Teeth Gnashing, Ear Covering, Anxiety Moments

A sermon for Easter 5: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

 

I am in a quandary this morning. Today is mothers’ day. It is also the Sunday we read about St. Stephen being martyred. Stephen is a good man. He is one of a few who are chosen to ensure Greek-speaking Christians got a fair share of daily food distribution. He is far more than a counter clerk or table waiter. Stephen has a powerful Spirit and an eloquent voice. He is not afraid to share the first, with skillful use of the second. His verbal joust with the Freedmen’s synagogue leads to false charges of blasphemy and an appearance before the council. There he there he openly talks about Israel’s history of failure to follow God’s law, naming the Temple authorities, Pharisees, Sadducees, and historical figures all the way back to Moses. His fearless spirit, eloquence, and power stir up such passions that the Jews stone him to death. (Sakenfeld) In addition to Stephen’s personal qualities, he is also a mother’s son. And I know she would be proud of who he was. So, how am I to preach about a son’s death, and pay homage to Mothers’ Day. Maybe by reflecting on how Jesus and the disciples say good-bye; because Stephen left us with more than a story of spirit and strength; Stephen leaves us with the challenge to live life differently (Lewis). To do that we begin by being honest with ourselves, by examining the behaviors of Stephen’s adversaries

We pick up the story in mid-action. After the Stephen is taken to the council, he retells Israel’s history, with an emphasis on their unfaithful behavior. Then he charges them:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52 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. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).

That sent the crowd over the edge. Luke writes “[they] ground their teeth at Stephen.” Grinding teeth is a sign of the anger of those who oppose God’s servants; an example is Psalm 37:12 The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them. Matthew uses the phrase to tell about those excluded from the kingdom. and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42). Here it is an expression of righteous outrage (Wall). This is one of those biblical expressions that does not get proper attention. We tend to envision it as something an actor might do to express a feeling. But it is deeper than that. I know several people who have dental problems because they grind their teeth. The causes can an abnormal bite, missing or crooked teeth, a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea; but it can also be caused by stress and anxiety (WebMD). I’m not casting any judgments, but stress and anxiety can be related to stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth you just do not want to face. I suspect people’s habit of clenching their teeth as a physical expression of an extreme effort to control anger qualifies for biblically grinding teeth.

A bit later we hear they cover their “uncircumcised ears” referring to a stubbornness that prevents the council from hearing the true word of God Stephen spoke (Sakenfeld). When you think about it, they have doubled down, by covering their ears so they cannot hear, with ears that are already unable to hear the truth.

This is another expression that reveals common behaviors. Our kids could never hear us call them unless it involved something they were excited about. Angie tells me I never hear her unless she is saying “dinner is ready.” You get the idea; we are very good at not hearing what we do not want to know.

We now have two traits to look for in our self-examination: anger expressed in grinding or clenching teeth, and voluntary deafness. I expect all of us can tell at least one story involving us clenching our teeth or choosing not to hear. I am sure all of those stories involve some sort of emotional angst, some deep sorrow or trouble. This raises the uncomfortable possibility that we are not all that different from the mob that stones Stephen. Maybe we are not; but, ~ we can be.

Part of my seminary experience was Clinical Pastoral Education. It is a program where you go to a big hospital, or some large ministry center to learn how to be pastoral. What you do not know go going in is that this is not a skills development experience. CPE, as it is known, is about developing the self-awareness that allows you to identify your physical response to past experiences which provoke an emotional response that gets in the way of your immediate pastoral relationship. For ten or fifteen years of my 23 years in ministry, I have spent some continuing education time exploring Family Systems Theory which puts the same events into a theoretical and practical structure of our family history. The short-hand for all this is getting to know yourself so you can control yourself. Jesus has a similar idea, with a slightly different emphasis.

A point of order here; story order that is. The lectionary is structured in such a way that we are experiencing a flashback. This is not a post-resurrection story from John’s Gospel; this is a pre-crucifixion story. This is the night before. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. He has revealed that one of them will betray him; which introduces all kinds of anxiety. He has told Peter that he will deny him, not once but three times. “Troubled hearts” is very much an understatement. Nonetheless, this is where Jesus starts.

