As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.
Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”
THE CHARCOAL FIRE
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
April 8, 2012
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), April 23, 2022. This piece from 2012 is edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.
“And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he died.” [Acts 7:59-60]
“Flesh and blood is weak and frail,” wrote T.S.Eliot in his poem “The Hippopotamus,” “While the True Church can never fail/ For it is based upon a rock.
We don’t know for sure whether Stephen, the martyr, was murdered by a mob or was executed with government sanction. We do know that he didn’t lose his life; it was taken. Yet he did not let the terror of “nervous shock” strip him of his faith or his humanity. Like Jesus, Stephen did the unthinkable as he died. “He knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them” [Acts 7:60].
The back story for Stephen’s death is a squabble between Greek-speaking Jewish Christians and Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians about the fair distribution of the early church’s common wealth. To resolve the matter, the Apostles invited the people to choose seven men to be a kind of leadership council that would see to the needs of the community’s members. They chose Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte from Antioch… And when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.”
Not long after that, false charges were made against Stephen from a few disgruntled factions. Stephen, though flesh and blood and, like all flesh and blood, susceptible to nervous shock, was not deterred. He responded by reciting Israel’s history, but in doing so also pointed to their collective and habitual disobedience, particularly in the form of idolatry. He went so far as to call them “stiff-necked,” meaning hardheaded or stubborn. Not a good way to make friends or to influence your accusers.
Stephen was a bold witness who lost his life for the Lord’s sake only to find it. He paid the ultimate price and his testimony lives on even today, as in persecution the Church has spread across the world. There are others, too, however, who have testimonies in this story. The hands of those who participated in the murder and who stood by doing nothing are left with the crimson stain of innocent people. It is the German liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle who wrote in her book Suffering, “In the face of suffering you are either with the victim or the executioner–there is no other option.” Whether for good or evil, love or hate, health or dysfunction, protection or exploitation, we all have a testimony.
One of the lasting testimonies comes from a man named ‘Saul’, whom the Church remembers as ‘Paul’, who was there at the stoning of Stephen.
While Scripture doesn’t say that Paul hurled any stones, if you peek over to chapter eight, you will discover that Saul approved of Stephen’s murder. The fraudulent witnesses took off their coats and “laid them down at Saul’s feet”, improving the range of motion of their throwing arms like pitchers warming up in the bullpen. This same Saul was on a crusade to crush the Jesus movement until the heavens opened, struck him blind with overwhelming light, and spoke his name: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
It’s easy to judge those who laid down their coats at Saul’s feet, and to judge the young persecutor who was there at the stoning of Stephen. But we, too, throw our stones from a distance – not only the distance of time but at a fearful distance from the shock of our own flesh and blood reality and the shock of who we are.
Rembrandt’s first painting was of the Stoning of Stephen. A close look at the faces of the crowd reveals at least three self-portraits of Rembrandt peering out from the crowd, just behind a prominent executioner with a large rock ready to pummel the praying Stephen’s head. Rembrandt saw himself there, close up and aghast, among the stoners but sympathizing, it seems, with the one being executed.
You and I are also there in the story. Check the echoes of the “stoning of Stephen” in your own life. Perhaps you have participated in your own stoning through some debilitating sense of perfectionism and self-hate. In the courtroom of your own deepest self, you have testified on behalf of the prosecuting attorney who calls you loathesome. Perhaps you have borne witness against yourself, not only unable to forgive the sins of others but standing as your harshest, most unforgiving, critic – serving as prosecutor, judge, and jury against yourself.
“And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he died.”
Like the Amish who tipped their hats as they passed by the home and the family of the man who had murdered their children in the West Nickel Mines Amish school house shooting 10 years ago, Stephen could only do this with divine help infusing his weak and frail flesh and blood susceptible to nervous shock.
What informed Stephen and what can direct us is Stephen’s vision of the crucified Jesus as the one who sits at the right hand of God. For the right hand of God is the hand of God’s power. But, according to Stephen’s testimony, God’s power is not like human power. God’s power is not the power of might or revenge. It is exercised in weakness. God’s power is exercised is long-suffering patience with the creatures God hands have formed.
