Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sermon, Getting Stoned For Jesus

Getting Stoned for Jesus
Text: Acts 7:51-60
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
January 14, 2007

As I was getting ready to write this sermon I was thrilled at my sermon title. It is, after all, a play on words, something I have been known to do once or twice. I was dazzled, for a bit, about my cleverness with the sermon title but something was bugging me. I realized that I had preached on this same text in April of 2005 and used the same title. So much for originality.

That sermon is actually on the St. Marks website, but if you compare it to the one today you’ll note that the two sermons are totally different from each other.

At face value, the story of the stoning of Stephen seems like a pretty straight forward narrative. In my mind, it brings together three rather random strands that connect only by the fact that they are all part of the same story.

The first strand is about Stephen and the real meaning of sacrifice. Stephen, quite plainly, sacrifices his life for his faith in Jesus. His sacrifice is complete and total; he loses his life, brutally, for the sake of the Gospel.

Within contemporary Christianity we seem to have lost a sense of what the word sacrifice really means.

I’ve heard people speak about tithing and the blessings they receive from tithing. This is all well and good. I’m skeptical, however, over how this is presented.

“I started tithing and I won the lottery.”

“I started tithing and my electric bill went down.”

“I started tithing and got a raise.”

It gives the impression that tithing brings about great financial gain and suggests nothing about sacrifice. And we need to be conscious of the fact that God’s view of blessings and our’s might not be always the same. “Blessed are the poor in spirit----or in Luke more bluntly, blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” Stephen’s sacrifice is not about winning the lottery.

Often we hedge ourselves a bit on this because concepts like sacrifice and generosity aren’t necessarily popular concepts in Christianity. My fear of modern day Christianity is that we modify things to become more attractive to the culture.

In the 16th century missionaries went to Japan in order to convert the Japanese to Christianity. Japan was a difficult mission field for Christianity because it is overwhelming Buddhist and almost everyone practices Shinto rituals----religious rituals which honor and revere ancestors as being divine. Buddhism in Japan is always different from Buddhism elsewhere because of the Shinto influence.

Christianity had a difficult time making progress and eventually all the missionaries were thrown out. The Japanese Christians, however, wanted to live out their faith, so they hid their Christian practices in the midst of Buddhist and Shinto practices. They became known as Crypto-Christians or the Kakure. The Kakure practiced their faith as Christians, but did it in a way that others could not tell what they were doing. They hid their Christianity in their culture.

Centuries later when Christian missionaries were allowed back into Japan they encountered the Kakure Christians and found something out. In their efforts to adapt Christianity to their culture, they lost Christianity. Over time the Crypto-Christians confused their Christian beliefs and their Japanese disguises. The result was the emergence of a hybrid religion no longer resembling the Christianity of the missionaries.

I sometimes fear, in our day and age, when we try to adapt Christianity to our culture, and try to steer away from concepts such as sacrifice and generosity, true pillars of the Gospel, that we do the same. Stephen reminds us, with his death, of the real meaning of sacrifice.

The second almost random strand of this story is about Stephen and the crowd and what is going on.

The God of Stephen and the God of the crowd are the same God. Stephen is angry because he is preaching about the love of Jesus, the Messiah, and the crowd is rejecting what Stephen is saying.

Stephen, however, calls the Jewish leadership to task. It is not because they have a different God, but Stephen believes that Jesus was God’s Son and the Messiah and he is angry at the leadership of Judaism for rejecting Jesus. Previous to this passage Stephen does something of a history lesson describing how generation after generation has rejected everything and everyone God has sent.

So Stephen dies, ultimately, for God.

But as troubling as this is, that isn’t the real troubling part. The people in the crowd kill him to maintain their perception of God. They kill him to maintain their perception of God.

Sometimes people behave badly and blame it on God. Sometimes people do grievous and sinful things and blame it on God. They do dreadful things, treat other people horribly, and claim that they are doing this ‘in God’s name.’

Sometimes people see some good that may come from such things and claim that all of this was ‘God’s will.’ It’s not.

