A Roadmap for Now

The Stoning of St. Stephen

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 22, 2011. The lectionary readings are Acts 7:55-60 , Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10 , and John 14:1-14 .

It seems that Family Radio evangelist Harold Camping was wrong. The world did not end yesterday. We are still here. The red peonies are still blooming in the meditation garden out back. Baccalaureates and graduations are still going on. The beauty, the blessings, and all of the good things we know are still going on today.

The world didn’t end yesterday and that’s good news for most of us, but for some, it might have seemed like a welcome change. If you were out of work yesterday, it probably means you’re still out of work today. If you went to bed hungry, and the world went right on and the sun came up again, then you probably woke up hungry again. If things had come to a close last night, at least it would have taken away disease, warfare, destitution, abuse, and loneliness.

Harold Camping made a mistake in his calculations, but I think he makes a larger mistake, as well. In a radio interview last week, a Methodist minister named Brooks Morton put it well as he explained how, when he was first converted to Christianity, he believed that the end of the world was imminent. He put all of his energy into trying to figure out when the world would end. He put all of his imagination into himself—how he might clean up his act, how he might live a more pure and holy life. But he sees all that differently now.

Now [he says] I’m concerned about the people in my community who are homeless or the people in my community who are not going to have an air conditioning this summer when it gets up over 102 or 101, and the people this winter who, again, will not have coats. I have a much broader view of what God wants the church to do in the world.

It’s a Gospel passage that is often used at funerals, and as such, it gives a word of hope and assurance in the face of grief and uncertainty. But Jesus’ words also work for the day-to-day, the nitty-gritty, and any time and any place where trouble threatens. Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But he doesn’t just say that so that we might have a roadmap to heaven. It’s a roadmap for living, a roadmap that involves a choice, a place, and posse.

“Let not your hearts be troubled” can sound so pious and “stained-glass-like” that we can miss some of the nuance in its meaning. “Don’t let your heart be troubled” suggests that we have a choice in the matter, and that’s good news. We’re not spineless victims when trouble comes. We might not have any power over the situation or the thing, but we can choose how we react. We can choose how we let it get to us. We can choose whether to let it trouble our heart or not.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have the culmination of chapters 6 and 7. Stephen is chosen as the first deacon, someone to coordinate the distribution of food and care for the widows. But the religious leaders of his day don’t like the new arrangement. They feel threatened and plot to do him in. They throw together a mock trial to accuse Stephen of blasphemy. But there, even in the midst of the trial, Stephen makes a choice. He lets himself be emptied, so that the Holy Spirit has room to work. Stephen lets go of his will, his cleverness, his resourcefulness, his connections—and he let’s God take over. And there in the middle of his trial he receives a vision, a vision of heaven opening and God offering welcome and power and love. The mob can’t handle this, and Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the Church’s very first martyr.

Most of us are unlikely to be put in Stephen’s situation, but some of the binds we find ourselves in can seem just as tight, just as hopeless. St. Stephen and countless others have CHOSEN not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God, and to believe that God has a way.

Jesus talks about a place for us. Like Tony sings to Maria in West Side Story, like Carrie Underwood sings today, like Virginia Woolf longed for in her essay—there’s something in us that longs for another place, a better place. But that place is not just physical. It’s not geographic. It’s psychological, it’s intellectual, it’s spiritual. We long for a place where our hearts, souls, and minds are free to grow and develop as God intends, unrestricted by custom or expectation or background or any other thing.

When Jesus says “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he’s not talking public housing. He’s not talking retirement villages in Florida. He’s talking about SPACE, space that has the unique qualities both of being expansive and of being safe. Jesus goes before us to prepare a way, if we follow him, he leads us where we need to be.

When trouble comes, there’s a choice involved (as to how we respond) and there’s a place up ahead (where all becomes clear) but perhaps even more important; in addition to being promised a choice and a place, we also have a posse.

The Urban Dictionary defines posse as “your crew, your homies, a group of friends, people who may or may not have your back.” In Medieval Latin, the posse comitatus meant literally, the “power of the county.” It came to refer to a common law idea of a group of people who were given authority to catch the bad guys. And perhaps the term posse came to life most vividly in Westerns.
But those early apostles were called together as a posse, and given authority by the Holy Spirit. One by one, the disciples ask Jesus where he’s going, how do they get there, what do they do about this or that, and each time, Jesus answers with relationship. You have seen me and known me, you have known God the Father. Believe and we are in you. You have all you need. You have one another. Thomas asks more questions. Philip asks more questions, but later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, they begin to see what Jesus means. They have each other—they have their posse—but it’s a special band of people who’ve got your back, and when they get tired, the Holy Spirit steps in. We’re covered, we’re good to go, we’re protected, strengthened, and enlivened for the mission of God in our world.

Trouble comes, but we have a choice, we have place, and we have a posse. I’m glad the world didn’t end yesterday. Imagine the adventures we might miss. There’ll be trouble lurking—we can count on that—but we have a faith that sustains, no matter what.

W.H. Auden says it so beautifully when he writes in the chorus of his Christmas Oratorio,

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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