5th Sunday After Easter
Psalm 31: 1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14: 1-14
In the name of the + Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
When Pastor Susan asked if I wanted to preach this Sunday, my heart's reaction was swift: wait, what? It's not as if I haven't preached before, but it was mostly during the midweek service where even the worst sermon can be forgiven.
No, Sunday morning is different and the recipe a bit stricter: two cups of entertaining story, a tablespoon of theology and an ounce of good morals, all mixed together with the readings and baked on the fire of the Holy Spirit. Voila, a proper Sunday sermon.
What story could I possibly tell that would link the martyrdom of St Stephen, St Peter's letter, and Jesus' statement that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life? These are not light readings.
Each one of these readings strikes first with questions: why are they so upset with Stephen? What's Peter saying? What can Jesus possibly mean?
If I were following the recipe for a Sunday sermon, it seems that I would be adding much more than a tablespoon of theology, and theology is hard to digest outside of discussions and books. It's no wonder that the Apostles always seem a little confused- they listened to Jesus preach and didn't have the benefit of reading it again a few times and then writing a paper on what Jesus meant.
Sermons, speeches, proclamations. They all demand careful listening in real time. There's no stopping to re-hear the sentence just before this one to catch a missed word or phrase. It's very easy to hear something very different from what the speaker meant. The spoken word seems so error-prone.
But the spoken word is what got Stephen into trouble. See, Stephen spoke with grace and power and truth. He didn't hesitate to tell his persecutors that they were acting just like the people who murdered the prophets before him. He wasn't shy about God and he wasn't shy about telling others about God's wonderful work.
His great crime, though, was that he proclaimed the vision of Christ standing at the right hand of God. His persecutors didn't ask him to repeat himself for fear that they had misheard him- they reacted. They covered their ears, dragged him out of the city, and hit him with rocks until he died.
The spoken word is not for the faint-hearted or the inattentive.
Stephen was condemned to death for his proclamation about Jesus, and yet that wasn't the only word he uttered. He prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit and he also prayed that his persecutors would not have that sin held against them. I wonder where Stephen learned to pray for his murderers. I'm sure that he heard someone explain how important it is to pray for your enemies.
What did his persecutors hear when he prayed for them? Did they get angry? Or did they even hear his prayer on their behalf?
Probably not. They heard his words and reacted violently, so I can't imagine that they'd pay attention to anything else he said.
That's the danger in speaking- will the words I say be heard at all? Will they be misheard? Will they anger or hurt the person I'm speaking with? Will the person listening think I'm crazy? I can only control the words coming out of my mouth, but I can't control how the words will be heard.
I started off this sermon by telling you the anxiety I had just getting started, and now I'm telling you the risks that the preacher faces each time he or she gets into the pulpit. Preaching is dangerous business.
Faced with these risks, what do we do? Do we stop telling the truth? Do we keep from sharing the loving acts of God? We can't. We just can't. Once we've been called out of darkness into God's marvelous light we simply must continue proclaiming and praying. It's in our blood- we're God's people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood. Our baptismal covenant finds a good model in St Stephen- serve the poor and downtrodden, proclaim Christ crucified and risen, and pray for the Church and the world.
During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a frequently used slogan was “Silence Equals Death.” To be silent meant that people would suffer from a deadly disease in despair and isolation. Ending that silence saved many lives by bringing the crisis to light. People had to open their hearts when they saw brothers and sisters dying alone and abandoned from a horrible disease. Of course some people were angry, furious that anyone dared talk openly about it, but we must not be silent in the face of death- especially if it means the death (physical, emotional, or spiritual) of another.
Or what about domestic violence? For so many families, home is not a safe place. Emotional and physical abuse still plague American families, and silence does not help. The abused need to hear that they do not deserve to be hurt- emotionally, mentally or physically. And we must be quick to teach each other that violence is not acceptable. Younger generations especially need to hear and see that no one should be shamed into silence and that our families and churches are places of healing even in the most painful and dark of times.
Today, what proclamation needs to be heard? What truth do we need to share? Who needs to hear the message about Christ, the way, the truth and the life?
In our community of Idaho Falls, is there a burning truth that needs to be preached? Do any suffer and need our voice? What will we do if no one listens- or what will we do if they get mad? What will we do if they judge us for our faith?
In our world many people hear little of Christian preaching other than words of condemnation and judgment. First and foremost we are called to proclaim Good News to the poor, the downtrodden, those who feel so far from God. And what is that Good News? That God loves all people so much that he was willing to live among us and to die for us so that we could be made whole and live in joyful union with him. How many get to hear that life-giving message about Jesus? How many of us have really listened to that message, taken it to heart? We must listen to it so that we can preach it to others. That is part of our call as God's royal priesthood- it is our responsibility, lay and ordained, to proclaim the good news to the world.
No one says preaching is easy. No one says there isn't a risk of saying the wrong thing or saying it in the wrong way. No one says that there isn't a chance that we will be judged. Whatever we say needs to be firmly rooted in the love of God and the grace of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Go, help people to learn of Christ and to love him.
May God always be in our listening, and may God always be in our speaking. AMEN.
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