Sunday, May 14, 2017

Homily: The Fifth Sunday of Easter [May 14, 2017] St. Alban's, Westwood

            It is probably best to acknowledge at the outset that today is Mother’s Day, a holiday that gets only a slightly greater observance in our household than its June complement, Father’s Day. A parish I served in Michigan was very big on Mother’s Day. Year after year on this Sunday the ushers insisted on handing a rose to every woman who entered the church. Every year I would rather facetiously ask what we were going to do for the men on Father’s Day. I never received an answer, and so one year I took matters into my own hands: I drove over to Costco, bought several cases of those small spray cans of WD-40, and instructed the ushers to present one to each man as cheerfully and lovingly as they had the roses to the women. While the ushers were a bit grumpy about it, the guys actually liked it. I left that parish before I could follow up the next year with rolls of duct tape. So yes, it is Mother’s Day: not a church holiday exactly, but an occasion that invites us to reflect on some characteristics like nurture and care, qualities we ascribe both to parents and to God.
            Today is also the Fifth Sunday of Easter, and you may have noticed that in this season our Sunday readings are organized not around the gospel but around the unfolding story of the earliest Christians as told in the book of Acts. Acts is the book that comes right after the gospels in the New Testament, and it tells how the followers of Jesus found themselves first bereft, then empowered, and then living out in their own lives the ministry of Jesus. The early church discovered, somewhat to their surprise, that after the death and resurrection of Jesus, they were now actually the body of Christ in the world. As we heard over the past few weeks, the early Christians found they had the same powers to heal and forgive that Jesus had. And as we hear in today’s Acts reading--the stoning of Stephen, our first martyr--they encountered the same kind of resistance too.
            It is not incidental that Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a deacon. As you know, in its early days the church developed three orders of ministry which we still have to this day. Bishops were the successors of the twelve apostles, and they came first. Deacons are the second order, and they were set apart to assist bishops and to do the essential service ministries of the church. Priests—people like Susan and Warner and me—were created last, and our job was essentially to stand in for bishops as the church expanded both in numbers and area too big for one person to cover.
            So Stephen, our first martyr, was a deacon. Why would the crowd rush together against him, and then drag him out of the city and stone him? [Acts 7:55-60] The book of Acts suggests that the crowd was offended by an incendiary speech Stephen gave right before his stoning. That may well be, but there is a second explanation that goes along with the first.
            The Roman Empire was not very kind to people who were sick or poor. As the historian Peter Brown has argued[Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire] the Christian movement represented something altogether new in the Mediterranean world. Though Romans had a long tradition of public philanthropy, they essentially left the sick and the poor to fend for themselves. But following the example of Jesus, Christians organized to pay them great attention—to feed the hungry and tend to the sick. And the people they called upon to do this were the deacons.
            Earlier in Acts [Acts 6:1], we are told that the apostles decided to set apart seven deacons because some of the “widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”   In the first several centuries of the Christian movement, the deacons became a kind of social service agency. The kinds of relief they offered to the poor and the sick went directly against the laissez-faire values of the Roman Empire. As one of the first deacons, Stephen was charged with carrying out this countercultural social service. I would argue that he was stoned not so much because of his theological views but because he was serving the people the Roman state and the culture wanted at best to ignore.
            So (and perhaps this is just a coincidence), on this Fifth Sunday of Easter, which also happens to be Mother’s Day, our scripture readings ask us to think about how we both experience and exemplify the kind of love and nurture we meet first in Jesus and then in Christians like Stephen. Our Acts reading sets the stage, and our other reading this morning, from John’s gospel, develops the theme.
            Today’s gospel [John 14:1-14] is one we often hear read at funerals:
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
In this beloved passage, Jesus goes on to tell us that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” These are wonderful and comforting words to hear in the midst of grief. The assurance that Jesus has both provided for us and given us a path can be deeply reassuring.
But it is something he says a bit farther on in the gospel passage that speaks to us this morning:
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
“The one who believes in me will also do the works I do.” The real miracle of Easter is not confined to the empty tomb. The real miracle of Easter lies in the way the life and ministry and purpose of Jesus continue in the lives and ministries of those who gather in his name. Jesus loved and healed and fed the sick and the poor. These actions were a direct threat to an empire whose values were based on oppression, power, and success. That empire crucified Jesus in an attempt to put an end to his kind of compassionate justice and love. The good news of Easter was not only that Jesus was now alive; the good news of Easter was also that Jesus’s love and justice and compassion would now be carried on by those who would be his body in the world.
“The one who believes in me will also do the works I do.” The same can be said for Stephen, a Christian who died at least in part because he dared distribute food to the widows. A world organized around power will never understand the love of a God who rejects the very idea of force. The love and justice embodied in Jesus and Stephen cannot be stopped even by Rome, much less by Rome’s successors. If Easter is about anything, it is about God’s persistence in coming towards us in love and working through us as stand-ins for Jesus as ministers of healing and grace in our personal, social, and civic relationships.
And that, I believe, is Easter’s connection to Mother’s Day. Sure, there are all kinds of ways in which a holiday like this can be syrupy and false. Our culture will always exalt the sentimental and undervalue the authentic. To be sure, we all have complicated histories with our parents. So I would not presume to hold up any one human parent as an exemplary stand-in for God. But there is a deeper sense in which you and I as Jesus’s followers understand that all real nurturing love—whether raising a child or visiting a person in the hospital or even calling your Congressman—is an expression of the kind of love we see when Jesus healed the sick or Stephen brought food to a widow.
“The one who believes in me will also do the works I do.” Both Easter and Mother’s Day are occasions to give thanks for the love and nurture that have carried us thus far along the way Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. But it wasn’t only the early Christians who believed themselves to be the body of Christ in the world. When we say the creed together, you and I proclaim the same thing every Sunday. The kinds of love and nurture and justice we meet in Jesus and observe in Stephen and recall from our own mothers—those divine attributes are now on offer through us. You and I are now the body of Christ in the world. You and I are the deacons of the 21st century, those called to stand against the selfish individualism of our own imperial culture by seeking and serving the hungry, the poor, the grieving, the sick and being for them who Jesus and our mothers at their best were for us.
“The one who believes in me will also do the works I do.” Thank God for Jesus and for Stephen and for all who love and serve suffering human beings. Thank God for our mothers and other nurturers who have showed us this same kind of love along the way. And thank God for the continuing call and opportunity to be the heart and hands of Jesus in the world he loved and which we all inhabit together. Amen.

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