They Covered Their Ears - thrive UMC Official Blog

They Covered Their Ears

Before we get to our reading for the moment, I want to invite you all to reflect on a very common, very human phenomenon.  And I want us to reflect on this because I think it will help us see what’s going on both in the bible passage and in our world, in a new light.

            So here’s what I want to draw your attention to –and we’re going to start out really broadly: have you ever seen a situation where an event in one person’s life has irritated someone else?  Now I’m not talking about the cases where someone does something that’s deliberately intrusive or annoying; what I’m talking about is the situations where the actions or the content of someone else’s life is grating to another human being.  One person is just doing their thing, living their life, and for some unknown reason that is a problem for someone else nearby.

            Have any of you seen that happen before?  It’s a very strange deal.

            It happened to me a very noticeable way about a year or so back. I was sitting in a meeting at the Conference Center with a number of other pastors, when it came up that one of those pastors had met someone that went to thrive.  And because this pastor cared about how thrive was doing, they had asked how things were going with the church.

            And this person from thrive had said something like, “It’s really hard work, but it feels like we’re doing something new –it feels like we’re becoming a real community, a real church.”

            So the pastor is telling this story at this meeting, and one of the other pastors turns to me, and she lets me know, in no uncertain terms, that I do not have her support. In fact, she wanted to let me know that I had been biting the hand that feeds me by going around and degrading the ministries of all of the established United Methodist Churches in Iowa.  And she didn’t think it was right, at all, for me to talk like the ministries of other congregations weren’t real –that they weren’t doing important work in the community.  And she was angry.  Before she got too far into her –we’ll call it ‘sharing’- before she got too far into her sharing she was yelling.  She was yelling at me.

            Now it’s one thing to be yelled at, by a pastor, in a meeting in front of other pastors, where the purpose of the meeting is to support new ministries in the District. But what made the whole event particularly startling was that I had not said the things she was mad about –not at that meeting or ever.  And I know I’ve never said them, because that’s nowhere close to how I feel. It’d be like accusing a vampire of eating all your carrots –you’ve got the wrong guy!  I think every single church’s ministry is absolutely vital –and in fact that’s why I became a pastor in the first place: because the church has been good to me.  And I want to turn around and share the good experience of church with new people. 

            So where was this anger coming from?

            Well it turns out that when the report was passed along that someone from thrive had said “it feels like we’re becoming a real community –a real church,” what the other pastor had heard was: “your church, your ministry is not real. Because it’s not new, and it’s not doing the things we’re doing.”

             And this is a thing that we do, as human beings, all the time, right?

            We can be at a party and someone next to us is loudly talking about their job and all the great things their company is doing, and how exciting it is to work there, and somehow a little voice sparks in our head that goes: ‘your job sucks (is garbage).’

            Or as a parent, we can be at, say a park or the pool, and suddenly a group of moms notices something sweet or smart or kind about someone else’s child –and something inside us can go, ‘yeah, well what about my kid?’  Or your brain will suddenly flash to that time where you were at the food court with friends, and your own little one-year-old bundle of joy pulls a green, reeking hand from the back of their diaper. 

            And it’s now a fairly well established psychological phenomenon that when people spend more time on social media –looking at all of the exciting vacations and promotions, and amazing life-events of people they know –the more they sit and look at all that, the more depressed they become. 

            This is what we’re talking about this morning.  Anytime one person witnesses another person and feels attacked, or criticized, or devalued –it is the same thing going on.  And there is a name for it.  And better yet, there is a cure for it –there is a better way to be and to live, and we’re going to show you what that looks like that today.

            But first, let’s get to our story from the Bible.  Because what the Bible has to show us is that this very human phenomenon is far from new.  In fact, it’s probably been happening Adam saw the fruit in Eve’s hand, while his own hands and belly were empty.

            We’re picking up again in the book called Acts. Stephen, a new leader in the Jesus movement was accused and put on trial. We read last week how he had set forth his defense for the charges he had faced, and I’ll remind you that he concluded his defense with an accusation against the court he’s facing.  Turn with me if you will, we’re reading from Acts, chapter 7, verses 52, through the first verse of chapter 8.

            54 Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. 55 But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. 56 He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One[m] standing at God’s right side!” 57 At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, 58 threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. 59 As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” 60 Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died.

Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.

            Again, I want to point out that we’re seeing the same phenomenon that we had talked about earlier.  Another group of faithful Jews had seen what Stephen was doing –they saw the signs and wonders he was performing; they heard the words of wisdom he shared, which were inspired by the Holy Spirit. They witnessed the good things he was doing in public –and their immediate, unconscious response, was: “this guy’s out to get us. He is a threat. He is an enemy.  We have to stop him.”

            We can see this playing out in the bible, can’t we?  Just like we can see it playing out in our own lives, if we’re looking for it. One person does a thing, and another person sees it and becomes so irritated by it that they act out against them.

            It happens in us. It happens in the Church.  It happens in the Bible. And it definitely happens in America.  And it is, brothers and sisters, a huge problem.  It is the leading reason more good doesn’t happen in the world –because it leads people to actively work against the good other people are doing.  And we have to see it.  We have to recognize it.  And we have to name it.

            And the name of this problem –are you ready for this Valley/thrive?  The name of this problem is insecurity. 

