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At St. Paul’s: “Our primary mission is to relate to, and minister to people who are living on the edge, who seek God’s will for their lives, struggling to find direction and purpose in a society that can be violent, insensitive and money-grabbing.”
Stoned to Death
In video games, you always die at the hands of the enemy. It is replayed over and over again. You will lose your life. But, win points; as long as you are fast enough to escape, attack, move to the next level. And in the end the high score sends you to that special place where you sign your initials . . . ironic: you die you get points. Then you go get a snack.
Here’s a contrasting image: Jesus loses his life. But Jesus forgives his enemies; in fact, the ones responsible for his death are not even his enemies. Jesus does not get any points.
In life People die. People die of natural causes, accidents, disease or are killed by enemies. Life is no game, but a series of events and activities that all leads to the same conclusion. You live your life, as best you are able, and then you check in to a special place reserved for the best, and write your name in the Holy guest log. When we all get to heaven, we will sing the victory song with the angels.
In the meantime; Welcome to the real world. Work. Go home. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Take care of the family. Clean the house. Eat. Sleep. Go to work. Sign up for Obamacare. No points. And we try to enjoy life.
Well, we enjoy life after work, after the lawn is mowed, after we clean the bathroom, after the dishes are done. That is when we sit down, relax and put our feet up. Or when we go on vacation; that is when we really live. Relax, kick back, celebrate a little. Have a bar-b-q, have a party, have a potluck; that is fun and relaxing. That is a reason to live. Unless you are either Jesus, or a disciple. For the serious disciples, there is little time to relax. Not much time to put your feet up. There is always so much to do. Study scriptures; recruit others for the Gospel A-team; go to the Temple and preach about how the priests and Pharisees and Sadducees are stiff-necked, uncircumcised betrayers and murderers. Get stoned.
But, that isn’t you. Me either. We are not ready for that kind of a risk. I want to be a Christian, just not a FOLLOW JESUS TO THE DEATH kind.
Stephen took those risks. He could have lived a long and prosperous life. He could have done his good deeds, as assigned, kept his prophetic words to himself and ended his sermon with the story of Solomon and the building of the glorious Temple. Flowery words of praise for the generations of Hebrew leaders that had gone before him. He could have skimmed over the critical quotes from the prophets, and the crowd of stoners would have all applauded him, and he would have walked among them into a ripe old age, receiving the benefits of their admiration. But nooooo.
If there was a sit-com about Stephen’s Ministry, we’d see his wife and family that morning, sitting around the breakfast table, saying to him as he left the house: now, dear, don’t go overboard; we love you and we want you to come home from the Synagogue today in one piece. Don’t start talking that nonsense about Jesus being the rejected cornerstone. You know those temple leaders hate it when you show off. Please promise me that you will come home tonight in one piece.
But, oh no, he had to go there; started talking about how the Hebrew people rejected the Prophets, and how they refused to acknowledge the movement of Holy Spirit, and how they, the Temple leaders, were leading the Hebrew people astray. Stephen went all the way to the very core truth of discipleship . . . and said it out loud. Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith: he is the way, the truth and the life. He said: You are all rejecting the next great prophet of Israel.
This is no ordinary risk. Because of his words, his authority, his charisma, his humility and grace, Stephen was stoned to death by the very people he loved. He never made it home. He was buried right there under a pile of righteous anger, coming from the people that had been his religious leaders, colleagues and friends in spreading the Good News. You can read all about it in Acts 6 and 7.
And I have been thinking about this all week. What are the prophetic risks I am willing to take for God? what have I sacrificed in order to preach a difficult word? What am I willing to risk for the sake of the Gospel? I think about this . . . and I realize that we are living in a special time, worshipping in a special place.
There are three wise, prophetic things about St. Paul’s Church Community that fly in the face of conventional wisdom of society around us. Prophetic wisdom says that we should Welcome the homeless, the outcast, the mentally challenged and troubled as if they are members of our family; we do that. It is not conventional. Also prophetic is Preaching about human rights for all, which means taking a stand for the Transgendered, the bullied, the beaten down ones, and trying to prop up human beings over corporate interests, property rights and property values. And the third thing that is prophetic is that we have a unique faith in the goodness of grace to lead us through the darkness. When others are dismayed, overwhelmed and exhausted, we find new hope in human capacity for good, trust in the Lord and the strength of our faith to carry us through. Let me talk about the third one first. Question: “why do we help others?” Conventional wisdom answers: “this gives us the extra points we need to secure our place among the saints. Wrong; points don’t matter to God.
