Sunday, June 25, 2017

Where's the Love?

Scripture Reading Matthew 10:32-39   (NRSV)  

32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36  and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This is one of those passages that has most of us going, “Wait, what? A sword?  Jesus, where’s the love?”  I mean, Jesus’ whole ministry is about telling everyone to love one another, and he gives really specific instructions as to how to do that. And then he says, “I’m not a peace bringer.  No, I am bringing a sword.  If you do what I say, you will be at odds with everyone, even your own family.”  For just a minute, I can see the disciples - especially Simon the Zealot, who had been part of a violent revolutionary movement before joining Jesus - saying, “Alright, Yeah!  This is the Messiah we’ve been expecting.  Let’s go get those Romans!”    For a minute there it sounds like that turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemy Jesus who has had them completely confused up to this point has all of a sudden become the militant descendent of David that everyone has been expecting for oh, so very long.   “Yes, Jesus!  Hold that thought!   I need to go get my sword!”

And yet, as we all know, Jesus wasn’t talking about a violent revolution against the political reality of his time.  He was talking about radical resistance to the way things were.  He was talking about standing up for the ways of God instead of sitting still for the ways of humanity.   He was talking about being willing to tell everyone where they were going wrong with their practice of religion, and dealing with the fall-out.   

In Matthew 5, right after preaching the Beatitudes, Jesus tells those assembled that if they are on their way to the Temple with an offering or a sacrifice, and they have been having an argument with another person, their sacrifice will be unacceptable to God unless they reconcile their differences with that other person first.   “Wait, what?  It’s more important to make up with that rotten person who did me wrong than to take my offering to the Temple?  But they did me wrong!  They need to make up with me!”  No, not really.  Your actions are all that you have any control over.  You have to make the effort to reconcile.  God will deal with the other person.   

And right after that, Jesus says,  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  Love your enemies?   Wait.  What about revenge?  Aren’t we supposed to get revenge when someone does us wrong?  No. That’s a ways-of-the-world thing, not a ways-of-God thing.  Forgive, so that you may also be forgiven.   He said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”   Hmmm.  OK, Jesus.  I get it.  What’s the point of being a follower of Jesus if I act just like everybody else?  

Then he goes on to tell the assembled listeners not to pray out loud in front of everyone so they will admire your piety, and don’t give money where everyone can see you so they can admire your generosity, and don’t work at becoming wealthy so that everyone can look up to you and so that you can have all the stuff that everyone else wants   All of these instructions fly in the face of what is normal.   All of these instructions will lead anyone following them into conflict with pretty much everybody around them.  They are also really hard to follow.

Consider one of the people we know of who did follow these instructions.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent revolution in order to gain civil rights for African Americans.  He took that whole “turn the other cheek, love your enemy” thing seriously, and although his resistance to the ways of the world got him killed, it also succeeded in bringing change.  In laws, only, not in hearts.  Hearts take longer.

I want to tell you that it is really difficult not to react when violence is offered.  Back in the early 1970’s I participated in some non-violent anti-war demonstrations.   We would gather in a park, listen to some speeches, then stand in a huge circle, link arms, and sing folk songs.  Most of the time no one really bothered us, but a few times there were folks who violently disagreed with us.  One time some of them threw rocks.  It’s not easy to stand there singing songs while someone is throwing rocks at you. It’s even harder not call them names, or to pick up the rocks and throw them back - or at least, it was for me.  But that’s what Jesus expects of us.  That we will stand peacefully for what we believe to be the right, and not engage in the violent rhetoric and violent acts that come so much easier to humans.   That we will be like Dr. King, and stand up to the powers that oppose the ways of the Lord. 

So, what’s with the whole sword thing, then?   Jesus didn’t really mean that we should take out swords and use violence against oppression, or those who oppose us.  You will remember that when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, “51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  (Matthew 26:51-52).  No, Jesus meant that when we stand up for the ways of the Lord, there will be many who oppose us.   We won’t just be able to say, “Love one another,” and watch the world change.  Because when we say, “Love one another,” we aren’t talking about simply being sweetness and light to everyone.  We are talking about standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.  We are talking about speaking out when we see injustice, even if it means others will be angered by our stand and our words.  We are talking about  paying attention to what is going on around us, and responding on the side of love. We are talking about being counter-cultural in our time, just as Jesus was counter-cultural in his time.

Jesus warned everyone listening that it would not easy to be his follower.  It would not be easy to do as God wants us to do.  It’s easier just to be human, to give into our normal human desires.  It’s easier to just do what everyone else is doing.   We even have sayings that tell us things like, “Don’t rock the boat,” and “You can’t fight City Hall.”  Well, sometimes boats need rocking, when they need to have their course changed.  And you can fight City Hall.  You have to rock the boat if it’s going in the wrong direction, and you have to fight City Hall when it isn’t taking care of it’s citizens.   

It’s not easy to be a Christian.  Oh, it’s easy enough to come to church and worship on Sunday mornings, and attend events, and give some money, and donate time and talents.  What’s hard is living differently from the expectations of the world around us.  What’s hard is to struggle with doing the right thing, especially when that right thing just seems counter-intuitive.  What’s hard is to be counter-cultural, to stand up against the tide and speak for those who have no voice or whose voices are discounted.   

For example, some of us struggle with the reality of privilege.  We struggle with trying to recognize when our whiteness, or gender, or sexual orientation, is gaining us some advantage over others who are not white or not male or not cis-gender or not straight.  The difficulty is that we can’t always tell when privilege is at work.  Usually someone else has to point it out to us.  I learned a lot about it when I was married to a Native American.  If we went into a government office, for example, the clerks almost always spoke to me, as if he wasn’t even there.  Even a trip to Walmart was different when I went by myself than when he was with me.  The worst case, though, was in a Disciples congregation in another state.  When we went together we were welcomed, and invited for coffee, and told to come back.  When he went back alone, they literally turned their backs on him.   That was a blatant case of racism, obviously, but it is also an example of privilege, of how my whiteness made a difference in how we were treated.

