Isn’t it nice when someone else does all the work? You sit down and put your feet up with a cool beverage. Or perhaps today better with a hot beverage. And do nothing. Every day, again and again. Someone else does all the work. How does that sound? I think most of us wouldn’t mind an hour or two or maybe an evening or a couple of days but when it really gets down to it, if someone else does all the work, how do you feel about the group you’re working with? Family, school, church, you name it, if someone does all the work how do you feel about the group or yourself, for that matter? If someone else is taking care of everything then what purpose do we serve?
On that same line, what do bystanders bring to any given situation? Bystanders can be important. My wife Lora is fond of noting that we do need an appreciative audience on occasion. I think she’s right about that. We can’t all be the leaders all of the time. Other times, each of us is called to step in and help out. That’s good for everyone, really. If we are doing something for a group we feel more of a part of that group. That’s good for the group. And for us. Not only is it good for the group and for us it is good for the leaders of the group. If they have to do all the things, they’ll burn out and go somewhere else. Where they can be the bystander again. It’s good to have someone else do the work some of the time and it is also good to be needed and lead some of the time.
It can be something of a vicious circle and the early church finds itself in a bind. The leaders have been responsible for doing all the things and some of the things are falling apart. The people can continue with their complaints or everyone can work together for a solution. The chose the latter, fortunately for us.
Now, here is the point in the sermon where you may be expecting me to start in on that awkward conversation talking about how the church needs each of us, Jesus needs each of us, to step up and do something useful. Here is your survey, what are you good at, now get to volunteering! You may be expecting that, and it is certainly true that the church needs each of us, but we’re not going there. So sit back and relax.
So it is that Stephen is lifted up to take a leadership role in the feeding people ministry and everyone around him is happy about it. He does excellent work. People say nice things about him and support him. Stephen is doing what he has been called to do, doing it well and people want to tear him down, in fact they want to straight up kill him. And they do. Just before he dies, Stephen says what? Not that they should shut up. Not that they should be condemned as they have condemned him. But, in v60, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. That’s some extreme forgiveness.
Forgiveness of people who wanted to tear him down. Why is this so frequently the case? Why is it that people just have to tear down other people?
What hurt is in them that causes them to want to lash out at someone doing a good job at something important, like feeding hungry people? And what should our response be to those people?
I suspect that oftentimes there is a whole lot more going on under the surface than what we can see. And that causes unexpected behaviors or at least behaviors that aren’t consistent with the situation. What are we supposed to do then?
It’s a tough one for followers of Christ. I know how *I* want to usually respond. Some unChrist-like comment accompanied by an unChrist-like hand gesture. But that isn’t what we’re called to do as followers of Christ. Of course, we’re not required to excuse bad behavior, and certainly we never excuse abusive behavior. Ever. Let me be clear that we call abuse out and we report it. Always. If you are currently in an abusive situation or know someone in an abusive situation please get in touch with me and I will help.
But for most everything else we run across, if we take the example of Jesus on the cross what is our response to someone lashing out at other people? It was the entire focus of the noon Good Friday sermon, thinking about the ‘nailed-to-the-cross-Jesus’ saying, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” That’s some forgiveness in the extreme. If we take the example of Stephen today, breathing his last by saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”. If we give some thought to Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment, the one where we don’t speak lies or ill about others and even go farther and we lift them up, then where do we go when we come across someone who just makes us angry?
It’s a tough one for followers of Christ. Maybe not for you but at least for this follower of Christ. Again, I’m not talking about abusive or violent situations. We don’t just sit back and take that. I’m talking about those annoying situations with irritating people. Earlier this week I’m sitting in the waiting room at Women’s Hospital waiting for grandchild #9 to arrive and I find myself surrounded by some folks I was having unkind thoughts about. We’re talking ice crunching, loud voice using, public discussion and debate over whether one of them had a cold or sinus infection kind of surrounded by some folks. I sat there quietly reading a book until they got to complaining about the nurses and why they were mad at the nurses for not letting them do whatever it is they wanted to do with someone who just had a baby, never mind why they’d want to with a cold or a sinus infection. I had to leave then. Nurses aren’t perfect people and they make mistakes like anyone but there is usually a reason for what they do beyond trying to irritate someone who isn’t getting their way. So I had to bail on listening to that particular conversation. I didn’t leave in a huff or anything, I just got up and went to another waiting room. With a bucketload of unkind thoughts. And righteous indignation.
A little later it also got me to thinking. There is a time and place to call people out on behavior. Usually it is better done privately. Because most of the time when we do it publicly it is more for our own benefit than any expectation that the ice crunching people will quit discussing sinus infections or colds in loud voices. If our response won’t change them then maybe we need to consider changing OUR response in such a way so that it is WE who are changed.
And that is difficult. In this season of Easter we have to ask ourselves how we’re doing on the transformation scale. Does Jesus’ death on the cross matter to us and the way we live our lives, the way we respond to God’s grace manifested in Jesus on the cross? Jesus asks God for to forgive those who had nailed him to the cross. That’s some extreme forgiveness. Does the witness of Stephen matter?
I been reminded a couple of times this week I have some work to do. Let’s do this together. Give some thought this week to where you can be more like Stephen and more like Christ, forgiving those who don’t deserve forgiveness.