Monday, April 19, 2021

Don't Want to Hear It -- a sermon on the stoning of Stephen

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Don’t Want To Hear It

Acts 6.1 - 7.2a, 44-60 (Common English Bible)

18 April 2021, Easter 3, NL3-41

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples several times before being taken up into heaven — Luke records the ascension both at the very end of the gospel and the very beginning of Acts. Then the whole group of the disciples waited in Jerusalem. They continued to worship in the Temple and to gather together, around 120 of them. They chose Matthias to replace Judas, and they spent time in prayer. After several weeks, the Holy Spirit filled the house and sent them out into the streets sharing the good news, and the church began to grow, by the hundreds and thousands. Still this growing community spent their time praying, worshipping, sharing meals, teaching, and healing the sick. They took care of each other, ensuring that no one was in need among them. Some of their healing and teaching activities caught the attention of the authorities, but one member of the council persuaded the rest to leave them be. That’s where we pick up the story in the book of Acts, chapter 6, beginning at verse 1. I am reading from the Common English Bible.


About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service. The Twelve called a meeting of all the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables. Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you. They must be well-respected and endowed by the Spirit with exceptional wisdom. We will put them in charge of this concern. As for us, we will devote ourselves to prayer and the service of proclaiming the word.” This proposal pleased the entire community. They selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. The community presented these seven to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith.

Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose from some who belonged to the so-called Synagogue of Former Slaves. Members from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia entered into debate with Stephen. However, they couldn’t resist the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly enticed some people to claim, “We heard him insult Moses and God.” They stirred up the people, the elders, and the legal experts. They caught Stephen, dragged him away, and brought him before the Jerusalem Council. Before the council, they presented false witnesses who testified, “This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the Law. In fact, we heard him say that this man Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and alter the customary practices Moses gave us.” Everyone seated in the council stared at Stephen, and they saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s.

The high priest asked, “Are these accusations true?”

Stephen responded, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. ….

44“The tent of testimony was with our ancestors in the wilderness. Moses built it just as he had been instructed by the one who spoke to him and according to the pattern he had seen. In time, when they had received the tent, our ancestors carried it with them when, under Joshua’s leadership, they took possession of the land from the nations whom God expelled. This tent remained in the land until the time of David. God approved of David, who asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who actually built a house for God. However, the Most High doesn’t live in houses built by human hands. As the prophet says,

Heaven is my throne,

    and the earth is my footstool.

‘What kind of house will you build for me,’ says the Lord,

    ‘or where is my resting place?

Didn’t I make all these things with my own hand?’

“You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. Was there a single prophet your ancestors didn’t harass? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the righteous one, and you’ve betrayed and murdered him! You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.”

Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.


Music: Steal Away


The spiritual Steal Away to Jesus was sung by enslaved people in the USA in the 1800s — both as a reminder that the suffering they were enduring now was not the full truth of their story, an affirmation that God cared for them…and also as a call to come to meetings for worship and organising and a message that underground railroad conductors would be waiting during upcoming stormy weather to help people escape. For nearly 200 years it has been a song of faith and of longing for freedom and hope — in this world and the next.

On Friday morning, I woke up to news headlines and social media stories about 13 year old Adam, who had been shot and killed by Chicago police. The police lied and said he had a gun when he did not, and they just released video showing that in fact had his hands in the air just as they had asked. Having seen a similar video of when they killed 17 year old Laquan four years ago — a boy in his last year of high school, also unarmed though they lied and said he had drugs — I knew not to watch this time, as it’s a sight that will never disappear from my memory.

Earlier in the week the headlines said that Minneapolis police had shot and killed 20 year old Daunte, just a few miles away from where another Minneapolis police officer is currently on trial for killing 46 year old George by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes.

So many of these things happen that the responses are fairly predictable. 

Of course African Americans and other people of colour in the US get yet another gut punch, they seem to come every day — reminders that their very existence inspires fear in so many, and that their lives are expendable.

While some white Americans are outraged or saddened or feel detached from the problem, many will claim that if these people would just comply with police, they would be alive. It’s hard to know where to begin with that, since the facts proclaim it to be untrue — George Floyd was handcuffed and face down on the ground, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her own bed, 13 year old Adam had his hands up…and 12 year old Tamir was killed at the playpark before the police even got out of the car to speak to him…and and and. Not to mention that being unable or unwilling to comply, especially in a split second, should not be an immediate death sentence. 

On this side of the Atlantic, white people will read the headline and shake our heads in disbelief at how bad things are over there. The different roots, history, culture, and community understanding of policing make it almost impossible to understand how these things happen. So we’ll be saddened, and confused — especially those of us who live in places where police rarely carry guns. We might comment on how shocking the state of race relations is in the US. And then we’ll move on with our lives until the next incident captures a headline.

Meanwhile, here in our own nation, many people of colour will also be feeling grief and anger and solidarity, and will tell stories of experiencing racism even here where we don’t have so many weapons. They’ll be asking for our attention to our history and to the current realities of living with brown skin in a nation where in everyday conversation “traditional British” means white, and we have a variety of shorthand slurs and stereotypes at the ready for people of Asian descent, where people of colour are suffering more from Covid, and we defend our statues of slave traders more than we stand up for our neighbours.

And then I read this line in Acts: “At this, they shrieked and covered their ears.” 

