Mothers’ Day and Matters of Death & Life

sermon on Acts7:55-60; 1Pet2:2-10; John14:1-14

 

If your faith is going to get you killed, you might like to anticipate it and know why. That’s just one question of life’s trajectory as followers of Jesus in the surprise our first reading presents.

In Acts, we heard the very end of a story. Not even catch-as-catch-can to pick up in the middle of things, the lectionary drops it, leaving us with a shocked “what-the-heck-caused-that?!” No sooner had Stephen opened his mouth than the mob was dragging him out to stone him to death. It’s violent, and jaw-droppingly, abruptly so. You can’t even avert your attention, it hit so suddenly without the rest of the story.

As it happens, Stephen seemed ready for it, even if we weren’t. Our snippet gave practically no indication of what led to his tragic fate. From this ending, Stephen is identified as the first Christian martyr, usually meaning the first to be killed for following Jesus. Now, if one can evidently be brutally lynched not only for being Jesus but for following Jesus, we might want to back up to figure out why to anticipate that.

Last week, I mentioned how—in spite of their best intentions—the food pantry of the early Christian communists wasn’t running fairly. Chapter 6 of Acts described ethnic discrepancies that meant certain widows weren’t getting their share in the daily distribution. Without explaining too much dynamics, it’s as if German-heritage Lutherans like me neglected responsibility to Scandinavians for somehow considering them inferior or secondary. (Nevermind that—both in Acts and our own history—things continued to spread exponentially past those kind of restrictive confines, since the Holy Spirit always plans beyond the stubborn barriers we erect).

Besides the first problem of dumb injustices of ethnic boundaries, it also turned out that the core group of 11 (or 12) apostles who had been closest to Jesus said they were too busy to worry about the food pantry, saying they had to preach sermons so others needed to be found to staff the pantry.

That’s where Stephen came in, as the central one along with six others hired or commissioned to be deacons. It’s a word literally for “waiter,” for one who serves food. (We’ve continued to use the term for distinctions in church. Last summer at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly it was adopted as the term for official roles other than pastors. Pastors are responsible for Word and Sacrament, while deacons are those officially involved in Word and Service categories of ministry.)

Like that, Stephen is chosen with Philip and five others especially to serve food. But no sooner were they in the role than Stephen wound up a preacher anyway. This pattern is consistent in the book of Acts and is kind of funny. I mentioned in Bible discussion a couple weeks ago that, even though we know this book as “Acts of the Apostles,” it could better be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since she’s constantly undoing the Acts the Apostles have done!

In this case, the apostles said they had to focus on sermons so somebody else should serve food. But Stephen got put on trial and needed to defend himself, and so the guy selected for food service wound up chosen by the Spirit to preach the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. In the chapter after this, another deacon, Philip, ends up fulfilling Jesus’ words about being witnesses to the ends of the earth as he preaches to an Ethiopian eunuch.

So much for the apostles trying to stake out their turf or for Peter’s central place in charge of the church’s hierarchy! We constantly learn that the Holy Spirit isn’t too interested in the center, much less who thinks they’re in charge, but keeps pushing to edges of new beginnings.* Stephen’s sermon proclaimed that humans all too often reject as unpopular how God has chosen to act. As if to prove his point, they kill the messenger.

For the original question of what got Stephen killed, what prompted the unleashing of this aggression against him, a basic answer is that he was trying to take seriously what faith meant in following the God of Jesus.

Maybe more to the point for us, the model isn’t that you should be getting folks so ticked off they want to crush you. Though his words commending his spirit to God and responding to the hatred with a prayer for forgiveness echo the model in Jesus’ own crucifixion, Stephen’s faith isn’t just for the ending. Though we might wonder if we’d be ready to die faithfully, it’s also good to practice long before the end. Stephen is a martyr in the fuller biblical sense, not merely for getting killed, but as a witness, that commending your life into God’s care is the greatest power. The rejection and being driven out by people cannot rupture that relationship, since nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week I happened across an essay from Luther suggesting when frightened or attacked by anything—not just an angry gang—to resist by saying, “No, you’ll not have the last word!…If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.”**

And yet, maybe we need to step back a bit. If you’re not awaiting a moment when a mob will seize you and drag you out of town, if testifying by confronting heresy isn’t really the epitome of what seems to matter about faith, if your main question isn’t really even whether God’s love is stronger than death, if it’s not so much about standing firm in the face of horrible fears for some ultimate ending, then you may instead have questions about getting to the middle of the story.

