Easter is joy. It fills our hearts and souls. The resurrection sustains our living. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew...”
But sadly, we live in a world that is filled with violence and fear. We watch the news on TV or in our news feed, we hear the voices of hate and trepidation all around us. We see the victims of violence and we know of hate tearing apart families. We are often filled with dread or sadness or both.
And sometimes we act out of that fear, not as want to do, and we fail to love others as God loves us. Much like the council against Stephen we heard about in our first reading.
Now Stephen had been called to serve when a need arose among some of the newest Christians. In Acts 6 we are told that his ministry was “full of grace and power, he did great wonders and signs among the people.” That put him in conflict with others who did not see his work as a call from God. There were some who looked upon him with evil in their hearts.
They said to the Jewish council – “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” Stephen then speaks in his defense, for he had not blasphemed at all and he speaks in defense of his faith in Acts 7. Our reading this morning is the conclusion of that chapter and the story of Stephen. They were enraged by what he said, for he challenged their reading of Scripture and their ignoring the prophets of old and of not recognizing Jesus for who he was; they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death.
They laid their coats at the feet of one who gave his approval of this death sentence, the Benjamite and Pharisee, Saul, whom we know today after his conversion as St. Paul.
And yet, the story of the stoning of Stephen continues today in the lives of those around this world. We know of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, in Egypt & Pakistan, and of course there are other religions who are also persecuted: I think of the Rohynga in Myanmar, for instance, whom I have preached about before.
There are those in our own country who have felt the sting of hate & evil as hate crimes have grown and incivility toward our neighbors seems rampant.
So what are we called to do as Christians?
A few years ago I was watching a TED talk, “TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less)” – the speaker was Byron Stevenson. His topic: “We need to talk about an injustice.”
I was struck by his words around the issue of the death penalty and mass incarceration. And much of his work is grounded in his Christian faith.
Bryan Stevenson dedicated himself to defending death row inmates after what he learned of faith & justice at Eastern University in Philadelphia collided with what he was taught at Harvard Law School. His ministry combines his work as lawyer with his faith for Stevenson turns frequently to the Bible.
He quotes from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says of the woman who committed adultery: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” An elderly African American woman once called him a “stone catcher.”
“There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher,” he says. “We have to be willing to stand in the place of those wrongly condemned, those disfavored communities in our country and across the world… we have to bear their burdens and stand up and catch the stones cast at them, then we make a statement about our faith that is transformative.”
“But that is exhausting. You’re not going to catch them all. And it hurts. If it doesn’t make you sad to have to do that, then you don’t understand what it means to be engaged in an act of faith....But if you have the right relationship to it, it is less of a burden, finally, than a blessing. It makes you feel stronger.
We know something about grace and mercy. We know that we are broken but our brokenness doesn’t define us, it just opens us up to what grace and mercy can do.” [from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/why-mass-incarceration-defines-us-as-a-society-135793245/ & http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/stone-catchers]
Our compassion flows from our brokenness and the suffering we have experienced in our lives. By placing ourselves as stone catchers, we place ourselves in the midst of conflict, being the peace makers & reconcilers that God calls us to be. To offer compassion, forgiveness, and love to those in need. And yet, through the experience as stone catchers, we open ourselves to the grace and mercy that come from God.
As one author put it after hearing Stevenson speak - “Commit this year to mentoring a struggling teenager and taking him out to lunch, or to sending a note of encouragement to and regularly praying for someone who is rumored to have gotten upset about something at church, or, most importantly, to practicing mercy like Jesus did. Give up your stone casting and take up stone catching.” (https://commconn.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/stone-caster-or-stone-catcher/)
We have to decide how we want to live in this world – What kind of Christians we want to be – What will be our way - Peace or violence? Love or hate?
Will we be the ones who take the Stephens out to be stoned & drop our coats at the feet of the Sauls to bless our stone throwing?
Will we offer hope or condemnation to one another?
Will we open our hands in love to our neighbors or will we shake a clenched fist.
Will we be stone catchers or stone throwers…
“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” (Dr. Seuss, Lorax) Who will catch the stones being thrown, if not you? Amen.