I expect Jesus starts by naming the disciples “troubled hearts” so they could recognize their emotional angst. Jesus did not have ten or fifteen years, and neither did the disciples. Jesus’ next step is to focus on the relationship steps. He and God know each other so well, they are one. Jesus and the disciples know each other very well. Their relationship is so tight that in knowing Jesus they also know God. Jesus is encouraging his disciples, and that includes you ~ and me, to remember their relationship, to keep their belief in him and through that, they are in a relationship with God; not might be, not can be, not will be, but are in a relationship with God ~ right here, right now.

The shorthand for these verses is that the words ‘house’ or ‘dwelling place,’ ‘the way’ and ‘I am’ are all traditional Jewish references to a relationship with God or the revelation of God (O’Day). All of them are inclusive. This means the phrase “No one comes to the Father except through me” is not a road map any more than Thomas’ understanding of “the way” is a road map. It recognizes a particular way of being in a relationship with God, i.e. through Jesus; it does not express an opinion about or exclude, any other relationship with God (O’Day). Jesus’ saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” marks the beginning of a new age, and assures the disciples “nothing, not even death, can separate Jesus and his “own” from God” (O’Day).

One defining characteristic of the God-Jesus relationship is trust. Jesus trusts God enough to die. All this is Jesus’ effort to help the disciples trust God as much as Jesus trusts God; in this particular moment, but also in the moments to come that as we know, will be nearly as anxiety producing. It is also Jesus’ effort to remind us to trust God/Jesus/Spirit in the midst of our teeth gnashing, ear covering, anxiety moments. Jesus is assuring the disciples he is still the way to the peace of God. The rest of the bible story reveals the truth of Jesus’ assurance.

Today, this story is assuring us that Jesus is still the way to the peace that passes all understanding. It is not easy to remember. Which is why we need a faith community to help us remember when worldly affairs drive our anxiety meter to the top. And helping each other is one of the greater works, Jesus assures us we will do. We will help each other, and others, and we can help them because we remember the us-Jesus-God relationship connection is:

  • our strong rock,
  • our castle safe hold,
  • our tower of strength.

Now we flash forward; all the way forward to this very moment. Our world is as troubled as the disciples’ world is troubled, each in its own particular way. Jesus asks the disciples to believe, to trust him just as he trusts God. Through the story, they shepherded we know Christ died. Through their continuing story, we know Christ is risen. Through our mutual trust in the story, we now shepherd we know Christ will come again.

So, do not be afraid, be believing.

 

References

Aymer, Margaret. Commentary on Acts 7:55-60. 14 5 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Bratt, Doug. Easter 5 A Acts 7:55-760. 14 5 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 14 5 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 14:1-14. 14 5 2017.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 14:1-14. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lewis, Karoline. “Dear Working Preacher Saying Goodbye.” 14 5 2017. Working preacher.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Wall, Robert. New interpreter’s Bible The Acts of the Apostles (NIBC) John 21:25. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

WebMD. oral-health/guide/teeth-grinding-bruxism. n.d. 10 5 2017. <http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/teeth-grinding-bruxism#1&gt;.

 

 

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Full of grace and power

A sermon for Christmas 1

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147
and Acts 6 & 7

When it appeared the time between writing a Christmas sermon, and the 1st Sunday after Christmas sermon was rapidly collapsing, I thought I’d just borrow the core from a previous year’s sermon. It turns out I haven’t preached the 1st Sunday after Christmas very much. Most often, I had taken the week after Christmas off, as we visited one family or another. Okay, I’ll borrow the core of a previous St Stephen’s sermon. There was one, and you have heard it. So, here we are.

