Easter 5A — May 18, 2014

The Ram In The Thicket

Acts 7:55 – 8:1a
55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he (Stephen) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.1And Saul approved of their killing him.                       
Let us begin with prayer:  Lord of creation, we come to you with open hearts and eager ears.  Increase our understanding of your Word and gift us with faith to courageously live into your claim on our lives.  In Christ, we pray.  Amen.           
I have always thought the most horrifying text in all of scripture is the one in which we are led to believe that God is the kind of deity that tortures a devoted father by allowing him to believe for three horrible days that his beloved son must die.  And the part that really gets to me is that Abraham has to wrap his mind around the terrible idea that he has no choice but to murder Isaac in order to prove his faithfulness to God.  My question for the longest time was this – what kind of God would torture a person like that?  And – more to the point — is that the kind of God I want to follow, must less love and trust with my whole heart? 
For years, I couldn’t read Genesis 22 without breaking into tears, but managed to get through it dry-eyed only after I realized that it is not the story of God’s cruelty, but a story about how we torture ourselves trying to figure out what God wants from us, and how very often we get it wrong.  I think the story of Abraham and Isaac tells us that violence is not an inevitable fact of our lives, and certainly not the will of God in the Old or New testaments.  Violence and vengeance are terrible choices wemake all on our own, and they break God’s heart.  So much so, that God provides a ram in a thicket if we have imagination and courage enough to see it.  And even when we make the most terrible choice, God will do what God always does – create new life out of the bloody messes human beings create.   We see that truth most clearly on the cross.  And we see it today in another pretty horrible story from scripture.  The story of Stephen’s stoning in the book of Acts.
At first glance, there’s absolutely nothing good to say about this text.  Stoning is a barbaric and horrible act, and if we were actually standing in this story while Stephen was being stoned to death, we’d have to avert our eyes.  Although scripture is riddled with references to stoning as proper punishment for any number of crimes from being a wizard to being a thief, it doesn’t change the fact that death by stoning is an unspeakably horrible way to die.  In our own time, stoning is still legal in Afghanistan, Iran, sections of Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. Women in particular have been threatened by religious authorities with this hideous punishment as a way of controlling their behavior and keeping them in line.  And I’m sure it’s a deterrent that works very well.
So there isn’t much to celebrate in this story.  Stephen was a devoted apostle, whose primary responsibility in the early church was to care for the widows and others who could not care for themselves.  Stephen was one of the original deacons of the church, in fact, and when he wasn’t doing compassionate deeds in the name of Jesus Christ, he spread the word about Jesus Christ.   Stephen healed and preached and did what he could to not only talk about how Jesus changed his life, but also demonstrate through his life what kind of difference Jesus made in him.  And as we see in this text, all of this good work got Stephen into a boatload of trouble with the Jewish authorities.  Stephen’s speech in his defense when he is brought in for trial is what sealed the deal.  It’s a long speech that you can read for yourself in Acts 7, verses 1 – 54, but the long and the short of what Stephen said to the Jewish leaders is that God’s chosen people had been a troublesome lot from day one.  They had a long history of being stiff-necked and mean, and had never met a prophet that didn’t want to push off a cliff, run out of town or crucify.  Moses had found the chosen people nearly impossible to lead, and Jesus had been just the latest example of God’s messengers that the religious leaders had been only too happy to reject.  In other words, Stephen spoke the honest truth, just as Jesus had done, and got a similar result.  Stephen held up a mirror to his accusers and it made them so angry that they couldn’t resist the impulse to smash Stephen into a million bloody pieces.
