Monday, April 19, 2021

Don't Want to Hear It -- a sermon on the stoning of Stephen

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Don’t Want To Hear It

Acts 6.1 - 7.2a, 44-60 (Common English Bible)

18 April 2021, Easter 3, NL3-41

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples several times before being taken up into heaven — Luke records the ascension both at the very end of the gospel and the very beginning of Acts. Then the whole group of the disciples waited in Jerusalem. They continued to worship in the Temple and to gather together, around 120 of them. They chose Matthias to replace Judas, and they spent time in prayer. After several weeks, the Holy Spirit filled the house and sent them out into the streets sharing the good news, and the church began to grow, by the hundreds and thousands. Still this growing community spent their time praying, worshipping, sharing meals, teaching, and healing the sick. They took care of each other, ensuring that no one was in need among them. Some of their healing and teaching activities caught the attention of the authorities, but one member of the council persuaded the rest to leave them be. That’s where we pick up the story in the book of Acts, chapter 6, beginning at verse 1. I am reading from the Common English Bible.


About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service. The Twelve called a meeting of all the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables. Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you. They must be well-respected and endowed by the Spirit with exceptional wisdom. We will put them in charge of this concern. As for us, we will devote ourselves to prayer and the service of proclaiming the word.” This proposal pleased the entire community. They selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. The community presented these seven to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith.

Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose from some who belonged to the so-called Synagogue of Former Slaves. Members from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia entered into debate with Stephen. However, they couldn’t resist the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly enticed some people to claim, “We heard him insult Moses and God.” They stirred up the people, the elders, and the legal experts. They caught Stephen, dragged him away, and brought him before the Jerusalem Council. Before the council, they presented false witnesses who testified, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the Law. In fact, we heard him say that this man Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and alter the customary practices Moses gave us.” Everyone seated in the council stared at Stephen, and they saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.

The high priest asked, “Are these accusations true?”

Stephen responded, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. ….

44“The tent of testimony was with our ancestors in the wilderness. Moses built it just as he had been instructed by the one who spoke to him and according to the pattern he had seen. In time, when they had received the tent, our ancestors carried it with them when, under Joshua’s leadership, they took possession of the land from the nations whom God expelled. This tent remained in the land until the time of David. God approved of David, who asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who actually built a house for God. However, the Most High doesn’t live in houses built by human hands. As the prophet says,

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?

Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?’

“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. 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! You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.”

Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.


Music: Steal Away


The spiritual Steal Away to Jesus was sung by enslaved people in the USA in the 1800s — both as a reminder that the suffering they were enduring now was not the full truth of their story, an affirmation that God cared for them…and also as a call to come to meetings for worship and organising and a message that underground railroad conductors would be waiting during upcoming stormy weather to help people escape. For nearly 200 years it has been a song of faith and of longing for freedom and hope — in this world and the next.

On Friday morning, I woke up to news headlines and social media stories about 13 year old Adam, who had been shot and killed by Chicago police. The police lied and said he had a gun when he did not, and they just released video showing that in fact had his hands in the air just as they had asked. Having seen a similar video of when they killed 17 year old Laquan four years ago — a boy in his last year of high school, also unarmed though they lied and said he had drugs — I knew not to watch this time, as it’s a sight that will never disappear from my memory.

Earlier in the week the headlines said that Minneapolis police had shot and killed 20 year old Daunte, just a few miles away from where another Minneapolis police officer is currently on trial for killing 46 year old George by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes.

So many of these things happen that the responses are fairly predictable. 

Of course African Americans and other people of colour in the US get yet another gut punch, they seem to come every day — reminders that their very existence inspires fear in so many, and that their lives are expendable.

