“I am the wind, and you are the sail. Though you cannot see me, I am the force that moves you.”
These are among the words God spoke to me when I was discerning my call into ministry.
Do you believe me?
Do you believe God spoke to me?
Has God ever spoken to you?
God can speak to us in many different ways — through reading the Bible, in prayer and meditation, in what others tell us sometimes, and, sometimes, we can hear God’s still, small voice, as the prophet Elijah tells us that he hears in 1 Kings.
And I have a friend who tells me all his life, he’s never heard God’s voice.
He loves Jesus, is faithful to the church, prays and reads scripture regularly.
But it frustrates him to no end to not have heard God speak to him.
And he asks me, “What did it sound like?” and “Are you sure it was God?”
Oh, I’m sure, I tell him…
But how do we hear God’s voice?
Without a doubt, being in a quiet and contemplative or prayerful state of mind certainly can help.
But God’s calm and peaceful voice can break through the loudest noises when we least expect it.
God’s voice can be in the storm, in the din of the city, and even on the battlefield.
God is never limited by our surroundings.
But one thing is for sure: When God speaks to us, everything changes.
In fact, more often than not, when we hear God call to us, it throws our whole world into seemingly chaos.
When God spoke to me, the life I had known right up till that moment had changed completely.
You might even say that I was thrown into chaos.
I was called from my home church where I was extremely content with being a worship leader,
called away from all my friends who I was so close to,
called into seminary in Washington, DC, no less,
and called to trade my job as a journalist and my aspirations of becoming a college professor, to a life here in Bellefonte, shepherding a flock we call Trinity UMC.
Talk about a chaos…
Abraham was called into chaos.
God calls him to leave his home and settle in the land of Canaan, which God promises to Abraham and his progeny.
And God calls Moses to demand that Pharaoh releases the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage and leads the people for a 40-year walk around the desert before settling in the Promised Land.
Elijah was called by God time and time again to put his life at risk to return the Israelites back to God.
And in a sense, Jesus was called by God to sacrifice himself completely for our sins.
And Saul was living a fine life as an up-and-coming leader with the Pharisees, when God called him to completely upend his life.
Saul, who is in charge of Stephen’s execution, is called, and his life is thrown into utter chaos…
And Saul, who becomes Paul, will also eventually die for God.
As did Stephen, from today’s reading.
The very definition of chaos theory is the “science of surprises.”
It’s the science of the nonlinear, the unpredictable.
It’s present in the phrase “expect the unexpected.”
How can you predict how the stock market will perform?
Or exactly how a weather system will act?
How our brain will function against various stimuli?
We can look for patterns, behaviors, history and all the variables.
And at the end of the day, we make what we might call an “educated guess” on how these complex things that are all interconnected will behave.
Our Lectionary reading today is a case in point.
What do we have to work with here? Five little verses in a story that begins 50 verses before.
How can we make sense of Stephen’s death with such little context here?
Who is Stephen?
Why did he have to die?
Who was in charge?
We might know these answers if we’ve read all of Acts Chapter 7 and maybe Chapter 8, too.
But the brevity of our reading today punctuates exactly what it means many times to hear God’s voice.
Sometimes, we just have to go on what little we know.
Even into chaos.
The Deacon Stephen
I will share with you that Stephen was a deacon, ordained by the Apostles to help in the daily life of the young church of Christ followers.
Luke tells us in Acts that Stephen did many wonders and signs, and he was filled with grace.
He was called by God to help build the church and care for the community.
And what Stephen was mainly working with is what we might today call Social Justice.
You see, Christ called his people to live in community and care for and share with one another.
And those Jews who are now following Christ had no problem with that.
Except when it came to the non-Jews — what we call the Gentiles.
The Gentiles were following Christ, too, but they weren’t being taken care in that Christ community.
Stephen spoke up about that, and that got the attention of the very stern Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin were the sect that led the charge to crucify Jesus.
They were not Christ-followers.
And in an argument, Stephen attempts to set them straight with the truth.
In short, Stephen criticizes the Temple in Jerusalem — built by the Jews to “house” or “contain” God.
Stephen’s point is that before the Temple was built in Jerusalem, God revealed to Moses to construct a portable sanctuary — a tent — that could be moved location to location and could hold the Ark of the Covenant, where God made God’s self known to the people.
But the Jews wanted something far more grand than just some sticks and canopy.
And so they constructed this huge temple.
Stephen rejects the temple, telling the Sanhedrin that by building it to contain God, they were reducing God to an idol.
And the Sanhedrin quickly bring Stephen to trial on blasphemy charges, and his sentence is death by stoning, which a horrible way to die.
And thus, Stephen becomes the first person to die for following Jesus.
Ourselves in Stephen
Can we see our own selves in Stephen?
We should, shouldn’t we?
Here in the United States, and most of the Western world, we are so fortunate to be able to live in freedom.