That pairs with our Gospel reading. In fact, it’s almost directly what Thomas asks and another Philip reiterates, a question not so concerned about the final endpoint but about the meantime, the middle of the story. Thomas says it this way: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way to get there?” It’s tough to arrive at your destination if you don’t even know which roads to take.

But Jesus doesn’t reply with pointers to start those disciples down the right path of living a bit more faithfully. He doesn’t say, “Well, why don’t you try to be nicer to your family? Maybe you should gossip less? Or isn’t it about time you check the list of volunteer opportunities to see where your skills could be helpful?” He doesn’t ask what injustices you’re confronting and certainly doesn’t prompt, “So…how are you doing on your goals and five-year plan?”

In a way, we like those sorts of mileposts to measure progress, though. We might not feel so saintly as Stephen, but certainly must be doing better than the murderous mob. When things aren’t going the direction we’d want, we perversely even like those directional indicators for offering blame, even when it lands back on ourselves for straying from the straight and narrow, or failing to make the improvements we’d intended.

Instead of giving directions, though, Jesus says I AM the way. Now, that’s not as Jesus himself is directions or instructions or measurements of comparison. Neither is it that he is a means to your end, as if he’s the rocketship you climb aboard for a ride to heaven. No, Jesus is saying: don’t try to get elsewhere because I’m already with you.

That’s still not satisfactory for the disciples, though. This other Philip asks for something else: “Show us God and we’ll be satisfied.” Jesus says, that’s what I’ve been showing you this whole time, throughout the story! Don’t go looking for something different, waiting for more spiritual sensations, wandering off after shiny new and improved-ness, expecting you’ll get it all figured out, all mapped out. I bring God’s presence for you, Jesus says. And just after this he says, when I’m not here, you’ll have my Spirit. God always with you! That’s what you need! That’s it.

Yet that brings us even further back. If we aren’t confronting the ultimate end like Stephen, of needing to declare faithfully that our lives are in Jesus’ hands, and if like Thomas and Philip we’ve received the assurance that Jesus is with us even though we’re not sure where we’re headed or how to place our next steps, then that brings us all the way back to the first verse from 1st Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, tasting that the Lord is good.” Like newborn infants, you are nursed and nourished and nurtured and raised by this mothering God’s goodness. Commending your life into God’s care or committing to God’s pathways isn’t something you even need to do because you are carried already and always in God’s arms, sustained by God offering herself for you, from giving you birth, through life, beyond death, to new beginnings.

That’s tenderly wonderful good news, but it also comes with an ongoing awareness: you may wish it were so quick and simple as going down defiantly in a blaze of glory, with a heavenly vision as you’re confidently facing foul villains. But faith isn’t about Stephen’s ending. Even he witnessed that the Holy Spirit continued to abide with him. His life was already and always in Jesus’ hands. Neither, then, is this about changing your path, about needing to reorient your life. I find the term “followers of Jesus” generally helpful for us these days, but that isn’t trying to indicate that you’re following Jesus off elsewhere. He is with you.

Yet for this elusive assurance to be most effective, you probably need constant doses of it. If you’re longing for the pure, spiritual milk like newborn infants, a newborn nurses like eight or a dozen times per day, right? At best, you’re getting communion here and tasting that good gift from God once a week. Not that being away from here removes you from God’s maternal, eternal care or excludes you from God’s embrace. Far from saying that at all. But if you have to wait a week, you’re probably starving, longing, bawling and crying out, or just feeling so faithfully vulnerable, in desire for another feeding of this pure, spiritual milk to fill you with what you need to live, to satisfy your spirit, and revive your growth.

So, to continue to nurse and nurture you for the days ahead, here’s once again the assurance: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.  And why don’t you turn an become surprising preachers for each other. Make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead with those words: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.

* See Justo Gonzalez Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit on these observations

** Luther’s Works, vol43, p128 “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”

 

I believe there are worthwhile reasons Jesus refers to God the Father. But today some of those reasons are offset by Mothers’ Day, which gives us good reason to hear this passage with its very Father-heavy language instead in a motherly way:

The holy gospel according to John.

Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said,] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Mother’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Mother except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Mother also. From now on you do know her and have seen her.”

8Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Mother, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Mother. How can you say, ‘Show us the Mother’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Mother who dwells in me does her works. 11Believe me that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Mother. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Mother may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God within us, for the Word of God among us, thanks be to God.

