Sermon for Easter 6 2020

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

It will be no surprise to you that I’ve never been of the opinion that all religions were just paths up the same mountain, because I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is not only the fullest expression we’ve ever seen of godliness, but that he was and is none other than God (full stop). But Paul’s sermon to the Athenians strikes me as providing an important caveat to this view.

“Men of Athens,” he says, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Of course, he could be speaking ironically, and no doubt “religious” meant something very different in Greek- and in English before the nineteenth century, for that matter. Specifically, the definition of “religion” had to do with one’s practice of piety rather than any particular set of doctrines and practices which constitute distinct faiths; this is, I believe, an important distinction.

But then Paul uses several Greek words which should give us pause. They’re all translated imprecisely in our English versions, a testament to the fact that the act of translation is always an act of interpretation. “[I] looked carefully the objects of your worship” the NRSV says, but in Greek it’s “I beheld your σεβεσματα” that is “devotions”. The NRSV says “what therefore you worship as unknown”, in Greek is “what ignorantly you ευσεβειτε” or “are being devout to”. While the NRSV gives a weak translation “served by human hands”, the Greek uses a word with stronger religious significance: “θεραπευται” meaning something like “attending to”.

Devotion and attendance. These are the actions of sincere worship. This is the language that would have been used for priests of God’s temple in Jerusalem, and they are still used (if, sadly, less often) to describe what we do in church. They are words implying a response of love and commitment and genuine conviction. I try, sometimes, to model a language of worship. It is not preciousness but precision; not meaningless grandiloquence (I hope) but appropriate care for that which is, I believe, sacred. So, we don’t just put on a church service, but we devote ourselves to prayer. We don’t just “serve Communion,” but we attend to the holy sacrifice.

Now the problem with the Athenians was that their love and commitment and conviction (their devotion and attendance) was misplaced. They were devoted to objects unworthy of devotion; they attended to pagan idols rather than to the ministrations offered to the God of Israel. They are not being let off the hook. Nonetheless, Paul’s language acknowledges what might be fairly called sincere religion. We can see in the Athenians this nascent desire to reach out to what is greater and truer than their pedestrian lives. In other words, they have an inherent disposition to religion, and it’s more a matter of directing that devotion and attendance to its rightful recipient. Paul even goes so far as to suggest that some have felt inklings of this truth before having heard the Christian Gospel: “Even some of your poets have said, ‘For we indeed are his offspring.’”

The new critics of religious studies with whom I became enamored as an undergraduate suggested that “religion” was not a category into which we could place the various paganisms outside Christendom, and this was the rather extreme position I held for some time in my more callow youth. What Paul suggests is quite the opposite. The seeds of faith, of true religion, may well be innate. It gets to what that good Anglican priest John Wesley called prevenient grace. We are disposed to worship the one true God and to worship Him rightly; we just need to be told about the Way.

This is good news for we who are called to labor in the fields of the Lord. The fields are more ready for harvest than we might have imagined, because God has given all His children a keen disposition to seek Him out even before they know his name. When we, like Saint Paul, share the hope that is in us, when we point to the statue of the unnamed god and say “I know his name, it is the blessed name of Jesus, which has been exalted over every name”, then we may well be surprised to find an audience open to that very possibility. We may well find an audience that has been eagerly waiting for that Good News without even having realized it.

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

Sermon for Easter 5 2020 by Dcn. Brian Bechtel

Last Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday, and if you tuned in for the sermon last week, you may recall that I ended in on a bit of an unusual note.  Our text last week was not calling us to any particular action, or to change our lives in any particular way, but to seek the voice of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who loves us, and who calls us home.  There are times in our lives when we are called simply to contemplate God’s love for us; to spend time in prayer, silence, and holy reading.  We know that Jesus began his ministry by journeying into the wilderness to engage in a personal spiritual quest, and to do inner battle with Satan.  But prayer alone, without any engagement with the world can become navel gazing, or ritualism.  Prayer and contemplation alone, without engagement with the world God created and loves, prayer without any attempt to love one’s neighbor more fully, prayer untethered to community would be prayer to some God other than the Holy Trinity.  Last week our lectionary allowed us to take time, that time that is so necessary for each of us, to reflect and draw close to the Heart of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, not for any other purpose, but as an end in itself.  This week we have the follow up, the “so what,” the life example of a life changed on account of becoming a disciple of Jesus.  So today we’re going to take a look at St. Stephen, an example of someone who’s heart was on fire with the love of God – but first, a little background and context.