In Christian ethics there is a principle that God does not will evil even if good ultimately comes from it. Good sometimes comes from evil because of God’s grace, but God never wills evil. God never wants us to do something dreadful in God’s name. God doesn’t invite us to behave badly and blame it on Him.

What is most troubling about this story isn’t that Stephen is willing to die for his faith; what is most troubling is that people are willing to kill for God.

After the dreadful events of September 11th, the suicidal hijackers killed themselves and over 2000 people and blamed it on God.

Recently, on the Internet, was the clandestine video of Saddam Hussein’s execution. I’m not going to debate his execution but people were troubled by how it happened. He was being taunted, ultimately, in the name of God, as he was put to death.

God is never about evil and when our viewpoint of God brings us and invites us to do evil seemingly in God’s name, we are not moving in God’s name or will.

The third random strand of this narrative is the character of Saul standing on the sidelines watching.

It is presumed that Saul approves. We don’t know for sure, he just stands there and observes.

Saul’s conduct is almost the most troubling of all. He is a man of God who doesn’t protect Stephen; but he is also a leading Pharisee who doesn’t commit himself to the stoning of Stephen. He just stands at the side and observes. Saul is the very definition of lukewarm and not committed.

The thing is we are being set up in a grand way to demonstrate the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. It is this same Saul, this lukewarm, uncommitted Saul, who later has a vision of Jesus and becomes the early church’s greatest apostle.

It is this huge reminder to us that when we fail, when we mess up, God is a God of redemption. Saul failed miserably this day and God was able to use him in the future.

The story of the stoning of Stephen is not a story to take totally on face value. It is a story that speaks of the real meaning of sacrifice, it is a story that speaks of using God’s name well or badly, and it is a story of redemption.

But at its core, it is a story of a man who followed Jesus, an incredibly devoted person, and was put to death for it. The story has random strands, but let us never lose focus of the heroism and commitment of Stephen, a man we read about getting stoned for Jesus.

Being a Moderate

I’ve always considered myself to be a moderate. It is often said that in Biblical interpretation there are two methods, fundamentalism, which is the literal embracing of everything in the Bible, to the historic critical method which essentially embraces only that which can survive great scrutiny. I often find both methods to be irrational. One blindly tried to prove every little detail and drowns itself in Incidentalism. The other, in its approach to provide great scrutiny under the magnifying glass tends to burn things up that had no need of being burned. Both methods, oddly, are very similar in the fact that they are both incredibly rigid. I’ve always tended to take a more middle of the road approach usually to be told that I’m wrong.

Politically, I’m much the same way. I tend to see both sides of issues and I tend to lean towards the pragmatic side. What is distressing, for example, about George Bush is that he claims to be a conservative. So he cut taxes. Conservative move, I guess. But then he greatly increased spending. People often say it’s the liberal approach to increase spending----and taxes. The conservative principle says to cut taxes you reduce spending; the liberal says that you increase taxes to cover increase spending.

Seems to me that a reasonable approach is that you pay as you go. People want some services and as long as they are willing to pay for them, tax wise, do it. If not, don’t. Seems middle of the road and logical to me.

But the current system, cut taxes and increase spending sounds neither liberal, conservative, or moderate. It’s the Bonehead approach.

I totally supported our invasion in Afghanistan. I probably would have supported an invasion of Iran, a long, well known training area for terrorists. Iran reminds me of Nazi Germany and Iraq was like Facist Italy. So we decided to take on Mussolini instead of Hitler.

Grr. Moderation, it seems to me, doesn’t look to fight wars, but if we do, tends to fight the correct nations.

Rush Limbaugh once said that the worst people in the world were moderates as they didn’t stand for anything. People who know me well know that this really does describe me. I don’t have any opinions on anything and have no convictions.

Okay, I’m just ranting and don’t have a conclusion other than this. Bye!