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What’s to prevent you being part of this story?

5th Sunday of Easter (3May15) Acts8:26-40; 1John4:7-21 John15:1-8

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian official is lively and helpful, but with it, it may be helpful to do a little travelogue, a trip through the book of Acts with a view of the countryside and surroundings.

1

Acts is part 2 of the Gospel of Luke. They’re written by the same author and have similar themes and all. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus. Acts is the next part of the story. Although we call it the Acts of the Apostles and tend to focus on the human characters, the real story and main character in Acts is the Holy Spirit.

2

As the story picks up in the 1st chapter, Jesus is just about to exit the picture. (I love images of the Ascension, which show him exiting and only his feet sticking down.) Jesus is handing off the reins, saying that his followers will share the good news. They’ve been hiding out in Jerusalem since Good Friday and Easter, afraid to take a next step or say peep, but Jesus says that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem and on to the surrounding regions called Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. 3We’ll be coming back more to the “ends of the earth” later on.

For now, it’s interesting to note that Jesus has sent them, has commissioned them, has committed them to spread the news far and wide, so they whole-heartedly decide to hunker back down.

Instead of getting to work, they hold a committee meeting, with the sole purpose of selecting a new member of the committee.

4God forbid they’d share the work among the whole crowd of 120 men and women who were there together. No! They just want to fill one single spot vacated by Judas (who, it says in the story, had used the money he got for betraying Jesus to buy a field and tripped in the field and his guts burst out. Another version says he hanged himself. Thus this weird picture).

5At any rate, Judas isn’t amid the crowd of witnesses eager to talk about Jesus, so they want to fill his place and get their core group back to 12 members.

They have a nice hiring process, with a list of qualifications, a narrowed field of eligible applicants, a good prayer.

6Then, to top it off and make certain they’re doing it right, they cast lots, drawing a name out of the hat.

With all of that careful discernment and pious consideration for getting that 12th disciple into his role, the guy goes on never to be mentioned ever again. Because we turn the page.

7Chapter 1 ends, and chapter 2 of Acts tears off immediately in a new direction, letting us know it wasn’t about keeping an original team of 12.

8Instead, on Pentecost, here comes the Holy Spirit, to blow open those shut doors, and to open those shut mouths, and suddenly instead of 12, the ranks are filled with 3000 witnesses added in one day. That continues to expand exponentially, by leaps and bounds in the coming weeks.

But growth also has uncomfortable downsides.

9The crowds create new problems. See, in this early church as we heard a couple weeks ago, sharing was super important. That was a prime mark of what it meant to be a Christian, to give and receive as any had need. But that’s more difficult with big groups, as we’re also aware in society’s work of caring for those in need. It’s not so simple as sharing the bag of potato chips or tearing your sandwich in half.

10In this case, some people missed out. The only criterion was supposed to be having need, but we also tag on other emotion-filled qualifiers, labeling some as lazy, not meeting the requirements, as cheating the system, abusing the safety net, squandering their resources on other things, as drug addicts, as being too different, not speaking the same language.

You’ll notice just as our society still holds obstructive prejudices, so also then, some of the widows weren’t getting their food. 11The central 12 disciples again enter the picture. Like any good leaders are apt to do when a problem is identified, they listen, carefully weigh possible solutions, and then pass the buck. They say, “don’t trouble us with this. We’ve got more important things to do. Take it up with somebody else.”

So the church chooses deacons, 7 faithful people to serve food, to run the pantry, to make sure everybody was getting what they needed. St. Stephen was the first and foremost in this faithful group. Philip, too. (A side note: it’s wonderful that we continue to embody Stephen’s example of sharing for the hungry. Thank you for your Mountain of Food support!)

12In the story, though, just as things again seemed to be settled and the central committee’s solutions were being implemented and all was proceeding according to plan, of course again at that point the Holy Spirit shows up for a change to new direction.

So the 12 apostles had said, “we’ll take care of the preaching, thank you very much.” The very next thing is that Stephen the waiter, Stephen the food guy, Stephen chosen strictly and solely to hand off things to the hungry, all of a sudden, in defending his faith, gives the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. So much for the 12 being the only preachers.

13We might say Stephen preached a terribly effective sermon that touched an emotional nerve, because they kill him for it. They stone him to death. He is a martyr, the first, bearing witness to his faith and trusting life in the Lord Jesus even into death.

