Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“When the Wheels Fall Off”
Rev. Art Ritter
May 10, 2020
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 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.
It feels to me like this has been a much harder week than those immediately before it. While there may not be much logic to my feeling I must admit that there is a bit more uneasiness and doubt within my soul. Perhaps we will look back and find that staying at home was the easiest part of our pandemic experience. Isolation wasn’t a great deal of fun but at least there was some assurance that we were safe, with the exception of those grocery store adventures. Staying at home wasn’t enjoyable but we had the motivation that we were helping fight the COVID-19 virus and that our time of sacrifice would bring results.
We knew that many were hurting. It was obvious that doctors and nurses and health care workers were sacrificing their lives to provide care for the sick. We soon learned about the risk of first responders and grocery store workers to keep us safe and nourished. Staying at home meant that our children were out of school and parents had to make additional sacrifices to keep the household functioning. We knew that many of our friends and family were out of work, laid off or furloughed and the economy suffered from our isolation resulting closures. The practical realities of lowering the curve came to light and the debate between health and economics was real. But we felt like we were doing something, sacrificing something to aid in the treatment and to prevent the spread of the virus.
It feels now as if another page has turned. The next phase of living through the pandemic is right around the corner or perhaps has already begun. Ready or not, states have begun to unlock their economies. Slowly, in most cases, steps are beginning to be taken for businesses to open. People are congregating again at parks and beaches. There’s talk of professional sports returning, of malls and shopping plazas re-opening. We may be able to sit down in a restaurant for a meal again, albeit in a restaurant with much fewer seats. There is a group here at Meadowbrook that is examining what our worship and ministry will look like when we can return.
Some places are moving quickly, in the minds of many, much too quickly, to restore what is fondly remembered as normal. Others are persuaded that a prolonged shut down will mean the death of our economy and jobs and way of life. There are protests, including the demonstrations inside the capital in Lansing. Social media is ablaze with comments about the authenticity of science, the credibility of COVID 19’s death rate, about whether or not one really needs to use a mask, about the validity of continuing social distancing. One person’s vision of freedom seems to be another person’s nightmare of disaster. One person’s idea of health seems to be a tool that enslaves another.
In some ways this week it felt like the wheels were falling off. Any vision of a unified, focused, and purposeful mission to lessen the pandemic came crashing to earth. The veracity of the disease, the economic and political realities, and the emotions and worries and fears leave me wondering what to make of all of this right now. It feels so strange for me to be living in a time in which the advice of health care experts is ignored in the face of politics. It seems maddening to me to read of so many who are willing to embrace conspiracy theories to attach blame and attempt to make their own personal sense of the virus. I am worried that the right of those with weapons and loud voices are heard while the rights of those dying quietly and alone are ignored. There is a swirling pot of hope and fear, politics and science, fact and misinformation. Where is God in this? What is the best way to be faithful? How can I best make sense of what is happening?
We are now five Sundays in the season of Easter. So far the stories of the Risen Christ and his followers have been rather amazing. Jesus appeared to the group behind locked doors and offered them peace. Jesus encouraged even the doubting Thomas. Jesus walked with two of his followers on the road to Emmaus and after breaking bread with them they recognized him and their hearts were lifted. Last week we reflected upon Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the good and tender care we receive daily from him. In readings from the book of Acts, which we have discussed at our Bible Study, we have heard an encouraging speech from Jesus, a inspirational sermon from Peter, and the optimistic news that hundreds of people had been converted to the way of Jesus. For a while, everything was looking good for this new faith!
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, the wheels fall off. A different reality is presented. Stephen, a follower of Jesus is stoned to death. Stephen was a leader in the early church, perhaps he was one of the original deacons. He was full of faith and the Holy Spirit and devoted himself to serving others, distributing food to those in need. Barbara Brown Taylor describes Stephen as a pretty ordinary guy: “He was not one of the Twelve. He was not even a candidate to replace Judas when that slot came open. He was simply a good and faithful man who could be trusted to distribute food to those who were hungry.” But his words and his witness to Jesus angered the established religious authorities. Stephen’s life of faith suddenly got more complicated. Lies and rumors and conspiracy theories spread about him. His words and actions threatened the order of those in power and the reason of the masses. In their anger and rage a crowd dragged him into the city and stoned him to death.
This isn’t a good and uplifting story. Unlike many of the post-Easter stories there isn’t a happy ending. This is a story of fear and lies and hatred and violence. I don’t know how this incident made those newly baptized converts feel. It would have frightened me. It would have left me feeling a little less certain about the future. It would have me wondering if following the resurrected Christ is such an easy and worthwhile bargain.
But perhaps that is the message of this story. It wasn’t going to be easy. Faith in the Risen Christ would require some difficult choices and some painful decisions. Faith in the Risen Christ would have its days of discouragement and doubt. Even the story of Jesus wasn’t fair. Jesus took risks and paid the price. He warned his followers of sacrifice and suffering. He offered no guarantees other than that even in darkness they would find his presence. I am with you always. In that the early Christians found their purpose. When the wheels came off they found hope instead of despair. When things got difficult they knew that striving to know Jesus as closely as they could was the way to bring eternal meaning upon the temporal. Even when everything seemed to be falling apart, imitating Christ would offer some meaning in chaos and uncertainty.
Princeton professor and preacher Tom Long writes, “Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. In fact, when Christians gather at a graveside and announce hope in the resurrection, it is precisely counter to all possibilities latent in the present tense. Christians can not lay the cards on the table and predict how the hand will play out; they admit they do not know what the future holds.” Long writes that we do not know if loved ones will die. We do not know if peace talks will succeed or fail. We do not know if God’s agents for change in the world will be heard or ignored. We simply do not know. He concludes, “Our hope is based, rather, on the promise that, whatever the future may hold, God is, in ways often hidden, shaping all human life redemptively and bringing all things to fulfillment in Christ….In short, Christians do not believe, on the basis of evidence, in progress; rather, we believe, against much of the evidence, in a God who keeps promises.”
In these difficult times, with the prospect of more difficult days ahead, we must live this present day based on the future of hope. Hope encourages us to walk as close as we can to the living Christ, the Risen One, living out his gospel in our words and our deeds, preparing ourselves and the world for the future in him.
A pastor named Jim Lowry wrote a poem for Easter Sunday in 2004 entitled, “At Deep Dawn.” I will close with part of it:
If everything you believe is true,
Then there is hope.
If everything you believe is a lie,
Then there is no hope.
Remember what he taught you…
Remembering what he taught you
Is what will help you believe your Jesus is alive.
Today we must remember how Jesus taught us
The meek really will at last, inherit the earth.
We do believe that, don’t we?
Today we must remember how Jesus taught us
That peacemakers really are the children of God
We believe that, don’t we?
Today we must remember how Jesus taught us
That the ones who stand for what is right will be blessed.
We believe that, shouldn’t we?
If you long for hope that will not let you go…
If you want the children to grow up surrounded by kindness born of truth;
If you long for the world not to self-destruct,
This is the story you must remember and this is the story the church must tell.
In those moments of deep, deep dawn,
When you remember what he taught you,
You will know…
You will believe…
You will be sure
There is hope so strong
Not even the grave can contain it.