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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Into the Breaches

Sunday, May 18, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Preached at Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church

Scripture Readings: 
Acts 7:55-60 (and truthfully, you need to read Acts 6-8:1 in order to get the context)
Ezekiel 13:1-7 (This text served as a backdrop for my sermon writing. I attended an urban ministry conference on friday this week, and we worked through this text as a group. I was struck by the way we sidestepped the reference in verse 5 to "battle on the day of the Lord." Many of the children and families we are in community with know they are in a battle zone, in a way that white suburbia does not notice. As I preached this morning, the community of Trenton--of which we are a part--was at the forefront of my thoughts and prayers.)
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are prophesying; say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the Lord!’ Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! Your prophets have been like jackals among ruins, O Israel. You have not gone up into the breaches, or repaired a wall for the house of Israel, so that it might stand in battle on the day of the Lord. They have prophesied falsehood and lying divination; they say, ‘Says theLord’, when the Lord has not sent them, and yet they wait for the fulfilment of their word! Have you not seen a false vision or uttered a lying divination, when you have said, ‘Says the Lord’, even though I did not speak?
I come to you this morning from a few weeks’ worth of travel. I am not quite done yet, as I leave directly from this morning’s worship services to drive to Camp Johnsonburg and pick up the last car load of our jr. high youth and the 2 patient chaperones I left with them to wait. And then I am not
going anywhere until June 25. I am delighted to be here with you at Lawrence Road for the next 5 weeks. It is a rare treat for me to spend more than 2 weeks in a row in any one church, and I am looking forward to the time with you. 

I am preaching this morning from the book of Acts, that new testament follow up to the gospel of Luke. We think that the same author who wrote the gospel of Luke continued his writing with the Acts of the Apostles, a long essay detailing the days of the early church. Oh the early church! I hear a lot these days in church circles about trying to become like the early church. If only we could be as faithful with so little, people say! In the days after Pentecost we read through the first few chapters of Acts, and we kind of fall in love with the idea of building a community where everything is shared in common.

Don’t have food? Come to church—we share everything we have. Don’t have clothes? Don’t worry, someone has an extra tunic. Can’t pay the electric bill? Nah, nah, man. That’s what the coffers are for. Are you sad, downtrodden, broken, widowed? Come to church and we will love you, serve you, feed you, welcome you. I know and trust that if a person came to church this morning and told any one here that they did not have a suit for a job interview tomorrow or food to eat for dinner, that every person in this congregation would move heaven and earth to rectify the situation. I know that. I trust that. There are good people in this church.

We even love the story of Sapphira and her husband Ananias. It came time for the stewardship campaign, and everybody was pouring everything they had into the general pot, knowing that all they had would be redistributed fairly. Except Ananias and Sapphira held back on their pledge, thinking nobody would know about their extra stash. They had sold a piece of property, and kept back a portion of the proceeds for their own use. The Holy Spirit apparently ratted out Ananias, and Peter confronted him over the money. Immediately Ananias fell dead at Peter’s feet, and the community buried him. Three hours later Sapphira showed up, looking for her husband. Peter let her know the community had just buried his dead body, and no sooner had he said the words than Sapphira dropped dead too. They buried her next to Ananias, and scripture tells us “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”

Oh yes! Let us be like the early church! We get to Acts 4 during stewardship time—and it always shows up in the lectionary about that time—and we preachers rub our hands together with glee. At least for a few days we fantasize about preaching a sermon that goes something like this: “Give all you have to the church, or Jesus gonna drop you dead on the church doorstep. See if he won’t.” And if anyone objects, we can piously point to the first 4 chapters of Acts and say, “We are called to be in community with one another, sharing what we have, for the good of all.” Along about Thursday it occurs to us preachers that we also have not given our everything to the church.

And then most of us ignore the rest of the book of Acts, skipping on to the letters of Paul.

Today’s scripture is Paul’s back story—the story of how Paul/Saul wasn’t always such a nice guy. It is the story of how the early church wasn’t always such a nice place. It is the story of how preachers are not always nice preachers and can pay a price for that.

The lectionary gives us a few verses to work with today from Acts, chapter 7—just the end of that chapter:
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. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"

But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 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.

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 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. 
This is the Word of the Lord.

Oh yes, "Thanks be to God." Thanks be to God for WHAT, though? Thanks be to God for the church stoning a man to death? Thanks be to God that at least he saw Jesus before he died? Thanks be to God for what, exactly?

