Sunday, February 8, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "The Prophet's Lifespan"

Acts 7:48-53

48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in houses built by human hands. As the prophet says, 49 Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. ‘What kind of house will you build for me,’ says the Lord, ‘or where is my resting place? 50 Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?’[l] 51 “You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. 52 Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! 53 You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.” (Common English Bible)

“The Prophet’s Lifespan," Acts 7:48-53

“As One Having Authority: Sermons that Changed the World,” Week Four

The flight attendant had just about had it.  He had personal problems in the background he was dealing with, and he had unresolved mental health concerns to begin with, and an experience with preparing his airplane for departure ended up being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  And so instead of continuing to prepare his outbound flight for takeoff, Steven Slater took the .A. phone, announced that he was completely over this almighty BS he was being subjected to, told JetBlue to go…you know…and then, in the words of what is apparently my favorite cultural reference for sermons, Office Space, he decided to take this job and shove it.  Popping the inflatable emergency slides that you and I are always briefed on at the start of any flight just in case that flight turns into a cruise, he grabbed a couple of beers, slid down the slide, and strode towards his freedom…and notoriety.

Now, today, that act got Steven Slater indicted for criminal mischief and reckless endangerment because, well, flight attendants are there for passenger safety and jumping ship, much by blowing one of the evacuation slides, is rather antithetical to that goal.  But all the way back in 33 or so CE, that act got a particularly devout Christian, also named Stephen, the death penalty.  Yet even if Stephen was going out of his way to piss off his listeners, it did not diminish the vital and sacred truth that he was proclaiming.

This is a sermon series that we are now in the middle of, now that it is February, but we launched it to go along with the new year, and it will take us up to Ash Wednesday a couple of weeks from now.  For a while now, I have wanted to talk to all of you about the meaning and significance of preaching, and this series allows me to do exactly that.  The title for this series comes from the assembled crowd’s reaction to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew says that they were astounded that He taught them “as one having authority,” rather than as one of their temple authorities.  So…how do we teach one another as one having authority?  That is what we will be working on together, and each week for the next five weeks, we will be talking about one of the many significant sermons that are presented in the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount, Stephen’s farewell speech before his martyrdom, Paul’s address to the Areopagus, and last week, Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  We have arrived at this point in the series after a pair of inaugural sermons by Jesus to kick off His own ministry: His sermon on Isaiah from Luke 4, and the previously referenced Sermon on the Mount from Matthew; then, we continue onto another inaugural sermon, this time from chief among Jesus’s disciples, Peter, on the occasion of the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  Today, though, we arrive at an ending sermon, the final words of Stephen’s impassioned defense before the Sanhedrin just prior to being sentenced and stoned to death by them.

And really, considering the penalty for heresy was death by anything ranging from being stretched upon the rack to being burned at the stake for 1,700 years or so of Christian history, maybe we shouldn’t be one to point fingers (I’m trying not to use the “throw stones” idiom here, for obvious reasons.  I do have a modicum of restraint, y’all).  Because at least in this singular respect, Stephen’s own execution is simply, brutally, and barbarically par for the course in the great fabric of human history: we tend to kill off those who disagree most profoundly with us.

Except that Stephen does everything short of demand the Sanhedrin to kill him.  His energetic soliloquy ends here with a series of insults that might not sound like insults to our modern ears, but that would have been extremely offensive to the first century Pharisaic ears of the Sanhedrin.

Stiff necked?  Uncircumcised?  Them’s fightin’ words, bucko.  Circumcision was what physically marked Israelite men as Israelites; it was a part of the covenant with God that stretched all the way back to Joshua and to Moses.  Israel spent its entire history fighting against “the uncircumcised,” be they Philistines or Assyrians, Edomites or Moabites.  By calling his accusers “uncircumcised,” Stephen is calling them enemies of Israel and, ultimately, of God.