While some white Americans are outraged or saddened or feel detached from the problem, many will claim that if these people would just comply with police, they would be alive. It’s hard to know where to begin with that, since the facts proclaim it to be untrue — George Floyd was handcuffed and face down on the ground, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her own bed, 13 year old Adam had his hands up…and 12 year old Tamir was killed at the playpark before the police even got out of the car to speak to him…and and and. Not to mention that being unable or unwilling to comply, especially in a split second, should not be an immediate death sentence. 

On this side of the Atlantic, white people will read the headline and shake our heads in disbelief at how bad things are over there. The different roots, history, culture, and community understanding of policing make it almost impossible to understand how these things happen. So we’ll be saddened, and confused — especially those of us who live in places where police rarely carry guns. We might comment on how shocking the state of race relations is in the US. And then we’ll move on with our lives until the next incident captures a headline.

Meanwhile, here in our own nation, many people of colour will also be feeling grief and anger and solidarity, and will tell stories of experiencing racism even here where we don’t have so many weapons. They’ll be asking for our attention to our history and to the current realities of living with brown skin in a nation where in everyday conversation “traditional British” means white, and we have a variety of shorthand slurs and stereotypes at the ready for people of Asian descent, where people of colour are suffering more from Covid, and we defend our statues of slave traders more than we stand up for our neighbours.

And then I read this line in Acts: “At this, they shrieked and covered their ears.” 

The people who picked up their stones and threw them until Stephen’s body was battered to death didn’t want to hear what he had to say. And it didn’t matter to them that what others had said about him were lies. They could not deal with the fact that he was a foreigner who had not only turned from his ancestral Judaism to follow Jesus, but he was so charismatic and so obviously full of the Spirit that his very existence frightened them. At least he got the chance to speak first, though — a chance denied to so many today.

Stephen’s powerful teaching and his grace-filled way brought attention — not because he wanted it or sought it, but simply because some people have such gifts that the rest of us are drawn to them. They shine and we gravitate to their peace, their passion, their spirit. But some didn’t approve. Perhaps they were jealous, or maybe they thought he had risen above his station, or maybe even that this immigrant-Jew-turned-Christian-leader was making their lives complicated as Greek-speaking immigrants to Jerusalem. When their lies about him landed him in court, it says that the council could see his face was shining like an angel. You may remember that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai after speaking to God, his face shone as well, and it scared people so much that he wore a veil. The leaders of the council would certainly have remembered that story. Stephen didn’t cover up though, he stood there just as he was, comfortable in his own skin, and faced their accusation that he wanted to change things from the way Moses did them thousands of years ago.

Stephen spoke about the relationship between their common ancestors and God over a hundred generations, and pointed out that things had already changed. After all, during the time of Moses, God lived in a tent and traveled with the people in the wilderness. When David got everyone settled in peace in the land, God denied him his desire to build a permanent Temple. Eventually Solomon did build that Temple, and that was already a significant change from the way Moses did things! From a traveling God who lived close to the ground among the people, to a massive gold-plated temple with different sections for different people where God would live behind many thick stone walls…and then through the changes of the destruction of that Temple, the exile and discovery that God was with them even in a foreign land, then building a new smaller Temple…and on down to where they sat, in that second Temple, now surrounded and infused by trappings of the Roman Empire, discussing whether God could have taken on flesh in Jesus, whom thousands were now following as the Messiah. 

Things had already changed. Stephen was simply inviting the people of God to catch up to what God was already doing. In some ways, it was the macro version of the micro-event that started the chapter, where we heard that the fast-growing church was becoming more diverse and didn’t quite know how to manage everything. They were committed to caring for each other and ensuring that there was no one among them in need — as we talked about in Wine and the Word on YouTube and Facebook on Thursday. But also the leaders all spoke Aramaic and some members spoke only Greek, and that meant that some of the poorer members didn’t have the language or means to speak up for themselves. So new leaders were added, to ensure that everyone would be looked after — Stephen was one of those, called and ordained to minister to people who were being overlooked. And so in the first steps toward an organisational structure, the church tried to follow where God was already at work. 

