While I have only been a pastor for a relatively short time, there are times when a preacher does not want to preach a sermon. There are times when a pastor gets a set of lectionary texts which do not match the day on which they are to be preached. For example, today is Mother’s Day, and none of the texts assigned to us preachers are, in my opinion, applicable for talking about Mother’s. Now, to be clear, I understand that Mother’s Day is not a celebratory day for all persons. But you would think that, out of the four selections assigned, one could be fashioned into some loving words to talk about…Mama.
Not this week. No....this is one of those weeks where the bible and the newspaper seem to meet at the intersection of Current Events Road and Spiritual Street. This is the week where, as public interpreter, pastor, priest, and prophet, I am forced to contend with a reality that has shown up on the doorstep, bags fully packed like a college graduate returning home after being gone for four years. I am forced to contend with a reality that our real time lives have intertwined with our biblical text.
Within the past two weeks, several incidents have occurred that, in my opinion, I thought I would never see in my lifetime.
Less than 12 hours ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mere 2 hours from my front door and 3 hours from where we sit at this very moment, a group of citizens wielding torches, gathered in Robert E. Lee Park and shouted things like “You will not replace us!” and “Blood and Soil!” There is a message being presented, and I promise you, I never thought I would be STILL be worried about the possible resurrection of organized white supremacy movements in 2017.
Oh, this gets better. On the campus of the American University, some coward decided to hang bananas on nooses around campus, referring to the newly elected student president, an African-American woman, in derogatory terms. Yes, my friends, in 2017 in the Nation’s Capital, someone hung nooses around the campus in what is called the “Most Powerful City In the World.”
I’m not done. Within the last five days, two young men in Anne Arundel County, MD, not far from here, were arrested for, you guessed it, hanging nooses on a school, this time however, at a middle school.
However, the story of Gabriel Taye of Cincinnati, Ohio, was released to the public, and is simply horrifying. Have you heard about this story? Let me tell you, if you have not – in January, after being assaulted and battered in a school bathroom, young Gabriel lay unconscious on the floor, while other children stepped over his body. However, a few did poke or even kick the body to see if he was responsive. An adult finally came to Gabriel’s aid, and two days later, he hung himself with a necktie in his bedroom. Did I mention that he was 8 years old? His mother has finally heard the truth, as horrible as it is, about the events precipitating her son’s taking his life. I can see her in her anguish – I can see Gabriel in his anguish, and imagine him saying before ending the pain he faced in life from bullying children and inattentive adults, “Lord, do not hold this against them”, just as Stephen did.
The text this morning tells us about the death of Stephen, one of the first martyrs of the Christian faith. Let me tell you the rest of the story leading up to his execution. It’s quite simple – Stephen was executed for telling the story of Jesus. His story starts in the Acts chapter 6, with these words: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” As he continued, people began to lodge false accusations against him, and he still told the story of Jesus. The religious leadership told him to stop. He kept on. Political leaders told him to sit down and shut up. Stephen kept standing and speaking out.
I am sure that, the people who were new converts to this new thing, this following a dead yet allegedly resurrected Messiah, were afraid about speaking out. But even if he was, Stephen continued to tell the story, from Moses to the Messiah.
And then he went too far: he quoted Moses and, as my late mother would say, “the hit dog hollered.” Stephen, in Acts 7:51, literally spoke the words of Moses: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumsized in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
Then, as Dr. Christopher R. Matthews of Boston College describes it, Stephen was lynched, or if you want to use alternative facts, executed in a sanctioned judicial execution, as Saul (later known as Paul) approved this death sentence. Either way, a man was killed for telling the truth and speaking out, and his last act was to pray for his killers – “Lord, do not hold this against them.”
Let me tell you – this morning, we are faced with being killed for the sake of the Gospel, whether it is a physical death by kicks and rocks and guns, or social death by threats, scandal, rumor, or innuendo. This morning, those of us who believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news that the captives have been set free, that Jesus came for all people, that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, that no one comes to the Father but by him – understand that we have troubled hearts, hence Jesus’ admonition “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Understand that prior to that command, Jesus has just told Peter something that rocked his world “Would you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
Today, like Stephen, we are faced with death for speaking out against the powerful. Today, like Stephen, we must face our assailants and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are times when they are aiming to lynch us. The question is – are you willing to die for the gospel? Are you willing to face death for speaking out against injustice? Are you willing to pray for those who do you wrong?
Stephen shows us what discipleship truly looks like, even to death, all while truly loving those who hate him. May we have the courage to do the same.