Enduring Witness/Courageous Faith
May 18, 2014
Sunday, May 18
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Enduring Witness/Courageous Faith
Risen Christ, you prepare a place for us, in the home of the Mother-and-Father of us all. Draw us more deeply into yourself, through scripture read, water splashed, bread broken, wine poured, so that when our hearts are troubled, we will know you more completely as the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.
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. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 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. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 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.
All readings for the Week
1 Peter 2:2-10
1. Have you ever gone from feeling like an outsider to being part of something greater than yourself?
2. Is forgiveness a priority in the church?
3. What is the "hurt" that has formed your identity as a community of faith?
4. What is the story that your church tells? What is the story that your life tells?
5. What makes us a distinctive people, rather than "no people"?
Reflection on Acts 7:55-60 and 1 Peter 2:2-10 by Kate Huey
We all share the desire to find our way home, whether it's at the end of a long day or at the end of a long journey, a long time of wandering, of alienation, of homesickness and pain. That may be why so many people speak of finding a church "home" when they find a congregation that welcomes them and feels like a place in which they can grow their faith. Of course, if a church only puts us at ease with our lives as they are, our presuppositions and our comforting compromises in faith, then perhaps we're speaking of accommodation rather than challenge and spiritual growth. Nevertheless, for many people, finding a church home means finding a safe haven, a refuge, a fortress, and a rock. The church may be the one place, the one way, in their life that they experience God's protective love in a hostile and dangerous world.
It's in that safe haven that we receive, like little babies, the spiritual milk that we need to grow our faith. We ourselves become part of the very "structure," the home, the spiritual house that First Peter speaks of. If we remember that his audience was a group of dispossessed people, people who had no unifying dignity and identity apart from being a church, the power of these words expands in our hearing. What a transformation, from "no people" to "God's people"! Have you ever felt like a "nobody" and then a "somebody"? What would it sound like to your ears, if you thought you were "nobody," and then became part of a "chosen race," and words like "holy" and "royal" were used to describe you? What would it feel like to come out of darkness into the "marvelous light" of God?
The story of Stephen, following his shephered all the way to death
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the violent reaction of a mob (who undoubtedly saw themselves as religiously faithful) to a sermon by "the first ordinary Christian to follow his shepherd to the slaughter," Stephen, the early-church deacon with a "shooting-star ministry," as Barbara Brown Taylor aptly describes him. Stephen was supposed to be serving tables (working at coffee hour?) but he got it into his heart and mind and spirit that he needed to climb into the pulpit and preach; as Taylor says, "Once he had hands laid on his head, all the grace and power that poured into him spilled over as signs and wonders."
When Stephen re-told the story of his people and reminded them of their long history of ignoring the prophets, including both Moses and Jesus, the mob turned on him and killed him, while Saul, the future martyr and apostle, watched their cloaks. This short story is important in several ways, scholars observe, most memorably, perhaps, for bringing onto the stage Saul, the persecutor-Pharisee who will share something in common with Stephen, according to Paul Walaskay. It's ironic, Walaskay observes, that Saul (Paul) and Stephen, both Greek-speaking Jews, both see the problems of legalism in religion, although Saul the Pharisee at this moment in time, we are told, "approved" of Stephen's stoning. The martyrdom of Stephen is also an important moment in the overall story, Nancy Claire Pittmann notes, as it "ignites a general persecution in Jerusalem (8:1)" that leads to the spread of the gospel to Rome (and beyond).
A story with familiar details
The dramatic details in this short story remind us (certainly not accidentally) of several moments in the life of Jesus, with echoes from the Transfiguration (he must have looked radiant when he saw the heavens open), the Baptism of Jesus (again, the skies opening), and the surrender of his spirit on the cross and the forgiveness for those who did not know what they were doing. Timothy Hare's suggests that we grapple with this difficult--but core--teaching of Christianity, forgiveness, by seeing our enemies "through the loving eyes of God" in order to be "more aligned with God's heart" as we set our hearts on forgiveness, which is really "an act of God," not something we are able to do by sheer willpower. Hare reminds us of "the relentless nature of God's love," and our call to "follow God's priorities and to embody God's love." When most folks, inside and outside the church, think of Christians, do you think they associate us with "forgiveness" more than with issues, for example, of "sexual morality"? What are our priorities?
For some reason, Stephen's sermon does not go over as well as Peter's had, on Pentecost, a vivid illustration of the reality that our witness is better received in some times and places than in others, and falls on more (or less) hospitable ears. We may have no way of knowing the results of what we do and say, and some days are better than others in the life of the church. Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, "Blood of Martyrs," explores the unpredictable and unpursuable qualities of martyrdom: "I do not think you can seek it anymore than you can avoid it. I think it just happens sometimes, when people get so wrapped up in living Godís life that they forget to protect themselves." She provides examples of other "ordinary" Christians: Bonhoeffer, Romero, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who worked on voter registration during the Civil Rights era: they did not seek martyrdom but simply lived out the gospel in their particular circumstances, even if it cost them their lives (her sermon can be found in Home by Another Way).
"Living stones" and cornerstones
Stephen's sermon speaks of the foundations of faith that had been laid down long ago, strong foundations, deep roots, powerful witnesses and lives to remember. The people's shared experience, their walk with God, including the times they failed to listen to and heed the Stillspeaking God, provided stones sunk deep into their collective religious memory. The reading from First Peter, though, calls the people themselves "living stones" and refers to a precious cornerstone, addressing those who must have felt that they had been nobodies in a hostile world and needed a safe and welcoming place, a home. In the reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the language of place, too, when he promises to prepare a dwelling place for his followers, who were bound to encounter the opposition and loneliness experienced by the dispossessed in First Peter and the martyrs in the Book of Acts.
