Convicted in Christ
You heard a scripture this morning we rarely talk about. Stephen, a Hellenist, a Greek speaking Jew, was following this new kind of Judaism, one that would eventually be called Christianity. The Jewish people had many kinds of Judaism then just as we do today both in Judaism and in Christianity; and just like today, people argued about who was right and who was wrong. Stephen was a part of a group called upon to care for the widows, who were marginalized and suffering, which is why we also call Stephen one of our first Deacons. Stephen, through his actions, is making waves in the community and is called before the Sanhedrin (the body of judges ) to defend himself; but instead of defending himself, he makes a long speech pointing out all the ways the Jewish people had failed, going all the way back to the rejection of Moses, and the way they made a false idol out of a golden calf. After his speech, Stephen was stoned to death for his beliefs, his convictions, his faith, leaving him to be called our first Christian martyr.
In seminary, we were asked how many of us were willing to die for our faith. I’m pretty sure everyone’s hand went up except mine. All I could think about in that moment was my children and I wasn’t willing to die if it meant leaving my kids.
I’m guessing if we went around the screen, most of us would not be willing to die for our faith. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have deeply held beliefs or convictions that our integrity depends upon. Sometimes we refer to our integrity as our truth, and sometimes we call it our voice. At times, voicing our truth, whatever it is, means risking something. And other times, keeping quiet, not speaking our truth means risking our integrity.
Here we are in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis. There are a million opinions, convictions, deeply held beliefs about whats happening right now. People are making their voices known and expressing what they believe to be right and true. And people are angry.
That’s what I’m seeing on walks, on social media and articles.. That people are angry. I’ve seen people shame others for getting too close, for not wearing a mask. I’ve seen people without masks ready to be shamed so that they can counter attack. I’ve seen verbal fights on the streets of Sausalito about personal rights and freedoms, and in videos posted on social media and news reports. I’ve even read that the mayor of Rhode Island is encouraging social shaming. For some this is a clear case of following the law in order to save lives, and for others this is about the government infringing on their lives in ways that take away the kinds of freedoms the country is built on.
I’m not looking to get into a debate on that. What I’m trying to do is to understand what it means to express your convictions without shaming others in the process, and I need to learn this as much as anyone else. We’re all just trying to get through the day with an enormous amount of differences between us in our circumstances. What’s the quote going around? We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.
At times I feel angry too, but what I’ve noticed is that when convictions are expressed in anger it’s because people are more focused on being right and winning an argument, than they are on actually trying to convey a principle. And I understand this as an attempt at trying to gain some sense of control at a time when everyone feels out of control.
Between the uncertainty of the pandemic, concerns around getting sick, of dying, of dying alone, coupled with a crumbling economy and all time highs of unemployment - all of it leaves us with less and less a sense of control. And for those of us with any kind of control issues, like trying to be perfect, or keeping everyone happy, even if you’ve done a ton of work on yourself, this pandemic will start to chip away at the work you’ve done. All of us may notice a subconscious attempt to gain control somewhere, you might find yourself cleaning more, or trying to fix some other problem, or fix some other person to the point of obsession, or you may find your picking a fight with your spouse, or getting really mad at the latest news report, or mad because you’re the only one taking out the trash, or feeling mad in general. These are reactions to feeling out of control. But the truth is we were never fully in control of the circumstances of our lives before the pandemic either.
What we have right now we are a lot of people who are accusing, attacking and ready for a fight. What we need of are people ready to listen, to ask questions, to understand the complexity of nuance in an opinion especially when it’s different from our own.
My daughter Charlotte has been pivotal recently in showing me the difference between entering into a discussion to win an opinion or an argument and entering into a discussion from a place of curiosity. She’s teaching me new ways to look at systems of oppression that I was never aware of and my own complacency, my own contribution to the problem by some of the things I’ve said and the ways I think. What’s so amazing about my daughter (who I’m over the top proud of) is how she does it. As I begin to get ready for a fight to defend my position, I notice she never gets charged, stays calm, points out different ways to look at it, asks questions, and more than anything its the very tone of voice she uses which invites me into the conversation without ever shaming. She teaches. She teaches and as a result instead of feeling shamed and like I have to defend myself, I understand humility and the desire to learn and grow.
