Ancient Modern Family, II: Heroes, Villains and Saviors

Acts 6:1–5; 7:51–8:3

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
—Acts 7:55

Children’s stories begin with “once upon a time,” are filled with heroes who overcome the villains, ending with “happily ever after.” Stories we wish were true in the way life is made whole again after calamity and heroes save the day. But, even children quickly become wise to the world and know these are just fairy tales.

In Great Britain, a book series and companion TV series became widely popular called Horrible Histories.   Covering world and English history, they have “kept all the nasty bits in,” of beheadings and battles, not for the sake of sensationalism but the realism of human life. Children want to know the truth.

Those who crafted our biblical canon had the same intent by including the stories of tragedy and murder of the innocents even if we tend to leave from worship with those nasty bits. It doesn’t seem nice to talk about horror when all we want is hope. And, I imagine many of you are sitting here, wondering why, of all the people and texts contained in The Acts of the Apostles, did we need to go into this text of vigilante mobs and murder by stoning? Couldn’t we just talk about the happy story of choosing Stephen to serve as an inspiration for our service?

It is a beautiful August day. We have so much to celebrate. Can’t we talk about something comforting and not so challenging?

But, there are those of you who may breathe a sigh of relief, having heard a text from scripture that resonates with life. Some have felt persecuted when they stood up to unethical practices in their workplace, perhaps even lost a job by not giving in to the “way things are” or for naming unethical practices. There are some whose daughter is being bullied by peers for being different, and feels each put-down hurled as a stone, and yet she is just blossoming into her God-given beauty. Some have experienced divorce and then bankruptcy and go to extraordinary lengths to care for children while facing illness or death of a parent and just cannot seem to get any breaks despite doing all the right things. Then there are those who have given and served and petitioned and advocated for the least among God’s children, year after year, only to feel little progress despite the efforts to make this world more just and fair and safe.

For all who have stood up to common culture and for their faith, this text is a comfort to know that the challenges faced in life are at the heart of our faith tradition. Platitudes don’t nourish us in a world of such hurt. Our scripture does not sanitize how difficult it is to be faithful and to bear witness to a Savior who heals through grace and forgiveness.

The good news revealed by Jesus opposed common culture then and now; promoting equality among people of various nationalities, erasing economic and professional castes and, most of all, offering forgiveness and reconciliation not humanly possible. In a winner-take-all and survival of the fittest culture, to demonstrate compassion is rarely rewarded and often a cause for reprimand.

The apostle Stephen was called to minister—essentially to wait tables and care for those people society had cast off—widows and those without hope.

Our Stephen Ministry program receives its name from the example set by Stephen to care for people by simple, yet sacred, witness to Jesus at times of distress and crisis. Each week, I am grateful for their quiet yet faithful care to members of this congregation in the broken and hurting places of life. Stephen Ministers are gifted, diverse, with myriad obligations in their lives and yet do something counter culture—quietly sit with another in a highly confidential relationship and are present in the horribles.

Stephen’s service, born of a desire to bear witness to Jesus Christ, was upsetting the way things had been, and the crowd did not want their culture challenged in first century Palestine.

We don’t welcome change in our twenty-first century world either.

It seems each day there is a new review or editorial or more speculation surrounding author Harper Lee’s work. Fifty-five years ago her first book was published and To Kill a Mockingbird has graced the shelves of adults young and old and launched Gregory Peck into the heroic role of Atticus Finch in the movie of the same title.

In Mockingbird a black man, Tom Robinson, is accused in Maycomb County, Mississippi during the Depression with the rape of white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned to defend Robinson at a time when Jim Crow laws were a way of life—segregation and inequality were baked into society. Written from the point of view of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, she sees her father risk his social standing and personal safety to defend this black man.

