Luke 1: 68-79
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke.
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this.
Two good men.
Two men facing death, not a peaceful death you would expect for good men, but incarceration, beatings, treacherous executions.
Stephen, chosen by the disciples to take on the task of insuring that widows and orphans were fed, feeding the poor, and waiting on tables.
Jesus who chose the disciples to take on the task of changing the world, washing their feet, and feeding them, preparing them for what was to come.
How does such injustice happen?
We understand when a person is incarcerated and imprisoned for heinous crimes. But in our scriptures for today, these are not criminals, thieves, robbers, or murderers. They are holy men. Men of Peace. Men living the definition of sacrificial love. It makes no sense.
Of course, by now, we should be used to it, right? Senseless murders, imprisonment, torture, assassination of political, cultural, and religious leaders, saints, who dared to espouse peace, inclusion, and acceptance. A never-ending litany of injustice that makes no sense.
I admit for years I could not understand the logic of it all. Until one day, I was sitting with a person of great wisdom and understanding – a dog trainer. And in one short sentence, everything fell into place. She explained, “A scared dog is an aggressive dog.”
Yep. That was it.
Now if you think it disrespectful to compare humans and dogs, because obviously, humans are more intellectually and morally advanced than dogs, may I kindly refer you to the statistics. It is true that dogs are known to kill up to 25,000 humans a year around the globe. Of that number, 30 – 50 take place in the US. Humans, on the other hand, systematically kill off 475,000 fellow humans – often ones that they loved, an act dogs would abhor.
Dr. Aaron Beck, considered the father of modern cognitive psychotherapy, wrote a monumental book on the same subject. He entitled it Prisoners of Hate, the Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence. The book could be summarized in one short statement,” A scared dog is an aggressive dog.’
In the dog training world, it is important to teach your dog that you are in charge and that he does not need to be hyper vigilant, on edge for any sudden danger, ready to crouch and attack. He can relax in your presence confident that you are strong and capable. That you can handle whatever or whoever walks up to you. And then, as the trainer was quick to add, if someone tries to hurt you, your dog will take him out.
In our human world, it is we who do not need to be hyper vigilant, on edge for any sudden danger, ready to crouch and attack because we walk with God. He owns us. We can relax confident that God is with us and can handle whatever adversity we encounter. We walk our life next to God who knows our heart, our needs, our weaknesses, because God is the light in our darkness. He is the light of the world.
Which brings us full circle to our original question. Why kill Stephen? Why kill Jesus? Because they had to die!
Can you imagine the fear that coursed through the veins of the scared dogs who hurled treacherous lies into the face of Stephen to justify his execution, only to see his face transformed into that of an angel – projecting a purity and strength that belittled them. Suddenly, they were revealed as the powerless entities they had become in the aftermath of a Pentecost that exploded the world as they knew it. This man must die!
And what about Jesus, the preacher, teacher, healer; the light that raised the dead and the power that calmed the storm. It was a power that terrified the scared dogs circling for the attack inciting a riot, with chants reverberating through Pilates’ courtyard, Crucify Him! Crucify Him! This Jesus was a light so strong, so intense that nothing could be hidden from him. His was a light that revealed the darkness in their hearts, the greed, the hypocrisy; and revealed it to the world. There was only one way to extinguish it. This man must die!
A travesty. An injustice. Grievous and heartbreaking. And in the end, it was all futile.
Fortunately for us, we know the ending of these stories. Stephen was bludgeoned to death, but he did not die alone. Peering into heaven, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. Echoing His words on the cross, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Unfortunately, for his executioners, Stephen’s mission did not end with his death, rather it introduced Saul to Jesus, who on the road to Damascus assigned the newly named, Paul a mission to spread the church to Gentiles throughout the known world.
And then there was Jesus. The son of God who died and rose again to change the world with his sacrificial love, unconditional and generous. Death did not extinguish His light. It shattered it, erupted it it to miraculous heights! Even today, it guides his people through the storms of loss and chaos. It warms us with his glory. It empowers us in the face of adversity. It teaches us the way of faith, with love, not fear. And he never leaves us to walk alone through the storms of life. His presence lifts the darkness of random acts of injustice and death. In the words of Episcopal Priest, Marcea Paul, “We are reminded that the power of God is mightier than any wind that beats against us, that the love of God is deeper than any wave that threatens to drown us. Jesus invites us to stay with him in the boat, saying, ‘ Let us go across to the other side, I won’t leave your side, I will journey with you.’”
I think that it is the time, if I may be so bold as to suggest, that you grab your pole, get your dog and climb into that boat. It is still light and the fishing is good! Amen