Sermon: Sunday, May 22, 2011: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts:  Acts 7:55-60  •  Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16  •  1 Peter 2:2-10  •  John 14:1-14

I want to read you a bit of statement written by Meggen Saka, a Lutheran lay person here in the Metro Chicago Synod and former Chicago Public Schools teacher. She prepared these comments for use at the annual synod assembly coming up in two weeks, at which she’ll be speaking in favor of a memorial calling the church to speak and act to prevent bullying, harassment and related violence. Meggen writes,

I have taught at an alternative high school for the past five and a half years located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. It is a Chicago Public School program that accepts students that have either dropped out or were kicked out by regular CPS neighborhood schools. Typically, alternative high school students are ages 17-21 and have chaotic home lives. Often they live in neighborhoods that are afflicted with extreme violence. Many of my students were gang members, parents or pregnant and/or living in poverty.

Unfortunately, I have witnessed many forms of bullying. My English classroom often was a place where discussions of bullying too place through the pieces of literature we studied. What I have come to learn from my students is that somewhere around age thirteen, survival instincts kick in and adolescence is like a battlefield for self-preservation. Survival often translates as being bigger, badder and stronger than anyone else. Being vulnerable or weak is the worst thing for others to see in you. Naturally, walls are built higher and higher around the individual to protect themselves. When the risk of emotional pain is presented, the only coping mechanism available with these high walls is anger and violence. What I have found is that the bully mentality is not just a sign of intolerance of others’ differences, but also a sign of self-rejection.

42-22012057Meggen goes on from this point to share stories of seven young people she has worked with who suffered bullying at her school because they were perceived to be gang-affiliated, because of their mannerisms, because of their sexuality, because of their national origin, because of their gender presentation. These children know that the old saying is absolutely false. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but name-calling and other forms of bullying hurt just as much.

Sticks and stones, and especially stones, make a startling appearance in the texts for this morning during this season of Easter. As we move toward the end of the fifty day season of Easter, we expect our scriptures and our worship to point us toward ever expanding circles of new life among people and places once left for dead. However, on this morning, we begin with the gruesome account from the book of Acts of the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr.

If you’re trying to remember who Stephen was, don’t be too hard on yourself. He wasn’t one of the twelve apostles, he was one of the seven deacons ordained and appointed by the apostles to care for the poor and the widows in the early church. He makes his first appearance in the sixth chapter of Acts, and in the seventh he is killed. But in between his arrival and his exit, I think we get the portrait of a saint who understood the cost of discipleship and who stood up for the weak and the foreigners, and against the bigoted passions of the crowds.

The first clue that Stephen was caught up in conflicts about diversity come from the very reason for his call. The early church was having difficulty managing the diversity inside itself. The Hellenists, or the members who came from outside Jerusalem in the predominantly Greek-speaking surrounding countries, were complaining that the Hebrew widows in the congregation were getting preferential treatment. The apostles didn’t want to concern themselves with this (you recall their response, “it is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables…” [Acts 6:2b]), so they appoint seven deacons. Stephen is introduced at this point as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” and the scriptures say that “full of grace and power” he “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

Almost immediately, Stephen gets into a conflict with “some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called).” The Freedmen, which is a translation of the Greek “Libertinos,” were former slaves who’d become Roman citizens and had some power and influence in the public sphere in relation to the Jewish faith. Digging a little deeper, it appears that there were different neighborhoods in Jerusalem for people who spoke different languages – one neighborhood for the Jews who spoke Aramaic, another for the Hellenistic Jews, or the ones who spoke Greek. The Libertinos, the Freedmen, had some influence among the Greek-speaking Jews. They’d set up a local chapter of their own religious movement, and weren’t so happy that the early followers of Jesus were finding some success sharing their good news in the same neighborhood. It’s a religious conflict. Aren’t they always?

The Freedmen challenge Stephen in public, trying to debate him into silence, but Stephen – called not as an apostle to preach, but as a deacon to serve – delivers such a powerful sermon that his opponents are silenced. Pride wounded, they begin a slander campaign against Stephen, saying that he has blasphemed against Moses and God, that he has been defaming “this holy place” (referring we suppose to Jerusalem) and the law (meaning the religious law of Israel), and that he has made public claims that Jesus will destroy the place and change the customs of Moses.