Monday, January 29, 2007


Recently the economist and columnist Thomas Sowell wrote a column entitled, The Greed Fallacy. It was, if you will, an apologia on the salaries of CEOs across the nation. Many people question these individuals and why they are paid so much. Sowell’s argument is that they are paid so much by people and boards who greatly realize how much these individuals know and that these salaries are justified and earned. They are not the result of greed gone rampant. He, of course, never mentions that some companies have jettisoned up to 20% of their work force to accomplish this.

Such Randian logic. The philosophy of Ayn Rand promotes that such achievement is morally good and right and, frankly, these are the people at the top of the ethical ‘food chain’ if you will. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is one that is pervasive in our culture these days. It’s interesting to note that she and Karl Marx are often seen at opposite ends of the political spectrum----but they have one thing in common. It’s a life and a world devoid of any sort of God. As an aside, my experience with non-believers isn’t necessarily consistent with Rand or Marx. The two of them seem to represent an extreme and both of them seem to lack a viable ethical conscience-----most non-believers that I have met over the years do have a strong ethical conscience, so I’m not lumping anyone together here.

I disagree with Sowell. To me, greed has become the reigning deity of our era. Recently University of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino left a very fine job to become the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. He left a school with a great sports program and one that is improving, to an NFL franchise which is one of the worst run. But he’s getting a big raise. His salary jumped from around two million a year to five million a year. That is a 60% raise, or a 3 million dollar raise. At first glance it’s very worth it. But then there is a question. What is it that you can purchase for five million that you can’t purchase for two million. The way his salary is set up, he was going to make 20 million over a decade in Louisville and 25 million in five years in Atlanta. Admittedly, the cost of living in Atlanta is higher, but what is that he wants to buy?

In 1961 the pulse of the United States was such that the incoming President said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” People cheered. In 1980 a Presidential candidate rightly assessed the pulse of the nation again and asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The people cheered and he won the election. He correctly assessed the national pulse and asked a question that candidates still ask.

Even Christianity has evolved into a greed world. Whereas once following Jesus was following the mandate of picking up one’s cross and following Jesus, and now it’s seeing that blessings of God will come to them (wealth, happiness, and Heaven) if they follow Jesus. Hard pews and ritual have been replaced by theater seating and lattes.

Ultimately I’m not a socialist. I do believe people ought to be paid their worth. It shouldn’t be at the expense of others. When CEOs are making $100,000,000.00 per year and have to lay off 20% of their work force to enable this to happen, something is wrong and should not be defended or dressed up to appear moral when it is not.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Thomas Merton was a famous Trappist monk. It's almost an oxymoron to call someone a famous Trappists. The Trappists are the ultimate 'set aside' kind of group. They live in monasteries often off the beaten track and they don't generally have ministerial responsibilities outside of the monastery. They are the Cistercians of Strict Observance and they mean it.

Merton was born in France of an American mother and a father from New Zealand. Merton was something of a wild kid in adolescence and his time in the monastery was a time of great 'mixing it up' in the Roman Catholic Church. He became involved in the peace movement with Daniel Berrigan and had an ongoing fascination with Buddhism. He found that many of the meditation practices of Buddhism were not inconsistent with Christian Worship. He, in essence, used Christian wording in Buddhist meditation styles and changed contemplative prayer in the process. His autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountian" was and remains a classic. Published in 1948 it is still in print and still sells to many people.

Merton was a monk at Gethsemani and I decided I wanted to visit his grave. He's the only Trappist at Gethsemani who is buried in a casket. They ordinarily don't bury their dead in caskets, but wrapped in garb, but Merton died after being electrocuted by a faulty fan in Thailand. As his body had to be shipped halfway across the world, he was placed and buried in a casket.

Merton's grave, except for the wreath of berries someone placed on it, is the same as every other monk's grave. His fame means nothing there; he was a humble monk and is buried as a humble monk. The grave of Fr. Louis Merton (Louis was his monastery name) is like any other grave there with the exception that the ground in front of it has been stood on by so many.

