Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
In today’s gospel reading we hear, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” These were Stephen’s dying words, which echoed those of Our Lord Jesus, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” It took great courage for Stephen to face this mob on that day. He not only endured their attack with courage and trust in Christ, but he actually blessed the crowd who stood before him with disdain on their face, stones in hand, and with the goal of killing him.
When we hear this story, we usually focus on Stephen alone, and we all of course, empathize with him. We read the story and it affects us all in different ways. I want you today though, to imagine for a moment that we are not empathetic bystanders crying for Stephen, but we are with the crowd, ready to throw stones. You may think it is difficult to imagine that any of us would stone someone, but stay with me for a moment, and let’s look at this story from another perspective.
Stephen was the first martyr in the church, and we commemorate his example because he stood firm, when he faced the ultimate fear of death and rejection of his peers. Stephen was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. None of us have ever had to face Stephen’s fate, however there are Christians today, who have. Today, some sisters and brothers suffer at the hand of the mob, but just in what some would see as benign ways.
The Local Stoning Club
Two women from a local church, were sitting in the assembly hall one Sunday morning after services, and one of them, with hand cautiously covering her mouth whispered to the other, “I guess you heard the latest, haven’t you?” “No, what,” the other replied. The first slyly shared with the other, the latest gossip about the long-term church member, who had been caught in some notorious failure, and the rumors began flying wildly throughout the membership.
In that moment, it was as if the crowds were forming again, a so-called sin was being brought forth for all to see, and the recipient of the accusations was living helplessly at the mercy of the rumor mill. The only thing that was missing in this story was the stones. It is in our human nature sometimes, to succumb to want to eliminate things and people that threaten us. These threats and fear are often brought forth because of our disdain for someone else and then, we react to that threat with violence towards another.
Like Stephen, we all may be able to recall a time, when we have been on our knees suffering as the target of some unfounded or untrue attack by people who we thought were our friends. It is so easy for us to identify with Stephen the Martyr. However, we rather dismiss the possibility that we can just as easily, be a member of the gossip crowd with stones in hand.
The Threat – Heart Change
The crowd that stoned Stephen saw themselves as righteous and they assumed their actions were justified, because they also assumed, they had to defend their faith against someone who threatened it. The interesting twist to the story and the beautiful irony of it is this, the crowd’s power came violence, but the real power being exerted was the peace and joy found only in trusting Jesus Christ. Stephen was merely a humble servant, who challenged the crowd to accept the life that Christ was calling them to live, and he remained faithful to the end.
The threat for the crowd was not even Stephen to be honest but rather, it was the fear and uncertainty associated with, a radical heart change they needed to make, and the transformation of life called for by Stephen’s witness of Jesus. The crowd’s fear of that change put them in a defensive mode, and their troubled heart succumbed to violence in order to squelch the threat. We see the demonizing of people today and quite honestly, we need no more martyrs.
We live in troubled times right now, and our fear is causing us to seek out an enemy to squelch, a threat to quieten in order to falsely bring our troubled hearts to peace. Violence and division are erupting in our society in ways we cannot imagine. Young men out on a run for their health are being shot dead by deranged people who are fraught with fear and troubled hearts. People are in the streets with guns in hand, and out of fear and troubled hearts, they are protesting the very laws intended to protect them. People are huddled in their homes and out of fear and uncertainty, they too are looking for someone to blame. We all have the capacity to stand against our sisters and brothers with stones in hand. Maybe it is time we stop looking to stone one another and begin looking at how we can find our common path together. It is time for us to put aside our fear, which leads to violence and stone throwing, and begin to work together for the peace of God, which passes all understanding.
Fear and Anxiety
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” When our hearts are troubled, God promises us peace, a place of rest, and a place of grace. God promises that even when we are fearful, we have the assurance of God’s grace. God calls us out of our fear-laden defense and attack modes into the calm empathy for the other, the kind of holy empathy that Stephen showed his attackers. We all need in these times, to find a space in our hearts and in our homes, where we can be quiet, listen to the Spirit, and experience the calm given us by God, and that demonstrated to us by our brother Stephen.
I have a sacred space at home that always provides me with a place to experience God’s grace. In my study at home I have a desk, a sofa, and shelves filled with theology, history, and ethics books, which I cherished throughout my years of seminary education. This space is sacred to me, because the furniture in it is deeply drenched with hours and hours of reading, with the hours of late nights pouring over vestry reports, budgets, parish plans and projects. On that sofa there are memories of what seemed like days of re-writes and corrections to sermons that I eventually preached.
For me, sitting among those theology books and relaxing in that well-worn sofa reminds me that God’s presence was very evident to me in some very difficult times. In this sanctuary space, Terri, Ron, Laura and I occupy today, many of you have found it to be a powerful space filled with grace. When we were here together, and we could see at the altar, the beautiful flowers, the cross, and other decorations, we felt that this was our sacred space. However, we are not quite able to gather in this space, but I remind you today and give you hope that the grace of God cannot be contained in four walls and a ceiling.
Peace Abounds/Grace Abounds
Sacred spaces are moments of the heart where we encounter God’s peace. Sacred spaces are respites from the chaos and uncertainties of life. Sacred spaces are havens of rest from our fears. Stephen said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Stephen found a sacred space in his own heart, in the midst of the death and pain which was forthcoming. Stephen was on the receiving end of public humiliation and a painfully excruciating death. Yet, even as he was about to succumb to the crowd’s wrath, he experienced God’s grace in the midst of his circumstance.
Stephen, like Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, did not retaliate against the crowd; he forgave them. From death to life, from persecution to peace, it was on that day Stephen recognized the sacred space of God’s presence found only in trusting Christ in the difficulties and tragedies of life. Whether our sacred space is a special spot in our home, a sandy patch on a beach, a comfortable chair on your lanai, a leather chair in a study, your favorite chair in church, or merely the spiritual acknowledgement that wherever you are, there is an ongoing presence of God in our lives, there you can find space for grace.
We all are experiencing fear and uncertainty today, but we are being called out of anxiety and into peace. We are being called out of places of divisions and tribalism, political battles and disunion, and beckoned into heart spaces of grace, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. Jesus gives us that peace and grace and we are assurance of that truth. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” That peace that we can possess is available not just in physical places, but it is ever present anywhere we find ourselves, especially in those times of unexpected transition, when uncertainty, change, and fear emerge. We have right now in these unprecedented times, an abundant fountain of peace. Remember, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”