Cover Your Ears

The Rev. John D. Lane. This sermon is based on Acts 7:57.

But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

There’s a lot of ear-covering going on these days. I want to tell two stories this morning without a lot of interpretation. I’ll leave most of that to you.

(1) When I was in seminary, the chaplain there was a man named Rowland Cox, youngest brother of Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor who was fired in what quickly become known as the Saturday Night Massacre. With the recent firing of the FBI Director, Archibald’s name has been back in the news—but I digress.

One year during a Quiet Day at the seminary, Rowland talked about the Cuban Missile Crisis. He reminded us of how U-2 flights had detected positive proof of offensive Russian missiles being installed in Cuba. The U.S. responded with a naval quarantine of Cuba, meant to keep out any such missiles. Our ambassador Adlai Stevenson made a full report with photographs to the UN Security Council. It was a scary time.

At the Quiet Day, Rowland focused particularly on the secret correspondence going on between the American and Russian leaders.  There were at least three messages sent directly from Khrushchev to Kennedy. The first called the naval quarantine “an act of aggression.” Soviet ships bound for Cuba would be ordered to proceed. Despite Khrushchev’s words, several Soviet ships turned back before reaching the quarantine line. Others were stopped and inspected. Containing no offensive weapons, they were permitted to proceed to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, Moscow time, a second message arrived from Khrushchev, including the following paragraph:

If there is no intention to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.

The next day, a third message arrived, this one belligerent. On the same day, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba. How to respond? There was much heated debate among Kennedy’s advisors. Carefully reading the three messages, Kennedy and his team came to believe Khrushchev’s second message represented his own thinking, because it was sent in the middle of the night when no one else was around to edit him.

Kennedy decided to respond only to Khrushchev’s second message, ignoring the first about aggression and the third making unacceptable demands while shooting down one of our planes.

What we learn in this, Rowland Cox told us, was the power of assuming the best, responding to the positive, and ignoring the negative. I’ve found this helpful personally—when I’ve remembered to do it.

(2) Eighteen years ago, Bizzy and I were traveling in Turkey. We were on our own, but took a number of half-day guided tours, meeting a bunch of new people every day. On one occasion, we had finished touring the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and were sitting on a veranda overlooking the Bosporus, drinking a Coke, and talking to our new friends.

They were two couples from South Africa, one pair from Cape Town and one pair from Durban, a port on the Indian Ocean. It was 1999. Nelson Mandela had been elected President 5 years earlier, beginning the era of majority rule. Many white people—only 13% of the total population—were fearful about the future, and had been for years.

I mainly talked to the two men, both Rotarians. The one from Cape Town was pessimistic about the future. He lived on the slopes of Table Mountain, in a well-guarded gated community. I’m sure he had an “exit plan” for leaving South Africa altogether. He was very afraid of the future.

The man from Durban, Tony, had a different story. He was optimistic about the future, and was working hard to create that future. I spent most of my time listening to him. An architect by trade, he had been for some years the chair of the Rotary youth exchange program for his district in South Africa. He organized and oversaw the sending of 20 South African youth per year for one-year exchanges in Western Europe and the United States.

He talked movingly and lovingly of “my students.” They were all poor, mainly black. It wasn’t really an “exchange” because he couldn’t ask incoming students to live at the same level of poverty as those going out. He was just sending his students abroad.

He wanted his poor, but capable South African students to see a different world, to experience a much higher quality of schooling, to live in an advanced culture, to come to believe they could do whatever they set out to do. He wanted them to come back more confident. He hoped many would become change agents in their evolving nation.

He had developed close relationships with Rotary clubs in Europe and America, and worked with them to create a transformational environment for his students. He hoped some of these high school students might be able to attend college and/or graduate school in the West, returning to South Africa with the skills and vision necessary for building a bright future for the country.

And since most of these students lived in cardboard or sheet metal shacks in the townships of Durban, he had to make sure all their expenses were paid. He was everything to these students, hundreds of them over a period of many years. They relied on him, and he didn’t let them down.

Talking to these two men was an eye-opener into a different world, but also a mirror on our own country. One was fearful for himself. Like an ostrich, he stuck his head in the sand, hoping the danger would pass. The other rolled up his sleeves and worked as hard as he could to save those who might otherwise be lost.

To me, Tony was an inspirational person. I still remember his story. Many years later, I ask myself how as a follower of Christ I can be more like him. I hope you will ask yourselves the same kind of question.

Then [Stephen] knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”