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The Witness of St. Stephen

This sermon was first preached for an online service of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Sunday, May 10, 2020.  You can watch and participate in St. Luke’s online worship on our Facebook page at 10:10 am on Sundays, central time.

Relevant lectionary readings here.

 

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Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash


This week the reading in Acts tells us about the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But the portion of the reading we are given by the lectionary really leaves out most of the story, which is essential to understanding what is happening.


Stephen’s story takes place in the early Church of Acts, and begins specifically in Chapter 6. There is tension between the Aramaic speaking Jewish Christians and the immigrant Jewish Christians who speak Greek, called Hellenists. The Hellenists are frustrated because they say that the Hellenistic widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of food in the community. But the apostles are so busy with preaching and praying and spreading the Word, and so they say that they couldn’t be bothered with, “Waiting tables.” Instead, they appoint 7 leaders for this work, including Stephen. This is the foundation of what would be called “deacons.” In the ELCA this is a rostered, ordained position of ministerial leaders who are called specifically to “Word and Service,” while pastors are called to, “Word and Sacrament.”

Stephen was known for his connection to God, fueling his ability to perform miracles. It is clear that people called to “waiting tables” are doing important, holy work that is a deep and meaningful testimony to God’s grace. I am reminded of a quote by Desmond Tutu, who noted that Jesus provided for the whole person, often tending to their physical needs before addressing the spiritual, (if the two can even truly be separated). Tutu said that Jesus didn’t just focus on sort of theological or abstract spiritual concepts, but instead fed people. “Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”  Jesus did a lot of waiting tables himself. Unfortunately, it is the faithful work of deacons that often gets undervalued in the ELCA, even (maybe especially?) by pastors. My colleagues who are deacons have shared many painful stories of having their calls invalidated or undercut by pastors. And deacons often serve in underpaid or even unpaid roles, a way we systemically and literally devalue their vital work.

After the diaconate was established in Acts and the seven tended to the needs of the community, we are told that the “number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.” And Stephen’s grace and power through his service and justice work was so effective that it began to threaten the religious authorities. Like Jesus, Stephen was confronted, arrested, and brought before the council. Like Jesus, Stephen was set up; railroaded in court, lied about by false witnesses. And through all of this, Stephen’s witness was constant. Even during his sham of a trial, when the religious authorities looked upon him, his connection to God was so apparent that the writer of Acts says it was like he “had the face of an angel.”

Once the religious aristocracy had brought the charges against him, they asked him what he had to say for himself. And though Stephen made waves by the way he “waited tables,” and the wondrous deeds he did in service to others, his commitment to the Word of God is what ultimately got him killed. 

Stephen starts in on a long sermon where he traces the history of their ancestors. He begins with Abraham, and then Joseph, and then Moses, and then the prophets. He reminds them the way that the patriarchs tried to get rid of Joseph, how the people rebelled against Moses, how people killed the prophets.

And then Stephen says,
“This? This ‘court?’ That’s what you are doing, now.
In the story of our ancestors, you are playing the part of the ones disobedient to God.
When this movie gets made?  You are on the wrong side of this.
You are Bull Connor.
You are Joe McCarthy.
You are George Wallace.
You are the villains in this tale.
You killed the prophets who told us of Jesus’ coming.
Then you killed Jesus.
And now, you are persecuting anyone who won’t let you forget.”

When he said these things, they rushed him, and grabbed him, and drug him out of the city, and stoned him while a young member of the religious aristocracy named Saul oversaw them.

But Stephen was not alone in this. As they attacked him, Stephen saw a vision. The Heavens opened up. And Jesus was there, at the right side of God. Standing. Not seated at the right hand of God, like we normally hear about in the New Testament. But standing next to God. I think this active posture was meant to show Stephen, “I’m here. Even and especially in times like these, I am here. I’m coming for you.” Jesus isn’t sitting, ruling, in this vision. He is standing, advocating and caring… like Stephen had done in his ministry.

And this vision gives Stephen courage. With his dying breath, echoing Jesus’ own words, he releases his spirit and prays that God will forgive the people killing him.

The speech that got Stephen killed connected the injustices in the present to ones in the past, reminding the religious aristocracy and all of us that this is all one long story, we are a part of one big system. And again, during this pandemic we have seen history repeat in alarming ways.

