"Hold those rocks tight, kids. Real tight."
It was the old bait and switch. At the beginning of the summer a few of us were asked to sign up to lead the children’s sermon during worship. I reviewed the scripture texts offered and immediately signed up to do the “Good Samaritan” this past Sunday. Been there. Done that. No sweat. Then two weeks ago, my pastor sent an email – “The scripture passage has changed. I need you to do a children’s sermon on…the STONING OF STEPHEN.” Yeah, that’s right. Thanks, Pastor Dan.
I quickly nixed my initial two ideas:
1. Come out with dried blood all over my face to explain the concept of “stoning.”
2. Find a Stephen piñata, have the kids bash it and fight over the candy spilling out. Who doesn’t like candy?
My helpful friend, Jennie, also sent me an attachment with a truly terrifying coloring page of Stephen being stoned. I guess there are some people who find that traumatizing children really helps them grow in their faith. While it was tempting, that idea also received a thumbs down.
So there I was. I wanted to tell the story of Stephen as truthfully as possible without giving our children nightmares. I kept wrestling with the questions: What was it that eventually got Stephen killed? What could our children emulate?
And then it struck me – Stephen was brave. He stood up for his faith and for what he thought was right. He wasn’t very pleasant about it either. He was a real rabble-rouser and made people so angry that they ground their teeth at him. And, yes, they killed him.
I didn’t tell our children to get people so mad that people wanted to grind their teeth or throw rocks at them. But I did encourage them to stand up for what was right. If they saw a kid being made fun of. If their friends told them not to sit with a certain kid at lunch because she was “weird.” If someone said “Jesus is stupid, you shouldn’t believe in Him.”
I told the kids that after people threw rocks at Stephen, he did the bravest thing of all: he asked God to forgive them. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Wow.
Looking back at last Sunday, I realize that I was speaking to myself. I am not a very courageous person…by a long shot. I like everyone to like me. Truth be told, I’d rather go along to get along. Stephen’s witness says that sometimes you must do the right thing.
We’re in a time when staying silent is acquiescence and antithetical to the Gospel. Children separated from their families. Racist speech. Legislating against LGBTQ+ inclusion. Sexual assault. The dismantling of environmental protections. The list goes on and on and on. God’s heart must be grieving.
Stephen’s witness shows us that we must speak up – sometimes very loudly – and yet, at the heart of it, we can't hate. We must come from a position of love and forgiveness.
The story of Stephen might show us how to live a more generous, a more inspiring, life. It’s not necessarily a life filled with security but it is a life where faith-filled courage is more important than security. “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Geesh. Jesus’ words are hard.
So thanks, Pastor Dan, for the old bait and switch. It changed me…in a good and unexpected way. May the witness of Stephen challenge you to be brave and to forgive as well.
P.S. If you want a little uplift for the day (since the stoning of Stephen is kind of a downer), check out the Detroit Youth Choir singing on America’s Got Talent. Get your hankies ready.