United Church of Christ

Living Stories

Sunday, May 10, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Easter Year A

Focus Theme:
Living Stories

Focus Prayer:
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.

Focus Readings:
Acts 7:55-60

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.

1 Peter 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
   "See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
      a cornerstone chosen and precious;
    and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
   "The stone that the builders rejected
      has become the very head of the corner,"

and

   "A stone that makes them stumble,
      and a rock that makes them fall."

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy.

All readings for the week:
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Focus Questions:

1. How does this time of being church in a new way, apart from one another, lead to new perspectives about who we are as a community called and "gathered"?

2. Boundaries can define identity. How does the word "boundary" strike us when we talk about the church?

3. How has God, at times, spoken to the church through "outsiders"?

4. Who really lived and who really died in the story of Stephen?

5. How do you hope to embody the gospel witness to a world that desperately needs good news?

Reflection on Acts 7:55-60 and 1 Peter 2:2-10:
by Kate Matthews

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 the spiritual growth it produces. 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.

Spiritual milk that transforms

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"! Perhaps you have known, at one time or another, what it feels like to be a "nobody," and then a "somebody." Perhaps you've had the experience of feeling outside and alone, and then becoming part of something greater than yourself. 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?

From the tables to the pulpit

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the violent reaction of a mob (who undoubtedly saw themselves as good, religiously faithful folks--this is important to remember) 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 it.

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."

Enter Saul, stage right

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, that 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.

From Jerusalem to Rome

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), impelling the witness to the saving acts of Jesus to move beyond the boundaries of its birthplace toward Rome."

The dramatic details in this short story about Stephen's death 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.

Setting our hearts on forgiveness

Timothy Hare's commentary on this text suggests that we consider the difficult--and core--issue of forgiveness, and how willing we are to "look upon [our] enemies through the loving eyes of God," to be "more aligned with God's heart" as we set their own hearts on forgiveness, which is really "an act of God," not something we are able to do by sheer willpower.

Hare offers several helpful approaches to the text, including a reflection on "the relentless nature of God's love," and our call to "follow God's priorities and to embody God's love."

A question of timing, or audience?

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 sometimes 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 faith.

Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, "Blood of Martyrs," explores these 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 God's 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.

Different stories, different stones

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 follow God's will, 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.

Bringing our stories with us to a new place

In 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 calls Stephen's narrative style of preaching "one of the primary ways that one shapes and revises the identity of a community. Tell the story!"

The stories that shape us

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? Perhaps, instead, we need to die "day by day" to selfishness, pride, and the thirst for control and revenge (which are very much the same thing, in a way).

And these are everyday spiritual disciplines that shape us, along with the stories that we hear and the stories that we tell, for these "lettings-go" are how we make room for forgiveness, and love, and generosity.

Using our religious imagination

The United Church of Christ, for many years, has challenged us to "imagine another world is possible" and to "imagine what's possible." I notice that same theme here and there in news commentary about the Covid-19 pandemic and the future that lies before us, a future and a world that we're finding awfully hard to picture. Doctors and public health experts try to imagine, perhaps for the sake of our morale, a solution that brings relief and safety sooner rather than later. We think we can't bear to go much longer without a word of hope, a light in this tunnel.

A vaccine? An effective treatment? "Herd immunity"? It's understandable that regular laypeople (that is, most of us) who don't understand the mysterious workings of this virus, this invisible enemy, turn with desperate hope to the experts to fix this immediate problem and undo its incomprehensibly massive effect on our lives. We want something sooner rather than later, preferably that won't require too much change in our lives, again. Let us "get back to normal," please.

Transformed by suffering

However, we might use the time that many of us have (granted, not those who are caregivers professionally or at home, or teaching our children while carrying on our jobs) to exercise our religious imaginations in this hour of challenge and fear. How do people of faith hear, for example, about the effects (already) on nature of our suddenly and radically different lifestyles--the cleaner air and water--and not imagine the effects of longer-term, perhaps less radical but still meaningful changes in our use of God's creation?

How is God calling us, in the midst of this abrupt tear in the fabric of our lives, turning our attention to what has been there all along, but has not received our careful listening and observation, our faithful response? Would we rather respond like that "faithful" mob, feeling defensive and threatened by the truth before us?

Going beyond the usual

Gary Neal Hansen's commentary reminds us of this 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--to listening for God's voice--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, Hansen says, the story we tell, the story we live, not simply doctrinal statements that we've learned in school, but the good news of a God at work in the world God loves, what we have seen and felt and experienced, what we have dared to imagine is possible, with God's grace.

Shaped by the potter-God

Many people (not all, but more in every age) 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?

Perhaps catechism questions and doctrinal purity are not nearly so important as the stories we tell. When I came to the United Church of Christ, I was deeply moved and inspired by the stories of courage and justice that I heard about this church's heroic and quietly faithful forebears.

The next step, though, is just as important: to listen for God's call in this day, and this place, to hear the gospel and then to live it out.

Called to be a place of refuge and challenge

Your congregation 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 its shared experience. In what ways is God calling your community of faith to become more energetic in embodying hospitality, no matter the cost? How can you do this, in face of the challenge of this pandemic?

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." But Beverly Gaventa reminds us that it's not our church, or our home, 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 affect our behavior if we truly embraced the belief that God is the householder in this "church home," not us? What is "the hurt" that formed our identity?

Seeking "success" as a church

Another thing 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."

A church shaped by the world?

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 do these weeks, these months, of being church in a new and perhaps disconcerting way, apart from one another, unable to congregate, lead to new perspectives about who we are as a community called and "gathered"? How do you connect with your sisters and brothers in faith, perhaps in ways that remind us of connecting with our ancestors in faith: listening to their stories, their lessons, their examples?

What makes us a distinctive people?

We might consider how a visitor to our church's online ministry might tell the difference between our church and the surrounding culture. Ironically, of course, this surrounding culture, with its amazing technological advances, has been invaluable to many churches during this time of "distance ministry," sustaining our connections and enabling us to hold worship, to hear from our pastors, to connect with one another.

On the other hand, there are important ways in which we seek to change the surrounding culture, bringing a prophetic voice of critique to anything that harms God's children. Alas, as Dr. King noted years ago, the church has too often been "the taillights" instead of "the headlights" in the journey toward justice and righteousness--in other words, the surrounding culture led the way and the church, ironically, had to catch up.

One might think, for example, of the ordination of women, which is still forbidden in many large denominations two thousand years after the Easter witness of Mary Magdalene. How has 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.)

What call impels you?

When have you and your congregation experienced 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?

In his commentary, John Pilch turns to John Dominic Crossan's translation of the familiar "I am the way…" verse from John: "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, to the world beyond those walls?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Alice Walker, 20th century
"Wake up and smell the possibility."

Willa Cather, 20th century
"That is happiness; to be dissolved into something completely great."

Fred Rogers, 20th century
"You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are."

Ani DiFranco, 21st century
"I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap."

Dorothy Day, 20th century
"We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community."

William Shakespeare, 16th century
"We know what we are, but not what we may be."

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind, 21st century
"It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story."

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 20th century
"When I discover who I am, I'll be free."

Nico J. Genes, Magnetic Reverie, 21st century
"Yes, if the stones that we walked on could talk, they would surely tell our story."

Brennan Manning, Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, 20th century
"Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion."
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