a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
January 10, 2021
Acts 7: 54-60 NRSV
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Well, before Wednesday, January 6, I had determined to do a series of messages on “Defining Moments” in Scripture. I have used that theme before but the passages that we will read during January all seem to invite that same theme. Then on Wednesday we witnessed yet another astonishing, repulsive act of violence and villainy that boggle the mind. It was certainly a “defining moment,” for those who took part in it, for those who promoted it, and for the rest of us who watched it in horror and disbelief.
This past week has been a defining moment for me too. I have had to spend the week “quarantining,” in my own apartment because one of the teachers in Tammy’s school came to school and after school went and was tested and was positive. So for everyone’s safety Tammy and I decided we needed to quarantine for the week and then be tested. So here I am doing our worship from my home.
The combination of these personal and national events echo in my heart and, as I started this sermon, I pulled up some material from an old file that I did not use back in November when we voted the now-outgoing administration out, which led to the conspiracy theories pushed by politicians and by everyday people that many use to excuse their traitorous behavior leading up to Wednesday. Those words I didn’t use back then. I use them now because, sadly, they still apply.
The author wrote that over the past year or so we had “watched babies being torn from their parent’s arms [and never reunited], black people being shot in their homes and choked on the streets, undocumented people being deported to countries they have never known, women being demeaned and tokenized by national leaders, our climate continue to warm and our neighbors dying from an out-of-control virus. Some of us hoped that we as a nation would rise with one voice to say ‘No more. We are better than this. We are braver, kinder and more decent than this.’” The writer wrote those words the day after the election. Then he added with a note of deep sadness, “That is not what we saw in the results from last night. [We did not see] the clear moral repudiation of the worst behaviors among us. This result leaves us heartbroken and clear-eyed about the work we must now do.” But here is the most important thing he offers: “Yet all is not lost, so now we must decide whether we will live with hope and with thanksgiving and with love,” or whether we will continue this pattern of violence and destruction. Everybody on both sides of the political aisle feels that they are being cheated, right? Does that sum it all up well enough?
This is a defining moment friends. How will we chose to live in the coming months of 2021? Will we continue with the insanity of 2020, or will we use this moment to redefine our lives, our faith, and our nation?
This morning we read another defining moment in history. It was at the very beginning of what became Christianity. It was a moment when the first disciples had to choose values over vanity, truth over triumphalist religion, and faith over the folly of personal privilege, power, and the selfish assumption that “anything I don’t like I can destroy.”
I didn’t read the hard parts of this passage. Let me say that again. I didn’t read the hard parts of this passage. You might think, “Oh, really, you read a part about a man being stoned to death and that wasn’t the hard part?” No. It wasn’t. Go back and read the seventh chapter of Acts yourself. This part of the passage begins with “when they heard these things.” Here are the things they heard that drove them to do what they did.
Stephen stood before the powerful leaders of his religion and spoke truth to power. He delineated all the ways they and those before them, had used their power and privilege and personal priorities to protect their own power and privilege and personal priorities in flagrant disregard of God’s values, God’s power, God’s priorities. He told them the long list of ways they had defied what was right, and good, and just. He spoke of God’s covenant with Abraham making him father of a nation. He spoke of Joseph and of the Israelite’s slavery in Egypt, and how God called Moses to lead them out to freedom. He spoke of how again and again the leaders, the kings and the priests led the people away from living justly and faithfully and how treating the poor, the immigrant, the widow and the powerless unjustly led to their being exiled not once but twice.
Then he said to those powerful religious leaders:
“You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Just One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law … but have not obeyed it.”
Then, the writer of Acts says, “54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Then they took him out and executed him in the bloodiest manner they could by Mosaic Law. See crucifixion was a Roman thing. The Jewish law did not allow crucifixion. Stoning, yes. Crucifixion no. It was a defining moment. Now notice a couple more details about that defining moment. Not only were the religious leaders, the priests, murdering an innocent man simply for telling them what they didn’t want to hear, there was another religious zealot there named Saul. He watched their cloaks for them while they murdered this man in God’s name. It was a defining moment for this man Saul also. As you may remember the next defining moment in his life was his spiritual epiphany of Jesus of Nazareth. Saul was on the road to Damascus, to persecute and execute more people who, like Stephen, had proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior. Defining moments.