Stephen was only the first of many Christians who met violent ends simply because they spoke and lived the truth as best as they could manage it.  In fact, from that day on when Stephen was killed, many of the new Christian/Jews skee-daddled out of Jerusalem and scattered like so many fertile seeds across the landscape of the Roman Empire.  For centuries, the fledgling church survived but just barely.  Christianity was continually in hiding, or on the run, or in big trouble with somebody who found the message about Jesus bothersome.  But somehow the church managed to grow and kept on growing. A couple centuries later, Christianity became so successful that it became the official church of the empire and stopped being any real trouble to anyone at all.  Over time, Christians were no longer the persecuted ones, but became the ones doing the persecuting of other faiths.  And as history has taught us, horrific violence against individuals, communities, tribes and whole countries has been committed in the name of one god or another has been raging ever since.  Atrocities have been inflicted by people of faith, as well as on them.  The bloody result of religious zealotry looks pretty much the same regardless of which god is being vindicated.
Can it be that our God really as cruel as the cruelty we inflict upon one another?  Or is there something else to explain why humanity hasn’t stopped stoning one another since the beginning of time?  In our advanced culture here in America, our weapons of choice have become a little more sophisticated than sticks and stones.  Instead, we use bombs.  Lethal injections.  Drones.  Automatic weapons.  Humanity still hasn’t kicked our brutal habit of leaving behind a bloody path in the name of justice.
It’s tempting to focus only upon Stephen’s peaceful countenance as he dreamily stares up into space while men are gathering around him ready to crush his skull and tear open his body. That’s certainly what the church has historically done with martyrs like Stephen.  We focus on the worthiness of their deaths, their fearlessness in facing down rocks and knives and lions.  But we avert our eyes from the carnage.  None of us can bear to see Stephen being stoned to death anymore than the disciples could bear to see Jesus suffer on the cross.   We close our eyes to the violence, blame the bloodshed on God’s plan, and quickly move on to resurrection and sainthood for at least some of the victims.  As for the rest, well, that’s just how the world works.
I hate this story about Stephen’s death, but I also think there may be a sliver of light here that looks an awful lot like grace here if you look closely.  There he is, standing on the sideline, with his eyes wide open, watching every moment of Stephen’s agony.  Saul.  Saul is there on the scene, helpfully holding the coats of the guys stoning Stephen. Because, you know, stoning a young healthy man like Stephen takes a while.  Better to strip down to the undergarments, because stoning is hard, sweaty work even with a cooperative victim like Stephen.
And of course, Saul heartily approves of this execution.  He loves it.  It could be that Saul even had something to do with making sure this death would happen.  Saul not only approves of the killing of this one particular troublemaker, but he will go on — as Acts chapter 8 tells us — to ravage the new Christians by entering house after house to drag off men and women, committing them to prison or worse.  Saul is every inch the true believer, a real zealot in maintaining the purity of the Jewish faith.  Saul is the most persistent of persecutors and continues to be so until Acts chapter 9 when he will have his life turned upside down by the murdered Christ himself.  After that, Saul is no longer who he was; he is transformed into Paul – the apostle who will not longer measure truth by how closely it’s protected and guarded by religious insiders.  In fact, Paul breaks open the message of Jesus to everyone he can get to listen to him – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. 
And Paul never forgets Stephen.  We know he didn’t, because Paul soon found himself in a position similar to Stephen’s and had to defend himself in front of another zealous crowd who just couldn’t wait to stone Paul.  And in that moment, Paul calls upon the memory of Stephen.  He tells his accusers he remembers standing there, holding the coats of Stephen’s executioners and seeing the blood pour out of Stephen’s body.  Paul is no longer who he was, but he still carries that memory of who he used to be.  The memory must have haunted him.  But it is a memory that shapes Paul’s ministry, and you can see it in Paul’s writings.  When Paul’s Jewish brothers and sisters refuse to accept that Jesus is, in fact, their Messiah, Paul does not seek to harm or destroy the enemies of his new faith.  Instead he struggles with their refusal in genuine pain and prays that all of Israel may find its way into the arms of Jesus. 
