Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sermon for May 22, 2011; Acts 7:54-60

Rev. George Miller
Acts 7:54-60
“Who Is Our Witness?”
May 22, 2011

Stephen, dear Stephen; so passionate and filled with the Holy Spirit, he told the establishment just what he thought.

Stephen, angelic Stephen; was dragged outside, murdered for what he believed; stoned while witnesses placed their coats at young Saul’s feet.

But I don’t think he felt so alone; as the song states: everybody must get stoned…

Have ya’ll heard about who is turning 70 this Tuesday? Yes indeed, Bob Dylan is going to be 70 years old. That’s amazing.

Bob Dylan is an American institution: singer, songwriter, poet, and painter. He’s won an Oscar, a few Grammies, and even a Pulitzer Prize citation.

With his harmonica, guitar and nasally voice, his songs chronicled the 60’s and made him a figurehead of the social unrest that was sweeping through the nation.

Tunes such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are a Changin’” combined the philosophical with the politically personal and became theme songs to the anti-war and Civil Rights movements.

Now, I wasn’t alive during the 60’s, so I missed all that. Instead, Bob Dylan has a whole other meaning in my life.

My father always played him: in the car, on the deck, by the workbench. So I always associate Bob Dylan with my Dad; which is ironic because as a Vietnam Vet, NYC Cop and Eagle Scout, my father was not anti-establishment; he WAS the establishment.

Yet something about Bob Dylan spoke to him.

One song always confused me. It was called “Rainy Day Women” even though nothing is ever said about rainy days or women.

Instead, the chorus goes “But I would not feel so all alone; everybody must get stoned.”

As a kid, I couldn’t understand this song and why my father would play it in front of me. All I knew about the word “stoned” was that it involved doing drugs, and weren’t drugs bad?

It took growing up and experiencing life to understand just what Bob Dylan meant when he said everyone must get stoned.

What Bob Dylan meant was that everyone, at some point, will be publicly humiliated and/or unfairly mistreated for who they are, what they believe or how they live.

Listen to some of the lyrics to hear how he covers the bases:

“They’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good…they’ll stone ya when you’re trying to keep your seat…they’ll stone ya when you are young and able…they’ll stone you and then say you are brave; they’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave.

But I would not feel so all alone; everybody must get stoned.”

70 years old. It’s hard to believe the voice of America’s counter-culture revolution and of my childhood has reached that milestone, and that his words are just as effective and true today as they were nearly 50 years ago.

Today we also heard about someone who was counter-cultural, someone who touched upon the fact that the times they were a changin’ and there was something new blowin’ in the wind.

Except this young man, named Stephen, was physically attacked for what he believed and died for what he said; he was in fact stoned by a mob infuriated by his words.

Stephen was an early player in the Christian church. A Greek-speaking Jew, he was among seven people selected by the Disciples to help with balancing the needs of Word and Sacrament with Pastoral Care and Service ministry.

In chapter 6 Stephen is described as being a man full of faith and grace, which is one way to say he was not driven by ego and personal gain.

He may have had the face of an angel, but he had this power about him that allowed him to do great wonders and excel at public speaking.

Most of all, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, making him unafraid to stand his ground for what he believed to be right.

Because everyone must get stoned, lies are circulated about him and Stephen is arrested.

He goes before the angry council, and instead of getting wrapped up in their games, he retells the story of God’s people.

The ways in which God extended hope and grace and the ways in which the people turned their backs, sinned against God and worried more about their Temple then the reason why the Temple existed.

As if that is enough, Stephen holds them accountable for the murder of Jesus, accusing them all of being stubborn men who act like animals and are no better then their prophet-killing ancestors.

With those words, a crowd descends upon him, drags Stephen out of the city limits, and kills him with rocks and stones.

But make no mistake about it: Stephen does not die as a victim but as victor; praying to Jesus and asking for his forgiveness upon the people.

In doing so, Stephen becomes the first to die for his belief in Jesus Christ. However, stoning does not silence Stephen’s witness; it actually causes the Gospel message to grow deeper and wider then before.

This is but a part of the history of the early Christian faith, at a time when we were the minority, when we did not have a dominant voice that tried to dictate culture, but were dominated and dictated to by the culture, by politics, by whoever the ruling kingdom was.

Christians back then were the minority, in fact, the minority of the minority, just a blip on the cultural map.

But you know: there is something intriguing about being the minority; something exciting.

Because, when you are the minority, you usually have only three choices: you can stand up, you can shut up, and you can give up.

And it is clear which one Stephen was going to do. And thank God it was not giving up nor shutting up.

Because here is what happened: after Stephen was stoned to death, it scared the heck out of the earliest Christians. It scared them so much that they ran away; it scared them so much that they went to other countries.

But guess what also went with them: the message. The message about the Good News.

And with that message came the gifts and strength of the Holy Spirit, the love of Christ and the news of God’s forgiveness.

And even though they ran away, they did not give up telling their stories, they did not give up worshipping God and they did not give up sitting down and sharing their meals.

And guess what happened: every time they sat at the table to give thanks and to break their daily bread, the presence of the resurrected Jesus Christ was with them once again.

And because of that presence and because of the Holy Spirit they found they had been given the ability and the courage to go and to do, to preach and to praise, to share the Word and to tell their story.

They may have been the minority, but shutting up and giving up would not be in their spiritual make-up.

So instead they planted seeds of heaven all over the land, and those seeds set root, and grew and produced fruit, and Christianity was able to grow and grow, no matter how much they were stoned or society tried to toss boulders their way.

And as modern day Christians, their voice and that same Spirit lives on in us.

That voice that says God forgives, that voice that says God loves, and that voice that says God is above all else.

Can I get an “amen”?

And as members of the United Church of Christ, a minority in America, a minority in Florida and most certainly a minority in all of Highlands County, we are being called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to go that extra step further.

Even though there may be people out there ready to throw stones,

-we dare to be a witness that says “God forgives; even those who the rest of the world claims are unforgivable.”

Even though there may be people out there ready to throw stones,

-we dare to be a witness that says “God loves everyone; even when the world and others want to finger-point, create exclusions and draw a fence around the table.”

Even though there may be people out there ready to throw stones,

-we dare to be a witness that says “God is above ALL else, even denominations, even religious institutions, even dogma, even creeds, even scripture itself.”

In conclusion, everyone, if they are truly filled with and guided by the Holy Spirit, will at times be stoned.

There will be times in which what you say will cause anger in others. At times people would prefer you to shut up and try to force you into giving up.

But as long as we remain focused on who is our witness, as long as we understand what the Gospel message is and act accordingly, we can find a way to stand up.

Yes, we may end up being stoned, but we will not be silenced, for our message is timeless.

And we can find comfort in knowing that even if we die for what we believe, in Christ we are but asleep.

For it is into God’s faithful hands that we are committed, and it is in the Lord Jesus Christ that we have already been redeemed.

Let all blessings be to the Holy Spirit that empowers us, to God who does not hold our sin against us and to Jesus who stands with love to welcome us into glory.

Amen and amen.

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