"No Plastic Lilies"

March 30, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

"Someone was telling me, I don't remember who, a minister type, so maybe it's true... about a church in some other state, where at Easter time they had 500 lilies, just a bank of lilies... The people gave them as memorials, $5 apiece. For 15 years, they've had 500 lilies each year, at $5 each, as memorials. After a service one Easter, one of the women who had given a memorial lily went up to get it to take to a friend in a convalescent home...and she discovered to her surprise that it was plastic. She said, "IT'S PLASTIC, I THOUGHT WE BOUGHT REAL LILIES."

Well, the word spread, and folks started wondering at these plastic lilies which they’d thought were real all these years. "You mean you use these every year, and we pay $5 every year, and you use these every year." Somebody got out a calculator: $5 apiece times 500 lilies times 15 years = $37,500 ... "LET'S HAVE A MEETING!"

Then the minister, with deep theological insight said. "WELL, THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER IS...THE PLASTIC LILIES ARE MORE APPROPRIATE FOR EASTER BECAUSE THEY ALWAYS BLOOM..."

Hogwash!!! Plastic lilies never bloom!!! And you know why they never bloom? It's because they never die! If they cannot die, they cannot live.

Jesus died! That’s what the scriptures say. That’s been the whole push of this past week in the Christian year - aiming toward the cross, emphasizing the fact that Jesus died. Of course, that’s not the whole story, is it? But without that basic fact, the rest is all plastic; and when it comes right down to it, who wants plastic lilies ... or a plastic Jesus?

The 15th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains perhaps the best description of what all this resurrection stuff is about. It’s in the form of a reminder, a rather lengthy "post it" note, if you will. Paul reminds the folks in the church at Corinth about some of the basics of the faith. He’s remembering with them something they should already know. In a sense, this is something we should already know, also, having experienced the good news in our lives. Of course, we all need reminding.

Then again, there are those of us who don’t really know. Oh, maybe we’ve heard the words, but they haven’t become real to us. Just mouthing the words doesn’t make them real, you know. The good news is like a seed planted within. It grows on us, or should I say "in" us. That’s how it becomes real. The roots work their way into every crevice of our being, splitting apart the soil, making room for God. What eventually comes to the surface isn’t plastic. Things that are plastic don’t die, therefore they can’t live.

I received a good letter from Rebecca Sack this week. She’s been doing a lot of reflecting on her faith lately, as the letter reveals. For those who don’t know her, she was raised in this church, baptized by us. She is currently on the mission field in southern Africa. The last few years for her have been a time of spiritual awakening, as the good news is flowering in her life.

"I was baptized long before I truly accepted Christ," she writes. "I suspect that I am not unique in this. I know that I was a very enthusiastic teenager at the time and I had opportunity to think for myself. But I wonder if there was any warning that my profession of faith was not mature enough."

Her letter goes on to wonder about others, like herself, who are not really awake to what God is about in their lives, whose faith is somewhat plastic.

"Maybe, like me," she continues, "they never were really willing to let Christ have his way with them, nor were they willing to be made willing. Maybe they have "backslidden" ... Maybe they are conscious of their situation, but probably they aren’t. These people really need to be shaken, to be told that if they look deep inside, they will realize that they are dead, Christ is not in them, they can only live this life in the world of the dead, with no access to the eternal power and love of God."

Perhaps we’ve heard the words, but they haven’t become real to us. Just mouthing the words doesn’t make them real. This wonderful chapter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians can be plastic, if it doesn’t come alive in us. Easter - the same way. Are you satisfied with plastic lilies?

"Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters," Paul wrote, "of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain." Unless it’s plastic. "For I handed on to you as of first importance" (this is bedrock stuff, folks - the foundation upon which everything else rests). "I handed on to you what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures."

We’ve heard this stuff over and over, haven’t we? Again, just hearing it doesn’t make it real, does it? How many of us have actually gone up to the lilies, so to speak, to take one to a friend? It’s often in the act of sharing that we discover how real the lily is, whether or not it’s plastic. I think some of our inner resistance to sharing good news with others is based in the fear that when we reach for it, we’ll find out how plastic our faith really is. Am I right?