Stephen accused his accusers of being “stiff-necked people” who broker no criticism, perhaps because they had mistaken the Holy One as the sternest of judges. With stones in hands, executing Stephen, or peering out as silent observers, like Rembrandt, they were stoning themselves.
The stoning scene in The Book of the Acts of the Apostles reads:
“[W]hen they heard (Stephen’s words), they were enraged and ground their teeth against him.”
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
While his accusers and executioners picked up their stones, Stephen stood upon the Rock of his salvation: the faith that his future and the future of his killers lay in the hands of the One who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, the Crucified Human One, our judge and our redeemer. It was this crucified Jesus, now seated at God’s right hand, who on the cross had become humanity’s defense attorney – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – whose cry inspired Stephen to breath his last in peace rather than in spite.
While we never hear again of Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas or Nicolas – the fellow first deacons chosen with Stephen – Saul, the participant in Stephen’s stoning, bore the fruit from which the gospel was carried into the world. Over time, Stephen’s vision and prayer to the right hand of God ate away at the heart and mind of the young man Saul who’d been entrusted with the coats of Stephen’s killers, and he, Saul, became Paul who, by grace, became the supreme witness to the defense, and opponent of all heartless prosecution.
The Church was built upon this rock amidst the mud of the hippopotamus and human flesh and blood. We proclaim with Stephen and with Paul that it is the crucified-risen Christ who sits at the right hand of God, and that because he does, there is hope for us and for the world.
Fourteen (14) days to retirement. Joyful announcement yesterday introducing Dean Seal, the next pastor of Shepherd of the Hill in Chaska. Dean is Executive Director and Founder of Spirit in the House and Forgiveness 360. A stand-up comedian, actor, director, producer, and event organizer, Dean is an ordained Presbyterian minister who teaches religion as part-time adjunct faculty at Augsburg College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Wonderful choice. I’m moving on more easily knowing that Dean is coming to Shepherd of the Hill.
The palms had been saved for 11 months,
then burned to ashes. Thin tapers all lay
like kindling near the Christ candle. Our mouths
moved silently reciting sins. Today
we wear a black plus on foreheads:
it means we have forgiven all of those
who sinned against us, and even ourselves.
We light a taper, place it in the sands
surrounding Christ, shifting under us.
We tell the skeptical that God forgives
them–they tell us the same absurd good news.
Our Pastor prays and lays upon our heads
a blessing undeserved. We leave this place
each marked by two crossed lines of dirty grace.
They will say I did it. And I did. We all did. But it doesn’t matter. The kiss, the “shalom”, I gave him in the olive grove was as real as real can be. I kissed him, and everything that was in me was in that kiss. My love, my affection, my admiration, my fear…and my belief that it would wake him up to what was really happening and what he had to do.
The world is a cruel place. It plays by hard rules. He wouldn’t play by the rules, which is why we loved him but also why we pushed him at the end. We pushed him over the cliff.
He’d escaped the cliff once before when his neighbors tried to throw him over it. He walked right through that crowd and went on with his life, and that’s why we gathered around him like newborn kittens with their mother. He became the source of nourishment, the mother whose eyes always saw the good in us, and he taught us to forget about the cliffs. Live to the full. Forget the cliffs! But there comes a time in everyone’s life when you can’t avoid the cliff.
We were standing at the edge of it right there in the Mount of Olives – a fatal cliff of soldiers, clubs, and daggers, a Roman battalion who’d come there, where we always met at night among the olive trees so they couldn’t hear us or see us. I led them there to the private place.
They will say I ratted on him. But I did what I knew I had to do, or thought I had to do, and then scurried away before it was over. I couldn’t watch. I hated those bastards as much as I loved him, hanging there where the skulls were left. As I ran, I looked back over my shoulder at the horror of it, hearing the sounds of the hammers and the grinding of the pulleys hoisting him up on those pieces of imperial lumber, and him screaming with pain suspended mid-air… half way between horizontal and vertical…and I fleeing for my life into fatal despair.
I understand why they’ll say what they they’ll say. They have to say it. Denial is one of God’s great gifts. They had to deny their own responsibility for what happened. We were all in this together, except for the Beloved Disciple, Lazarus, the only one of us who knew already that death is not the final Word, no matter how it comes, the disciple who will disappear into silence in the later texts about what happened. But Lazarus was there watching, listening, seeing what the rest of us could not see until after it was over.
