Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: May 14th, 2017

Easter 5, Year A


No recording

Scripture Text:

Acts 7:58b


In the past, from time to time when I’ve preached, I’ve focused on just one verse from one of the Sunday readings. Today, I’m focusing on just half a verse: Acts Chapter 7, Verse 58b: “And the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

The front half of that verse tells us how the accusers of Jesus’ disciple, Stephen, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Stephen’s story, the story of the first martyr, is definitely a worthy subject to preach on, but today, I want to focus on that young man named Saul, a man who was obsessed with persecuting the followers of Jesus, then got knocked off his horse in the most dramatic conversion experience of all time, soon changed his name to Paul, and became the greatest marketer who ever lived, traveling all over the known world and establishing a brand, Christianity, that has lasted 2,000 years.

And he was quite the writer too. Sometimes I get a bit frustrated with him, but most of the time, he soars. His language can be so beautiful that it brings me to tears. And his writing — specifically the first letter to the Thessalonians — is almost surely the earliest in the New Testament: written before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But, in today’s story, Saul is none of that. Saul is an ordinary guy, nothing special. We would never have picked him as the fellow most likely to be gifted by the Holy Spirit to do great things. But he was.

We love stories like that. They give us hope — stories about unlikely people who do marvelous things.

Remember Susan Boyle, the simple, shy Scottish lady who wowed everyone with her amazing singing on Britain’s Got Talent?

And here’s a story you may not know, about Ryan Hreljac of Canada, who in 1998, when he was in 1st grade, found out that not everyone in the world has clean water. So, he raised $2,000 to build a well in Uganda. He raised it by speaking at schools and service clubs, by doing just about anything he could to get people to contribute. He’s almost 26 now, and his foundation has dug over 1,000 wells and brought water to over 800,000 people.

The Internet is full of stories of people who are doing amazing stuff. If Paul had had the Internet, wow!

So, we love these stories of ordinary, not particularly special people who do extraordinary things. And we also like all those stories in the Gospels that show that Jesus chose followers who were ordinary people, who initially just didn’t get it.

There’s that time that Peter, James, and John argued about who would be first in the kingdom. And how about when Peter wanted to build those booths at the Transfiguration? What was that about? And then, of course, Peter denied Jesus three times.

I’m sure you’ve noticed there’s a “Peter” theme here. But Simon Peter, who was so like you and me, just as human and flawed as we are, became the rock on which Jesus established his kingdom on earth. He’s the guy with the biggest church in the world named after him.

And James, John, and all the other disciples went on to do an amazing job spreading the Gospel.

I am so thankful to Jesus that he picked ordinary people to follow him, people I can identify with. It’s a comfort. It makes me think there’s hope for me yet.

And then there’s Saul. It’s possible for us to look at this half verse, 58b, and find it reassuring and comfortable. But we can also look at this verse, identify with Saul, and find it very uncomfortable.

There is great violence in this reading. A guiltless man is being stoned to death. Saul watches; the executioners lay their coats at his feet. They lay their guilt at his feet, undoubtedly unconsciously. Saul stands and watches, but, in doing nothing, he is complicit.

And now, 2000 years later, we are also complicit when we just stand and watch. We can point to too many circumstances from which we benefit and other people suffer. We can buy cheaper clothes, but impoverished people and children work in sweatshops around the world to bring them to us. We blithely consume gas and electricity, depleting resources and endangering our children’s children’s future. The world is warming; we are all complicit. We are pleased with the return on our investment in our mutual funds, but too often we choose to ignore exactly where that money has been invested. We’d rather not know. We are complicit.

Our property taxes help ensure that the schools in our area are among the best in the state. But just a few miles away in Chicago, underfunding, decades of neglect, and many other complex factors ensure that too many students are programmed to fail.

I could go on and on.

Those coats are at my feet too; I’m complicit. Complicit even in the seemingly little things that are part of a much bigger problem: for example, whenever someone tells a misogynistic or anti-Semitic or racist or homophobic joke, if I laugh or say nothing, I am complicit.

This is all pretty depressing, pretty overwhelming, but the kernel of good news in all of this is that we are like Saul. We are redeemable. We can make changes.

We can get on the Internet and find out what we can do about all these problems. We can continue to involve ourselves in activities that support MorningStar’s mission to the homeless in Joliet. If you haven’t signed up yet for the Exodus World Service Training this Saturday on May 20, do it. It’s just a first step; it doesn’t assume any kind of commitment on your part. Let’s see where that leads you.

And it would be a good thing for each of us to investigate where our new clothes are coming from and how we can make sure the people who made them were not being exploited. We certainly can become more careful about how we use energy and water. And we all should take a critical look at where and how we are investing our money.

You can also be involved just by praying for the people of Syria and South Sudan and so many other places in the world where there is so much suffering right now. The needs of the world are overwhelming. You and I cannot solve all the problems, but we can do our best to relieve the suffering
of the people whose lives we can touch.

We are all called to do this — to do what we can to allow the kingdom of God to break through. If God could take Saul and mold him into a powerful force for good, God can certainly do that for us. We just need to ask.

On that day when Saul watched Stephen die, I think the seeds of his conversion were planted. He may not have been conscious of it at all. But when Stephen saw the heavens open up and Jesus standing next to God, he described his vision to everyone. They covered their ears and rushed at him to kill him, dragged him out of the city. Saul saw all of this. He heard what Stephen said after he prayed that Jesus would receive his spirit: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen asked that those who were killing him be forgiven in the same way that Jesus asked for forgiveness of his executioners on the cross.

After Stephen’s death, Saul continued to persecute Christians. I wonder if he was able to forget that Stephen had forgiven him that day. I have no idea what life after death will be like. I don’t think we’re capable of comprehending it right now. So, I trust that it will be a great surprise, nothing like what we’ve imagined, something far beyond the way we live this earthly life and so much more wonderful.

But I do enjoy thinking about what it might have been like for Paul to arrive in heaven and be greeted by Stephen. I imagine that now they are great friends: celestial drinking buddies, bound by forgiveness and love through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, who (Thank you, Jesus!) accepts all at his table…(so do we).

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