            In our text from the book of Acts today, we heard about St. Stephen, one of the original seven deacons ordained by the apostles, and the first Christian martyr.  We don’t know much of the details of his life prior to becoming a deacon.  We only know that the apostles deemed him “a man of good standing, full of the spirit of wisdom.”  Now the reason the apostles commissioned deacons was because there was a dispute in the Christian community.  The early Christians shared possessions and took care of each other.  Widows were especially vulnerable and without much societal protection in those days, and so if you were a widow in the Church, the other members of the faithful would make sure you had food and what you needed to get by.  But the Greek Christians, the Hellenists, complained that their widows were being neglected, and that all the best food was going to the widows of the Jewish Christians.  (Remember that this was at a time when Christians still worshipped in the synagogues).  The apostles needed to dedicate themselves to prayer, preaching, teaching, and spreading the Good News of the Gospel.  And that is why deacons, including Stephen, were commissioned!

            All Christians are called to participate in the mission of the Church; which is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ.  But different people have are called to different roles.  The apostles cared very much about the food disputes, and they wanted to make sure all the widows and everyone who was in need in their community had their needs met.  But they knew that they had a more particular vocation, one given to them by the risen Christ and by the Holy Spirit.  They understood that God had given them the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel, teaching, leading the newly formed Christian community, and interceding on their behalf in prayer.  They found other people, people with particular gifts, to carry out the task of helping to distribute alms, and making sure that needs of the poorest were met.  There is no opposition between them; they are two sides of the same coin.  Prayer, teaching, and preaching on the one hand, service, justice, and fellowship on the other.  Each of us will have a time when we are called to participate in both of these aspects of Christian discipleship.  But, as we see in this reading from Acts, there are people who, from the earliest days of the church, have been called by God, and affirmed by the people in their call to a particular vocation within the church.  Stephen, as a deacon, was raised up for the role of service.  If all Christians are the servants of God, then deacons are the servants of the servants of God!

            Now I have spoken before about the “both/and” nature of our Christian scriptures.  That, in many cases, they are both, A, grounded in a historical reality, and B, they have symbolic meanings.  This applies here in this case too.  I believe that Jesus really lived and walked the earth, and they his apostles were real people, and that they did, really and truly lay their hands on the seven deacons and commission them to serve the needs of those most in need in their communities.  At the same time, the story of St. Stephen is written in a way that we could put ourselves in his shoes.  By leaving the details about his life blank, and only telling us that he was of good repute and full of the spirit of wisdom, Luke is encouraging us to see our own potential when we read this story of Stephen.

            We are all called to imitate Christ, but that is admittedly a rather tall order.  In order to help each of us, and to inspire each of us, the Church has raised up for us in every age saints, those people whose life and witness are especially Christlike.  And Luke, who is the author of the book of acts, writes the story of Stephen in a way to make the parallels to Christ readily apparent.  Jesus did performed miracles and signs.  St. Stephen also did great signs and wonders among the people.  Jesus was falsely accused by the religious authorities and put in trial, and so was St. Stephen.  Jesus was condemned to death, and so was St. Stephen.  Jesus asked his Father to forgive those who crucified him, and likewise St. Stephen asked that God not hold their sin against them. 

            Of the few details that we do know about Stephen, he is Christlike in every way.  Stephen is perhaps the first one to fulfill the line that Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel text, that His followers will do even greater works than He will, because he is going to His Father.  I remember as a younger person always thinking that was such an odd passage.  Jesus is truly God and truly human.  How could something that a regular person does be greater than something that Jesus does?  Now of course it’s important to keep in mind that Jesus was saying this before his death and resurrection, so he was not saying that his followers will do something greater than this central act in the drama of salvation history.  But in regard to healings or other deeds of power that his disciples had witnessed at the time, Jesus was saying that even his followers will do more than that. 

            So there are definitely times when the lectionary’s choices of readings don’t make the most sense, or other passages might fit better for the theme they are trying to lay out.  But putting this passage of the stoning of Stephen, deacon and first martyr, directly after Good Shepherd Sunday make so much sense to me.  After a week of contemplating God’s love without any call to action, we are given a lesson of a deacon, the one who’s role it is to dismiss the faithful from the liturgy, to return to the world and to serve the world in God’s name.  Last week’s sermon was missing deliberately missing a “so what.”  Last week was about leaning into do God’s tender love and mercy.  We sought to hear the voice of or Shepherd.  But just as Jesus could not stay in the wilderness forever, neither can we be drawn to the heart of God in prayer and not be moved to love and service for one another.  Stephen is the “so what.”  Stephen is someone who knew God’s love for him, and had a pure love for God.  That is why he served.  He served the least of these as Christ commanded, and he spoke of God’s revelation and intervention in the events of the world, even when his recounting of God’s action would be met with derision. 

