Who You Are

This is a sermon from Acts 7:55-60 and I Peter 2:2-10 that I preached on Sunday. It has been reworked a bit before adding it here. It speaks to an issue that confronts many of us today as we get “siloed” together with our group and drown out other opinions and don’t see other people.

Overview

Stephen’s execution is a horrific example of a widespread human tendency that sometimes turns lethal.

Background

Before he was martyred, Stephen was one of those who came to believe in Jesus sometime after the day of Pentecost. After that, he rose to be a deacon in the Jerusalem church. His primary work there was to distribute food and other aid to the poor.

Unfortunately, as happened with Jesus, and continually happened to his early followers, Stephen became controversial. He did so basically because he talked and taught Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ being the long-awaited messiah.

Over time, his beliefs and actions upon those beliefs gained a growing number of enemies. Some of them accused Stephen of blasphemy, of saying untrue and profane things about God.

Stephen’s trial

We don’t do it in America these days, at least not formally, but back then in Israel, there were people who policed blasphemy. You might remember them. They were who arrested, tried and convicted Jesus of blasphemy. We know them as the Sanhedrin, the group of men who together ruled and enforced the Jewish religion. So, just as Jesus had been drug in to respond to charges, Stephen was drug in to respond to similar charges.

To be fair to the members of the Sanhedrin, I left out of today’s reading some verses that tell some hard and harsh things Stephen said to them. He spat out that they were traitors and murders who were unfaithful to God.

If any of them were sleeping, those words woke them and flipped their anger switches. You can imagine that as Stephen spoke those words, he got their full attention and they leaned forward to hear what else the man might say.

It was then that Stephen crossed the line. The Bible says it was the Holy Spirit who led him to do it. Medieval paintings portray the moment the Holy Spirit did that, with Stephen looking worshipfully and beatifically up to heaven where he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen then voiced his vision. His words transformed his judges into his executioners.

Stephen’s execution

 

Stoning of St. Stephen, Saint-'Etienne-du-Mont

Stoning of St. Stephen, by Saint-Etienne-du-Mont

To use a modern term, they got weaponized. They covered their ears, shouted to drown out his voice and charged toward him as one. Then they dragged him out of the city and stoned him until he was dead. As the stones broke his bones and tore his skin, Stephen prayer his last words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

 

In those words, he echoed words Jesus prayed as he hung from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It is likely that none of his executioners heard those words. They had long since quit listening to him, devoting themselves instead to ensuring that his voice was permanently stilled.

The Human Condition

The horrible irony is that Stephen did not die for blasphemy nor did he die for speaking falsely about God. Quite the opposite, he was stoned for speaking what he believed to be the divine truth of Jesus Christ.

Another way of looking at it is that he died because he said some his judges and executioners disagreed with. He offended them and they hated him and killed him because of it.

Friends, be careful if anyone who offends you. If anyone does, be careful how you react to them.

This mob shows us what people are capable of when we judge others; think of them as beneath us; consider them to contemptible or unworthy. Oh, what horrors can happen when we see a person or group of people in those ways.

The long, sad history of America’s tolerance and practice of slavery, followed by decade after decade of hard-hearted, dehumanizing and sometimes murderous racial discrimination bears sad witness to this.

Of course, racial discrimination continues in the United States as we speak. On Saturday, white supremacists demonstrated in Charlottesville. Va. with KKK-type torches blazing while they chanted that they would not be replaced. Never mind that the term “white supremacist” alone defines them as a hate group that menaces others and that the torches linked them to the viciousness of KKK lynchings and terrorism.

To be sure, people in other countries also are guilty of dehumanizing, demonizing or murdering others.

The most-cited example is the Holocaust and Nazi incineration of millions of Jews and others they considered inferior and unworthy. Last week, we also learned of Chechnya’s brutal and often torturous or murderous treatment of LGBTs. Yesterday, we learned of Syria’s mass murder and incineration of its own people.

We have the same human tendency

We might absolve ourselves not only of the stoning of Stephen but also of the examples of hate I just listed. Unfortunately, we have the same seeds within our hearts and minds. We have the same tendency to judge, belittle, condemn others.

Oh, I wish I could escape that fact for myself but I cannot because I am guilty, too.

