Sunday, May 18, 2014

Easter 5 Sermon

O Lord, open our eyes
To behold your presence.

O Lord, open our ears
To hear your voice.

O Lord, open our hearts
To receive your love.

O Lord, help us to behold, to hear and to receive you in Word and Sacrament
That we may proclaim your praise in all we do and say. Amen. (adapted from a prayer by David Adam)
As I read the first reading this week from the Acts of the Apostles, I had thought about having a reenactment. Since Stephen is remembered as the first deacon, I though Deacon Christopher should play him and I could play the part of the crowd. Wouldn’t that be fun? I’m kidding…

But it is interesting that in the midst of Easter, as we think about that new life that Jesus gives through the resurrection, we hear about the death of Stephen.

What we know about Stephen is in the 6th and 7th chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. As one author explained:
“The early Christian congregations, like the Jewish synagogues, had a program of assistance for needy widows, and some of the Greek-speaking Jews in the Jerusalem congregation complained that their widows were being neglected. The people based on the apostles words, accordingly chose seven men, including Stephen, and the apostles laid their hands on them. They are traditionally considered to be the first deacons, although the Scriptures do not use the word to describe them.

Stephen was an eloquent and fiery speaker, and a provocative one. (Some have speculated that some of his fellow Christians wanted to put him in charge of alms in the hope that he would administer more and talk less.) His blunt declarations that the Temple service was no longer the means by which penitent sinners should seek reconciliation with God enraged the Temple leaders, who caused him to be stoned to death. As he died, he said, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." One of those who saw the stoning and approved of it was Saul of Tarsus, who took an active part in the general persecution of Christians that followed the death of Stephen, but who later became a Christian himself and we know him as Paul.” (from James Kiefer's Christian Biographies)
Stephen is often neglected in our thoughts because his feast day falls on December 26, the day after Christmas. But we sing this famous song: “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen…”

Today, he falls into our readings because of his faithfulness, not only his work as a deacon, but his proclamation of faith before the council, and his willingness to die for his faith and became the first martyr in the Acts of the Apostles. Yesterday, in our commemorations we remembered the martyrs of Sudan. It started on May 16, 1983, when a small number of leaders in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic declared they “would not abandon God as they knew him.” From 1983 to 2005, 2 million were killed in Sudan. This hymn, written by Sudanese children in exile in Ethiopia, reflects both the tragedy and depth of the faith of the Christians in Sudan:
Look upon us, O Creator who has made us.
God of all peoples, we are yearning for our land.
Hear the prayer of our souls in the wilderness.
Hear the prayer of our bones in the wilderness.
Hear our prayer as we call out to you.
The martyrs remind us that the light still shines in the darkness, that Easter faith we celebrate, guided them, even in the worst of days. It reminds me of this poem:
God has not promised
skies always blue,
flower strewn pathways
all our lives through.

God has not promised
sun without rain,
joy without sorrow,
peace without pain.

But God has promised
strength for the day,
rest for the laborer,
light on the way,
grace for the trial,
help from above,
unfailing sympathy,
undying love.
(see the whole poem here)

The message is that in the midst of it all, God is with us. In the Gospel for today, Jesus reminds us that he goes ahead to "prepare a dwelling place" for each of us, to believe in him and God, to trust the works that have been done, the stories that have been told and to live knowing that our lives are a journey to that place, which Jesus prepares for us. I think the martyrs lived into the faith and hope of that expectation.

I read a story in the NY Times, entitled “Ashes to Ashes, but First a Nice Pine Box” which talks about, the invitation by Jesus to live our lives fully, even as we acknowledge that a some point, death awaits us all. This is written by Jeffrey M. Piehler, who is a retired thoracic surgeon.
“NOT long ago, my wife and I had a good friend over for a glass of wine… I calmly announced to my wife: “I’m going to build my own coffin. I just thought you should know.” It didn’t go over well…I hadn’t anticipated so much resistance. The plan didn’t seem so extreme to me — I have incurable Stage 4 prostate cancer, which I learned I had at age 54. I’ve been living with it for 11 years, and in that time I’ve tried every conventional treatment and many trial ones… My journey is coming to an end relatively soon. The remaining treatment options are mostly minor modifications of previous failures. My bones are riddled with metastatic disease, and I’m starting to need pain medications. As we used to say in the medical business, I’m starting to circle the drain.

Yes, but why build your own coffin? When I mention it to others, most are distinctly uncomfortable with what they interpret as my abandonment of the “fight against cancer,” which by their reasoning must be the explanation for my continued survival. I must be giving up. That my motivation is the exact opposite eludes them. In fact, it is a project that I wish I had started much earlier. I find comfort in simplicity and familiarity and, I suppose, purity. Making my own coffin was the answer. A plain pine box. My own plain pine box. Creating something of beauty and purpose would be both a celebration of life and an acceptance of my death.”

He contacted Peter, a carpenter and artist, who agreed to work with him if his wife and family approved, which they eventually did. As they worked together they developed a close friendship. They talked about what they wanted to accomplish with their remaining lives and what they regretted about their pasts. It gave Dr. Piehler an outlet to talk about his fears of death and leaving his family.

Dr. Piehler writes: "We'd made a stunningly beautiful pine box, and a stunningly beautiful friendship. But we knew neither could last, and that this was the very reason to celebrate them.

"Something else happened, too. The project smoothed the edges of my thoughts. It's pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you've just come from sanding your own coffin. Coveting material objects, holding on to old grudges, failing to pause and see the grace in strangers - all equally foolish. While the coffin is indeed a reminder of what awaits us all, its true message is to live every moment to its greatest potential.

So the box now sits at the ready for its final task, when together we will be consigned to the flames. I find comfort in knowing where my body will lie, and just above it, embossed on the underside of the coffin’s lid, in front of my sightless eyes — my favorite line of poetry: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
In our simplest everyday "works" of generosity and forgiveness, in the simple love and care we give and receive from family and friends, we begin to know God and understand the fullness of the life he calls us to - a dying physician rediscovers that meaning in the practical preparations for his death.

He lives in that hope that Jesus says, believe in God, believe in me, I have many dwelling places prepared for you, don’t worry, don’t live in fear, you have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night to come. Stephen and the martyrs of Sudan remind us to “live every moment to its greatest potential” with the faith in Jesus that calls us to live more deeply now with the hope of what is to come. Amen.

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