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Hold My Coat

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

May 10, 2020
Acts 7:54-8:1

A Reading 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.

And then the police came and rounded up this bloodthirsty mob and locked them up and threw away the key. The end, that’s the end.

Or at least that’s the end I’d prefer. That’s very much how I’d like this story to end. It seems like the only reasonable ending — Stephen is preaching to the crowd about Jesus of Nazareth, which hardly feels criminal, and then the crowd becomes a mob, and the crowd runs him out of town, and the crowd stones him until he dies. And then the law shows up and justice is served. Except for that last part. That last part doesn’t happen. Because the scariest part of this story is that the mob is the law. Deuteronomy 13:6: “If anyone secretly entices you … saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” … you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. … Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

It should be quickly said that Roman law is unclear as to whether stoning would have been permitted, and that Jewish history very quickly turned away from capital punishment; nonetheless. This law is on the books. Stephen is clearly enticing the crowd to some other worship, he’s trying to get them to convert to Jesus, and the crowd understands this to be a sort of public blasphemy, you could hardly find a clearer violation of Deuteronomy 13 in their eyes, which is of course designed for their protection, and they have a duty to the integrity of the community, and they have a duty to the integrity of their theology, and to the law, and nobody wants to pick up a stone, of course, it’s terrible, it’s the worst, but it’s the law. They have to follow the law. This is not what anybody wanted. It’s not about what anybody wanted. It’s not the world anybody wanted. It’s just what has to be. They have to do their duty. And so, with a terrible remorse, they pick up their stones, and they end Stephen’s days.

Well, that’s one story. But I’m not sure that even that’s the whole story. Because in the margins of this story of law and order, the text gives us some telling details. First, after Stephen begins to talk about seeing God and Jesus together in the Heavens, the crowd covers their ears. They don’t want to hear any more information. They don’t want anything to get in the way of the violence they’re about to practice. And then they rush him. And they drag him from the city. And the text says that as they began to stone him, the crowd took off their coats and laid them on the ground. I have to tell you that I have been haunted by this little detail of the text for weeks. They take off their coats.

It’s not a long story. Luke’s not wasting in on this. But he uses up some just for this. They take off their coats. And not for any noble cause. Not to line the pathway for the Messiah to ride into the city. Not to lend to someone shivering in the street. As best I can tell, they take off their coats so that they can be comfortable. They take off their coats so they can get a full range of motion when they start to throw stones. They take off their coats so they can really get into it. They take off their coats so they can enjoy it. And that’s not a story about duty, or, justice, or necessity. That’s a story about cruelty.

Several years ago, in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer wrote what is still to me the defining essay reflecting on the surge of racist, and xenophobic, and patriarchal hatred that has been sweeping through our country. “The Cruelty is the Point,” the headline famously reads. And he opens with photographs of lynchings, photographs of black victims scarred and mutilated in the center of the frame. But, in his mind, these bodies aren’t the whole story. Because those photographs don’t just show the victims. They also show the mob, these white men engaged in the sometimes-legal pursuit of law and order, these white men engaged in just doing their duty in a world that just has to be this way. These white men posing for a photograph with the latest installation of their justice. These white men posing and smiling. The smile is the giveaway. The smile is the tell. The smile is everything. It says, no matter what the law says. No matter what the court says. No matter what the books say. No matter what the judge describes as justice. No matter any of that. That’s not the point anymore. They take off their coats. It’s like a sport. It’s a pleasure. The smile is the point. The cruelty is the point.

Last Sunday evening in Pender County, North Carolina, a young black man named Dameon Shephard was interrupted at home by a mob. It was a mob of white men, armed, including one local corrections officer — and the mob was looking for trouble. Specifically, they said they were looking for a man named Josiah, who apparently was supposed to have information about a missing white girl, but they for sure had the wrong house. Dameon pointed to the sign outside his house with his name on it celebrating his graduation from high school. But the mob would not take no for an answer, and they had guns. The officer stuck his foot in the door to prop their way in and the tension grew. Miraculously, they left without violence. The officer in question has been charged with brandishing his weapon “in pursuit of personal, not law enforcement purposes.” A lawyer for the family put it more succinctly: “They might as well have shown up with a noose in a tree.” In the same week, as you probably know, video broke of two white men in Georgia chasing down and executing a black jogger named Ahmaud Arbery, presuming him to be a burglar. But Arbery’s family lawyer puts it differently, “”You look on that video,” he says, “and it’s like it was a hunting party.” The lynch mob always says that it wants justice. But really, it wants blood. The cruelty of it is the point.