It’s hard to be an ally, because as a white, cis-gender, Christian woman I don’t have the right to speak for my sisters and brothers who are not white and cis-gender and Christian - a mistake way too many of us make. I want to, make no mistake.  I want to speak up for my friends who are persons of color, or Muslim, or Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and so on.  But my reality, my life experience is not theirs.  I cannot speak for them.  I do, however, have an obligation to support them in any way that I can.  And even just that can bring out those swords Jesus was talking about.   That can bring opposition even from within the Church, even within our own denomination, and in my case, it has brought anger and rejection from within my own family.  

My brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to follow him, to live as he lived, to speak against oppression and for justice. Jesus asks for nothing less than everything we are - our lives, our talents and gifts, our hearts, and our souls.   Let us go from this place re-dedicated to doing God’s work, and to following God’s commandments, to love God with all of our beings, and to love one another, as we also are loved.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Who are these guys?

Matthew 9:35-10:8   (NRSV)

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
It is Father’s Day.  I’m really glad that at First Christian Church we make kind of a big deal of it.  We have pie! and ice cream! and whipped cream!  Yum.  Pie.   People don’t always seem to make a big deal of Father’s Day.  Mother’s Day, yes.  But Father’s Day…not so much. Well, advertisers make a big deal of it.  Power tools, gardnening stuff,  a New Car!  I even saw an ad the other day suggesting it would be a great idea to buy Dad a new vacuum cleaner!  I thought that was a bit odd, but hey, lots of Dads clean the house these days, right?   

It occurred to me this morning that, in my childhood home we mistreated my father pretty badly.   Every Father’s Day we would present him with his annual gifts of shirts, ties, and handkerchiefs or whatever, and then send him outside to burn meat.  Yes, that’s right.  On Mother’s Day everyone dressed up and went out for a wonderfully special meal in a restaurant.  On Father’s Day, Daddy got sent outside to cook his own dinner while we popped out from time to time and pestered him, wanting to know if it was ready yet!  In retrospect, there seems to be something wrong with this picture.  

Sometimes, when I am sitting with a family talking about their father’s funeral service, I hear phrases like, “He wasn’t anybody special, really.  He went to work every day, supported us all, encouraged us to do well.  He was an ordinary guy who did the best he could.  He was just our Dad.”  And whenever I heard that, I always knew which scripture passage to select.  It’s kind of unrecognized (like Father’s Day).  I mean, we all know the one from Proverbs about the capable wife, who is worth more than rubies and gold.  We frequently pull that one out on Mother’s Day.   But there is one in Sirach - one of the books of the Apocrypha - that speaks of fathers like these.  Ordinary guys.  
It begins by talking about the famous:
Let us now sing the praises of famous men, Our ancestors in their generations
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, His majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor,
Those who gave counsel because they were wise;
Those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
Those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
They were wise in their words of instruction;
Those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing;
Rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes--
All these were honored in their generations, and were given pride in their times.
Some of them have left behind a name, so that others might declare their praise.

And then, the important part:
But of others there is no memory;
They have perished as though they had never existed; 
They have become as though they had never been born, They and their children after them.
But these also were godly men, who righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children.
Their descendants stand by the covenants;  Their children also, for their sake.
Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.
The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise. (Sirach 44:1-15)
These were the ordinary guys, the fathers who never got famous, never sought glory.  Just did what they did, raising their families to the best of their ability. No one would celebrate them as historical figures or great leaders.  Their names weren’t on any buildings or in historical documents - except maybe census reports.  But they are all so special.  Because they raised up families who went on to raise up families, caring for each other, loving God, doing the best they could with whatever they had.   Kind of nobodies, really, in the eyes of the world, but so very special to their families.  Kind of like. . . the disciples. 

You know, Jesus could have picked rabbis and Pharisees to be his disciples.  He could have picked people who were steeped in the Law and in the traditions of Temple worship.  He could have picked men who had spent their formative years sitting at the feet of a rabbi, learning the Hebrew of scholars, memorizing the scrolls of the law and the prophets.  He could have had the cream of the academic crop, masters in their field, the top theologians and lawyers of his time.  

For that matter, God could have had Jesus born into a wealthy and powerful family.  He could have had access to the finest education possible, and had name recognition just by virtue of being born into the right family.  He could have grown up in the seats of the powerful, so that he wouldn’t appear a threat to the Powers That Be - because he would have been one of them. He would have known how to play the games of politics and power.    But that’s not who God wanted.  God wanted his Word to be brought by an ordinary man.  So Jesus was born into the family of a carpenter, a man who worked with his hands.  Not quite at the bottom of the social scale, but pretty close.  And these other guys, these twelve guys Jesus selected to hear his message first, and then go out and proclaim the good news.  You know, the guys he picked instead of the rich and well educated?  Who were these guys?  

Simon Peter and Andrew were brothers, and fishermen.  Maybe owned their own boat.  Maybe not.  Maybe worked on someone else’s boat.   Simon was married, we know, because Jesus healed his mother-in-law.  But we don’t know much more about those two.   James and John were also fishermen, and they worked on their father Zebedee’s boat.   We don’t know anything from scripture about who Philip and Bartholomew were.  In the Gospel according to Matthew we are told that the disciple named Matthew was a tax collector, although neither Mark nor Luke say anything about his occupation.  Tax collectors were seriously at the bottom of the social scale!  They worked for the Romans, they were widely reputed to be dishonest and greedy.   Nobody liked or trusted tax collectors!    Thomas is sometimes called “the Twin” in John’s gospel, but none of the other three gospels say anything descriptive about him at all.  The second James we encounter on the list of disciples is known as James son of Alphaeus.  The second Simon is known as the Cananean in Matthew and Mark, and as the Zealot in Luke - which means he was an anti-Rome activist, probably with a violent past (and who may or may not have been the one who drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemene when Jesus was arrested).   Matthew and Mark both include the name of Thaddeus, another unknown, while Luke doesn’t mention that name, but in his place names Judas the son of James.  The last of the twelve, of course, is Judas Iscariot, who Matthew tells us is the one who would betray Jesus.   Iscariot, by the way, means “man of Kerioth,” which is a city in the south of Judea. 

