Sunday, April 18, 2021

Phil Kniss: It’s all about attitude. No, it really is.

New chapter, ancient story, same thread — Easter 3: The Ultimate Witness
Acts 6:1-7:2, 44-6

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I hope some of you are skeptical about my sermon title,
“It’s all about attitude.”
I would be.
Yes, it’s true.
A positive attitude can go a long way
toward having a positive outcome.
But attitude is overrated.
Motivational office posters notwithstanding.
The “power of positive thinking” is great for people with privilege,
with adequate means and few roadblocks.

But how does better attitude bring a better outcome
for traumatized and trapped children at our southern border?
Will a better attitude keep an abused spouse safe?
Will positive thinking give black and brown people
equal chance for good-paying jobs and big contracts?

Or more to the point of today’s story,
would a better attitude have kept Stephen
from being stoned to death,
or our Anabaptist ancestors from burning at the stake?

So how dare I say, “It’s all about attitude. No, it really is.”

Okay, I confess. I’m misleading you.
I speak of a different kind of attitude.

If geometry or aviation are your expertise,
you know another meaning of attitude.
In geometry,
attitude is the orientation of a line or object,
in relation to some fixed reference line.
In aviation,
your attitude, when you’re up in the air,
is the angle of your airplane in relation to the horizon.
In plain language, attitude is how you are tilting.

So, I suggest, that in the life of faith, it’s all about our tilt.
It’s about who or what is our reference point,
against which we measure tilt.
It’s about life’s orientation.

We can look at these biblical stories of Jesus and Stephen, and others,
and see their tilt, their orientation, their attitude.

So let’s look again at Acts chapter 6, looking for tilt.

And to understand Acts 6,
we need to peek back at Acts 2 for a minute, the Day of Pentecost.

Post-resurrection was a tense time for Jesus’ band of followers.
Anxious and afraid, the disciples didn’t know
when authorities might knock down the doors,
carry them off to prison, trial, and maybe crucifixion, like Jesus.
They were in their “upper room” hideaway in Acts 2.
when the Holy Spirit poured down on them.
It gathered attention of crowds.
Peter preached a powerful sermon.
And thousands joined their movement.

But if anything, that increased the pressure from the powers.
The early church built their own communal and economic life,
just to survive.
They stuck close together.
The end of chapter 2 describes their set-apart life.
They shared meals, daily, so no one would go hungry.
And as they gathered,
they learned about faith in Jesus from the apostles,
and practiced mutual discipleship.
They shared their money and possessions with each other,
so no one had need.

All of this reveals their tilt.
The horizon they used as their reference point
was something Jesus talked about all the time—Kingdom of God.
They now realized the Kingdom was not an abstract ideal.
It was, as Jesus said, near them.
It was available to them. Now.
And it was necessary for life.
They began to see that God’s kingdom emerges
in a community where Jesus and the Holy Spirit are present,
and where they discern life, in light of scripture.

An embodied, communal, living expression of the Risen Jesus,
still in the world, here and now.
That’s the kingdom.
And that was their horizon.
That was how they oriented themselves.
That is what gave them purpose, meaning, and direction.

Can you see why tilting this way might feel threatening to authorities?
like the occupying civil government, representing Rome?
like the religious authorities, representing the temple?

To have an independent, fast-growing community
out there unsupervised, taking care of themselves,
doing an end-run around the civil and religious establishment,
working out their own moral code of conduct,
acting as if they didn’t even need
the authority structures they already had . . .
that could be dangerous.
It could lead to the authorities losing order and control.

So back to Acts 6.
This community by now had their own social security system.
They developed a method of food distribution
to make sure the widow and orphans got enough to eat.

But now, predictably, being human, their attitude was out of alignment.
They were tilting against the horizon.
Instead of a kingdom where every person’s well-being was treasured,
and cared for,
they discriminated based on historical privilege.
Jewish widows that spoke Hebrew and held to Hebrew ways,
got the first and best portions.
And at the end of the line, sometimes not getting any food at all,
were the Jewish widows who spoke Greek,
the ones who had assimilated more into Greek ways.