And now, of course, this is the same country trying to navigate its way through a pandemic the likes of which none of us have ever experienced. Unfortunately, the virus is not a cure for cruelty. For a while, it felt like something else might be possible — it felt like for the sake of the most vulnerable among us that we could all make this sacrifice, that we could all come to a halt, not just for our own safety but for the safety of our neighbors and our communities. For a while that was the story. But it feels like the story is changing, and now the story says that somebody is just going to have to die and that’s how the world is. Now the story is that somebody is just going to have to die just so the economy can crunch its way back to life and that’s just how the world is. Essential workers are going to have to do their essential work, somebody has to go back out there, because that’s just how the world is. We have duty. We have obligation. Because the world needs it. It’s not what anybody wants. Nobody wants to get the virus. Nobody wants anyone to go get stoned. But that’s just what has to happen. Which sounds so convincing. Unless the cruelty is still the point. Unless maybe we looked around and realized that black and brown communities were bearing the overwhelming brunt of the fatalities. And maybe we thought, well, as long as it’s not me. As long as it’s not me. I can take my coat off and get comfortable.

This is not the sort of sermon I’d prefer to give over Zoom worship. It’s the sort of sermon that I’d prefer to be shouting, preferably, to some imaginary point about ten feet over the last pew of the sanctuary, a nice safe distance for an angry preacher. I think in the pulpit, I could preach this with a big righteous kind of anger — anger at all the powers-that-be, and all the that wickedness in the land, anger at all the pettiness and capriciousness and the sheer incompetence that seems to be the order of the day. I feel like even now, I could go into the backyard and pace around and yell that sermon loudly enough that maybe even some of you could hear me even without Zoom to help us out. But instead, we’ve got to talk about this one in close-up, you and me, in this weird intimate distance where if I yell, the microphone can’t take it. And here in close-up I suspect you already see the anger for what it really is, which is something like sorrow, and something like lament. How did we get from the waters of baptism to this? Shot dead going for a jog. Lynch mobs going from door to door. How did we get from the table of grace to this? 2000 dead Americans every day and we’re just moving on because it’s, what, boring? Inconvenient? Unprofitable? Friends, this is not just the way the world has to be. We didn’t just get here because we got here. We got here because the cruelty was the point. We got here because we smiled for the camera. We got here because we took our coats off to get comfortable

Stephen, of course, has a saintliness that I do not possess. He can just forgive: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” he says, echoing of course Jesus’s own words from the cross. But if you can’t get on quite that high a road, there is one other way out of this text. The witnesses lay their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. Saul’s a nobody, right now — he’s a coatrack, he’s a prop, he’s just the caddy so that this crowd can do its sport. Nor does he disapprove: the text makes it very clear that Saul is as much a part of it as any of them. But of course, this is not the last time that we will meet this young man. Nor is it the last time that he will engage in this sort of cruelty. But underneath it. Underneath it, the weight of those coats will sit on him. The weight of those coats will wear upon him. And two chapters later, Saul will be on the road to Damascus heavy-laden with this weight and he will be struck down by a light from Heaven, and he will emerge as Paul the Apostle, reborn for God’s work, for God’s justice, for God’s truth, for God’s righteousness. This is not the easy way out. There is no easy way out. But it is hope. Hope that the cruelties of this world are so heavy that nobody can carry them forever. Hope that in the cruelest moments of the world, therefore, something new is waiting to be born.

I guess I’m not just angry, and I’m not just sorrowful. I’m also tired. I’m tired of seeing these headlines and counting these bodies. I’m tired of carrying even my own privileged portion of the cruelties of this world. I’m tired of carrying these coats, and I’m willing to bet that you are, too. But here is the Gospel, friends. That when we have had enough. That when we have reached our capacity. That when we can’t carry one more of these stories in our hearts, in our minds, in our arms. That when we are collapsing under the weight of the whole thing together. Friends, that is when God gets to work. Transforming us. That is when God gets to work, redeeming us. That is when God gets to work, sending us as apostles for something beautiful, and something righteous, and something whole. So, this week, when the headlines weigh on you, I want you to ask: “What is being born within me?” This week, when the trendlines hang on you, I want you to wonder: “What is being transformed within me?” This week, when the cruelties of the world bring you to your knees, I want you to pray: “What is being created in me?” Because of course, in the waters of the grace of Jesus Christ everything is a new creation. The old life has gone. A new life is beginning. Know that you are sent into this world. And be at peace.

Thanks be to God.


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