I discovered the West Wing later in life, several years after it had ceased airing new episodes. I binged it while in graduate school at James Madison University. While studying counseling and college student development, I found the emotional resonances of the show soothing for a soul that was being dissected by my studies.
The West Wing was thus an escape from the inner turmoil that I found. Regardless of whether I agreed with the politics espoused, it was so easy to get emotionally involved with the characters. Perhaps you can relate. Whether this show or others, it’s easy to get emotionally involved in a show we like.
To feel their happiness and elation when things go well and to experience the disappointment and defeat when things go wrong. To know the highs and lows of their lives. To experience the joys and sorrows.
In all of that, one character’s attitude stood out to me. His wasn’t as up and down; he was more stoic and staid. That attitude came through especially in his characteristic question, “What’s next?” President Bartlet would ask that question regardless of what the news as prior.
What’s next? It didn’t have the same emotional resonance for me. It seemed rude and abrupt. It felt off character for the show as a whole. Upon reading our scripture for today, I found myself hearing that same question, implicitly asked by the disciples, in a way that gave new depth of understanding to this classic question of The West Wing, “What’s next?”
Hear our scripture, the story of the stoning of Stephen, in Acts 7:54 through 8:1.
This story is not as famous as some others in Acts, like Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrived, the conversion of Saul to Paul, or Paul’s shipwreck, but it was famous for the early church. Perhaps more famous than any of the other stories I just mentioned.
For Stephen was the first martyr, the first Christian killed for the cause.
In chapters six through seven, Stephen gives an account for why he believes. He’s been hauled into a religious trial for proselytizing in Jerusalem. The religious officials are examining him to determine if he’s acting outside the bounds of appropriate behavior. Needless to say, by the time Stephen is done, they are enraged. The Greek says they are “cut to the heart” and “grind their teeth at Stephen,” an Old Testament allusion to the classic expression of deep-seated anger at someone else.
Then, at the climax of their anger, he looks up to heaven and says, aloud, that he sees Jesus. “‘Look…I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
This is too much. He’s stoned. He’s killed. For witnessing to his faith, he’s executed. He becomes the first martyr, the first Christian to die for his faith. In fact, the word martyr comes from the Latin martus, which means to be a witness in a legal proceeding. That is what he has done and, like so many in the few hundred years after this and like so many today in countries like China, North Korea, and places in Africa, he’s executed for his faith.
For us today, we are aware of the reality that some die for their faith. Not so often around here, and very rarely indeed in our country, but we know that this is both part of our contemporary situation world-wide and part of our history. Lots of folks have died for our faith.
These martyrs continue to witness to us, calling on us to ask this hard question of reflection, “is what you believe worth dying for? Do you know Jesus so well that, push come to shove, you would die rather than go against that faith?”
If we ponder that question honestly, it becomes very challenging indeed.
And no doubt that’s what the disciples are asking themselves in the wake of Stephen’s stoning. This is a critical moment for the church. Our church history looks inevitable some 2000 years after this episode. Christianity marched across the Roman Empire, grew into a mature religion, played a staring role in the founding and expansion of our country and is the privileged religion of our country and the largest religion worldwide. It’s as if there was never any question that this would be the case.
But at this moment, if we put ourselves back with the disciples at this moment, it couldn’t look more different.
Imagine with me that you go to a church in Jerusalem at this time. It meets in someone’s house, for there are no formal buildings and it’s best to meet in semi-secret. You are one of only a handful of believers. There have been a few moments where thousands are converted, but they’re not all going to little churches. Your church is brand new, has no scriptures except the Old Testament, has no guidance except the Holy Spirit, and is led by one of the original disciples of Jesus Christ who visits every so often.
At the Temple in Jerusalem, outside of the main, holy, chambers, Peter presides over this new and fragile movement. You can go and visit him and ask questions and, sometimes, your church leaders do. Your church has a reputation, as they all do, of being too different, too radical, and thus trouble for the stability of the city. To join a church in Jerusalem at this time is to be ostracized by the public and considered a threat by local leaders. Give those local leaders any reason to disband you and run Christians out of the city and they will.
The stoning of Stephen gives them just that reason. Acts reports that “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem” that day and that “all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” So you, member of a local church that meets in someone’s house, flee Jerusalem, where your actual house is, where your livelihood is, where your friends are, where your life is; you flee Jerusalem because you have no choice. The persecution is that severe.
This is a moment of tremendous defeat. This is a moment of disorientation. One of those times in life where things go so wrong, so suddenly, that it’s hard to make sense of the world, hard to get our bearings. Perhaps this sounds familiar.
It would be tempting to give up. It would be tempting to just be done. It would be tempting to give up on this new movement. After all, it is new, it’s unproven, its caused you probably more trouble than good at this point, so in the balance of things, it would make sense to give up on the church and on Christianity. Consider that it’s so new, you wouldn’t even call it Christianity, for that name did not yet exist!
I’m reading a book right now, a fiction book which is a rarity for me, and in the book a character comes home from war having lost a leg. He’s very angry as he gets off the train to rejoin his extended family. As he hobbles away, an eight year-old child who is the book’s main character asks the veteran’s nurse, “why’s he so angry?” Without missing a beat, she responds, “He’s angry for the same reason everyone gets angry, at the way things turn out.”
