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Sermon for Sunday 14 May 2017

FIRST READING Acts 6:1-9–7:2a, 51-60

6 1Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. 8And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 72aAnd Stephen said: 51“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” 54Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.


PSALM Psalm 146

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!


SECOND READING 1 Peter 2:2-10

2Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.


GOSPEL John 14:1-14

1{Jesus said,} “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4And you know the way to where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. 12“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”



There’s an old story about a small church out in a rural area that needed a dedicated supply pastor to fill in until they could call a new pastor. Fortunately, there was a seminary nearby, which they contacted. The seminary sent a student who had never been outside of the city. When he arrived at the church, the seminarian was shocked to see a hound dog seated on the second row next to the church’s lay leader, a crotchety older man who was known to run off young student pastors.
In a fit of righteous indignation, the young preacher headed straight toward the dog. He screamed at it and drove it out of the church. The startled congregation held its breath, to see what the lay leader would do, but nothing happened. After the service, everyone quickly headed out the side door and waited for the older man to come out. When he graciously greeted the young pastor at the front door, everyone was taken aback. They had never seen him be that courteous to a student pastor before. The old lay leader extended his hand and said, “I want to thank you for kicking my dog out of church.” Shocked, the seminarian asked, “You want to thank me?” “Yep,” said the older man, “I wouldn’t had my dog hear that sermon for nothin’.” Hope you won’t say that to me on the way out this morning!
Sometimes, churches are funny places. Sometimes, things that happen in churches aren’t so funny. Sometimes they’re downright tragic. And sadly, there are times when churches can be a disappointment to God. Years ago, there was a radio program called “The Back To God Hour.” In one city “The Back to God Hour” was broadcast in the time slot immediately following the weekly broadcast of a local church. The pastor of that church recalls that each week, at the end of his church’s broadcast, the announcer would come on the air and say these words “You have been listening to the service of worship at Chalmers United Church, now ‘Back to God.’”
Now, at the risk of being judgmental, I firmly believe that could easily be said after some church services, “Now, back to God.” There are churches today who don’t measure up to God’s call. Even more tragically, I’m not even sure they attempt to. A man named Bruce journeyed to Rwanda as a short term missionary. He worked for several weeks helping refugees. One day Bruce was traveling along the road with his local driver when suddenly, the driver stopped the jeep by a large open field which had recently been bulldozed. As the driver departed the vehicle, he asked Bruce to come with him. They walked to the edge of the field and stood silently for some time. As Bruce studied the field, it soon became apparent that this was not just any field. It was a mass grave for hundreds who had been slain in the nightmare of tribal violence.
The driver stared out upon the open field and quietly spoke: “This is the place,” he said with tears in his eyes, “where I learned to hate God. I would often come and stand and look out over the hundreds of bodies, the bodies of my people, the bodies of my friends and my family. I would stand here and I would scream out at God saying, ‘Why, why have you not done anything to prevent this? Why have you abandoned us?’
“And for many, many weeks, God remained silent. But as I stood here, day after day, hating God, this is also the place where I once again learned to love God. For one day, as I stood here cursing God, God answered me. He said, ‘Winston, I never abandoned you. I was here all along . . . suffering with you.’ “And on that day,” Winston continued, “I realized that I had directed my question to the wrong person. My question shouldn’t have been put to God. My question should have been put . . . to the church.” “Why do you not do something?” It’s a truly profound question.
There are far too many times when the church has remained silent in the face of unspeakable evil. I’m certain that many times in our history the world has directed that question to us: “Why do you not do something?” I’m equally certain that God directs that question to us as well. “Why do you not do something?”
Each week in the Creed, we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Christian church, etcetera. In Baptism, we confess that we become part of the Body of Christ and members of His holy church, but let’s face it, we don’t always have the impact we should on the world that Christ has called us to have. Maybe, the reason is that we simply don’t understand who or what Christ has called us to be. Listen again to these words from today’s second reading, and ask yourself what it is you believe Christ asks of us: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9)
Who are we? “A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God . . .” I’m convinced there are many people who simply don’t understand who we are or what we’re about. Far too many people look at the church as a chapel, a temple, a shrine or, as a museum. That is, for many people, the church is simply a place you go . . . to pay homage to God. Some go weekly, some go every month or so, and for some, perhaps two or three times a year. Once they’ve done that, they feel that they have fulfilled their religious obligation. These are nice people. However, they either don’t know, or worse yet, don’t care or have a clue about what it means to be the church. The church isn’t a place we go–the church is who we are!
Around 125 A.D. Aristides, the philosopher, described the early Christian community to the Roman Emperor Hadrian like this: “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the person who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home as a brother or sister in the spirit, the Spirit of God.” That’s who we are–or at least, that’s who we’ve been called to be. Church isn’t the buildings where we gather; the one Holy catholic and apostolic church is who we are! But for many, this isn’t the case. There are a good many nice people, religious people, but they’re confused about who they are and what they’re supposed to do.
It would be helpful, I believe, to think of ourselves as Luther described; “A priesthood of all believers.” After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be? But sadly, that’s a doctrine which has been nearly forgotten. When I say that we’re to think of ourselves as priests, I don’t mean that in a religious sense, serving the sacraments, hearing confessions, etc. As priests, we’re all called to be representatives of God, just as a priest represents God. We’re to be priests to each other. Christian believers have a responsibility for one another. The New Testament is clear about that.
Pastor Jim Standiford tells about his father, a devoted churchman. His father loved the church, but he was a frequent and severe critic of those with whom he disagreed on church matters. Standiford recalls times when his father “chewed out” the Administrative Board of his home congregation. His father could be a difficult man at times. Then Jim’s paternal grandmother died.
Dr. Standiford’s grandmother was one of the matriarchs of the congregation. She was affectionately known to all as “Mother Standiford.” At the end of her funeral service, as Standiford’s dad was beginning to walk down the aisle out of the church behind her casket, he collapsed. Two of the very persons he had so recently publicly criticized came to his side, lifted him, and walked down the aisle one on each side supporting him. It was in that moment, as a high school junior, that the younger Standiford saw the church in a whole new light. Suddenly he understood what the church was. Those two men’s demonstration of their love for his father became Jim Standiford’s call to ministry. Those two truly understood God’s call for us to be priests to one another.
Regardless of whether we see eye-to-eye on things, we have a responsibility for one another. There is a Zulu proverb that goes like this: “When a thorn pierces the foot, the whole body bends over to pull it out.” When one person in a community experiences pain, the rest of the community shares its strength with that person in order to ease the pain. That’s who we are. Priests to one another. We’re also called to be priests to the world. That is, we’re sent to be God’s representatives to our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, and to the wider world for whom Christ died.
A leader at a church conference told about his young son, who one day came home from school with something he wanted to show to his Mom. “Mom, we’re studying dinosaurs, look what I have!” he said enthusiastically. He showed her a picture of a gigantic dinosaur towering over a two story house. Then he asked his mother a difficult question, “When did we kill off all the dinosaurs,” he asked, “so that it would be safe for houses to be built and kids to play outside?”
“Well,” replied his mother, “we didn’t kill off the dinosaurs, and we don’t know exactly how they were eliminated. Many scientists believe it was a result of an ice age when the plants the dinosaurs ate were frozen out and the dinosaurs starved. Others suggest it was a giant meteorite that caused a great change in the temperature and dinosaurs couldn’t adapt and survive in the cold. Nonetheless,” explained his mother, “it was the result of tremendous climate change that humans were able to build cities and children were able to play outside, not the result of a successful hunting campaign.” This leader went on to suggest that in similar fashion the task of the church isn’t necessarily to slay giant dragons, as much as it is to change the climate so that the Gospel may flourish.
I like that metaphor. The purpose of the Body of Christ is to change the spiritual, social, moral and political climate of our world so that the kingdoms of this world bear a more striking resemblance to the kingdom of our God. We do this by ministering to persons in need, and we do this by the witness of our lives to the world. Today’s epistle is a reminder that the church is not a place we go–the church is who we are! We’re “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God . . .” We’re called to be priests to one another and we’re to be priests to the world. Additionally, we’re also people who have a strong sense of God’s presence in our lives.
Author Jane Smiley in her novel, A Thousand Acres, describes the condition of many people who bear the name Christian. She tells about a highly dysfunctional family. They had many problems. Still, they were faithful in their attendance at church each Sunday. Here’s how the novel’s narrator sums up their religious commitment: “We came to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks.” And that’s how many people regard the church.
They come and pay their respects, but they have no real consciousness that God is alive in our world. They come to pay their respects, but not to give thanks. It grieves me that this is the case and it’s no wonder the church has so little impact on our world. We need show to the world who we are: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God . . .” We need to be “chosen and precious, living stones being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.” (1Peter 2:4b-5a) There may be some here who may be asking, how do we become living stones?
St. Peter answered this question for us in vs. 1 and in verses 11 and 12 of chapter 2. In verse 1 we read, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” And in verses 11 and 12 we read, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” In other words, we’re to “let our light shine before others.” (Matt. 5:16) Everyone we encounter is to see the light of Christ in us, 24/7, 365.
A few weeks after he was elected President of the United States, Ronald Reagan shared with the nation a letter he had received from an elementary school in Iowa. A child had written, “Dear Mr. President, you have now been elected President of the United States; now go to the Oval office and get to work.” This child wrote exactly what we and others expect of those chosen to be in positions of influence in this world. We are the elect. And that’s what we’re called to do and to be. A people chosen by God to shine the light of Jesus into this dark word. But more than that, we’re to be that voice and to speak up in love and do what’s needed to help others to the glory of God.
It’s time for the church of Jesus Christ, this royal priesthood, called by God to represent Him in the world, to get to work so the world knows exactly who we are! It’s a lot to live up to– “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God . . .” but that’s what we’re called to be.
On this day when we give thanks to God for our moms, we recognize that we have truly been blessed, both in our personal lives and here at Bethel, to have so many wonderful examples of what it means to be one of God’s priests, to be living stones being built up as spiritual houses. There are so many special women who have gone before us, and are here today, who have dedicated their lives to God and to setting the example for what it means to live a Christian life. We are indeed blessed and I thank God, every day, for each and every one of the women who do speak out and reach out to extend God’s hand of mercy to this world. It’s with a thankful heart that I say, happy Mother’s Day.

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