Fidelity--The Stoning of Stephen

Fidelity can be a terrible temptation. Fidelity can be a terrible judge. I know, because I was there the day we stoned Stephen. The vision of my coat lying at the feet of Saul haunts me even to this day. I am here to tell you, fidelity is a terrible temptation. For the right beliefs, … for the right sacrifice, …the whole world will lay their coats at your feet.

Let me explain…

I was born and raised in the great city of Jerusalem; I lived near the gates of the great temple. I made my home on Mt Zion. As a child I lived and played in and around the great market place that had emerged around the walls of the temple, where pilgrims attending the great festivals and feasts did their shopping.  If need be, pilgrims could have their monies changed into the local currency, buy gifts, even purchase a sacrificial lamb. I can remember days when the sweat smell of the sacrificial blood, the smell of spices and ointments, mingled with the incense flowing from the temple, saturating the air I breathed. To this day that particular combination of smells reminds me of Jerusalem, it reminds me of home.  But the smells filling my nostrils was only a fortaste of the exotic pagentry that filled my eyes. The streets leading in and out of the temple gates were filled with sights of the exotic and the ordained.  The faithful pilgrims, children of Abraham, Moses, and David traveled from far and near to come to the Temple on Mount Zion, where they comingled with the priests and Levites, dressed in their finest ecclesiastical and liturgical adornments.

Vision of the High Priest

If you were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the High Priest you know that sacrificial blood never touched his hands, never splattered his garments. He had an army of ordinary priests to take care of the daily slaughter of the innocent lambs.

I guess we really had come to a point in our history when we worshiped the High Priest.  We placed all of our hopes in him and his office to protect the way of life that had been handed down to us by our ancestors.  Once the Romans seized control of the government and the economy, dismantling the dynasty of David and Solomon, our only true leader was the High Priest, who kept our religious and cultural heritage safe from the encroachment of the infidels. On occasion, while hanging out around the temple, I would get a glimpse of the High Priest decked out in his vestments. If you have ever seen the High Priests dressed in his ecclesiastical vestments you know what I am talking about, it was a sight to behold.

His vestments consisted of a blue woven robe. And on the hem there were golden bells alternating with blue, purple, and scarlet pomegranates. Over the robe the High Priest wore this embroidered, apron like vestment. This apron was made of blue, purple and scarlet material of fine linen interwoven with threads of gold, with each of its two shoulder clasps carrying a precious stone each engraved with the names of six of the twelve tribes of Israel. The straps helped secure a square breast piece made of the same material. The breast piece had four rows of three precious stones each, on which the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed. To finish it off, the High Priest wore a linen turban to which a golden crown was attached with a plate inscribed “Holy to Yahweh.” No one ever doubted, no one ever questioned, his worthiness of our fidelity.

Perhaps now you can understand why we were so angry that day when Stephen, in all his righteous indignation, challenged the very fidelity of the High Priest and the authority of the Temple hierarchy. I mean, who did he think he was? Here is this young Hellenist Jew, a follower of that radical rabbi Jesus, who dares to walk into the very courts surrounding the sanctuary of God and accuse the High priest, the entire hierarchy of the priesthood of infidelity to God. He dares to quote Holy Scripture to support his charges against us. It is a wonder he did not start a riot right then and there within the walls of the city.

I am sure the High Priest had thought he had put an end to this Jesus movement when he arranged to have the Rabbi crucified. But instead a full-blown movement began to emerge claiming that the one we thought crucified, God had raised from the dead. It had not taken long before there was no place you could go in Jerusalem where you didn’t find these disciples teaching and preaching there good news, gathering together in each others homes to worship, sharing common meals and a common purse, creating programs of charity for the widowed, the orphaned, and the poor, proclaiming a new covenant with God as if the old covenant was no longer sufficient for the salvation of God's chosen people.

So on that fateful day, when Stephen came into the courtyards of the temple and began to preach, challenging the fidelity of all of us gathered, accusing us of worshiping the Temple like a golden calf -- it was more than we could take. Our anger consumed us. But as angry as we were we knew the law. Proving our fidelity to the law, we took the time to seize Stephen and drag him outside the city walls, where we proceeded to do exactly what the law required we do to blasphemers, heretics, to any one who dared to challenge the authority and dignity of the Temple and the High Priest. No one questioned that Stephen was guilty. The great prosecutor Saul looked on with approval as we vented our righteous indignation. We reach down into the dust of the street, picked up the stones from the ground, we closed in on him, and we stoned him! I know what the cracking of his skull sounded like as a stone found its target.  I know the smell of Stephen's sacrificial blood. I was there, I was a witness, I laid my coat at the feet of Saul. And I felt a righteous satisfaction in what we did that day. It was only later that I realized that we were not the good guys in this story of fidelity.

Yes, I am haunted by the events of that day. It shames me when I remember how Stephen responded to our hatred, and the stones hurled at his mortality. How he pleaded with God to forgive us. And even though I covered my ears with all my might, and rushed with the others to stop his witness, I could not help but hear the joy and wonder in his voice as he proclaimed a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God! There was a way in which Stephen died that was hauntingly similar to the stories of the death of Jesus. In the end it was the way Stephen died that witnessed to his fidelity.