When we consider these twelve men, they are pretty much nobodies.  And not just nobodies, but nobodies at the very bottom of the social structure, a step or two above slaves.  No one would automatically give these men respect, or defer to their opinions.  They weren’t particularly well educated.  Most were, presumably, from Galilee, which, according to Allen D Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, was historically known as a contested region, populated by a mix of cultures, a hotbed of political unrest and activity. It was reputedly a place that seemed to breed would-be Messiahs and bandits, of the Robin Hood variety.  Periodically, Rome would have to step in and clear out yet another nest of unrest.   (   Hence the question in John 1:46 “can anything good can come out of Nazareth?”. 

So, again, who were these guys?  These were the right guys.  These were the guys selected by God.  For just as God had Jesus born into the family of a man who worked with his hands, and came from an area with a questionable reputation, so were his followers chosen from ordinary folks.   The message is what is important, not the person who is carrying it.    Because Jesus told these twelve men “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Not to the righteous people who were already doing God’s will in their world.  And not to the people who had funds and easy access to the Temple for healing there, and not to those who could afford physicians.  But go to the poor, the needy, the sick, the desperate.  Go to the ones who felt abandoned, who felt like they had no where to turn.  He told them, in fact, to go and find the very same sorts of people he was drawing to himself, and take care of them, and heal them, and comfort them, to cast out their demons, and tell them the kingdom of God is near.  And quite frankly, those folks, those poor, desperate folks, didn’t need some famous rich guys to come in and wave help around.  Probably wouldn’t have trusted them anyway.  They needed to know that these were people just like them. People who didn’t have a great name or a great fortune or a great education, who were simply there to help, because that is what God required of them.   They needed to know that these people had nothing to gain from the gifts of healing they brought, and sought nothing in return for their healing and preaching.  

Those of you who pay attention to social media may have noticed that three days ago, the interwebs exploded with a story about Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.  It seems that this man, who is worth something like $80 Billion (that is billion with a B!), was called out by the New York Times about his charitable giving.  Because wasn’t telling and you know, it’s important to know exactly how rich people are giving to charity.  He declined to answer the New York Times’ question with  specifics.  Instead, he asked all his followers on Twitter (259,000 people!) for suggestions as to how he could give his money away that would be helpful to people right now.  Not some foundation that will give it out in bits and pieces over years. But where can he put money that will result in actual humans being helped right this minute.  A very cool idea, really, for a man with lots of funds!   Actually, a very cool idea for everyone.  Where is there immediate need?  How can I put my money, my talents, my time to use in taking care of that immediate need?   I may not have $80 Billion to play with.  The New York Times and Twitter don’t care one way or the other what I do with my little bits.  But my $2 here and $5 there and $25 over there added together with your $2 and your $5 and your $25 and yours and yours and yours - that makes a difference, right now.  

So who are those guys?  Just ordinary guys.  Like all those ordinary Dads.   People like us.  Nobodies, sort of.  Not that anybody is actually “nobody.”  We are all somebody important.  But you know, Jesus kept telling people that the last would be first, that those who would lead must be servants first and foremost.  Jesus selected ordinary folks to do his work, then and now.  Because we are the ones selected to do his work.  We are the ones sent out into the world, as Jesus’ disciples, to tell the nations the Good News that God’s kingdom is at hand.  We are the ones who are sent out as Jesus’ disciples, to cast out the demons of oppression and hatred, to comfort the comfortless, to feed the hungry in body and in spirit.    

 So go.  Be like Philip and Bartholomew and Thaddeus.  Lay your hand on someone who needs to know the healing touch of a person who cares.  Speak words of peace and comfort to those who suffer pain and sorrow.   Be the Good News of God’s love.  Just like those guys, the ones Jesus gathered to himself and sent out into the world.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Never Alone

Matthew 28:16-20  (NRSV)

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I often wonder what the committee who decided what scripture readings were appropriate for which week were thinking.  They take things out of order, skip over sections that have some really good stuff in them, leave out bits that might give us a better idea of why we think some of the things we do . . .  I really don’t understand how they made the choices they made.  Of course, it was a committee, and we all know what they say about committees.   Although I really think God designed the camel.  Even the best committee ever selected couldn’t have been that creative!  

Anyway, today’s passage comes right at the very end of the Gospel according to Matthew, after the resurrection.  But the committee skipped a section, and I really want to share that section with you.    Right after Jesus tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to tell his disciples to meet him in Galilee, Matthew reports that, 11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.”   
So, exactly the very thing that the chief priests and the Pharisees had been worried about had come to pass.  Because in the 27th chapter (in another section we typically skip over) after Jesus was crucified, they went to Pilate and said, ““Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”   And now, they are stuck with the reality of Jesus having been raised from the dead.  The very guards they set had witnessed the angel of the Lord.  Their fear of that angel had made them tremble and become like dead men.  (They fainted!)   What do you do when the very thing you are trying to avoid dealing with actually happens?  Lie!  Pay the guards to lie and then promise to swear to it if Pilate should happen to ask.    

Only, the thing the chief priests and Pharisees were really worried about was that the disciples would come steal the body and claim it had been resurrected.  They never expected that Jesus would actually be resurrected from the dead!   They never imagined that this thing that Jesus had predicted would come to pass.    And yet, it had.  After three days he rose from the dead.  But even today, there are those who think that his body was stolen by the disciples and the story of his resurrection is fiction.

