But filled with the Holy Spirit, he 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!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then 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. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then 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.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
My Uncle Tom Melville, who was very dear to me, died two weeks ago. He had quite an influence on me as Iwas growing up. He was a missionary priest in Guatemala. He would come to visit us occasionally, and told exotic stories of his adventures in the jungles of Guatemala that kept all of us riveted. Stories of good people who suffered in poverty, their struggle with an oppressive government and powerful landowners, and his efforts to bring fairness and justice into their lives. Things that make the very best stories.
When I was about ten years old, I remember my Uncle Tom no longer being in Guatemala. He and his new wife, my Aunt Marge, had been forced out of Guatemala for opposing the government’s policies that kept the poor in poverty. They were also released from their vows as a priest and a nun.
They had gone from Guatemala to Washington, D.C. In protest of the Vietnam War and the U.S. support of a corrupt government in Guatemala, they, along with seven other people, broke into the selective service office in Catonsville, MD, removed almost 400 military draft records there, took them out into the parking lot, and burned them. All of the “Catonsville Nine,” as they came to be called, then stood in a circle praying and waiting for the police to come and arrest them.
Tom and Marge both served some time in federal prison for that. What I took away from that was that when you act with compassion for others who are powerless to act for themselves, there may be consequences. Rather than back away from acts of compassion for the sake of justice, you act anyway and take the consequences.
So when I read this story in the book of Acts about Stephen, it elicits a similar reaction from me.
Stephen was one of the seven people who were chosen by this fledgling Jesus movement to serve tables and do other tasks. The apostles, then, would be freed up to teach and share what this Jesus movement was all about.
Stephen, however, was pretty good at preaching himself. Some who were in power were upset, accused him of blasphemy, and incited a crowd. He stood up for Christ’s gospel of peace and compassion, and was killed by those who couldn’t see God’s vision in that.
Sometimes, when you act with compassion for others who are powerless to act for themselves, there may be consequences. Rather than back away from acts of compassion for the sake of justice, you act anyway and take the consequences.
All my life I’ve marveled at Stephen, whose convictions were so strong that he was willing to face death rather than back away. I still do, but as I grieve the death of my uncle, something else occurs to me. When you don’t see God’s vision of peace, justice for the least, and compassion, you can easily justify throwing rocks at those who do.
Like Stephen, my uncle faced significant consequences because those in power couldn’t see God’s work of compassion and justice being done by him. We could argue about whether or not his methods produced the best results—the same with Stephen, actually. Still, because they couldn’t/ wouldn’t recognize God, those in power could justify throwing stones.
Think about this: throwing stones is actually anything we say and do that doesn’t support the gospel of peace and compassion. We all throw rocks. We all oppose God’s vision in some ways. And we all justify doing it.
The stoning of Stephen is a big example, but there are all kinds of small ones too. Stones that we constantly tossing at other people or things so we don’t have to see the hard part of God’s vision of justice and love.
Any time I try to gain something for myself at the expense of someone else, I’m throwing a stone at them.
Any time I turn aside when someone else is hungry or hurting or in need, I’m throwing a stone at them.
Any time I’m not hearing the pain or sadness that someone else is speaking, I’m throwing stones at them.
Any time I throw blame, exclude someone who’s different, talk about someone instead of talking to them, put my own comfort and preferences ahead of someone else’s, I’m throwing stones. I’m acting in opposition to the gospel of peace and compassion.
Stones themselves aren’t bad, but we can use stones badly. We have a God who is forgiving and gracious, whose very nature is compassion and redemption. Today, God can redeem our stones of opposition, and allow us to use them instead for God’s vision of peace.
The very stones that were used to kill Stephen could have been used in good and helpful ways. Homes could have been built from those stones. Beautiful sculptures and artwork could have come from those stones. Roads could have been built. Even jewelry could have been made from those stones. They could have been used for beautiful, peaceful, compassionate purposes. They didn’t have to be used to oppose Christ’s gospel of peace with such violence.
We have a pile of stones in the back of the church. When you leave today, take one with you. Consider the many ways it could be used. And in the same way, consider how many different ways our words can be used. How many different actions we can take, how many different behaviors we can exhibit. How many uses there are for our money and resources. All of these can be used to oppose Christ’s gospel, or to reveal it. We have been given a new chance today for the stones of our lives to be part of God’s justice and compassion in the world.