Sermon for 5th Sunday in Easter - May 14, 2017

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
May 14, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Both Jesus and Stephen, as written by Luke, face their deaths in very similar ways.  At his own trial, Jesus told the chief priests and the scribes “From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”[1]  And Stephen, when taken out to be stoned, sees a vision that shows him this very thing.[2]

Jesus cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!”[3]  Stephen cries, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”[4]

Jesus prays, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,”[5] while Stephen echoes, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”[6]

But how did Stephen wind up being stoned to death?

Let’s go back a bit.  The apostles – Peter and the others – were teaching daily in the Temple precincts and other locations, and doing “signs and wonders.”  People kept joining them, and the religious authorities found them really annoying, so, being quite fed up, hauled them up before the Council, the Sanhedrin, and told them to stop teaching and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.  They locked them up, but come morning, lo and behold, the apostles were back in the Temple grounds, doing just that.  And no one could say how they got out of jail.

So they hauled them up again, and were so furious, they wanted to kill them – but one of their number, Gamaliel, said they should calm down and leave them alone; if this was not of God, it would fade away; if it was of God, they didn’t want to be on the side opposing what God was doing.  Barred from killing the apostles, the council ordered them flogged and released.  And the apostles rejoiced that “they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of” Jesus’ name.

And they went right on teaching, too.

Their numbers finally had grown so large, that they appointed seven men to act as administrators, among whom was Stephen.  But Stephen did more than bookkeeping – he, too, engaged in teaching and proclamation.  He was accused, falsely, that he had blasphemed both God and Moses. 

Called before the Sanhedrin, Stephen reminded them how the Israelites had rejected Moses in the wilderness and sought to return to Egypt.  But Moses persisted … and in his farewell speech on the banks of the Jordan River, said another would arise in the future to save Israel.  And, Stephen said to the Council, you killed him.

Or, more precisely, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.  You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”[7]

No wonder they were angry.  It was probably the last straw, and they killed Stephen.  They vented all their frustration on him that they could not visit upon the apostles. 

Stephen is a model for us, perhaps, when times are hard – holding hard to the vision of heaven, where Jesus stands on the Father’s right hand, voicing a plea that God will remember us – at death or in other times of trouble – and a plea that those who do [us] wrong will still find mercy at God’s hands.

Susan B.W. Johnson[8] has pointed out how the members of the Sanhedrin stopped their ears when Stephen spoke of his vision – she writes, “In the commission of inhuman acts, one must forcibly shut out the humanity of the person who is subjected to it in order to carry out the act.”[9]

I have to say, one can hear a lot of dehumanizing rhetoric in our own day – more than we would like, no doubt.  I don’t need to tell you; you know as well as I.  It’s been going on for quite a while now, and there seems no end to it.  And it seems to be spreading, like a plague.

We are divided now in so many ways – politically, economically, by education, gender and gender identity, geography, experience, work status, immigration status, religion …. We seem to have completely forgotten how to care for one another – with those of opposing viewpoints accusing each other of not listening, not caring, not understanding, not acting like Christians or “Americans,” of not being the right sort of persons at all.

WE ALL DO THIS.  I DO THIS.

This past week, I was so rattled at the events of the day, the week, the month, the year, that I ran out of words even to express how I felt, much less what I thought!  In that state of complete bewilderment, I came in here – which I do from time to time – to try and put things in perspective, to explain to myself where I was, and to ask God to help me figure out what I should do or say or think. 

I got nowhere.  Absolutely nowhere.

Until, as I was about to leave, I paused at the rail, just back here, placed both hands on it and said, more or less, “Well, until I get an answer to my request,  I will just have to continue trying my best to love you and my neighbor…”

And at Evensong that night, we sang Hymn #593.

Lord, make us servants of your peace.
Where there is hate, may we sow love.
Where there is hurt, may we forgive,
Where there is strife, may we make one.[10]

That’s the answer.  That’s our call.  That’s our job.

We know, from Stephen’s example, and what we see around us, that yelling at people we disagree with, calling them names, accusing them of crimes against humanity or God, only serves to make things worse

We need to bear in mind the vision Stephen saw – Jesus, standing at the right hand of the Father.  We need to bear in mind the teaching of the apostles – that Jesus was and is the Son of God and Son of Man, through whom all things were created and have their being – including, in case anyone misses the point – each and every one of those whose ideas we find wrong-headed, wicked, or evil.

OUR JOB IS TO MAKE PEACE.

And we do that by listening, and by sharing our own stories, and by living and loving as Jesus lived and loved, even among those who reject us.

It’s not easy.  But it is necessary.  And it is our call.

So we make it our prayer.  And then we just do our best to love God and love neighbor.

Peace is not giving up or giving in – peace is finding common ground, building relationships, sharing stories, sharing lives in kindness, and defending our faith in God – that God loves all creation, and no one is less than; no one is unworthy; no one is left out of God’s grace.

Because:

Dying, we live, and are reborn
through death’s dark night to endless day;
Lord, make us servants of your peace,
to wake at last in heaven’s light.[11]

 

 

[1] Luke 22:69.

[2] Acts 7:56.

[3] Luke 23:46.

[4] Acts 7:59.

[5] Luke 23:24.

[6] Acts 7:60.

[7] Acts 7:51-53.

[8] Senior Minister at Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago, IL

[9] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2; Kindle 16316.

[10] Words: James Quinn (b. 1919), based on prayer att. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). 

[11] Ibid.

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