And the disciples met him in the place where he had told them to go.  And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted.  I wonder what that was like for the disciples.  I wonder what exactly some doubted.  Maybe they doubted that he had even really died?  Because you know, there are those who doubt miracles.  There are those today, and maybe even back then, who wondered if Jesus had really died, or if Joseph of Arimathea had managed to bribe his way clear to taking Jesus down from the cross before he was completely dead, and had him nursed back to life.  Because that’s another story that’s told around the resurrection.  That Jesus hadn’t quite died, and so resurrection story is made up.   

For very logical, science oriented people it can be hard to understand how miracles like the resurrection can happen.  How can something that is completely impossible just happen?  (For proof of a miracle, can we just look at the camel, again?   That particular design couldn’t possibly have simply evolved, could it?)  But for very logical, science oriented people who believe in God, it’s not so hard,  because miracles do happen. Doctors, for example, see miracles happen all the time.  Because anything is possible with God.  Because - camels.  Because, regardless of how important the people were who tried to spread other stories, and regardless even of the doubt of some of his own followers, we know that Jesus did rise from the dead, and he did meet with his disciples after that happened, and the Holy Spirit did come and pour out upon them the ability to speak and be understood by people who spoke many different languages, and Peter did preach so persuasively that 3,000 people who spoke many different languages heard the story of Jesus’ ministry, believed what they heard, and were subsequently baptized, and themselves filled with the Holy Spirit.  All of those stories that were spread hoping that people would reject the story of Jesus failed.  Because even now, even nearly 2,000 years later, we do believe in the truth of what happened in Jerusalem all those many years ago.   

Jesus told his disciples to go out, and make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.   He told them to teach everyone to obey all the things that he had commanded them.  To speak truth to power, as he had done.  To care for those no one cares about, as he had done.  To comfort the comfortless, as he had done.  To heal those whose bodies and souls were broken, as he had done.    Notice that he didn’t say, “Teach them to believe these things.”  He said, “Teach them to obey, to do these things.”   This is the Great Commission, which still binds us today.   To teach, to make followers who will do the things that Jesus taught his first disciples to do.   And to baptize, to bring those new believers to that place where their greatest desire is to change, to repent of their old ways and become the person that God wants them to be,  to be cleansed of sin and made new and whole again.  And to remember, always, that no matter what, Jesus is with us.

In John’s Gospel, this one statement is expanded into a very long and beautiful  speech.  It is eloquent and moving, but it is very long.   Matthew keeps it simple.  “… remember,” Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”   I like simple. I like short statements that I can remember.  I like the hope that comes with a statement like this.  “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”   It tells me that I am never alone.  Never.  No matter what happens, I am never alone, for Jesus is always with me.

When Leah and I were talking about the artwork that would be best for today, we started with a Celtic trinity knot with a circle woven through it.  I told her that if she could find one with a heart woven through, that would be awesome, and perfect.  And look, she found one.  She found one that is sitting in someone’s hand.  When I looked at this picture, I realized that Leah had captured in the one image the entire message I hoped to leave with you all today.   The trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is so wrapped up in being with us, in loving us and being loved by us, that our heart is inextricably tangled together with God’s, and in the very same way God’s heart is tangled together with ours.    And somehow, that heart of ours, that core of our belief in the totality of God, is held in God’s hand, so that no matter what, we are never alone.

And this is the Good News, my beloved.  No matter what, we are never alone.  When good things happen, God is with us. When bad things happen, God is with us.  And whether in our words we speak to the Father, or the Son or the Holy Spirit, we are in actuality reaching out to all, and one, at the same time.  No matter what, we are never alone.  God will Father us, care for us, guide us as a loving parent guides a child.  Jesus will walk along side of us as he walked with the disciples on the road to Emaus, reminding us of the teachings we need to follow, reminding us God’s commands that we have been given through him so that we might change the entire world and reconcile all of humanity with God.  The Spirit will give us the creativity, the strength, the power, even the words that we need to do everything we are called to do, in God’s name.  No matter what, we are never alone.   May that knowledge comfort us in every situation, In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

What's Next?

Acts 2:1- 21  The Message

2 1-4 When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
5-11 There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?
Parthians, Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; Even Cretans and Arabs!

“They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” 12 Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?”
13 Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”
14-21 That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:
“In the Last Days,” God says,“I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit On those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red,
Before the Day of the Lord arrives, the Day tremendous and marvelous;
And whoever calls out for help to me, God, will be saved.”

I love today’s artwork.  “I have no idea what’s going to happen and I love it!”   Great, right?  And SO not true!  At least, not for me.  I guess when I’m reading a good murder mystery, I love not knowing what’s next.  Or for you fans of roller coasters, you might love a new ride where you don’t know what’s coming around the next bend.  Or maybe you are one of those people who likes to get in the car and just go, anyplace, with no destination in mind.  Not me.  But I’m a bit OCD, with a smidgen of social anxiety. It’s not easy for me to step out of my comfort zone.   Anyway . . . .

It’s Graduation Sunday!   Today is the day we celebrate all of you who have finished one phase of your education.  You will be going on to whatever is next - high school or college, maybe graduate school?  Or you might be saying to yourself, “I have no idea what is going to happen next!”   You may or may not love that.

One of my favorite days of the year at my previous church was the Preschool’s  Kindergarten Graduation Day.  I would process in with the Director of our Preschool at the front of the line of giggling 5 and 6 year olds, wearing my mortar board, master’s gown, and hood.   I would open the event with a Commencement Prayer.  There would be some very short speeches, a performance by each of the age group classes, and then, just before the diplomas were presented, I would present the annual Commencement Address.  Using the words of the very wisest of wise men - Dr. Seuss! - I sent the children on their way to their next adventure - First Grade!   While the little ones graduating from Kindergarten kind of knew what would come next, because most of them had older brothers and sisters who had told them all about first grade, they still weren’t sure about leaving the school where most of them had spent the last 3 or 4 years.  They were a bit nervous about the future, and Dr. Seuss helped them understand that there was a great adventure ahead.   

