Last week, I attended the Festival of Homiletics, a fantastic gathering of progressive Christian pastors, preachers, and thinkers. This year’s theme was “Preaching and Politics” and we heard many remarkable and powerful sermons on the subject. I also heard many participants wonder how they could take that kind of preaching home to their so-called “purple” congregations, congregations made up of a mix of conservatives and progressives. Even some in more progressive settings face pushback if preaching gets too political – separation of church and state and all that.
My own context is hard to classify. With at least three major ethnic groups (including some who are recent immigrants) and a wide range of economic and educational backgrounds, there are also big differences in how we approach social and theological questions. Still, I think it is possible to open people’s eyes about the political nature of our Scriptures and offer them faithful political interpretations of texts that they are accustomed to thinking about only in terms of personal piety. I often preach sermons where the punchline goes like this: “You have always heard that this story is about X, but another interpretation says that this text is actually about Y” where X is some moral for personal life and faith and Y is a conclusion about communal life and actions. It is crucial that Y be based on good Biblical scholarship and exegesis, not my own political preferences.
So without further ado, I offer you my political interpretation of the conversion of Saul, preached on Sunday, May 27, just after the Festival of Homiletics. I am grateful to all the excellent preachers there who inspired me to see and study this text with a new lens. The text is below. You can also watch on YouTube.
Pray for Those Who Persecute You
When we left off last week, the Holy Spirit was blazing. In the chapters since Pentecost and today’s reading, the Holy Spirit blazed through Jerusalem and Samaria, calling all manner of people into the fellowship of Jesus. The Holy Spirit blazed through the hearts of disciples, motivating them to share everything in common. From Stephen’s lips, the Holy Spirit blazed gloriously before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest. But then an angry mob picked up stone after stone, hurling them toward the young man until his last breath left his body. I wonder if the flame didn’t flicker and dim a bit. The stones lay over Stephen’s lifeless body like ashy-white coals over an extinguished campfire.
Watching over all of this is a zealous young Pharisee called Saul: Saul, who authorized and witnessed the stoning of Stephen; Saul, who ravaged the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, committing them to prison; Saul, who initiated a witch hunt, who chaired the House Un-Jewish Activities Committee to seek out and destroy Jesus followers even in far-off Damascus.
We sing, sometimes, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going . . .” When Stephen was executed by Saul and his colleagues, a tiny ember of the Holy Spirit burned timidly beneath the stones. With his last words, a prayer, Stephen breathed forth a spark that would hold the fire until it could be tended and poked and stirred back to life: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.”
I know very little about being persecuted. I know the mild persecution that most women have experienced at some level or another of being sexualized or trivialized, but never in my own experience a particular incident that I would claim as my own #metoo moment. Even as a woman in ministry, most people close to me have been supportive of my vocation. I have never lived in a place where it was dangerous or illegal to practice my faith. I have never felt afraid that an encounter with the police would end in my own death. I have never thought that I might be jailed for expressing my political opinions. My ancestors have never been enslaved or purged because of their race or ethnicity.
I recognize that not all of you can say the same thing. Perhaps some of you already know much more than I ever will about loving your enemies or praying for those who persecute you. In that case, I hope that my words will do justice to your lived reality and give voice to your experiences.
In my very limited (almost non-existent) experience of persecution, I have always understood Jesus’ words and Stephen’s prayer as sentimental and personal. Praying for your enemies is like saying, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about what is happening to me, so I might as well pray to God.” I suppose that I have mainly thought of this prayer as one of resignation or surrender. I have thought of it as the kind of prayer that helps you accept or come to terms with what is happening to you – to make peace with it, but not really to change it. If I am deeply honest about my faith, I can confess that in the face of persecution or suffering, I wonder whether God can do anything to change it, either.
But this week I have been at a conference about preaching as a political act. We have been challenged again and again this week to move beyond personal piety or personal faith and discover how the Scripture speaks to our life together as a polis, a body politic. Of course, the Bible is concerned with our personal lives, but the Bible is also deeply concerned about our life together. And what more is politics than the process by which we shape our life together as a city and as a nation? When I read this story from Acts 9, the famous “conversion of Saul”, when I read this story in light of all that I heard this week, it suddenly became a political story, and I saw that praying for those who persecute you is a powerful political act.
