Monday, August 16, 2010

Stoning Stephen

Monday, August 16, 2010 -- Week of Proper 15, Year Two

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 981)
Psalms 106:1-18 (morning)       106:19-48 (evening)
Judges 17:1-13
Acts 7:44 - 8:1a
John 5:19-29

To the people who stoned Stephen, his killing made perfect sense.  They believed that they were being faithful to God.   They were certain that Stephen was a blasphemer and an enemy to God and to their religion.  They listened carefully to his testimony, and Stephen's own words condemned him.  It was as if he uttered his own confession of condemnation.  They stoned him in obedience to the word of scripture, to cleanse the land of a dangerous impurity.  Not to have done so would have left them vulnerable to God's judgment and would have opened a path for the spread of a profound distortion of God's truth.  They acted decisively, and in good conscience. 

Prosecutors, juries and judges make the same kind of decision when they render a guilty verdict in a capital case.  They believe themselves to be faithful to the rule of law.  They make certain beyond a reasonable doubt that the charged person is guilty of a serious, capital crime.  They listen carefully to the testimony, sometimes including a confession.  The state executes the prisoner, with the consent of the jury, to cleanse the land of a dangerous impurity.  Not to do so would be to fail to punish in a way that is commensurate with the crime, and because our penal system is flawed, it assures that the criminal will never escape or be paroled where he might do violence again or might live with a freedom he has forfeited.  Juries, prosecutors, judges, prisons and executors act decisively, and in good conscience.

Nations and commanders make decisions to use military force to solve problems that they believe can be solved in no other way.  They believe that they are being faithful to God, if they believe in a God, and faithful to their nation and its values.  They make certain that their enemy is a danger and a threat to their vital national interests.  They listen carefully to intelligence, and they weigh the likelihood of success against the cost of not attacking.  They judge the intentions of the enemy.  They launch military force in accordance with their rule of law and the military rules of engagement, to protect those who are threatened and to cleanse the world of a dangerous threat.  Not to do so would leave them vulnerable to continued threat and would perpetuate the existence of something they believe to be evil.  Presidents, congresses, officers and soldiers act decisively, and in good conscience.

Sometimes we are wrong. 

To Christians, the execution of Stephen was wrong.  We name churches for him.  He was not a blasphemer, but he had a new revelation of God's presence through Jesus.  Something about that day made an impression on one of the leaders of the stoning party.  The story notes that the participants threw their cloaks down at the foot of one of their leaders named Saul.  He will become Paul, the Christian leader for whom we name our own church.

Since 1973, 138 prisoners on death row in America have been exonerated.  Guesses about how many innocent people have been executed legally in our nation are just guesses, but even one seems horrifying.  John Grisham narrates a non-fiction account of a recent unjust execution in Oklahoma in his book "An Innocent Man."  Sometimes prosecutors, juries and judges are wrong. 

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Al Quadea was not connected with Saddam Hussain and was not significantly present in Iraq before 9-11.  Iraq had nothing to do with the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.  No one will ever know how many civilians have been killed during the Iraq war.  In 2008 the World Health Organization estimated 151,000.  In 2006, one of the world's leading medical journals, the Lancet, published a figure of 654,965 excess civilian deaths attributable to the war.  Media reports, and many deaths are not reported to the media, list 95,000-103,500 civilian deaths attributed to the war.  Sometimes presidents and nations are wrong.

God forgive us for our violence.  Why do we keep thinking we can solve problems by killing?  The list of martyrs and innocent deaths continues.  We ask God to bring resurrection out of death.  Bring new life from our violence.  Make more Pauls out of Sauls.  And help us to refrain our tendency toward violence when we become so certain.  There is no correcting for a wrongful death.  When someone who is innocent is executed, you can't let them out of prison and say, "I'm sorry."  What do you say to 100,000 dead civilians after invading their country on false pretense?



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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
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The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 8:30 AM, Blogger cstevenson53 said...

God bless you, Lowell, for preaching the Gospel of Christ. Peace will come when all religions demand it, not if and when nations decide it's time. I wish every priest in the diocese would preach this sermon of yours.

At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Cammie Novara said...

"They stoned him in obedience to the word of scripture, to cleanse the land of a dangerous impurity." I am completely in agreement with that. There's a really fascinating debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at

At 11:04 AM, Blogger George said...

There was much debate at the time of the Iraq invasion about whether it was a "just" war. It seems like what's perceived as justice may sometimes be morally wrong. Haven't many wars or acts of vengence have been conducted in the name of justice? What is justice? Isn't there a difference between justice and Jesus's words to forgive, to turn the other cheek?

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Lowell said...

Your question is a fascinating one. Usually the prophets used the word "justice" to refer to the humane and equal treatment of the poor and vulnerable. I'm trying to remember whether justice is used to describe an act of war -- i.e. Israel is called to go to war for the cause of justice. Nothing comes to mind right away.

The early church believed that Jesus' example was a call to complete non-violence. Part of the persecution and discomfort the early church lived with was that military service by Christians was forbidden. Solders who converted left their commissions, and active Christians refused to serve. That changed after Constantine.


At 7:14 AM, Blogger Lowell said...


From the perspective of Science, Evolution as a principle of biology is about as settled as gravity as a principle of physics. It functions as a law more than a theory. It works; it's true.

There is always fascinating debate about how evolution works, just like there is fascinating debate about the nature of physical reality.

From a theological point of view, we assert God is the ultimate mystery and reality in which everything lives and moves and has its being. Christianity does not have a theological problem with evolution, since evolution simply helps us understand better how God creates.

Biblical literalists have latched on to "intelligent design" as the latest iteration of "creationism" -- it has been thoroughly debunked in academia, and whenever it has made it to a legal court -- always overturned as bunk science.

There are lots of excellent projects that engage the complementary relationship between science and religion. One of them is the Clergy Letter Project

The Templeton Foundation also does good work. There are others.



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