The ugly truth is that no matter what Jesus might tell us, we still judge people. And, no matter what Jesus might tell us, we are not good at loving our enemies or praying for them. Even worse, we sometimes we do not even try. And, we sometimes we can even pick up a prejudice or even hatred without noticing. It comes naturally. It is as if we inhale from the air around us. Indeed, in some way that is just what we do. I know because I was born into a racist family and early in life had no idea there was another way to be.

It would be nice if we could be like Stephen and remain faithful to God in all things, especially as the worst happens to us. And, I understand that we might still consider ourselves above all the things I have described. After, we rightly think that we did not raise stones at Stephen, we did not own slaves, and we do not hate anybody that we know of.

Some questions to consider

Let’s look at ourselves though.

Do you refuse to listen to perspectives that challenge your opinion or worldview and look dimly on those who voice them?

Do you narrow your eyes and fur your brows at people who practice other religions?

Do you look askance at foreigners or undocumented immigrants and consider them unworthy?

What are your views of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals?

Whatever your answer to these questions, when we look at the world around us we see that there are many people who have fallen prey to judging, demonizing, and hating not just individuals but entire groups of people.

In fact, we in America are good at judging people and dividing out people who are not like us; people who do not believe what we believe; people who look or act differently; anybody who are different from us in some way that we think is significant.

We in the church are part of that. We cannot ignore that. It is for sure that recent polls indicate many people think we are the worst ones about clinging to our views and shutting our minds to those of others.

We may not be that bad, but we are likely just about as guilty as the rest of this fallen world. We’re just as guilty of dehumanizing, even demonizing, those people we deem to be “the other,” those people who fall into our definition of evil,

I think of the growing Republican-Democrat, Liberal-Conservative division. And the noticeable way many people regard those with different skin color or those who follow other religions.

There are others whom we might judge, too. The homeless, even though most are veterans or children. The addicted, even though many are those who have given up hope or fallen prey to something they cannot fight alone.

And we judge the poor or the sick or the inmate, even though Jesus tells us that when we seem them, we see him.

Who we are and what we are called to do

Peter tells us, though, that we are to fight against this all too prevalent human tendency. He says we are to aspire to something better, something higher, something divine.

He says that God calls us to be the kind of people who hear, see and remain open to “the other.” He says God calls us to see them as God’s children who are made in his image just as we are. He says we are called to do that because God has made us to be his living gospel.

Let’s remember together today’s reading from I Peter 2:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Peter says that once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people. For us, that means in part that we are called out of the darkness of judging, dividing, hating, resenting, and demonizing and into the light of love, acceptance, conciliation and reconciliation. We are called not to live out of our basement selves but our highest selves.

Peter tells us who we are: God’s people. God chose us and united us so we might testify to the greatness of God’s work. Through the power of the gospel, all of us are brought together into one holy nation. That is Peter’s version of what Paul said that we are the body of Christ.

Irrespective of whether we think of ourselves as a part holy nation or part of the body of Christ, it does not mean that are to bask in our glory. It means that we are called to do the demanding work of offering love, grace and mercy to all of God’s children. It means that we are God’s people knit together by our experience of God’s love; that we are God’s people knit together by our experience of God’s grace; that we are God’s people knit together by God’s mercy. And, that of our common experience of God’s grace, mercy and love, we are called to show that some grace, mercy and love to others.

Stephen’s prayer shows us that, in Christ, there is another way. We do not have to succumb to the human tendency to judge, belittle or demonize the other Instead, like Stephen praying for his murderers, we are free to love people whom the world around us say that we should reject or even hate. That love doesn’t make our differences and disagreements fall away, but it allows us to accept and hear others despite those differences or disagreements.

As the Sanhedrin did, it is easy to cover our ears, and it is hard to keep our hearts and minds open to people we do not understand, people who are different from us, people who challenge our ways of thinking, people whose existence might even require us to change our ways of thinking.

But “the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness and into marvelous light” call and empower us to take on this holy work.

If we look to him, like Stephen did, God will give us the strength to love and show grace and mercy . . . and live out the truth that we are his people.

Amen.

They Aren’t the Enemy

I’m an oldie who remembers the Watergate scandal unfolding drip-by-drip over a period of almost two years until the president resigned in August, 1974. Looking back, it felt like there were almost daily revelations of someone associated with the president having committed one or another illegal act. Finally, “the smoking gun” was discovered and Nixon resigned shortly thereafter.

For some reason, one of my most vivid memories of the time is of sitting at my kitchen table reading the Houston Post a few weeks after his resignation. The Post had an article stating that polls showed that a number of people still supported Nixon. I remember thinking something like, “Who are these people? How can they do that?” It made no sense to me. I thought he was virtually a criminal.

