Delivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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JARRING AND SHOCKING
I find today’s reading jarring and shocking. Just two weeks out from Easter and the Biblical world feels unfamiliar and dangerous. No more Jesus, Marys, Peter, or temple. Now we have someone named Nicanor and complaining Hellenists and a synagogue of the Freedman. No more of Jesus’ teachings on feeding and healing. Instead we have a story that seems to be saying that death is the model of post-resurrection faithfulness.
How did we get here?
Healing and feeding aren’t gone altogether. In the chapters before Stephen is killed, we hear about the massive growth in the Jesus movement as well as its organization: Participants had to give up all they had to the group and live in community. The named disciples quickly became overloaded with trying to host at God’s table and spread the good news. Wisely, the disciples laid hands on a new group to serve as deacons—the managers of feeding and tending to the poor.
One of the new table servants is Stephen. Interestingly, Stephen does not restrict himself to that role. He, too, left the table to teach in public. That is what gets him in trouble. To a group of rabbis, Stephen reiterates the core stories of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Exodus: how God has worked through Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.
Stephen concludes with a condemnation of those rabbis and teachers for not really understanding what God has meant and meant to do. Angels have spoken to you, he says, and yet you practice our religion only in the most surface of ways. Stephen stands in the company of all Hebrew prophets in this way. They have always been critics of empty faith. But, unlike the prophets, Stephen is then lynched.
What is so jarring or shocking about all of that, you might ask? Jesus was killed and the Christian tradition is full of martyrs. Death hardly seems avoidable, based on precedent. Why would resurrection day change any of that?
ON ITS OWN
It’s not that. I live in this world so I know that resurrection did not stop human violence. What shocks me is what happens as Stephen is being lynched: He prays for the forgiveness of his killers, just as Jesus did. The parallel and message are clear: Closeness to Christ is in the willingness to be murdered for the Word.
Instead of preserving a story of abundant living in the light of resurrection morning, the Acts of the Apostles seem to want to perpetuate the lethality of Good Friday night. Taken on its own, Stephen’s story teaches us that aggressive critique of religious establishments to the point of being killed is the point of resurrection day.
The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
MANY TO ONE
We have four Gospels—four expressions of Jesus’ story and its meanings—that do not agree in detail, tenor, or theology. Just like the Hebrew Bible that precedes it. Genesis begins with two different theologies of creation. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, God prevents infanticide. In the case of Jepthah and his daughter, God remains silent. King David is a much more appealing character in the books of Chronicles than in the Samuels.
The bulk of our scriptural tradition is less concerned with consistency than in dealing with life and faith’s real contradictions. In fact, to argue and question and re-tell is part of seeking God Biblically and faithfully.
But after resurrection, that all changes. This version of the Bible retains only one account describing life in response to resurrection. (Paul’s letters are not accounts—they are directives.) That is a drastic theological statement on the part of the canonizing bodies, the groups of men that established the list of books to be included here.
How can one account of the disciples and discipleship be sufficient for understanding the days after resurrection, when the same cannot be said for the days before?
As a church, we have a strong investment in multi-vocality.
It is our practice of local witness and national relationship that has allowed us to remain united despite disagreement over the ordination of women, African Americans, queer people, and so much more. We respect other UCC congregations that are not “Just Peace” like us because we believe we are stronger for learning from our differences. If Jesus can tell the story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of Luke but not in the others, then we can hold together our diverse witnesses to faith as an act of faith.
But the stakes of multi-vocality are higher than denominational health. It is, I believe, an issue of life or death.
It is dangerous to proclaim there is only one way. It is dangerous to say there is only one way to be a Christian. It is dangerous to say there is only one way to be an American. It is dangerous because singularity incites lynching. That is the message of Stephen’s death, for me.
Stephen’s is a dangerous example and a wasteful one: He lost his life because he prioritized his singular interpretation of scripture over the doing of faith. Yes, he may have shown how seriously we need to take our faith, but he did so in a way that made dying for the message more important than actually living it—and so helping others live.
We are not a Stephen church. We are a Jesus church intent on helping people live. And our primary tool for that is multi-vocality, which in practice is conversation.
Right after worship today I’m heading to the Fellowship Hall with the lead organizer of AMOS, Liz Hall, and any of you who would like to join us, to decide if our church will participate in a campaign of conversations.
If you’re new to the process, what distinguishes our work through AMOS from traditional protest models of social change, is that we name the stresses in our own lives, research actionable responses, then hold elected or appointed officials accountable for seeing those responses through (in this case school board and city council candidates).
We are not responding to an outside single issue organization. We are nonpartisan. The problems we solve are our own, and we can do that because of the power we build by uniting 10,000 central Iowans across party affiliation, race, class, sexuality, nation of origin, religion, and ability.
The only meaningful legislation enacted in Iowa this session was around mental health funding—which is certainly a nonpartisan issue of life or death—and because of our work through AMOS.
It is true that being faithful to God can get us killed. But that is not the goal. If it were, the stories would have stopped on Good Friday.
In a time as powerfully polarizing as ours, a time of retrenching boundaries and putting up walls, the goal is to lay down ideology in order to lift up actual liberty. The Hellenists and the Nicanors of this new world do not need to be strange to us.
Because, instead of screaming at those who do not want to budge, as Stephen did the priests and teachers (or the contemporary equivalents found in social media), we will build feeding and healing relationships at our table and at Food at First, and public, vocal relationships that are life-transforming at world-redeeming. We will do so in great love for and faithfulness to the living and still-rising Jesus Christ of Easter morning.