St. Stephen and the Christian Calling

[The following is a sermon given at All Saints, Sunday, May 22, 2011, by Eric Stroo]

I overcame some adversity to prepare a sermon for this morning. In the first place, I had to overcome the buzz that spread from a radio evangelist in Oakland, California, who predicted that the world would end yesterday. It occurred to me that, if this character were right, my efforts might be pointless. But, as it happens, I don’t really put much stock in these pronouncements, although I notice how the media delights in mining them. So I didn’t hesitate to prepare for this morning; and somewhere in the back of my mind I had to acknowledge that, just in case this half-baked prediction was correct, working on a sermon would be a good way for God to find me on Judgment Day.

I also had to work my way past the reported pronouncement by eminent physicist Stephen Hawking that debunks the notion of heaven: It has no place in his view of the cosmos. Heaven, he says, is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” And our deaths can be fully understood as equivalent to a computer being turned off. As a friend of mine would say, that’s harsh.

A devout adherent to the scientific method, Hawking has devoted his life to advancing the body of scientifically derived knowledge of the universe. Although, once again, the media exploits his words for their attention-grabbing value, Hawking’s recent statement about heaven was not actually news. He has long maintained his faith in the project of science to explain the origins of the universe by scientific causation and not by relying on God’s intervention or collusion. He believes in that project. He doesn’t claim that it disproves the existence of God; it’s just that his project, the scientific project, and its findings don’t rely on the existence of God. So I wished him well and returned to my sermon preparations, being sure to keep the light on.

In Holy time, we are processing triumphantly through the season of Easter. And as we process, we are celebrating, week by week, the magnitude of Christ’s role in our salvation. Last week, we looked at that role in terms of the metaphors of shepherd and gate. And this week, the gospel provides further assurance that Christ is our way to God. All this instruction is crucial, because, up ahead, we are also approaching the day of the Ascension, when we bid farewell to the resurrected body of Jesus. In the midst of our Easter joy, we anticipate the challenge of that removal. How will we endure that separation? What will secure our faith when we no longer have unassailable proof in the resurrected body of our savior, Jesus Christ? Something to produce as evidence for the Stephen Hawkingses of the world. How shall we persist in a world that is hostile to what we experience to be true and good, that so frequently caricatures and belittles our faith and our mission?

One answer to this challenge surely lies in the story of Stephen. We heard the conclusion of that story this morning–the account of his martyrdom: his stoning and his gracious and amazingly confident response. The background to that story deserves more mention, if only for the fact that…and I say this with possible slight prejudice…the fact that Stephen was among the first seven Christians to be made a deacon. In fact, I would suggest, and believe me I do so with trepidation, that his task as a deacon is not unrelated to his untimely death.

Stephen makes his entrance, you will recall, in connection with the grumblings that arose among those earliest of the Christian faithful. A segment of the widows, who were among the most vulnerable in ancient society, was not being provided for in the daily distribution of food. It’s not clear that the widows themselves were doing the actual grumbling, but I’m not here to claim that that’s impossible either. Anyway, it seems that the widows among the Aramaic-speaking followers were attended to, but the widows among the Hellenists, the Greek-speakers, were being neglected. Apparently they were all Jewish Christians; it’s just that there were differences in background and language that favored one group over the other.

So the apostles, referred to as “the twelve,” called everyone together. They did not dispute the facts that were presented by the disgruntled, but they threw up their hands and said, Look, we’re growing in numbers, but the twelve of us have our hands full with teaching and proclaiming and getting tossed in prison and being flogged and then returning to teaching and proclaiming the gospel.

Accordingly, they proposed that seven of the faithful be appointed to attend to the hungry. The convention voted unanimously to accept the proposal and the canons were amended to provide for seven deacons. These seven candidates then came before the twelve at the Jerusalem Hilton; the apostles prayed, laid their hands on them, gave them dish towels, and behold, a new order was born. (Of course, I’m compressing the timeline a bit: I’m pretty sure there was a three-year formation period in there somewhere.) Among them was this fellow Stephen, described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” The other six are also listed by name in the book of Acts.

