Today is Make A Difference Day at church. We had a cookout after worship and then everyone got their hands dirty doing yard work. The nice thing about living in the parsonage is the fact that they are doing yard work over here too!
Here’s this morning’s sermon. I recorded it this week so I’m going to try to figure out how to upload it here! Any suggestions?
A Modern Day Crucifixion
It has been a wonderful couple of weeks here at Rehoboth Congregational Church. Five weeks ago we waved our palms and shouted ‘Hosanna!’ and we made a commitment as a church family when we baptized Baby Cassandra. Four weeks ago we ran from the tomb and shouted ‘Christ is Risen!’ from the shores of the Anawan Club to the lily-filled sanctuary right here on Bay State Road. Three weeks ago we rejoiced that we are already ‘suspending our disbelief’ and sharing our faith with the people around us. Two weeks ago we walked on our own ‘road to Emmaus’ and thought about our call to be the face of Christ to the people around us. And in a touching intergenerational liturgy, we also blessed a new group of prayer shawls that will bring – and have already brought – comfort to members of our community in need. And last week – oh how wonderful last week was! – we confirmed seven young members of this community and were witnesses – at times tearful witnesses – to the commitments that they made.
It was a great five weeks. And when I got into the office on Monday morning I had nothing but great expectations for this week. Yes, the forecast looked a little bit gray, but let’s turn lemons into lemonade and say that all of the rain that we saw this week watered our gardens and now we’ll be all set on produce for the rest of the summer.
So – Monday morning, I picked up my copy of Feasting on the Word, which is my lectionary resource and tells me which scripture choices I have for the week, and opened to this week, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. And what did I find? The ‘Stoning of Stephen’.
I will be honest – I did not want to preach on this text.
Here is a little bit of background on Stephen. Stephen was a leader in the early Jerusalem Church; he was a ‘Hellenist’, which was a term used to describe the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians in the early church. The ‘Hellenists’ were very spread out and much less stringent about interpreting the Torah than the ‘Hebrews’ were. The ‘Hebrews’ were the Palestinian Jewish Christians who spoke Aramaic and lived in a much more centralized location.
Okay, so we have the ‘Hebrews’ and the ‘Hellenists’ – two different groups of believers in the early Christian Church. The groups had a couple of rifts between one another, but mostly because of the leadership structure that was in place. The twelve apostles ministered to the ‘Hebrews’ and the ‘Hellenists’ – who were more scattered and foundationally had different beliefs – felt as though they were without leadership.
In an effort to resolve the growing rift between the two groups, there were seven Hellenists chosen to be in leadership and work on behalf of the entire group. Stephen was one of the seven chosen.
Quick Recap: We’ve got two different groups of Christians. The ‘Hebrews’ are being led by the twelve apostles and the ‘Hellenists’ have no leadership. The groups came together and decided that the ‘Hellenists’ would choose seven men to lead them. Stephen was one of them.
Now despite the differences between the two groups of Christians – language, location, adherence to the Torah – there was one unifying concern for both groups. And that was the persecution by the Jewish authorities.
Stephen was no different than the apostles who had been arrested before him for preaching in the name of and believing in salvation by Jesus Christ. He was arrested and brought before the Chief Priests. While he was there he was asked if the charges against him – preaching in the name of Jesus Christ – were true. He responded with a 53-verse speech that basically told the Jewish authorities everything they had done wrong for thousands of years.
Now the part of me that has training in conflict transformation is inclined to side with Stephen on this. He saw patterns of defiance and corruption in Jewish history. And he wanted to point that out to the authorities as a way of saying, “Look we have an opportunity to be a restored people and I have had this amazing personal encounter with God and I would love for you to let me tell you my story.”
Of course – Stephen wasn’t quite so subtle in his response. In fact, he summed up the entire speech by saying, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” The pastor in me thinks that he could have crafted his response in a much more positive way.
Now when the authorities heard Stephen’s speech they became very angry. And they stoned Stephen. And he died. And that is the scripture that we read this morning.
