Psalm 31.1–5; 31.17–18
1 Peter 2.11–25
Sunday 7 May 2023
Howard Thurman has said, “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
Thurman was a theologian, mystic, civil rights leader and mentor to Martin Luther King. Unlike King, he was not martyred although he took many risks as he sought courageously to live out what was genuine in himself. He was also known for his clear-sighted insistence that what the world needs is not people intent on the kind of sacrifice that leads to the negation or death of the self, but the kind that would make the human being most fully alive.
Our first reading from Acts introduces Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church and considered Christianity’s first martyr. The centre of Stephen’s life was not the kind of activism that we might think could see him stoned to death. He spoke, scripture tells us, “with wisdom and Spirit” and was mainly known for his ministry amongst the poor and outcast. Stephen was one of seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community.
In the story of his martyrdom, we see what could be called the foolishness of Stephen. His spoken witness to the crucified and risen Christ is enough to cause others in the synagogue to become enraged. He then does what might obviously be seen to be adding fuel to the fire by exclaiming at a vision of the heavens opening and the Son of Man at the right hand of God. Not designed by any stretch to appease a hostile crowd! And yet there is the sense in this text that Stephen could do none other than bear witness to what he saw- a man who has waited for the sound of the genuine in himself and a vision of what is real, and has found it with utter conviction. Far from being showmanship, we can see in this extreme and dangerous situation, Stephen being utterly authentic to what he knew to be true and to his relationship with the risen Christ.
We have a sense in this scene of a life poured out for the sake of being an authentic witness. And the word sacrifice cannot be avoided in this context. But for sacrifice to be something holy, it must be utterly free; a death which leads to an abundant generativity of life. And in the account of the martyrdom we hear a keynote of unexpected hope in the narrative through the appearance a new character. The writer of Luke/Acts is drawing the reader to this moment of introducing a new and important character to the scene with this footnote; “and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
This is, of course, Saul of Tarsus, who will become the apostle Paul.
Who are we to know how our lives connect with and change one another. We are called to be people of hope, believing that God can break through the harsh exterior of some hearts and open them to grace and love. The murder of Stephen was an utterly evil act performed by humans. The will of God can apparently, however, redeem even our darkest moments. Saul who will be Paul looks on, hearing the prayer of Stephen, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ without knowing that through this prayer his own life will be utterly transformed.
Howard Thurman understood this call of the genuine and the holy, having had to claim his own sense of inherent dignity in the face of racism in an America where the history of slavery still cast a long shadow. He is an appropriate theologian to invoke on this day where we hear the extremely problematic words in the 1st letter of Peter which is translated, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference.” It is a difficult text and one which many generations have misused to justify their profits from trading in human lives. One thing the presence of this line within an ancient letter does is show us that slaves were included as full members in the community of faith. Such letters were read aloud in their communities and were likely trying to make sense of how to live as followers of Christ in the oppressive reality of slavery. The way of Christ where all are called to love their neighbour as themselves, disrupts the most rigid hierarchies even as it honours the dignity of all.
Howard Thurman recalls a moment in his home town in the decades of segregation when his daughters wanted to go and play in a playground that was reserved for children attending the white public school. When his daughters asked the obvious question, “Why not?” Thurman told them;
It is against the law for us to use those swings, even though it is a public school. Only white children can play there. But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida—it takes all these to keep two little black girls from swinging in those swings. That is how important you are! Never forget, the estimate of your own importance and self-worth can be judged by how much power people are willing to use to keep you in the place they have assigned to you. You are two very important little girls.
Thurman was changing the narrative for his daughters to one that was not dictated by the structures of his society, helping them to reconnect with what was real and true. There are always forces within any nation or society, including our own, that would oppress and dehumanise, and we all need to listen for the sound of the genuine within ourselves. It is what we are claiming in every baptism- that every single person is made in the image of God and given the task to become most truly themselves, a unique reflection of the Divine. In baptism we claim that identity and recognise our shared task of helping one another live into their God-given potential. Remembering that you are one in whom God takes delight; forgiven and set free to live, love and serve one another. This is the promise that baptism affirms for all time. May today you hear again the sound of the genuine within you, catching that glimpse of what is mostreal, and disrupting every narrative that would rob you of your truest identity as a beloved child of God.
 Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (p. 1051). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.