We’re in need of humility, in need of the desire to learn and to grow… as people and as a nation.
This week I was sent a speech of Abraham Lincoln’s going around social media. On March 30 1863, President Lincoln in his proclamation for a day of prayer and fasting to humble the nation before God, said this:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity.We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!It behooves us then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
We’ve forgotten God. We’ve forgotten the gracious hand. We’ve forgotten humility.
Which brings us to our second scripture this morning in the words of Peter, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…”
When Peter spoke of a spiritual house, was he speaking of a church building or our lives?
Years ago when my father was still alive, he came for a visit and there was a sound coming from the kitchen as we sat in the living room. He stopped speaking mid-sentence and said, “What’s that sound?”
Whatever he heard it stopped him mid-sentence because it was such a foreign sound. I said, “That’s the dog drinking water out of his bowl.” And then he said - and I’ve never forgotten it - “Every house has its sounds.”
And that’s been true for every house I’ve lived in or even stayed in. You learn the sounds of the refrigerators the traffic patterns, the neighbors lawnmower. Every house house its sounds, and so do our Spiritual houses. The sounds our spiritual houses make are built upon our convictions and they are more simply put, our integrity.
The sounds of our spiritual houses are not voiced by shaming others, but in listening, with empathy, with compassion. Our voices are also not heard when we stay silent in an attempt to keep the peace. We compromise our integrity in little and big ways all the time, not wanting to ruffle the feathers of relatives, friends even and sometimes especially church. We sit back and let others speak their mind as we remain silent. But there’s a price to pay for that, little by little, as what’s true for you, gets chipped away at until our houses fall apart. We can keep everyone else happy with us for just so long, before we start to no longer recognize our own voices.
Our voices, as people of faith are the sounds of our spiritual house, which echo the voice and sounds of Jesus the Christ. Stephen knew his truth, his voice, his integrity was built upon the foundational principles of love, and that Christ was the living stone, the cornerstone by which everything else depends.
The cornerstone in building a house, the prophet Isaiah taught us, is a figure for justice. God’s justice. The correct lines for a stone building (i.e. the placement of all the other blocks) were all derived from a perfectly squared-off cornerstone that was laid down first. In the same way, God says, He will establish justice so that all of the Judeans can know whether their actions are “within the lines” or not. (1)
Theologian and scholar Christopher R. Smith gives the analogy of a baseball field to understand the idea of Jesus as the cornerstone of our spiritual houses. He writes:
When a baseball field is laid out, the first thing put down is home plate. The foul lines are drawn out from the back of it. And those foul lines tell you whether a batted ball is “in” or “out.” The life, teachings, and example of Jesus establish the lines in our lives of what’s “in” and “out,” not just morally, but also in keeping with God’s expanding purposes in the world. He is, in effect, a “living home plate,” and we are a “living infield” and a “living outfield.”
Our voices sit on top of the foundations of that space held deep within us that knows what’ss true and right and good. I call that our integrity. Are you willing to let the voice of your own integrity echo through your spiritual house into the world? And are you willing to risk losing something if you do?
Some say that the way we die is often a reflection of how we’ve lived. If that’s true, it’s true for Stephen. Scripture tells us that at the end, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, he sees Jesus. He sees him standing at the right hand of God, through the heavens, just as in the ascension, the heavens open, like at Jesus baptism, and, and then with the same words Jesus used from the cross, Stephen asks forgiveness for the ones who are killing him. This is the house that Stephen built. His cornerstone which is Christ is most visible to him now, at death, because he built his life upon the foundation of Christ. Some translations of this scripture passage end with the simple words, “Stephen died.” Others say, “He fell asleep.” If I were translating, I might literally translate this saying Stephen went home. Just as his life was built upon Christ, so too was his death.
And so may all of our spiritual houses be built upon Christ. And may our convictions, our voices reflect Jesus in all that we do and all that we say. Amen.