This is a somewhat nonsensical word of the Lord, just sitting there all by itself. This passage is a fragment of a much longer story. I read this passage the other day and thought to myself, “Why was he filled with the Holy Spirit? Why was he addressing the crowd? Why didn’t they want to hear him speak? Why would the crowd stone him to death?”

And maybe more importantly, “Why would Stephen forgive them as he died?”

If we take this paragraph out of context, we cannot know the answers to any of those questions. And we miss the concluding sentence of the story, buried in chapter 8, conveniently left out of the lectionary selection: “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

The story really begins in chapter 6, when the disciples were increasing in numbers. This early church community had also been increasing in numbers, and in diversity. There were widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food. (We preach this passage on ordination days—a perfect selection for ordaining deacons and elders to service, early church style.) The disciples were overwhelmed with the demands of their new work—preaching and teaching and healing takes a lot out of a person—who has time to wait tables after that? The exact words we are given are “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” And I think the trouble started right there, in the arrogance of assuming that waiting tables for widows is neglecting the word of God. If you’ve ever waited tables, you know that the least of these has tired feet and that lousy tippers abound. You’ll know that people are picky and their children are messy and that nobody cares that you are about to close in 10 minutes and the kitchen would like to go home. And if you have ever waited tables, you might take comfort in knowing that Jesus waited at least one table, and that this too is the word of God.

One of the deacons they called was Stephen, who was full of grace and power and did great wonders and signs with the people. With his words and actions, Stephen stirred up some envy and backstabbing, and the next thing he knew he had been arrested. He was accused of speaking against the temple, saying blasphemous things, claiming that Christ would destroy the temple and change the customs.

And oh this is such a messy passage! We ought to barely even speak on it, we Christians 20 centuries later. This passage comes out of a particular context of intra-community conflict among Jewish folks, some of whom were moving toward these disrespectful Jesus followers and some of whom were not. This passage gets used to justify anti-semitism—to justify the oppression and demonization of Jewish people—even today! “Look!” people will say, “THEY killed Stephen because he proclaimed the gospel, just like THEY killed Jesus.” As we claim to be followers of this early church movement, we probably ought to say, “Look, WE killed Stephen, just like WE killed Jesus.” As we work with this passage, let us not forget that it is placed squarely within a particular community and context that we no longer have access to. Let us be careful with these words.

I suppose we ought to look to our own intra-community conflicts.

As Stephen faced his accusers—indeed the people of his own community—they said his face looked like an angel’s. And he went on to preach a full sermon on the history of his own people, how they were rescued from captivity by God and redeemed into freedom. And I mean this sermon went on and on: There was Abraham in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and then Abraham went out and begot Issac. And then there was Jacob who begot Joseph. Then Joseph went to Egypt and then <next page> there was famine and Pharaoh…500 years and then Moses and more about Moses and still some more…about Moses…40 years in the wilderness…an angel at Mt. Sinai…on and on and on Stephen went…more about Moses, the Golden Calf…the prophets and prophesy and the ancestors…on and on and on…And when he finished his sermon, he finished with these words (also absent from the lectionary passage):
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
And THAT is when they rose up and killed him, a whole crowd of people who could not stand another self-righteous word that Stephen spoke.

When it was done, when Stephen lay dead, scripture tells us, “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

Have you not ever sat at a dinner table and there was that one uncle, that one grandmother, that one snot-nosed college student, full of her or himself? Have you not ever wanted to stone that person if they say another word about Obamacare or drones or racism or the confederate flag or, or, OR?? Living in community is HARD.

At my grandmother’s funeral we gathered for dinner as a family. To my left was the relative who proudly remains a Nixon Republican. On my right was the cousin who became a citizen in 2008 in order to vote for President Obama. They spoke of welfare and Obamacare and their different approaches to poverty. I, who was on Medicaid and receiving food stamps at the time, sat in the middle of them, drinking wine to still my tongue. Being in community is HARD.

Or picture this: my first college roommate and I detested each other. I don’t really remember why—and there probably wasn’t a good reason. But our differences became more pronounced as the weeks went by. She was a very neat person—everything in its place. I was (and am) a creatively messy person—everything everywhere. We left each other challenging notes. We drew lines across the floor with masking tape to mark our territory. My side of the room was by the window, so we drew a thin line along the wall where I was allowed to walk to get to the door. There was a hole in the floor (on my side of the room) where a mouse came through periodically. She placed a mousetrap next to the hole. One night as I sat on the floor studying, I watched the mouse pop up through the hole, run nimbly across the trap without setting it off and settle near my foot. It was adorable. Knowing nothing about mice, I offered it some of my bread. I told my roommate about it, and you’d have thought I’d made a pact with Satan. Living in community is HARD. She and I lasted only 2 months before I moved out.

