Safe in the Pulpit–A Cautionary Tale for Prophets

Have you ever been hit by a rock?  I haven’t—not even by accident, let alone on purpose.  Most people would consider that a good thing.  I’m not so sure.  A strange thing to say, I know, but hear me out.

They say that stoning is the oldest form of capital punishment.  It is as old as written literature, and it is the most common death penalty described in the Bible.  It’s never been legal in the United States, but it does still happen today in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and some states in Nigeria.

Here is what stoning looks like—because I think it’s necessary.   Victims are buried to their waist.  There are laws that govern the size of rocks—large enough to inflict pain, yet small enough to not kill after one or two blows.  This way the agony of the assault is drawn out.  The pain is excruciating.

Stoning is a unique form of capital punishment in that it is public.  It is participatory.  The victim of stoning is not killed by one executioner.  It takes a community of stone throwers.  It is a shared killing.  It is a red violent thread woven into the social fabric.

Jesus offers only one opinion on stoning:  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Acts 7 records the stoning of Stephen.  It is one of the pericopes chosen by the Revised Common Lectionary for the fifth week of Easter.  It reminds us that Jesus’ resurrection does not stop the human race–including religious people–from spilling blood and resisting the prophetic remonstrations of God’s spokespeople.

And don’t be a fool, this is not an ‘us vs. them’ story, this is not about good Christian Stephen being pummeled by bad non Christians.  Christian’s have strong arms too—that’s why I (and you) play it safe.  That was Stephen’s problem; he refused to play it safe?  Do you know what I mean by that?  Have you ever been hit by a rock?

Stephen was supposed to be waiting on tables.  He was one of the seven disciples of Christ selected to help meet the needs of the Hellenists’ widows.  Somehow in his ministries he ended up in an argument about the faith.  He was arguing with members of the ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen.’  The Synagogue was comprised of people from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia.  They were Hellenists—Greek speaking Jews–the very group that Stephen was sent to help.  Being members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen meant that they were former slaves who had gained their independence.

Why was Stephen arguing with them?  Perhaps he was too filled up.  Acts is adamant about Stephen being filled up, there was no part of him that was empty. He was full of faith (6:5), full of wisdom (6:3), full of grace (6:8), full of power (6:8), and full of the Spirit (6:3).  God opened Stephen and poured into him all that God could stuff.  Stephen was so filled up, he just had to let it out.  No one could touch him.  The text reads that the members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.  So they stirred up trouble for Stephen, and he was brought before the council, presumably the Sanhedrin, and they trumped up charges against him.

The council asked him to defend himself, and all that was stuffed up into Stephen, all that filled him to the brim, burst out, and he preached—he preached his heart out—he preached a hard sermon to hear.  He preached so hard his face glowed—just like an angel.

And it wasn’t at all safe.  Stephen’s sermon recounted the history of God with the patriarch Abraham, and then Moses, the reception of the law, the gaining of the promise land, and finally the building of the first temple under Solomon.  That’s when Stephen made his mistake.  Stephen did not speak favorably of the temple.  He reminded the council that the most high did not dwell in houses made with human hands.  The Sanhedrin, comprised mainly of Sadducees, the ruling priestly aristocracy who gained much power and wealth by the money flowing in and out of the temple, did not receive this message well.  How could they.  They did not receive it well at all—so they knelt down and picked up stones.

Here’s a tip on playing it safe—never speak out against money and power.  Do you think it was religious conflict that made the stones fly?  Be careful, you’ll miss the meaning.  You’ll make it an ‘us vs. them’ story.  You’ll fail to remember that money and power have made Christians pick up their stones as well.  Stephen went on and called them “Stiff necked people, uncircumcised in the heart and ears, opponents of the Holy Spirit, descendents of those who killed the prophets, betrayers and murders of the Righteous One, violators of the law.”

