TEXTS for Preaching
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen 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.
Excerpt from a speech by The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to stand up because he wants to live a little longer…or he is afraid he will lose his job…he may go on and live until he’s 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.
We die when we refuse to stand up for that which is right. A person dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we are going to stand up right here…letting the world know we are determined to be free.
Gospel of John 14:1-14
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’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? And 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very 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 Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Honestly, I forgot we used this excerpt
from Martin Luther King back in January,
but I thought of it for today as a companion piece
to that reading from Acts about the stoning of Stephen.
This story from Acts has always bothered me.
I once served a “St. Stephen’s” congregation,
and so had to contend with it on a regular basis.
The problem, you see, is that Stephen
was called to be a deacon not a preacher.
The church made a big deal out of him
being the first martyr – after Jesus of course –
but he wasn’t called to preach to people,
which is what got him killed.
Stephen’s mission was to make sure
the many widows and orphans
who were supported by his community
received equal benefits.
His was a service role,
but instead he took it upon himself to preach,
and it was his preaching that got him stoned to death.
Now it seems laughable today,
in the church in the United States of America,
that someone could get killed simply for preaching –
few people take preachers very seriously anymore.
But then we remember
that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a preacher,
and millions of people took him very seriously –
but then he was an organizer as well as preacher.
If a man or woman happens to be 36 years old,
or 23 or 89
or 16 or 48,
and some great truth stands before the door
of his or her life,
some great opportunity to stand up
for that which is right and that which is just,
and he or she refuses to stand up
in order to live a little longer –
or hold onto a reputation,
or maintain a quiet life no one will notice,
or keep the friendship of people who might be offended,
or make a dollar that might be lost,
or suffer humiliating scorn or harassment from peers,
or any number of small but powerful reasons
that could cause our hands to cramp
and our feet to stand still…
Then that person may go on living until eighty
and be wonderfully well known
and greatly respected
and be comfortable and affluent,
but the cessation of breathing
at the end of his or her life,
will be merely the belated announcement
of an earlier death of the spirit.
Oh, Rev. King, you knew us so well
and described us so eloquently.
Here it a naked truth:
There is no secret spiritual wisdom.
Truly, there is no secret spiritual wisdom
hidden for us to find
or waiting to be delivered to us by Yoda,
or suddenly to arrive in a blinding vision.
What there is to know, we know.
The profound and enduring spiritual wisdom
some people spend a lifetime searching for
is already known to us.
BUT, and there is always a catch, isn’t there?
But for whatever reason,
we have a hard time hearing and learning
and remembering the wisdom
that is available to us as a guide to shape our lives.
We have amazing wisdom at our fingertips.
It is ancient wisdom
that millions and millions of others before us
and passed on to us.
It is written in our own lives,
and with poetry
and in Scripture.
It is sung among the music of the ages
and written or told
over and over and over again
in chapels, caves,
ashrams, sweat lodges,
and temples all over the world.
In every dusty waterless place
and every frozen treeless tundra
where human beings eek out a living,
the not-so-secret wisdom is shared.
In today’s excerpt from Rev. King,
and whispering between the lines
of Jesus’ farewell prayer,
is a powerful thread of the filament
weaving a web of wisdom
we work so hard to forget or deny.
It is simply this:
What we are desperate to hold onto
we will lose with all the more cruelty;
and that which we cherish but refuse to clutch,
will flourish even without us.
As frequently warned throughout the gospels,
“Those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for the kingdom,
will save it.”
Or, “what does it profit us
if we gain the whole world
yet forfeit our lives?”
It is the same thing we hear in Rev. King’s refrain:
“the cessation of breathing at the end of his or her life,
will be merely the belated announcement
of an earlier death of the spirit.”
You see, this is something we know
deep in our heart of hearts
where the hard truths we have lived
are stored, even when forgotten.
And we do forget it,
and bury it,
and deny it;
we who are so fretful about loss;
we, who are so prone to grabbing whatever we can get;
we, who are so well trained to clutch.
The understandable fear of loss,
if it guides our lives, will kill us
and as is so often true,
Jesus stands in contrast to our fear.
This excerpt from John’s gospel today
is from the so-called “Farewell Discourse.”
Oddly, as weepy and sorrowful as Jesus gets
at many points on his journey to the cross,
this long, fond farewell
is neither maudlin nor anxious.
He is on the dock
and without hesitation
he chooses to step off the life he has known
onto the boat of his future
without knowing where it will land.
He does not try to straddle
with a foot on both
until he has to jump one way or another.
He steps forward and leaves the other behind.
He is not naive.
He is not Pollyanna.
He is not a pie-in-the-sky preacher
spouting wishful thinking.
Rather, he is rock hard;
a life-toughened muscular prophet of God’s love.
He knows what he is asking of his friends
and he makes no excuses for it.
No more than Rev. King does.
No more than Harriet Tubman did.