He wasn’t the only one. It says that after his death persecutions spread, so the Christians fled out from Jerusalem. Well, that also meant they were taking the message with them. Even through adversity, the Holy Spirit was still working. So Philip, another non-preacher food guy, winds up taking care of Jesus’ words from chapter 1, about being witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

14See, it says Philip goes to Samaria. Then he’s out on a road to Gaza, which is amid Judea.

15And finally is today’s reading about an Ethiopian official traveling home. He’s headed all the way back to the ends of the earth, the farthest country away from Jerusalem. And he’s going to take this news of Jesus with him.

Besides living far away, one other detail about this Ethiopian is essential, with a really amazing, beautiful outcome. It says he was a eunuch, meaning castrated or unable to have sex. It’s odd that it says he was worshipping in Jerusalem, because Jewish law explicitly forbid somebody with his condition from being in the temple.

16He was legally an outcast. When he asks, “What’s to prevent me from being part of the body of Christ?” the obvious answer, the correct answer should have been, “What prevents you is that your own body is broken and wrong.”

17And yet Philip goes ahead and preaches to him and then baptizes him, incorporating him into the good news of the resurrection and of the body of Christ.

Well, the story of Acts doesn’t stop there. The Holy Spirit has some more surprises up her sleeves, but it’s time for us to ask, “so what?”

Maybe we first can see ourselves in this story with the Ethiopian. We’re far from Jerusalem. We have no birthright to be blessed by God. We by all rights should be excluded from worship—we’re sinners and outcasts and all with our own kinds of brokenness and imperfections, either born that way or inflicted on us. Yet the good news of life in Jesus is for you, too. It will come and find you on your wilderness roads, amid confusions and any place the Holy Spirit has to seek you out. She finds you like six-month-old Evelyn Rose in her baptism this morning, who has done nothing to earn or understand this blessing. But what’s to prevent it? With the abundant life of Jesus and the ever-expanding mission of the Holy Spirit, nothing can prevent it. The good news is, indeed, for you.

And for all. That maybe makes us see ourselves with Philip, as unlikely witnesses to this abounding grace. God’s word still shows up on your lips, even if you don’t claim to be officially chosen for that sort of thing. It comes from baptismal sponsors and parents and grandparents and Mari Mitchell’s English essay this week including a reference to unconditional love and 1st Corinthians 13. It’s in cards the Swenson sisters send, and in all your own ways. It’s the “hymn of all creation,” as we sang in the canticle of praise and about our voices together in the opening hymn. Indeed, the reason we sing hymns is to put the sermon in your mouth. So this work of the Holy Spirit and proclamation of love is on the loose!

Which also corrects and blows open today’s other slightly-too-restrictive Bible readings. In the community of 1st John, the focus seems to have been about looking out for others at church. But the Holy Spirit—who won’t let 12 disciples stay behind locked doors but presses thousands and now billions of us onward and outward to the ends of the earth—must surely be about broader love than just what happens in small church gatherings. This is a bigger family, without bounds or barriers. It’s God’s crazy care on the loose.

18So the Holy Spirit compelled us to speak at advocacy day this week, with the voice of hundreds of Christians and other faiths from our state calling for prison reform and supporting the social safety net and looking out for immigrants, speaking up on behalf of others, those in need in our family.

19We also recognize the expanded care of this family all the way on the other side of the world in the candlelight vigil Confirmation class participated in because of the earthquake in Nepal and in your support and offerings today to help with Lutheran Disaster Response.

20Maybe a notch harder, the Holy Spirit is also ahead of us in Baltimore. She is pressing us beyond our tired old divisions of race and class, obstructions of prejudice and of injustice to see things from a new perspective, to see our whole hurting world as held in the embrace of a rejected God who has holes pierced in his hands and shame on his brow. There’s nothing that will stop the work of this God who keeps chasing after you and spreading the life of Jesus everywhere.

We see this enormous family not only with sisters and brothers who look like us or live near us, not only those endeared to us or beneficial for us, not even only as humans but the whole family of creation, caring for all life. When we pollute and plunder against planetary wellbeing, nevertheless the Holy Spirit breaks in and asks, “What’s to prevent the blessing of waters and the sustenance of life? What’s to prevent the resurrection being made alive in you and shared with all the world? What’s to prevent it? What could possibly stop God’s work and Jesus’ life and this wild Holy Spirit? What could prevent it?” Nothing!

After all, she’s already out preparing the way ahead of you and Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song (ELW #403)

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