Vision Lost

Then it was over! The Romans put an end to it all. The order and security we had come to know in the ‘50s gave way to the revolts of the ‘60s with its great cultural cataclysms and assassinations. Everywhere one looked there was rioting in the streets. The jails were being filled. Homes and businesses were being burned to the ground. The land of David and Solomon was quickly sinking once again into civil war. Then in the year 70, the Romans finally had enough. With the terrible power and might of its modern army, with all of its deadly technology and brute force it systematically began to destroy everything and everyone that got in its way. There was little or no regard as to whether they were killing a sinner or the righteous. Everything, and just about everyone, in the path of the Roman army was destroyed. Then the impossible, the unthinkable, the great Temple, the house of God, was torn down to the ground, not one stone was left standing on top of another. The great treasures of the Temple, all of its instruments of sacrifice and worship were looted, carried off to parts unknown, by the conquering armies of the empire. What had been was now no more. Those of us who survived--fled.

A Refugee – And you welcomed me

For years I wandered from place to place, trying to find meaning to a life without the Temple. What I understood to have been the center of the earth, God’s home on earth, had been destroyed. Having grown up in a time when everyone knew their place in the hierarchy of life, a time when religious institutions seemed a sanctuary from the encroachment of the secular enticements of modern life, reality as I now experienced it, was very much a wilderness experience. I spent years wandering from place to place looking for something worthy to attach my faith. I wandered searching for a new home, a refugee of fidelity.

Then by the Grace of God, I found my way to this place. And you welcomed me. I mean you really welcomed ME! It did not seem to matter who I was, where I had come from, or where I was on life’s journey. I was truly welcomed. For the first time I began to understand the power and glory of God’s radical hospitality. From the passing of the Peace of Christ, to the sharing of the Feast at Christ’s table I have found myself to be a part of a new community: a community of love, a community with a new vision of fidelity. For the first time I came to realize that we refugees of faith are like newborn infants, longing for something pure, spiritual milk, and with this spiritual sustenance, the hope we might grow into our salvation. Here with you, I found a home: a place to rest, a place to heal, a place to learn and to serve.

New Vision -- We are building a New Temple

Over the past seven years as I shared my life with you, here in this place, and you have shared your life with me, a new vision of fidelity has emerged, replacing the vision of old. This emergent vision is not of this great building. And, this is a great building, but it is not a temple. This emergent vision is not of great hierarchies of authority, for here we are each equal members of the priesthood of all believers. This emerging vision is about how our ordinary sacred lives of fellowship, community, and service are contributing to the building of a new kind of temple. Not a temple made of stones and mortar, but a temple of living stones. When we gather together in this place, we gather as living stones, stones that are being shaped and formed into a new temple, a spiritual temple. And this spiritual temple has proven worthy of our fidelity.

When we come together and hear the organist play the organ, the choir sing, the preacher preach, when we give of ourselves in prayer and offering, we are in each sacred moment being shaped and formed into something new. When we nurture our children in worship and in group activities, we are doing the work of building a Spiritual house. Every time we gather in this place, the hard edges of our lives are gradually being chipped away through radical acts of hospitality, fellowship, and service. But it is not just here in this place that we are being formed.

When we give of ourselves to the work of the Parrish Alternative School, when we get involved with the Amnesty International Freedom Writers, when we join with others in the building of a Habitat for Humanity home, we are in these acts of compassion and justice being shaped and formed by the Spirit into living stones, into a spiritual temple.

When we reach out to minister to those in prison and their families through CrossOver Prison Ministries, or when we look to the needs of our neighbors by providing personal and household goods at an affordable price through the Evergreen Thrift Shop, or when we provide for the faithful at the Siena/Francis House, in these acts of compassion and justice we are being shaped and formed by the Spirit into living stones, into a spiritual temple.

When we reach out to the homeless poor, cooking for them and offering fellowship through the Neighbors United Team, when our youth and their leaders travel north to work among our brothers and sisters living on the reservations of the Dakotas, we are in these acts of compassion and justice being shaped and formed by the Spirit into living stones, into a spiritual temple.

In these ways, and in so many other ways that I have not named, we are witnesses to the reality that God has chosen us to be a spiritual house, that we are indeed precious in God’s sight, and that Christ can still be seen not only standing at the right hand of God, but actively working with us and within us, here and now.

Yes, I am still haunted by the vision of my coat, sitting at the feet of the great prosecutor Saul. I am still saddened over the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. But I have come to know that God heard Stephen’s plea and that I am forgiven. For the first time in a very long time I am hopeful again. But this time, my hope is not in great buildings, rituals, or religious institutions with their ecclesiastical hierarchies and grandeur. This time my hope is in the promise that from the beginning to the end of each day it is God’s fidelity that will prove to be the salvation for which the world is longing.  It is to God's fidelity that we hymn our prayers.

Be Thou My Vision

So now, when I go to bed, and when I wake, I find myself hymning this prayer to the still speaking God …

Be Thou My Vision

Lord of my heart

Naught be all else to me

Save that thou art

Thou my best thought

By day or by night

Waking or sleeping

Thy presence my light

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First Reading:  1 Peter 2:2-10.  Second Reading: Acts 7:54--8:1.