An amazing thing, though, is that the act of reaching for it is the first step toward making it real. Of course, God is always reaching out first, stepping out before us, meeting us where we are. Paul went on to say that after Jesus was raised, "he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles." The lily didn’t stay up front, if you know what I mean. Christ was reaching out all over the place. Still is. Can’t keep him up on the cross. Can’t keep him in the tomb. Jesus keeps reaching out, taking that first step, meeting us where we are.

He did with the earliest followers, that’s what Paul says. You know, while I appreciate these great words, I’ve had a few bones to pick with Paul over them. For instance, why did he leave out part of the story? During the sunrise service earlier, we journeyed through the gospel of John’s account of the resurrection. There it says that the risen Christ first appeared to Mary, not Peter. Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts agree. Luke’s rendering has the women as the first to see the empty tomb, but two others, Cleopas and a nameless friend, are the first to encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. When they return to the disciples to tell their story, they hear that Jesus appeared also to Simon Peter.

Paul must’ve had some reason for excluding the women (especially Mary) from his list, but that’s not the story as I have received it. I do appreciate, though, how he includes himself in the list. "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." In a way, that line belongs to us all. "Finally, he appeared to me, even though I am like someone who was born at the wrong time (CEV)." Boy, was Paul ever in the wrong place. If you recall his own story, it took a blinding flash of God’s light on the road to Damascus to get his attention, an event Paul later viewed as his experience of witnessing the risen Christ. "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me," Paul wrote. "For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them- -though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me."

God doesn’t raise plastic lilies. Plastic lilies stay the same year after year. I suppose that’s a comfort. You always know it’s going to be in bloom. But where is the fragrance? Where is the real beauty? Of course, real flowers wither and die. That’s life. I’ve never met anyone who exited this world alive, though some may try. Death is a part of the picture. It can’t, ultimately, be covered up or replaced with plastic. For those who allow the seed of good news within to grow, as uncomfortable (even painful) as that can be at times, there’s a difference. Whereas most folks look at life and expect death, we look at death and expect life. Real life, not some plastic imitation. We expect it because we’ve already smelled its fragrance, seen its beauty, and tasted its fruit. [I don’t suppose lilies have edible fruit, do they - sort of like the cherry trees that are in bloom now in D.C. All metaphors have their limits, don’t they?]

The point is, God doesn’t raise plastic people, whether on that day after we breathe our last earthly breath, or on the day when the good news becomes real to us, possibly today. Where are you in all this?

- Maybe, you’ve felt like you don’t quite fit in with the crowd you see around the risen Jesus. They look like they have it all together, whereas your life seems to be in pieces all over the place, like you’ve always been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Know that God doesn’t raise plastic people, but he will raise you. That’s a real promise.

- Perhaps you made a profession of faith long ago, but you were "born at the wrong time," so to speak - your faith then seeming shallow, plastic even, from today’s perspective. Know that God doesn’t raise plastic people, but he will raise you. That’s a real promise.

- Could be you have grown quite critical of things over the years and, like Paul, have been throwing stones, overtly or in your heart, at people with whom you don’t agree - persons in whom God is at work. Know that God doesn’t raise plastic people, but he will raise you. That’s a real promise.

"Last of all," Paul wrote, "as one untimely born, the risen Christ appeared also to me." That’s our line, folks, if we’re willing to step into it. Like Paul, we weren’t there when they crucified the Lord, nailed him to the tree, pierced him in the side, laid him in the tomb, or even when he rose up from the dead. Actually, nobody was there for that last one. We have received no eyewitness accounts of the resurrection. Still, because we have reached out (or was it Christ who reached out?), we have discovered that our faith isn’t plastic after all. It’s real, because he is.

"You ask me how I know he lives?," that old hymn goes. "He lives within my heart."

1997Peter L. Haynes

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