Because of that freedom, we have opportunities that much of the world does not.
Including religious freedom, although we’ve seen infringement upon that too.
But we’re all here this morning to do what?
To celebrate God’s love for us in community.
We are called to gather as a people, as the body of Christ, in what we call the church.
(We are the church; the building is not the church.)
But we are called also take what we gather in here, and share that with the world.
If we didn’t do that, we’d be a very selfish church.
We would not be a missional church, but a consumer church.
We would, in fact, be going against what Jesus calls us to do.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of the world.
And isn’t that what Stephen was doing?
Telling the truth?
Working for equality?
Helping those on the margins?
And in doing so, risking his life…
God calls Stephen, and Stephen gives everything for God.
So much so that when the Sanhedrin hear Stephen’s testimony, the grind their teeth at him.
Stephen’s life is at the height of this chaos right now.
But listen: When God calls you even into what seems like chaos, God NEVER abandons you.
Stephen looks up into heaven, Verse 55 tells us, and “saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Then Stephen says, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
And that was too much for the Sanhedrin.
They attack him, drag him outside the gates of Jerusalem, and stone him to death.
And while that was happening, Stephen prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
And then “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
And he died.
But God didn’t abandon Stephen in all this chaos.
The entire story of Stephen has so many parallels to Jesus’s crucifixion.
And just from these five verses, we can see that like Jesus, Stephen was:
* filled with the Holy Spirit;
* that he gazes into heaven to see God’s glory;
* that he uses the term “Son of Man” that only Jesus has used and is only also seen in Revelation;
* that he was dragged out of the city and beaten by the Sanhedrin leaders,
* that there were false witnesses;
* that he asks God to receive his spirit;
* and then asks God to forgive those who are killing him.
What other reason can there be but to glorify God here?
This is supposed to remind us of Jesus’s crucifixion.
Stephen’s death provides a revelation for us here of that glory.
The glory that is with Abraham,
The glory displayed at Christ’s transfiguration,
The glory we find in Christ’s resurrection,
and the Glory that we see in Jesus’s future coming.
Fear no more
Stephen is following Jesus, and in following Jesus, Stephen is being treated like Jesus.
What does that mean for us?
That following Jesus sometimes means being treated like Jesus.
Do I mean that we’re going to become martyrs?
God, I hope not.
But it is a possibility.
More, it’s that if we’re truly following Christ, we sometimes have to point out truths without fear of retribution.
We have to call out the injustices in the world and stand in solidarity with what Jesus commands us to do.
If we cannot follow Jesus’s commandment to love one another as I have first loved you, then there’s no possibility we’ll even get the opportunity to say we loved like Jesus loves.
Instead, we want to change the lens through how we look at the world.
We want to look through a lens that blurs our vision so we can’t see the atrocities happening in our world today.
We want to turn away that lens from those innocent little children in Syria gasping on toxic gas in a horrific war happening right before our eyes.
We want to look through a selective lens that, like a mirror, looks right back at ourselves, and not all the others who need to be seen.
And we pray right here and in sanctuaries like this all around the world:
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We’re more concerned with those words “forgive” and “joyful” that we are doing something about them.
We celebrated Holy Communion, in which we all prayed together these words, just a couple of weeks ago right here at this table.
Did I mean what I said?
Did I try to be obedient, to do God’s will, to not rebel against God’s love?
Have I tried not to break God’s law?
Have I loved my neighbors?
Have I done anything for the needy?
Or will I just come again to this table the next time and confess these sins all over again in some endless cycle in which nothing ever becomes of it?
We all need to remove those lenses and realize that what we have been called by God to do is ENTER THIS CHAOS AND RESCUE ONE ANOTHER FROM IT — THROUGH THE LOVE OF JESUS CHRIST!
Otherwise, our words are empty.
We are lukewarm at best.
And at worst, we have thrown away Jesus’s commandment to truly LOVE one another.
When we hear God’s voice, don’t be afraid if we’re called into chaos.
Because that’s exactly why we’re here on this planet.
God has us exactly where God wants us.
If God is the wind, and we are the sail, and even if we cannot see God, but we know God is the force that moves us, then what an amazing opportunity — what an amazing honor — is that?
To be called out of the comfort of complacency,
To be suddenly able to see with God’s eyes, and not through some distorted lens that we created with our own perverted definition of self-love, self-protection and self-service.
And instead, able to — without fear — truly follow Christ.
To truly live out God’s purpose in each of us.
To bless others with what we’ve been entrusted with.
To truly love as Jesus first loved us.
Let’s do that.
When we see an opportunity, don’t hesitate.
When we see a need, don’t be afraid.
This is God calling to you!
In whatever we see today and tomorrow, ask, “Jesus, is this what you mean by love?”
Never, ever be afraid to stand for justice the way Jesus asks us to.
Never, ever be afraid to love like Jesus loves.
Even if it means being called into chaos.
We trust God’s voice.