April 25, 2021
After we did our business, we were left with a dead body and a pile of bloody rocks.
It was his own fault. Stephen brought this on himself. He was saying insane things. He was telling our story. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was that he was telling the parts we don’t like. Our flaws. Our failings. The parts where we betrayed our promise. The parts we do not speak about in polite company or even in private. Stephen told the story. Told of the hopes of the prophets and how the whole tradition and faith were fulfilled in Jesus. We didn’t like it. We didn’t like how direct he was. We didn’t like his tone. We didn’t like the message, but we would never say that, we always point to how it’s the victim’s fault. He was weak and we weren’t bullies, we just were trying to make him strong. It’s like saying, “Well, what was she wearing when she was assaulted?” Or “He got what he deserved, he had drugs in his system.”
The same was said of that Jesus character. He had wine in his system when he was killed for on the night he was betrayed he took the cup… And then there’s the rumor about Peter when he gave his Pentecost testimony. He and these followers of the way were drunk. They were filled with some new wine.
We hurl the verbal stones first. Assassinate the character so we can justify the physical violence that follows.
What sticks with me are Stephen’s words. The ones that sent us over the edge. “You stiff-necked people…” That’s what Moses called the Israelites, but surely we’d be wiser than those idiots. Of course we’d listen to Moses because he’s MOSES! Just like how I’d march with The Rev. Dr King if there was a modern day Civil Rights movement that was saying that Black People are created in the image of God. Right? Wouldn’t I? Stephen’s words ring in my ears. “You stiff-necked people, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?”
His words were like a knife. Cut to the quick. What did I do? I flipped the script. Pointed to how I too am persecuted… but in reality I’m not. So many are quick to claim persecution when I’m really just being contradicted.
As for the prophets… those who warn that if we keep acting a certain way we’ll fall into ruin… that we’re getting farther and father away from God’s plan… Well, they’re dreamers. Idealists. Like Stephen was. His vision of universal restoration and God working through Israel… that part we were OK with… but his message of working through OUTSIDERS? OUTSIDERS like God’s grace extending to Gentiles and Samaritans and Moabites and to women and children and trans folk and Migrant Workers and the undocumented and the gay and the single moms and black folk and the poor. We have our reasons why they’re outcasts. The doctrine says so.
Stephen and his message were unwelcomed here. So shocking. We threw rocks at him until he died. It was brutal. We’d throw and he would get knocked down on the first few rounds, and we’d stoop over to get more rocks and Stephen would stand up and offer us peace, calling us “My brothers, my brothers…”
His last words were of peace. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
As if we need his forgiveness. Joke is on him. We get to decide who lives and who dies, we’re the ones in charge. I’m in this pulpit for a reason. To let you know who is good and who is bad. The good guys are me, you, and those who believe like us . The bad guys are those who don’t.
Like the artist Banksy once wrote, “People who should be shot: Fascist thugs, religious fundamentalists, people who write lists telling you who should be shot.” Wait, what was that last part?
We stoned Stephen. We killed him because his words, his truth made us uncomfortable. Just like we did Jesus. Just let these “Christians” find comfort in a man who made us so uncomfortable we nailed him to a tree. But apparently Stephen did. And so did that Martin Luther King Jr. character. Having a dream where we’d be equal to black people… Judged not by the content of their skin but on the content of their character. Get real! This is the real world!
What was he on? We must protect our way of life at all costs. No one can add their story to ours unless they get preapproval. And tell the approved version.
You know… Don’t mention how the Civil War was fought over the right to own other human beings. Or how we continued the practice through Jim Crow. That we’re really only a generation removed from the Civil Rights Era, and slavery wasn’t really all that long ago.
We don’t want to mention redlining, how we denied housing to black Americans and put up so many barriers to generational wealth. Denying them education with the GI Bill. Any mention of this causes folks to pick up stones.
Don’t mention how most of us feel a sense of shame when we get pulled over by a police officer. Or a sense that we’re going to be late. Most of us don’t fear that this is how we’ll die. We don’t mention that.
We don’t mention that because it makes white people uncomfortable. And if we get too uncomfortable we’ll react. Just look what happened to Stephen. And Jesus. Following them and speaking up can get you killed.
Yet between you and me… and this will be just between us… After the deed was done and Stephen was dead there was a silence and we heard things our violence could not end.
He called us brothers.
He told the truth.
He forgave us.
It reminded me of Elijah in the cave. After the storm, the tempest, the earthquake, and the fire, Elijah heard a still small voice. God is still speaking.
Calling us to love. Calling us to expand. Calling us to be in relationship with our Creator and our neighbor. That’s the whole point. That’s what this whole religious enterprise is about. Isn’t it? Maybe we should put down all our stones… and listen to the stories that folks are telling us. No more martyrs. The cost is too great. What harm is there in listening? Maybe I need to change. Lord, help me listen to your still speaking voice and see you in the story my neighbor is telling. Every. Single. Neighbor.
Maybe God is saying through Stephen to put down our stones and walk each other home.
May God have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Lord have mercy. Amen.