Let us pray: O God, we think of you as a rock – a solid place of grounding in our relationship with you and creation. We think of you as Spirit – filling the cracks and crannies of our own being and of all being with your presence. We think of you as way, destination and beginning point. In other words, O God, you are everywhere and everything in time and in space. And so, we know that your presence is here as well – perhaps in these words and perhaps filling the spaces between them. Help us to know your will and your way – whether it is because of the words I say or in some sense in spite of the words I say. Amen.
First of all, an admission. I’m not quite all here this morning. I’m somewhere between the sunny beaches and rocky landscape of the island of Maui and the rocky landscape of this piece of homeland, the ancient rocks of the Canadian Shield in this taiga on which we live.
I have discovered in my years of worship preparation and leadership that despite the pressures that the process places upon you, it is always best (at least for me) if liturgy is crafted close in time to when it will be used in worship.
That was not what happened with the liturgy for today. Knowing that I would not be returning from vacation until Saturday, I prepared much of the worship service for today before we left, some two weeks and many thousands of kilometres ago.
I recall that the days just before we left were very busy, with many things to accomplish. I tried to make the pattern of worship preparation as close as possible to the usual one that I follow, but even that was skewed by the fact that we left on Thursday, and thus the process was already disrupted.
However, in the few hours I had to devote to the planning of worship for today, I remember reading the scripture passages we just heard and thinking to myself that it all would have been much easier if they had been some of my favourite passages, if they consisted of stories and situations that lend themselves to somewhat easier preaching. But no, the passages were not in that category at all. The stoning of Stephen. Great, nothing like a story of religious hatred and violence to make your day. And then, that great passage from John, which seems to tell a story about exclusion and Christian triumphalism. Not one of my favourite passages at all, in fact, it probably fits in the category of my ten, five or one least favourite passages of all time.
So. I sent out a bit of an apb – well not really an all points bulletin, more like a one point bulletin. It just so happened that I had arranged a Skype meeting with Alison Mock – who will be coming to Yellowknife in September for four months of internship with us. She wanted to have a conversation about Yellowknife United Church because she was preparing a presentation for her home congregation – who by the way – will be helping us to fund the internship.
As the conversation closed I mentioned that I was preparing worship for this day and invited her to send along any inspiration she might have for me as she prepared worship for the church in which she is doing some summer supply ministry.
As it turned out, she did. She wrote with (as she put it) an underdeveloped connection between the story of the stoning of Stephen and an open letter to the LGBTQ community that our Moderator, Gary Paterson, published in anticipation of the International Day Against Hompophobia and Transphobia – a day which has now come and gone – it was yesterday.
And so with thanks to Alison, and with some vague recollections of what was on my mind more than two weeks ago, I offer these thoughts on the passages which we just heard.
Alison drew a connection between the passage from Acts and the open letter from the Moderator because they both address the issue of fear. Fear is a powerful force in the human psyche. It can create unimaginable consequences, events, reactions and outcomes that seem to have no logical connection with the emotion that gave them their start.
Flight or fight is the way that reaction to fear is often portrayed. Run away in fear, or stand and use every method available to defend ourselves from real or imagined harm. But there are other ways to deal with some kinds of fear. Education, knowledge, and dialogue are all ways that come to mind as useful alternatives in the presence of certain kinds of fear.
I want to read a couple of paragraphs from the Moderator’s open letter to the LGBTQ community, and in so doing I would commend to you the full text of the letter. I printed a copy of it and posted it on the bulletin board. You can also find it on the web at united-church.ca and I would further commend to you Gary’s blog entry from May 6 in which he expands on some of the things he has to say in his letter. Here are a couple of excerpts:
I am writing today as the spiritual leader of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, The United Church of Canada. I am also writing as an openly gay man, married to another United Church minister. This introduction may come as a surprise, seeing that so often it is religious leaders who condemn homosexuality, quoting scripture to justify their prejudice.
We all deserve to live without fear, nurtured by communities that support our healing and empowerment. This is why I also feel a deep sense of appreciation for and am inspired by all the countless LGBTQ individuals who give so much of themselves to their communities, family, and friends to make the world a safer place.
It is astounding to me on one hand that the Christian faith should be on the forefront of some of the most vitriolic homophobia that can be found in the world today. But of course, on the other hand, when a faith expression takes literally the passage from John: I am the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me, it is perhaps not that all that surprising.
Gary talks about the right for everyone to live without fear, but ironically I think that much of the homo and trans phobia that we find in the Christian faith and in society in general is a response to fear. And this is where I go back to education, knowledge and dialogue as ways to deal with fear – particularly the kind of fear that gets expressed in hatred against certain people.
I also wonder how much those seemingly exclusive words from John’s gospel were written as a response to fear. There is no doubt that the early Christian community was exposed to persecution. The Jesus followers, the people of the way, had to meet in secret with secret codes and icons to identify them.
That kind of context nurtures quite different reactions than a context in which different forms of religious expression are more widely accepted and in which diversity is more widely embraced.
When faced with fear, a community reaction can be to draw into tight circles to meet the so-called enemy or persecutor – and those circles can be described both physically and metaphorically – with well defined rules of belonging – like this: the way, the truth and the life.
But when fear subsides, and persecution is diminished, the way can become a way, the truth can become a truth and the life can become a life. In other words, an exclusive motto of inclusion and belonging can become an open invitation to try something that works for us.
I remember from more than two weeks ago that I was struck by the image of stone, and cornerstone that was contrasted in the first two of our readings today. In the first, as we’ve heard, stones were used as weapons – a way of expressing fear of the unknown and unfamiliar as they were hurled against Stephen and then in the second the stone becomes a cornerstone – a solid foundation for the building of a life of faith. This passage also outlines the contrast – a stone can become a stumbling block, it can get in the way of progress, even something that prevents us from moving on, but it can also be something on which to build a life of faith – a place which doesn’t move – as a starting point, a cornerstone on which to build our relationship as members of the community, as followers of the way, as companions on our journey with God.
There is a wonderful Bible passage – one that does fall into my list of favourites – about swords being turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. But the metamorphosis can happen with only a change in thinking – a rock changes from weapon to foundation, stone from missile to cornerstone.
The Christian way – as Moderator Gary suggests, as Jesus preached, as many others have demonstrated is a way of metamorphosis – of transformation, a way of changing from fear to safety, from ignorance to knowledge, from rejection to acceptance, from closed and tight to open and welcoming. Stone is cornerstone, rock is foundation. Like a rock, like a rock, God is under our feet. Behold, behold we can make all things new. Amen.