            We are all blessed to live in a time when we can share our faith without fear of being tortured or put to death.  But even though our context is radically different, I believe Stephen is still an example for all Christians today.  Stephen shows us that regular, ordinary human people can do the deeds of Christ.  Stephen shows us that a heart on fire for God is fertile ground for a life of service that inspires others to the same.  Stephen shows us that devout prayer and selfless service in the world are two sides of the same coin.  And finally, Stephen shows us that no matter what is happening in our lives, or who may have turned against us in this momentary blip of time that is our human lifespan, there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Sermon for Easter 4 2020

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

“Never read the comments.” This has become the refrain when it comes to articles and videos online, and I need to start following this sage advice. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that for some reason I can’t hide the comments when I’m watching the governor’s daily briefings online on my laptop. So, I’ve seen that derogatory slur used by people who think we’re dealing with a media-driven hoax against those who trust epidemiologists and other experts who say we’re in the midst of a real pandemic with Covid-19. “Wake up, sheep,” the incendiary comments often say, “and liberate Ohio!”

None of us likes to be likened to sheep, because the implication is that we are mindless followers. But look again at what Jesus is saying. “The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Perhaps we’ve underestimated the sheep. As smelly and dumb as they might seem, they know that their well-being is dependent on the shepherd. They are hard-wired, through their evolutionary history, to follow the leader. They know that their safety is dependent on doing so, and they’re smart enough at least to be able to discern between one who will lead them to safety and one who will steal them away.

I wonder if most of us are really as discerning as the humble sheep. Even those of us who are intuitive enough to discern someone who’s genuine from a con-man most of the time, can nonetheless occasionally throw our lot in with a sheep-thief. I don’t just mean that we can fall in with a rough crowd, though for some that is an issue. I mean we can totally misplace our confidence, failing to follow the Good Shepherd in favor of some other leader.

And it should be no surprise that for us modern people the most common thief one might trust instead of the Good Shepherd is none other than oneself. Most of you have heard me say things along these lines before, but it bears repeating. Thanks to sin, we believe that we have everything we need within ourselves, and our own culture has exacerbated this fault of our nature. We believe in rugged individualism. We say “God helps those who help themselves” (which I hope you know, comes neither from the bible nor from a Christian thinker), we say we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and we believe seeking direction from someone or something outside of ourselves is a weakness. So the online invective against trusting experts and instead following one’s “gut” is just another example, I think, of our culture’s sin; our false soteriology which holds that salvation (however you define the term) is to be found within oneself and that reliance on any outside authority is a sign of weakness or foolishness.

It is difficult for us to follow. On this level the sheep might have it more together than we do, because they know when they aren’t on the right path. They can recognize the shepherd’s voice, and they know they’re in trouble when they don’t hear it. We humans are so smart that we can convince ourselves that we’re going the right way when we aren’t. We tell ourselves that on the path of life there’s no need to pull over to the gas station to ask for directions or to turn on the GPS device in our car, because we’re smarter than that, by gosh. We don’t need experts, whether it comes to public health or spiritual health, because by God I know better. This is precisely the kind of pride which can precede a tremendous fall.

So, maybe, we shouldn’t get offended when we’re called sheep. Maybe there’s something we can learn from those silly beasts after all. Maybe we can learn that we should cultivate enough humility that we can be led by another. The Good Shepherd is always ready to lead our unruly hearts, but we must be humble enough to receive his direction. Christ is ready to bring us to the heavenly banquet, his rod correcting us and his staff comforting us along the way. We can’t become haughty or petulant or we’ll strike out on our own, thinking our own directions better and we’ll end up falling into a pit. Thank God, we already find ourselves in the flock, which is Christ’s Church, and the shepherd is leading us as we hear his direction in scripture and in prayer, in the wisdom of holy tradition, and in the breaking of bread. If, then, we are modest enough to listen, to listen carefully to the voice of the Shepherd, we may rest assured that we will be led to the springs of the water of life and will dwell with God in eternity.

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