First Congregational Church
June 12, 2015
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Where do most superheroes live? Cape Town. What position did Bruce Wayne play on his little-league team? He was the bat-boy. What would you find in Superman's bathroom? A Super Bowl. What do you get if you cross the man of steel with a hot vegetable broth? Souperman! I’ve decided that if I could be any super hero, I think I’d be Aluminium Woman and my superpower would be foiling crime.
Seriously, I think it would be really interesting to find out who you revere - historically speaking. Who would you invite to dinner if you could? What is it that draws you to that person? What is their great lesson to you? Go ahead and discuss at the potluck.
This morning’s scripture passage needs some set up, and it goes back to the chapter before today’s - to chapter 6 in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We’ve been looking at this book since May, because we don’t often hear much from it, and it is the best documentation we have for how the early church started. I believe it’s been said that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you won’t know where you’re going, or something like that.
So after Jesus was crucified, died, risen and ascended back to God, the earliest believers were waiting on Jesus’ words, that he would come again. Wanting to be free to follow him wherever Christ took them, many of those early Christians sold all they had, or gave it away, and lived somewhat communally, sharing what they needed. But time passed, and Jesus hadn’t returned, and human nature did what it always does - becomes more human than we necessarily like.
So it happened that the Greek Jews began noticing that their widows - the vulnerable/dispossessed/oppressed - were not being treated like the Hebrew Jews’ widows, not receiving the same daily food. While Jesus' economy constantly sought to gather in the widow, foreigner, and all "the oppressed" into God's household of life (John 14:2), the young church has started to exclude such people from the table.
So the Twelve Disciples got together and appointed seven individuals to deal with the “needs” of the people, so the twelve disciples could concentrate on teaching and preaching. The seven “table waiters” or deacons as they were called, were about providing, taking care of, and distributing the things necessary to sustain life. The first deacons were Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism, and Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, as the Bible says. And life went along just fine for a while.
As we heard last week, some of the other Jewish folks became jealous of the attention and authority these seven individuals received, so they started to bad-mouth them, particularly Stephen, and he got arrested.
When he was charged with his crime and asked what he had to say about it, he gave a beautiful defense that covers the first 53 verses of today’s Acts 7. If you ever need to remember if Moses came before Abraham, or who Jacob’s father was, or any of those big detail things that we all wish we could remember better, check out Acts 7. The writer of Acts, whom we think is Luke, wrote the very first version of Cliff Notes, covering Jewish history. But he did it in a brilliant way: comparing the positive and negative examples of Jewish history, highlighting the thread of faithful followers of God throughout time, including himself as one of the faithful. Which brings us to this morning’s scripture passage.
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Thank you, Michael. Batman and Robin go camping in the desert one day. They find a suitable spot, pitch their tent and soon fall asleep. In the middle of the night, Batman wakes his faithful friend saying, “Robin, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.” Robin replies, “Why Batman, I see millions of stars.” Batman then asks him, “And what does that tell you?”
Robin is silent for a while while he thinks about this, then he says, “Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. And theologically, it’s evidence the Lord is all-powerful and how small and insignificant we are. Meteorologically, it looks as though we’re in for a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Batman?” “Someone has stolen our tent!”
If nothing else, one of the large picture points of Acts is that life wasn’t always so dandy. Still isn’t. But then again, we’re still waiting for Christ’s return, too!
I love the line from the passage that tells about Stephan describing his vision of Christ. “At this they covered their ears, yelling at the top of their voices,” It sort of reminds me of little kids that don’t want to hear that its their bedtime. Or maybe it’s about big kids who don’t want to hear truth. Maybe it’s about (insert your name here), and what you don’t want to hear - what I don’t want to hear.
There is sad irony in this passage in the name Saul, who would later become the great Paul. When he was still Saul, he was against the early Christians as well as Jews who didn’t live up to the letter of Hebrew law. Saul - not to be confused with the Old Testament Saul who lived long before him - would just as soon ostracize a disobedient member of a synagogue as flog a person for believing in Jesus as the Messiah. And while Stephan was being stoned, Saul had coats laid at his feet like Jesus when he rode into Jerusalem. We humans are so good at getting things upside-down.
What’s sad about this passage is that those doing the stoning were the religious leaders, the ones people were to look up to. The people who kill Stephen were neither the local hooligans nor the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to a cross. They were, at least according to Acts, upstanding members of religious communities: regular members of synagogues, elders, religious professionals, priests.
Then there are those pesky stones. We might want to overlook the stones littering the ground around us, which either implicate us or cause us to cry out for deliverance from cycles of violence. But the stones that lie at our feet don’t walk away by themselves.
So Stephan’s Story becomes a good reminder for all of us to pray for religious leaders, even those with whom we disagree, because we’re human, and we make mistakes. Prayers that grievous mistakes and knee-jerk reactions would be toned down and even avoided is a task for all of us.
I think it’s important that we not confuse the part of Stephen’s story that often gets confused. He is, yes, the first Christian martyr. But we do well to remember that the word martyr means “witness.” And if there’s anything we can learn from Stephen, it’s that he was a witness to his last breath.
Scott Bader-Saye made this great point, that ”The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.” And in that point, Stephen’s martyrdom comes not so much from his death, but from his life as he feed and clothed those who struggled to do that on their own.
I don’t know that we will ever see a world where we can live in peace with one another - at least before Jesus returns. But I don’t think that gives us an excuse to stop trying to be kinder, more compassionate, less judgmental and exclusive. We may never bridge the gap between Stephen’s serenity and the unspeakable violence done to him. But our Savior rose from a grave, and so we can rise above our humanity as we bear witness to God.
What’s also good about Stephen’s story is that he shows us how to die with dignity. Even as the council is extinguishing Stephen's life - stone by hideous stone - he continues to dole out life and Grace to those who thought of him as an enemy.
Following in Jesus' footsteps (Lk. 23:34), Stephen uses his final breaths to pray that his death not diminish "life abundant" for his executioners, that their life-crushing thoughts and actions not crush their own lives for all of eternity. His prayer was to save themselves from their own selves. So should we probably pray more often for our own selves.
None of us escape death, and we humans rarely get to choose how we die. But I want to think that we can all give a moment - every so often - to this universal event, not in a maudlin or foreboding manner, but in praying about those who will be with us when we die. For some of us, we may pray for grace in our death, others may pray for dignity for all those there, and for still others, we may pray for their peace. Those are the inheritances that matter, the ones that have potential to last for a very long time.
Stephen’s Story is not one of those happy-go-lucky accounts that make us feel like singing church camp songs. But his story is one that causes church camp songs and good hymns to find their way deeper into our hearts and souls, causing us to change in ways that honor God. For the depth and richness of those who have gone before us, let us pray.
Gracious, Eternal God, thank you for Stephen and his life. Thank you for all those who have gone before us to show us how we might better follow you. Nudge our complacencies to be the witnesses that can make a difference in our world. Help us to see those who need our prayers, and help us to better our prayer for ourselves. For the stones we have thrown this past week, forgive us and heal those who met those rocks. Help us uncover our ears and to stop our screaming, that we might hear the truth, the healing truth you have for all of us. For all those with whom you bless us, all your children say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.