Once again, after reading, and prayerful cogitation, not to be confused with a nap, the divine muse offered an idea. Acts refers to Stephen as full of grace and power (Acts 6:5). The prologue to John describes a man sent from God, who is not the light but testifies to the light (John 1:6). And to those who receive and believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God (John 1:12). And a bit later:  we have received grace upon grace, … grace and truth (John 1:16, 17). A life, known for an eloquent defense of the Gospel, grace, and power, resonates with John’s description of one who testifies to the light being full of grace and truth. Stephen’s life resonates with John.

You know something of Stephen; at least that his last name “is not Spielberg or King” (Johnson). You know there was a dispute in the early church about the fair distribution of food and that Stephen is among the seven chosen to resolve the problem. You know Stephen is martyred. You may not know why.

In addition to waiting tables, Stephen is a powerful preacher, healer, etc. He gets into a conflict with a Synagogue of Freedmen; Jews who have returned from Roman slavery in the dispersed Jewish community.  They are unable to overcome his teaching and preaching, about how to be faithful toward God (Gavenat and Petersen). They didn’t like it, so they charge him with blasphemy and drag him before the council. Sound familiar?

In defending himself, Stephen recites a salvation history, not unlike what we hear in the Great Easter Vigil (Ryan). He talks about the promise God makes Abraham and the covenant that follows. He covers Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt, and the Jacob’s family moving to Egypt. Then moves on to Moses, and the gift freedom given the Hebrews. And then their rebellion, including the whole golden calf incident; and drawing from Amos, a lesser known offense, of worshiping Moloch and Remphan (Amos 5:25-27) (Copeland Acts 7). He finishes with a history of the Tabernacles, the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem; concluding that God does not dwell in anything made of human hands. And having gone this far in disturbing his accusers, he charges them of behaving like their Jewish forefathers, in resisting the Holy Spirit, and killing prophets. Horrifically enraged, the Freedmen drag Stephen out of the city, and stone him to death. In the process, Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God, offers his life to Jesus, and asks forgiveness for his persecutors. Sound familiar? By the way, he is loving buried by devout men lamenting his death (Acts 8:2).

There is a strong similarity between Stephen’s life described in Acts, and Jesus’ life described in the Gospels. But what I’m curious about is the similarity with John the Baptist as a witness to the light. Both are exemplary disciples, whose lives we tend to put up on a pedestal, as far beyond what we might accomplish. This line between the extraordinary and ordinary is not helpful; and in truth, it runs against our lives as incarnate people, as baptized people (Johnson). Gavenat and Petersen note we cannot serve the word and not serve at table. The grace that enables Stephen’s eloquence inspires his table service, feeding the widows of his community.

Living a life, that follows Jesus is a generally accepted model, even if often shunned as impossible. And while our lives may not match Jesus’ in the dozen or so points that Stephen’s may, we can, in our own way, be servant leaders, we can, within our own calling, be full of the Sprit, we can, within our own gifts, show signs, and wonders. By the way ‘wonders’ is not about the miraculous, or supernatural, it’s about the depth of care we demonstrate in doing something for another who is in a difficult circumstance. And even if we don’t perceive an ability to do much, we can change our behavior for the better in the parlance of Stephen’s story, we can stop throwing stones. As hard as it is to confess, we throw stones more frequently than we think. More often than not we throw stones that are words of hate, words of disapproval, or words of judgment (Ryan).

In these remaining ten days of Christmas, I pray we take the time to prayerfully discern:  how we are incarnate, how we live in the Divine Light, how we receive grace and truth, and how we share them in:  healing the broken hearted, binding wounds, lifting the lowly, providing refuge, or serving at the table of the other. May the incarnate light shine through our lives, on the lives of family, friends ~ and Freedmen.