Unlike the others, I didn’t give myself time to get it. I fled the scene, running for my life, never wanting to look back on it, howling in silence, rushing out into the field to hang myself from a tree. Symbolic, some will say: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that … but to me it was just a tree with limbs to throw the rope over, a place to end my pain.
I think now of the olive trees and of hiding among them and wonder why we hid. I think of him as the olive branch that the dove brought to Noah as the violence of the flood receded. And I wonder if that was maybe what he was all about, if the olive branch instead of clubs and daggers and scapegoating was why he let me kiss him there and turn him over before he rebuked Peter for drawing his dagger.
They won’t tell you that we all had daggers. Not just Peter. We were revolutionaries. Ready for the fight. Itching for the fight. Yeshua was the new Joshua who would throw the bums out, restore the fortunes of our people, give us back our land, our destiny, our power to rule ourselves as we had in David’s time and Solomon’s. There was that day in the Temple, Solomon’s Temple, when he went crazy with the whip against the money-changers, snapping the whip wildly, out of control, angry at the abuse of his religion and our’s, tossing the money everywhere, yelling about the money-handlers’ abuse of the poor who could barely afford to buy a pigeon for their sacrifices. For him, it wasn’t just about self-determination. It was about the Romans, about the end of foreign occupation and the collaboration of the religious establishment. But it was deeper than throwing out the foreign occupiers. It was about something so deep that the mind and heart can barely comprehend it: the fearful conspiracy of self-interests that betrays and kills all that is good and pure and decent and loving.
Only Lazarus understood what he was about in standing up to the rule of death enshrined in the Temple and imperial threats. He saw in Yeshua the scapegoat who could unmask the conspiracy, the new Joshua who would shift us from eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, dividing the world into the good and the evil, to eating of the fruit of the tree of life.
I broke my neck on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, certain that I, one of the “good” ones, had become as evil as the soldiers who crucified him, and that there was no redemption, no way to the tree of life, no way to atone, no way to erase the kiss that killed him and was killing me. Death was my just desert and worse. If only I had known that the kiss would be the kiss of death.
It gives me little comfort that they tell me he begged the Father from the cross for forgiveness, like a defense attorney pleading with a judge that those who were crucifying him didn’t know what they were doing. It is what it is. Or so I thought at first. But the weight of his words led me to the sound of them, coming as they did from the high heat of that awful scene, soft and genuine or loudly shrieking, invoking a mercy on us all that made no sense, no sense at all.
Peter will say, as will the church three centuries after my death on the tree and burial in potters field, that “he descended into hell” at his death and preached to those imprisoned there. If anyone was ever there in that place of self-hate, remorse, guilt, despair and hopeless self-loathing, it was I.
He met me there with a holy kiss. “Shalom,” said he. I kissed him back. And left my sorrow in the emptied cell.
A sermon on forgiveness as releasing or letting go preached at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN April 7, 2013. The sermon is indebted to Professor Robert Kegan, neo-Piagetian psychologist at Harvard University and Professor Mona Gustafson Affinito, Southern Connecticut State University Professor Emerita and author of Forgiving One Page at a Time and other books on the theology and psychology of forgiveness.
The return of the prodigal son – Rembrandt drawing
During seven years as Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center, Inc. a nonprofit public defense corporation founded in 1970 by American Indian and African-American civil rights leaders, there were sacred moments when the lawyers would call me in to meet a suicidal client in a jail cell. Sometimes the person in the cell was guilty of murder or manslaughter. They were beside themselves. All I could do was be there with them as a kind of quiet presence of hope and the possibility of forgiveness and new life.
I knew then that we were sitting right in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Gospel of Luke 15:11-32). In Jesus’ parable, the son, who has convinced his generous father into giving him his inheritance before his father’s death, has squandered it all, and, after finding himself in desperation, eating the left-overs in the pig sty of “the far country”, he staggers home to his father. He comes beating his breast with remorse and shame. “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him,” and orders the finest robe for him and a magnificent feast to celebrate his son’s return from “the far country.” When the older brother who has stayed home obediently objects, the father of the two sons declares: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, but is alive, was lost, and is found!”
