John 14:1-14, Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
We are surrounded by countless images each and every day. Some of these are visual images of physical objects; others form through words we read on a page; still others are the images arise from conversations and stories told to us by other people.
Sometimes these images evoke other memories. Occasionally they shock or even overwhelm us. Sometimes competing images confuse us. Much of the time, images evoke an emotional response from us.
Here are some of the images, for instance, which have been taking up space in my head this week. They begin with the snapshots of empty dormitories in a school in Nigeria from which over 200 girls were kidnapped over a month ago; they are still missing - evidence of so many lives interrupted. There are images from burned-out homes and acres of land consumed by wildfires in California, still threatening vast areas of the state. There were the crowds of people in Turkey, waiting for news of the fate of those buried deep under the debris of mine explosions, hope dimming with each passing hour; and there was a pregnant woman in Sudan condemned to death because she is a Christian and refuses to renounce her faith, the faith in which she was raised, a risk most of us simply cannot comprehend. All startling and disturbing images.
Against those images though, are these: the youth of Grace working hard to raise money so that over a year from now, they can join with tens of thousands of other high school aged students at the National Youth Gathering, where they will learn more about their faith, where they will have the opportunity to share and discuss more about the issues affecting their lives as Christians in an increasingly pluralistic world, and where they will put their faith into action through service to the people in need in the city of Detroit, where they will be meeting. I have the image of dozens of Easton residents showing up to stand in solidarity and support of a shelter for some of God’s beloved children who are facing tough times; images of walkers and runners gathering and participating in races locally and elsewhere, to raise funds to give hope and cure to those afflicted with life-threatening illnesses. I carry with me this morning the image of men and women of all ages gathering at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg where I was on Friday, first to celebrate their accomplishments when seminary degrees were conferred on them, and then coming together as community again a little later that afternoon, to give God thanks and praise for all God’s blessings and for their vocations; and, the images of hope and excitement at commencement exercises held in places locally like Washington College and Salisbury University and in many other institutions of learning across our country and around the world as well.
Like many of these images, the scriptures that we read this morning are simply snapshots out of time. They capture a part of the story, but we know there is detail and a backstory that we are missing. Alone, the images evoke a response, but do we really know what we are even reacting to? Take our first reading, for instance, a dramatic story to be sure – this text, which tells of the stoning and martyrdom of Stephen. This story presents a powerful image – a young man, a disciple of Christ, sees a vision of heaven, with Christ standing as if as witness at the right hand of God, and then is rushed out of town and stoned to death.
In and of itself, this is a powerful image. We also have to admit though, it is in many ways disturbing image. True, in this short piece of the text we are given an admirable picture of the strong Christ-like witness of Stephen whose final words, we are told, are in fact reflective of Christ’s words from the cross, words of forgiveness for his murderers. But you know, this story would make a really poor employment ad for disciples for Christ.
But we know that there really is much more to the story. If you read the preceding chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, you will learn that Stephen, because he was known as a young man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, was called as a disciple early in the first days of the church. As the church was rapidly growing, it was noted that help was needed to make sure that the people most in need of food were not overlooked but were being cared for. And so Stephen and some other disciples were added to attend to the needs of the poor. Yet, as he is serving and tending the people, Stephen’s strong witness of Jesus Christ, the wisdom and strength of Spirit with which he spoke caught the attention of the wrong people, who plotted against him and ultimately brought him to the moment we read about here. Hmmm, still not very enticing, is it? Anyone here ready to sign up?
Fact is, we will be welcoming a new member of Grace through Baptism a little later, but I wonder, has he read this story? If not, we had better lock the doors and grab him while we can, right? Because who in his right mind would answer the call to discipleship with this story as its invitation?
But then we read the other scriptures we have before us this morning. It looks like the psalmist has had some troubles of his own. Don’t we all? From time to time, like the author of this psalm, we all have our struggles. Enemies from within and without assail us. As members of this fallen humanity we each suffer as well as cause pain and suffering. Stuff happens that we cannot understand or explain. We inflict harm on our environment, and we are vulnerable to disease and death.
Yet as this psalmist faces challenges and hardship, his words reflect hope, assurance of God’s steadfast presence and strength, and ultimate deliverance. Whatever befalls him, he declares, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O LORD, God of truth. For my times are in your hand….let your face shine upon your servant, save me in your steadfast love.”
Our reading from 1 Peter tells us about the beloved of Christ, a “living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight…” The author of that lesson goes on to describe how firm a foundation we have when Jesus Christ is our cornerstone, the one in whom we believe and trust, the one through whom we receive the grace and mercy of God.
Finally, we come to the gospel from John which comes from the Farewell Discourse Jesus delivers to his disciples on the very night he is handed over for his passion and death, and ultimately, his resurrection. I would like to focus on these important words from this gospel for us today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (verse 1) There are many words that follow. Words that promise a mansion in which God is preserving a place for each one of us. That is for the future. But the gospel words of this passage for all the disciples of Christ, both then and now, are these that come from the first verse.
Jesus isn’t simply telling his disciples here not to worry. But Jesus knows what is coming. Like many of the events of our days and the images that accompany them, Jesus knows that events are coming, images that will shock, terrify and yes, trouble the hearts of the disciples. What Jesus is telling the disciples – and us –is more like this – Jesus is telling us that the time is coming when events will threaten, frighten, shock, sadden, and even terrify you. But you will have faith to withstand whatever comes, because Jesus has given it to you. “You believe in me,” Jesus is saying, “and I have told you things that you will remember and share with others. Continue to hold onto my words, to the promises of God, because though them, I will continue to reveal God’s love to you.” Jesus will replace troubling images with reassuring ones, including those of this mansion with many rooms, including one with your name on it.
Jesus knows that the disciples will be troubled by the coming events; that the early church would be troubled by persecution; Jesus knows that we are troubled by shocking images and troubling news and events in our own times and in our lives. Jesus knows that it is only natural and human to be concerned, frightened, and even to have doubt when those things transpire. But Jesus is telling us, when those things happen, don’t be consumed by worry, do not let your hearts continue to be troubled. Rather, turn to my Word. Turn to the faith that I have given you. Turn to the promise of God that is true – that I will always be with you, with you to the end, and beyond.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Jesus promises that despite images that assail us that would cause us to worry, to be troubled, and even to doubt, that God loves us, is with us, is and will be always on our side. God continues to be rock, refuge, and strength. God promises that we are God’s people, and that as such, we have received God’s mercy and grace. God abides with us. God will dwell with us now and forever. Even when we cannot fathom the events around us, like schoolgirls being kidnapped and used as political pawns, or wildfires destroying the homes, property and environment, even when life’s challenges, disease and death threaten, we can believe in God and in the promise of our Savior who loves us, who hears our prayer, and answers our needs with wisdom, with eternal promise and with unending, surprising, and even shocking displays of mercy and love.