I attend a conference every year where the people are very touchy-feely. They are huggers, the lot of them. I am more reserved, and a hand on my shoulder or my back startles me. We have worked together as a community to figure out how to negotiate the boundaries of affection. They always forget how I am about this, but they try. I do my best to squelch my irritation, and I fail. Yet I remain in community with them—how can I not? But it is HARD.

This morning I am preaching here at Lawrence Road, and I forgot that there are people who are hard of hearing in our congregation. Every time I preach here I am asked to bring a printed manuscript of my sermon so that folks can follow along. Every time I preach here I forget that this is needed. I failed you again this morning, and I ask your forgiveness. Living in community is HARD, and we forget one another’s needs so easily.

And that’s just the little stuff!

The little stuff can derail love completely! I went to a friend's house for lunch a few weeks ago, and I noticed that he puts the toilet paper on the roll incorrectly. He hangs it with the paper going under, toward the wall. Toilet paper ought to hang going over, away from the wall. 


I do not know if he always hangs it the wrong way or if he just randomly sticks it on there. But I can tell you it would drive me nuts if we lived in community. I nearly fixed it while visiting as a guest--how rude is that? Community is HARD.

Our youth group is away this weekend at Camp Johnsonburg, and we have struggled this weekend to form a community. I work for three churches, and each of you are so very different. The people are different, the communities are different, the needs and visions of the churches are different. We took students and adults from all three churches to camp this weekend and attempted to form both a community among ourselves and a community with the other 10 churches that came to camp with us. By the way, we failed to accomplish that this weekend in significant ways. We made progress in some ways and utterly failed in others—this is the way of community, and it’s HARD.

Picture for a moment who went to camp. We took 14 kids: black, white, brown; some have money, some don't; some from Trenton, some from the suburbs of Trenton. We’ve been doing youth group together for a while, and we like each other for the most part. But our ways and customs and habits are different, even as we affirm our common humanity. We are all craving love and care from one another, and we all come from intensely varied contexts. Our needs are different—and it is impossible to meet them all.

How do we form community when the first words out of our mouths are "Whatchu looking at?" How do we form community when our first instinct is to stare at difference? How do we form community when we are afraid of each other? How do we form community when we hold each other in contempt?

And that was just the 20 of us struggling to form community—how much greater this is multiplied when we bring in more and more people in the churches. How much greater is this multiplied when we bring in older people who have lived longer, and we mix together all of our lived experiences into a tangled mess of community? Oh our 14 year old students might smile sweetly and say they don't see color. Can you really say that after living in this world 30 more years? How do we form community when our lives have been shaped around segregation and fear of difference?

And our community is a tangled mess indeed! There have been 12 murders in Trenton this year alone. We sit here in Lawrenceville and think that Trenton is so far away—but it’s a mere 3 miles down the road. We are part of a larger suburban community that surrounds the city of Trenton. But we as a church are part of a collaborative effort by 3 churches, one of which is in Trenton. This is our community: Lawrenceville, Ewing, Trenton. 12 murders in Trenton this year.

I was part of a prayer walk a few weeks ago where we went to each of the murder sites in Trenton. We named each man killed, prayed for protection and peace, anointed the ground with oil, and sometimes sang. We met people impacted along the way, including the mother of one of the boys killed. It mattered that we were there.

Our children go to school together and struggle to form community with one another. They are away at camp together, attempting to form stronger bonds. We as a church surround them with our love and care—but community is HARD. This is an uneasy alliance—but it IS an alliance. All of you here this morning are part of those who would stand for healing and love and care, refusing to allow evil and racism and injustice tear us apart even further. I don’t have any easy answers to making community this morning. I just know that it is HARD. I just know that we are trying it. I just know that we are doomed to fail time and again.

I know that the early church is not alone in wanting to stone to death those who force us to look in the mirror and see that we are failing as community. I know that we have our moments here. I pray this morning with you that we are able to do it a little better each time we fail and try again. And I pray that every time we fail at loving with justice and kindness, that we try again. I pray that we reach all the way to our toes and stand back up to love with impossible fierceness.

Know that you are loved deeply by an impossible and unlikely God. Know that you are not alone in your struggle to love better. And never forget that all we have in this struggle is love.

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