Only after returning to parish ministry did I discover The Book of Common Prayer’s rite for the reconciliation of a penitent that is constructed on the story of the return of the son to the father. For those in the bowels of despair, remorse, and guilt, there is no word from inside one’s own self that can crack open the cocoon of horror, self-disgust, and condemnation. When I found this rite, it moved me deeply. I adapted parts of it for the Prayer of Confession in morning worship at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.
RITE FOR THE RECONCILIATION OF A PENITENT from The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church)
The priest and penitent begin as follows
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.
Penitent: Pray for me, a sinner.
Priest: May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy. Amen.
The Priest may then say one or more of these or other appropriate verses of Scripture, first saying:: Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.
Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28
This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I Timothy 1:13
If any man sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and nor for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. I John 2:1-2
The Priest then continues:
Now, in the presence of Christ, and of me, his minister, confess your sins with a humble and obedient heart to Almighty God, our Creator and our Redeemer.
The Penitent says:
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and I have wandered far in a land that is waste.
Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . . . (Here the penitent confesses particular sins)
Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Priest may then offer words of comfort and counsel.
Priest: Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?
Penitent: I will.
Priest: Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?
Penitent: I forgive them.
Priest: May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.
The Priest then lays upon the penitent’s head (or extends a hand over the penitent) saying:: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Priest concludes: Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go (or abide) in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.
The Prayer of St. Francis is a well-known. Here’s the Prayer, followed by a reflection for today (Feb. 20) on “pardon” from a Lenten booklet prepared by members of the United Church of the San Juans in Ridgway, CO.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
“Part of my job, when I was on staff at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder was to prepare ‘messages’ on a twice monthly basis. These were to be shared in our huge singles Sunday School class. Some Sundays, we would have upwards of 100 single adults in our group; many ere just separated, some post-divorce, others recently widowed. All were seeking advice or encouragement about getting on with life, in most cases a life-style change that had not been chosen by that person. A second part of my job was the coordinator for the Divorce Recovery Program. This is where I ran into the word ‘pardon,’ used differently than the legal usage more familiar in society today.
“I have always loved words; when I run into an unfamiliar one, I generally stop what I am doing and look up the meaning. The computer has made my lifelong affair with words much easier! I used to haul my huge old five pound unabridged version (1940) of Webster’s Dictionary down off the shelf, turn the onion skin tot he right location and study the pronunciation, origin and usage of these unfamiliar words. Some words I managed to remember and use myself to reinforce the memory, but others faded away quickly because they were not that useful. The word pardon has an interesting origin; it stems from the Medieval Lation perdonare, meaning to remit, overlook, or literally ‘to forgive.’ The Latin was then adopted into a Germanic ancestor of our English, where it was translated piece-by-piece. Linguists call this process a ‘calque’, a tracing or copy. ‘Per’ was replaced by ‘for’, a prefix that means ‘thoroughly’, and ‘donare’ was replaced with ‘giefan’ meaning to give. The Germanic result was ‘forgiefan’ which showed up in Old English meaning to ‘give up’ or to allow.
“It isn’t just divorced or widowed parties who might need to deal with the concept of pardon or forgiveness; most of us have experienced hurt, deliberately or not, by the thoughtless or painful words and actions of others. The most difficult concept to explain is that pardoning or forgiving is not about saying what happened was ‘alright’; rather, the act of pardon or forgiveness allows the injured party to let go or give away the hurt and release the hold that kept that person stuck in the past.”
– Member of United Church of the San Juans
Thanks to dear friend, former classmate and colleague Harry Strong for sending “Lenten Devotionals” complied by members and friends of the United Church of the San Juans in Ridgeway, Colorado.
The Pope asked Michelangelo to make
his tomb. A grand statue of Moses soon
emerged from stone–each whisker clear, each vein
distinct, emotions boiling free–quite like
a man who had encountered God, who had
been changed, whose head had horns. “Whose head had horns?”
The Latin Bible for a thousand years
had said it. Yes, it’s true the Hebrew word
was later learned to mean that Moses’ face
“shone,” “glowed”…was illumined by holy light.
But either way, folks seeing such a sight
cried, “Cover up your head!” We all want grace,
forgiveness, mercy–not ten laws that show
our flaws–that, we don’t really want to know.