It is interesting. We live in a day and age of celebrity and fame. Often the graves of the famous are elaborate, set aside, type places, and not humble graves in humble places. Thomas Merton, at his core, was a disciple of Jesus and a humble monk. He simple, humble grave is a reminder to everyone to visits there.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Journey Outside My Comfort Zone---First Thoughts

Well, I did it. I am happy to say I did my retreat at Gethsemani and didn't run off screaming in the night. I'll have more observations on this, but here are some initial ones.

First, silence. Gethsemani is a pretty silent place. Actually, it's not as quiet as it once was. In the past the Trappists were almost forbidden to speak to one another unless they absolutely had to. In recent years this has loosened up. There was usually a monk at the front desk who did speak to people, but, frankly, they weren't always easy to engage in conversation. Most anyway.

I had a delightful conversation with one of the monks. He's obviously quite extraverted ENFP, for those who know what I'm referring to.

The silence is interesting as you are with a group of people and you don't know anything about them and never even learn each the names of the people there with you. We ate in silence and did virtually everything in silence. There were small snippets of conversation but nothing sustained. The silence does, on some level, force you to listen to the quiet. So, most interesting.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Colts Win! Colts Win!

Michelle and I (Michelle is my daughter) figured it out. We're both Giants fans first and our second favorite team are the Colts. We were pulling hard for the Colts and it was 21-3. We determined that we are the kiss of death to teams.

So we started pulling for the Patriots and lo and behold the Patriots fell apart and the Colts won!!!!

I'm thrilled. I was thinking that I just might go to the movies during the Super Bowl but now, wow. If I want the Colts to win I guess I have to cheer for the Bears. I'm now dreading purchasing my Cowboy, Eagle, and Redskin wear for the coming Giants season....

A Journey Outside My Comfort Zone

Well, Monday begins a journey outside my comfort zone. I'm heading to the Abby of Gethsemani south of Bardstown from Monday - Friday for a retreat. The website for the abby is www.monk.org. To say that a Trappist monastery is quiet is an understatement. This is a retreat 'away' from life. No TV, no phones, no newspapers, no Internet access. It's time alone to read, to pray, to study, to think. Being a social person this is going to be a challenge. But a good one! Being alone with myself and God sounds like a really interesting experience. So, we'll post later on to tell everyone how it went!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Gerald Ford's Funeral

During the Funeral for President Gerald Ford it was said time and time again how he was always cordial and respectful towards all people very much including those he disagreed with. He was a lifelong Washington DC politician who was noted to have treated all people, friend and adversary alike, with dignity and respect. And it was genuine.

I suspect a great deal of this came from the fact the President Ford, like so many others in his generation, served in World War II. Those who fought understood the concept of teamwork above all else and saw, first hand, the results of terrible destruction and conflict.

What made this all the more interesting were the observations that it isn’t like that today. We may often debate who we like, who we may or may not vote for, but one thing virtually everyone agreed with after the last election was that it was ugly and nasty. In two years there will be a Presidential election and it will be horrible and mean. We all know it.

I hate to say it but society has become like that. The level of discourse, the ability of people of unlike minds to sit together and have civil conversation has greatly diminished. People who disagree with each other, frankly, are choosing more and more to not associate with one another. The last decade, it has been said, has been one of the ugliest times in Congress, in local governments, and even in churches. More churches have, in the last decade, been split for rancourous debate than ever before. The culture, sadly, has impacted the churches and not visa versa. Instead of bringing people together churches are often one the the groups that helps divide people.

The United Church of Christ has, as its motto, the words of John 17:21, "That they may all be one." It was Jesus' prayer for unity. I'd like to see that we, as a denomination, have done a good job of this, but we, like so many others, aren't very good at it either.

The election of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford was, in 1976, the first time I had the chance to vote in a Presidential election. I voted for Carter. I liked Ford better, but I received a mailing from Ford with his policies and I found that I didn't agree with a lot of them. So I voted for Jimmy Carter even though I liked Gerald Ford, as a person, much better.

Gerald Ford was a good man. He reminded us that greatness isn't always proving to the world that you are right, but greatness comes from having the ability to respect others and be respected by others.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Some Playoff's Observations

Marty, Marty, Marty. You didn't go for an easy field goal early in the game and you lost by....

