Psalm 125, Acts 7:44-60
July 5, 2009
Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
This weekend we think of those who did just that. And I think that makes this whole holiday more meaningful, as we also celebrate family and friends, as we gather for picnics, and fireworks, and parades. Those things are the truly important things in this life! They are what makes this life what it is. As a wise person once said, “No one on their death bed ever said, ‘Gee, I wish I had spend more time at the office.’”
As I think back, I realize I have wonderful memories of the Fourth of July. I still remember weaving red white and blue crepe paper through the spokes of my bicycle and riding in the 4th of July parade in my home town. The parade went right down my street. One summer I injured my knee and I was in a wheelchair for several months. And somewhere there’s a picture of me sitting in that wheelchair in front of my house, watching the parade, and the wheelchair is all decked out with the same red white and blue crepe paper, flags, and tassels.
Those are great memories. And I keep thinking how amazing it all is, because that whole celebration was (and is) all about this grand experiment called “freedom.” It’s about the hard job of winning it, and maintaining it. And it’s about celebrating the amazing benefits we have in this country, things that are so much a part of our every day life that we almost forget we have them. It’s been said that it would do no good asking a fish about water. It’s so much a part of his environment he wouldn’t give it any more thought than we do about the air we breathe.
How often do you think about breathing? Most of us rarely give a thought about taking breath in and letting it out. Yet, we do it all day long! We don’t think much about it unless we’re having trouble doing it, or unless we stop doing it for some reason! Then it’s foremost on our minds! If you have ever suffocated for any reason, you know what I’m talking about! And we probably don’t even give that much thought to what we’re breathing. Who can tell me what gas that we breathe the most? How many would say oxygen? (How many think that, because of the way I asked the question that they might be wrong?) It’s nitrogen – by far!
We take breathing for granted, and sometimes we take our freedom for granted, don’t we? It’s just part of our environment – like the nitrogen we breathe! We don’t give it much of a thought – unless someone were to try to take it away. Or unless we go visit some other country where it’s not as available.
On the 4th of July we take time to celebrate that freedom! And that’s a good thing! And I would hope during this time that we would give some thought to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. With that in mind, I’ve taken for our scripture lesson the story of a man who gave that ultimate sacrifice. This is the story of Stephen. And I’d like you to consider that Stephen probably didn’t start the day with the intention of being the first martyr of the Christian Church. But when the time came, he was willing to say what needed to be said – what God led him to say – no matter what the consequences.
We need to think about Stephen as we remember our Declaration of Independence, the war it took to bring that independence to fruition, and the various other wars it took to keep it. And we to know that the people who paid the ultimate cost for freedom probably didn’t intend to do so, either. It was once said that in war, it is not a soldier’s intention to die for his country, but to make sure the other guy dies for his! Those who gave the ultimate sacrifice didn’t intend to pay that price, but they were willing to do so. And I wonder.. Are we willing? And what would be our ultimate sacrifice?
Stephen stood before the council, as had Peter and the other apostles before him, and as Jesus had himself. And Stephen was willing to stand up and defend himself. He was willing to say to those in power, or who perceived themselves to be in power, some things they didn’t want to hear. And I wonder if he was there when Jesus said this to his disciples. “You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. For what you are to say will be given to you at that time. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:18-20)
Let me ask you this. Do you think Stephen knew what their reaction was going to be? I’ve always wondered that about him. He seems not to be worried. But was he really hoping that they would “wake up and see the truth?” Or was he just trying to get them to see “the error of their ways”? Because people in power tend to have “an aversion” to that! And that was certainly the case here.
The other thing I wonder is where I would be in this story. I think that’s a good thing to do when we read these stories. It’s too easy just to say we’d be “on the side of Jesus and his people.” Because that’s our perspective. And remember that we the readers always have the best perspective on these stories. We know the ending. We know what’s going to happen. They didn’t! (“Don’t worry Joseph, fight til you drop. We’ve read the book, and you come out on top!”) But if we had been there, what would we have done? Would we have seen the courage and the truth in Stephen’s words? Or would we have thought, “how dare this guy contradict and even chastise our religious leaders?!” If someone came through those doors and started taking me to task for something I’ve believed for years, and many people believed for many years before me – including you – what would you do? Would that be a hard decision for you?
I wonder what I would have done if I was there in that religious council. And I know that when I ask that question, it puts me in their place. At that moment, I am “guilty by association,” as the old expression goes. I share either the indignance of the council, or I share Stephen’s boldness. At that point, it’s hard to be neutral! So I hope you will do that, too. Maybe that’ll help you to understand better the nature of this ultimate sacrifice.
As you think about that – and that’s a lot! – please notice also that another story of that kind of struggle is actually being set up by this story for today. For in verse 58 it says, “They cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Then, as we begin the next chapter, we find these words that are really the last half of the sentence that ended chapter seven. “And when he had said this, he (Stephen) fell asleep, and Saul was consenting to his death.”
Saul’s struggle was the very struggle we’re talking about here. He identified with – and indeed he was part of that counsel and it’s indignance and rage that day. Yet, he would be forced to rethink this whole thing – by God himself. It would all change on that road to Damascus! But not yet. As we read on here in chapter 8, we would find that the open persecution of the church began that very day, and many people became part of the struggle. And they were led by this man Saul, whose life before long God would shake to the core!
I think the worst thing we could do would be to think that there is no struggle in this story. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Such things are always a struggle. For example, it would be wrong historically to think that everyone in the colonies in the mid 1700’s was behind the movement to break away from England. They were not! In fact, it was those “upstart Presbyterians” who were part of the impetus for that thinking! But many people in that time were loyal to the mother country! And despite the “Abuses and usurpations” they suffered, they had known that loyalty and security all their lives and all their family’s lives, and that struggle was too much for them! The writers of the Declaration of Independence even recognized that. They wrote, “experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
If we think the struggle of our faith is any different, then we might not be taking our faith as seriously as we should. The writers of that document we celebrate this day, knew one thing that we know – even though they struggled with it all. They knew the “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” With that reliance, they were able to say those bold and dangerous words, “ we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor”
While we celebrate all of that this weekend, thinking as we do of the many reminders of that struggle in this region of the country, may we remember also this man Stephen and those who either followed in his footsteps, or struggled against the legacy he was passing on with his words and actions – the very work and ministry of Jesus Christ. Our legacy in this country is the document I’ve quoted a few times now. And our legacy in the Church is people like Stephen who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and inspired the same in many others.
Do we take our faith that seriously? Or do we just go along with whatever is comfortable to us? While you celebrate this nation and all it means to you, may that meaning be deeper and richer than ever before. And may your commitment be ever firmer to the God who calls us out of complacency to be the people who hear his voice and follow his lead, no matter what the cost!
Eternal God, you have called us to be your people. Help us to remember today what that means in our lives. Help us to grow everyday in the knowledge that we are yours and that we are charged with the sacred honor of continuing the ministry of Jesus Christ. For we pray in his name, Amen!