Preacher: Rev. Brian Adkins
Scripture: Scripture: Acts 7:48-60
I have to begin this morning with a confession. I didn’t want to preach today. I didn’t feel like it. But on reflection I realized that my reticence to preach is a function of my privilege. As I begin my prayer, as always, is that the Good News of Jesus be heard through me or in spite of me.
I can’t preach without addressing the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations that have followed. And, at the same time I wonder what I can say; and what should a white man be saying during this time?
I cannot speak to the experiences of Black people. But I can speak to my white brothers and sisters; and imagine together where God is at work today.
I admit, I have to fight the desire to disengage. I don’t want to watch videos of the protests, I don’t want to read the news. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do or how to react. I am horrified by what I see. I know you are, too. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such huge systemic injustice.
But, we have to use our platforms. And this is mine. I’m a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and even if I don’t have anything to say or know what to say, the Word of God speaks.
Some of us may be struggling to place the news we are hearing in context.
As we have seen people pouring out into our streets, raising their voices in protest- there is a flood of emotions. Our lenses filter our view; the media spins the story; many focusing on the looting and vandalism- rather than on the cause of the outrage. The systemic injustice.
Deflect, deny, divide. But we know that is the way of the empire. Why is the empire so threatened that we might see and know each other? Who wins when we are divided?
In Acts chapter 7 we read the story of Stephen. He was an early convert to Christianity. A young man, excited about the Good News. Church leaders did not put him on a committee; instead they sent him out and said, “Go feed people. Just feed people.” And so he did.
The text says he was full of grace and power and performed signs and wonders among the people. And he ran afoul of the religious authorities- accused of blasphemy- he is called before the Sanhedrin- a tribunal of elders- to defend himself.
Are these charges true, they ask him.
He does not enter a plea. He does not defend himself. He begins to recite the history of the Jewish people. And the crux of his speech before them is this; quoting God’s words recorded by the Prophet Isaiah,
“Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool;
What house will you build me?
Where shall I make my rest?
Hath not my hand made all these things?”
What house will you build me? What building can contain God? In this one word he nails the conflict between the Institution and the People. Suddenly, with Pentecost, God is in the streets. And God in the streets, among the people, threatens the status quo. Now, why is that?
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them which showed before the coming of the Just One; of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers: You have received the law by the disposition of angels and have not kept it.”
The text tells us “when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.”
Even as they strike him and condemn him to death by stoning, we are told that he looked steadfastly into heaven and he saw the glory of God- with Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
White people have been indoctrinated, through media and through our readings of history written mostly by white men. Whether we are conscious of it or not- we are taught to believe that black men are dangerous and bad and must be controlled.
Racism is instilled in us early on and it is pervasive.
And my first reaction is to say, “I’m not racist.” But that is a defensive statement; a reaction. It tells me that there’s something there, unexamined.
Passive racism is endemic. The only answer is to become actively anti-racist. To educate ourselves not the lived experiences and systemic injustices faced by the Other.
And I know that is a scary step to take. In doing so, we are called to take a fearless inventory of ourselves, our privilege. We will feel guilt and shame. We will be uncomfortable. But God is a god of discomfort, too.
You know, Saul- the man who would later become the Apostle Paul- that great evangelist of our faith- was present at the stoning of Stephen that day. We’re told that “he was consenting to Stephen’s death.” He stood by holding the cloaks of the men who stoned Stephen. Even without casting a stone, he participated in the murder of Stephen. He was complicit.
Beloved, we have- every one of us- seen videos of black men who have lost their lives at the hands of police. Seen! With our own eyes. We see it on the news and say, “Oh my God, that’s awful!” And we go back to business as usual. And the families and communities of those victims are shattered, but that’s no longer news.
We have seen these things and in seeing and not speaking, we are complicit. Will this be the moment when we finally say, “Not one more.”
When I was on the Commission on a Way Forward, we spoke about suicide rates among queer youth. Many of the Commission members said, “Oh my God, that’s awful!” And proceeded with their plans to make the church white and straight again.
There was a moment early on when I broke down. I twas during a time when my own sister, who is black and queer, had recently attempted suicide. I thought of her and of queer people in my life that I have lost to suicide. And I said to my colleagues. If I thought it would prevent one more young queer person from taking their own life; I would burn the United Methodist Church to the ground and scatter the ashes. I still would.