We are good at pulling Bible stories out of their context and reading them as if they were meant to stand alone. At my most cynical, I wonder whether we have even been taught to do this so that we will not discover the deeply political movements in Scripture when it is read as a whole or in context. But look what happens when we put this story about Saul – Saul who witnessed and approved of the stoning of Stephen; Saul, who ravaged the church by entering house after house, dragging men and women into prison; Saul, who initiated a witch hunt, who chaired the House Un-Jewish Activities Committee to seek out and destroy Jesus followers even in far-off Damascus. Look what happens when we put this story about Saul where it belongs: next to the story of Stephen – Stephen who was executed for proclaiming his faith; Stephen who prayed that the Lord would not hold the sins of his persecutors against them.
Stephen’s prayer was not one of personal piety. It was not a prayer that helped him get through the suffering until he crossed over into glory. It was not a prayer meant to help Stephen come to terms with the lack of peace and justice in the world. When Stephen asked God to forgive his persecutors, Stephen was not being sentimental. Stephen’s prayer was a political prayer. I am convinced that Stephen’s prayer was echoing in the ears of God when the Almighty showed up in a flash of light, knocked Saul the persecutor off of his high horse, and turned him from a perpetrator of death to a practitioner of abundant life. By his prayer of forgiveness, Stephen was confessing his faith in God’s justice and calling that justice forth so that persecution and violence would be no more. When Stephen asked God to forgive his persecutors, Stephen ceased to be a victim of persecution and instead became and agent of God’s power and God’s Holy Spirit.
Do not underestimate the power of prayer, church. Prayer is not just for you – to make you feel better, or to give you peace, or to help you understand what God is up to. Prayer – even the prayer of forgiveness for persecutors – is a powerful political force. When the persecuted and the marginalized pray, they are standing upon the truth that Jesus spoke to Saul: “When you injure my children, you are injuring me.” Jesus is present among the persecuted, the assaulted, the enslaved, the silenced, the ethnically-cleansed. These persecuted do not pray for their enemies so that God will let those enemies off the hook. The persecuted pray for their enemies so that God will knock those powerful enemies off of their high-horses, break their rock-hard hearts, and end the murderous rage.
If you are or have been among the persecuted – and some of you have – I invite you to join Stephen in his prayer. I invite you to believe that Jesus suffers with you as if he himself were the object of persecution. I invite you to pray for the forgiveness of your persecutors, not out of sentimentality, so that you can make peace with what happened to you. I invite you to pray for their forgiveness believing that the God of justice will knock them down, turn their hearts, and change the world. I invite you to believe that you have the power of the Holy Spirit, that you, persecuted ones, are agents of God’s justice.
And if you are like me – more often a member of a powerful, persecuting class than its victim – I invite you to look for the persecuted in our country or in our world. We only have to look as far as our Presbyterian neighbors at the Marturia Church in Rochester, NH to find Christians who have been persecuted for their faith back in Indonesia. But there are plenty of others who have known persecution, if not for their religion then for their gender, their political views, their ethnic background, their sexual orientation. Indeed, you can find them here in the pew beside you.
Where we have been blind to their suffering, sometimes willfully so, let us be knocked off our high horses and see that their suffering is the suffering of Christ himself. Where we have blamed the persecuted for their suffering, let us be struck with light that illumines our own complicity in systems of violence. Where we have believed that little can change, where we have therefore remained silent (even before God), let us raise our voices with (not over, not in place of, but WITH) the persecuted in confidence that forgiveness will also look like justice.
When Stephen prays for his persecutors, church, it is no act of personal piety. When Ananias prays for Saul, it is no act of self-preservation. These are political prayers that claim God’s solidarity with the all the persecuted ones of the world. These are prayers that believe in God’s justice and that call it forth. These are prayers that empower the so-called victims to become agents of God’s justice in the world. This, church, is what it means to love your enemies and to pray for those who persecute you.
May it be so. Amen.