            That’s what got Stephen killed.  God was doing a good thing through Stephen, but when his brothers in the faith (remember: everyone in this story is Jewish!) saw what was happening, they couldn’t see God working through Stephen because their eyes were stuck on what God wasn’t doing through them.  And rather than confront what was or wasn’t going on in themselves, these faithful people took their insecurities and externalized them. They placed their problem on someone else.  Rather than face the truth that a good thing was happening without them, they immediately set to work trying to squash it.  And that’s how faithful people become enemies to God.

            It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or atheist or Christian, if you let insecurity run your life, you will put yourself at odds with God. It may even make you act as an enemy to God.  In fact, that was the whole point of Stephen’s defense in chapter 7: he was illustrating how the very people who were supposed to join God in the good work God was doing on earth throughout history –those very people were the ones who sabotaged it!  They did not jump on board.  They refused to work together. And instead they flung accusations, and they got jealous, and they fought.  Why?  Because they were insecure. 

            That’s what got Joseph sold into slavery.  That’s what got Israel’s prophets killed by their own leaders.  That’s why Jesus was murdered.  And that’s why Stephen was stoned to death.  All that violence and terror and death happened because God’s people were insecure.

            And that’s absolutely what’s killing the Church today.  It’s the reason our denomination is fighting about sexuality. It’s what’s tearing our nation apart.  It’s why our families break up –all of it, deep down, is because we are violently, desperately insecure.

            And this passage we read from today shows us how insecurity works.  Stephen, in this story is secure.  While accusations are being thrown around and people are threatening him, the story tells us that Stephen is radiant –that his face is shining, just like an angel.  He’s confident as he defends himself, and his testimony is powerful.  But then at the end, while the court is enraged, grinding and gnashing their teeth at him, it tells us: “But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side.”  He exclaimed, “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” 

            Powerful things are happening through Stephen, and heaven is opened to him –he’s able to catch a glimpse at what’s really going on.  He witnesses the reality of God, and Jesus at his right side –the place of authority. And then, listen to this –he invites the whole court to see what he sees.  He’s trying to pass on what God has shared with him to others! “Look!” he says. ‘I want you to see what I see!”

  But what does the court do?  Do they turn their heads to look up and see God?  Do they let Stephen’s gift uplift and instruct them? 

            No!  Instead they shriek and cover their ears! 

            They refuse to hear any more about what God is doing —right there in that room!  And because they refuse to hear, they aren’t exposed to the revelation.  And they miss heaven opening up to them.

            Then, of course, they throw Stephen outside, and they throw rocks at him until he dies. 

            Meanwhile, Stephen –even as the stones are flying- he prays to God: “Lord Jesus, accept my life!”  He says, and then he falls to his knees and shout, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” and he dies.

            This story brilliantly illustrates the contrast between a secure person and a group of insecure people.  Stephen is confident and competent.  He sees God.  And tries to share what he has, and what he sees. And even while the insecure people are killing Stephen, he’s calling out to God for their forgiveness.  Just like Jesus, right?

            On the other hand, the insecure people absolutely refuse to be examined –either by themselves or others. The mere fact that something good is happening around them is perceived as a threat to them.  They are prone to feelings of jealousy and reactivity.  And if someone ever approaches them critically, their immediate, unthinking response is defensiveness and rage.  And ultimately –regardless of their role or status- they are radically disconnected from God, because their insecurity leads them to refuse even the possibility of new revelations.  And the end result of insecurity, if it’s left to run rampant, will always be violence. Violence –whether it be physical or verbal or the mere withholding of love or attention- violence is always a sure sign that insecurity is ruling the room.  And when insecurity reigns, we all miss out on our vision of heaven. 

            So that’s the problem we’re facing.  We live in a world full of insecure people –both inside and outside the church.  And we know where that path takes us and what it will cost us.

            But what do we do about it?

            That will be the topic of our next sermon series, which will start next week.  For the fall, we’re going to focus our attention on tending our insecurities so that they won’t keep our hands clapped against our ears, against the living Word of God.  And I’m going to introduce a new spiritual tool, called the Enneagram, which can help us all grow to become more secure in our gifts and in our relationship with God. And when we are more secure in our relationship with God and ourselves, we will be free to be more of a gift to our neighbors, so that there can be more peace and more joy –a little taste of heaven- in our daily lives.

            That is to say, that there’s a lot more ahead.  But for today, the very first step –and it is absolutely crucial to healing- the first step to treating insecurity is to own it.  Insecurity is not a thing that can be cured by covering it over, or ignoring it or trying to work around it.  The only way to recover from insecurity is to enter into it.  You have to confront it, and stare it right in the face.  You have to let it show you your limits and your needs and your vulnerabilities.  These are not things that we need to be afraid of –but these can actually be gifts to us, if we can approach them with grace.

            So that’s the first step. Acknowledge your insecurity.  Because you are insecure.  And that’s okay, because you’re not alone. As it turns out, I am also an insecure person.  And that is not a vague, abstract thing.  I’m insecure about my worth, about my competency –whether I have enough and whether I am enough. I constantly worry about whether or not I’m doing the right thing, or if I have anything worthwhile to give.  I am one big walking bag of human insecurity.  

            Publically, and into a microphone, I’m telling you all about my insecurities, because I want to extend an invitation to all of you.  I want to give you all the chance to have someone to be insecure with.  Openly and honestly, let’s be insecure together.  So that we can find healing.  Together.

            Say it with me if you feel so led: “I am in secure.”

            I am insecure.

            I am insecure.

            I am insecure.

            Let us turn to God, and then to one another so that we might be saved from our insecurity.  Let’s pray.