But, in the past year we have learned Mockingbird was not the first book Harper Lee wrote. Go Set a Watchman was her first book. Go Set a Watchman take its title from Isaiah 21:6. Written well before Mockingbird but published last month, it has stirred controversy from its initial discovery to now occupying the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

The events of Watchman take place two decades later, when white dominance is being shaken to the core. Blacks are demanding the vote and attacking segregation. The young Scout of Mockingbird, is now an adult, returns home from New York and sees her father, a supposed paragon of courage and wisdom, a hero in so many eyes, instead as a white supremacist.

In Watchman, we learn when civil rights rose and the law turned towards desegregation, Atticus along with other whites defended segregationist propaganda with titles like “The Black Plague.” He derides the NAACP, especially its lawyers and becomes a member of a Citizens’ Council, a professional and business association to undermine racial desegregation. This is not the Gregory Peck we grew up loving and admiring.

Toward the end of Watchman, Scout’s uncle tells her, “Now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle to your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.”

Watchman has drawn criticism for not only the writing and editing, deemed not on par with Harper Lee’s classic, but also in that it has shown our hero as a villain. No one wants to have our beloved Atticus fall from grace. Our culture has always celebrated him. But, since Watchman’s release, critics have finally found an opening to point out Atticus Finch was a racist even in To Kill a Mockingbird.

In Mockingbird, Atticus soft-peddled the Ku Klux Klan as merely a “political organization” and told his children the leader of the mob who tried to lynch Robinson was “basically a good man.” He never challenged the exclusion of blacks from the jury or segregation in the courtroom.

Writer and theologian David Henson argues in Mockingbird we know Atticus believed in the law and upholding the law, but not in equality and honoring humanity. “He was born into a system of racism that was upheld and buttressed by the courts. His country and culture told him he was so superior by the color of his skin that he couldn’t even share a water fountain with a black man.”

Henson continues:

…Atticus is racist. And this white savior remains a hero to many white folks even today. And that’s a problem now…

In Mockingbird, we see Atticus through the eyes of a child who believes her father (is) a good and moral man who can save the world and bend it toward justice for black people.

In Watchman, it seems, we will see Atticus through the eyes of an adult who sees her father’s true allegiance—white supremacy and segregation.

I only hope that white people will follow Scout’s lead and take a long, hard look at our assumptions and our heroes, to wake up from our naivety and fragility so that we can mature and grow up too.[1]

Curious timing. Or maybe not. The publication of Watchman and the controversy swirling around of dethroning our beloved Atticus occurs along with our increasing awareness of persistent racial injustice.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, an African American by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Since that time news reports continue to pour-in of the danger, often-deadly consequences, of wearing black skin. We cannot escape these incidents.

Last week, results from a recent Pew Research Center survey made front page of the Chicago Tribune indicating a majority of whites, 53%, now believe our country needs to do more to make equal rights a reality. This is a dramatic change from just a few short years ago when less than 40% of whites would have held this opinion.[2]

Without facing what is broken in our lives and acknowledge the false illusions we have tolerated for so long, without telling the messy stories of our lives, we have no hope of reconciling our differences.

To participate in and continue to make the long-bend towards justice requires real people, not fabricated heroes. It is celebrating what we can do in our ordinary lives to be Christ’s witness regardless of what culture demands.

During a Ku Klux Klan rally at the South Carolina capital in July, Leroy Smith, who is an African American and the state’s director of public safety, put on a uniform to join the front lines with troopers and officers to control the crowd and keep the demonstration from turning into a riot. Apparently, Smith will often set aside his bureaucratic suit for a uniform to be hands-on at such times.

When an unidentified, elderly protester showed signs of heat exhaustion while wearing a black, swastika-emblazoned T-shirt, Smith was the one to care for him. A photo has gone viral of Smith helping the apparent neo-Nazi up the steps of the Statehouse to a patch of shade between the building’s columns where he could find water and first aid.[3]

Had Leroy Smith not worn a police officer’s uniform, we can only wonder the risks of helping this man. Smith’s offer of care was what Stephen, from our scripture reading, would have done and it is so much more. It is the starting the work of reconciliation.

