A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
May 22, 2011
Wasn’t the joyful gospel proclamation of Stephen so well received by his audience!? We didn’t hear the entire story of Stephen, which begins in chapter 6, but he offers the crowd a sweeping narrative of the Hebrew story, culminating with Jesus standing in heaven at the right hand of God. And then they kill him.
I have a confession to make.
I don’t like this story.
I’m not, as it turns out, a big fan of stoning. It seems like a painful way to die. And at no point in my preparation for ministry, did the presbytery prepare me for that. Yes, I want to proclaim the gospel. But I don’t want you to throw rocks at my head.
But if I look through the gospels, Jesus doesn’t promise an easy road. He says that if you follow him, people will hate you, your family will turn against you. He says that people will be killed for the sake of the gospel. Listen to these verses from the 10th chapter of Matthew’s gospel:
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.
When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Now, while my preaching occasionally gets me in trouble, I’m not so arrogant as to assume that it is the gospel that caused the problem. I worry, most often, that I said something less clearly than I meant to. When people complain about my preaching, I wonder if I misspoke, or if I inserted my own belief in place of the gospel proclamation.
But Jesus does say that it is the gospel itself that will get us reviled and hated and killed.
And, as I look around America, I don’t see that happening. I don’t have people so angry about my gospel proclamation that they lose their minds in anger and start throwing things at me. They rarely grind their teeth at me!
I think I’m supposed to say here that I will try harder next time???
But seriously, in American culture, it is hard to find instances where the proclamation of the gospel getting us in trouble.
While the church may not quite hold the cultural power it did 50 years ago, we are still plenty respectable. I was invited to say a prayer at the beginning of the Boise City Council meeting, as clergy do in the state house, the national capital, and in cities, towns, and counties all across our nation. The authorities aren’t worried about us at all, it seems, inviting us in to the halls of power to invoke the divine blessing on their endeavors.
I see some of you out there thinking, “phew! Glad I’m not the preacher!” But while being a “preacher” is a part of my job title as your pastor, it is also included in your job title as disciple. We are all commanded to proclaim the Good News to the world. This is supposed to be as dangerous and powerful for you as it is for me. Stephen hadn’t been to seminary when they stoned him.
What does it mean for us to proclaim the gospel in a culture that thinks we are endorsing their wishes? Can they even hear us when we mention those 300-and-some pesky verses in Scripture where we’re commanded to take care of the poor? Do they notice Jesus’ commands of non-violence and his preaching of peace? Or has Christianity become so enmeshed with American culture that we hear justification for our own desires, prejudices, and comforts?
What does it look like for us to proclaim a gospel that might just get us killed?
Now, before you go running from the room, let’s look at the rest of our text for today.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.
The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
Saul, who we will later know as the apostle Paul, endorsed and carried out a severe persecution on the church. People are scattered, in hiding. Those who are found are sent to prison.
But it doesn’t stop the disciples from proclaiming the Word. Saul, in his efforts to kill the church by silencing its leaders, actually helped spread the Good News, when the leaders have to flee Jerusalem to get away from him!
What began as Stephen’s testimony spread into a much bigger phenomenon. When Phillip went to Samaria to escape Saul, he healed and he preached and there was much joy in the city.
A text that began with violence and death turns into a text about joy.
And that’s the thing.
When Rosa Parks sat on the bus because she was tired, she was probably able to imagine the violence and the trouble that might have come from that action. But could she have known the joy that came later in her story? While our nation still has much to do in the area of race relations, it is still remarkable to note that just over 50 years after she sat down, our nation elected an African American to be our President. The violence that the Civil Rights protesters faced for proclaiming that God loves us all, regardless of the color of our skin, turned to joy.
I think about the people in the Presbyterian Church, people in this church, who have been working for years so that all people may freely serve the church, regardless of their sexual orientation. Some people have been seeking full inclusion for their children, others for themselves. Whether or not they faced physical violence, they faced violence of the spirit when people told them that they or their children were defective, or less than, or whatever else they had to listen to, often in the name of Christ.
And yet, this past week, our denomination approved an amendment to our Book of Order that will remove restrictions, allowing men and women who are gay and lesbian to serve the church as elders, deacons, and clergy.
What began in anger and violence has led to joy.
And I confess that while I was working actively to bring this change about, I wasn’t sure it would pass here in Boise. Actually, I was quite sure it wouldn’t pass. And yet, we kept working for it. Regardless of the outcome, I believe that proclaiming the gospel truth matters.
Christian proclaimers, like you and like me, have always been involved in speaking the gospel truth in the face of injustice, in defense of the poor, and wherever people need to hear of God’s love. We don’t always see “results” when we do this proclaiming. Sometimes it seems we have no chance of success, so we might as well give up, or leave it for someone else to deal with, someone more qualified, or someone with more courage, or someone with more free time.
But don’t quit.
Had the disciples quit proclaiming after Stephen’s death, we wouldn’t be here today.
All we can do is proclaim where we see God’s love in the world and invite people to see it for themselves. We don’t get to control the outcome. And we’ve been warned that it might not be that easy. But we also know, some day, there will be joy in the city. That, my friends, is why we proclaim. So take heart, and go live into your call to share the Good News with a world who needs to hear it more than ever. Amen.
While I did not directly quote any of them, this sermon benefited greatly from my participation at the 2011 Festival of Homiletics and I would like to thank Tom Long, Walter Brueggemann, Lillian Daniel, David Lose, Mark Hanson, Otis Moss III, Martin Copenhaver, Anna Carter Florence, and Barbara Brown Taylor for their sermons.