Imagine the ending of Acts, chapter 7 as a movie scene. We witness the graphic and grizzly stoning of Stephen and amid the thud of stones hitting flesh, and shouting of the crowd, the camera moves from the hapless martyr to a close up of a young man guarding the cloaks of the assassins – arms folded triumphantly across his chest, head nodding his approval. The tension in the music changes and you know, don’t you, that you will be meeting this young man again, somewhere down the line, perhaps just a stones’ throw away.
Way back in high school history class, I learned about the 2nd World War. So many tragedies, but what burned into my brain was learning about the Holocaust, and I was horrified. Somewhere along the line, I unconsciously associated all Germans with Nazism.
Imagine my surprise, when in my first year at the University of Victoria, I found myself hanging out with a wonderful group of German students that I met at the ecumenical chaplain’s office. Not only were they not Nazis, they were Catholics – lovely compassionate Catholics. I’d never learned to view Catholics in a negative light, unlike my former father-in-law whom a generation earlier had to settle the Catholic/Anglican supremacy question with a school yard fight.
Somewhere along the line, growing up in the United Church, I was introduced to `A New Creed, and in fact, I grew along with it, from the changes to inclusive language, to the addition of the words, “to live with respect in creation.” I loved the notion that we were about loving and serving others, seeking justice and resisting evil, and I was very grateful that we were not tainted by the scandal of such things as the residential school abuses.
Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that my beloved church was indeed involved in running Indian residential schools and First Nations children had suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse by staff members employed by the UCC.
Somewhere along the line, I kept hearing and singing the music of Carolyn McDade, and so in the fall of 2013 I took the opportunity to hear her in person at the Western Women’s Conference at Naramata.
Imagine my surprise when, during the conference what I really heard was God calling me, through the witness of Natalie Maxson who gave an invitation to join her on a journey, to learn about Palestinian Liberation Theology.
When I came back from Israel and Palestine and presented what I had seen and heard and experienced, hosted by the Kairos group in Salmon Arm, one person accused me of giving a neo-Nazi fascist rant. I think he came to the presentation with the intention to say that, regardless of what I shared. Still, it was a little painful and a rather ironic comment I think, given my assumption about 40 years earlier that all Germans were Nazis. Somewhere along the line he had learned to believe that anyone who was critical of the Israeli government and military, was a Nazi.
Somewhere along the line….
Saul had grown up as a good Jewish boy, studying the law and the prophets, becoming a respected Pharisee, knowing right from wrong, and being very determined to punish those who were wrong. As he stood watching the death of the first Christian martyr, he was pretty confident that he was on the right track. Anybody know what happened to Saul? (the congregation filled in bits of the story)
Imagine his surprise… when God knocked him off his high horse (I like to think he was riding a horse as he went around trying to round up Christians to imprison…) and the voice identified as Jesus basically says “When you are persecuting others, you are persecuting me.”
How quick we are to judge without knowing the complexity of a situation.
The American folksinger Odetta once told a story about stereotypes, and said, “A stereotype happens when you say, ‘Don’t tell me nothing about you. I already know all I want to know about you.”
Looking back at the stoning of Stephen, I wonder, was it out of fear of what they might hear, that the people Stephen talked to, covered their ears? Their minds were made up, and it seems they could not risk hearing a message that might challenge their preconceived ideas and biases. So they killed the messenger.
We generally learn more when we are listening than when we are speaking… so I would ask you – when have you stood on the side-lines, watching, and thinking I’ve got it figured out? What surprised you, changed your perspective? What was difficult about that? Liberating about that? How or where was God in the changes?
We are all on a journey, and God is never finished with us. The United Church of Christ is the U.S. had some great T-shirts made up a few years ago. They read: “Never put a period where God puts a comma.”
I want to look briefly at the passage from John about Jesus being the way, the truth and the life. It can be very powerful and it can be very problematic. It has been used historically as a means of Christian exclusivism, or a conversion tactic – a way of saying ‘You’re not getting to God unless you accept the same set of beliefs that I do.”
Let’s move a stones’ throw away and get perspective. Let’s go back a couple pages in the gospel of John to chapter 12:24-25. Here Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
The Message (biblical paraphrase) puts it this way, “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat.
But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself may times over.In the same way, anyone who hold on to life just as it is destroys that life.But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have if forever, real and eternal.”
“Reckless in your love…” What – not immediately judgemental, exclusionary, and looking for enemies? When Jesus talks of being the way, he is showing that the way is dying to our old understanding, our old egos, our old half-truths, to let the fullness of God’s truth transform us. All great religions understand that the way to God/to grow spiritually is through death and resurrection.
When we like Saul have stood there watching, feeling we’ve got life all figured out, and then God messes it up somehow, calling us to look deeper, love wider, see clearer, be braver, we go through a kind of death, but it is a death that brings with it, a fuller, more authentic life.
A number of years ago I was at a Collaborative Ministries Conference in Saskatoon, for churches that were small and scattered, we ended with this prayer, based on the gospel of John for today:
We asked for a way… and you gave us yourself to be the way.
We asked for a truth… and you gave us a community with whom to discover the truth that is you.
We asked for life… and you gave us this beautiful planet earth and asked us to treasure and nourish the life that breathes in and around us. Loving Jesus, we commend ourselves into your careworn, caring hands. Send us out to do and be all that you long for us. Send us in courage and confidence, we pray. Amen.