When it was brought to the attention of the apostles,
they saw it.
They realized their tilt was skewed, not in line with the horizon.
So what did they do?
They not only corrected their tilt,
they turned the steering over to the Greek-speakers.
They appointed seven deacons to be in charge of the distribution.
Acts 6 lists all seven names.
And what do you know? They’re Greek names!

And that’s exactly how it goes today, right?
In government, community, business, church . . .
Marginalized people cry out in complaint
about injustice or unequal access,
and the powers respond by saying,
“You know, you’re absolutely right. It shouldn’t be that way.
You take charge, help us be more equitable.”
Oh wait . . . maybe that never happens.

This is a remarkable story.
A sure sign the apostles had a clear eye on the horizon,
they had the right “attitude.

And as the story unfolds in Acts 6,
these seven deacons were blessed and empowered
to do more than wait on tables.
They preached and evangelized, just like the apostles.
They all had the same tilt toward the Kingdom.

Deacon Stephen got himself in particular trouble,
and was dragged in before the religious authorities,
who accused him of subverting Moses and the law,
and threatening destruction of the temple.

The accusers weren’t altogether wrong.
Stephen’s horizon was a kingdom
embodied in a worshiping, discerning community,
not in a religious establishment, or temple structure.
So, yes.
The temple and rigid religious laws were on shaky ground,
if the kingdom was a living, discerning community.

But in his own defense,
Stephen gave a biblical history lesson,
pointed out the ways
God has always worked outside the temple structure.
He said, “The Most High does not live
in houses made by human hands.”
He quoted Isaiah, speaking for God,
“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?”
To make matters worse, he accused them directly.
Called them “stiff-necked.”
Said they were just like their ancestors
who murdered the prophets.

This was not a strategy of someone oriented toward self-preservation.
No, Stephen was locked in on that horizon,
and spoke the truth that needed spoken.

Then in Acts 7, we get the most colorful description in the Bible
of authorities backed into a corner—
Let me read again, beginning at Acts 7:54.

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this,
they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven . . .
and said, “Look, I see heaven open
and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and,
yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
dragged him out of the city and began to stone him . . .
Stephen prayed,
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Then he fell on his knees and cried out,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
When he had said this, he fell asleep.

What a remarkable story of one who knew his attitude,
and stayed the course.
That’s the sort of clarity in the face of resistance
that gets people into trouble.
That’s what put Jesus on the cross.

And we are called to the same kind of clarity.
In the midst of a social and political context
where injustice and privilege play themselves out
in dehumanizing ways,
where speaking out against those things
can be highly threatening to the powers,
we as a worshiping, discerning community
who align ourselves with the horizon of God’s kingdom,
can anticipate resistance—
strong, powerful, coercive, potentially violent resistance.
When our “attitude” (this kind of attitude) is like that of Christ,
we give loyalty to a kingdom higher than all earthly authorities.

We won’t always know where the resistance will come from.
It may come from adversaries out there somewhere.
It may come from within ourselves and our own community.

And we need good discernment.
It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between wisdom and resistance.
Some powers-that-be have aims that look appealing,
but are contrary to the Kingdom of God.
We must be alert to any forces that tilt us off the horizon,
and toward cultural values
that favor wealth and privilege and coercive power.

Being tilted toward Christ is never the path of least resistance.
For just a moment, in silence,
reflect on what that might mean for you, today.
In whatever pressures you are facing.
How is your tilt? How is your attitude?

[brief silence]

Now, let us ask God for the kind of faith that keeps us on course,
in the face of resistance.
And we will do that, while listening to our church choir,
from four years ago, sing,
“O for a faith that will not shrink, though pressed by many a foe,
That will not tremble on the brink of any earthly woe.”

—Phil Kniss, April 18, 2021

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