Today, people of all kinds find their way--hungry, seeking--to our churches, and when they arrive, they hear us tell a story, whether or not we're aware that we're telling one. Emerson Powery says that Stephen's preaching is helping the community to remember who they are by telling their story. Hearing the story of Stephen's stoning is one of the most vivid memories from my childhood religion classes (one might say it shaped my identity), and the picture of his death (with Saul standing there, holding the cloaks of those casting the stones) has long outlived my ability to recall the answers to all those catechism questions that I so conscientiously memorized. The underlying message was clear: being a faithful Christian can get you killed, but you must be brave and persist to the end. But what about those of us who are not called to sudden martyrdom? Is there any value to the idea (from the French, I believe) of "little deaths" in this regard? Perhaps we need to die to selfishness, pride, and the thirst for control and revenge (which are very much the same thing, in a way).
Imagine what's possible
The United Church of Christ has challenged us, for years, to "imagine another world is possible" (our Neighbors in Need 2006 theme) and to "imagine what's possible" (the theme of General Synod 28). Gary Neal Hansen's commentary reminds us of this the need for powerful religious imaginations when he challenges us to go beyond our usual categories of thought about what it means to be faithful, to be open to seeing and feeling God at work in the world around us--we would say, to listen for the Stillspeaking God as well--and then to be open to the transformation of our lives and of the world (that "other, possible" world) that God can bring. That's the good news we share, not simply doctrinal statements that we've learned in school, but the good news of a God at work in the world God loves. Some people (not all) may want to say to us Christians, "Show me, don't tell me." Can we take a long hard look at our lives and see the effects of being shaped by God at work in our lives, and our openness to being formed by that loving, potter-God?
Your church is called to be a safe haven, a refuge, a place of dignity and identity for those who seek a church home, with beliefs, stories, sufferings, and joys sunk deep into the foundations of your church's shared experience. In what ways is the Stillspeaking God calling your church to become more welcoming and more energetic in conveying and embodying that welcome, no matter what it costs? We have it backwards if our desire to welcome people is in order to increase our membership: welcoming is who we are and have always been: "Because of its peculiar faith and its identity formed in hurt, the church is a unified community capable of a risking hospitality," Charles Cousar writes. However, it's not our church, or our home, he adds, that we open to others: "The householder, God, has sole authority over admission at the doorway." One of the struggles of the church is to root out the conviction that we somehow "own" the church, that it "belongs" to us in some way. Would it offend or affect us and our behavior if we truly embraced the belief that God is the householder in this "church home," not us?
The church and boundaries
Another question to consider is our identity in a world that often blurs into the life of the church. The world of materialism and success and growth and prosperity is awfully easy to emulate in the life of the church. Barbara Brown Taylor sees in the stories of Jesus and Stephen a common thread of uncomfortable truth about what constitutes "Christian success," and what doesn't: it's "not converting other people to our way of thinking; not having the oldest, prettiest church in town; not even going out of our ways to be kind and generous, but telling the truth so clearly that some people want to kill us for it." Do we try to imitate the methods and tactics of the world around us when we take on the challenges of church life, or do we seek other sources of wisdom and strength? What are the boundaries that define us? How does the word "boundary" strike us when we talk about the church?
While we hope that a visitor could see significant differences between our church and the culture that surrounds it, there are also ways in which the world can offer valuable gifts that will strengthen the life and witness of the church. In what ways do we ñ must we ñ stand apart and declare ourselves different? When have you experienced the church as "the headlights" and when has it been "the tail lights" in the journey toward justice and righteousness, as Dr. King once said? In other words, when has the surrounding culture led the way and the church, ironically, had to catch up? (One might think, for example, of the ordination of women.) How has the Stillspeaking God, at times, spoken to the church through outsiders? (Think of the ancient example of Ruth, the Moabite widow, speaking to Naomi, and imaging the unconditional and persistent love of God for her.)
When have you and your congregation experienced the Stillspeaking God as a refuge, a rock, a fortress? What is the call that you hear, like Stephen, that impels you to witness? Is it ironic that, in these readings, "stones" can build but they can also kill? Who really lived and who really died in the story of Stephen? Where is true life in this story, and where is death?
John Pilch turns to John Dominic Crossan's translation of the familiar "I am the wayÖ" verse from John's Gospel: "I am the authentic (truth) vision (way) of existence (life)." Pilch says that Jesus embodies and "demonstrates absolute, total, and universal love" for all and his "life, teaching, and behavior do indeed present people with 'an authentic vision of human existence,' that is, a model of the way human life ought to be lived" in order to "encounter God, who is Love." This was a consoling message to the early Jewish Christians, who could have experienced great anxiety over losing their spiritual home (the synagogue) because of their belief in Jesus. How is it a consoling message to members of your church, and the wider church, today, and how do you hope to embody that witness to world that desperately needs good news?
For Further Reflection
Ivy Baker Priest, 20th century
"The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning."
Gilda Radner, 20th century
"I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next."
George Eliot, 19th century
"Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love."
S¯ren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard. 19th century
"The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
"I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me."
"This is the end--for me the beginning of life" (his last words to his fellow prisoners before his execution).
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