"When he had said this, he died."
Well, now there's a lovely way to start a sermon. It certainly has the power to rattle a preacher's perspective on Sunday morning. What if I say the wrong thing and they decide to kill me?
To be honest, this thought has never actually crossed my mind. I figure that by the time we're finished up with worship, y'all are hungry and ready to get to lunch. If you're going to get to Bob Evans before the Baptists, there isn't time to actually kill the pastor and hide her body.
Seriously, though, what has crossed my mind...especially when I first started preaching 15 or so years ago...is what if I say the wrong thing in a sermon? Or, more so, what if I say the very right thing, but in the wrong way? What if I'm insensitive to the way it might be heard. What if I offend someone in the process?
Through the years, I reached a "mostly peace-filled" state of mind about sermon-crafting. I trusted that my prayer, study, and reflection was Spirit-led and that the words that came out were my faithful, albeit imperfect, attempt to proclaim the gospel. That is, until recently, when our nation's political machine hijacked the Christian faith and turned it into a form of election-clout. Ever since then, it is a regular struggle to determine how to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ without sounding as if I'm taking a political position.
During these highly-charged and highly-divisive times, one of the most difficult aspects of sermon preparation is to prayerfully consider all the different ways the message could be heard...and then be quiet and listen for God's Spirit to help me hone in on the good news of God's kingdom of grace, mercy and love that I've been called to proclaim.
This not just a concern of clergy. When it comes to sharing the gospel, many Christians who never stand in the pulpit struggle with what to say. We all want to be brave witnesses for Christ - testifying to his forgiveness and compassion and welcome...offering grace, love and kindness. Yet, we're hesitant to take the verbal stoning that could very well follow if what we say or do is contrary to prevailing political rhetoric.
So...at first glance...a story such as this one about Stephen being killed for speaking out doesn't give us much confidence to speak up. On the other hand, a closer look shows that it models everything we need to know in order to do so faithfully and without fear.
It's somewhat unfortunate that the lectionary reading doesn't include the actual sermon that Stephen preached. Well...it's really more of a speech/rebuttal to those who had arrested him under false charges, still it's quite passionate. Luke tells us that he was filled with grace and power and spoke with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Stephen responds to the allegations and persecution by recounting the faith story of the very people who had captured him, and today's reading tells us the end of his story.
Stephen the martyr was killed, in part I'm sure, because he called the Jews stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as their ancestors used to do. But it appears that the real spark for their mob-like anger was that he bravely and boldly makes the claim that he has seen Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
You see, the vision was disturbing to the leaders because if it was true, it would confirm their guilt in the death of the Messiah...the Son of God. The fact that Jesus was standing at God's side would be proof that they had been wrong all along. It meant that their ears had been closed to Jesus' gospel; their eyes were blind to his revelation of God's mercy and unconditional love. So, yes, for the religious leaders, facing this reality was more than they could bear...therefore, they killed the messenger.
Stephen spoke a truth to the establishment that they were not able to hear.
There's a term for this. I'm not sure where it originated, but it's popular among resistance movements and liberation causes. It is referred to as speaking truth to power...and usually it entails speaking a difficult truth that those in power do not want to hear...usually because the truth calls into question the morals and values by which the power operates or was gained. It shines light on injustice and oppression and calls for a reversal and freedom that is viewed as a threat to those in power.
Regrettably, this idea of speaking truth to power has also become a political hot button phrase as well. Nonetheless, it most certainly describes what Stephen did in this speech-like sermon...and it is what Jesus did with his entire life. In both cases, doing so got them killed. Still, both were convicted by their sense of God's calling...convinced of the truth of God's faithfulness...God's goodness...God's mercy, grace and love. They were so empowered by the Spirit and unafraid of the consequences, that they could choose no other path than to speak the truth of the gospel no matter how the religious establishment heard it.
Speaking truth to power is not easy...but it is at times necessary. There are times when there is no other path available to followers of Christ...no other path than to stand up like Stephen, and call for accountability to God's eternal truth of love. Sometimes we have no choice but to look power right in the eye and say, you are wrong. What you have done...what you are doing...it is not right. It is not life-giving. It is not love.
Alright folks...now is the time that the squirming starts. In fact, some of you might be digging in your pockets to see if you have any stones. But wait...don't throw them yet. The spirit of uneasiness SHOULD be moving among us right now. We should be unsettled by a message on speaking truth to power...not because this is a political message...but because it is a challenging one to hear.
It immediately raises questions...like...who gets to decide what is truth? I mean...aren't we taught that God is the judge, not us? Won't it feel as if I'm judging if I speak up? As Christians, we are called to be welcoming, hospitable, and peaceful people, won't speaking truth be disruptive...couldn't it cause conflict? Might someone get hurt? Well, yes, yes, and yes.
