Scripture: Acts 7:55-60
OK, I know this is not the most obvious passage of scripture to illuminate Mother’s Day. A crowd turning against Stephen and stoning him to death? Really? It doesn’t much seem like the kind of story that’s going to help us grow closer to God and honor our mothers, does it. I wonder, though, whether, as with so many biblical passages, this is a story that shines an unexpected light on what is central in human life. I wonder if, at its heart, it might unfold in such a way that it reminds us who we are.
The book of Acts is the story of the early church. It’s the story mostly of Peter in the first part and Paul for at least the last half, with a sizable chapter about Stephen sandwiched in between the two. Stephen gives the longest speech in the entire book. It’s a sermon, and it pretty much rakes the people over the coals. It reminds them how negligent and contrarian they’ve been, how they’ve let God down, how they haven’t held up their end of the bargain. It’s a blistering indictment of these early followers of Jesus, and an insistence that they amend their ways.
And the people don’t like it one little bit. They are steamed. There would be few if any “likes” clicked by Stephen’s listeners after they’ve been strafed by his searing sermon. They’re so incensed, in fact, that, when Stephen is finally finished, they finish him. With no trial, no opportunity for Stephen to defend himself, they drag him out of town and heave stones at him until he’s dead. It’s a pretty gruesome scene. So Happy Mother’s Day!
Despite, or perhaps because of, its menacing theme, though, this is a story that tells us who we are. And much as we might wish otherwise, at least part of the story is that we are that crowd. Not literally, of course. We’re not likely to join a gang stoning an innocent person. This is hyperbole. And it captures succinctly and vividly the tendency we have of not always doing the right thing. Not unlike that unruly mob, sometimes we intentionally or unintentionally hurt people, and not infrequently, the people we hurt are the people we love. Even the best mothers do this. And we do it to our mothers, and to each other.
Several days ago, I pointed something out to Mary, something I thought needed to be done maybe slightly differently in the house. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but you will not be surprised to hear that I was completely righteous in my point—of course! And when I finished my edifying little lesson, I called Mary, “Sweetie” in what might possibly be described as an ever-so-slightly snarky tone.
With a little distance, of course, I can see what a goober I was. I hadn’t the slightest reason to talk to Mary in that tone. In this upside-down COVID-19 world, I was anxious and irritated, and she was handy, and I defaulted to my worst side. It was a minor thing, no doubt, and she and I joke about it now. But a measure of that angry mob had seeped into me. In a word, it was a kind of sin.
We’ve certainly all done something similar at one time or another. We’re just not capable of being pure all the time. And we’re likely to fall victim to our worst instincts maybe many times a day. Sometimes, as with my dis of Mary, we fall prey to acts of “commission,” as the church has classically put it. We slight someone; we’re cruel; we’re dismissive. We may make a needlessly insulting remark. We may cut another car off in traffic and gesticulate, shall we say, inappropriately. We may cut a corner in order to claim for ourselves an unwarranted advantage. These are sins; they are sins of commission. We are that sinning mob that came after Stephen.
Sometimes, though, it’s an act of omission that weakens or common ties. We may fail to reach out when a family is enduring a gruesome trial. We may get lost in our phones and neglect to pay attention to our spouse or child. We may hold tightly to our resources and withhold them from the church or a service agency that would spread those resources wisely and generously, and multiply their effectiveness. In such cases, we haven’t done anything wrong, exactly—we haven’t committed a sin. We have rather omitted to do something good and worthwhile—a sin of omission. Here, too, we are that sinning mob.
And at one level, of course, all of these strike us as relatively harmless. They’re somewhat minor on the sin scale. And we don’t lose sleep over them. If we’re really honest with ourselves, though, then we remember and acknowledge that we’re also party to bigger sins, sins that beset the entire culture. We were kicked in the chest by one such example this week. When video surfaced of Ahmaud Arbery being shot in Georgia in February, we were reminded that we live in a society that so often turns its back on the racism that seeps into the whole fabric of our national identity. Two white men, father and son, followed Arbery as he jogged through the neighborhood, and, suspecting Arbery of a crime, shot him at point blank range, and killed him. And then, in a further dismaying twist, no arrest was made until after that video was released publicly.
As is often said, racism is America’s original sin. It’s so deeply interwoven into our history that many of us in more privileged positions fail to even notice its horrific effects. Young black men can be gunned down with society’s implicit acquiescence. And while we ourselves haven’t committed these murders, we are part of a culture that makes it easier for such killings to happen. As LeBron James tweeted on Wednesday, “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes.” And to the degree that we in the majority don’t see that, we’re part of a silence that is a giant act of omission. We’ve failed to be just and compassionate. Even though we may not have thrown the stones, we’re still part of the mob that comes after Stephen. And even though we have not pulled the trigger, we’re still part of a world that finds Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Ahmaud Arbery dispensable. In ways it’s sobering to acknowledge, we are that destructive mob. And we do ourselves and the world and God an enormous disservice if we try to paper it over and fail to acknowledge it.
So yes, we are that mob. If we’re honest, there’s no way of avoiding it. We have sinned, and we continue to sin, and we will always sin in ways small and large. It’s simply part of who we are. One of my best friends says it has helped her to remember that every day she is going to wake up and, before long, she’s going to commit a slight, or fail to respond, or edgily call someone “Sweetie.” So she will say to herself, “Ah, there it is, my first sin of the day.”