But the council leaders did not want to hear about how God might be doing things that were different from the way they’d always done it. And they especially did not want to hear that from an immigrant who didn’t even speak their native tongue. Stephen called them “stubborn” and said that they set themselves against the Holy Spirit — they insisted that God could not do a new thing, and even if God did, they weren’t having any part of it.

And they didn’t want to hear this truth about themselves, or about God. They covered their ears and shrieked when he described the beauty of God’s kingdom to them….and they picked up their stones and threw them until he was quiet.

Meanwhile, a young man named Saul, who was also called Paul, held their coats and looked on, silently. Whatever he might have thought inwardly, his silence was approval enough. And he learned from them what was possible, and carried that brutality forward in the next chapter.

What is it that we don’t want to hear? Where might God be moving that we don’t want to follow, so we cling instead to our traditions and insist they can’t be changed — forgetting that they, too, were innovations once? What beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom are we missing out on because there’s no room for it in our systems and structures? And are we covering our ears because we don’t want to hear it…or silencing those stories because they disrupt our comforts…or standing by quietly while people assume we approve of their behaviour?

We don’t have to throw the stones in order to participate in the injustice. After all, someone started by lying about Stephen, and others allowed it, listened to it, shared the gossip. And even the rest of the church community seems to have pulled back, leaving Stephen out on his own — they’re nowhere to be seen in the rest of his story, he stands on his own before the council, only Jesus by his side. And no one stopped the council as they dragged Stephen out of the city. And the witnesses taught the young Saul how to handle those who challenge the old ways.

This is a story that is hard to end with “thanks be to God.” Especially when we continue to enact it, day after day. But there is good news hidden here: that God has no intention of being bound by our ways. Whether we are willing to hear it or not, God is moving beyond the structures and traditions of our churches, and our white supremacy, and our culture and language. And the Spirit is calling and gifting people — us, the Body of Christ — to follow where God is already moving and working, to change those systems that kill. Even when we don’t want to give up our conveniences and privileges, even when we don’t want to hear the harm others have suffered, even when we would rather shake our heads in dismay but not rock the boat. Stephen saw the truth: that Jesus was indeed God’s word made flesh, and his resurrection changed everything, including us…so that we can change the world. We don’t only await our chance to steal away into heaven. God offers liberation from things that bind us here — from enslavement to white supremacy, to vision constrained by nostalgia, to a false peace without justice. As the spiritual says, “I haven’t got long to stay here.” Our neighbours and siblings in Christ haven’t got long…they need us to speak up and to be faithful to God’s call now, before any more lies are told, before any more stones are thrown, before silence kills again. May we be willing to break down those ways and follow Jesus into a new way, sooner rather than later.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Trying to Make Sense of it All

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Trying to Make Sense of It All

Luke 24.13-35, NRSV

11 April 2021, Easter 2, NL3-40

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Have you ever had the experience of trying to figure something out, but you just can’t get everything to make sense? Like you have multiple pieces of information, but they don’t seem to fit together, and no matter how much you obsess about it — or what I call “thinking about things” — it just doesn’t come together into a complete picture. So you keep thinking it over, trying to see if you’re missing a piece, or if there’s something that you thought was right but isn’t, or maybe if you just think in a different order, it’ll all work out. 

Now add in grief and crushed hopes, and that’s where these disciples were, on Easter afternoon. They had a lot of information, but it didn’t make sense. And when someone joined them along their walk and invited them to talk it through out loud, they started their story with past-tense hope. They used to hope. Once they had hoped. Their hopes were dashed, left behind, and all they had was a bunch of disjointed bits that they could not for the life of them figure out.

The stranger on the road listened to them as they wrestled with their confusion — with their “besides all this” and “moreover” and “but” — and then he started the story from the beginning. He talked of God’s work through people and places and events, from the shores of the Red Sea to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and showed how all these seemingly disparate bits fit together as pieces of the larger picture. He invited them to see themselves as part of God’s story — in a way that only the living word made flesh could do. 

