Sermon: “Holy Disobedience”

11 April 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Second Sunday of Easter
April 11, 2010

“Holy Disobedience”

Luke 24:12-42 (selected verses)

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Years ago, when I was in youth ministry, one of my seminary friends gave me what was supposed to be a very hip and cool paperback Bible.  On the cover was a skateboarder flying through the air, doing some trick, and a big title, “Extreme Faith.”  But most of the teenagers who’ve seen it have laughed at it, because it’s so obviously trying to cater to them by pretending the Bible is somehow new or edgy or exciting – not the same old Bible Grandma likes to read.  Like saying, “Don’t you want to try this ‘Extreme Oatmeal’ with some ‘Extreme Whole Milk’ on it?”  They were not fooled.  They were lifelong Sunday School veterans and they knew how boring church could be.

But look at this passage:  why couldn’t it be featured in a children’s Bible, instead of all those mild-mannered stories of Jesus hugging little children and petting baby lambs?  It could be an action movie, right?  Jailbreaks and beatings, disciples on the lam, an exciting trial scene.  And the visuals would be great: Solomon’s Portico was in Jesus’s day his people’s connection to the 1st temple, Solomon’s actual temple from 1000 years before.  Way up on top of Mount Zion and above a city wall some 6 or 7 stories high, with an impressive expanse of 162 columns, it was just one side of the Jerusalem Temple, center of their nation’s learning, worship, fine art, treasury, and government.  In other words, it was a mega-complex to rival the finest sights our 8th graders saw in Washington, DC – like a combination Smithsonian, Cathedral, Mint, Supreme Court, and Capitol.  And these outsiders from the sticks, from this cult the rich and powerful thought they’d blotted out when they crucified Jesus, was taking over the place, attracting rock concert-sized crowds and teaching and healing them there – not on some Podunk lakeside in Galilee, but right there on their rightful turf at the Jerusalem Temple.  It’s no wonder these religious and political leaders were jealous and scheming to jail or kill them all.  We can’t help but cheer on the disciples in their “holy disobedience.”  They’re the great heroes of our faith.

But how willing are we to step outside the boundaries of peaceful respectability for our faith?  Last Sunday, on Easter, we proclaimed with generations of faithful Christians who went before us, “We are witnesses!”  That’s a great rallying cry – one most of us will happily share in worship.  That is, until or unless we remember that the ancient Greek word we translate as “witness” is “martyr.”  In the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, will appear in the very next chapter, chapter 6.  “We are martyrs!”?  I don’t know… We have to face facts:  Our ancestors in faith were a bunch of rabble-rousers and trouble-makers, and the halls of history are littered with their corpses.  What ushered in the first 300 years of Christian church, and the era of such fast growth that the Romans didn’t quite know what to do about us, was the age of martyrdom, when it was not only illegal but very often fatally illegal to be a Christian.  The 2nd-century church father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

At one of our Lenten lunches this spring, Mike Anastas told a moving story about a promise made to a grandmother to continue the Christian faith of her Greek family who were persecuted as a minority in Turkey.  We all must remember our heritages in faith.  The Pilgrim English Congregationalists who came to New England from Holland on the Mayflower had been under threat of death for their beliefs.  In North Carolina, my United Church of Christ roots go back to the Christian Church that James O’Kelley and other Methodist pastors formed when their Bishop in England forbade them to fight in the Revolutionary War.  When I hand out Bibles to Confirmands I like to remind them that martyrs like William Tyndale died for their right to read it – since he made the first English translation for us.  I also like to remind Confirmands about St. Perpetua – since Romans killed her whole Confirmation Class for failing to renounce their faith.  Christianity is a dangerous thing, if we choose to actually practice it. 

Even now, according to a 2006 study by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an average of 171,000 Christians worldwide are being martyred for their faith per year.  Muslim Fundamentalists are going after Christians in places like Sudan, Iran, and Indonesia.  Churches are burned and people have been tortured to renounce their faith.  Christians are still persecuted in the old Communist bloc countries like China, although the rate of death is about half of what it was before the Iron Curtain fell.  Back in the ‘80s, in my Berkeley campus ministry, I had a Chinese grad student who I innocently asked to join our church, as I would anyone.  But he was terrified.  He said he could not stand up and publicly join our church without endangering his family back home in mainland China.  He didn’t even want to get the church newsletter mailed to his campus apartment.

When you think about it, you might say the worst thing to happen to Christian church was “freedom of religion.”  We’ve become complacent about the real power of our faith.  Christianity was never meant to be this safe, conventional, or comfortable.  Can’t we be a little bit more courageous in sharing what we believe?  If others have risked death by disobeying totalitarian governments, why are we so reluctant to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to go to church?  Why are we so reluctant to share our faith stories?  It doesn’t have to be a big thing: I was glad to hear, from one of our members who spoke to the Vision Task Force on last year’s “prayer” priority, that he was now more willing to speak up to people outside the church and say something as simple as “I’m praying for you” – something that seemed to him a little too risky to say in the workplace before. 

I understand that we disagree with one another politically – it’s a free country.  But I think sometimes we silence ourselves for social reasons, when we might really be called to take a stand.  Our ancestors fought and died so we could profess our beliefs in public – so let’s use that right.  I know you guys in Men’s Fellowship do this on Saturday mornings without getting into food fights.  If nothing else, we need to stand up for those excluded or persecuted – or those who become fodder for tasteless jokes. If nothing else, we need to set a good example for our children -- especially when we think of that poor exchange student up in Massachusetts who was bullied so severely she killed herself.  We must never let that happen here, on our watch, as a church bearing witness to Christ’s love in Brookfield.

I encourage us all to find the voice to stand up for the love of Jesus and the power of “amazing grace” in the face of angry fundamentalism that would insist on a strict and very un-Christian legalism – whether in the name of Allah or in the name of Christ.  Although the expected anti-gay protesters didn’t arrive, we can be proud of our Brookfield High Students for organizing a counter-protest to protect the cast and crew of “The Laramie Project” last month.  In a world where self-righteous voices shout loudly from both the Left and the Right in politics, let us follow our heritage and do our best to listen for God’s true voice, the still-speaking voice that is full of love and not hate.  As Peter said to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” 

Jesus makes clear that when we are called to discipleship we are called to practice loving kindness and work for justice in the world – as our Women’s Mission Trip did this winter when they helped the poor in Rhode Island or as some of our youth will do this spring break when they go to feed people in living in the dump in Oaxaca or as our Senior Youth Fellowship will do this summer, when they travel out West to help Native Americans on the reservation in South Dakota.  Christians of every denomination and every political persuasion are called to “Holy Disobedience” against the principalities and powers of this world who would happily neglect or even persecute those God considers precious: the blind, the lame, the stranger, the outcast, the poor and the hungry, the sick and the prisoner, the widow and the orphan. 

If there’s any question about which political leader is right, we would do well to listen to the very good advice of Gamaliel in his case before the Sanhedrin, when he says, “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them!”  If we Christians could just follow this very good advice, we wouldn’t need to waste so much energy fighting each other.  The final judgment on any proposal or plan or political agenda – the fate of any church, even – is in God’s hands.  And, though we may suffer persecution and even death for our holy disobedience to earthy and human authorities, we know we can trust in the Lord we follow.  We can rest in the promise of our faith, that “God is good and his steadfast love endures forever.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


Acts of the Apostles 5.12-42 (selected verses)

12Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women…16A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.

17Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, 18arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, 20“Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.” 21When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching. …

26Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. 27When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

33When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men…. I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” They were convinced by him, 40and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.


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