 


 

References

Copeland, Mark. Bible Study Guides. n.d. <http://executableoutlines&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Johnson, Edwin. “Confusing The Sacred & The Profane, Christmas 1(C) – 2015.” 27 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

Ryan, Linda. Speaking to the Soul: Why Wenceslaus went out that day…. 27 12 2015. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

A sermon for Christmas 1

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

Shiloh is where Joshua and the Hebrews setup camp after entering the Promised Land. It was the home of the Tent of Meeting, where the Ark was kept throughout Joshua’s reign, and through the Judges, until they lost the Ark in an effort to use it as a weapon. Shiloh was a seat of governance; a place of meetings for the Tribes; and Eli’s and later Samuel’s home. There is some indication a structure was built to replace the Tent. Shiloh was likely destroyed by the Philistines; archaeological evidence point to something like 1050 BCE. It’s destruction made a lasting impression in the peoples’ minds; so much so that it was used a reference by the Psalmist, Jeremiah, and an occasional prophet. It is clear that Shiloh was once the seat of Israel’s power and their connection to God. It was completely destroyed. [i] Nonetheless, God continued to be present to Israel, and the ministry of faithful prophets, priests and Kings continued after Shiloh’s destruction.

Thursday I blogged about Jehoikim’s court’s response to Jeremiah’s prophecy that God will make his house like Shiloh; suffice it to say they were not happy. My point was that Jeremiah does not back down, doesn’t seek safety, doesn’t try and negotiate his way out. Jeremiah trusts in God. I believe that Jeremiah drew inspiration for his strength from Proverbs (8:22 ff) (appointed for Friday’s Daily Office) which speaks to Wisdom’s part in creation; her delight in humanity; how those who listen to her find life and divine favor, and those who don’t find injury and death. Thursday was Stephen’s day, when we, if it weren’t the day after Christmas, observe his faithfulness, and his martyrdom. I believe he drew strength from Jeremiah’s example, from Wisdom, and from likely conversation with John, who wrote the Gospel whose prologue we heard this morning. John is among the disciples whom anointed Stephen.

The language of John’s prologue is similar to Proverbs 8:22, in its reference to creation, and relationship to God. We all know ‘The Word’ in John comes to be the incarnate Jesus. I believe Wisdom is an older story of the same divine manifestation, in other words Wisdom comes to be the incarnate Jesus. I also believe that the Church is the continuing incarnation of Wisdom and The Word. So while both speak to a particular fully human manifestation in Jesus of Nazareth, they equally refer to his continuing ministry of which we as Church are stewards. Both Jeremiah and Stephen, are exemplars of our calling to be stewards of The Ministry: Wisdom’s The Word’s and Jesus’.

Wisdom and the Bible also referred to as the word, as literary works tell the story of God’s active presence in the midst of creation in the middle of people’s lives. Wisdom and The Word as a manifestation of God are God’s active presence in the midst of creation in the middle of people’s lives. Ministry is the trick of using one to draw people to the other. Ministry is using Wisdom and John, or what-ever applicable part of scripture, to draw people to the presence of  God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. That’s the work Jeremiah and Stephen did so well, not necessarily by the results: Jehoikim’s house is destroyed, and Stephen dies, but how they did their work, in unabated faith and trust, in a promise they could not see but nonetheless believed. That is the road ahead in 2014 and beyond.

Beginning next week our service schedule changes. We will gather to celebrate Eucharist at 9:00 am, and then share fellowship and engage in faith forming discussion, previously known as adult Sunday School. We will do so on the 1st, 2nd, 4th and occasional 5th Sunday. On the 3rd, St. Stephen’s will offer Morning Prayers. Your vestry has worked hard to work out this new arrangement; it is a bold act. And they will be the first to tell you it’s not about an extra 30 minutes sleep Sunday morning. Not at all. This is an opportunity  to follow our Parton, St. Stephen, and not worry about the lurking fear of Shiloh, but to boldly love and share the Word, or Wisdom, or God, or the Holy Spirit, or Jesus , or however you encounter the Divine presence.

I know folks who should be with us. I suspect you know more than I do. So now you have an opportunity to invite them, to be as persistent as the widow seeking justice and as gentle as Jesus reply Come and see. We also have an opportunity to discern how to increase our inviting families of any configuration to Friday Families.

