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What Price Faith?

Easter 5, Common Lectionary Year A

Acts 6: 7-11, 7: 54-60

©2014 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

We are a community of faith known to be on the progressive, questioning end of the Christian spectrum – we make a point each time we welcome new members, to say these words: “ Each of us is on a journey of faith that is as full of questions and doubts as it is of certainties.” We are a congregation which reads Scripture, not as the inerrant Word of God, but rather as the compilation of thousands of years of human testimony to success, and sometimes tragic, ugly failure at living faithfully  in relationship to God, to creation and to one another. So, there will be weeks when we encounter in a text words bright with grace and truth, promise and hope. And there will be weeks when a text is so ugly we want to rip it from the book, declaring it to be utterly devoid of Gospel. This is that week.

However, we won’t rip it out, yet, because there is stark truth in  text of terror, from which we can, if we dare, glean wisdom, and even Gospel. If nothing else, this and other texts like it, hold up a truth-telling mirror not to the goodness of God, but to the brokenness of humanity.

Before I go any further, let me be as clear as I can. I am not preaching this text to applaud, or try to justify the actions of anyone in it. Quite the contrary.   If you’d like to hear a sermon which holds Stephen up as a paragon of martyred virtue, this isn’t it. If you’d like to hear a sermon which condones religiously motivated hate crimes, I won’t give it. Ever.

Nor will I be so naïve as to consign this story to some ancient Biblical past. For you’ve read, or watched, or heard the news this week, this month, this decade, this century.

You know as well as I do that hatred, sanctified by some twisted de-formation of religious conviction, has caused men and women of every faith to lose all reason, all decency, all humanity, and become a murderous mob. I need only say “Crusade” or “Fatwah”, or Boko Haram, or in subtler but no less deadly form, “residential schools” to conjure up more images than our hearts can hold of violence perpetrated in the name of religion. If Scripture records such atrocities, as it does here, let’s not, ever, assume that such human actions mirror the true heart of God. I dare say they make God weep.

And as for Stephen; there is little to be redeemed his actions either.  We met him in chapter 6 as a man known for his ‘exemplary grace’ who becomes one of the first servant leaders of the new Jesus community of Jerusalem, and that is all good. But what you didn’t hear in the first part of Chapter 7 is the most finger-pointing haranguing accusatory sermon imaginable. (Flippantly, as a teacher of preaching, I’d say he failed spectacularly as a preacher, even if the punishment exacted is altogether too high a price to pay for proclaiming his convictions.)

[As a Bible study aside: we do need to realize that even if the historical Stephen was stoned to death, and that’s likely, Luke the writer is filling in the pious details, making Stephen into  a ‘model martyr’ in part to make (failed) sense of the horror of religious violence.]

But, if I can step around the Christian tendency to valorize these holy martyrs, there’s a warning here for us, if we can bare to see it: we see in Stephen how dangerously easy it is for any of the best of us to go from “exemplary grace” in our faithful living, to a strident certainty that turns the Dream of God into a nightmare.

Let me bring this close to home; it is all too easy  -for me at least – to condemn, and throw verbal stones at  “those fundamentalists.” (I feel justified when I see religion being bandied about as the justification for homophobia, racism, sexism, guilt). Indeed there’s an ugly ‘holier than thou’ righteousness among progressives, as well as fundamentalists, in the Christian family.

If for no other reason than this text being a stark warning of the too- high- price paid on both sides of any faith divide, then this ugly text might actually contain for us some glimmer of redeeming grace.

So then, what do we do? What price will we pay for the faith that draws us here to this community, in search of and support of  a place that lives its logo to feed spirits, fulfill a life of value and purpose, and create a place of safe welcome?

For surely we know enough about God, and God’s Dream to know that killing words and killing stones have no place in the living of the Risen Life. We are not called to murder, nor to martyrdom as disciples of Jesus, as children of the Living God. We are called to live.

I am almost speechless in my conviction that we will not as a community go to our deaths cajoling people with our partial vision of God. Nor will we willfully do anything that is death-dealing to any creature. But rather that we will spend our lives defending the God-given right of all to live and to belong.

Let Desmond Tutu finish this sermon for me, with words written in his latest book[1]. He writes:

“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, transgendered, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

That’s the price and the promise of our faith. Amen.

[1] Made for Goodness (HarperOne, 2010)

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