Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It's such a joy and a privilege to be here with you on Day1 Radio because I'm a big fan of radio broadcasts myself. And one show that has particularly been enriching my life lately is National Public Radio's Indivisible. Indivisible a national call-in show that's trying to take stock of people's hopes and fears for this country in the first hundred days of the new presidential administration. One of the show's goals is to try to find ways for people with different political views to just talk to each other again after an ugly election. The conversations often demonstrate how difficult that goal is. In one episode, the host invited people to call in with a question that they wanted to ask someone on the other side of the aisle -- republicans with a question for democrats, democrats with a question for republicans. But this wasn't supposed to be the kind of accusing question that we normally hurl at each other when we get to talking politics. The host framed this as an opportunity to ask a genuine question, an open-minded question. Something you could ask another person in good faith, and which they could actually answer. A good question was about giving yourself a chance to listen, not about giving yourself a chance to speak.
Sounds simple enough, right? But as soon as they opened up the phone lines, it quickly became obvious that this was hard for people. Most of the callers did a pretty bad job of presenting their questions. People across the political spectrum did exactly what the host had asked them not to do. They generalized. They assumed. They accused. They got up on their soapboxes and they started shouting. Everyone wanted their anger to be heard, but few people really wanted to listen to the other side.
This problem, this refusal to listen, feels so characteristic of our current, polarized moment in history, but scripture reminds us that it's a very ancient sin. We human beings don't like listening to opposing viewpoints -- and that can have deadly consequences. In today's story from Acts, we read that the people who stoned Stephen had to cover their ears to block out his words before they killed him.
Before he became the first martyr for Christ, Stephen was a deacon who helped the apostles run the first church in Jerusalem. He was known for performing miracles, and when he spoke, his words were full of the Holy Spirit. But some men became jealous and afraid of his power, so they spread rumors that he had blasphemed against God. Stephen was brought before a council of Jerusalem's leaders to respond to these charges -- and to be fair, just before today's reading begins, he says some pretty harsh words to the group. He calls them traitors and murderers, and says that they have not been nearly as faithful to God as they'd like to think. Understandably, the council doesn't like hearing this. The assembled people all clench their jaws in anger -- but they let him speak.
But then Stephen crosses the line. The Holy Spirit comes to him, and he looks up to heaven, and he says that he sees Jesus standing there at the right hand of God. This is when the orderly courtroom turns into a lynch mob. They all cover their ears so they won't have to hear any more from Stephen, and they shout to drown out his voice. Then they drag him outside the city and throw rocks at him until the life leaves his broken body. As Stephen is dying, he uses his last words to pray that God will forgive the mob. Following Jesus' example, he never stops seeing his killers as people worthy of love. It says that he prayed out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them," but I don't know if anyone in the mob really heard him, no matter how loud he might have shouted. They had certainly stopped listening, ever since they covered their ears and decided that Stephen deserved to die.
This mob shows us what people are capable of when we stop listening to others, when we stop seeing them as our neighbors. It makes me think of Star Wars, how the evil empire's Stormtroopers always wear identical white helmets that cover their faces. The audience knows there's a person under that armor, but that person's individuality is totally erased. So when we look at them, we don't see a human being; we just see a "bad guy." And, that's why the audience doesn't feel anything when a Stormtrooper dies: we don't have to think of them as real people. That's fine in a space opera set in a galaxy far, far away, but it's dangerous when we do it in real life. When we stop listening to someone, when we cover our ears and start shouting over them, it's like we're sticking that Stormtrooper mask over their face. They're no longer a thinking, feeling, beloved child of God; they're the enemy. And no matter what Jesus tells us, we're not very good at loving our enemies.
When we read this story of Stephen's death, I think it's easy for us all to encourage ourselves to be like Stephen -- to be faithful in the face of danger, to be full of love in the face of hate. And of course we should strive for those things, but first, I think we need to ask ourselves how we're like that crowd that covers its ears. How are we refusing to listen to perspectives that challenge our own worldview? How are we encouraging division when we could be building community? How are we giving in to hate and fear when we could be fighting for love? How are we letting death win when we could be embracing new life in Christ? Because I think that when we look at the world around us, it's pretty clear that a lot of people prefer to cover their ears. There's a lot of shouting and not a lot of listening. And we, the church, we're part of that. We're just as guilty as the rest of this fallen world of shutting out voices that we don't like, whether those voices come from within the church or from without it. We're just as guilty of dehumanizing, even demonizing, those people we deem our enemies.
When I think of people whose voices we might be blocking out today, I think of the 27 transgender Americans whose murders were reported in 2016. Most of them were black transwomen, and many of their deaths were deemed hate crimes. Beloved children of God were killed because of who they were. And I think that we the church have to ask ourselves how we might have contributed to this. How did we fail to listen to the voices of those women? How did we contribute to a world where anyone could think they were so inhuman that they deserved to die?
And also, when I think of people who might not be truly heard, I think of the fact that, from 1999 to 2014, the suicide rate among middle-aged white men in the US skyrocketed more than 40%. These men who feel so desperate and alienated that they are ending their own lives by the thousands -- how are we failing to hear them? How are we failing to invite them into our vision of the kingdom of God?
Because every single one of us needs to be heard. Every single one of us needs to be seen for who we are. When we cover our ears to someone else's story, that's a form of violence. That's a sin against God's reconciling love. And that sin is today running rampant through our world.
But the good news is that this isn't the way that God wants things to be. God has made us to be so much more. In Christ, we are already so much more. Today's reading from 1 Peter tells us:
"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy."
Once we were not a people, says the epistle. Once, we didn't belong to a beloved community. Once, we were fractured by resentment. Once, we defined ourselves by fear instead of by love. Too often, we still do. But the epistle makes us a promise: now we are God's people. Our sinful human tendency towards division is strong, but God is stronger. God chose us and united us so we might testify to the greatness of God's work. Through the power of the gospel, all of us are brought together into one holy nation. And then the epistle says that this nation is a nation of mercy. "Once you were not a people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy." We are a people knit together by our experience of God's grace. Once we were strangers to God's mercy, but now we know that every one of us depends on God's mercy at every moment in our lives. And through this mercy, we can meet one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.
And because we have received mercy, we are now free to show mercy to others. Stephen shows us that, in Christ, there is another way. Like Stephen praying for his murderers, we are free to love those people whom the world tells us we should hate. That love doesn't make our differences and disagreements fall away, but it allows us to hear each other despite them. And that takes work. Real work. It's so easy to cover our ears, but it's hard to journey alongside people who have a different understanding of the world. It's hard to recognize the humanity of people who maybe don't seem to recognize the humanity in us. But "the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness and into marvelous light" empower us to take on this holy work. Like Stephen, God has given us the strength to listen, and to love. Amen.
Let us pray.
Holy and mighty God, you created us to live together in love as your own people. Help us to repent of all the ways that we have failed to be your nation of mercy. Open our eyes to see each other, our ears to hear each other, our minds to understand each other, and our hearts to care for each other. As you strengthened your servant Stephen, strengthen us to forgive those who have wronged us, and to love those who hate us. Unite us in your service, and keep us in your great mercy until the day when we at last see you in heaven with Christ at your side.
In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.