Oh, The Places You’ll Go is a great Commencement Address.  I have heard it read at high schools and colleges and universities - even at Chapman!  Dr. Seuss tells anyone who will listen that amazing things are ahead.  We may not know what they are, but there are amazing things ahead and we need to keep moving forward, past the people who are just waiting for life to happen, and past the places where we are lonely, and past the places where things don’t go right.  Whatever comes, he says, we need to “hike far, and face up to your problems, whatever they are.”  “You’ll get mixed up”, he says, “so be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact, and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. . .  and never mix up your right foot with your left.”  We could do a lot worse than to listen to Dr. Seuss, even if we aren’t graduating.

Today’s reading was the Pentecost story - of course.  We always read that story on Pentecost.  It’s our founding story!  Of course, the disciples couldn’t know that.  They had no idea what was going to happen, and I am not at all sure they loved it.   They knew Jesus had told them to go and wait for the Advocate, but they didn’t know who or what the Advocate was.  They didn’t know when she would show up, or how they would know when she did.  They didn’t know anything about what lay ahead of them, or what they were supposed to do with all of the things Jesus had taught them.  And they didn’t have a Dr. Seuss to let them know that walking into the unknown was ok.  

Luke tells us that every one of the disciples present in Jerusalem on that day - some 120 of them - was given the gift of language.  All of them were able to make themselves understood to people from all over the world.  Now, whether the Spirit thought to herself “this one will speak Latin, and this one Greek, and this one Ethiopian,” and so on, or if somehow their Aramaic words became understandable to everyone who listened I don’t know.  No one really knows what happened that day.  All we know is that these 120 disciples were somehow understood by thousands of people from all over the known world.  And Peter’s sermon was somehow understood by all those people.  And the words the people  heard were so powerful, the Spirit spoke to those listeners so clearly, that 3,000 were baptized that day.    This is the day we consider the day when Christianity really began, the birthday of the church.   I really don’t understand why the church year begins four weeks before Christmas instead of at Pentecost, or even at Easter, but I wasn’t in charge of planning the church year.

Paul makes it pretty clear that all of these people receiving the same gift  was pretty unusual - a special case for a special day.    Because in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Chapter 12, Paul says: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation18 of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

You know, God’s giving of different gifts and talents isn’t restricted to just spiritual gifts or just church related gifts.  Each of us has gifts that are unique to us.  And we get to use those gifts for the betterment of our own lives and the lives of everyone around us, and for the betterment of the church.  In this congregation we are particularly blessed with folks who have exceptional musical talent, but we also have teachers and counselors and coaches and members of law enforcement - people whose calling is to help others.  I don’t know whether any of us has the gift of language to such an extent that we can sway 3,000 people - I don’t know a single preacher who doesn’t wish to have that even gift just once . . . Please, God, just once let me speak that well, that persuasively . . . but I am quite sure that each of us has at one time or another been able to say just the right words to someone to help them through something.  To help someone understand their place in God’s world, or to encourage them to try something outside their comfort zone.  

For you graduates, I am convinced you will go places that you never expected. I am sure you will all discover new gifts and new ways to use the gifts you already know about.  But whatever happens next in each of your lives, I am excited to be able to watch as you move forward into the next phase of your life.  I have no idea what is going to happen next for you, and I love it.

For all the rest of us, the same.  Some of us are pretty sure we know what our gifts are, but you know, there might be stuff out there we’ve never tried to do, and we might turn out to be pretty good at those new things if we just try.  Like Allen, getting a ribbon at the fair for his very first quilt!  Some of us are pretty sure we know where the church, the congregation is going.  But you know, there might be something we haven’t thought of, that maybe the Spirit will lead us to.  There might be some gift, somewhere, that we haven’t opened yet, some idea that we haven’t considered yet.  

The Spirit of God makes sure we are provided with the gifts we need. On Pentecost, the gift that was given was the gift of language, of persuasion, of being able to be understood by the thousands of people who heard God’s word that day.  Later, other gifts would be needed - gifts of healing and teaching and prophecy.  In today’s church, we need those gifts and more, gifts of hospitality and creativity and acceptance.  But of all the gifts, there are three that are of most value, to the church and to all persons, in all times and places.  These are the gifts of love, joy and peace, which we receive through faith.  May God pour these out upon us in great abundance, that we might in turn share them with all whom we encounter.

My brothers and sisters, on this Pentecost Day let us open ourselves as widely as possible for the Spirit to enter into our hearts.   Let us go out into the world, open to new ideas and new possibilities.  Let us go out into the world trusting God enough to say, “I have no idea what is going to happen, and I love it!” 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

We Belong to Him

Scripture:    John 17:1-11 (NRSV)   

17 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
It is Memorial Day weekend.  As a student minister at Garden City Christian Church in Indianapolis, I learned to call this particular Sunday “Low Sunday” because there’s this little thing called the Indianapolis 500 which pretty much brings the city to a standstill.  The churches closest to the racetrack close, because no one can get there anyway.  My usual 10 minute drive across town took nearly 30 minutes, as I had to drive half way around the city in order to get to my church.  Most of the members were working a concession stand at the race so they weren’t going to be in worship that morning, anyway.   

When I came here I was told that whenever Pentecost happened to fall on Memorial Day weekend we have our Pentecost Celebration a week late.  Luckily, that didn’t happen this year and we can look forward to our usual celebration of the church’s birthday next week.  But apparently, Memorial Day weekend is a Low Sunday here, too.  It’s kind of sad, I think, because it seems to me that a good place to be on the Sunday of Memorial Day is in church, praying for those who have given their lives in defense of our nation.  Some 1.2 million members of the military have died during war time from the Revolutionary War until now.  Those who died were men and women, persons of all races, persons of every religion (and no religion), persons of many nationalities, citizens and non-citizens, even undocumented aliens.  They were officers and enlisted personnel, combatants and non-combatants, even conscientious objectors.  They are our military, our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.  All of them, every one, belong to us.  And should be honored.  Here.  And everywhere.  I was a bit shocked earlier in the week when I received an email from a company I buy clothes from (like this dress), apologizing for offending some people by saying, “Remember our troops this weekend” in an advertisement.  I mean, really?  People were offended at being asked to remember our troops on Memorial Day weekend?  I don’t understand.    But we remember, and we offer prayers of gratitude for them, and we celebrate their lives.  There are those, too, who are not counted in that number, but should be.  I speak of the veterans who commit suicide after returning home from conflict.  According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, that number is about 22 per day.  These too, should be remembers and honored on this day.  Because they belong to us, they gave their lives for us, and they deserve our recognition.   