Can we say the same about one more black life lost? Would we burn down the institution to save just one? Black Lives Matter put out a tweet this week reminding us that Jesus left the 99 and went after the one- because it was the one that was in danger.
Yehuda Bauer, a scholar who studies the Holocaust, has suggested three additions to our 10 Commandments. He would add, “Thou shalt not be a perpetrator, thou shalt not be a victim, but above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
It is time to repent. Of our racism, of our resistance to becoming anti-racist; of being bystanders. We repent of not living up to our United Methodist baptismal vows: to renounce evil and oppression in all their forms; and to accept the freedom and power that God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression.
Have we really accepted that freedom and power- and the responsibility that comes with it?
Repentance is not enough. We have to act on it. To repent and then go back to the status quo, is a hollow act.
Let’s get back to Stephen for a moment. As I said, the Word of God speaks, we just have to listen.
Now, as I mentioned, Stephen- as he is about to be stoned to death- has a vision of heaven and sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. As I read that line- for the thousandth time in my life- I suddenly thought, “hmm, that’s strange.” Stephen sees Jesus is standing.
You see, everywhere else in the Bible Jesus is described as being seating at the right hand of God. But here- in this one solitary instance- Jesus is seen to be standing.
And I can’t help but wonder, what was it that got Jesus to his feet? What caused Jesus to rise up and bear witness?
I believe he saw something in Stephen that compelled him. And Jesus could not remain seated. He stood with Stephen.
Jesus doesn’t strike dead the men casting stones. But, nonetheless, he bears witness. He sees the man, he sees his faith, he sees his hurt, and he sees him speaking truth to power. And in seeing these things, he rises to his feet in solidarity.
Didn’t Jesus tell us the stones would speak? When we are silent, the stones will speak. The fires will speak. The tear gas will speak. The blood will speak.
We have to decide if we are going to be Saul- through silence being complicit in the oppression of a person or a People. Or are we going to be the Body of Christ that musters the strength, finds a way, leans into discomfort to rise up.
Bishop Gregory Palmer, bishop of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church says this,
“Are you prepared to challenge racism and supremacy in all the places you see, hear, and experience it? It is more rife than what may finally make it into the news cycle. It is historic, accumulated, systems, institutional, and personal. It is everywhere all the time.”
What can we do?
We can listen- with cultural humility- believing that people know the solution to their own problems.
We can educate ourselves- there is a plethora of resources on anti-racism. Racism is a white people problem. As homophobia is a straight people problem. As misogyny is a man’s problem. As age-ism is a young people’s problem.
We can speak up- joining in protests; using our platforms to educate those we care about; and calling for the prosecution of police who murder black and brown people.
We can support organizations on the front lines. Contribute to funds that help pay bail for protesters who are arrested.
We can advocate for change; hold our elected officials accountable; vote.
Beloved, our faith is literally based on the Gospel of an innocent man who was murdered by soldiers of the empire. This is the test of our faith: not whether we believe that Christ died and rose again. But whether we believe we are called to do the same.
Rev. Fredrick Ohler says this,
“Demagogues of every sort have always counted on our fears to scare us into submission. Politicians and preachers, commissars and evangelists make people afraid— afraid of what will happen to them, afraid of death and therefore of life... The fearmongers are so successful because they find in us such willing subjects... But the gospel of perfect love comes to us to cast out fear—from our beginning... In the mean time at least help us to move from petty fears to better ones; from fears of hell to admissions of joylessness; from quaking before opinions and modes and fashions to fearing loss of our integrity...”
Better fears, beloved. If we are unable to be fearless, let us at least choose not to fear tyrants but rather to fear the loss of our voices, the loss of authenticity, the loss of our integrity, and the loss of one more innocent life.
Our hope is always and only in the Risen (and rising) Christ. When we stand, Christ stands with us. Always. Amen.
Special thanks to... Special thanks to:
Preacher: Rev. Brian Adkins
Contributors: Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Dr. Ramona Coates, Susan Jardin, Jordan Jerrels, Orion Lacey, Paul Nasman
Special Music: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Rick Beeman, Charles Lynch, Havis White-Blanchard; “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” sung by Jim Barclay;
"Prayer of the Children" by Kurt Bestor, sung by Epworth Choir
Video producers: Tai Jokela, Anjuli Arreola-Burl, Merrie Bunt
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
And all who participate by watching from home!