Sermon May 10, 2020
As the grim prognosis of the pandemic grinds on, many people are asking, “Where’s God in all this?” “Why doesn’t God answer our prayers?”
God has three answers for prayer: “Yes,” “Not yet,” and “I have a different plan for you.” Considering that there is a vaccine on the horizon, it appears we are in the “Not yet” category now.
But, today’s Gospel lesson raises an important question. How do you get that “Yes” answer? Jesus told his disciples, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Doesn’t that sound like a “Yes” answer to prayer?
The catch is in that “in my name” criteria. “If in my name you ask me for anything.
Often our prayers fall up short in the criteria, “in my name.” Our prayers are often tinged with selfishness.
Often people will tell me they pray to win the lottery so they could give a lot of money to the church. “How much would you give,” I ask them. “Well, I’d save a little for myself,” they answer. “And the rest to the church.”
“Well don’t bother to pray, then” I tell them. “If it’s not 100%, your motive’s not pure enough.”
Think about it. It’s selfishness that stands in the way of God’s purposes. Just take a look at how selfishness is interfering with our ability to deal with this pandemic. Way back in January I inquired about getting a shingles shot. “We’re all out of masks,” the pharmacists informed me. Even back then, the hoarding had begun. But, the selfishness is at its most egregious at the corporate level. Unwilling to cut Executive salaries, many corporations are making employees take the brunt of the pandemic by massive layoffs and gobbling up the relief funds intended for small businesses.
But, this is nothing new under the sun. At the time Jesus made his invitation to ask in prayer, those same attributes of human civilization were at play.
Nevertheless, as now, many people regarded the teachings of their religion to be expendable. The “in my name” prayer criteria had the same level of accountability as before. Only the agenda would change.
As we try to establish a relationship with God that enables God to listen to us, it is important to understand Jesus important teaching about what he was doing. “I have not come to abolish the law,” he stated. “But to fulfill it.”
Now, he also summarized and condensed the law in his teachings to basically the Ten Commandments, which we teach in our churches. And yet, how often do we compromise those simple laws by interjecting our selfish motives into their interpretation.
“I don’t need to come to church. I can do that better at home. I’d rather not wait for marriage. What a silly outdated notion. I can’t afford a tithe to the church. My iPhone 11 bill takes too much of my take home pay. And on and on.”
It’s actually amazing that God pays any attention at all to us when we pray. Why would God expect anything less than 100% from us?
If you pledge 100% of yourself to 100% of God’s will then your prayer will be answered. Prayer must be pure, unselfish, and focused on the good.
Stephen’s prayer in today’s first reading has that quality: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
It is fitting that the first martyr of the Christian faith would be such a pure individual.
In contrast to Stephen’s purity was the defiled nature of the mob that stoned him. Lynch mobs represent the worst of human behavior. You might call a lynch mob “uncivilized,” but that’s not true. Throughout much of human history lynch mobs and the like have been integral to human civilization and have a distinct purpose within it. It is only recently that lynch mobs have ceased to function in this country, the last official one being in 1968. But, many would argue that they haven’t really ceased, that they continue in police shootings of Black individuals and the random shootings of Black people by white supremacists. I’m sure those of you who follow social media have by now become aware of the shooting of the jogger in Georgia which reminds us of the not so long ago shooting of Travon Martin in Florida.
In his teaching, Jesus was laying the foundation for a new civilization in which lynch mobs have no place and humans have no right to take the life of another human being except in the most narrow of circumstance.
Shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples realized the reality of what Jesus was doing. They rightly saw in his crucifixion, the end of the lynch mob forever. By becoming the ultimate victim of the lynch mob and then rising from it, that activity of human misbehavior was forever blocked from legitimacy. That Stephen was so soon after lynched himself is evidence that the point is not easily absorbed by a humanity intent upon its own murderous intentions. That it is still going on informs us that we still have a long ways to go.
The disciples recognized Jesus as the foundational cornerstone of this new civilization. Heeding Jesus’ words that he hadn’t come to abolish their religious traditions, they hooked up his new revealed identity with verses out of their scriptures. Today’s 2nd lesson from the Epistle of Peter quotes the cornerstone idea from Isaiah and Psalm 118 in 3 separate references. Some of us remember the concept from the old camp song, “The cornerstone which was rejected became the cornerstone of a whole new world.”
And Stephen was the next foundation block, a block rejected, like Jesus, by the usual builders of civilization.
They not only rejected Stephen. They killed him. Just like they killed Jesus. And in his death, Stephen joined Jesus by virtue of the way he died. Likewise the victims of all the stonings, lynchings, crucifixions, and the like join Jesus and Stephen as foundation blocks in the whole new world.
And yet, Jesus is still a scandal to the world. There is an interesting play on words with the word, “stumbling block.” It can also be translated as a “scandal.” Jesus and his whole new world are still a scandal to the inhabitants of the old world who do not want to give up what they see as their rights and entitlements.
You will still see them lining up outside gun stores at the first threat to their way of life. And occasionally one of them will take the life of someone in frustration over the absence of that good old way of doing it -the lynching mob.
Jesus is a scandal. Jesus says, “The power of my new world is kindness and love, sharing not hoarding. And when push comes to shove, my power is perfected in yielding to the wickedness of humankind, not overpowering it with force.”
For, the Kingdom of God will come. The fact that lynchings no longer occur in this country is evidence that Jesus’ whole new world is yet on the march.
Some will not want to give the church credit for this progress, but they are wrong. Jesus told a marvelous little parable to explain how this would happen. You all know the parable of the Mustard Seed. This one follows right after: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” Then, if you study history with this idea of hidden leaven, you will see the progress of Jesus’ whole new world.
The church is advanced through the actions of the pure folk like Stephen, not the charlatans who use the institution of the church to further their own ambitions. And believe me, there are many of these pure folk out there. You just don’t see them. They don’t make the headlines, but rather just quietly work for justice and serve the poor, all the while witnessing to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
This pandemic is an experience unlike any other we’ve ever had. Pandemics are not new to the world stage. It’s just that we haven’t experienced one. The last one occurred over 100 years ago.
As Christians, we have an opportunity to further advance Jesus’ whole new world as we work through this pandemic. Now is the time to witness to the world of the cornerstone values we live by -sharing not hoarding, generosity not selfishness, yielding, not fighting. And, like the early disciples, if we are true, if we are pure, we will encounter rejection and even hostility. But, the sacrifices we make to stay true to our belief in Jesus and pure in our motives will continue to lay the foundation stones for a whole new world. We may not see it in our lifetimes. Obviously, Stephen didn’t. But as he looked to heaven, he saw a vision -God, there in his reality and Jesus at his right hand -directing the affairs of man through the hearts and minds of all the simple believers who are the leaven in the bread.
Now is there any reason not to give your 100% to Jesus? What is it you are afraid to give up? I guarantee you you will lose nothing worth having and gain everything