Andy, Andy, Andy, you punted with under 2 minutes to go?

They tell us that the coaches are so smart and we fans don't have a clue. Cough, cough, cough.

The Chargers turned into the Giants on Sunday with mistakes.

Bill Belichek is a former Giants assistant coach. Bill Parcells is a former Giants assistant coach and a former head coach. Sean Payton is a former Giants assistant coach. John Fox is a former Giants assistant coach. Romeo Crennel is a former Giants assistant coach. Charlie Weiss is a former Giants assistant coach. Marty Shottenheimer is a former Giants assistant coach. Jim Mora Jr. is a former Giants assistant coach.

And we have Tom Coughlin.

I lived in Ohio when Baltimore swiped the Browns from Ohio. They have no business whining about the Colts.

Ever notice that Ray Lewis can't stop the run if you run straight at him. They like to say he's better than Lawrence Taylor, but Taylor could stop anyone, any time, any place.

The Bears and the Seahawks looked like two .500 teams with mediocre quarterbacks. If either of them make the Super Bowl. Ugh.

I have to like the Saints.

But, hey, the Colts are my second favorite team and they are still in it. I haven't doomed them. Yet.

That Manzo curse thing.

You can't imagine how embarassing it is to realize that both the Seahawks and the Bears beat the Giants this year. Yep, we have Tom Coughlin. I bet he gave coal to his mother for Christmas.

Is this wrong or what?

A group in France is doing something disgraceful.

You can read the story here:


In a nutshell, a group is serving soup to the poor and the needy in France and in Belgium, but they are serving soup with a pork base to it. People who adhere to a strict Jewish/kosher lifestyle cannot, for religious reasons, eat pork, and those who practice Islam also do not eat pork products. As a large number of the poor in these regions are of Arab descent and practice Islam, the message is clear. You can eat the soup and do something which, according to your religion is immoral; or you can go hungry. Your choice.

I am unclear if this is a "Christian" group or not. I do know that they are missing the point on charity, however. One feeds the hungry in order to fee the hungry. It is not done to make a political point. It is not done to force people to behave one way or another. It is not even done to assure that these people feel appreciation for what you have done for them. We feed the hungry simply to feed the hungry. No accolades are needed and no agenda is necessary other than feeding those who are less fortunate than we are.

The French government is, to their credit, cracking down on this as racist behavior. I just can't figure out why people choose to do things like this. If anyone has any insights to this, I'd be happy to listen.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

10 Things I Know About Downtown New Albany

10. Downtown has some of the most unique eateries in the area. The Main Street Bistro, La Rositas, and Federal Hill are distinctly non-chain places with great personality and great food.

9. Creche scenes, even really nice ones, are apt to be stolen. (Which is awful!)

8. Despite what national politicians say, the economy isn't very good. The poverty level of downtown New Albany is growing exponentially.

7. Drug dealership and prostitution downtown are intolerable.

6. Harvest Homecoming is an awesome event.

7. Destinations Booksellers is a great store that I do not frequent nearly enough. Actually, I need to actually read a lot of the books I've already purchased.

8. Being the pastor of a downtown church gives one the opportunity to spend a lot of time downtown and it's way too cool.

9. A train will cut me off from one side of downtown to another at two most critical times. I'm either in a hurry or have a desperate need to use the restroom.

10. The downtown definitely has character.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Random Stuff

Random Thoughts:

Bobby Petrino is leaving the Louisvile Cardinals for the Atlanta Falcons. He is potentially a year away from a national championship and he is abandoning U of L for the Falcons. Several questions:

Is he aware that the Atlanta Falcons are one of the worst franchises in the NFL? Stability is not their mainstay.

Is he aware that he has been hired to 'fix' Michael Vick? And is Michael Vick broken or able to play differently than how he does?

Finally, I realize he's getting a 3 million dollar a year raise. What is it that you need to add 3 million to 2 million that you wanted to buy?