Whatever else one might infer from this account of the first deacons, it’s safe to say two things at least: One, a central part of their task lies in the care for those on the margins and Two, an equally important part of their task lies in the equitable sharing of resources–without prejudice. No preference was given based on non-essential differences such as who among the faithful speaks which language: Greek or Spanish or Korean or Arabic or Swahili. So it’s about remembering those who can easily be overlooked–the poor and powerless–and it’s about diversity–not diversity for its own sake, but diversity that reflects an awareness of bias or preference in the way we distribute our resources.

I suppose there are two more things that can be said about this work of a deacon. The first is that it can be dangerous. Where the authorities, at this time, refrained from punishing the twelve disciples to the point of death, they did not exercise similar restraint when it came to Stephen. As we heard this morning, they stoned him to death. But the danger that comes with doing the work boldly is related to the second point: this work can have powerful results.

The book of Acts tells us that Stephen, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Presumably he did these wonders in the course of carrying out his duties as a deacon–attending to the hungry and forgotten, and doing so in a way that emphasized the dignity of all. Apparently, when that is done well, it enacts the very heart of the gospel. When that is done well, it is inspiring and dynamic and even revolutionary. Certainly, it appeared to disconcert the status quo with a power that, when combined with proclaiming the gospel, was still more transformative than preaching alone.

Stephen’s enemies, so the story goes, conspired to plant false stories about him, depicting him as a radical and a blasphemer. And so he comes before the Sanhedrin to defend himself. Which he does by demonstrating that he knows and honors the tradition, especially the parts of the tradition where God’s people repeatedly ignored or discredited God’s own prophets, opting instead for idolatry and violence. In other words, he maintains that being opposed by the powerful is not a sign to him that he’s wrong; in fact, God very frequently speaks through the less powerful. Stephen boldly aligns himself with the prophets, who have always been willing to challenge and even to offend the status quo. “You are the ones,” Stephen tells the council, “that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

You know, there’s no way that this guy is NOT dangerous. I will give the Sanhedrin that much credit. He stands before them with the face of an angel, and proceeds to rebuke them fiercely. I would not want to be them. If we are marking off days in the Easter calendar, then the Holy Spirit won’t officially arrive until Pentecost, in another three weeks. But in the book of Acts, we’re in chapters 6 and 7 and the Holy Spirit’s been whipping through the neighborhood since chapter 2. And it’s turning things upside down. It’s a game changer. And it’s a game changer precisely because it flows where it will, outside the defined channels, and with unsanctioned vitality.

All this talk about the powerful impact and danger of Stephen’s ministry is not, I assure you, my attempt to inflate the importance of the diaconate. Or its perils. Definitely not. I may be reading a little freely to suggest that Stephen’s authority is directly related to his diaconal mission. But I don’t think I got there alone. I think 10 years with the All Saints community played a part. So don’t blame me unless you also blame yourselves. It’s been 10 years of seeing where the vitality of the church resides and how it is nurtured and respected. And I have learned so much of that by being a part of the life of this church.

I don’t expect that that will stop. Inasmuch as All Saints has built an identity by contending that the people, rather than the buildings, constitute the church, then we will not lose sight of the unity we share in building up the church together. We will be quick to recognize that we are participating in building the same church, regardless of our location or current congregation. Each of us is, as Peter suggests, a stone that builds the Real edifice of the church, the Universal and Eternal church. There we reside, with Stephen and all the saints, gazing with our angelic faces at the Son of Man, whether the place we inhabit shows up on Stephen Hawking’s map of the cosmos or not.

In a world that can be hostile to our mission, that can trivialize and caricature our faith, we are wise to remember the example of Stephen. To see with the eyes of faith no matter how that might isolate us from a wider society. And to put the gospel into action with generosity and fairness because in our inability to produce the resurrected body of Christ in evidence, that is the next best thing. And in the eyes of the faithful, fellow members of the body of Christ, it is the same thing.

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