But really, though, why shouldn’t they be called that?  A spade is a spade after all, and Stephen is quite right when he asks of the Sanhedrin, “Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass?”  They even killed many of the prophets, like Isaiah, whom tradition says King Manasseh had sawed in half, or Amos, whom one source says was killed by the son of one of his chief opponents, Amaziah.  In this singular way, Stephen is fulfilling one of the great traditions of the Israelite and Judean prophets, namely, having a horrifically short lifespan.

But we cannot focus only on Stephen’s invective, lest we miss the true message he is striving with every ounce of his being to convey here to the Sanhedrin and to us (which makes us a part of the Sanhedrin for the purposes of us being Stephen’s audience, but that frankly is rather appropriate, considering our own tendencies to be legalistic and high and mighty ourselves, each in our own ways).

And that message is, God doesn’t need us to live, God doesn’t need us to build a home; God loves us but God doesn’t need us.  Maybe that sounds a bit harsh on the ears; after all, we all long to be needed, but God was God long before we were created, and God will continue to be God long after we are all gone.  We are the ones dependent on God, not the other way around, which is sometimes how I think we try to frame things or act like things are.

Certainly that was the case for the temple authorities, who presented themselves as God’s mouthpieces, God’s necessary intermediaries to go between the unwashed masses (us) and a silent, invisible God cordoned off in the Holy of Holies deep within the Jerusalem temple.  The Sanhedrin may think God needs them, but the reality is, and will always be, the total opposite.

It is a job hazard endemic and perhaps innate to the clergy: we think that our insights and pronouncements about the divine are indispensable and that clearly, everybody should listen to us.  I’m not like that at all, no sir, but you may know a pastor who is like that.  Like me.  (Yes, I know I just said that I wasn’t like that, I tell myself that to sleep at night.)

But I also think it is something that unfortunately spills over into the laity, the non clergy, as well, where maybe you find yourself in situations or with people where you may act just a tad more right or righteous than you actually are in that moment.  It has the unfortunate tendency of closing off your ears to the voice of another person who maybe is saying something that you really need to hear right then, even if they are saying it while calling you “stiff necked” and “uncircumcised.”  (Unfortunately, I fear the 21st century equivalents of these words would garner a solid R rating, and so I won’t use them here.  Use your imagination.)  It eventually becomes a question of what you are willing to value more highly: your pride or the betterment of God’s kingdom?

The Baptist pastor, evangelist, and Christian professor Tony Campolo had an interesting way of going about this sort of thing.  According to a 2003 profile of him in Christianity Today, Campolo used to begin his speeches in the 1980s by saying something like this: “I have three things I’d like to say today.  First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or of diseases related to malnutrition.  Second, most of you don’t give a shit.  What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

Sometimes we need a little shit talk in our lives.  Sometimes we need a little shock value, even if (as we should) care that overnight, every night, 30,000 children of God leave us permanently for lack of daily bread.  We need a little bit of shock value to get us to care again.

And the church, well, we don't always do that.  Us preachers don't always do that.  Our sermons become tame, then  safe, then, dare I say it, boring.  We've ALL sat through a ridiculously boring sermon, right?  (Maybe it's this sermon.)

Stephen, shit talker that he is, tends to be remembered more for how he died: being the first in a long line of Christian martyrs.  But maybe, just maybe, he should be remembered even more for what he said en route to his death, in speaking truth to power, justice to oppression, and, in the end, forgiveness to evil.  As he died, he cried out, “Father, do not hold this sin against them.”

It is a prayer we long for for ourselves.  May God not hold our sins against us, whether we are the Stephen of Scripture who pissed off the Sanhedrin, or whether we are Stephen of JetBlue who pissed off the five oh.

Thankfully, through the divine mercy revealed through Jesus Christ, we know that God chooses not to.  God has chosen grace.  Time and again, God has chosen grace for us.

Let us choose grace, then, in return.  Grace enough for us, and grace enough for all. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 8, 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment