7 May 2023 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. That’s a message from Michael’s sermon last week that is still resonating with me. We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.
It’s remaining with me for a lot of reasons…and it made me hear our Acts reading today—with the martyrdom of Stephen—in a different way.
Stephen is one of those pivotal characters, who isn’t around very long but who sends the main storyline off in a different direction. At this point in the story, we’ve barely met Stephen. In the previous chapter he is one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and aid to the poorer members of the community. And then, in this chapter, he’s taken out and stoned. He does make a really long, impassioned, incendiary speech, but his martyrdom is a reminder of how closely Easter and Good Friday are always linked. And that living as a Christian…practicing your faith…and actually growing in your faith…is…at times…not easy…it will (at times) certainly be uncomfortable…and may even (in extreme cases) be quite dangerous.
The church likes to make this point in some subtle and not so subtle ways…Very often when there’s a peak experience…something kind of terrible happens right after…
Here’s an example: I’m going to sing the first line of a well-known song and you sing the second one. Ok? Good King Wenceslas looked out…[on the feast of Stephen]. The feast of Stephen…that’s this Stephen…and when is the Feast of Stephen? [well the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even…so it’s in the winter…] It’s Dec. 26th. The day after Christmas…the day after we celebrate the nativity…the Incarnation…the miracle of God coming to be literally one of us…the very next day the church wants us to remember Stephen…the first martyr.
Another example: I don’t think this happens much anymore, but it used to be a common practice when people were being confirmed, that the bishop would lay hands on them, say a prayer, and then smack the person on the arm, or sometimes on the cheek—when I was confirmed the bishop (who may have been old enough to have been a deacon with Stephen) grabbed the back of my head, and pressed his episcopal ring into my forehead. Bishops did this as a reminder that you not only needed to be willing to suffer for your faith, but that some suffering was inevitable.
I am NOT advocating a return to that practice, all I’m pointing out is that the church often reminds us that that even after Easter…after Christmas…after the Transfiguration…after whatever peak experience…we still have to live in the real world…in the Good Friday world…The world where Herod seeks the Christ child in order to destroy it…Where the fear of a mob erupts into violence and Stephen is stoned…where the principalities and powers of this world are still around and active…And resisting them…living as Easter people…as people of the Incarnation…as people of the Resurrection is not always easy.
Here in the Diocese of Massachusetts, we had our annual clergy conference this week. The presenter: the Rev. Isaiah Shaneequa Brokenleg offered a metaphor that I found really helpful. She likened oppression…(all of the “ism)…Empire…the principalities and powers to a moving sidewalk headed toward the Good Friday world. Moving along with it will certainly get you there faster. But we don’t want to go there. Stopping is good, but even if you become aware of all the injustices around you, if all you do is stop, you’ll still be carried along with the Good Friday flow.
To move back towards Christmas and Easter…towards God’s dream…towards peace, towards justice, towards equity…and reconciliation…and the restoration of right relationships between all people and God requires constantly moving against the Good Friday flow. Which really means becoming more and more comfortable with not being comfortable.
There’s a line in Eucharistic Prayer C (that’s the Star Trek prayer) that I love. I sometimes wish we could say it every week. “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only and not for renewal.” (BCP 372). Solace is absolutely necessary, and very often it is what we we desperately need. But, we need to receive solace in order to regain our strength…so that we can offer solace to others. We all need pardon, right? And we receive pardon so that we can be renewed to carry on following Jesus—who is the way, and the truth, and the life—as he moves against that Good Friday flow and towards God’s dream.
As newborn infants, we long for comfort…for solace…for support…for the pure, spiritual milk,” says the author of 1 Peter, “so that by it [we] may grow into salvation.” But we’re no longer infants…and we’ve all experienced the discomfort—if not the pain—of growing up. We all know that growth requires both solace and discomfort… both exertion…and rest…some pain…and lots of pardon. Today, let’s be reminded that the pull towards Good Friday is ever present…and let us be dedicated to strengthening and supporting one another in moving against that flow…and following Jesus into the dwelling places that God dreams for all of us.