May 14, 2017 5th Sunday of Easter Year A The Rev. Anne Abdy Scripture: Acts 7: 55-60; Psalm 31: 1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2: 2-10; John 14: 1-14
How about the readings today, folks! What were the members of the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Worship thinking! This is Mother’s Day. The Good Shepherd Sunday readings would have been a better fit on the day we celebrate all of God’s “mother” creatures, whether two-legged and four-legged ones or great and small. After reading these scriptures I began to wander what were the readings for Father’s Day. Actually, those lessons are a lot more palatable. I looked.
Seriously though. Stephen getting stoned. Philip is not convinced that Jesus is the Son of God despite living at least three years with him and being a constant companion. Then you have the letter from First Peter where we are reminded of our royal priesthood and the expectations for a holy nation set apart from pagan worship as God’s own people to proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. What is a preacher to do? And how on earth does any of it relate to mothers, motherhood, and sisterhood?
On my first pass at these scriptures, I thought about talking about Apostle Stephen’s martyrdom plus add some stories about my experiences of Apartheid South Africa because at the heart of his story is humanity’s dark side alive and well. Then I remembered it was Mother’s Day and death, destruction, oppression, and terror didn’t feel like super warm fuzzy topics that one could cuddle up with on a Sunday morning! Plus, some parishioners have come to me to ask me not to preach on politics. As I alluded to a couple of weeks ago, preachers preach on the Scriptures and living in the early days of the first century Christianity was not an easy task, and that is true of today. This passage about Stephen’s stoning, is especially hard to listen to because that is a reality of so many in the Middle East and across the world who experience brutal executions in 2017! Some would even say the same for the United States and the use of capital punishment by lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. There is even talk of bringing back firing squads and the electric chair! This is 2017 people, 2017! One would think that as a Western Society we would be better informed. Earlier in April I visited with Bishop Michael and parishioners from across the valley to discuss the Palestine and Israeli conflict. I remember saying, “This may be Pollyanna-ish, but can’t we all just get along?” Building walls in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip or anywhere else is not going to solve the problem. Isn’t peace, love, and the care of the poor, widowed, and sick the path of Christian social justice? Can’t we all just get along?
So with my political rant out of the way, I am going to talk about Stephen. He was a Hellenistic Jew and “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” (Acts 6:3). He was not one of the original twelve, but one of seven elected by the apostles to help relieve the burden of “serving tables and caring for the widows.” (Acts 6:1). By his election, he and the other men were the first to do the Christian work and ministry of deacons. The Book of Acts notes that he did more than just wait tables, he preached, and he performed miracles. It is the latter action that led him into conflict with the authorities who accused him of blasphemy. Stephen was not put on trial, but instead an inflamed crowd dragged him out to the city limits and stoned him. These are harsh, harsh words to hear on Mother’s day. The death of a man. Someone’s husband, son, brother, and uncle. The silver lining in this tale is that this event is a pivotal point in the history of Christianity. Scared, the apostles fled and Christianity spread across the ancient Mediterranean lands.
In the moment, of what would be terror for you and me, Stephen looks to the skies and sees Jesus sitting to the right of the Father, just as Jesus had predicted in the gospel saying, “I go to prepare a place for you.” (John14: 2). Stephen’s words expressed in his last breath are not words of fear, but words of comfort. And that’s the message of this passage and the readings today. We are to be comforted knowing that Jesus is going to leave and prepare a place for us at the table. This is also part of the Easter Good News.
Chapter fourteen of John’s Gospel is the beginning of the farewell discourse. This discourse spans across three chapters. The themes are “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:1-31), “Abide in my love” (John 15:1-17), “I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:18-16:4a), and “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:4b-33). The themes are messages of hope, love, and companionship. Jesus says: “I will always be at your side. You may not see me, but I am there.”
I remember a time when in college when I felt truly alone. That feeling of aloneness was so deep and dark that I thought no one cared about me. It was that kind of loneliness that could drive one to suicide. It was 1986 and a time when South Africa was in the middle of a bloody resistance against the Apartheid white supremacist government. Lots of lives were martyred for the cause. I was talking with my dorm counselor when the evening news came on.
The first story was about a riot in downtown Cape Town. As I watch the advancing throng of people, I zero-ed in on a red Toyota Corolla’s license plate. The car was moving ever so slowly ahead of the tank shooting out water to disperse the rock throwing crowd. It read CT 094-572. It was my father’s car. I found out much later that my father was fine. But in that moment of realization, and for the first time in my life, I felt totally alone. Yet, somewhere deep down within me, I knew I was not alone. Despite more dark days to come I knew He had not abandoned me. Largely because of this experience, Jesus became a much larger presence in my life and is my constant companion.
Jesus will not abandon us. This is the Easter Story. We cannot do the work of God without Jesus. “Without the way there is no going [out into the world.] Without the truth there is no knowing. Without the life there is no living.” One place to find life is at communion. We are fed through Jesus’ body and blood which become our spiritual nourishment strengthening and increasing the gift of the supernatural life within us. So we become united with Christ and we are no longer alone because he lives in us and we live in him. It was at communion during those dark lonely desperate months feeling lost and confused that I experienced Christ. I was fed and nurtured.
We can take comfort in the fact that He is preparing the way for us at the right hand of God. This is the reason for the Ascension. And we can take comfort that we are freed from all sin because of Christ’s victory over evil at the Resurrection. We can take comfort that the Saints and our loved ones are, and we in the future, will be united with Him in heaven. Just as God was made man in Jesus, we live into that Christian hope contained in the promise that we will dwell through Him in God. God, the Creator of All, always takes care of his children.
We know that this Holy God has chosen not to be our God without us—now that is love! God the Creator of All promises to love us and to make room for us, to know us and for us to be known by Him. God’s love never ends.
On this day, a day that for some is a day of thanksgiving and gratitude for their mothers, but it is also a day of great sadness and maybe anger because of difficult relationships and lost dreams. On this day and every day may you be comforted knowing that you are not abandoned, that you can abide in God’s love knowing that he chose you, and most importantly, knowing that Jesus went ahead to prepare a home for you of everlasting life in Him.
 Charles Edward Miller, Sunday Preaching: Brief Homilies for the Sundays of the Three Cycles (New York: Alba House, 1997), 50.