For whom should we pray? Acts 5.27-40
Low Sunday (7 April) 2013
Sermon by the Rev. Daniel Gunn
St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, WB
May we seek Truth together in humility. Amen.
I’ve always been a “good boy,” generally speaking. I’ve always respected the authorities. I never got into protests or marches, but I always had the spirit of civil disobedience—at least I thought. (I literally have the t-shirt to prove the story I am about to share with you.) Shortly after I was ordained to the priesthood, living in the affluent and very white community of Bronxville, serving as assistant at Christ Church, I was driving back to the church from lunch. My route always took me past the local hospital. One day I noticed a number of people at the rear entrance to the hospital with picket signs and t-shirts marching in formation. I also noticed that most of the faces were brown. Bear in mind that few faces in Bronxville are brown. My curiosity was piqued. I drove on to the church, parked my car, and walked back to the hospital. Upon arrival, I inquired what the commotion was all about, to learn that these were food service and housekeeping employees. They were protesting for a livable wage and healthcare. (Remember they were working in a hospital and did not have healthcare coverage.) One woman told me how she fed her children macaroni and cheese every night because she couldn’t afford anything else. One of the leaders of the protesters explained that the state had disbursed funds to the hospital for a higher wage and healthcare, but the management had refused to negotiate with them.
Having worked as a hospital chaplain for two years prior to my arrival in Bronxville, I understood where they were coming from, and identified with their struggle. The organizer told me that I was the first person from the village to show support and the first clergy person to offer encouragement. They asked if I would say a prayer. I graciously accepted the invitation. I prayed for the hands of Christ that cooked and cleaned and touched the body of Christ in every person admitted to the hospital. A simple, innocuous prayer—or so I thought. I went back to the church and met the other assistant priest in the office hallway. I explained what I had done, the response I had received, and how satisfied I felt for my effort. Right in the middle of my story the rector flew out of his office and began to scream at me in front of everyone—the other priest, the office staff, parents coming to pick up their children. He ordered me into his office and continued yelling at me. He explained that we had parishioners—wealthy parishioners—on the board of the hospital and if they got wind of my activities they might pull out of the church, and he said as he pointed his finger at my chest, “If that happens, that’s your job buddy.” (I left out the expletive.)
Shocked, afraid, stunned, confused I retreated to my office. I quickly composed an email to Bishop Paul. I am very happy for electronic communication because I got a quick reply. I don’t remember everything he said, but I do remember him suggesting that I should ask the rector this: “For whom should I pray?” The next morning the rector came to my office first thing. He sort-of apologized while justifying his anger. When he was done I asked him that question: “For whom should I pray?” He had no response. Left my office and never mentioned it again.
I kind of feel like that’s what’s happening in today’s lesson from Acts. The disciples had been with Jesus and had received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. They felt compelled to share freely what had so freely been given to them, but that spirit of generosity and love resulted in reprimand. They quickly learned that not everyone shared in their joy and spirit of egalitarianism. The “bosses” yelled at them and threatened them. They would not be dissuaded by threats, though. They boldly continued to proclaim the truth that had been revealed to them preferring to obey God’s authority rather than human authority. This is the very definition of civil disobedience. This is Christian activism.
Christ still calls us to action today. Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. I’m sure he would have eaten with the Pharisees and others had they invited him. He still calls us to follow his example of standing on the side of the poor, the outcast and the marginalized. Living the Gospel takes many forms, and often living the Gospel means going against the prevailing majority and pushing through threats and intimidation. We’ve seen it in our time. There was a time when scripture was used to justify slavery, and then later to justify keeping blacks separate from whites. None of us would stand for that today. There was a time when women were a lesser class of citizen, but I defy anyone to attempt to put women “in their place” today. Now our struggle has come to integrating gays and lesbians fully into our society. Let’s not stand on the wrong side of history proof texting scriptures to justify a bankrupt theology.
Too often scripture is proof texted to make a point, when in fact the scripture needs to be put into its context. By proof texting I mean taking a single scripture out of its scriptural and historical context. If I proof text scripture I can justify genocide, slavery, and prohibition of divorce, not to mention misogyny, and a host of other intolerant attitudes. But when I place scripture in its proper context and apply reason and tradition to scripture I can’t help but come to different conclusions.
One of my emerging heroes is the late William Sloane Coffin. In The Courage to Love he wrote, “It is a mistake to sharpen our minds by narrowing them. It is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one. Christians have to listen to the world as well as to the Word. And do not all of us learn more when we do not try to understand too soon?” (Courage, p. 7)
The opposite of Love is not hate, but fear. We cannot love what we do not know and understand, and we cannot understand and know what we are afraid of, and thus we come to hate it. Our response is either to fight it or flee from it. It becomes the other and we are “special,” but there is a problem with being special. When we think we are special then the paradigm is set for the other to be judged as wrong. And when we stand in judgment we become like those threatening the disciples. We would do much better to listen to the advice of Gamaliel and to take stock because “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God.”
Let us realize that “Do unto others . . .” applies to ALL others. May we come to view our brother’s holiness as a sacrament to us. A sacrament is a place where God shows up. Do you have the courage to follow God rather than man? Do you have the fortitude to heed God’s authority? Coffin reminds us of the danger of loving one another: The hand extended in love always returns covered with scars (if not nailed to a cross), (Courage, p. 13). For whom will you pray?
In these thoughts may we find truth. Amen.