This was a sermon that I gave for the 5th Sunday of Easter (24 April 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, New York). The Scriptures were Acts 7: 55 – 60, 1 Peter 2: 2 – 10, and John 14: 1 – 14. (Edited on 17 March 2010)
Back about a year ago I mentioned an old union song entitled "Which Side Are You On?" (see "Which Side Are You On? (2004)) Its origins come from the bloody union battles to organize the coal miners of eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s. Back then, and even today, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, there is no middle ground; you are either a union man or you worked for the coal company.
Pete Seeger in an introduction to "Which Side Are You On?" on his record "Cant You See This System’s Rotten Through And Through" says:
"Maybe the most famous song it was ever my privilege to know was the one written by Mrs. Florence Reece. Her husband Sam was an organizer in that "bloody" strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1932.
They got word that the company gun-thugs were out to kill him, and he got out of his house, I think out the back door, just before they arrived. And Mrs. Reece said they stuck their guns into the closets, into the beds, even into the piles of dirty linen. One of her two little girls started crying and one of the men said "What are you crying for? We’re not after you we’re after your old man"
After they had gone she felt so outraged she tore a calendar off the wall and on the back of it wrote the words and put them to the tune of an old hard-shelled Baptist hymn tune, although come to think of it the hymn tune used an old English ballad melody … And her two little girls used to go singing it in the union halls."
There were no questions in Harlan County about which side you were on; as the song goes,
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
But life is never that simple. You may find that you start out on one side of a battle or an issue but as time goes by, you may find yourself moving to the other side of the same battle or issue. There are a number of biographies coming out in the next month about the physicist Robert Oppenheimer.
He is best known as the administrator of the Manhattan Project, our wartime project to develop an atomic bomb. The project was initially conceived because the Allies in World War II feared that Germany was developing a similar weapon and conceivably would use such a weapon in the same manner that the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 rocket were used, to initiate terror in the closing days of the war.
But as the war in both the European and Pacific theaters progressed, it became increasingly obvious that Germany was incapable of using the weapon. And, as it turned out, Germany’s research in atomic weapons was behind that of the Allies’ effort. So, the emphasis on using the weapon being developed in the mountains of New Mexico shifted from Germany to Japan.
Oppenheimer was chosen to head the project because he had initially shown an appreciation for what such a weapon could do. As it turned out, his selection to head the project also showed that he was a capable and efficient administrator, one who could get a collection of physicists and chemists to work together in complete and total secrecy. But his selection was met with considerable opposition, especially from the F. B. I. who were convinced that he was a major security risk and secretly a member of the Communist party. Still the needs of the project outweighed the concerns, though the F. B. I. continued throughout the latter part of World War II to prove what they felt was the truth.
Later, in the mid 1950’s, as the United States shifted its emphasis from atomic weapons to more destructive nuclear weapons, the concerns of the F. B. I. and Oppenheimer’s own political activity were used to deny him the security clearance he needed to continue working in the area.
During that time period, Robert Oppenheimer shifted his view of atomic weapons as a necessary part of war to one of opposition. He could see that weapons of such destructive force would have far greater consequences on the world than just the simple destruction of one town or the defeat of a country. At the time of the test explosion in the summer of 1945,
He later recalled that while witnessing the explosion he thought of a verse from the Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…”
However, another verse that he remembered stuck in his mind: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" (http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/Robert_Oppenheimer)
Near the end of his life, Oppenheimer expressed mixed feelings about the atomic bombings:
"I have no remorse about the making of the bomb and Trinity [the first test of an a-bomb]. That was done right. As for how we used it, I understand why it happened and appreciate with what nobility those men with whom I’d worked made their decision. But I do not have the feeling that it was done right. The ultimatum to Japan [the Potsdam Proclamation demanding Japan’s surrender] was full of pious platitudes. …our government should have acted with more foresight and clarity in telling the world and Japan what the bomb meant." (Lansing Lamont, Day of Trinity, pg. 332-333). (http://www.doug-long.com/oppie.htm)
There are often times when you believe that you are right or the cause in which you believe is correct until you see the consequences of your actions or your beliefs. It is not clear from the passage in Acts that was our first lesson today if Saul, soon to become Paul, was the instigator of the stoning of Stephen, or simply a bystander. But in the next few verses we read that Saul leads the first persecution of Christians in the Jerusalem area. But, even as Saul is beginning his persecution of Christians, we read of some devout men who buried Stephen, perhaps because they recognized the presence of God’s activity in Stephen.