I’m not really sure how it happened, but this week Leah and Dee Anne both found artwork that spoke to the way I was feeling about the message.  But you know, it might be a God thing.   If you look at the bulletin artwork, you can see that the body of the praying Christ is filled with faces - yours and mine, faces of the people who belong to him.   One of those pictures included words like, “Jesus prays for us,” which we decided to leave out of the artwork, but which nonetheless speaks clearly to what is going on in today’s scripture reading.   Jesus lifts up his disciples, the people who have been given to him by God, for God’s special blessing and care. In both pictures, Jesus has his arms outstretched and his face turned up as he prays.  

You know, I’ve really never understood our habit of looking down while praying.  I know why we do it, because it is an act of humility.  It is right to humble ourselves before God, as Micah tells us God desires us to do.  But I mean, we say things like, “Let us lift up our hearts to God,” and “Lift up your hands and hearts” and we will stand, facing the heavens, arms outstretched. . . but the minute the words “Let us pray” are pronounced, Bam!  Down go all the faces.    Anyway . . .

In today’s passage we are returned to the events surrounding the Last Supper, even though Easter was weeks ago.  Today, we are reminded of what he prayed on that last night that he spent with his disciples.  On this, the last Sunday before the Pentecost, we are reminded that Jesus’ greatest desire was that the world should come to know God through him, through his teachings and actions, as they were passed down by his disciples.  He asked God to bless and protect those whom God had given to him, that his followers should be one, as he and the Father are one.   In the words of his prayer, we are reminded that we are more than just followers, but his very own, his family, his brothers and sisters. 

This is hard.  Not the “we are his family” part.  We can understand that, and we can even live that out.  And if there are difficulties between believers, disagreements even, we understand that too, because what family doesn’t occasionally have disagreements?  But that “being one” thing, as he and the Father are one part, that’s hard.  First of all, we have enough trouble figuring out how Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are one, and I am not looking forward to my annual attempt to explain the Trinity in 20 minutes, which is coming up in just a couple of weeks.  But beyond that, even while people who remembered Jesus were still alive, disagreements about what he meant and what he intended, and even who he was were frequent.  We know this from Paul’s letters, as he was frequently called upon to settle arguments within the various congregations.  We know it from stories told in the Acts of the Apostles, as when Peter had to defend his baptism of the uncircumcised Cornelius and his entire household.   The idea of unity across all of the church as it is today is kind of mind boggling.

And yet, there is one thing that does unify us, all of us.  It is the knowledge that we belong to him, to Jesus, and because we belong to him, we belong also to God.  Jesus said,  “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”   

I have told you before, I think, that in all of those years when I rejected Church and turned my back toward the God I had been taught to believe in, I never rejected Jesus.  I always believed that Jesus loved me.  I simply could not understand how that angry, judgmental, punishing God I had been taught about could possibly be one with the Jesus who loved me.  I kept reading my New Testament, trying to figure it out, and really never could.  But to know God through Jesus, now that was something entirely different.   It occurred to me at some point that perhaps God sent Jesus to change minds like mine, even all those centuries ago.  If those who belonged to God thought of him mostly as the one who had struck down Uzzah for touching the Ark of the Covenant, even though he was just grabbing it to keep it from falling, or who told Joshua to kill every living thing in the cities he conquered, well, maybe they needed a new perspective on who God is.  Maybe they needed a reminder of why the Law was written as it was.  Maybe instead of fearing God’s punishment, those who belonged to God needed to be reminded of God’s love for humanity and for the world.   And that is what Jesus came to do.  So the fact that I know, and have always as long as I can remember known, with all of my heart and soul, that Jesus loves me, means that now I also know that God loves me, for through knowing Jesus I have learned to know God.  Not everything about God, for no one can, but in my heart, I know that I am God’s beloved child.  I belong to Jesus, and because I belong to Jesus, I also belong to God.

At the end of his life and ministry, Jesus prays that all who belong to him will know God through him.  And he prays that those who belong to him will pass on what they have learned from him, so that others will come to know God as he knows God and as they have come to know God.  And he prays that God will protect us, and make us one, even as Jesus and God are one.  

When we leave here today, let us go out as one with each other, sharing the love of Christ with all whom we encounter, that others may also know God through us, as we know God through Jesus.  For we belong to Him.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Unknown God

Scripture: Acts 17:22-31   (NRSV)

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

We’re a pretty well educated bunch of folks here at First Christian Church.  I imagine most of you are familiar with the Greek Gods.  Or maybe you have watched some of the Disney movies, or 90s TV shows like Zena Warrior Princess and Hercules, and learned something about the Greek gods that way.   For those who don’t know much about them, it’s important to know that there were a lot of them!  There were major gods, like Zeus and Hera; minor gods like Pan and Mercury;  even demi-gods, like Hercules, who father was Zeus and mother was a human.  Each god had his or her particular areas of expertise and control.  Each had his or her own temples and priests and particular followers, although everyone paid at least some attention to all of them, because no one wanted to give any of them a reason to be angry.  They could be helpful to their favorites, but they were, quite frankly, not to be trusted.  They were easily insulted and affronted.  They got jealous if they thought some other god was getting more attention than they were.  They started wars out of jealousy, destroyed individuals and families, raped human women . . . They had great power, and abused it.  They seemed to embody all of humanity’s bad qualities, and very few of the good ones.  