And strangely enough, she will take a kind of comfort in her recognition of that truth. And the reason she is able to be at peace with it is because of this: she knows there’s something more. She knows the God revealed so luminously in the person of Stephen. What makes Stephen so stunning is not just his courage in proclaiming the truth, even when no one wants to hear it. What really sets Stephen apart is the radiant capacity he has for forgiveness. In an extraordinarily arresting scene, precisely as a furious mob is hurling stones at him to kill him, Stephen asks God to forgive them for what they’re doing. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60, NRSV). Or, as the Contemporary English Version puts it, “Lord, don’t blame them for what they have done.”
In the very moment he dies because of the fury of others, he asks God to let go of their sin. It’s a mesmerizing, and apparently impossible, thing that Stephen does. As difficult as it is, though, the testimony of the book of Acts is that this radiant clemency is at the heart of who God is. This is a pivotal scene in the story of the book of Acts, as if to say, ‘Pay attention people. This is who you are. And it’s who you’re called to be. Do not ever forget it.’
So yes, we’re that destructive mob. At the same time, though, with God’s help, we are also Stephen. We are also that generous, forgiving, grace-filled messenger of God. What’s so striking and odd and maybe even deeply aggravating is that, no matter how badly we may have messed up, God always wipes it out and lets us begin again. We’ve damaged a neighbor, we’ve insulted somewhat we love, we’ve dismissed them with the epithet “Sweetie”? God lets it all go. And if, like Stephen, we take in that life-changing power, we, too, let it go.
This sort of forgiveness is counterintuitive, of course, because it just seems to let people off the hook, let’s them, in the case of Stephen, get away with murder. To adapt some wonderful lines of the poet W. H. Auden, “I like sinning. God likes forgiving sin. Really the world is admirably arranged.” The whole notion of forgiveness can make it seem as though anything goes: ‘Don’t worry what harm you do. Do you what you want to do—it doesn’t matter. God will forgive you.’
What the story conveys is just the opposite, though. The one who is truly dead in the story isn’t Stephen. It’s the crowd whose identity is rooted in fury and resentment. The one who’s most alive in the story is the one whose body may die, but whose soul is so large that it understands and accepts and sets free his own killers. It’s a revelatory scene: true life is rooted in compassion and forgiveness and care.
It’s an odd soul-math, isn’t it. The point isn’t to see how much we can get away with, which may, on the surface, sound tempting. The point is to live a life that’s in sync with God. That’s where fulfillment comes. God’s way is lived out not in a punitive and even apparently justifiable retribution, but in an embrace that will not let the other go. Counterintuitive as it may seem, this is the way of God. God takes our sins and errors and erases them and lets them go. This is the strange transforming calculus of the Holy One. God takes our sin and error, our failings and injustice and insensitivity and remakes it. And we are freed to be beautiful lovers of an often-broken world.
There are numerous ways in which we experience this embracing, forgiving love, of course. But one of God’s great vehicles for manifesting that love is through the affection and care so many of us have received from our mothers. This is certainly not true for everyone, of course. But so many mothers have modeled mercy. Mothers who have stayed up with us when we’re sick. Mothers who have worked extra jobs so we could take dance lessons. Mothers who haven’t minded when we tromped into the house with muddy shoes. Mothers who exulted in our playing with toy cars and trucks in baking flour on kitchen counters. Mothers who withstood eye-rolling and withering criticism from recalcitrant teens.
I gratefully celebrate my own mother’s embracing love for all my years. I remember with immense fondness her helping my brother and me, when we were young, make an impenetrable fort in the dining room, by hanging a big blanket over chairs and table. I remember her driving us to my grandparents’ summer home in New Hampshire, over what we affectionately called “the bumpy road,” as she would accelerate toward the crest of each rise and we felt we were flying as we went over it. I remember her bringing me ginger ale when I was sick and sitting next to me on the bed and rubbing my back. I remember her chocolate chip cookies, and especially the chocolate cake with fudge frosting she made for my birthday. In later years, I remember her patience with my own vocational confusion, even as she ached for me. And I will be grateful till the day I die for what she has taught me about pastoral ministry—her sensitivity in the face of countless minefields, her relentless love of even those who were most difficult to love, and especially her deep and abiding devotion to God. I thank my mother for the depth and breadth of her love.
In countless ways, so many of us have experienced the love of God through mothers who doted on us and made us feel special. As does Stephen, they have forgiven us and watched over us and conveyed to us the life-changing delight God takes in each of us. We want to celebrate them now by showing seventy-three photographs of Federated’s mothers. So often these mothers of ours have been Stephen to us. And in doing so, they have embodied the love of the risen Christ, the same Christ who is constantly forgiving us and inviting us in and holding us close, the very Christ who calls us to come home: “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; patient and loving, he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, all who are weary come home; earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling—calling, ‘O sinner, come home.’”
[Show slides of mothers]
[After slide show] Everywhere we turn, may we together hear the voice of Mother Christ earnestly, tenderly calling to us: Come home. Come home.