One of the things about following the Revised Common Lectionary is that texts chosen weeks ago often find serendipitous connections with life events and issues in ways that would be difficult to plan if you were trying to. This is one of those weeks. The story of the stoning of Stephen ran alongside our church’s consideration of placing a Witness Stone on our grounds in memory of a man who was once enslaved in Hamden—and then there was a random connection (for me) to a childhood memory. I hope it speaks to you.
An old memory found me this week. It was a family vacation. I was ten, my brother was eight. We were driving across Zambia, where we lived, to spend some time in one of the game parks. The car was not air-conditioned, so we had the windows rolled down. It was warm and we had been in the car a long time. I was recovering from one of the ear infections that were consistent through my childhood. My brother Miller and I were both tired of being in the backseat, but I was the one who started poking at him.
We were quiet at first, but then it escalated. My brother tried to push me away and hit my sore ear—by accident–and I yelled. My dad looked in the rear-view mirror and said, “What happened?” Before my brother could speak, I said, “Miller hit me in my sore ear,” and both my parents came down hard on him, telling him to leave me alone. They didn’t ask for the whole story, they just responded to what they saw and heard.
Miller shot me a look that hit harder than his hand. I didn’t say a word. I think he’s still bitter.
The memory came back as I worked with this week’s passage because what we just read together is the biblical equivalent of my crying out when my brother tapped my ear: the scene we saw is the end of Stephen’s story—and Stephen’s life, but we didn’t read how they got to that moment. Stephen didn’t just stumble into a roomful of people angry enough to kill him.
The early church had its growing pains, not the least of which was people who were not Jewish began joining. There was a language barrier: some spoke Aramaic, some spoke Greek. There were economic, political, and cultural divisions, as well as questions about how those in need were being cared for. Stephen was one of those chosen by the church in Jerusalem to help sort things out. He is described as one “who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life.”
Outside of the young congregation, in the wider Jerusalem community, which was struggling to understand this burgeoning new sect, some struggled with Stephen and the faith he proclaimed, and they began to spread rumors that he “insulted Moses and God,” which led to Stephen being brought before the religious authorities. When they asked him if he was insulting Moses and God, Stephen launched into a Hebrew history lesson, going through Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, including the recurring theme of how the people of most every generation and doubted God and ignored the prophets, and ending with a not-so-subtle proclamation that those who were charging him were the ones insulting God with their lack of faith.
This is where we picked up the story. They were so enraged that they dragged him out of town and killed him.
Good story, huh?
Stephen is recognized as the first martyr of the early church, the first one to die for his faith. The sermon most often found in these verses is a call to commitment, a challenge to give our lives to God so completely that we would be willing to die for our faith. I read an article this week that offered another perspective. Enuma Okoro is a Nigerian-American writer who was reflected on this passage and imagined a different perspective. He wrote:
With this week’s reading from Acts, I wonder if most of us automatically see ourselves as Stephen. But if we approach the text with an open and receptive spirit, where else in this martyrdom scene might we find ourselves?
What would it mean if we were among those who stone him, those enraged by a threatening word of truth? We may not literally kill people, but in what ways do we cause grave harm when we react to perspectives that threaten us, or to visions of God with which we do not agree? The mob is made up of the council of religious authorities who are charged with ensuring that people do not blaspheme against God. And they believe Stephen is doing this. But they also seem to hear his witness as blasphemy because they have already decided how God works, how God reveals God’s self and to whom. There isn’t any room left in their imaginations.
That last sentence is striking: “There isn’t any room left in their imaginations.”
I had a friend years ago who used to say, “Never trust a zealot with a clear conscience,” which was another way of saying don’t trust anyone—including ourselves—who think they have a corner on the truth. When we allow ourselves to decide that ideas or theology or whatever matters more than our relationships with one another, our fear and anger can get the best of us, and we can lose our ability to see beyond our sense of the way the world works and how we fit into the story.
Though I chose this passage a few weeks back, as I worked on my sermon over the last few days it connected to our discussion about placing one of the Witness Stones on our church property. As most of you know, we have been approached about placing a small brass plaque on our grounds in memory of Cyrus Gibson, who was enslaved by Simeon Bristol here in Hamden. Bristol was a magistrate and figured prominently in the history of New Haven and of our town.
That Cyrus was enslaved by Simeon is a matter of public record yet it has not been a consistent part of the story that has been told over the years. Our middle schoolers learned about Cyrus and others by going through primary sources: the town records. Like headstones in a graveyard, the Witness Stone is a way of naming someone so they are not forgotten, a way of remembering who he was and who we are—and a way of making room in our imaginations for us to grow and learn. Now that we know Cyrus Gibson’s name, he is part of our shared story—part of us.
We would be far from alone if we choose to place a Witness Stone for Cyrus. A couple of weeks ago First Congregational Church of Stonington placed a stone in their churchyard in honor of Cato Cuff, an enslaved man who also fought in the Revolutionary War. In Guilford, where I live, we have six or eight stones placed around town. So far they have placed almost one hundred and fifty stones across our state—and the Witness Stone Project is just one of a number of projects helping us to come to a deeper understanding of how we got to be who we are.
Last summer I watched the series High on the Hog on Netflix, which looks at the way enslaved people brought to this country shaped what we think of as American cuisine. One episode told the story of James Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s chef while he was president, and who was enslaved by Jefferson. The capital of the young republic was in Philadelphia at that time, and Pennsylvania had a law that said an enslaved person who lived in the state for six months was freed by default. Every five and a half months, Jefferson would send James Hemings back to Monticello for a week or two to reset the clock so he would remain enslaved. That truth sits alongside the reality that Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Jefferson articulated a truth about humanity that he could not imagine himself living into. He, like us, was a citizen of the time in which he lived. The way we can imagine a larger definition of us—of who belongs—is to tell the whole story of those who have come before us and imagine what kind of world we want to pass on.
Those who stoned Stephen to death were unwilling to come to terms with their history, with their connections to the past that they chose to leave behind. As they killed him, a young man named Saul held their cloaks. Years later, he changed his name to Paul to signify his new life in Christ. In his letter to the Galatian church he wrote,
There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
When we aspire to tell and hear the whole story, we can release our need to control the narrative. When we aspire to tell and hear the whole story, we are reminded that there is no “them:” there is only us. We are all a part of the family of God—we have all sinned, we have all been forgiven; we have chosen to live out our faith in Christ in this congregation right here in Hamden, and we seek to live out our faith in grace-giving and equitable words and deeds with the help of the Holy Spirit beyond these walls, beyond our town line, across every barrier—and we can tell the whole story as long as we allow God to keep making room in our imaginations. Amen.