Paul would have been very familiar with this panoply of gods,  having come from the city of Tarsus where Greek culture was prevalent.   In Athens, a city named for and dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and useful arts, among all of the temples and altars to the familiar gods, he noticed one dedicated to “the unknown god.”  There isn’t much known about these altars, although a few have been found in ancient Greek cities.  But it is known that Greeks would often swear by “The Unknown God” - a wise choice, one would think, since picking one god to swear by could seriously irritate another one.  And irritating a god was never a good idea!   Paul said to the people of Athens, “That unknown god of  yours?  I know who that is!  Your unknown god isn’t unknown at all!  He is the one who created the world and everything in it!  Let me teach you about Him!” 

The God Paul was talking about was certainly unknown to me.  Most of you are aware that I was raised in a church where I learned about a punishing God, a jealous God, a God who was more concerned about watching to see what I did wrong than guiding me into the ways to do right.  In fact, that God I was raised with seemed a lot more like the Greek gods than the God I know today.  Most of you know that I left that church when I was 18 and stayed away from every kind of church for 25 years.  I spent most of that time doing drugs and getting drunk and dong other socially unacceptable stuff.  It wasn’t until I got clean and started going to 12 Step meetings that I started learning about a different kind of God, a loving and forgiving God, a God whose most earnest desire was for good things and good people to come into my life.  I was taught to consider carefully what attributes God really has.  Not what I had learned before, but all the good things.    We talked about the God of our understanding, but one of my friends used to talk about the God he would never be able to understand, because, you know, God.  Way too much for any human to understand.  Way too big for any box we want to confine God to.  Way too big to be confined to any one place, or any one theology, or any one denomination.  

After a few years of learning about God in this new way, I found a church.  A church a lot like this one.  A Disciples congregation where everyone is considered a minister.   Where all of us are required to think, and learn, and not just believe whatever is said from up front on Sunday mornings.  Where every single person who walks through the door is welcome, because this isn’t our house, it’s God’s house.  And we are all God’s children. And God loves all of God’s children.    

Paul told the people of Athens that God had created all people, all of the nations, and set them where God chose, and then allowed them to look around themselves, searching for God, groping to find him, and perhaps that way they would find him, although indeed He is not far from each one of us.  “For in him we live and move and have our being . . . for we too are his offspring.”  He told them that God cannot be confined to one place, or made of gold or silver or stone.  God’s image cannot be contained like that, in our art and our imaginations.  Because, God.  Way too big and great and powerful for even the most imaginative, the most creative, the most inward seeking, the most ingenious person who ever lived or ever would live to capture.   

This was hard to hear for people whose city made the bulk of its income from the sale of figures of Athena and donations to the temples.  Religion was big business.  People came from all over to experience the grandeur of Athena’s temple, the Parthenon.  People still do, for that matter, almost 2,000 years after Paul’s sermon there.  The Greeks had been worshipping these gods for a long time.  They had a pretty good idea how to keep them happy.  Most of the time, if they made a good enough donation to the temple, or did specific tasks that were sown to please one or another of the gods, things would go pretty much ok.  Most of the time, unless one of the gods woke up on the wrong side of the bed (or was caught in the wrong one, which happened to Zeus fairly often.)Then all bets were off while the gods sulked or stormed, punishing each other and humanity as well. 

The God Paul was telling them about, the God of our understanding, doesn’t do that.  Our God isn’t modeled after humanity, like the Greek gods were.  Rather, humanity is a very weak imitation of God.  If we want to please God, we will do our best to imitate Jesus, who was fully human, who understood pain and joy, who had known sickness and good health, who had experienced love and rejection.  If we want to please God, we will seek within ourselves for the best part of ourselves, the best qualities that God has given us, and use those qualities in our interactions with others.  If we want to please God, we will do our best to serve God’s people, the ones who cannot care for themselves as well as we can, those whose lives are more difficult, for whatever reason.  If we want to please God, we don’t have to cook God dinner, but we do have to feed those who are hungry.  We don’t have to bring cloth of gold to lay at the foot of the altar, but we do have to clothe those who are naked.  We do have to find homes for the homeless, bring healing love to the sick, and comfort the prisoner.  If we want to please God, we have to help people begin to understand God, just a little bit.  We have to teach those whose image of God is that punishing, judgmental, angry, and jealous God that I grew up with about Paul’s version of God, about the version of God that Jesus talked about, the one who cares for each and every one of God’s children.  Who sees the sparrow fall from the sky and knows how many hairs are on our head.   Who knows what gifts and talents you have, and places you where you can best use them.  Whose love pours out upon the world in a constant stream, like the precious oil that was poured out upon Jesus by the woman with the alabaster jar.  And those lessons are better taught by actions than by words.  

Sadly, my brothers and sisters, our God is known to us, but still Unknown to way too many.   We may not know everything there is to know about God - and we will never know everything there is to know about God - but we do know that the closer we follow Jesus, the better we will get to know God, the easier it will be for us to find God, to see him in the people and situations in our lives.  The Good News is that God is not far from any of us.  The Good News is that when we seek God in others, and in situations in our lives, we always find God.  The Good News is that when we look for the good in any person or any situation, we can nearly always find it.  Let each of us open our eyes and our ears and hearts, looking for God in all places and in all people, so that we might demonstrate that God who is still unknown to way too many people in our world today - the God we know, the merciful and compassionate God, who pours forgiveness and love upon all of His creatures.   

Sunday, May 14, 2017

At the end, a beginning

Scripture:   Acts 7:55-60

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.


It’s Mother’s Day.  A day that strikes fear into the hearts of preachers everywhere, even more than Easter, if that’s possible. This is considered by some to be the 2nd most important Sunday of the church year - the day when many women in the congregation are proudly accompanied by children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren, secretly hoping that the preacher will say the exact right words to bring those kids back to this church again next Sunday.   And here I am, preaching on the stoning of Stephen.  Not exactly typical Mother’s Day fare.  You know, I really don’t try to be contrary.  It just sort of works out that way.  But bear with me, and it may all become clear.

