Acts 7:55-60 – The Fifth Sunday of Easter – for May 14, 2017
â€œBut Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heavenâ€¦â€ (Acts 7:55)
Two months after my thirtieth birthday, while serving my first real, live church, I was stoned.
No-no, this isnâ€™t a bad tale about bad drugs. Though I acted stupidly, this was accomplished while fully alert.
I did not know then, when gazing upwardâ€”not seeing an angelic choir or â€œheaven on displayâ€â€”that the moment where rock and flesh collided would become one of the essential stories of my life.
Above me, the â€œheavensâ€ seemed bluer than blue. But on the hard and cold ground below, I could barely move. What movement did occur produced pain.
Way back then, I had no illusions of being a Biblical Stephen righteously proclaiming â€œGodâ€™s majesty and Jesus standing at Godâ€™s right side.â€ I was merely an associate pastor working with youth and occasionally stumbling into a church memberâ€™s home or hospital room to share a prayer. I have told and retold this story, because it was essential and it is essential for understanding the erstwhile and everlasting faith I claim on the path toward Jesusâ€™ neighborly, servant-centered, impossible love.
On the second day of a church backpack, taking a jaunt with a few youth not far from where our tents were pitched by a Sierra lake, I decided to have fun. Tramping along a ridge, with last winterâ€™s snow covering the granite shoulder like frosting on a wedding cake, why not use the quickest return route to camp? Why not slide down the icy slope, butt on the cold stuff with hands for rudders?
Iâ€™ll go first!
I slammed into a rock outcropping halfway down the slope.
The surgeon in the hospital later explained that I had a tib-fib spiral fracture. In other words, the left leg was a mess.
Flesh and bone had met stone and I went from happy-go-lucky to helpless. Soon a couple of youth and the only other adult with us (one of the kidsâ€™ parents co-leading the adventure) scrambled miles back down the trail to find a phone and announce there was a man down.
A helicopter was dispatched to yank me off the mountain.
With some of the worst pain Iâ€™ve ever had, I recall peering towards earth, halfway to heaven in the airship. Beneath me, the youth Iâ€™d left by that serene lake waved as the rescue copter struggled to gain altitude in the thin air. They watched their youth pastor vanish as the sun slowly set.
I love the mountains. I have spent some of my best times in the high, holy places.
And yet also my worst times.
Itâ€™s easy to transport myself to the hard ground, and to recall, in the intake of a singular breath, that my left leg went from helping me stand tall to hardly being able to stand the pain.
Stoned I was.
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Rocks were scattered across the lectionary readings for this Sunday. The psalmist reveled in the Lord as â€œrock that protects me.â€ The writer of I Peter assured a young faith community, Jesus followers all, that they were â€œbuilt like living stones into a spiritual temple.â€
Iâ€™ve led hundreds of church folk into the mountains. Itâ€™s a sublime world, with rock-ribbed sanctuaries, with the summer sky blazing royal blue. The trees sing with swaying branches and dancing leaves, and we haveâ€”by campfires at night and during the beauty of sunriseâ€”witnessed and wondered about Godâ€™s magnificence.
Those mountain sojourns have revealed a God of compassion and community, a Creator of living stone and soaring birds. I have been with youth and adults who stared gobsmacked (as the British apparently and appropriately say) while alpenglow burned gold on granite. Iâ€™ve seen the beauty within the beauty of the spiritual temples at the far end of the trail beside stunningly sapphire alpine lakes.
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Wasnâ€™t Stephen the nascent Christian churchâ€™s first martyr? Rock-solid in Godâ€™s love, transformed by Jesusâ€™ call to love the neighbor without qualification, Stephen had a vision. Or a vision had Stephen.
A God who blesses with eternal love; a Christ who heals broken souls.
They stoned him. Stone met flesh.
And yet he forgave them. Odd we Christians who act Christian.
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Stoned I was. This is why that moment in my thirtieth year became one of the essential stories of my life. I realized then, and itâ€™s a lesson still echoing every day, how vulnerable I am.
Go ahead, fellow fools, stand tall. Speak of confidence in your body, in your self-sufficiency, in the work you do, in the goals you have, in the endless years you will live.
Someone else said it first: humans plan, God laughs.
God cries, too.
In the next breath you might drop to the ground, in a place of abundant beauty that suddenly becomes grim and alien.
Pardon me while I momentarily wax metaphoric. How many stones do we aim at others every day? I think of this modern, magnificent world, and knowâ€”with shame and incredulityâ€”that we are now in an era when social media allows everyone to hurl hate and anger toward others. Our words are a pile of stones. Our words create stonewalls.
Did they hate Stephen or were they envious? Both . . . if those ancient stone-throwers were anything like us modern types.
Rocks slammed against his flesh. Love he had felt. And the love of God, the Christ-love of forgiveness, was what he still felt.
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In the seconds after my bone met stone, I attempted standing. After all, I was the pastor, the adult, and the one in charge.
I was a broken man in a rock-strewn wilderness where wide-eyed splendor had soured into narrowly-focused futility.
Eventually I healed. Eventually (unlike Stephen, who became that martyr), I became whole again and could stand tall again.
But I had so little to do with my healing. Doctors and nurses: yes. Physical therapists: yes. Friends gifting their generosity and literal homes: yes. Kind comments from strangers: yes. God?
Alleluia . . . yes!
You see, in the rock-solid lesson of that worst moment, I first discovered how much I needed others.
Even whole, God knows, we never stand on our own.