Y’all this is a horrible story! Do you see why I didn’t want to preach on it? At least when we read the Passion Narrative and recollected Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion a few weeks ago, there was the quiet whisper of hope that the resurrection was coming! Here we just have a Christian leader who was stoned to death!
But this story is part of the Christian story – and it is an important story to be told, to be thought about, to be preached on and to struggle with.
Here are my thoughts.
When I spend time with scriptures like this one and then I listen to and read the news every day, I have to wonder if things really haven’t changed all that much. Now we may not be stoning or crucifying in our society and in our community and in our generation, per se. But – in the same way that there were differences between groups of early Christians; and in the same what that there were differences between those groups of early Christians and the Jewish authorities – we experience differences. We experience differences in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, in our country and in our world.
And we experience disagreements because of those differences; and we experience conflicts because of those disagreements. And people, families, communities, countries and lives are hurt because of those conflicts.
If you think about it, there are modern day crucifixions happening all around us.
We all know that there are problems in the world. But what we oftentimes do not know is how to react to them. They are overwhelming at times, agreed?
I almost hate to say this, but I’m not sure that we – ‘we’ meaning people in 2011 living in this community, in our country and in our world – will ever rectify the differences that exist between one another today. There is no way, after thousands and thousands of years of differences, that we will figure out a way to live with uniformity.
Think about it – if you look in Genesis there are two different accounts of creation. If you look later in Genesis there are two different accounts of the flood. There are four different gospels that tell four different versions of the Christmas story, the ministries of Jesus and the crucifixion and resurrection. The very earliest Christians faced differences between one another and between them and the authorities of the states. Differences, individuality and unique opinions, perspectives and recollections are a part of who we are as human beings. It always has been!
It is in our DNA; we are different!
We are never going to be the same. We are never going to agree on everything. We are never going to have the same beliefs. We are never going to convince someone who thinks and feels differently that we are right and they are wrong.
But here’s a question: Why would we want to? Like I talked about with the kids during children’s time, a world with absolute uniformity, with complete likeness and with no diversity whatsoever would be – well – boring, but it would also be the exact opposite of who we are called to be as the Body of Christ, each fulfilling different roles and responsibilities. In the same way that our community needs doctors, nurses, teachers, coaches, lawyers, electricians, plumbers, contractors, mailmen, store owners, salesmen, firefighters and police officers, the Body of Christ needs people who interpret the bible differently and who experience their faith differently in order for it to thrive! I don’t know where ‘we’ – ‘we’ meaning us and also the people before us who have tried to figure all of this out – got the idea that we had to be alike to think that we’re getting it right. God would not have created us differently if that was the intention.
I am giving us permission: I am giving us permission to be different; to have different beliefs and different ideas. I am giving us permission to agree to disagree. I am giving us permission to live our lives convicted in what we believe in – and not what we think we are supposed to believe in. I am giving us permission to think differently than the person at our left and the person at our right and still be able to worship with them and share a meal with them. And I am giving us permission to stop modern day crucifixions from happening.
I know what you must be thinking: That’s nice. But how do we make that happen? How do we live in a society where conflicts need to be solved, where arguments need to be won and where sides need to be victorious? How can we prevent these modern day crucifixions in a society where the opposite has been engrained in our lives?
Now I am not saying that Stephen had it all right. I think he could have picked his words more carefully than, “You stiff necked people”! But I do find it interesting that right before he died he said the words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” And if you think back a couple of weeks, right before he died, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” We have got to trust that God has a bigger hand in this than we do.
We can read these scriptures. We can think about how awful they are. We can try to find a way to avoid preaching on them. We can look and track ways we see certain patterns repeating themselves over time and make ourselves crazy wondering what we are doing wrong.
And then we can realize that we are not doing anything wrong; that we are just being human; that we are just being who we were created to be. And then we can hand it over to God. And when we do that, I truly, truly believe that we will make this world a better place.