It may be that Luke simply wants to introduce the individual who will take the Gospel out of Israel and throughout the world of his time. But we have to think that Saul’s experience at this incident had a lot to do with what would later transpire on the road to Damascus. Saul saw what happens when Christ becomes part of one’s life and that vision may very well have lead him to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and the event that changed his life and name. And just as Stephen’s expression of faith in Christ affected those around that day in Jerusalem, so too does His presence in our lives affect those around us and in our community.
Peter writes of Christ being the cornerstone of the church. Two noted church builders of today, Herb Miller and Tony Campolo, have both said that it is the church that is the ultimate instrument by which Christ has chosen to save the world. The church today, as in the past, must be the rock upon which people can build their lives. If you know the history of the United Methodist Church and John Wesley, you know that Wesley saw the church as such an instrument.
The United Methodist Church began, in part, because of the direction that society was taking. Though the upper classes may have benefited from the Industrial Revolution, the lower classes were often forgotten. Only those in the upper class were immune to the problems of long hours working in intolerable conditions and with limited health care that the working class and poor had to deal with every day. To cope with the stress that such conditions and society produced, many people turned to drugs and alcohol. There are times that I think that if John Wesley were to come back today, he would not believe that it was almost the 21st century and not 1799.
It was Wesley’s contention that society could be changed and that it was the church that was the instrument of change. Through Wesley, Sunday school was started. It was not school, as we know it but a way that the populace could be educated. Remember that in Wesley’s time, many children, as well as adults, worked six days a week in the factories and Sunday was the only day they could go to school. It was also Wesley and his followers who took the lead in dealing with the alcoholism and substance abuse prevalent in English society at that time. Historians today agree that because of what Wesley and the Methodist Revival did, England did not undergo the violent revolution that France went through at much the same time.
John Wesley understood that it was the primary purpose of the church to present the message of Salvation through Jesus Christ but a church blind to the needs of its members or the community that it was in could not do its work. You cannot preach the power of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society. John Wesley also understood and preached that it was the responsibility of each individual having accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Savior, to go out into the community.
But the problem today is that the church that goes out into the community is not the church of Wesley nor is it anything like the church that began in Jerusalem. There are those in the world today who will tell you what the truth is but it is a truth that excludes and denies. It is a truth that is limited to a few, not to everyone. Yet Christ opened his arms and said that anyone who believes would be welcomed. Stephen characterized those who were to stone him as stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, forever opposing the Holy Spirit. (Acts 7: 54) What would these modern day Pharisees say?
For many individuals in today’s society, it makes things very confusing. Like Thomas, they cannot find the house that Jesus promised them would be there.
Others are like Philip, confused about what to look for. They would like someone to simply put the truth their in front of them. But like the men who stoned Stephen, it is often difficult to know what the truth is.
As Pheme Perkins, professor of New Testament at Boston College reminds us; too many Christians see local churches as human institutions and forget that it is God who builds God’s churches. But how else could such a wide variety of people from all walks of life, social positions and family structures become a dwelling for the Holy Spirit? Though we are introduced to Paul as Saul and the persecutor of Christians because of their perceived threat to the faith Paul later writes
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually in dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2: 19 – 22)
If the flesh of Jesus could break down the dividing wall between both Jews and Gentiles and make them into one, then surely the resurrected Christ can build farmers and stay-at-home parents and mechanics and doctors into a dwelling place for God. How odd that the rock of ages, in whom we seek sanctuary, fashions us into a living sanctuary for the rest of the world.
What makes the gift of the church astonishing is that none of us, save Jesus, is necessarily striking in our singularity. And even Jesus does not stand alone. He offers himself to be the building material that anchors the rest of us in place. (From “Precious Stones” by Jenny Williams in “Living by the Word”, Christian Century, April 19, 2005.)
At a time when Christian voices call for exclusion and denial, it is time that we stand up and welcome those who seek Christ. In the union song that is the basis for this sermon, the verse says,
Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell
But it is not the union that has come but the Holy Spirit. Which side are you on? Are you on the side, watching and letting others drive away those who need to be here? Or are you on the side of Stephen, Philip, Paul, the prophets, the disciples and the apostles proclaiming the Good News that Jesus is Christ and that he has come to bring salvation to the earth. Which side are you on?