Quick story: a woman came to St. Paul’s to fulfill her court community service. She had been pulled over for DUI, found guilty and sentenced 200 hours. She was angry, nasty and defensive. At first . . . Chuck put her in charge of passing out the food. She started meeting people who had unshakable faith. Her disposition changed. She started to realize some important things about her own life. First and foremost: grace had saved her. Second: she had been going after the wrong prizes, and third: she decided that she had too many blessings not to share them with others. She ended up staying longer to volunteer her time, learning the system so that she could replicate our food pantry somewhere else. Conventional wisdom says: Court Community Service sucks. Prophetic wisdom says: I need to reassess my situation and focus on more important things.
We serve others, the public, Christians and non-Christians, alike out of gratitude. Gratitude for the grace that we have found in faith. Grace in the struggle. In getting through and persevering through tough times, we are given pause to take a good long look at where we have come from, where we are, where we’re going, and deep down inside we realize that we don’t really deserve this wonderful treatment, this saving grace, this amazing opportunity. We don’t deserve it, but it is ours any way by some miracle. And it drives us to praise the Lord and pass that goodness, mercy, kindness, meekness, humility, etc., on. We don’t need to get any return on this investment.
So that leads me back to the first comment I made: Welcoming the homeless, the mentally challenged and the troubled person as if he or she is a member of our family. It is prophetic. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom. And it worries people. The ordinary people don’t know what to do with dealers, pimps, streetwalkers, homeless under the bridges and those with awkward dispositions. They want “those people” removed from the sidewalk in front of them. “Those people” are responsible for the crime, “those people” are scary and dangerous, bulging with muscles, with high testosterone levels, big and ugly faces. We at St. Paul’s Community Church love those people. We are called to make room for them at our table. It is prophetic, and it is awkward, and we could get stoned for it. Well, not stoned, but maybe someone will call the Health Dept and we will get fined or something. But it creates good karma. These things make the world a better place . . . For everyone. And that is prophetic, and worth it, even at the risk of being stoned.
And that brings me to my second point, which is actually the third point. Jesus is expansive. He takes his ministry on the road: he goes to the Samaritans, he goes to the Gentiles. He takes a huge risk. He goes outside of convention and shares his healing and Good News ministry with women. He welcomes the formerly blind, the un-lame, the ex-street walker, the uncircumcised, enlists honest tax collectors and the “other outcasts” in to his expanding band of misfits. He had quite a collection by the end of three years. I bet he even had a few followers who were gay. You know back in those days they couldn’t tell anyone, but there must have been gay people in that group back then.
But we have done some unconventional things here at St. Paul’s too. It didn’t get us stoned, but one of more prophetic things we have done is help plan and run the Peace Show on Labor Day up the hill from Burke Lakefront Airport where they held the Cleveland Air Show. Not many other UCC churches came along for that ride because I am sure they didn’t want the controversy. But St. Paul’s took the risk. And now we have Creating Community of Peace which is enlisting former addicts to reach out to others to teach people about their neighbors who have addictions. And to teach people about how to make peace in the hood.
Anyway, this is probably going to get me stoned, but I think we have to do more to invite the tranny folks to come here. You know those who dress like women but are really men. Those with veins in their hands and size 13 shoes and are flat upstairs. And go by the name of Ronnie but are really Ronald. Or Char. Where do they go to church? Shouldn’t we figure out how to include them?
And what about those folks who have sex change operations? Where do they get their spiritual nourishment? And sex offenders need Jesus, too. Just saying . . . I know we cannot be all things to all people. And I know we are already pushing the envelope. But discipleship means that we could be more prophetic. What are the prophetic risks I am willing to take for God? I mean, maybe I am not about to get stoned, but what have I sacrificed in order to preach a difficult word? What am I willing to risk for the sake of the Gospel? Just asking . . . seems like we could do more.