When painters throughout history have depicted the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, they have chosen often to focus on the moment right before his execution begins. They paint Stephen already on the ground in the midst of a mob of angry men, who have arms raised and rocks at the ready, but who are not yet throwing. There is a somewhat standard tableau for these paintings – Stephen in the center, the mob surrounding him on all – well, really three – sides, and Saul sitting off to the side with a pile of discarded robes cascading off his lap and onto the ground. More modern painters sometimes play with the pattern of this tableau, but in the main they still choose to paint this moment of right before, this pause when the pendulum begins to swing down towards violence. One modern painter places us in the eyes of an executor, gazing down into a pit where Stephen kneels praying. Another shows us Stephen head on, slouched against a wall with rocks flying between us and him, paused eternally mid-flight. Where we stand in the painting can sometimes vary, but when we are standing is almost always the same. There is the sense that this moment is the moment, that this one moment of explosive, violent anger is the crux of Stephen’s whole story. For after this moment, nothing will be the same for Stephen, the first martyr, and nothing will be the same for Stephen’s Church.
There is another consistency in these paintings, which is that in most of them there are three types of hands. There are the hands that grip rocks, usually two-handed with fingers splayed wide open and tendons bulging. Remember, these were not skipping stones being thrown at victim, these were great, heavy blocks. Stoning is – and oh how I wish I could say “stoning was” – a brutal, bloody death. So there are the hands with the rocks, raised high overhead or pulled back like in the leather of a slingshot. Then there are the hands of Stephen, usually lifted up to heaven, although in some more restrained paintings they are folded reverently in prayer, right thumb over left, I am quite sure. And the third type of hand position is that of hands on hips. It’s a posture held sometimes by dark towering figures, men who look pleased with the way things are progressing, who look as if they may have been the ones to instigate this chaos in the first place. And it’s a posture sometimes held by Saul himself as he watches with grim satisfaction amidst his growing pile of robes.
What I failed to find in my search within these paintings were any that showed hands like this: (show hands over ears). Nowhere did I find a painter who had chosen to include this singular moment in Stephen’s story when, after hearing his remarkable statement that he can see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God, the people become so infuriated, so enraged, that they cover their ears. What an unbelievable moment. They actually cover their ears. Stephen’s words have so stoked their anger, that they cannot hear one more word out of his mouth. They have to stop his sound, and the only way they can think to do that is to slap their hands over their ears.
Stephen, of course, has said much more to them than what we hear in today’s Gospel. He has been talking to them for a while now. He’s been arrested and brought before the council, charged with blasphemy and asked to defend himself. And so he stands before them, with a face like an angel, Acts tells us, and relates the whole story of the people of Israel, beginning with Abraham. He talks and talks, tells them the story of their faith, all of which – all of which – points to the coming of the Messiah, to the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. And then Stephen says these words: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit.” Your hearts, he tells them, are the wrong shape, your ears are not open, and you refuse to look and see. You will not look for the fulfillment of God’s promise, you will not look up, up, where I see Jesus now at the right hand of God. Will you not look up and see the truth, the way, and the life being offered to you?
But the people are so stubborn, they are so locked into their opposition of Stephen and all that he says, that they literally cover their ears so that they no longer have to hear what he is saying. They’re so far gone into darkness that they’d rather stick their fingers in their ears and say, la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you than listen to another word out of Stephen’s mouth. They block the Word of God, stopper their ears against this divine voice that yes, challenges them and pulls them up short, but also invites them to look up and see the light. But no. They will not have it. They grit their teeth and cover their ears and let their rage burn on.
And as much as I hate to admit it, I have done exactly the same thing. How many times have I held on to anger because I felt like it was so well-justified? How many times have I refused to forgive because being hurt or righteously indignant or just right felt better? How many times have I let my own justification or my own rights get in the way of God’s justice and God’s righteousness? How many times have I stoppered up my own ears so that I wouldn’t have to listen to God telling me to let go, to be merciful, to love my neighbor as myself, to forgive and remember that I, too, am forgiven?
It’s an ugly truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless. I have at times been just as pig-headed and wrong as these angry people standing with a scowl on their faces and their fingers in their ears. And I imagine that I’m not alone in this. After all, listening and responding to the voice of God is rarely easy. Because listening to the voice of God in our lives rarely means that things get to stay exactly the same. God always speaks to us in love, but God is never going to lean in to us and say, "You know what, everything is exactly the way I envisioned it for you. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – that you need to change in your life to love me better, or to love your neighbor better. Nope. Stay right where you are. Comfortable? Great. Comfortable is my middle name."
But God is less interested in our being comfortable than in our being converted, in our being Christians. God is always trying to help us, leaning down to us from his place in the heavens to tell us exactly what we need to hear, even if it isn’t what we want to hear. Because he sent his son to be the way, to speak the truth, to show us what we need to have life, and to have it abundantly. And so he speaks to us, giving us the words we truly need: "Forgive. Remember. Have mercy. Listen. Reach out. Give. Give more. Move. Move on. Stretch. Love more, love better, love longer. Be brave for justice. Dare greatly for the Gospel. Change. Change jobs, change attitudes, change practices. Change in me, with me, through me, so that you can be the person I always have known you to be.
"Open your ears and hear my word to you this day. I want better for you than you have right now. I want more of you than you think you can give. I want more for you than you could ask or imagine. I want nothing less than the vision of the kingdom – my kingdom – for you and for every single living thing you know and see.
"For remember that it is my right hand that has made all of Creation, my right hand that brings mighty things to pass, that exalts and lifts you up. My hands are your strength and your guide. My hands pull you out of the nets that tangle your steps; my hands hold your times and your spirit. My hands prepare a place for you in my house; my hands show you the way that you are to be going.
"So put your hands down. I have better things for them to be doing. I have work for your hands. I need them to heal, to comfort, to feed, rise up against the great injustices of this world. I need your hands free for other, better things. So let me have them. Take them off of your ears, for I have words of love and salvation and purpose to speak to you today. Listen, my faithful servant, for your Lord speaks."
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
14 May 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia