May 10, 2020

The Fourth Sunday after Easter

Scripture Reading: Acts 7:55-60

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.[a]

Footnotes:

  1. Acts 7:60 Gk fell asleep

Footnotes:


Sermon:

Mother’s Day started in 1908 when a young Christian activist in West Virginia named Anna Jarvis honored the legacy of her own mother, known as Mother Jarvis, who had died three years earlier.

Mother Jarvis organized women to fight for clean water and sanitation, and worked for universal access to medicine for the poor. She was also a pacifist, and cared for wounded soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. It was a risky thing to do. It still is today.

We choose sides like kids at recess or in gym class, only to have our carefully drawn lines blur as political, social, or theological winds shift. When that happens, we can find ourselves caught in the crossfire, as this clip shows.

Red Skelton

 

Anna Jarvis never made a dime off Mother’s Day, but plenty of others did. That made her mad. Eventually, she ended up in the crossfire, too.

Anna was a bitter enemy of the floral industry, the greeting card industry, and commercial candy makers. Here’s a choice quote:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

 

Anna not only lost the battle, but faced financial ruin because of it. She retreated to the family home. There, she cared for her sister Elsinore, her only close relative, who was blind.

Elsinore died in 1944. Anna’s friends found and paid for a room for her at a quiet sanatorium in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died there in 1948, blind, penniless, and alone.

So… Happy Mother’s Day? As far as Anna was concerned, Mother’s Day had become a hollow shell of what it was supposed to be. Today’s scripture warns us that the same thing can happen to our faith.

It picks up near the end of a story that begins in Acts 6, with a complaint by the Hellenists against the Hebrews that the church wasn’t caring for Hellenist widows.

The Hellenists were Jews who had lived in places where Greek was the main spoken language. That included most of the then known world as well as parts of Palestine.

The Hebrews were Jews whose first language was Aramaic, mainly spoken in Judea and Galilee.

Language, nationality, and custom kept them apart. Each group had little to do with the other. The unequal care given to widows of the church was the last straw.

The apostles knew they had a problem. They gave Greek speaking Jewish Christians the authority to choose their own leaders. One of them was a preacher named Stephen.

He proclaimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and made him Messiah, while also questioning the authority of Scripture and tradition.

Stephen had no use for those who turned institutions and Scripture into idols so powerful they led people to reject the gospel and crucify Jesus.

“Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” he thundered. “They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you’ve become his betrayers and murderers. You’re the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you haven’t kept it.”

Steven said his opponents had turned a vital, living faith into a more manageable—and easily manipulated—religion, one they used to their own advantage.

If Stephen were alive today, it wouldn’t take him long to see the same sin at work in the very church he once so vigorously defended and died for.

A few weeks ago, Bishop Gerald O. Glenn at Richmond’s New Deliverance Evangelistic Church proudly showed off his packed Virginia church.  “I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that,” he said.

Last Sunday, his church announced “with an exceedingly sorrowful and heavy heart” that Bishop Glenn had died of COVID-19.

His daughter, Mar-Gerie Crawley, is now urging everyone to stay home. “I just beg people to understand the severity and the seriousness of this…it’s not just about us, it’s about everyone around us.”

Tell that to conservative firebrand Bethany Shondark Mandel who said on Twitter this week:

You can call me a Grandma killer. I’m not sacrificing my home, food on the table, all of our docs and dentists, every form of pleasure (museums, zoos, restaurants), all my kids’ teachers in order to make other people comfortable. If you want to stay locked down, do. I’m not….

 

Playwright and television producer Warren Leight really took Ms. Mandel to task.

Hi Grandma Killer. Can I also call you Nurse Killer, Friend Killer, Mentor Killer, EMT Killer, Jazz Musician Killer, Doctor Killer, NYPD Killer, Transit Worker Killer, Meat Plant Worker Killer, Immuno-compromised Person Killer?  Let me know which works for you.

The lines are drawn. Behind them looms a challenge for all of us, including people of faith. New York Times reporter Charlie Warzel, writing this week, put it into words.

“The coronavirus scenario I can’t stop thinking about,” he said, “is the one where we simply get used to all the dying.”

1,949 Americans died of coronavirus on Tuesday. On Wednesday, 2,746, and, on Thursday, another 1,760. Friday tallied 1,520 dead.

We can’t get used to all the dying. If we do, we’ll end up throwing stones, or at least holding the coats of those who do.

They covered their ears, and with a loud shout rushed together against [Stephen]. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

 

Some dread the worst and find it, lurching in their resentment from one crisis to the next. They’re the stone throwers in today’s Scripture.

They react out of fear and anger, determined to hang on to the status quo even if others have to die so they can.

Others use faith as an escape. After all, they’re heaven bound. What happens in this world is of no concern to them.

They’re the coat holders, like Saul. By doing nothing, he backed the actions of the mob. Too often you and I stand right there beside him.

We might not throw the stones, but we’re getting used to the dying. We watch and hold the coats as the death toll mounts.

Scripture calls us to a different path. We don’t throw stones, nor do we hold coats. We work with God, making a difference in the world, living as God’s people and welcoming all into God’s compassion and mercy.

That will mean speaking up for those who have lost jobs and income during this pandemic. It will also mean making sure that those whom we call essential don’t also end up being expendable.

If we don’t live our lives with regard for social distancing, if we don’t take the extra effort to wear a mask when we’re out in public, if we can’t stay 6 feet away from those around us, we aren’t protesting against a supposedly tyrannical government. We’re threatening to spread a deadly virus everywhere.

Speaking up for justice and common-sense compassion can put us at odds with those whose “Don’t tread on me” mindset refuses to accept responsibility for others.

We can’t let that discourage us. We know the Risen One is beside us in the pit as the stones rain down. There he stands, ready to redeem and forgive the stone throwers and coat holders, while embracing all who dare live as people of trust and hope.