Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
I’ve been a seminary graduate for less than 24 hours, but as I’ve prepared and planned and packed up my belongings, I’ve had plenty of time to think about my journey over the last few years. I’ve thought a lot about Old First, the excitement and trepidation I carried as I visited and began my involvement. I began full of vocational goals and had a plan for how to accomplish them. I was right to be afraid. Being in community, especially this community, I began to perceive that God was leading me to imagine a future that was different than what I thought I wanted.
The greatest blessing at Old First was finding that there was so much space for me. As a worshipper I experienced that there was room for my questions and space for the mysteries that transcend our understanding. I experienced a commitment that whatever we do in God’s name should not only be true, but should also be good and beautiful. As a seminarian I found a place to explore my call in freedom and in safety, receiving in turn words of encouragement and words of challenge. When I put on this robe, I still feel like a kid playing dress-up. This playful quality of my work here has been a wonderful gift, allowing me to take tentative, sometimes faltering steps toward that office called “Minister of Word and Sacrament.” As happens so often in life, I found myself on a path long before I knew why, or where it would lead me. For this and so many other gifts, I give wholehearted thanks.
But this really isn’t a story about me, nor is it really a story about you. It’s a story about an entire people and especially about the God to whom they belong. This is a God who acts in unexpected ways, and with unexpected people. A God who is sometimes distant from the obvious places but present among those who are easily overlooked. Maybe not in magnificent buildings, but among the poor and downcast. This is a God who goes before our plans and intentions and makes of us something that we did not believe possible. While we are hard at work, we realize that God is creating something else entirely. What God builds may be different than what humans want to build. What God is up to might be different than what our religious institutions are doing.
This was part of the witness of Stephen. We don’t really see this because the reading from Acts dips in only at the end of Stephen’s story. We miss the whole sequence of events leading up to his death. We glimpse this final scene: an angry mob set against Stephen, who remains spiritual and serene. Stephen is an exemplar for all who will face martyrdom or persecution because he faces his end with grace and faithfulness. Cutting the reading short leaves unanswered questions. For one: Why did Stephen die? What was his crime? He did not transgress a legal code. But he did – and quite deliberately I think – provoke some very powerful people. To hear his story, we’ll need to back up and listen also to the words that got Stephen killed.
So here’s a bit of back-story: Stephen was one of the early Christians who went around Jerusalem preaching and performing signs. He was arrested on false charges and called to defend himself. Stephen the defendant immediately sets to preaching - a sweeping, somewhat revisionist account of ancient Israelite history. Then he gives the whole thing a theological spin that attacks cherished institutions, shocking and offending his audience. Among several other contentious points, Stephen sets up a polemic against the temple built by Solomon. He argues, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (7.48). What would be a fitting place for God to dwell, who has already shaped every stone, formed all metals and planted every tree? Surely the God who inhabits all of heaven and earth will not be contained by human works, however extravagant or skillfully constructed. Stephen’s point is the utter contrast between the works of God and of humans. Human projects cannot limit God’s presence, control God’s activity, or manage the exercise of God’s power.
But Stephen doesn’t intend this to be a teaching moment. Instead he wraps things up by recasting himself as judge. He calls his accusers faithless and disobedient; he names them as betrayers and murderers. The angry reaction isn’t really a surprise. The message had a bitter taste for Stephen’s audience. They’re not the usual hooligans you would expect to find in a bit of a skirmish outside the city limits. Stephen did not address criminals or soldiers, but a council composed of religious leaders. They are elders and priests; upstanding members of their communities. As protectors of the temple and of religious life, they do not react warmly to Stephen’s remarks.
The story spins in unexpected directions. The council was the best of human intellect and religiosity. Stephen accuses them of being frauds. By the time we drop in to glimpse Stephen’s death, the pretense of moral superiority is revealed as a sham. The judicial proceedings inexplicably gave way to mob violence and the death of Stephen. It’s a bizarre twist: maybe like a supreme court judge being caught exercising a bit of vigilante justice. These respected individuals are just ordinary people who respond to a threat with violence and anger.
