A Message Inspired by Acts 7:55-60
“What the capital ‘H’ just happened?”
-everyone who just read this morning’s scripture.
Don’t worry, “What the capital ‘H’ just happened?” is an appropriate response to this morning’s scripture passage. Particularly, if the first reading from Acts, the one portraying a “Leave it to Beaver” version of the community, still has a fresh taste in your mouth. In that first reading from Acts, everyone was sharing possessions and saving souls. In this second reading from Acts, Stephen is stoned to death.
The Land | May 10th Message – Cry Out
Though the backstory to today’s passage is helpful to understand, I want to warn you that the information falls short of anything leading us to a, “Oh, now this makes sense!” There is a lot more to Acts 7:55-60 than Acts 7:55-60: Acts 7: 55-60 is merely the abbreviated ending of a tragic story about the consequences one insights upon crying out on behalf of that which we love.
This particular version of that indestructible narrative features, Stephen, a man described as being full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Previously selected to assume the administrative duties of the Twelve, the spiritual authority granted to Stephen in this chapter of Acts reshapes his mission as one who is also called to, “the ministry of the word that will continue what Jesus and his apostolic successors had begun in Jerusalem” (p. 121). Into the 7th chapter of Acts, Stephen quickly acquires a reputation of being a prophet-like-Jesus who provokes public scrutiny.
In this 7th chapter of Acts, this assumed reputation comes to life as Stephen challenges a group of Hellenists who falsely accuse him of speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God. And, while the injustices abound in this story, the focus on our reading and the mining for theological meaning is found not by studying what happened to Stephen, but through reflecting on what might happen to us because of what Stephen did or perhaps, more importantly, what he did not do.
Stephen did not keep quiet. Really, he never shut up.
The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary points out that Stephen’s speech before the tribunal is the longest in Acts noting that it counts among the most significant understanding of the theological contribution the book makes to Christian faith. It is a speech made before a tribunal which had already threatened and flogged the apostles without just cause immediately after he was falsely accused of opposing, “Moses and God.” And, in spite of the threat of flogging and imprisonment…or worse, Stephen’s speech is neither an apology nor an explanation for his presence before the court. Instead it is an indictment of these same men who hold his life in their hands; an accusation of the priestly establishment whom he believes has forged temple practices and manipulated Torah observance into a kind of idolatry that imprisons Israel in a spiritual wilderness without Jesus, the true medium of sacred worship (p129).
Stephen’s relentless criticism of those having the power to end his life extends from Acts 7:2 to 7:53. For 51 verses, Stephen retells the story of an unrepentant Israel all the while condemning his accusers by branding them as “betrayers and murderers” of “the Righteous One” who are failing to live up to their own standard of covenant loyalty (p129).
The New Interpreters Commentary reads:
“The real issue at stake in marking out a people belonging to God is neither temple nor Torah purity but obedience to God’s command. In this regarding, Stephen’s shocking condemnation of his accusers as betrayers and murders of the righteous one brands them as law breakers and unable to live up to their own standard of covenant loyalty…the harsh implication is that the priestly establishment has forged temple practices and manipulated Torah observance into a kind of idolatry that keeps Israel in a spiritual wilderness without Jesus, the true medium of sacred worship” (p129).
This information, while making it no less acceptable, does make it a bit more understandable we just read a scripture passage about a raging people throwing stones at some guy we’ve barely heard of named Stephen…until he died. The lingering question remains; why didn’t he just stay quiet when it was the best shot, he had at saving his own life and continuing his earthly ministry?
I’d love for you to read Stephen’s speech and tell me what would you do, if you were in his shoes? Would you curl up (like I imagine I would) or would you cry out? Or, could we find some reasonable middle ground between speaking our truth and saving our lives? And, how would you discern that which you would do or how you would do what?
There is also this residual curiosity, that if we are among the ones who would remain quiet, if we were among those taking up space on the tribunal, would we save space for those who make the choice to cry out?
Regarding the choice to cry out or to curl up: I’m not sure one comes without the other; I am not sure we can curl up, stay quiet while still making space for the cry of another. I’ll admit I haven’t fully processed the why, but this is something easily witnessed in our culture every day; those who do not feel it is necessary to cry out about an injustice, in return blame, excuse or beat the cry of the marginalized away. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, I imagine the silent function as silencers.
The truth is stories of injustice are hard to hear. Without a framework for digestion and a community to catalyze, stories of injustice can greet us with guilt and leave us feeling helpless. We become a jury with a verdict cast before the story even takes the stand. And, in a time of pandemic that is drawing systems of injustice and institutions of oppression to the surface for all to see, many are beginning to stand up and cry out for the jury to listen and for the culture to change.
