In the wake of the resurrection, “many believed in the Lord.” Nothing more is said. The rather casual way the story is recounted gives one “no big deal” feeling, as if this is just the way God rolls. Commentators seem divided over whether the story is about an ordinary woman being revivified, or an extraordinary woman being revivified, as though she is receiving an extraordinary reward for exemplary life.
I don’t know why Tabitha was resurrected. But here’s my amateur Christian theory. It’s clear that the trajectory of the kin-dom is a kinship that includes women as equals. The equal value of women and men is part of God’s design, part of God’s dream. If Tabitha was so apparently loving, generous, and faithful that she got the attention of a writer steeped in patriarchal culture who was compelled to assign the designation of disciple to her, then it makes a lot of sense that she should be resurrected. Suppose someone with a traditional view of male and female roles took her illness and death as a sign of a punishment from a puny god who was smiting her to keep women in their corner, to remind all the females to stay in their lane? Her coming back to life is a sign that women called disciple is going to be a hallmark of the new community of kinship in Christ. It’s the Christian church’s Destiny; when we have that homecoming at the throne of God, persons of every gender expression will be there singing praises. God’s dream that we would all be one, as Gregory Boyle says, means that believers choose not to circle the wagons but to widen the circle.
I believe one of our particular challenges in the widening the circle realm is around our understanding of and respect for people of other religions. Religiously motivated violence is on the rise around the world. Sometimes it looks as though we are headed to some kind of new Holy War, when heavily armed zealots feel called to kill their opponents and cow the rest of us into terrified silence.
The super villain in the current “Avengers: Endgame” movie had a line that really struck me. Thanos, made powerful by infinity stones he has gathered from around the universe, has killed half of all living creatures on earth in the previous story. The Avengers—a crew of superheroes with various powers—want to undo his deadly deed. Thanos is determined not to allow their victory, and he says on a couple of occasions, “I am Inevitable.” This is what destructive powers always want us to think, to believe—that greed, destruction, violence, and so forth are Inevitable. So why fight it? Father Doyle spoke of meeting a lot of people who have “a lethal absence of hope.” That’s what Thanos wants to cultivate as he wields his weapons of mass destruction—a lethal absence of hope. “I am Inevitable.”
The gift we are given, Beloved, is the opposite—indestructible hope. We are not destined for an unending Holy War. Conflict and misunderstanding between people of various faiths is not inevitable. Many of our Christian siblings will not agree, but I believe it is our eventual destiny to be one world regardless of the way we call upon God (or don’t believe in God, for that matter). I believe this great and colorful multitude will greet us when we cross over into the next realm after our death. If this is our Destiny, then it should alter the way we face this world, the way we shape it and are shaped by it. We will root out our ungenerous thoughts about those who believe differently, and approach those of different theologies and ideologies with holy curiosity and courage of our own convictions. Again: the situation calls for our brave participation, a willingness to hazard ourselves in a difficult world, a wild generosity with our gifts, a familiarity with our own depth and breadth, a long practiced and robust vulnerability toward the Other.
This is our Destiny, friends. The more this world is formed in the image of that someday City of Destiny, the more our going home to God will be experienced as a joyful homecoming. Even now, let’s keep on rising from the dead, graceful gazelle-like disciples leaping over walls of hatred and despair. God’s dream beckons.
 Whyte, David Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2014, p. 59-60
 Ibid, p. 60-61