What was he thinking?  I could give that filled up disciple some tips on survival.  I know you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.  I have a family, and debtors, and a future.  I am called to preach, and I preach for a pay check.  That’s why I’m so quick on my feet.  Light.  Fast.  Not filled up and stuffed full.  You got to keep yourself empty!  If you are stuck on one spot—sluggish and weighed down—they can really nail you, right upside the head, where the blood flows red.  No, I dodge stones.  You can’t throw them fast enough.  Try it.  Go ahead and offer your critique.

How’s my posture?  They say you need good posture.  I don’t have good posture.  But I’m not worried about posture.  Bad posture doesn’t bring stones.  Command of the pulpit?  I’ll stand on it if you want me to.  No—you tell me what I do wrong!  Hurl something my way.

You don’t want to?  You see no need?  See, that’s the problem.   When you’re preaching for safety the stones never come.  So just put the stones away. It’s not your arm, and it’s not your accuracy.  It’s me.  I’ve played this game for a while now, and I’ve been safe in every pulpit I’ve ever been in.  And I’m not the only one.

It’s all so sad.  There is a great bravery needed.  Your face could shine so bright.  But you play it safe—and it eats you up inside.  The good news is you will never have to offer the painful grace of forgiveness if no one ever hits you.  You will never have to preach it hard if they never seize you and drag you in front of the authorities.

And if you do get in trouble, don’t worry.  It doesn’t matter what they say.  False accusations, true accusations—let them drag you to court, you’re great there too.  You’re a preacher, a politician, we’re all lawyers you know, that’s how we get the job—lawyers!—and good ones.  Those stuffed suits with their thick books of case law do not hold a candle next to our dull faces.  That is what we are, a crowd of dull faces, exiting from the Synagogue of the Freedmen.  We gained our liberty from slavery, and now we spend our time fighting for our rights—lobbying Rome for legislation.  We’re lawyers, cloistered together in common purpose.  We preside in our temples.  We fix boilers in our edifices. We find little dust bunnies under the second pew and frantically search for a janitor with mop.  We keep the law.  We defend the tradition.  We are always ready to throw stones at blasphemy—with our dull faces.

Stupid Steven—all filled up and weighed down.  What was he thinking—I could have got him a pay-check, with all that talent he could have been in on it.  He could have touted the house of God, made by human hands—see its majesty, see its architecture, see its treasury.

I could have told him: “You’re too filled up Steven.  Filled up! Full of faith (Acts 6:5), wisdom (Acts 6:3), grace (Acts 6:8), power (Acts 6:8)–full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3).  You’re too heavy for the pulpit.  Your posture wont be right.  Your diction will come out funny  Your time will run over.  You’re going to get hit.  You need to lighten up—go on a diet.  So come over here and preach for a paycheck!  Don’t tell them they are just like unrepentant Israel.  Don’t preach against their Temples.  Don’t tell them they killed the prophets.  Don’t say the one they hold up is the one who condemns them.  Don’t get all shiny faced in a room full of dull.”

Stupid Stephen whose face got all shiny—like the face of an angel—just before it got all staved up and bloody.

Aren’t you called too—isn’t God filling you up? Ah, but we make our living this way.  Do you know what could happen?  Let me tell you again—because I think it’s necessary.  People are buried to their waist.  There are laws that govern the size of rocks—large enough to inflict pain yet small enough to not kill after one or two blows.  This way the agony of the assault is drawn out.  The pain is excruciating.

It is public, it is participatory.  The victim of stoning is not killed by one executioner.   It takes a church full of stone throwers.  It is a shared killing.  You better lose some weight, because you get thin or you get hit.

I’ll tell you like it is.  You deserve it.  I’ll tell you that Steven’s are rare—and rarer still.  And you don’t get to be him every Sunday. Not because you can’t, but because you wont.

I’ll paint the true picture of the preacher and the church.  I’ll paint the picture scared!  I’ll tell you like it is.  Have you ever been hit by a rock?  I haven’t—not even by accident, let alone on purpose.  Most people consider that a good thing.  I’m not so sure.  A strange thing to say, I know

I’ll tell you like it is—that maybe at best you get one or two moments to be like him, and you remember them your whole life because you were filled up, and all the dull was gone, and you felt the rock, and you bled—and you forgave.

Amen.

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