We learn from the book of Acts, Stephen was a mere human doing what God called him to do. He humbly witnessed to the gospel by serving others, standing with them in times of feeling broken.

Stephen’s actions spoke of God’s plan from days of old, from Abraham to Moses to David and of God’s love revealed in Jesus. It is always the same covenant of love: to be blessed by God and to be a blessing for others. When pulled to account before the ruling elite and justify his blasphemous acts, Stephen spoke of the long arc in Hebrew history that bends towards justice, reconciliation and love, despite the people’s disobedience, rejecting the prophets, and desire for human ideas and culture to win.

Then, he directly accused them of reducing God to an idol, an idea they could control. They had fabricated story to protect their self-interests and way of life with segregation, exclusion and holding to the status quo.

Martin Luther said our mind is a factory of idols. We create, in our mind, things to bow down before in our way of life that are more comfortable than serving God.

So regular people in first century Palestine believed in their fabricated saviors, sought to protect the god they created, turn into villains, drug Stephen out of town and stoned him. Standing by, watching, is a man from Tarsus named Saul, who approved and later led the terrorism against more Christians.

Most of us would struggle to forgive as Stephen forgave; it parallels Jesus’ forgiveness in the Gospel of Luke. We all can identify with the difficulty to forgive. Stephen was helped by the knowledge that forgiveness is rooted not so much in strength of humans, but in the vision of “the Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts7:55)”. Forgiveness is not an act of individual heroism. It is rather an act of God.[4]

One would like to think faith would save him. But, Jesus did not come to his rescue as a super hero might.

Although Jesus healed many, he is not a hero who will always save us from suffering or snatch us from death. He is with us in our sorrow and suffering, enduring with us the frailties and tragedies of mortal life. Death is on the horizon for all of us, and even Jesus died a bloody, painful death.

Jesus is not a hero: he is our savior. Being our savior means taking the worst of our life and redeeming it, our shortfalls, our blatant sins, our unwillingness to bend with the arc of justice and our final death. Jesus is the one who suffers with us and then picks us up from these horrible histories we create and covers us with love.

Saul will learn first-hand of the power of forgiveness and redemption that is beyond our wildest dreams. Later Saul will be stricken on the Damascus road by Jesus for persecuting his followers. Saul becomes Paul who takes the mantel of Christianity beyond Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth by his witness and his writings we revere today.

Although not explicit in Acts, I imagine many of those who threw stones or stood by in complicity also, later, received mercies and grace and forgiveness to begin again, reconciled through a power beyond them.

Christ comes into a broken world, seeing people face-to-face who have very messy lives for one reason, to reconcile us to God and to one another. In the long arc before us Jesus is the only savior with grace to salve all our wounded places and bridge the divides we create.

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As we go into a moment of silence, please join me in prayer…

Fairest Lord Jesus, let me be fully open with you my savior. Lend me your grace to forgive and be reconciled. Let me trust in you and God and the presence of the holy spirit to keep me.

O God of earth come down, be in my heart always. Amen.


 

[1] David Hensen. “Of Course Atticus Finch is a Racist”, The Christian Century CCBlogs Network. July 20, 2015. Accessed August 6, 2015. http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-07/course-atticus-finch-racist

[2] David Lauter and Matt Pearce. “Racial Attitudes in US Undergo Shift,” The Chicago Tribune. August 6, 2015, A1.

[3] Nicole Hensley. “South Carolina top cop helps white supremacist protester suffering from heat exhaustion at KKK rally,” NEW YORK DAILY NEWS. July 19, 2015, 9:25 PM Accessed August 6, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/south-carolina-top-helps-neo-nazi-suffering-heat-article-1.2297325. Accessed August 6, 2015.

[4] Timothy B. Hare. “The Fifth Sunday of Easter,” Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, Vol 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2010, 453.