There have always been issues of housing justice in Chicago. And now, yet again, there are landlords exploiting desperate tenants.

There have always been racial disparities in healthcare. And now, again, 70% of COVID deaths in Chicago are Black people.

There have always been greedy corporations putting profit over people. And now, again, employers are requiring workers to work in unsafe conditions, underpaying essential employees, finding loopholes in relief acts to qualify for loans they don’t need.

There have always been grave injustices in our criminal punishment system. And now, again, incarcerated people are most at risk during this pandemic, with the New York Times citing the Cook County Jail as the number one hotspot in the nation for COVID-19.

Stories like Stephen’s call us to look at the roles we are playing now, today in this pandemic. It is easy to look back at the past with 20/20 vision and shame villains, and distance ourselves from them. I want to say that I am not like those members of the religious aristocracy. But even if I haven’t ordered any stonings lately, there are plenty of people who had to die before I woke up to the pain and suffering they were facing. We want to look back and be clear that we weren’t the Bull Connors or the George Wallaces. And maybe we weren’t or we aren’t.

But in Stephen’s story, he was dragged through the city…and no one stopped them.

My colleague Brandee Jasmine Mimitzraiem notes that there are people who we don’t consider villains, and who might even consider ourselves heroes, who play our own part in violence like this.

“The ones who argued for slow progress.
The ones who quote King to silence Black people.
The ones who see themselves as saviors of Black Africans.
The ones who go on… mission trips and take pictures with people as though the real, living humans are game on a safari.
The ones who speak over people of color about people of color…
The ones who stand in front on panels about liberation and insist on being heard.
The ones who ‘make room for the marginalized’ and ‘amplify the voices’ but never just move or shut up.”

I confess that this pandemic has made me so tired. I am afraid. And exhausted. And circumstances have made my world so small. It is hard to keep from turning totally inward and thinking totally selfishly. Stress and trauma can act like magnifying glasses, amplifying the best and worst of my character and impulses. I am in awe of the chaplains I know – many of them deacons, like Stephen – who continue to embody the fierce tenderness characteristic of the diaconate during this time as they care for people. 

It is so hard to know how to care for people during this time, anytime I think of all the need there is I start freaking out because I don’t know what to do or where to start. I am not used to organizing or ministering in a pandemic, how does this even work?!?! It reminds me of the moment in our Gospel reading where Jesus is telling his disciples, “goodbye,” and they panic because they don’t know where Jesus is going. That’s what John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” is about. It isn’t an exclusionary text. It is a text of comfort. Jesus comforts the disciples by reminding them that they know the way, to Jesus and to his Holy Parent.

So when we feel like we have no idea what we are doing, Jesus reminds the disciples – and us – that we do know what to do. We know Jesus, so we know the way. Our regular ways of showing up for one another are disrupted, but I have been so heartened by the ways that you have creatively found ways to love one another through this. You have been following The Way, a way that you know despite having no roadmap for a time like this, because you know Jesus. You know that the way through these times, even when it is muddy and confusing, is by doing what Jesus does – loving and caring for one another. Listening to each other. Bearing witness to each other’s pain. Creating justice.

Something that people in power are counting on is that this physical separation will divide us. They are hoping it will silence people who are suffering, that there will be no witnesses, that their stories will be erased, that we will forget.  One of the most important things we can do right now is to bear witness. To listen to each other’s stories. To remind those exploiting others that we see what they are doing, that we will not stand by and we will not forget.

To that end, the Public Faith Core Team at St. Luke’s will be introducing a project in the coming weeks. We are collecting stories of injustice during the pandemic and using our moral authority as the church to put people on notice when they use their power as landlords or employers to exploit people in our community. This action will be in solidarity with people being harmed, and accountability for people in power who are harming them. This is a way for us to say, together, that we see what is happening. And we will not forget. Because we need our siblings, and we won’t let one more of us become unwilling martyrs.

I am so grateful to each of you here at St. Luke’s for the ways that you have continued on the way that Jesus taught us. Your faithfulness in this time matters so much. Jesus tells us that “the ones that believe in [him] also do the works that [he does]…” and even greater works, still. This is the work we are called to especially in times of uncertainty. And we do it together – with Jesus to guide us, the example of Stephen and all the saints to accompany us, and our community here to encourage and sustain us.

 

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