Still, sometimes the only way to be a brave witness to the gospel is to speak the truth that no one wants to hear. This is where Stephen's example becomes so important to our faith journey. His story shows us how to be brave witnesses for Jesus Christ. And, not just in the sense of whether we are willing to die for our faith...although that might be a part of it. Instead, his is a model for how to STAND for the gospel of Christ...a truth worthy of our hearts, minds and, yes, our lives...even when it is unpopular and disruptive to the current norms of society.
While it is unlikely that as American Christians we will ever be forced into the kind of martyrdom of the first century, nor do we face the same persecutions as Christians elsewhere in the world, when the message of God's love is challenged, we are expected to faithfully stand for the truth as Christ has revealed it to us.
This raises a very important principle of speaking truth to power. First and foremost...it is Spirit-led. Multiple times, Luke, the author of Acts, describes Stephen as Spirit-filled. He is in tune with God's empowering Spirit. He is compelled to speak, not because he wants to share his opinions or thoughts, but because God has called him. He knows it is what he has to do, whether he wants to or not.
It reminds me of the way Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt compelled, almost destined, by God to stand up for civil rights in the United States. Dr. King called it an inner urge to serve humanity. Eventually, speaking truth about God's design for racial equality and community wholeness became the only thing Dr. King could do with his life...even though he seemed to know that it would eventually cost him his life.
Now, we may not be called to be brave witnesses to the extent that Dr. King was, still when we are led speak up, we will know it is of the Spirit not only by what we feel in our soul, but also by the truth we are bound tell. The truth is only of the Spirit when it is rooted in the gospel of love and mercy and forgiveness...when it is a life-giving truth of wholeness and peace. Anything less is not truth worth dying for.
Which brings up another principle of speaking truth to power...it's never about our individual thoughts...or our opinions. It's not about our worldviews, political persuasions or even our scriptural interpretations and religious doctrines. It is about speaking that which we know, beyond all doubt, to be true about God...not because of something we read online...not because some preacher, or teacher, or family member told us it was so. The truth we are called to tell, is that which God has chosen to reveal to us in the whole of scripture, and which God has allowed us to experience for ourselves.
Notice, too, how Stephen doesn't try to convince the listeners that he is right and they are wrong. He doesn't argue with them about various doctrines or teachings of the church -- which by the way, he can't possibly do anyway. At this point the Christian church doesn't exist. Remember...Paul is still Saul at this time...still persecuting Christians...none of his letters, or any of the New Testament, has been written. With Stephen there is no proof-texting...no debating. No, "my beliefs are better than your beliefs". He also does not fall into the abusive pattern of trying to force others to see the truth his way.
Speaking truth to power does not need to be violent or rude. Sometimes it's even non-verbal. We all know that truth was spoken to power when Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus all those years ago...even if we have no idea what words she said.
Stephen's peaceful approach is to say what he seen and experienced then leave the rest to God. That's really what speaking truth to power is all about. Telling, showing, trusting.
The truth is that Stephen is not entirely peaceful in his approach. He is nonviolent, but he does do some name calling at the end of his speech. Still, for the most part he just tells it like he sees it. Literally. "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Period. Basically, this is saying to the leaders that, despite all their attempts to silence Jesus, he is alive...present with God.
Therefore everything Jesus has said about God...about God's love...about God's peace...about life in God's kingdom...about God's sense of justice and mercy....everything that Jesus taught about welcoming the stranger, caring for the poor, providing for the least....everything that he demonstrated about healing and restoration and community...is all proclaimed as truth to the powers that had tried to deny it.
Now, friends, not very many of us will ever have ever the experience of glimpsing into the heavenly realm the way Stephen did. Yet, we have all had our own experiences of God's presence. We've encountered Christ in this world and in our lives. We have stories of Christ's light shining in the dark places. We've witnessed reconciliation of the conflicted and healing of brokenness. We've experienced hope in the midst of despair. We have known first hand that love trumps hate; we've seen the power of goodness prevail over the power of evil; and we believe, with all our heart, soul and mind, that in the end, even in death, life wins.
These are our experiences of God...these are our truths...and there are certainly powers to which they need to be spoken.
Powers that seek to oppress the poor.
Powers that define worth by race, gender, socio-economic class or sexual preference.
Powers that lack compassion.
Powers that deny human dignity.
Powers that oppose the Spirit of life-giving hope.
Powers that divide and destroy community.
Powers that control with fear.
Powers that ignore truth.
It's not for me to say whether God is calling any one of you individually to speak truth to power...that's between you and God. But, I personally believe with all my heart, that God's Spirit is most assuredly compelling the church to do so...right now...at this very moment in history. The truth we have to tell about God's love...and mercy...and justice...may not be popular or politically correct...the accountability for Christians to live kingdom lives might be an uncomfortable, demanding truth. In fact, speaking truth to power right now will undoubtedly come with a cost...perhaps we will lose the admiration of others...maybe even end some relationships. We might risk security, jobs, or power. Still, to speak truth is what it means to be a brave witness for Christ. It is what it means to be the church.
It the spirit of my favorite sermon-prep song, Brave, by Sara Bareilles, it's time for the church to show God how big our brave is.
All glory to God. Amen.