Here’s something that surprised me…
In the Lenten study on the book So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, we came upon a passage in which Oluo describes how future generations will look at all the good work for justice that you and I are throwing ourselves into, then these young people will sigh and shake their heads. Then they’ll tear it all down and try again!
She writes this: “Our kids are fighting for a world more just and more righteous than we had ever dared to dream of… [As the adult generation] it is our job to be confused and dismayed by the future generation and trust that if we just stop trying to control them, and instead support them, they’ll eventually find their way…”
Oluo continues: “I hope to give a platform, a foundation for our young people to build on then smash to bits when it is no longer needed… This is what our kids are doing right now… And it’s a beautiful thing to see.”1 Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press: New York, 2019. pages 186-188.
This is not the part that surprised me, not yet.
One reason why slavery flourished in this country is because white preachers stood up in churches like ours and told the people that when the Bible says “slaves obey your masters” this means that God is authorizing slavery. That’s not right.
In generations past, preachers have stood up in churches like ours, and they’ve advocated for domestic violence in the name of obedience. Preachers have condemned people who are gay for being gay. Christian preachers have condemned people of other faiths for refusing to convert. That’s not right.
There have been terrible sermons preached in the name of Christ’s love, because maybe we didn’t know better back then, or maybe we should have. And this is not the part that surprised me…
So if I can imagine rejecting and repenting from at least some of what’s in the sermons of my ancestors, it really can’t surprise me to consider: Generations from now, if my sermons would ever get unearthed, the people who find them would be appalled!
They’d say: How could this preacher talk about God’s compassion but fail to speak out against this genocide or this type of environmental destruction. They’d say: Why are all of her sermons in English! Do you mean to tell me she only spoke one language? No wonder her thinking was so narrow!
We can believe, the work we’re doing today will fail to impress future generations. They’ll find it flawed and paltry, and they’ll need to tear most of it down.
But here’s what surprised me. When we read this in the Wednesday Lenten study, the consensus was… This is good news.
Oluo calls it progress. I call it repentance. We’re talking about our grandchildren’s grandchildren seeing what we’ve tried to do, then deciding they can go further in bending the arc toward justice. They’ll use what we’ve done to smash down and build something better, and Oluo is right. It will be beautiful!
Today the scripture Mariah read is a problem nestled inside a problem.
The outer problem is that whoever wrote the book of Acts was addressing a split in the Jewish community as the early church was beginning to form. I can believe that the writer did not intend to argue for Christian supremacy, but over the years, the Church has certainly heard that message; the Church has used Acts to authorize a hatred of Jewish people in the name of Jesus. Now it’s our generation’s job to look at that, and reject that, and repent from that. Strains of this anti-Jewish bias show up in our story today. That’s the outer problem.
The inner problem is what happens in the story. Stephen, with a heart filled with the Holy Spirit, with a face shining like an angel, stood up, delivered a horrifying sermon, then he got stoned to death.
Now Stephen was chosen by the early church to wait tables so that those who were vulnerable could eat while the others were busy studying the word of God. As it happens, the activities get mixed up so there’s serving food and preaching the Gospel and who can tell the difference. While your waiter Stephen was performing signs and wonders, members of an opposing synagogue took issue with his teaching. They launched a plot against him, accusing him of blasphemy!
Next Stephen gets dragged before the high priest and the council where he’s invited to take the stand in his own defense. And let me just tell you, he does not forfeit the opportunity. This sermon is so long it makes you think he’s employing an old school filibuster, like if he can just talk long enough they’ll have to relent.
Most of the sermon is a montage of classic Bible stories. Remember when Abraham was called by God; remember when Joseph was sold by his brothers; remember when Jacob was forgiven. Remember when Moses killed a man; remember when he saw God in the burning bush! And on and on it goes… all through the stories of the ancestors of this council, who are also Stephen’s ancestors, who are also our ancestors. So far, all he’s doing is telling the foundational stories that we all have in common…
Then he arrives at his point. The good preacher says this: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit just as your ancestors used to do.” You heard that right! Stephen says: “[Your people] killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”
Stephen is saying their lineage has been poisoned. Because your ancestors failed to follow God, you will too, he tells them. You come from evil, so of course you murdered Jesus, of course you’ll keep doing evil. It’s your nature.
The people hear this sermon, and they believe it. They form a lynch mob, and drag him outside, and spend the day executing him in front of a cheering crowd. It’s a problem that they believed Stephen.
It’s a problem if we believe Stephen because the thing is, we really could…
We know that harm does get passed down from generation to generation. Our ancestors who have fought in wars have done things we’ll never understand, and they’ve suffered in ways we’ll never understand. We’re just beginning to talk about moral injury, but look no further than your own family and you’ll see how it gets passed from a grandfather’s silence, to a father’s depression, to a daughter’s mistaken notion of what sacrifice demands.
People dealing with addiction often do have parents and grandparents who were addicts; we’re learning more and more about the genetic predisposition. People who abuse children very often have their own stories of surviving abuse. It could seem like Stephen was onto something…
Whoever you are and whatever your lineage, I’m pretty sure that you come from people who have done things that make you ashamed, and you come from people who have done things that make you proud.
Here you find out your grandmother was a trailblazing feminist, but she also made derogatory remarks about people of color. Your grandfather had a fire of cruelty that everybody learned to tiptoe around, but it turns out— he went to bat for workers who were being exploited! We think we know our own people, and we don’t know. There’s always more to their story…
That’s partly because we’re still telling their story. We can repent from the evil that our ancestors were part of, and imagine if our grandchildren and their grandchildren saw us doing this! Imagine if this repenting could be what we passed on to them!
People dealing with addiction often do have a family history of addiction, but it is not true that if you have a family history of addiction then you’re destined to a life of addiction. Yes, people who mistreat children often have their own stories of surviving harm, but that doesn’t make the inverse true. That doesn’t mean that if you were abused as a child, you’ll go on to abuse your own children, not at all. It’s a miracle when you think about it: There are people who have endured violence only to grow up and refuse to keep it going. We know these people; we might be these people.
Here’s the truth: We can get better. We can do better. We can find healing. If only somebody could have told Stephen…
If only there were somebody in the crowd who would one day look back and realize that what’s happening to Stephen is horrific. His execution should not be the legacy of our faith! Turns out, there’s a teenager who’s collecting the coats of the stone throwers. Now this kid thinks what they’re doing is terrific! He goes on to become a bounty hunter rounding up the early Christians, and some would say: No wonder! What hope could there be for him?
But we know… You should keep your eye on Saul, his story’s about to take a turn. If only somebody could have told Stephen!
The horror of yesterday is not the destiny of tomorrow. Imagine if repenting became our legacy! Imagine if healing is what we worked to pass on to our grandchildren’s grandchildren. They could learn that from us! So dear God let them tear down our failures. They’re going to build a story of justice we don’t even understand, but it will be beautiful. One day a thousand years from now, when we’re the ghosts watching them, we will be so proud!
And you know what, so will Paul. So will Stephen. So will Miriam. So will Abraham. Amen.2 I found encouragement for this sermon from this article by John C. Holbert. https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/horrific-tale-john-holbert-05-10-2014