From the Acts of the Apostles:
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.
(From the Daily Office Lecionary – Acts 7:54-8:1 – August 20, 2012)
Saint Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church, has just preached a sermon in which he has reminded his hearers, Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, that the Jews had a history of mistreatment of prophets, Their ancestors, he has said, “killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now [his listeners] have become his betrayers and murderers.” No wonder they were angry with him.
I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Christian preaching ought to anger those who hear it. If it doesn’t make them angry at the preacher, it should make them angry at someone or something else, angry enough to do something . . . though maybe not a fatal stoning.
We who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ should have the courage and conviction of Stephen, if not that of Jesus himself. There is a lot in our society that needs to be “called out” – the obvious racism of the way Ohio’s voting hours are being limited, for example, or the obvious sexism of a senate candidate in another state who can conceive of something he labels “legitimate rape” or the callous disregard for the needs of poor children deprived of nutrition be the defunding of school meal programs. These are not merely political issues; these are moral, ethical, and spiritual issues about which the church – and the church’s preaches – need to speak out. There are no “merely political” issues; every issue has moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions, and of those the gospel has much to say. It will not say it to our world, however, unless preachers address the issues. And if that makes someone angry, so much the better.
A 19th Century Chicago journalist named Finley Peter Dunne wrote under the pseudonym of an Irish bartender named Mr. Dooley. One of Mr. Dooley’s observations concerned the role of the press:
Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us.
It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks,
commands th’ militry,
controls th’ ligislachure,
baptizes th’ young,
marries th’ foolish,
comforts th’ afflicted,
afflicts th’ comfortable,
buries th’ dead,
an’ roasts thim aftherward.
In the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, Gene Kelly played an H.L. Mencken-like newspaper editor saying, “It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Clare Booth Luce used a variation of this sentiment in her eulogy for Eleanor Roosevelt and numerous churchmen, including Reinhold Niebuhr, have applied similar words to the Christian faith, arguing that the preacher’s job, indeed the very nature of the gospel, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Our job as ministers of the gospel is to offer hope and consolation to those who are hurting, while standing strong against the evils of injustice and oppression and selfish pursuit. And if that makes someone angry, so much the better.
The first deacon, Stephen, should be the patron saint of this kind of preaching, of which there should be much, much more.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.