First, let’s talk about Stephen.  Poor Stephen.  He really does get neglected.  Most of the time when this passage comes around, we use it as an opportunity to talk about Paul, because Paul’s journey to being arguably the most influential of all the early evangelists begins when “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  No one really talks much about Stephen at all.  It’s like a bride being upstaged at her wedding.  But Stephen himself is an important person. His story needs to be more than a backdrop to Saul’s conversion.

We first hear about Stephen in the 6th chapter of Acts, when he is the first of a group of seven men selected to oversee the distribution of food to the widows, so that both Greek and Hebrew women are served equally.  We are told that Stephen is full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and grace and power, a persuasive speaker, someone who always bested opponents in debate because of his great wisdom.  False witnesses, bribed by men who were tired of being beaten by Stephen’s rhetoric and Spirit, told the Temple council that he had blasphemed against the law of Moses and spoken against the Temple.  When they called him to defend himself, they looked and “saw that his face was like the face of an angel”.  When he began to speak, he reminded them of the covenant God made with Abraham. He told them how the people had rebelled against Moses and rejected the Word of God.  He told them that God decreed a tent for God’s dwelling place, and that the Temple was the work of man, not God. He told them they had rejected God’s covenant in their hearts and minds, murdering those who prophesied the Righteous One, and killing the Christ.  He said, “You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it!”  And then, “54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.[j] 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”  And when he was about to die, Stephen, like Jesus before him, asked God to forgive them.

Stephen’s martyrdom is, indeed, the beginning of Saul’s journey to Christ, but it is so much more than that.   It is the end of the Temple leadership’s fear of the crowds.  Up to this point, in the book of Acts, the leaders of the Temple have been afraid to take strong measures against these Jesus followers because they feared the crowds would turn on them.  Peter and others preached with such fire and strength that even when chastising the Temple leadership in the strongest of terms, they felt powerless to stop them.   That ends here.  From this point forward, the gloves come off.  Imprisonment and execution for blasphemy are about to become reality for Jesus followers.   Some will continue to preach openly, courting martyrdom.  And like Stephen, they will face their martyrdom with courage and faith.  His example will guide them.  But many believers will go underground or flee the city for their safety.  

So it is a beginning.  Fleeing from Jerusalem, members of the early church will spread out to other cities, joining those believers who had gone back to their homes after their conversion on Pentecost, starting house churches, speaking to other Jews about Jesus the Messiah.  The Word of God through Christ will begin to spread throughout the communities of Jews in all of the cities of Asia, even as far away as Rome.  (Mind you, it will remain within the Jewish community until Paul shows up.  It is Paul who will carry the Word to the non-Jews, the Gentiles.)   Stephen’s courageous death sets an example for all of them, even the ones who leave Jerusalem, because from this time forward, faithful followers of Christ will proudly admit to their beliefs even if it means their imprisonment or death.  They will follow his lead and his example, forgiving those who persecute them.  The company of believers is about to become the Church Universal, for real.  

I had no idea how much my life was going to change after the baby was born.”   Yesterday at the Christian Women’s Fellowship meeting we talked about mothers.  Dawn told us that she had once heard a woman say that, and of course we all laughed.  Life is never the same after the baby is born.  Your life is no longer your own, after the baby is born.  Every moment belongs to that child, even when she isn’t living at home anymore.  Even when he is grown up wth children of his own.   We told stories of things we had learned from our mothers, and how those things had influenced our lives.  Mothers taught us to read, and we are lovers of reading.  Mothers taught us to relax about the small stuff, and not worry if there are Legos all over the living room floor when company arrives.  Mothers taught us to embrace our role, whatever it may be, and we are empowered to do things we didn’t think we could.  Even those of us with difficult relationships with our mothers, still learned from them, still gained insight and knowledge from them.  The things we learned early on from our mothers are things that will guide our lives.  We may find ourselves being more like our mothers than we ever expected.  I mean, how many times have you heard someone say, “OMG!  I have become my mother!” or maybe even said it yourself?  Usually it is in some child-rearing situation.  Maybe you say to your teenaged child something you swore, as a teenager, you would never say to your child.  Of course, every mother - even step and foster mothers -  quickly develops an extra set of eyes in the back of her head, as well as an almost spooky sense of when that child is doing exactly what she shouldn’t be doing, and we realize that we are doing what our own mothers did with and for us.  We realize that what we have learned from our mothers is guiding us along our own life’s journey.  

Just as that young mother had no idea how much her life would change after the baby was born, the followers of Jesus had no idea that everything would change after that day.   Stephen’s stoning didn’t end the movement, or even slow it down.  Rather, it accelerated and empowered it.  Stephen’s martyrdom proved that God’s Word cannot be stopped.  Even death cannot stop it.  For just as the pain of child birth ushers a new child into our lives, so Stephen’s martyrdom mothered the new church into the next stage in its growth.  His death, his end, is a new beginning. Just as the example of our own mothers guides our lives in the way we grow, so Stephen’s example will guide the infant church into its next phase.  Stephen’s death is the spark that spread the Light out into the world, sending believers out from Jerusalem into Samaria and Greece and everywhere Jews could be found.  The apostles had been told to begin their ministry in Jerusalem, but now they will spread out.  Believers and preachers of the Word of God will soon cover the entire earth, proudly proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.   

My sisters and brothers, the Good News is that nothing can stop the Word of God.  Even Stephen’s death couldn’t slow down the movement of the Holy Spirit  that had its beginning in Christ’s death and resurrection.  That spark that ignited the fire of the Holy Spirit, throughout the world, that spark that lit up the whole world through the power of  God’s love, is now passed to us.  When we go from this place, let us take that spark and pass it on, to everyone we encounter.