First Congregational Church
June 12, 2015
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Where do most superheroes live? Cape Town. What position did Bruce Wayne play on his little-league team? He was the bat-boy. What would you find in Superman's bathroom? A Super Bowl. What do you get if you cross the man of steel with a hot vegetable broth? Souperman! I’ve decided that if I could be any super hero, I think I’d be Aluminium Woman and my superpower would be foiling crime.
Seriously, I think it would be really interesting to find out who you revere - historically speaking. Who would you invite to dinner if you could? What is it that draws you to that person? What is their great lesson to you? Go ahead and discuss at the potluck.
This morning’s scripture passage needs some set up, and it goes back to the chapter before today’s - to chapter 6 in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We’ve been looking at this book since May, because we don’t often hear much from it, and it is the best documentation we have for how the early church started. I believe it’s been said that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you won’t know where you’re going, or something like that.
So after Jesus was crucified, died, risen and ascended back to God, the earliest believers were waiting on Jesus’ words, that he would come again. Wanting to be free to follow him wherever Christ took them, many of those early Christians sold all they had, or gave it away, and lived somewhat communally, sharing what they needed. But time passed, and Jesus hadn’t returned, and human nature did what it always does - becomes more human than we necessarily like.
So it happened that the Greek Jews began noticing that their widows - the vulnerable/dispossessed/oppressed - were not being treated like the Hebrew Jews’ widows, not receiving the same daily food. While Jesus' economy constantly sought to gather in the widow, foreigner, and all "the oppressed" into God's household of life (John 14:2), the young church has started to exclude such people from the table.
So the Twelve Disciples got together and appointed seven individuals to deal with the “needs” of the people, so the twelve disciples could concentrate on teaching and preaching. The seven “table waiters” or deacons as they were called, were about providing, taking care of, and distributing the things necessary to sustain life. The first deacons were Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism, and Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, as the Bible says. And life went along just fine for a while.
As we heard last week, some of the other Jewish folks became jealous of the attention and authority these seven individuals received, so they started to bad-mouth them, particularly Stephen, and he got arrested.
When he was charged with his crime and asked what he had to say about it, he gave a beautiful defense that covers the first 53 verses of today’s Acts 7. If you ever need to remember if Moses came before Abraham, or who Jacob’s father was, or any of those big detail things that we all wish we could remember better, check out Acts 7. The writer of Acts, whom we think is Luke, wrote the very first version of Cliff Notes, covering Jewish history. But he did it in a brilliant way: comparing the positive and negative examples of Jewish history, highlighting the thread of faithful followers of God throughout time, including himself as one of the faithful. Which brings us to this morning’s scripture passage.
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Thank you, Michael. Batman and Robin go camping in the desert one day. They find a suitable spot, pitch their tent and soon fall asleep. In the middle of the night, Batman wakes his faithful friend saying, “Robin, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Robin replies, “Why Batman, I see millions of stars.” Batman then asks him, “And what does that tell you?”
Robin is silent for a while while he thinks about this, then he says, “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. And theologically, it’s evidence the Lord is all-powerful and how small and insignificant we are. Meteorologically, it looks as though we’re in for a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Batman?” “Someone has stolen our tent!”
If nothing else, one of the large picture points of Acts is that life wasn’t always so dandy. Still isn’t. But then again, we’re still waiting for Christ’s return, too!
I love the line from the passage that tells about Stephan describing his vision of Christ. “At this they covered their ears, yelling at the top of their voices,” It sort of reminds me of little kids that don’t want to hear that its their bedtime. Or maybe it’s about big kids who don’t want to hear truth. Maybe it’s about (insert your name here), and what you don’t want to hear - what I don’t want to hear.
There is sad irony in this passage in the name Saul, who would later become the great Paul. When he was still Saul, he was against the early Christians as well as Jews who didn’t live up to the letter of Hebrew law. Saul - not to be confused with the Old Testament Saul who lived long before him - would just as soon ostracize a disobedient member of a synagogue as flog a person for believing in Jesus as the Messiah. And while Stephan was being stoned, Saul had coats laid at his feet like Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem. We humans are so good at getting things upside-down.
What’s sad about this passage is that those doing the stoning were the religious leaders, the ones people were to look up to. The people who kill Stephen were neither the local hooligans nor the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to a cross. They were, at least according to Acts, upstanding members of religious communities: regular members of synagogues, elders, religious professionals, priests.
Then there are those pesky stones. We might want to overlook the stones littering the ground around us, which either implicate us or cause us to cry out for deliverance from cycles of violence. But the stones that lie at our feet don’t walk away by themselves.
So Stephan’s Story becomes a good reminder for all of us to pray for religious leaders, even those with whom we disagree, because we’re human, and we make mistakes. Prayers that grievous mistakes and knee-jerk reactions would be toned down and even avoided is a task for all of us.
I think it’s important that we not confuse the part of Stephen’s story that often gets confused. He is, yes, the first Christian martyr. But we do well to remember that the word martyr means “witness.” And if there’s anything we can learn from Stephen, it’s that he was a witness to his last breath.
Scott Bader-Saye made this great point, that ”The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.” And in that point, Stephen’s martyrdom comes not so much from his death, but from his life as he feed and clothed those who struggled to do that on their own.
I don’t know that we will ever see a world where we can live in peace with one another - at least before Jesus returns. But I don’t think that gives us an excuse to stop trying to be kinder, more compassionate, less judgmental and exclusive. We may never bridge the gap between Stephen’s serenity and the unspeakable violence done to him. But our Savior rose from a grave, and so we can rise above our humanity as we bear witness to God.
