I have to admit, I was hoping to draw a simpler scripture for my first homily. Maybe a parable or something really easily hopeful considering how heavy the world feels right now. But here we are.
An initial reading of these three scriptures is a little grim. We start with the stoning of Stephen and then move into two scriptures that pull pretty heavily on house imagery – which probably feels more hospitable outside of our current safer at home situation, when many of us are longing to be anywhere else. Plus, we get a familiar clobber verse in John that’s often used to bully and exclude anyone outside of Christianity from salvation.
But if all we ever afford scripture is an initial reading, we’d miss a lot of God. A deeper dive brings a unifying theme into focus: the future. Each text offers an alternative vision of the future and what awaits us as people of faith. In theological circles, we might recognize this as eschatology – the part of theology concerned with death and judgement, and the final destiny of the human soul. You know, light reading.
But again, we miss out on a lot of God if we reserve eschatology only for end times and Revelation. An eschatological reading of these texts offers not only a glimpse into life after death, but it informs how we ought to live our life until death. Considering life through this lens, then, brings about an invitation to an alternate vision of life, here and now. It helps reorient us to how we should be living given the future we choose to see. AND, it can reduce the power of that pesky little, mortal notion of death. Approaching our future with an eschatological curiosity will almost always shape how we interact with our present. And we get a perfect example of this with our first reading.
In Acts, we encounter two competing realities. Stephen’s and the people’s. It’s clear that Stephen is living in a reality shaped by his eschatology while those around him are living into a reality shaped mostly – I won’t say only, because we can’t ask them, but mostly – by what they can physically see and experience. Their reality is finite, rooted in fear, and ends with death – which is why they think stoning Stephen will solve their problems. Stephen, on the other hand, sees a much bigger picture and his reality doesn’t mesh with theirs. No surprise then these alternating visions have created some tension and Stephen finds himself at the hands of an angry mob, ready to silence him at all costs. And here’s where it gets interesting. While the crowd sees only what’s in front of them, Stephen’s view is radically different. “Look” he proclaims. “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” For Stephen, this vision isn’t a surprise, but rather the future he’s been living into all along. And because he’s viewing life through the big picture lens of eschatology, Stephen becomes capable of doing something truly amazing. With his final breath, he prays for the very people casting stones.
Stephan’s eschatological vision – his assurance in what lies ahead – allowed him to not only fully live into his truth, but to see that God’s future includes and redeems everyone – stones and all.
In 1 Peter, we come about this a little less violently. Speaking to churches suffering religious persecution, the author presses a more hopeful eschatological view. It’s a familiar theme, reminiscent of ‘the last shall be first’ exhortations of the Beatitudes. Drawing on an image the audience can relate to – home – the author imagines the afterlife, with a twist. We mortals have it backwards: the things we reject and cast aside are chosen and precious in God’s reality. The people we exclude, the ideas we dismiss, the values we assign – all of it upended, all of it made sacred and holy. How would that knowledge affect our everyday life? What kind of hope would that inject into our despair? What fearsome finalities would transform into mere intermissions if such a future was known? An eschatological lens doesn’t simply erase what matters in this life, or remove it’s meaning. But it does shift the power. It’s the suggestion that perhaps even the greatest and boldest parts of our imaginations are still rooted in our mortality. Whatever we’re struggling with – whether it’s the religious persecution our author was referencing or a much more personal affront we hold in our hearts, 1 Peter reminds us that we have a greater purpose ahead.
It’s an assurance of the holy that extends beyond our experiences. Of course it’s subjective, but that’s how we encounter and imagine God – each of us in our own ways. This is where Jesus meets the disciples in John 14 as well – rooted in their own experience.
They’re struggling with uncertainty – which is pretty understandable considering the last few weeks they’ve had – the celebration of Palm Sunday, the intimacy of the Last Supper, the confusion of Jesus’ declaration that one among them will betray him, and the emotional whiplash of Jesus telling them he will be leaving. Jesus is throwing a lot at them and they’re tired and confused and at their mental and emotional capacity – they just want answers and certainty. They aren’t interested in doing the hard work of interpretation. I…think we can relate.
But instead of answers, Jesus gives them something that will serve them even better – though maybe won’t address their immediate frustration. Jesus is operating within a much bigger picture. One that isn’t contained by finite experiences or the rules the disciples assume are in play. He invites the disciples along, assuring them they have everything they need to begin living into a future they can’t quite envision yet, but one that awaits them nonetheless. He asks them to trust this vision. To let it take away their fear and their need for answers and certainties, so what’s left is…life unencumbered.