The council and the temple are two symbols of human accomplishment. If God were to dwell anywhere on earth, it would certainly be within a costly, beautiful, and well-protected temple. If the wisdom of God were to be found anywhere, it would be among the members of the council: well-educated, religious, good. But the most ornate building is not able to contain the Most High God. Even the most just and most wise ruler can take the place of God who reigns from heaven.
This is a stumbling block. We’re used to the idea that God has a problem with the worst of what humans have done. God came to save the criminals, the fanatics, the broken and damaged. What are the “worst” human achievements? Maybe war, waste, racism. It’s because of all these bad things that we need God, and from all of this bad stuff that God comes to save us. God has a problem with my sin and my shadows and failures, but all the good stuff - like charitable deeds and religious devotion - those things can remain more or less intact.
The story of Stephen reveals a different truth. God rejects the best of what humans have to offer. It’s not just because of the fiascos of human history, but because our best is not enough for a perfectly righteous God. Even the great achievements in architecture: the pyramids of Egypt, China’s great wall, Machu Picchu, even these were hewn of rocks that God made. Even political and social advancements like democracy and human rights fall short. Even cherished institutions- churches, well-run schools, and centers of learning- even these are not adequate to mediate God’s presence on earth.
What humans build may not be what God is building; human plans may not be God’s plans. Here the reading from 1 Peter stands as a counterpoint to the story of Stephen. If not the temple, what will be the site of God’s presence on earth? The letter commends the churches, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The new temple is built of living stones, living, breathing people who have come to Christ and have tasted that God is good. But their role is passive. Stones themselves cannot build; they must be built. Stones are nothing until they taken in hand by an architect or an artisan. They are chosen and then cut, ground, trimmed until they are the right size and shape and can be useful for building.
1 Peter lets us in on another secret: God does not build like you might expect. What would make a stone a good candidate for a building project? Human builders will aim for strength and uniformity. A builder will covet materials that retain their strength and appearance and resist decay over time. Aesthetic qualities are important, like color, texture, and pattern, so that the many pieces will cohere into a unified whole.
God’s new project starts with unlikely materials. Christ, rejected by humans, becomes the cornerstone. This surprising pick becomes the rule for all that follows. When God builds, many of the pieces will be unremarkable. Some are not particularly strong or resilient. Many will not be beautiful. What they are, is chosen and precious in God’s sight. It is not by their properties, but by God’s choice that they are worthy of inclusion. God’s aesthetic vision is transformative, working a masterpiece out of stones that others passed over. The new temple is the entirety of those whom God gathers together. We are those stones; being joined to Christ, we are joined also to one another. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s own people.
What this means is that no one finds their way here on accident. However disjointed or ill-matched we may feel we are for one another, each has been gathered for a purpose. Even if the paint peels, cracks widen, and in spite of dissension within and opposition without, still God gathers and builds. Even if we are embarrassed by or enraged at the actions of other’s who call themselves God’s followers- none of us get to make judgments about who is in and who is out. And if the walls of the God’s house should ever crumble, it may be because we are prone to constructing walls in all the wrong places. In the Easter season, we’ve heard that Easter is not church property, that the signs are not church property. As it turns out, not even the church is church property.
What is the difference between building and being built by God? They might look indistinguishable from the outside. Being built means that our plans are always provisional, our ways of doing things always open to revision. To be built by God is continually to ask ourselves the question: How do I best align with what God is about in this world?
Maybe you first came to church thinking how God might fit in your plans. I want God to help me carry out my goals and ideals. What we encounter is something far better - that God draws all of us into a project that spans across generations and across continents…swept up in something greater than what we could accomplish or imagine.
This “chosenness” is not simply a status. It is a vocation. Whenever Peter tells the churches who they are in Christ, he also tells them what to do about it. They’re not builders, because their action is always derivative of God’s action. Rather they are commissioned as a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ. They proclaim the mighty acts of God who has drawn us from darkness into light.
Many offer seemingly insignificant sacrifices: sleepy prayers, homework assignments, food for families, getting out of bed in the morning, a good effort at a job you hate, swallowing hateful words. Yet God is able to build anything out of these small offerings. None of us can see what God will make of our gifts. No work of human hands can house the God of heaven and earth. But when God builds, every act performed with love is a spiritual sacrifice and a taste of God’s goodness. When God builds, even the most ordinary and humble materials become a window to God’s light.