No more than any fierce lover of God facing that choice.
They all know what we also know in our heart of hearts:
Clutch and we lose,
release what we have known
in favor of the risk to affirm
where the love of God beckons us,
and we live.
It is not rocket science;
it is not science at all, it is wisdom –
Here is one small example
of how and where you and I face this a choice.
It is an obvious if humble example
of how Christians
in a post-modern or secular culture,
clutch what was
or release it and move forward to what will be –
even if we do not yet know what it will be.
I grew up in a city
and at a time
when the Klu Klux Klan held a night parade
replete with torches and a burning cross.
They had a way and a truth and a life,
and they even had Jesus
(according to them).
Like many if not most of you,
I grew up in a culture in which homosexuals
were openly harassed, humiliated, and beat up.
No one seemed to have a problem with it either.
In fact, some forms of their sexual intimacy
were actually illegal.
In those days, in the culture at large,
we had a way and truth and a life,
and we had Jesus,
(or so we claimed).
I grew up in a church, an Episcopal one,
in which women could cook and wash dishes
but they could not be deacons, priests, or bishops.
You better believe that we had
a way and a truth and a life
and we had Jesus as our own.
All those truths,
so fiercely held onto by so many Christians.
Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life
as long as he is our way, and our truth, and our life.
Truth can be highly over-rated like that –
something with bloody barbs
when we expected sustenance.
Who would ever have thought,
back in those days,
that Jesus would have,
or could have,
changed so doggone much?
When we had the way and the truth and the life,
we had no idea
it was a changing way,
and a slippery truth,
and a temporary life.
I mean, think about it.
We had Thomas Aquinas,
and St. Anselm,
and Richard Hooker, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich.
We had a whole bunch of ecclesiastical councils too,
that declared creeds and doctrines
and the shape and limits of truth.
Almost all of those pronouncements
were once and for all,
and for all time!
God does not change
and truth does not change
and the facts don’t lie,
and we had them all.
But then some quarrelsome people
started asking niggling questions
and those questions began to unravel the whole thing.
That dogma and doctrine, for example,
and even that foundational creed,
was written and voted on well before it was decided,
once and for all,
that actually the sun does NOT orbit the earth
but instead, the earth orbits the sun.
That is like discovering as a grown man or woman
that you have lived all your previous years
standing upside down, and now,
suddenly, everything is right side up!
Even so, you refuse to allow it to change what you see.
That kind of reversal and re-arranging of truth
kept happening over the centuries.
Somewhere toward the second half of the 20th century
we began to get the uneasy feeling
that perhaps we had been looking at the Bible
upside down too.
We began to wonder,
and to actually recognize and see,
that all of our previous interpretations of Scripture
were through a rather narrow and scripted lens.
From the perspective of the late 20th century
we began to understand that our view
of Judaism and Jesus
had been distorted by our
white, male, European Colonialist assumptions.
What happens, we began to wonder,
if we read Isaiah and Luke
and John and Paul
from the perspective of a Salvadoran peasant,
or a South African Zulu living under Apartheid?
Will we hear the same things in what we read?
What happens, we began to ask,
if we listened to the teachings of Jesus
from a Womanist, or 21st century American Feminist perspective?
Will we hear the same things in what we read?
What does it do to our traditional assumptions
regarding what Jesus did and taught,
if we view them from the perspective
of an Egyptian Christian
resisting an authoritarian regime,
instead of an affluent middle class American
living undisturbed by the police
and isolated from poverty?
Well, actually, it changes everything.
What happens to our uniform understanding
of Christian theology
and Biblical scholarship
rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries,
when it is undercut by an almost monthly
calling into question
earlier methods of scholarship and ideas?
What happens when we are told
that the beloved King James Version of the Bible
is actually a pretty bad translation?
It is in those moments
we learn to parse wisdom from mere perspective,
or we retreat into resistance.
It is in climbing out of our own special perspective
and standing in someone else’s perspective for a bit,
that the wisdom woven through Scripture and tradition
begins to make itself known.
Do we hold onto our truth for dear life,
as if it is the only thing that will keep us from drowning
in the brutality of an on-coming tsunami?
Or do we let it go;
hoping against hope
that surrender to the torrent
will reveal a new, deeper, truer wisdom?
That is where we stand in 2017
as we listen again to Jesus’ farewell,
and Martin Luther King’s poignant challenge,
and read what happened to Stephen
when he lost track of his mission.
I have no doubt that you and I face
the challenge of clutch or release
in many arenas of our own lives,
and whenever we face it,
our true life, if not our breath, hangs in the balance.
But as Christians,
and as Trinity Episcopal Church in Geneva, NY,
we face this challenge to our faith as individuals
and as a congregation.
Clutch or release:
hold onto what we have known
or step forward in faith not yet knowing
where the boat is going.
We have the ancient wisdom we need
in order to unclench our fists,
and open our arms
and step into the boat.