Howard Stern received a big bonus. He attracts the subconscious 13 year old boy in grown men. Are we happy about admiring this man so much?

We're looking to add 20,000 more troops to Iraq. We've lost over 3000 soldiers. Most of the weapons we've sent over are, ahem, missing. We've not gotten around to training Iraqi soldiers. At present, a large number of our soldiers are reserves and National Guardsmen. From whence are we getting 20,000 more soldiers and what are they going to change? But, Praise God, President Bush has a 'plan.'

Speaking of plans, the Giants are bring back Tom Coughlin because he has a 'plan' for next year.

I'm getting nervous about 'plans' that everyone is coming up with to save situations.

Lilly Munster died today. I still mess Herman and Lilly.

Monday, January 08, 2007

New Albany Confidential Meet and Greet

Wow. I went to the New Albany Confidential Meet and Greet. Awesome! It was a very impressive group with wonderful conversation. I can't wait to meet again.

What is the best thing to me, at least, is that not everyone has the same opinions on everything. I think that's a good thing---we all keep each other honest. What is most impressive is that people do respect each other and disagree with great civility and respect. How can one not approve of that?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Giants

The Giants..... Well, they had a chance. The defense can't hold a lead. All won't be lost, however, as they need a coaching change. If they don't change coaches THEN I'll be disappointed!

A Cultural Icon

Brittany Spears, a cultural icon. This photograph comes from the New York Daily News.

I'm attempting to determine exactly what Brittany Spears is a cultural icon of.

Is it family values? She was married once, briefly, for less than a day to an old boyfriend in one of those 'Vegas style' weddings. I'm guessing it's one of those, 'what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas' types of scenarios as she didn't stay married to the guy after they left Vegas.

Then she was married to that Kevin Federline guy. He of magnificent talent.

Of course, there is motherhood...

The good news is that I don't think she's passing on a lot of disease in this photo. Alcohol, as we know, does kill germs...

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I’m wondering what was accomplished with the execution of Saddam Hussein.

This whole scenario has been vexing to me. As an ethical principle, I am opposed to capital punishment. Personally I think it’s barbaric. True, it is used on people who did barbaric behavior, but I don’t know if being barbaric to barbarians is, at its core, justice.

However, if it is the law of the land it probably needs to be practiced and if it is practiced it needs to be practiced on the very worst people in society. Saddam Hussein was, if anyone, a poster child for capital punishment.

There is an inherent danger however, when one nation unilaterally invades another nation and removes the leader. It has become increasingly apparent that we, as a nation, unilaterally invaded Iraq. Saddam was a bad guy; but there are other bad guys. Saddam was a tyrant, but there are other tyrants. If we invaded every country with a brutal dictator at its helm we would be invading nation after nation. Iraq was not involved with 9/11 and Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and our isolation of that nation had removed it as a threat to its neighbors. It’s hard to make an argument other than the fact that we unilaterally invaded Iraq and removed Saddam.

But he was a bad guy and was removed and what’s done is done. He was tried by his own people, found guilty (as indeed he was), and sentenced to death by hanging. He was an Iraqi and was tried in Iraq by Iraqis under their law. So be it.

What was crucially important, however, was that his execution be done quietly and, frankly, secretly so that he not become a martyr. I watched the tape. The Internet is an amazing source for material and I watched the complete unedited tape. It’s pretty ugly. There is a lot of yelling. Saddam, a Sunni was being put to death by Shiite executioners and they wanted him to know that in a big way. They mocked him by chanting the name of their leader. The judge was trying to maintain order and there was little more than chaos. The one person in the room who behaved with any sense of dignity was, alas, Saddam Hussein. If one was a Sunni who watched that tape one would have come to the conclusion that Saddam was martyred for their cause. The last thing in the world anyone wanted or needed was to make Saddam Hussein into a martyr. And he became one. So it makes me wonder what was accomplished with the execution of Saddam Hussein. A remarkably evil man was put to death----but now he has become a hero to so many----and that is truly distressing.