The Imitation Game
Indianapolis First Friends
Pastor Bob Henry
Oct. 22, 2017
1 Thessalonians 1:2-9 (NRSV)
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters[a] beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions[b] report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,
Well it is that season of the year when people dress up as their favorite cartoon characters, heroes or heroines, and take on a new persona all for the benefit of receiving candy from neighbors, family, and friends.
When I was younger, I loved to dress up in costumes. I have never told anyone this, but I remember hiding a fake mustache in my bedroom that I would wear with my only Hawaiian shirt (in my bedroom where no one could see) so I could look like and become Magnum P.I. I thought he was so cool.
I also, grew up in the era of Underoos. (Anyone remember those?) Where kids could be one of the characters from Star Wars or the Superfriends underneath their normal clothing - like some alter ego or secret identity hidden beneath the surface.
Anyway, this time of year has many memories for me. One of the greatest (and somewhere my mom, I am sure has photos of this) was back when I was in first grade. From what I can remember, first grade was a great year. I loved my first grade teacher - Miss Deinert - probably because she was the only teacher I knew that drove a yellow Volkswagen Bug. I loved learning the alphabet, art projects, and listening to stories. But most of all I could not wait for Fall and for our class Halloween Party - put on by the room mothers. My mom was always a volunteer and helped out. From what I rememebr, first grade would offer me my first “official” costume party. I still remember like it was yesterday going to our local .5 and Dime store (Belmonts) for my costume. As we arrived in the costume aisle of Belmonts, I quickly took an inventory of all the costumes - everything from Chewbacca from Star Wars to Bo Duke from the Dukes of Hazzard.
But on that day, I was drawn in by a completely different costume and it all started with a plastic pitch fork. I was enamored with this plastic pitchfork - I believe it was black plastic rod with a set of three red pointed tines. I am not ever sure if I had ever seen a pitchfork before this moment (especially not one like this), because I vaguely remember asking my mom what it was. She said under her breath, “Bobby, that is something that the devil uses.”
Ooooo...intriguing to my 6 year old mind. I carried that pitchfork up and down the costume aisle of Belmonts because I knew it was going to be mine. Sticking with the theme, I picked out an entire devil costume with a red-faced mask with horns and a pointed tail and all. What better costume was there to go with my pitchfork and to wear to my 1st grade Halloween party at my Christian school….haha...
I have come to realize, it is really hard saying no to a cute little 6 year old. I have had three of them in my life and I am sorry for leading my mother down this path when I was that age. But to this day, I still wonder what my mom thought about that costume. What were the others room mothers thinking (I believe Bobby is going to grow up to be a pastor), or what was my first grade teacher thinking? At 6 years old - I assumed they would think it was totally cool!
Luckily for me, we were only allowed to wear our costume for the last period of our day which was designated as the time for our Halloweenparty. I remember at one point seeing a photo of me in my classroom sitting in a back desk with no one around me…go figure. Bobby Henry was the devil in 1st grade.
Now, why do I tell that story this morning. It has to do with the concept of “imitating.” Throughout scripture (and even in our text for this morning) it speaks of imitating Christ. Usually, the word is translated following or follower, but often it has a much deeper meaning.
If you were raised in the church like I was, you probably heard at some point that you needed to “follow” Jesus, or you needed to have a personal relationship with him, or on occasion you may have been told to try and imitate him (or at least consider what he would do in certain situations - WWJD?).
Now let’s stop right here and read the definition of the word imitate - it means:
● to mimic; impersonate:
● to copy or reproduce closely.
● to have or assume the appearance of; simulate; resemble.
That could describe most children and many adults on Halloween Night, or for that matter, at a Comicon Convention - since Cosplay is one of the fastest growing industries in our world.
Ironically, much of this mimicking, impersonating, assuming the appearance of someone else has a lot to do with escaping reality, fantasy, and masking who we really are deep down. In a culture that has become more and more isolated, technologically dependent and disconnected with each other - simulating and impersonating is a key to survival.
But this is where I believe the idea of imitating begins to break down. The imitating that is talked about in scripture is not simply dressing up as Jesus and playing Jesus to all your friends - which sadly I believe a great deal of the American church does. It is not trying to copy Jesus per se but rather allowing his attributes, characteristics, his ways to be manifest in our lives and through our gifting and abilities for the sake of others.
I think this is where the English language has a hard time understanding the full concept of the word imitate or mimos (where we get the word mimic) in Greek. The concept was that following the example of someone (like Jesus) meant that it was lived out and evident in more than the surface areas - it went into the depth of their being. It was not simply putting on a mask or the right clothing, or even saying the right words, it was embodying the very nature of God. As Quakers, we would call this “minding our inner light.” Seeing that of God in ourselves and looking for that of God in our neighbor.
For the Thessalonians, it changed how they saw their world and it should change the way we see ours as well. In the text for today, it speaks of how it literally turned them into an example for others to follow. It reads, “you became the example.” God’s ways were literally “sounding forth” through the lives of the Thessalonians. God had become known in their lives so much that Paul said when he and his team arrived they had no need to talk about who God was - because it was so evident in the lives of the Thessalonians. It was the transforming power of the Holy Spirit inside those people that brought joy, love, and a welcoming spirit - and it was undeniably a true imitation of God. Outsiders actually saw God in and through them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, when I come into this space each week, when I meet with each of you, even when I serve alongside you, I can honestly say that I am sensing God’s presence in this place through your lives. Actually, I could probably speak these words of Paul to the Thessalonians to you the people of First Friends.
Yet, I wonder, if we asked ourselves honestly how we actually come into this meetinghouse each week, or to serve, or to meet with a committee…
● How often would we admit that we put on “masks”?
● How often would we admit being drawn in by the “pitchforks” of religion?
● How often would we be clueless of who we are really imitating or trying to follow?
● How often would we be simply running through the motions, lacking authenticity, and representing more of an ideal than God’s true character?
For a long time now, I have heard people complain about the hypocrisy in the church. How on Sunday mornings all across this nation people “dress up,” even put on their “masks,” and take their families to church. And for the 2 or so hours they fake a good life, take on loving, caring, and even welcoming characteristics, but by Sunday afternoon return to “real life.”
To change our world, our environment, our communities, even our families, it is going to take more than running through the motions and playing church. It is going to take embodying that of God inside each of us. So the world doesn’t just see our religious costume, but connect to what is in our depths - a faith that is real - a God who is good - and opportunities for hope and joy and peace and love that last.
Ask yourself this morning:
What will it take for First Friends to become an even more authentic community and even more genuinely embrace the imitation of God?