Sunday, May 22, 2011

Snippets from a Sermon

We usually hear this story of the first Christian martyr after Easter and Christmas because all three major parties in this story...The people stoning Stephen, Stephen himself, and Saul (or Paul as we usually call him). These people, even Stephen though we usually wrap him up in the flag of martyrdom, are all finding ways of pushing God aside for their own purposes. Some have better motives than others, but they are all pushing 
God aside in some way.

The people are stoning a person who is telling them things they need to hear.

Stephen is telling people what they need to hear but in a way that isn't really helpful,

and Saul is egging on a lynch mob in the name of religious purity.

And before we write off the whole lot as 1st century religious fanatics, the question we need to ask ourselves in the wake of Easter is the same question we ask oursevles during Holy week: are we really any better?
We pretend we are. We pretend to be more sophisticated, more ethical, more modern. Yet, we push God away all the time. We put off dealing with the issue; we stop praying; we focus on something we think the Church did wrong so we can stay home. We hold on to the status quo. We start yelling and demeaning people who don't agree with us either religiously, politically, or ideologically.

And we even sometimes rejoice at the stoning of others. That may sound shocking to you. I see some raised eyebrows. But it happened in the last month. Did you watch any of the news coverage or read any of the facebook or other internet comments in the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden.
With a few exceptions, people spontaneously started dancing and erupting into boisterious choruses of "USA! USA! USA!" pretty much across the spectrum in America. Osama bin Laden was dead, and he got what was coming to him-GOD BLESS AMERICA!.
And we as a people rejoiced at the death of a fellow human being- a fellow human being that was made in the likeness and image of God, even though he had done everything in his power to corrupt that image.
Now, I am not defending Osama bin Laden. What he did was evil. And maybe justice was done. Whose to say? I don't care to make a moral judgment on the method by which he was apprehended and killed. Maybe he deserved it. But my point is, the way we as Americans largely responded was no doubt the exact same way the people who stoned Stephen this morning (including the man would would become Saint Paul) no 
doubt rejoiced after Stephen's death.

I think we do need to think about that.

It is one thing to be relieved that a violent criminal is brought to Justice, but I think its another matter entirely if we took pleasure in the violent death of any human being, even one as seemingly as vile as Osama bin Laden.
Because do you really think, even as Seal Team 6 was storming his compound, even 5 seconds before the bullet entered his brain, had Osama bin Laden knelt down and sincerely prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Do not hold any sin against me or them!" and as it said in Acts this morning, "When he had said this, he died..." had he been sincere, do you really think Jesus would not have offered the same unmerited grace to even such a man as that? Really?

Or would Jesus have said, like he said to the criminal on his right hand as they were hanging on the crosses on Golgotha, "Truly I tell you, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise."
We often want to think we deserve God's grace because we're not that bad. And while true we might not have killed people with terrorist bombs or concentratin camps, grace is still just as much a free gift to each of us, as it could have been to people such as Osama bin Laden or anyone else that we want to hang up as icons in the despicably inhuman hall of fame.

God's grace is a gift, not just to Stephen, not just to Paul, not just to fine upstanding citizens, but to everyone who has managed to push God away.

Let us Pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. 


Anonymous said...

Several things I find troubling.

You decide that Stephen pushed God aside and that speech was not "helpful". Why? Because it outraged people? Have you never read any of the words of Jesus that outraged people? What a strange attitude for a Christian pastor to take...

And your comparison of the stoning of St Stephen with the shooting of bin Laden, making a moral equivalence between those who rejoiced at both deaths...

It seems to me that you are the one who has a few things to think about.

The Archer of the Forest said...

I disagree. My point was and is, and I didn't print the entirety of my sermon that touched in more detail on why I believed this, that even martyrs can get things wrong. We simply don't know.

Acts is very clear that the Holy Spirit did not descend upon Stephen until after his long and in parts accusatory speech. So, I think we err to say that the words of Stephen were automatically given to him by the Spirit beforehand. I am not saying he was completely wrong, but the fact of the matter is that he did inflame the situation. Maybe he needed to-I was willing to concede that point-but we should not necessarily jump to that and only that conclusion. If you actually read the text, it is not nearly as clear cut as Christians often pretend.

Likewise, my point is that we in contemporary America like to stone people just as much as did the people in the first century. We live in a 21st century equivalent of ancient Rome where civic religion decrees that Caesar can do no wrong. God is on our side and God bless America and all that. That is the exact same reasoning and logic that the Jews in the story pushed on Stephen.

If you read what I said, I was not equating Osama bin Laden and Stephen. I said maybe justice was done in bin Laden's case. Grace is a gift. Grace was a gift to Stephen, to the people involved in the story, to the people who still throw stones, and maybe even to Osama bin Laden had he asked for it.

That is my point. We are all sinners who need that grace and don't deserve it. When we start thinking we're better than other sinners, we need to think about that.

Please feel free to contact me off blog if you want to continue this conversation. Otherwise, I will not respond to any further anonymous criticisms on this subject.

And for your moral conscience, anonymous, if you don't have the decency to show your face or contact information, what does that say about your faith and belief, that you prefer to snipe in the darkness.