“I’m grateful to be acknowledged for the risky work we’re doing. Being in an environment where morale is up despite global uncertainty is encouraging. But I have problem with all this hero talk. It’s a pernicious label perpetuated by those who wish to gain something- money, goods, a clean conscience- from my jeopardization.”
I read this in a story published in The Atlantic on April 18, 2020 entitled, Calling Me a Hero Makes You Feel Better. The author of the article, Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, describes firsthand the arrival of the pandemic to the Trader Joes where Brogan works. One day in March, her boss calls all the employees off the floor and reads a letter from the company’s management thanking them for their “confidence and steadiness,” offers the store a bonus and leaves them with a quote from a customer referring to their efforts as a “lifeline.”
Shoved into a corner before she even had a chance to speak, Brogan explains that when she entered the meeting, she had anticipated hearing an order to shut down the store or to shift to curbside pick up only.
“Unlike medical personnel and emergency responders,” she writes, “we didn’t sign up for potentially life-threatening work…I fear that many of my co-workers are so high on recognition and glorification, they can’t see the real danger they’re in. It troubles me to hear about people like Jason Hargrove, the Detroit bus driver who died less than two weeks after a passenger coughed openly on his bus, or about how New York City’s hardest hit neighborhoods are low-income and full of the working poor.”
Brogan ends the article sharing that while she can’t speak for every occupation, for supermarket cashiers, she thinks “the best way to show respect is by not showing up at all. Minimize your shopping outings and make them quick and efficient. Please save the small talk for next year.” And,” she writes, “I beg you don’t call my co-workers heroes as you wait for them to bag your carrot-cake muffins and face serum. They would trade places with you if they could.”
This is something I have been thinking about a lot; the privilege of being able to choose to stay at home without the fear of losing anything in return. The first time was on April 17th, an employee from the King Soopers in Centennial died from complications of COVID-19. At 67, the local news reported that Karen Haws would be remembered as someone who was always there to make everyone smile. “She will really be missed,” a coworker told the reporter. “She was super sweet.”
Other stories continue to follow Karen’s. On April 24th, local news reported that the Aurora Wal-Mart had been shut down by the Tri-County Health department after Sandra, a Wal-Mart employee, and her husband Gus Kunz had died just two days apart after 16 years of marriage. A friend who has known the couple for over 35 years told reporters that Sandra ended up on a ventilator never knowing her husband would soon end up in the same hospital where he would die two days after her. “It’s a godsend,” her friend said, “that maybe she did go because then she wouldn’t have to wake up to all the devastation.”
Most recently, it has been stories from the JBS Meat Packing Plant in Greeley, which, while close to home, is not unique in its problems with employees contracting COVID-19. An article published by Mother Jones on May 1st reported that right now, in meatpacking and processed food plants across the US, per data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, there are at least 6,832 workers are confirmed sick and at least 25 have died. “They have so much money and so much knowledge of everything,” an employee from Greeley’s meat packing plant tells reporters, “Why didn’t they help protect us?”
In the background of armed protests demanding that political leaders reopen the country, behind our own cravings to sit in a coffee shop and stroll through the department store, are countless stories of men and women just like the story of Karen and Sandra and Gus. People just like us, minus the privilege to choose to not risk their lives without losing their jobs.
American poet and professor, Ross Gay, believes, “the gap in our speaking about and for justice, in working for justice, is that we forget to advocate for what we love, for what we find beautiful and necessary. We are good at fighting, but imagining, holding in one’s imagination what is wonderful and to be adored and preserved and exalted is harder for us, it seems.”
I wonder, as I stand looking into the mirror… is it that we have forgotten to advocate for what we love, or is that we have forgotten what it means, what it feels like, to fall in love with being alive and to expand this love to encompass the lives of all people … of all creation? I wonder if we have been sitting down and shutting up so long that as an hour such as this approaches our communities of faith, we may desire to speak but are at a loss of what we are called to say.
Perhaps, it could be in our silence that Stephen shows up.
The guy who would just not shut up.
Who stood up and spoke out even when it was apparent that no one was interested in hearing anything he has to say. Perhaps, the words he shared that day were not for the people he spoke to but for the people who would follow him in that choice to cry out…perhaps, the words he spoke, were for each of us in such a time as this.
Like Stephen, we too are called to fall in love with this vision; a vision of an alternative way of being in community, of doing economics. One that values our lives, our neighbors lives, and the lives of all sentient beings. To see the earth as a resource created by a God who loves each and every piece of it. To strive toward wholeness by listening to the broken pieces in our midst and working together to piece them back together a way that honors the integrity of the whole.
This week I invite us to listen to the stories of the workers who want to go back and the workers who want to stay home, and to notice the common denominator that we all deserve and that some don’t have; the freedom of real choice. The choice to discern what our needs are, to assess what our risk is and to be supported in a community where we can make a choice without losing our lives.