The people who picked up their stones and threw them until Stephen’s body was battered to death didn’t want to hear what he had to say. And it didn’t matter to them that what others had said about him were lies. They could not deal with the fact that he was a foreigner who had not only turned from his ancestral Judaism to follow Jesus, but he was so charismatic and so obviously full of the Spirit that his very existence frightened them. At least he got the chance to speak first, though — a chance denied to so many today.

Stephen’s powerful teaching and his grace-filled way brought attention — not because he wanted it or sought it, but simply because some people have such gifts that the rest of us are drawn to them. They shine and we gravitate to their peace, their passion, their spirit. But some didn’t approve. Perhaps they were jealous, or maybe they thought he had risen above his station, or maybe even that this immigrant-Jew-turned-Christian-leader was making their lives complicated as Greek-speaking immigrants to Jerusalem. When their lies about him landed him in court, it says that the council could see his face was shining like an angel. You may remember that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai after speaking to God, his face shone as well, and it scared people so much that he wore a veil. The leaders of the council would certainly have remembered that story. Stephen didn’t cover up though, he stood there just as he was, comfortable in his own skin, and faced their accusation that he wanted to change things from the way Moses did them thousands of years ago.

Stephen spoke about the relationship between their common ancestors and God over a hundred generations, and pointed out that things had already changed. After all, during the time of Moses, God lived in a tent and traveled with the people in the wilderness. When David got everyone settled in peace in the land, God denied him his desire to build a permanent Temple. Eventually Solomon did build that Temple, and that was already a significant change from the way Moses did things! From a traveling God who lived close to the ground among the people, to a massive gold-plated temple with different sections for different people where God would live behind many thick stone walls…and then through the changes of the destruction of that Temple, the exile and discovery that God was with them even in a foreign land, then building a new smaller Temple…and on down to where they sat, in that second Temple, now surrounded and infused by trappings of the Roman Empire, discussing whether God could have taken on flesh in Jesus, whom thousands were now following as the Messiah. 

Things had already changed. Stephen was simply inviting the people of God to catch up to what God was already doing. In some ways, it was the macro version of the micro-event that started the chapter, where we heard that the fast-growing church was becoming more diverse and didn’t quite know how to manage everything. They were committed to caring for each other and ensuring that there was no one among them in need — as we talked about in Wine and the Word on YouTube and Facebook on Thursday. But also the leaders all spoke Aramaic and some members spoke only Greek, and that meant that some of the poorer members didn’t have the language or means to speak up for themselves. So new leaders were added, to ensure that everyone would be looked after — Stephen was one of those, called and ordained to minister to people who were being overlooked. And so in the first steps toward an organisational structure, the church tried to follow where God was already at work. 

But the council leaders did not want to hear about how God might be doing things that were different from the way they’d always done it. And they especially did not want to hear that from an immigrant who didn’t even speak their native tongue. Stephen called them “stubborn” and said that they set themselves against the Holy Spirit — they insisted that God could not do a new thing, and even if God did, they weren’t having any part of it.

And they didn’t want to hear this truth about themselves, or about God. They covered their ears and shrieked when he described the beauty of God’s kingdom to them….and they picked up their stones and threw them until he was quiet.

Meanwhile, a young man named Saul, who was also called Paul, held their coats and looked on, silently. Whatever he might have thought inwardly, his silence was approval enough. And he learned from them what was possible, and carried that brutality forward in the next chapter.

What is it that we don’t want to hear? Where might God be moving that we don’t want to follow, so we cling instead to our traditions and insist they can’t be changed — forgetting that they, too, were innovations once? What beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom are we missing out on because there’s no room for it in our systems and structures? And are we covering our ears because we don’t want to hear it…or silencing those stories because they disrupt our comforts…or standing by quietly while people assume we approve of their behaviour?

We don’t have to throw the stones in order to participate in the injustice. After all, someone started by lying about Stephen, and others allowed it, listened to it, shared the gossip. And even the rest of the church community seems to have pulled back, leaving Stephen out on his own — they’re nowhere to be seen in the rest of his story, he stands on his own before the council, only Jesus by his side. And no one stopped the council as they dragged Stephen out of the city. And the witnesses taught the young Saul how to handle those who challenge the old ways.

This is a story that is hard to end with “thanks be to God.” Especially when we continue to enact it, day after day. But there is good news hidden here: that God has no intention of being bound by our ways. Whether we are willing to hear it or not, God is moving beyond the structures and traditions of our churches, and our white supremacy, and our culture and language. And the Spirit is calling and gifting people — us, the Body of Christ — to follow where God is already moving and working, to change those systems that kill. Even when we don’t want to give up our conveniences and privileges, even when we don’t want to hear the harm others have suffered, even when we would rather shake our heads in dismay but not rock the boat. Stephen saw the truth: that Jesus was indeed God’s word made flesh, and his resurrection changed everything, including us…so that we can change the world. We don’t only await our chance to steal away into heaven. God offers liberation from things that bind us here — from enslavement to white supremacy, to vision constrained by nostalgia, to a false peace without justice. As the spiritual says, “I haven’t got long to stay here.” Our neighbours and siblings in Christ haven’t got long…they need us to speak up and to be faithful to God’s call now, before any more lies are told, before any more stones are thrown, before silence kills again. May we be willing to break down those ways and follow Jesus into a new way, sooner rather than later.

May it be so. Amen.

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