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The Persecuted
November 20, 2016
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana

Text: Matthew 5:11-12; Acts 5:12-42

 I don’t know about you, but I probably would have gone home after being busted out of prison. Gone home, had a shower, a decent meal, and then laid low for a little while, letting things cool off a little and buying time to implement a new strategy for spreading Christ’s message without being arrested. But Peter and John go right back to the temple, right back to the same spot on Solomon’s Portico – the long, public colonnade favored first by Jesus and then by the apostles, right back to the very same spot where they had been arrested the day before, and continue sharing the good news of the resurrected Christ. Once again a crowd gathers. Once again miracles happen. Once again people experience salvation and healing. Once again the temple police arrive, breaking up the gathering and arresting Peter, John and the other apostles.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.

All fall we’ve been working our way through the beatitudes – that set of blessings recorded by Matthew and Luke. Now, in a piece of good news for those of you tired of exploring this corner of the Bible, we’ve reached the end. Blessing number 10. The blessing of those who are persecuted, who are reviled, who are falsely accused, for the simple act of following their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

A six-lane parking lot, locally known as The Hutch leads north out of New York City. On weekdays commuters use it to shuttle between Manhattan and the high priced Connecticut suburbs. On weekends the traffic flows the other way, as Manhattan’s apartment dwellers head north in search of fresh air. The Hutch follows the Hutchinson River, a polluted, sediment filled excuse for a waterway. It also passes right by the home site of Anne Hutchinson – skilled midwife, powerful preacher, convicted heretic and American martyr. She came to what was then called New Netherlands in 1943 seeking protection from Boston’s puritan leadership. She died a few months later, a causality of an Indian war she neither started nor supported.

The daughter of a Church of England clergyman and wife of a wealthy merchant, Anne had come to America in 1634 to be part of that great Puritan experiment known as Boston, that divinely ordained city upon a hill that would show all of England the benefits of true religion. Success, Boston’s Puritan leaders believed, required conformity. Anne Hutchinson didn’t conform.

In England, Anne had held Bible studies in her home. She continued doing so in Boston, frequently criticizing the colony’s preachers for their focus on outward conformity as opposed to inward spirituality. Soon men as well as women started attending her Bible studies. Then her group tried to replace the senior preacher of the Boston church with one more attuned to their sense of spirituality.

1630’s Boston had no place for a wealthy, highly educated, outspoken woman who differed with the established leadership on matters of spirituality. Her teaching not only was causing division among the settlers but it also threatened to cause God to revoke his blessing on the community. Three years after Anne arrived in Boston, Boston’s leaders arrested her, tried her, expelled her from the colony and excommunicated her from the church. Pregnant, Anne headed south through April snows, where she would join Roger Williams, a Puritan preacher who had been exiled from Boston a year before. His sin – preaching that forced religious practice was also false practice. A few years later Anne would head further west into what is now New York, find herself in the middle of a war between Dutch settlers and the Siwanoy tribe, and be killed. Ironically, one of the false teachings leading to her expulsion from Boston: respect and dignity for Boston’s native American neighbors.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.

Usually, when we think of persecution, we think of ISIS, or North Korea, or the old Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Political religious persecution is real, serious and should be fought on every front with prayer, persistent protest and political action. Yet some devil filled dictator didn’t arrest Peter and John. Their own religious leaders arrested them in their own house of worship. Anne Hutchinson had followed her pastor, the great Puritan preacher John Cotton, from England to America. That same pastor read her excommunication order. Separated by centuries, John, Peter and Ann were arrested, were excommunicated, for the same crime – bringing prophetic, spirit filled renewal to communities convinced they had God, and the worship of God, all figured out.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus says at one point, “the city that kills its prophets and stones those that are sent to it.” “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus also tells the persecuted, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.” Who are the Peters and Johns, the Anne Hutchinsons in our community, in our church today? Six weeks into our time of congregational discernment I find myself wondering this very question. I also find myself confronting a more disturbing thought – whether we suppress or even exile those God sends to bring Spirit filled change and renewal? Do we persecute our prophets? Do we squash the Holy Spirit to preserve peace, security, our sense of what is proper and right?

At Peter and John’s trial, the great Rabbi Gamaliel, teacher of the Apostle Paul and founding sage of modern Judaism, has this advice for the council: “If their teaching is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is from God, it will not be overthrown.” The Jewish leadership had tried and could not stop Jesus. Neither would they stop the movement in his name. Anne Hutchinson’s critique of New England Puritanism proved prophetic. Its focus on outward behavior over inward spirituality made it hollow. Time would vindicate her message and the legitimacy of her delivering it – but only after the religious experiment she challenged had failed.

Jesus blesses the persecuted because often we persecute the very prophets sent to call our communities into a renewed relationship with God. They expose sins, challenge the powerful and bless the marginalized. Its easy to name them heretics and troublemakers.   Its harder to listen, and change, as God speaks through them.