Sermon preached by Mike Kinman (Rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena) on Mother’s Day — Sunday, May 14, 2017.
“But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him.”
There is a thread of violence that runs through our scripture that is so thick it is better called a rope than a thread. It’s inescapable. From Cain rising up to murder his brother Abel there is a river of blood that flows from Genesis until it finally empties into that lake of fire in Revelation.
The violence in this morning’s reading from Acts is pretty tame compared with much of what the rest of scripture offers – tame both in scope and in the vividness of its depiction. And yet it is telling because of the place we have given this story.
Stephen was the first Deacon. Well, he was among the first deacons. There were seven chosen that day in Acts 6 to do the work of distributing food to the widows of the community so the apostles could be free to pray, proclaim the Gospel and lead the early church. There was Stephen, Philip, Prochurus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch – and I say their names because my hunch is they don’t get preached on a lot and it’s nice for their mothers that they get a mention every now and then.
Now being one of the first deacons is a really big deal. These are the forerunners of an entire order of ministry grounded in humble service. Deacons, like our own Charleen Crean, are icons, living representations for the rest of us of the servant ministry to which we are all called. They do the humble work – in the liturgy symbolized by the setting of the table – that is the essence of a life of faith, and through them we all see and are inspired to be like Jesus, to be like the one who came not to be served but to serve.
And yet Stephen is the only one of these deacons we remember. Because Stephen is most remembered not as the first deacon but as the first martyr. The first person to die because he proclaimed the risen Christ.
We praise Stephen and remember him today not because of how he laid down his life daily in humble service to those in need, but because of the way he laid down his life before the stones being hurled at him.
Now, of course, when you dedicate your life to humble service, the point isn’t being remembered for generations. And yet what and who we remember and honor today and throughout history does say something about us.
We praise Stephen for his death far more than for his life. Not because his death was heroic and his life was not but because both were heroic and history chooses to laud one and virtually ignore the other.
We do this because the glorification of violence in all its forms is deeply ingrained into human society and has been as far back as there is memory. Our heroes carry swords, and even the ones who don’t … even the ones who are peacemakers – Gandhi, King, Jesus – have their memories shaped by violence and are celebrated largely because of their participation in the neverending cycle of violence, even if that participation was their death.
The glorification of violence in all its forms is deeply ingrained into human society. In fact as violent as scripture is, it pales in comparison to the violence wrought by the church it undergirds. Not just the violence of the Crusades and the Inquisition, but the violence of colonization, the violence of millions of black bodies being stolen from Africa and brought to America so their labor could be tortured out of them, the abuse and death of lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer people and more, thousands of years of women beaten and raped and silenced, the violence of the Holocaust, more wars than history can remember, all done with the silent complicity at the least and the institutional and scriptural endorsement at the worst … of the Church.
And there is a deep irony to this. A deep, tragic irony. Because the message of Jesus, the message of the risen Christ whom death could not defeat was supposed to be the breaking of this cycle of violence. The removal of the mark of Cain. The final proof of the pointlessness of it all.
The message of Jesus was that God’s dream was for us finally to say “Enough!” We can’t keep killing each other. There is another way:
Wash each other’s feet.
Feed my sheep.
Love one another as I have loved you.”
The message of Jesus is that the cycle can be broken. And it is no accident that Jesus entrusted the women with that message, with the message of the resurrection. Because in the story, the women were outside the cycle. The women in the passion narrative neither acted in violence nor were targets of it. The women in the passion narrative did what women have done throughout the millennia.
They did what the mothers of the disappeared in the Global South have done.
They did what the women of South Sudan, Sierra Leone, and more have done when their children were taken and mutilated and had guns put in their hands.
They did what the mothers of Michael Brown, Kendrec McDade, Sandra Bland, Jordan Edwards and so many others have done when their children were murdered at the hands of the state.
