Saturday is going to be a special birthday. I’m not always good at remembering birthdays, and I don’t know why this one stands out to me each year, but this one always seems to catch my attention. There must be something about the Times that are A-Changin’ to spring, or something musical Blowin’ in the Wind. On Saturday, the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan will be 73 years old.
It would be tempting to say that this aging artist is a fixture of the Baby Boomer generation. Much of his fame came from the 60s; his relationship with Joan Baez; and the civil rights movement. Why would a self-respecting Gen Xer, such as myself, have any interest in Bob Dylan?
As much as his iconic gravelly voice catches my attention, so too do the frequent shifts in his music style. Bob Dylan reimagined himself more times than any other singer-songwriter I can think of. His innovations, and his refusal to be swayed by critics, are part of what makes Bob Dylan a musical genius, and part of why I really like him.
Bob Dylan is a pivotal figure in American music. Bruce Springsteen spoke at his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He said, “Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body.” The Beatles cited him as an influence, and Jimmi Hendrix famously covered his tune “All Along the Watchtower.” Few artists have had the staying power of Bob Dylan. All the while the times were a-changing… so was he.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, he changed his name to Dylan because he liked the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He brought a literary style to folk music, with complex and poetic lyrics. It was an unprecedented shift in folk music, and while we can look back on it in awe, not all of his contemporaries appreciated it. At the 1965 Hampton Folk Festival he was boo-ed off the stage when he started playing an electric guitar!
Bob Dylan was never what anyone wanted him to be. He tried his best to share the gift he’d been given, but it was not always received well. He may have enjoyed popular success for all the songs we know him for, but it wasn’t until 1973 that he won a Grammy for a concert album. Dylan is the kind figure in our culture who makes the rest of us take a critical look at ourselves – and who and what we want to say we are. So much of the content of Dylan’s music is based on making the connections to justice and peace, and our rightful place in the context of the people around us. His lyrics were often confrontational, and while we’re shifting uncomfortably in our seats at what Dylan shows us, we can feel a tension and unrest that feels like a hard rain falling.
Aw… gosh. Why am I telling you more than you ever wanted to know about Bob Dylan? Well, it’s because I’m trying to tell you about the first Deacon: Stephen, from our first reading from Acts. Isn’t it obvious? These two share a special kinship. It’s not music.
Like Dylan, Stephen is also pivotal figure. As the first Deacon in Christianity, Stephen was compelled to line out for the Sanhedrin the connections between the God of Abraham and Moses, with Jesus the Messiah. It’s a long story, and in the end he implicates the Sanhedrin as “stiff-necked people.” He catches them in the act of refusing to allow the Holy Spirit to move their hearts and minds. He forces them to look at the inequities in society to which they acquiesce.
Stephen was not what everyone wanted him to be. He was called by God to a mission that was different from anything that had come before him. Something new was about to happen. We have no background for Stephen that we can point to, but it was likely he was a person of some means. Stephen was willing to give up all his comforts to take on the role of a servant to God’s people. His story, short though it may be, gives us a blueprint for how we are to see ourselves in the context of the call to faith among the people around us. Whatever means Stephen might have come from no longer matter in this beatific moment. When he gazes upon the throne of God, no earthly thing holds any value for him anymore. He’s got nothing, and nothing left to lose.
The first Deacons were designated to serve at tables, which is why Deacon Marlyn sets the table for us each week. Deacons make sure wealth is redistributed equitably, which is why Deacon Marlyn fills the chalices with the wine and makes sure we have enough bread to distribute. Service at the Table is an ancient and sacred task that Deacons oversee.
They’re also charged with proclaiming the Gospel, which is why Deacon Marlyn brings the Gospel down into the midst of you. When she shares the Word of God, she does so as though the events on the page are happening right now, and calls us to make the connection between what has happened in the past to what’s going on right now. That is what Stephen did just prior to where our reading begins today.
Deacons don’t always say things that make us feel good about ourselves. Part of their value to the Church is that they are ordained to make us uncomfortable – to point out our shortcomings, and where we think too highly of ourselves. Deacons call us out on our self-importance. The contributions of Stephen, and every other Deacon since him, cannot be overstated.
Since this moment recorded in the Acts of the Apostles many others have followed Stephen’s example of connecting the things that came before us with all that Jesus calls us to become. It’s up to us to receive the message they have for us and to put it into action. In what ways do we fail to redistribute wealth to all equitably? Where do our egos make us “stiff-necked people?” Countless saints and martyrs have been boo-ed off the stage when they challenged the inertia of the Church. In some cases, the Church stoned them just like they said they would.
The transformative moment for Stephen comes at the very beginning of our reading when he gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God. In this mystical moment Stephen realizes that the kingdom of heaven is all that matters. All the trappings of the temporal world are meant to be shed. To truly be in the kingdom of heaven means that the facades that we hide behind are stripped away and we are transparent to one another – revealing the capital T Truth of being united to God through Jesus Christ. It’s from that that we begin the journey of faith within the context of the people around us.
Stephen is a powerful role model for Christians – or perhaps more accurately, a powerless role model. I pray that more people come to the conclusion Stephen did about the true meaning of being a disciple Jesus Christ. We were not put on this planet to hoard resources, but to become poor. We were never meant to be power-brokers among the faithful. Christianity is at its best when it’s the underdog. We are closer to the kingdom of heaven when we become invisible now with no secrets to conceal. This is the mystical beauty of faith to which I have pledged my life. Imagine what Christianity would be like if we all took Stephen as a role model. I hope one day to be as powerless as Stephen, and see the beatific vision. And yes, I know full well what the result might get me.
If martyrdom is how the faithful meet their end, then so be it. The courage of Stephen and many, many others, to life faith boldly and unapologetically is empowering as well as inspiring. It is this example of discipleship that has done so much to develop the divine mission of the Church. I certainly won’t go looking for reasons for people to throw rocks at me, but if having this example of faith means martyrdom, then to quote Bob Dylan: “Well, I would not feel so all alone. Everybody must get stoned.”