Powerful words. Consider your life for a moment. Bitterness is old anger from how things turned out in your life. Where is there bitterness in your life? Or maybe there are areas of your life, people in your life, that when you think of them, you get angry. That’s anger at how things turned out.
I’m sure we have all known our fair share of folks who are deeply angry or bitter at how their lives turned out. There were setbacks, misfortunes, challenges and difficulties they couldn’t surmount, families that fell apart, finances that were ruined and never recovered, and it leaves them bitter, having previously been deeply angry. This is the way of life: it comes with setbacks, misfortunes, ruinous and calamitous events. Pop Christianity sells a happy go lucky version of our faith that, so long as you love Jesus and trust him, everything will turn out all right.
But Stephen lies dead in the street.
Everything didn’t turn out alright for those in the early church who trusted Jesus. One of their own, a prominent member, a disciple, is dead. This is a setback, a misfortune, a ruinous and calamitous event. It’d make sense to be bitter, angry, and despairing.
But in the middle of it, scattered to the wind, these earliest Christians look to God and say, “what’s next?”
It’s a powerful question in the face of defeat. It’s a question of hopeful anticipation for a new, and probably surprising, direction. For the question “what’s next” assumes that there will be something else, that it’s not over, that the path will continue.
These early Christians show us what it looks like to handle defeat, setbacks, ruin and calamity: it’s to look at God and, with hopeful anticipation, ask “what’s next?”
For God’s not done. God is never done. Setbacks are just God’s opportunity to be creative.
Many of you walked the journey with me when I was deferred, which is the polite way of saying that I failed my ordination exam. Many of you were, like me, very angry. It felt unjust. The setback was hugely surprising. It felt like it came out of nowhere. It was a terrible disappointment.
And it was easy, in my heart of hearts, to tack it on to other disappointments. It was easy for my brain to pick out a pattern, wallow, and declare that life was just set against me.
Those are words of hopelessness. Those are words of despair. Those are words that, if left to sit unchecked, become anger, which turns into bitterness. Through the Holy Spirit, as I experienced those feelings, I knew if I didn’t take them to God, I would be setting myself on a path to bitterness.
So I looked to God and said, “What’s next?”
What could have turned into deep-seated bitterness did not because I looked to God and said, “what’s next?”
When we encounter setbacks and disappointments in this life, when people wrong us and we’re scattered like these early Christians, it’s natural to feel despair. And, it’s damaging to us to tell ourselves we’re wrong for feeling that way. Feelings are never wrong. They’re like illness; they just happen. What we do with those feelings is where we can either move toward health or do damage to ourselves.
And what we do with the despairing feeling that we will all encounter in this life, for life is full of disappointments, makes all the difference in our lives and in our faith.
Our faith should cause us, no matter how desperate and difficult the despair is, to look to God and ask, “what’s next?”
For setbacks, disappointments, are just God’s opportunity to be creative.
God is never overcome. God is never undone. God is never through. God will always find a way.
No matter the setbacks or disappointments, no matter the challenges we face, no matter how dark things get, those moments are just God’s opportunity to be creative.
God will create something new. It will probably be surprising. It will call us in a way that we would not expect. But God will call, God will move, God will provide, God will restore, God will be creative and further the kingdom through us.
If we will let him.
For we can stand against God’s creativity. We can reject God’s creativity. We do that when we decide to get bitter or angry.
It would have been easy for these early Christians to do just that. At the very beginning of their movement, when all was going well and there was the excitement of this great new thing, Stephen is murdered. They are forced to flee their lives and everything they knew in Jerusalem. It would have been easy to swallow a bitter pill for life had provided for them terribly. And to sit in their new homes, wherever that was in Judea and Samaria, and wallow, saying woe is me, life is set against me and I’m done.
When we do so, we stand in the way of what God wants to do. We reject God’s call on us and God’s provision. That’s because we’re taking control of the situation by deciding that we will allow our disappointment and despair to turn to anger and then to turn to bitterness.
The question of faith, the bold question of faith, in those moments of disappointment, no matter how deep, is, Ok God, what’s next?
What’s next for my finances?
What’s next for my business?
What’s next for my family?
What’s next for my cherished relationship now lost?
What’s next for my children who have abandoned me?
What’s next for my parents who have lost their way?
What’s next for my health?
What’s next for my schooling?
What’s next in my life?
That’s the example of these earliest Christians. When scattered, facing defeat, rather than get bitter, angry, or despairing, they looked to God and said, “What’s next?”
When the road is unclear, when life throws a curveball, when there are setbacks and we feel the pull of bitterness, anger, even hatred, we must give God those emotions through the powerful act of faith that is asking, “What’s next?”
For God will answer. The answer will probably be surprising. But the answer will always be this: redemption.
Because that’s what God does; turns our bitterness into the sweet things of life, makes our anger joy, and our despair hope.
If, if, we will give God those emotions and then ask, with all the faith we can muster, “what’s next?”
Will you do that this morning? Examine your life. Where are you bitter? Where are you full of anger? Where are you deeply frustrated about how life has treated you? What things are you avoiding thinking about because you’re afraid they’ll turn you into an angry bitter person?
Bring those things to the light. Talk about them with loved ones. Call me and talk to me. I’m still available for pastoral care.
And then, together, let’s ask God that powerful question of faith that holds deep meaning for our lives:
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.