“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” – Acts 7:51-52 (NRSV)
This is the final line of a very long excoriation the apostle Stephen lays on his audience. I bet it felt really good to deliver. I bet he’d been rehearsing some of those zingers in the shower for weeks. I bet he impressed even himself with the drama and grandeur of his delivery. I bet he believed he’d really gotten through to them.
I bet he was surprised when they dragged him out and stoned him to death.
Stephen wasn’t the first, or the last, to learn that vinegar gets you killed more often than honey does. Or whatever that saying is. Of course, if you’re committed to telling the truth, then sometimes no amount of sweetening will protect you from the reactions of your audience. And depending on who you are, who your listeners are, and where and when you’re preaching, it may be that nothing at all can protect you from the stones of the unrighteous, the angry, and the scared.
So I’m not here to police your or anybody’s tone. You gotta say what you gotta say in the way you gotta say it. I’m mostly here writing a memo to myself that the more satisfying my devastating remarks are to deliver, the less likely they are to make any difference to my audience—except maybe to make them mad enough to reach for a rock.
When you give me something to say, O God, give me the wisdom to say it in a way that will be heard by those you need to hear it. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is Chaplain of the Protestant Cooperative Ministry at Cornell University. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.