September 18, 2022 Stone Catchers and Bridge Builders by Loraine MacKenzie Sheperd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The advice of First Timothy in today’s lectionary reading is timely for today, when we have a new monarch and a new leader of the Conservative Party. It’s also timely when so many countries around the world are becoming increasingly polarized. We demonize the other side and exaggerate our superiority. Anger and violence is spilling out from pent-up rage, fed by fear. What is the appropriate Christian response to this polarization?

First Timothy offers a few suggestions that just might make a difference. But before we consider the content, let’s first review the context. This letter was written in Paul’s name by a disciple of Paul some 60 years after Paul’s ministry. This was the custom in that day—disciples would write in the name of their teacher so as to honour them. In the early 2nd century, this letter was probably sent to the leaders of the church in Ephesus during the reign of Emperor Trajan. Although Trajan was not as cruel as previous emperors, he still authorized the death of Christians if they did not worship him as God. You risked your very life if you publicly identified as a Christian. Ephesus was a particularly dangerous place at that time because it had a strong imperial cult, evidenced through several temples dedicated to the Roman Emperor throughout the city.

Because of the refusal of Christians and Jews to worship the emperor, they were thought to be seditious and a threat to the state. Church leaders therefore tried to assure the state that Christians were law abiding and had no intention to overthrow it. This was part of the reason this letter urges the Christians in Ephesus to pray for every ruler and leader so that they might live a quiet and peaceful life. They wanted to demonstrate to the Roman rulers that they were a peaceful people, praying for the Emperor and Pax Romana—the peace of Rome.

But there is more to this passage than self-preservation. They had a vision of universal salvation. This means different things to different people, but it is clear in this passage that they believed no one fell outside of God’s redemption. For these Christians, Jesus was their only mediator between God and humanity. But Jesus’ mediation and redemption was not just for Christian believers—it was for everyone. All were included under the umbrella of God’s redeeming love. Believing this, they saw it as their responsibility to pray for everyone—not just for Christians—and, even more, to be Christ’s hands and feet that cared for everyone. They lived a gospel of grace.

Now let’s just think about this for a moment. These early Christians found Christ’s strength to pray and care for the very people who were charging them with sedition and sentencing many to death.

It reminds me of Daud Nasser, a Palestinian Christian whose land and olive trees are  continuously threatened and bulldozed. But at the entrances of his property are signs painted on rocks in Hebrew, Arabic, English and German that read, “We refuse to be enemies.” He has turned his land into an educational and environmental farm called the Tent of Nations, where people come from all over the world to learn how to build bridges between people.

A few months ago, someone from Westworth emailed me a story of her family. She’s given me permission to tell the story without identifying the family. In 1941, her Mom’s sister decided to marry a very fine man who was Roman Catholic. Their father, who was a very good Christian and attended church often twice on a Sunday, told his daughter that if she married this man, she would be dead to him. Sure enough, he entered her name into the record of deaths in the family Bible. Nine months later, her new husband died in a plane crash and the Anglican church had no qualms burying him. Why did her father have such animosity? Maybe because he was of Irish descent, which brought a history of pain and division.

This Westworth congregant’s mother was so upset with what her father had done to her sister, that she was determined to be completely opposite her Dad—perhaps as a way of redeeming the family. She erased the name of her sister from the Deaths recorded in the Bible. She would invite anyone and everyone into the house, including a Nigerian door-to-door Bible salesman who had no gloves in the winter. She wasn’t going to buy a Bible, but she could have him in for supper!

Those of us who were at Elaine Boris’ Celebration of Life heard another story of boundaryless love. Just a few weeks before her death, she had parked beside the Health Sciences. When she came back from the hospital, she saw a woman going through her glove compartment with a water bottle tucked under her arm. Elaine approached her and said, “That’s my water bottle, but you can have it.” She let her take the gift cards that she had gathered. When the woman started walking across traffic, Elaine caught up to her and helped her safely across the road.

These are amazing examples of selfless giving that Christians are called to live. We are to build bridges, not walls, to return malice with forgiveness, to see beyond the offence to the desperation and pain that lies underneath. There is a story in the gospels about Jesus encountering an enraged group of men who are determined to stone a woman of ill repute to death. With one brilliant sentence, he stops them in their tracks: “Let those who are without sin throw the first stone.” One by one, they drop their stones and leave.

We seem to be eager to throw stones of accusations and condemnation at those with whom we strongly disagree. I know I do. But what if we tried to become stone catchers instead of stone throwers? Bryan Stevenson uses this term to describe people who are peacefully protesting violence and racism. Stevenson directs this challenge particularly to the church, saying that the church “has to be willing to be stone catchers. We’ve got to be willing to stand in places where we bear the burden of those who’ve been wrongly accused and condemned…We have to bear the burden of those disfavoured communities in our country and across the world—those religious minorities, those sexual minorities, those undocumented communities, people who are Black and brown…We have to stand up and catch the stones that are cast at them…Then we make a statement about our faith…that’s transformative.”[1]

I would like to extend this challenge to the polarized debates within our country and our world. This past week, we have received two new leaders—King Charles III and Pierre Poilievre. No matter what we think about the monarchy, no matter what we think about the views of Poilievre, let’s be inspired by this letter of I Timothy and commit ourselves to praying for all of our leaders. In the fourth century, John Chrysostom wrote, “No one can feel hatred towards those for whom one prays.”

We can debate, we can protest, but let not hate be the motivation nor vilifying be the method. And when debate turns to dehumanizing and demonizing, may we have the courage to catch those stones and drop them. We are bearers of a gospel of grace for everyone.

[1] Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.