These scriptures aren’t information on salvation to be read and followed like a recipe, but an invitation to an alternative vision that helps us live more fully into this life, here and now. Eschatology isn’t the endtimes, but rather the future we choose to see, in the midst of competing candidates and alternate realities. Like Stephen, it’s what happens when we see beyond death and let that vision shape our current reality. Like the disciples, it’s what happens when we’re given the gift of reframing our vision.
One more thing to note. We’re in the midst of darkness. Maybe it’s a beginning twilight and the deepest part of the night still lies ahead or perhaps we’re coming up on dawn and not quite ready to face the harsh light of day. Sometimes all we can see up ahead is a wall of global pandemics and the murder of black and brown people and white surpremacy and cages and addiction and loneliness and new metoo stories. It crowds the news and our minds and our hearts and it’s too much.
But, we are still an Easter people. We are born and refined and given purpose in the darkness. We live in the midst of, and because of, this darkness. It’s where our faith begins, but never where it leaves us. There’s an alternate vision. And this is where I find the good news.
A final story to close from Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark:
“A few years ago, Ed and I were exploring the dunes on Cumberland Island, one of the barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the mainland of south Georgia. He was looking for the fossilized teeth of long-dead sharks. I was looking for sand spurs so that I did not step on one. This meant that neither of us was looking very far past our own feet, so the huge loggerhead turtle took us both by surprise. She was still alive but just barely, her shell hot to the touch from the noonday sun. We both knew what had happened. She had come ashore during the night to lay her eggs, and when she had finished, she had looked around for the brightest horizon to lead her back to the sea. Mistaking the distant lights on the mainland for the sky reflected on the ocean, she went the wrong way. Judging by her tracks, she had dragged herself through the sand until her flippers were buried and she could go no farther. We found her where she had given up, half cooked by the sun but still able to turn one eye up to look at us when we bent over her. I buried her in cool sand while Ed ran to the ranger station. An hour later she was on her back with tire chains around her front legs, being dragged behind a park service Jeep back toward the ocean. The dunes were so deep that her mouth filled with sand as she went. Her head bent so far underneath her that I feared her neck would break. Finally the Jeep stopped at the edge of the water. Ed and I helped the ranger unchain her and flip her back over. Then all three of us watched as she lay motionless in the surf. Every wave brought her life back to her, washing the sand from her eyes and making her shell shine again. When a particularly large one broke over her, she lifted her head and tried her back legs. The next wave made her light enough to find a foothold, and she pushed off, back into the water that was her home. Watching her swim slowly away after her nightmare ride through the dunes, I noted that it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.”
My challenge to us: as Christians, or kind of Christians, or simply those open to the story, is to root ourselves in eschatology. To accept the invitation that things are not as they seem. And to consider an alternate vision, one that gives new meaning and purpose and hope to our lives, in the here and now.
Thanks be to God.
Needs of believers – That we may be Stephens in this world, looking beyond our mortal imaginations to a future where grace and love and mercy are extended to every person in God’s creation, we pray.
World community – That we remain mindful of the complicated nature of this day and the wide spectrum of motherhood. Help us to hold our grief for mothers and children who have died, for relationships between mothers and children that have been broken, for dreams of motherhood that may never come to be; and for those reluctuant to name the difficulties of this day, for them, we pray.
People in special need – That black men who run in the streets may be recognized by every white person as bearing God’s very image and treated as such and that the essential workers and working poor among us may feel chosen and precious in this world and the next, we pray.
Monastery – That we may be open to the notion that the things which turn us upside may be offering a gift of transformation and new life.
WE NOW LIFT UP ALL THE PRAYERS THAT YOU HAVE SUBMITTED FOR OUR BOOK OF INTENTIONS,
THE PRAYERS WE EACH HOLD SILENTLY IN OUR HEARTS,
AND MENTION THE NAMES OF THOSE PEOPLE WE WISH TO PRAY FOR.
Gracious and merciful God, we bring you these petitions – some spoken aloud and some known only to you. Continue to live in and among us, that we may continue to know and share your glory, offering ourselves and the world an alternate future where your grace and mercy reign. We ask these things in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, amen.