And as any late night, or early morning commercial, there is more. The first is a vision I’ve named Brewing Faith. The vision is to establish a place where two or three times a week, once in the morning, at mid-day and/or in the evening people will be invited to gather over coffee or tea, or other brew and talk about the light the word and everyday life. Everyone of any faith persuasion, including those who are not quite sure, and those who really don’t buy this stuff, is invited. The setting is intended to invite conversation, to shine the light to share the word of Old Testament Wisdom, and the incarnate Jesus.

The 2nd vision I have to share is a longer term calling, I’ve come to call Stephen’s House. As I have shared with your vestry, it honors our patron saint, it builds on the ancient custom of house church, and the ancient custom of cathedral weekday community space; did you know the naves of Cathedrals were community market places, something akin to farmers’ markets, only with more variety. However, as with every good faithful discernment it begins by us faithfully asking: How is God calling us:  to share the light? to share the Word? And then we ask, Does this facility enable or hinder that ministry?

Yes, it is scary stuff, it pushes the recessed fear of Shiloh almost into the foreground. However, Jeremiah’s threat notwithstanding, there is a light-side to Shiloh’s story. Yes, it is completely destroyed. But the ministry of God is not. The people of Israel, at least some of them, remained faithful to God, continued to believe in the divine promise; they trusted in God. Shiloh is gone, God is not. As it is for many, and perhaps all churches, it’s time to set aside the fear of Shiloh; time to trust in the wisdom of the word to trust in the presence of the Word incarnate such that the light of Christ shines forth in your lives as witness to all around you.

It is going to be a different year, my prayer for us is that we allow it to be full of wisdom of the Word and the light of Christ incarnate. AMEN

 


[i] Quick Verse 10; Easton’s Illustrated Dictionary,  Holman Bible Dictionary, Nave’s Topics, International Bible Dictionary

Remembrances on Stephen’s Day

Image

Our home is full e-minders, smart phones, tablets, and computers. But our refrigerator is the place many reminders get put. It is also the where all our seasonal remembrances go. They are not like the e-minders, they are far more important. The cards etc. remind us of those we have long relationships with, even though we do not see them, or may be even communicate with them often. They are no less important in our lives. In some ways the front of our frig is a bit like scripture, in that one of the things scripture does is to remind us of who we are in relationship with, God in Jesus Christ,  and the long history of that relationship. Those historical remembrances are important.

Today is the feast day for St. Stephen. Personally I think he drew the short straw, what chance is there for a regular remembrance of his feast day, the day after Christmas; but no matter, it is when it is, and that not why I am drawn to his remembrance today.  We all know Stephen’s story from Acts. As a result of the stresses of tremendous growth of the primitive church, the Disciples decided to delegate responsibility for distributing alms to seven worthy men. Stephen was selected, and was perhaps the first, to be what we now call Deacons.  The next piece of the story is the results of Stephen’s grace and power. It seems some in the synagogue were jealous of his abilities as well as his good standing, spirit and wisdom, so they effectively plot to put him to death. We know they succeed. But that’s not what got my attention. 

That is just how much Stephen’s behavior follows Jeremiah’s in his conflict with Jehoikim’s court. They get offended when he passes on to them the word that God will make this house like Shiloh… which was destroyed by the Philistines long ago. Not only do they take offense, they pronounce that You shall die! Surrounded by angry dangerous people, Jeremiah does not defend himself, or try to argue the position. He simply says God said this.  And for me, I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. And again mentions that the words are God’s. Stephen acts the same way. He answers the high priest’s questions straight up. When the crowd get enraged, he doesn’t back down, or mitigate his words, he stands in the truth of God in Jesus Christ. And when he is being killed, he does not curse them, he ask Jesus to receive his spirit and to forgive those killing him.

What is so poignant is that both Jeremiah and Stephen trust what Paul will refer to as promises not seen. Even though they cannot see it, that there is not physical proof for it, both trust God, both have faith in God.

We are better off for the trust both Jeremiah and Stephen showed. I’d bet Stephen remembered Jeremiah’s story, and that it inspired him. I know we will be better off if we remember their stories, and allow those remembrances to inspire our lives, our trust in God in Jesus.