The smear tactics work. Stephan is taken to the Sanhedrin and put on trial. After delivering a powerful testimony to the saving power of God at work throughout history, and now in Christ, we arrive at the verses read this morning. Stephen sees that the bullies are coming for him, but having spoken the truth, Stephen has a vision of “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This seems to be an allusion to the heavenly court, where Stephen’s witness is being received by God with favor, in contrast to the earthly court, which has sentenced him to death.

From there, Stephen is taken ou
tside the city and stoned to death, which was the legal practice for those found guilty of the crimes he’d been charged with. Present for this execution is one Saul, who will later have a vision of his own in which Christ appears and asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” But where Stephen receives death by stoning, Saul will receive mercy and forgiveness – because that is the God we serve, one of love and healing, justice and forgiveness.

Which is why it’s so ironic then, that the experience many people when they first encounter Christians is one of fear and anxiety. Passages like the one in our gospel reading for this morning, in which Jesus tells his disciples “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” have been stripped of their context and turned into stones, hurled at non-Christians, or even at Christians who believe differently from one another. Words that were offered among friends as signs of reassurance, that God is always going before us to prepare a place for us, whatever lies ahead, have been twisted into threats and used not only to worry people about the state of their own faith, but to attack others for theirs.

We’ve just lived through one of these moments of anxiety, haven’t we? I’d never heard of Harold Camping before this past week, but I’ve heard of nothing but his apocalyptic predictions – on morning radio, evening news and facebook – for the last few days. Over the last few years, Camping has raised around seventy million dollars by stirring up fear and anxiety among people worried about the end times. Now that his predictions have turned out to be untrue, I suppose we have to wonder how those gifts will be used. But how do you repair the wounds inflicted on people and communities, even entire nations and ethnic groups, who have been told that they are facing something as totalizing as the eternal wrath and condemnation of God because they do not see or hear in Jesus what we have come to know as way, truth and life?

When it comes to the matter of rocks, I think I would prefer it if Christians would steer clear of the use found in the passage from Acts and would build on the image from First Peter,

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

That’s how I wish people outside the church would perceive us – as living stones, stacked on upon another to build safe places, not as dying stones hurled at the world and crushing the life out of one another.

The memorial going before the synod assembly in two weeks reads:

Whereas, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26); and

Whereas, in the ELCA Social Statement on Education (2007) we declared, “the ELCA expects communities of learning and teaching to be safe places. We recognize that school safety is an issue for all students, staff, and teachers. Unfortunately, incidents of bullying, intimidation, and other forms of violence are not unusual. We affirm that personal safety and security are essential for optimal teaching and learning”; and

Whereas, research indicates children with disabilities or special needs are at a higher risk of being bullied than others; and has concluded that bullying around issues of sexual orientation, non-conforming gender behaviors, and dress was the most common form of bullying, second only to issues of appearance (such as body size and disability”; and

Whereas, in the ELCA Social Statement on Sexuality: Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (2009) we declared, “Likewise, it will attend to the particular needs of children and the families of those with actual or perceived differences in sexual orientation or gender identity because they are especially vulnerable to verbal, physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and sexual abuse.”; and

Whereas increased media attention has made us acutely aware of tragic consequences (including youth suicide) if steps are not taken to prevent bullying, harassment, and other related forms of violence; and

Whereas, the voice of the church addressing the intersection of race, economic status, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical ability is a powerful witness to the healing and life affirming Gospel promise,

Be it therefore resolved that the Metropolitan Chicago Synod … memorializes the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Asseembly to encourage, support, and publicize new partnerships in ministry that emerge in our church addressing the prevention of bullying, harassment, and related forms of violence.

Noel Spain, Jessica Spanier and I will be attending synod assembly from St. Luke’s as voting members. Bill and Judi Keippel will be attending as visitors, as all of you are welcome to do as well, representing the synod’s Mission Interpreter program. If you want to learn more about how our synod discusses these issues, talk with them when we return from assembly. Later this summer, Judi and I (and many others) will be representing the Metro Chicago Synod as voting members at the 2011 Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, Florida. There we will take up conversations about the church’s public witness on this and many other issues – taking seriously God’s call for us to represent a chosen race and not a despised one, a royal priesthood and not a rigid one, a holy nation and not a violent one, God’s own people – all of us.

God has declared,

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;

once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet. 2:10)

That is the kind of church I want to belong to, and the kind of world I want to live in. One in which each of us sees ourselves as living stones, creating safe spaces for all God’s children to live and learn, work and play. Houses of worship and banquet halls of plenty, where all are welcome and there is always enough. Houses of mercy.

Please God, let it be so.


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