What’s also good about Stephen’s story is that he shows us how to die with dignity. Even as the council is extinguishing Stephen's life - stone by hideous stone - he continues to dole out life and Grace to those who thought of him as an enemy.
Following in Jesus' footsteps (Lk. 23:34), Stephen uses his final breaths to pray that his death not diminish "life abundant" for his executioners, that their life-crushing thoughts and actions not crush their own lives for all of eternity. His prayer was to save themselves from their own selves. So should we probably pray more often for our own selves.
None of us escape death, and we humans rarely get to choose how we die. But I want to think that we can all give a moment - every so often - to this universal event, not in a maudlin or foreboding manner, but in praying about those who will be with us when we die. For some of us, we may pray for grace in our death, others may pray for dignity for all those there, and for still others, we may pray for their peace. Those are the inheritances that matter, the ones that have potential to last for a very long time.
Stephen’s Story is not one of those happy-go-lucky accounts that make us feel like singing church camp songs. But his story is one that causes church camp songs and good hymns to find their way deeper into our hearts and souls, causing us to change in ways that honor God. For the depth and richness of those who have gone before us, let us pray.
Gracious, Eternal God, thank you for Stephen and his life. Thank you for all those who have gone before us to show us how we might better follow you. Nudge our complacencies to be the witnesses that can make a difference in our world. Help us to see those who need our prayers, and help us to better our prayer for ourselves. For the stones we have thrown this past week, forgive us and heal those who met those rocks. Help us uncover our ears and to stop our screaming, that we might hear the truth, the healing truth you have for all of us. For all those with whom you bless us, all your children say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
June 5, 2015
Third Sunday after Pentecost, Communion Sunday
“Keeping Our Head”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A young girl who was writing a paper for school came to her father and asked, "Dad, what is the difference between anger and exasperation?” The father replied, "It is mostly a matter of degree. Let me show you what I mean.”
With that, the father went to the telephone an dialed a number at random. To the man who answered the phone, he said, "Hello, is Melvin there?” The man answered, "There is no one living here named Melvin. Why don't you learn to look up numbers before you dial them?"
"See," said the father to his daughter. "That man was not a bit happy with our call. He was probably very busy with something, and we annoyed him. Now watch . . .” The father dialed the same number again. "Hello, is Melvin there?" asked the father. "Now look here!" came the heated reply. "You just called this number, and I told you that there is no Melvin here! You've got a lot of nerve calling again!" The receiver was slammed down hard.
The father turned to his daughter and said, "You see, that was anger. Now I'll show you what exasperation means.” He dialed the same number, and a violent voice roared, “HELLO!" The father calmly said, "Hello, this is Melvin. Have there been any calls for me?”
For the very youngest among us, there used to be these things called telephone books where people could look up telephone numbers. But since cell phones, phonebooks are becoming ancient history.
Speaking of ancient history, our scripture passage for this morning digs up some “stuff” that may be a little more obscure to a good many of us. The book of Acts is the history of the church, beginning with the birth day of the church on Pentecost, and on through the days where people sold everything they had, to be ready for Jesus’ return. Since God’s timing is God’s timing, the people continued to live as best they could, trying to be good ambassadors of Christ’s Good News.
For those who don’t know, Frankfort was settled primarily by Lutheran Norwegians. So it would make sense that when those folks built a church, it would be Lutheran and services would be spoken in Norwegian.
In the Jerusalem we mainly know as Jewish, at the time of Acts, there Jewish people who spoke Northern African languages, such as Cyrenian and Egyptian, Jews who spoke Italian and probably a host of other languages. So synagogues were built to accommodate the various languages of the Hebrew people. Just like in our day, back in the days of the apostles, there were liberal and conservative synagogues throughout the city. One that was particularly conservative was called the Synagogue of the Freedman.
8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Thank you, Cheryl. When I first read this passage, I was struck by the political complications of early Christianity. Not to add kindling to the fire, but this political tension - nearly 2,000 years ago, feels, very familiar.
No doubt, it was that hair-standing-on-end feeling that caused me to first see Stephan’s “angelic” face at the end of the passage as one of smug self-satisfaction, rather than a simple filling of the Holy Spirit. That was the moment of the 2x4 between my eyes. Despite trying to rise above that which can drag any of us down, there I was, guilty. But I’m also really sure that it was the Holy Spirit that brought to mind the piece written by Rudyard Kipling.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too: If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies, Or being hated don't give way to hating, And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream---and not make dreams your master; If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same:. If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss: If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much: If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds' worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! Or a woman, my daughter.
Despite all the 180 degree differences in this room at this very moment, the real beauty of this gathering and this place is that we can, for a moment, still our hearts and minds, “keeping our heads”. In this time we have today, unless God makes a cell phone call, we can take a few moments and realize that we sit with friends - even family - and that no matter what is going on around us or in us, because we belong to God and each other. While it may feel like we may be losing our heads, by our coming together, in the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, we are not losing our heads, but re-centering our hearts, minds and souls. In these next moments of preparation, but us lay down our burdens, ask for any forgiveness that is needed, that when we leave this place, people will not see the faces of angels, but the very face of God. So shall we begin.
Let us pray. God of love and sanctuary, we thank you for this day, for this time of clearing our heads and hearts, that we may go back into the world to do what you have need of us. Thank you for loving us so unconditionally, that regardless of how our brains are wired or how our hearts lean, you help us to feel at peace and at one with the world, even if those moments are brief. Help us know how to help those who struggle with keeping their heads and hearts, that we may see the goodness and mercy that follow us - all of us - in all our days. For the calm and serenity of your Spirit, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.