Maybe because you watched in horror at the stoning of democracy, at the execution of the rule of law, at the actions of a President whose every claim about voter fraud was rejected as having no evidence by every court that heard his case, courts ruled over by judges that President packed them with over the last four years, including the Supreme Court of the nation. And never once did he or his supporters in Congress or in those mobs that attacked the Capitol of our nation, and all those who supported them with warped arguments on social media and elsewhere, no one mentioned that if there was all this election fraud, then those same ballots had members of his own party on them who were elected over members of the other party. The lack of logic by all involved is stunning. The violence and condoning of violence is shocking. And don’t get me started with the “what-about” arguments from the demonstrations this summer. Those demonstrators were shot, hit with tear and pepper gas, arrested, and, gee, it turns out that a lot of that violence and property destruction wasn’t by the actual protestors, it was by right-wing fascist groups who wanted to smear the reputation of the protestors and their supporters. What a wicked and twisted and warped nation we live in!
One pastor writes: “On this day that is as far away from Christmas as we can get, life comes crashing back in. No more visions of new heaven and new earth. It’s back to same-old heaven, same-old earth. And the scripture joins us there. In the ugliest of human realities. Persecution. Cruelty. Death. Just yesterday there were shepherds and angels and hope and joy. Now there is a full inbox. Overtired children. Maxed-out credit cards. And a world of violence and greed. Has anything changed at all?
“For Stephen, the answer is yes. Everything is different. He’s found something he cares about enough to stand trial for. News so good he is willing to die to share it. A love so powerful it moves him to forgive even his executioners. It’s the same old earth. But he is different. That’s where it starts. That’s what it feels like. When Jesus is born in you.” Rev. Vince Hamlin, SSD, 12/26/20. That is a defining moment of change.
Now, here’s the rub. At least some of that mob that attempted a coup in Washington D.C. on Wednesday believe that they were Christian, believe that they were right, and believed that they were justified. The challenge for anyone facing a defining moment is to decide whether the direction they go is truly right, and just, and good, and aligned with God’s will or not. Clearly anyone can believe, and say, that what they are doing is just that. And just as clearly nothing that was done on Wednesday, and a lot of what has been done over the years of human existence on this planet are not good, or just, or aligned with God’s will that their perpetrators claim were.
I don’t have a magic formula to give you to choose what direction to go when you face your own defining moments in life. Way too easy to claim wisdom I don’t have. The passage tells us Stephen looked up and saw God and Jesus in their glory. I don’t know exactly what Jesus Stephen saw. I know what I see when I look at the story of Jesus. I don’t see Jesus saying “Make Rome Great Again.” I don’t see Jesus ever saying immigrants and poor people deserved to be treated inhumanely. In fact, the Jesus I see is the one whose first sermon began with “I have come to preach good news to the poor, release to the imprisoned, recovery of health to the sick and the year of God’s jubilee – meaning the removal of all debts from people enslaved by a financial system that only flowed upward, and never trickled down. That is the Jesus I see. Of course, the people who first heard that sermon were ready to stone Jesus too. They chased him out of town ready to kill him for his words.
Here I have been thinking how hard it is for me to preach these days. How hard it is for me to tell the truth about Jesus when all the televangelists are “America First-ers” and “Profit before Mission” and a whole lot of other things Jesus isn’t as far as I’m concerned. But so far, no one has threatened to kill me or chase me out of town. Yet. I’m sorry if I have offended you today. But this is your defining moment. What Jesus do you see? What Jesus do you believe in? What values of Jesus are you basing your life on?
For me this defining moment means I am at the point where I can no longer try to be less than plain about what I think of our current political situation. I am sure most of you are pretty clear, but let me also say I keep praying for those who try to justify the actions of those who either committed, or fomented and supported the violence in our nation’s capital, and those who keep justifying it. And I keep praying that I can both pray Stephen’s prayer, and that if you think I am wrong you will pray it for me too, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” This is a defining moment. Which way will we go? Which way will Christianity go? Which way will our nation go? AMEN.