The Least, First

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Drink deep of God’s pure kindness (sermon for April 21, 2008)

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05.04.24 Easter A5
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

Blessed Be Your Name
Indescribable
Shout to the North
In Christ Alone

Sermon: While I read, get ready to tell me about the tone of these words.

Psalm 31
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
1 In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Free me from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spirit;
redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth. […]

15 My times are in your hands;
deliver me from my enemies
and from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.

What words does that Psalm bring to mind? [They offered words like safety,and peace.] Remember those.

Now, to Acts, for a contrast. A little background:

Stephen is a layman – not a preacher – one of the people on the Seeds of Grace committee in the early church – like Evie or Cindy – one of the ordinary people who took food given by the church to those who didn’t have it. People saw God in him as he cared for others, found him attractive.

As has always happened when God moves, some got better and some got mad. And the mad crowd spread rumors that he really didn’t believe the right things, and got him hauled before the religious heavies. And like Jesus had done, he confronted the religious about their hard-hearted, love-less lives. All around, the room erupted in catcalls and whistles and shouting. And here’s what happened next.

Acts 7:55-60
55But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed–he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side. 56He said, “Oh! I see heaven wide open and the Son of Man standing at God’s side!”

Ever notice that usually, in a vision like this, the writer describes Jesus as seated at God’s side? Some wonder if Jesus is standing with his hands extended in welcome to John.

57Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede, 58they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them.
59As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, “Master Jesus, take my life.” 60Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, “Master, don’t blame them for this sin”–his last words. Then he died.
Saul was right there, congratulating the killers.

Most of the time, Jesus slipped away when the moralists tried to force confrontations. But there were times, especially toward the end, and especially where there were on-lookers whom he didn’t want to misunderstand, that he insisted they were wrong.

Likewise, with his followers: this was Stephen’s time. Usually, followers of Jesus avoid head-to-head arguments with religious views that find them too lax in rule-keeping. But there are times …

You remember we talked about Jeremiah Wright, a couple of weeks ago, and how Mike Huckabee had said remarkably tender, humble things along the lines of, “If it’d been me, I’d have probably done worse.” That was beautiful.

Here’s another side. Roman Catholic priest Father Michael Pfleger, who knows Jeremiah Wright personally, is confronted by a Fox News reporter, who is determined to be critical. Father Pfleger decides to press back on behalf of his friend. Watch it:

There’s a time to walk away, and, occasionally, there’s a time to press back. As with Stephen’s incident, this wasn’t an argument with someone who simply chooses another way, but a face-off with someone determined to prove that his faith—and that of Dr. Wright—wasn’t good enough. Father Pfleger responds boldly, yet never rudely—don’t we all wish we could do so well!

No doubt he’ll take some heat for it. Jesus did. Stephen did. And here’s the strange thing. Psalm 31 was about safety. Then here’s Stephen, getting murdered.

Hmm. Did God fail Stephen? Where was he when Stephen died? We saw where he was, didn’t we? Reminds me of the song we sang this morning:

Blessed be your name-
in the land
that is plentiful,
Where your streams
of abundance flow –
Blessed be your name.

And then, the other side:

Blessed be your name-
when I’m found
in the desert place;
Though I walk
through the wilderness-
Blessed be Your name.

I came across these words from Kari Jo Verhulst in Sojourners this week:

Years ago when my mother was quite ill, a friend copied a poem and surreptitiously slipped it into my Bible. I discovered it weeks later when, on a train returning from one of my visits home, I opened my Bible in search of comfort, though I doubted I would find any. I still attribute the moment to the hand of God, unsophisticated as that sounds, and the poem has been stuck to my bulletin board ever since.

Suspended

I had grasped God’s garment in the void
but my hand slipped
on the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and feel
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
—Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov’s experience of God’s sustaining love begat in her the need to put it on paper, a need my friend then shared in his desire to offer her words to me. And in that moment, I felt the everlasting arms, mediated by a slip of paper born of love.

So how do we get there?:

1 Peter 2:2-10

2Now, like infants at the breast, drink deep of God’s pure kindness. Then you’ll grow up mature and whole in God. . .

Who’s our model? Ever been around a nursing baby who drank deep? Some nursing moms have to have Dad carry the baby around, ‘cause mom’s so full of milk that if she picks up the baby, baby smells milk, fusses, mom’s milk lets down, everybody ends up soaked. Baby has to drink deep, when mom’s milk lets down, to keep up. I remember hearing my kids chugging.

What’s the milk? God’s pure kindness. What if God is as full of kindness as a nursing mom is of milk? What if we just get near and look for it his kindness lets down and, if we’re willing, all but floods us in kindness.

How would you drink deep of God’s kindness?

And what’s the result? Mature and whole. Answer to a tough question: how do followers of Jesus become mature? By drinking in God’s pure kindness. How many times I have gotten this wrong! But I’m learning – but that’s how I’ll become mature!!

Do you know the way into the future? Let me read John 14 – read from Bible – only through “I am the way.”

What I am slowly learning is that “the way” is different than I thought. I thought that the way was knowing what to do, and if I only knew what to do, then I’d be safe and on the way.

But Jesus says, “I am the way.” Like Thomas, I am tempted to say, “Yes, OK, now show me the way.” And Jesus answer is, “You’re looking at him.” The way is Jesus. He won’t let me dodge him and trade knowing him for a “to do” list.

So, I don’t know a lot about what to do. I look at the future – maybe you do – and say, “How should I know?” But in those rare moments when my heart is really still, I have to agree with Jesus, and say, “Alright, Jesus, I know you a little bit, so I guess I know the way. It is enough.”


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury
“Suspended,” from Evening Train, ©1992 by Denise Levertov, New Directions Publishing Corp.; Psalm 31 is from the New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society; Acts 7:55-60 is from The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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