What Kind of Witness?

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 14, 2017.

Acts 7:55-60

The short passage from the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts that I am going to preach on makes little sense without the story that precedes it, beginning in Chapter 6. So, here is that story.

Following Christ’s resurrection, then ascension to heaven, the Apostles began to organize as the church and set out in an around Jerusalem to share the story of Jesus and baptize people in his name. Among those early converts were Greek speaking Jews. Though the Apostles baptized these so-called Hellenists, they weren’t seen as the equals of Hebrew speaking Jews who traced their ancestry to Abraham.

Every day, the early church would distribute food to widows and those in need, but the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected. This annoyed the original twelve Apostles because they thought it was below them to “wait on tables,” serving food, especially to Hellenist widows. So they directed the Hellenists to identify seven of their own men of good standing to serve as Deacons. The Deacons would serve the food, so the Apostles could focus on praying and sharing the word of God.

Among those seven Deacons was a man named Stephen. Though he was said to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit; he wasn’t expected to do more than to volunteer in the soup kitchen.

But he quickly got himself in trouble by arguing with members of a Hellenist synagogue, and these Greek speaking Jews brought Stephen before the ruling council of chief priests in Jerusalem. His accusers said that Stephen’s promotion of Jesus as the “Way” represented a break from Jewish tradition and that he should be punished for this. Stephen then gives a long and impassioned speech to the Council to refute their charges.

He argues that there have been two groups in Israel’s long history, those who accept God’s message and messengers and those who reject them. Stephen and the Apostles are aligned with Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. The Council and the Jews they represent are aligned with the Egyptians, the ancestors who killed the prophets, and those who crucified Jesus. One group sought the liberation of the slaves, justice for the poor, and new life for the most vulnerable, while the others oppressed these same. According to Stephen, rather than rejecting God’s law, the followers of Jesus are in line with the faithful in Jewish history who have sought to keep covenant with God. Jesus is a fulfillment of the law, not a break from it. Stephen finished his speech to the Council with these words:

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

Not surprisingly, Stephen’s words enrage his accusers, and this is where this morning’s passage picks up.

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

Note, this is the Saul that would soon have a conversion experience, after which he would be known as Paul, the Apostle who would become the greatest evangelist our tradition has ever known, and whose letters have profoundly influenced the way we understand our faith.

Stephen, the waiter, was stoned to death by a mob for confronting powerful religious authorities for their failure to follow Jewish law. Stephen was a witness for God’s truth and justice, and it cost him his life.

Saul was a different kind of witness, he stood by and watched as authorities incited a mob to murder, and his silence communicated his approval.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, waged from 1976 to 1983, the military government abducted, tortured, and killed left-wing militants, and anyone they claimed were “subversives,” including all political opponents of the regime. Many of the dissenters were young people, students and other youth trying to express their dissatisfactions with the regime. The kidnapped people became referred to as the “disappeared.” The government obliterated any records that would help the families find the bodies or reclaim their grandchildren.

The military government’s censorships prevented any discussion of the matter. Within a terrorist state, those who spoke out put their own lives in danger. Yet, in the face of the disappearance of their children, in 1977 a group of mothers began to meet each Thursday in the large Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the site of Argentina’s government. There they walked in non-violent demonstrations. As they walked they chanted: “We want our children; we want them to tell us where they are.” The madres said, “No matter what our children think they should not be tortured. They should have charges brought before them. We should be able to see them, visit them.”

The mothers’ simple request was the first time any of the public had spoken out against the brutality of the regime. The movement and numbers of women whose children had “disappeared” grew. In their weekly demonstrations some carried pictures of the missing children. Later they wore white scarfs to symbolize the white dove of peace, which “can unit all women.”

The mothers’ nonviolent expression of truth to power eventually drew international attention. Human rights groups arrived to help them open up an office, publish their own newspaper and learn to make speeches. Although the police continued to harass them, (the early founders in fact “disappeared” themselves), it became more difficult for the government to ignore the moral presence of mothers standing witness to the illegal and brutal acts of the regime. As mothers, they presented a powerful moral symbol which, over time, transformed them from women seeking to protect their children to women wishing to transform the state so that it reflected maternal values.

In no small part because of the mothers’ witness and martyrdom, Argentina returned to a civilian government in 1983.

One of the mothers, Maria del Rosario de Cerruti said:

“One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice…Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned.”

Either we speak out, or we are accomplices.

What kind of witnesses will we be?

At the end of April, a number of students from Canton High School chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” at a basketball game against the predominantly black and Latino Classical Magnet School in Hartford. In an editorial, the Hartford Courant named the incident for what it was, racism, and the Principle of Canton High School acknowledged that the taunts crossed the line into hate speech. At the end of February, someone rearranged the letters of the Granby High School sign to spell a racial slur against African Americans.

We would like to think Simsbury is immune to such incidents but it isn’t. During a performance of 42nd Street in February a student yelled out a homophobic slur at one of the actors on stage. Rev Kev and I hear of other incidents of students directing slurs toward immigrants, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and Jews in the hallways and classrooms of Simsbury High.

Frankly, I felt convicted by today’s story about Stephen. I have heard about such things at the high school all year but, not being sure how to respond, have stood silently by. And I hear the words of Maria del Rosario de Cerruti, “We have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices.”

This is not to blame teachers or the administration. Naming and confronting such behavior is hard. And I am not imagining mothers wearing white scarves protesting in the school parking lot, though wouldn’t that be something. But maybe there is a response appropriate to our faith, something encouraging and helpful to the administration and teachers, something supportive of youth and their families, something that equips everyone to respond constructively to racism and homophobia when it arises, as it surely will.

Please help me think about this as we attempt to answer the question, what kind of witnesses will we be?

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