They stood as mothers and sisters and aunts and daughters and lovers and friends have stood throughout the millennia. They stood in the midst of the violence – at great personal risk. They stood in the midst of the violence and wept. They wailed and raged as the blood began to flow. As their babies and lovers were taken from them. And then they went on. And they cleaned up the blood. And they tended to the bodies. And they kept on keeping on. Except for the ones who couldn’t, whose names are lost to history and memory.
It is no accident that Jesus entrusted the women with the message of the resurrection, that the women were the first apostles – the ones to be devoted to prayer, proclamation and leadership of the community. Because the women knew. They knew not only that the cycle could end but that the cycle had to end. Their lives, their babies’ lives, depended on it.
As Bono sings
Tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on earth.
No whos or whys
No one cries like a mother cries
For peace on earth.
She never got to say goodbye
To see the color in his eyes
Now he’s in the dirt.
Peace on earth.
The women knew. The women have always known. And yet the story did not stay with the women. Lin-Manuel got it right. It is about Who lives. Who dies. And who tells your story. And the story did not stay with the women. The story was told and written and handed down by the men.
And that has made all the difference.
Because while there are certainly peaceful men and warlike women and plenty of people who defy classification by any binary, it is not a stretch to say there is something testosteronic about our historical obsession with violence, battle and death. There is something distinctly about the male end of the gender spectrum, maybe coded in our biology about how we idolize and equip the soldier and the police officer while laying off and cutting the funding for the teacher and the school counselor and the social worker.
And today is a day to talk about this. Because today is Mother’s Day. And although Mother’s Day is certainly problematic for some because of our many, varied and complicated relationships with motherhood. And although we have done to Mother’s Day what we do to most things that have the power to transform our culture of violence-based commerce … reduced it to something harmless, cloying and another reason to shop … there is a transformative story behind it.
Nearly 150 years ago, far before President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed Mother’s Day a national holiday, Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist best known – predictably – for writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote a proclamation for a Mother’s Peace Day and for years organized observances of it in Boston.
Let me read that proclamation now. For it is Gospel.
“Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
“From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, ‘Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
“As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
“In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
This is Gospel. Literally Gospel. And by that, I mean this is Good News. The same proclamation of Good News that we hear in Christ. That there is another way. A conviction that we can break the cycle of violence and war. And like the Easter words from the risen Christ, it begins “Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears!”
It is not too late. Praise God, it is not too late. Even though we stand on the precipice of environmental devastation and geopolitical cataclysm, it is not too late. And I am convinced that while there is a crucial role for men in this Gospel work, it is a supporting role, it is a partnering role. That after millennia of global male leadership and nearly 250 years of American male leadership, it is time for the women finally to get the chance to fulfill the mission they were given at that empty tomb, the mission Julia Ward Howe challenged women to grasp, the mission Traci Blackmon and Simone Campbell and Sharon Brous and Najeeba Syeed and Malala Yousafzai and Valarie Kaur and Netta Elzie and Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows and Maryetta Anschutz and Becca Stevens and Gloria Lucas and, this week, Christine Hartman have taken up for such a time as this.
It is time for the women to lead.
And for us men, we get to celebrate that leadership. We have the great opportunity of amplifying those voices and educating those who would shout them down. We get to quit the mansplaining and to rejoice in and accept the incredible gifts of women’s wisdom and power. To, in Julia Ward Howe’s words: “Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after their own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.”
For us men, our job and joy is to be like Stephen … and Philip and Prochurus, and Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch. Choosing the deep honor of serving at table, surrendering the throne and the spotlight and grasping the incredible power of pointing not to ourselves, but to the Christ we see breaking through in new and wonderful forms.
It is not too late. Praise God, it is not too late.
But it is time.
It is time for great questions no longer to be decided by irrelevant agencies.
It is time to disarm, to proclaim the sword is not the balance of justice. That blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
It is time to tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose children are living in the ground
Peace on earth.
It is time for the women to lead. Amen.