This week, I checked polls from those months and found out that, sure enough, a Gallup poll taken shortly after Nixon’s resignation revealed a bit over 20% of the electorate still supported him.

[You can find the articles of impeachment here and the Gallup poll here.]

Despite my shock at that those polls, supporting Nixon made a great deal of sense to my father, who was one of the diehards. He maintained, and probably still does forty years after his death (Daddy was never much on changing his opinions), that the whole thing was a witch hunt and Nixon was a great president.

When he and I discussed it at the time, I could not understand his point of view about something so clear to me.

In turn, he couldn’t understand my point of view about something so clear to him.

Most people are like Daddy and me. We humans have a tendency to be unable to understand how others can hold differing opinions about important matters that are  clear to us.

There are times when we need to look past those opinions and seek to understand “the other.”

Understand that my point is not that we need to seek understanding in the face of any disagreement, because it is sometimes incumbent upon us to confront and battle injustice.

Our country’s history shows clear examples of such times: the dispute with Britain about independence in the 1770’s; the vast gulf between the North and South over slavery and secession in the pre-Civil War years; the continuing fight against racism, with all of its injustice, violence and dehumanization; and, the decades-long battle in the early part of the last century for workers’ rights.

However, there are also times when we should seek to understand the differing opinions of others, and perhaps reach out in friendship to them despite those differences.

I think this is one of those times. Unfortunately, the chasm between Democrats/liberals/progressives and Republicans/conservatives is widening and hardening.

This is illustrated by a recent NBC News poll showing the same wide partisan split over Comey’s firing as other polls have shown about other executive actions taken by Trump, such as the travel ban(s), Gorsuch appointment and global warming actions.

In addition, conservative columnist Charlie Sykes writes this weekend in the New York Times that what was once a conservative movement has become in the age of Trump an anti-liberal movement or, more accurately, an anti-anti-Trump movement.

Sykes says, “As the right doubles down on anti-anti-Trumpism, it will find itself goaded into defending and rationalizing ever more outrageous conduct just as long as it annoys CNN and the left.”

Similarly, Republican consultant and pollster Frank Lutz said recently that people sympathetic to Trump automatically side with him because they believe he is constantly held to an unfair standard.

For their part, Democrats/liberals/progressives are the mirror image of their Republican/conservative brothers and sisters. I am one of the former, but think we also cling tightly to our beliefs and habitually fail to seek to understand opposing points of view.

For example, when I checked my email while writing this piece there was a fund-raising request from a liberal group urging me to donate to it in order “to punish the GOP right now.” And, there was a separate request from another liberal group beseeching me to sign a petition against Trump because it would take “only six seconds to hammer the GOP.” Uh, no thanks.

[Most of the below applies to Democrats/liberals/progressives, but others might find it useful as well.]

For a variety of reasons, we need to overcome this hostility and division to and build some bridges across the divide.

First, we do not want to end up with a liberal version of Trump.

Second, we do not want to end up with a liberal version of Infowars and Alex Jones.

Do not think these first two cannot happen. Remember that Trump is a creature not only of contemporary culture but also the Tea Party movement. If we continue down the Tea Party path of virulent opposition and even hatred of “the other”, we are in danger of engineeting the emergence of a Trump-like figure.

Third, we lost the election and need to gain voters, not alienate them. I know that Hillary won the popular vote, but it is the electoral college that matters. We will not convert people by attacking them.

Fourth, most people on both sides want to address national problems like jobs, infrastructure, economic development, climate change, true religious freedom, equal justice under the law, etc. We need broad, bipartisan and nonpartisan support instead of yawning division to do this.

Fifth, personal attacks dehumanize our brothers and sisters who disagree with us. We need to realize that they are just folks like us and are due respect and fairness.

Sixth, our fight is not so much with them but with the policies and incompetence of Trump and his administration.

In that regard, it is useful to point out that Nixon had approval ratings of about 70% right before the Watergate revelations started becoming public.

That support fell 50 points over the next two years not because of partisan vitriol but because of the president’s words and actions. In other words, he hung himself.

Trump will do the same and, as that unfolds, we want to be in position to welcome into our fold any who become alienated from him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Fresh Hell

It seems like every day I have a war within me over whether to seek a higher road in our political and cultural discourse or yield to my basest self.

That lower self leapt out and roared when I scanned the news this morning. I felt like the lone figure in Edward Munch’s painting, “The Scream,” who is portrayed howling a scream at the pain of existence.

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

“The Scream,” Edward Munch, 1893

The first story I saw told of Sally Yates’ testimony Monday about Michael Flynn, his being compromised by Russia and her reporting the problem to the White House three different times.

The next story said three former Obama staffers asserted that in their meeting two days after the 2016 election, Obama warned Trump about hiring Flynn.

I gamely continued on, but the next story described Trump’s Monday tweetstorm attacking both Yates and the Russian investigation.

The next item noted that the focus of Republicans senators’ at the hearing was not Russian interference in the election or their compromise of a White House official, but the leaks that revealed them.

Oy vey! We need to give a medal to the leaker. That leak may be the only reason that the apparently compromised Flynn is no longer our National Security Advisor.

After that, I  had the misfortune of stumbling across another article telling how Jimmy Kimmel’s plea for children’s health care has become a partisan football.

Really? We don’t agree that the most vulnerable and innocent among us should have a right to adequate health care? 

All this combined to make me think the nation is going into the crapper and I am going in it with everyone else.

Fortunately, a bit of grace appeared, even if though there is a sour note within it that points to what may be a well-nigh universal difficulty in tolerating opposing views.

As described in the AP story you will find here, a sixteen year-old Czech girl scout named Lucie Myslikova was among some 300 protesters who confronted a neo-Nazi group demonstrating in Brno, Czechoslovakia last week.

As shown in the photograph below, the young lady was in turn confronted and challenged by one of the neo-Nazis, who had gathered to protest against foreign immigrants.

Czech Republic Protest

FILE – In this file photo dated Monday, May 1, 2017, taken in Brno, Czech Republic, showing 16-year-old Lucie Myslikova talks to a protester at a right wing demonstration. (AP Photo/Vladimir Cicmanec, FILE)

The grace I found is in the calm and repose  of this young lady as she looks into the threatening face of evil. Among other things, this young man yelled at her, “They will rape you!”

Asked what they talked about, Lucie also said, “We talked about the nation, about borders, about migration. I don’t want to judge him. I don’t fight against those people. I fight against their views.”

The sour note in this grace is a news report today states she is under police protection, apparently because of threats against her life. It seems her stance threatened some people. 

Nonetheless, her words and actions point the way forward for us in our disputes, even if the daily struggle to take that higher road will be constant.

 

On Repentance, the General Welfare and the Better Angels of Our Nature

I’m changing directions—repenting!—on this blog out of concern for my well-being and that of our nation.

We have split into separate camps—Democrat (liberals and progressives) and Republican (conservatives and alt/right)—talking past and demonizing each other, hunkered in our respective bunkers with partisan flags composed of smugness, certainty and hubris flying high in the sky.

This does not portend well for us.

The Preamble to our oft-cited but rarely read Constitution states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

These words contemplate a common undertaking to achieve great purposes, but we have degenerated into factions largely immune to any ends but our own.  

I am part of this. My past posts have been partisan. I can criticize, demonize and belittle conservatives of any stripe with the best of them. This should not be, however.

Speaking on the eve of the outbreak of our Civil War, Abraham Lincoln closed his first Inaugural Address hoping for a peaceful future:

“The mystic chords of memory . . . will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

His use of “chorus of the Union” pointed to a time when he hoped all parts and people of the Union would once again come together in seeking a future that would be blessed “by the better angels our nature.”

That is my hope for the country in our time.

My goal in this blog is to surface my better angels through discussing the issues of the day through a prophetic Christian lens.

By this, I mean to apply the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, including Jesus of Nazareth and New Testament writers, to contemporary issues.

It is true that Hebrews prophets were often blunt, divisive, and opinionated.

Thus, my analysis might often seem to smother the “better angels” of my nature.”  

To be sure, they often may contain bits of my own smugness, certainty and hubris.

However, may I grow through this exploration and interaction with its readers.

When Lincoln was speaking of “better angels of our nature,” it is likely that he was including within that phrase the divine values of justice, righteousness, mercy and grace.

As they took time to more fully surface in him, so they will surely take more time to better surface in me.

So, forgive me as I stumble along with my efforts, but my hope is to learn and grow with others through grappling with scripture, spiritual teachings and our higher national aspirations and what those mean in relationship to our consideration of contemporary issues.