Despite all the violence he committed against Stephen and others in his past, Paul is finally able to see the God’s better way.  Paul finally saw the ram in the thicket that God had been waiting for him discover the whole time.  Paul’s path was diverted from proving his faithfulness through persecution of the impure.   Instead, Paul proclaimed the faith of Jesus Christ, an open and welcoming faith that is secure not in its’ ability to defend itself from enemies.  The security of Christianity is not rooted in our willingness to defend it from its enemies, but in the One who has already passed through death and brought us to life everlasting.  The One who taught us words of forgiveness.  The One who is indeed our rock and our fortress.  Though we are tempted to hide behind barricades, guns and bombs, stories such as this one remind us of the One who overcame evil not be defeating the enemy, but by loving the enemy and thus defeating death itself.
So there is light in this story after all.  We see it in the Christ-like forgiveness demonstrated by Stephen and how his words were absorbed through the eyes and ears of Saul.  Perhaps the seeds of Saul’s transformation were sowed right there, in that horrible moment where God took the heartbreak of human violence and transformed it into something life-giving that would open up the gospel beyond what anyone could imagine.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Reverend Walt Everett and hearing him speak at Sixth Presbyterian Church.  In 1987, a man named Mike Carlucci shot and killed Rev. Everett’s 24-year old son, Scott.   For a year afterward, Rev. Everett was unable to work at all.  Everett saw his life spiral downward, seemingly out of his control. He felt despair, rage, depression. His marriage, already on shaky ground, cracked under the strain. Everett prayed to God, beseeching him to show him a way out of the darkness. But Everett discerned no response. He attended a support group meeting with other family members of murder victims—the only people, he figured, who could possibly understand the anguish that consumed him. One night he heard a woman in the group say that anyone who committed murder “should be taken out and shot immediately.” Then he learned that the woman’s son had been killed 14 years earlier. He wondered if that’s what his life would be like for the next 14 years.
Eleven months and two weeks after the murder of his son, Everett sat in a courtroom in Bridgeport for Carlucci’s sentencing. Everett had never before set eyes on his son’s killer, who arrived at the courthouse three hours late, having indulged in one last cocaine binge before prison. The judge asked Everett if he wished to make a statement. Everett rose and spoke for 10 minutes, though he doesn’t remember a word of what he said. Then the judge asked Carlucci if he would like to speak. Carlucci stood and said:
“I’m sorry I killed Scott Everett. I wish I could bring him back. Obviously, I can’t. These must sound like empty words to the Everetts. I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry.”
That simple expression of remorse would change the course of Everett’s life. “It was,” he said, “as though at that moment God said, ‘I’ve been asking you to wait. This is what I’ve been asking you to wait for.’”  It was the ram in the thicket moment for Everett.  That moment when he glimpsed a better way to manage his heartbreak.  His decision to forgive Carlucci, he says, was not meant to ease the guilt that weighed on the soul of his son’s killer. It was more selfish than that. He says he offered forgiveness to save his own life.
Amazingly, the two men struck up a correspondence that morphed into a friendship.  Carlucci cleaned up his act and his life, and Reverend Everett eventually presided at Carlucci’s wedding.  Everett says, “I can never forget what happened to Scott,” he said. “It has forever changed my life. But when I look at Mike, I don’t see the person who harmed Scott. I see somebody who’s been changed by God, and I celebrate that.”(1)
A broken heart is an avenue, a crack for life to come in, a place for God to plant the seed of new life.   We do not need violence to protect us.  We do not need violence to express our shattered souls.  We do not need violence to bring justice.  The myth of redemptive violence is just that – a fable that can only destroy us. 
There is a better way now that Easter has come again for us.  The world does not need another martyr, willing to die for their faith.  It needs more Rev. Everett’s and Sauls who are willing to live out their faith.  The world needs more people who are able to see the ram in the thicket.  People who are willing to take the different and even more dangerous path to the peace and forgiveness and openness of Jesus Christ.   May we be those people. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

(1)All quotes are from “Forgiving the Murderer” by Paul Solotaroff in Rolling Stone Magazine, June 24, 2004. Downloaded on May 16, 2014. http://www.willsworld.com/~mvfhr/walt’s.htm