Before they knew it, both their journey and the story were at an end — or at least, so it seemed. The two disciples were perhaps feeling a bit less scattered than they had been before. When their companion waved goodbye at their door and stepped off into the twilight, they did what any follower of Jesus would do: they invited him in for an evening meal. They had learned well the lesson of hospitality, as they traveled the countryside two by two, visiting villages with the good news. So they insisted he come in, and together they sat down at the table.

There, around their own kitchen table, with a simple evening meal, their companion picked up the bread and did what the host usually did: he took the bread and said the blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, for you have brought forth bread from the earth.” And he broke it in pieces, and gave it to them, serving them as if it were his own table.

In that moment of broken bread, they remembered. I mean, they re - membered. They put it all back together, and they themselves became whole again as everything fell into place. Their eyes were opened and they recognised him — recognised: to understand something they had known before. They saw Jesus, right there at their own table, being the host. And though they couldn’t understand it all, that moment drew them into a deeper reality that was there all along. They remembered all the other times he had taken bread, blessed and broken it, and given it to them — with the crowd on the hillside and at home after synagogue and in the borrowed upper room. They remembered the story he had told them on the road, and with the pieces of bread in their hands, it all just…clicked. Their eyes were opened, and they recognised him. 

And before they could do or say anything, he vanished from their sight. 

It turned out that neither the journey nor the story had ended. Jesus was alive, but not back, if that makes sense. They wouldn’t be able to grasp onto Jesus and hold him in place and just pick up where they left off before the trauma of losing him. Just a few verses after the end of our reading today, Jesus blesses his disciples and then ascends to heaven, leaving them to do all that he taught them — to teach his word, to heal, to welcome, to challenge injustice, and to take bread, bless and break it, and share it, so that others might also see him. Jesus is alive, and leading us forward into life too — and he left us with the power of the word and the bread together, and that was enough for the disciples. They still didn’t get him back to the way things used to be, but he gave us something we can do anytime to remember and be re-membered: to hear the word and break the bread, and see. Wherever they were, at any table, they could see him. Wherever we are, at any table, we can see him.

We are inundated with more information than we can really make sense of, but the story of God’s love and providing and leading is still there for us to enter into, and it can tie together things we never thought would be part of the same big picture. There are still unexpected companions on our journeys, and there are still people who need inviting in to share a meal. And we still need to share our experiences of seeing God. Because it is in telling the story of God’s saving grace to others that the Body of Christ is able to see the fullness of God’s goodness. It took the women’s story, and Peter’s, and the two disciples who went to Emmaus, all seen together, each in light of the others for the truth to become clear: that Christ is alive, and brings us into new life with him. Not into our old lives, but new life. Jesus may have vanished from their sight, but he is still visible when we make him known. 

When we break bread together, we are re-made, re-membered into the Body of Christ. We are the ones who live as his hands and feet in our community, we are the ones whose voices speak his word. We remember all that he did and said, and by pulling that past story into the present, we help    others experience God today. If we will not act like Christ and share his word, where will people see him?

The first step into new life with Christ is that we must see him — not just a jumble of facts and moments, but a whole story God has been telling from the beginning of time and continuing on today. And we see best in the breaking of bread.

Look at this table. (And when you are at home, look at your table!)

Its familiar contours, that scratch on the leg, that one spot you shouldn’t lean too hard on.

Look at this table.

Everyone has a place here — 

whether we sit at the same spot every time or this is our first visit.

Despite all appearances and expectations,

Christ is the host at this table.

He is the One who tells the stories, 

the One who takes, blesses, breaks, and shares,

the One who knows us better than we know ourselves.

Christ is the host at this table, 

at every table,

and in him all our broken pieces are re-membered into his Body.

So come, take your place at Christ’s table,


be fed,

and your eyes will be opened to recognise him.