A sermon for the Feast Day of St. Stephen, transferred to coincide with the 2019 Annual Meeting, Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60
First, a confession: The Feast of St. Stephen is not what one would traditionally call a “moveable” feast, but it also has the misfortune of being on one of the two or three days that people are least likely to want to go to church if there isn’t already a long-established tradition, December 26. So, I’m blurring the lines of what is traditionally “acceptable” in terms of moving feast days around, but I think it is important to remember Stephen on this day in particular as we prepare to celebrate our Annual Meeting this evening.
“‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.”
Stephen is known as the protomartyr, that is the first martyr of the Christian faith. His story in Acts is the first recorded instance in history of someone laying their life down for their faith and belief in what Christ has done, specifically in the faith and belief in the resurrection of Christ and what that symbolizes for us, for our relationship to God. Stephen gives his life for his faith because he believes in Christ, believes in the resurrection, believes in the gift of grace, of forgiveness that is on offer from God through Christ’s death and resurrection. Stephen gives his life for his faith because he has experienced a conversion to this new way of following God that has fundamentally changed his being, and he cannot help but share the radical new reality that exists in this world. Stephen reminds us to feel our own deep convictions in our faith. To ask the question, am I so transformed through my faith and belief in Christ that I am willing to die for this faith?
It’s hard to imagine what that might look like in our current reality. We know that in other parts of the world, it still very much looks like giving up one’s life in order to stand against the forces of evil that demand allegiance or death. But here? in the United States? In Washington? In Longview? It’s much harder to see martyrdom as a daily reality in our current reality in this place at this time. So, we dig a little deeper into what it might look like to live into the spirit of this conviction, even if the literal giving of our life is not on the table (and honestly, it’s a blessing that it is not on the table for us, and a terrible reality that it remains in our world at all).
I think for us today, to understand what it means to hold conviction so deeply that we are willing to give our lives, we have to look at the other notable part of Stephen’s story. Stephen was another first, he is recorded in Acts as one of the first deacons of the church. The first deacons of the church were tasked directly by the Apostles to take the message of this new reality of faith and relationship with God out into the world. This is how Stephen even ends up in the synagogue of the Freedmen, preaching with wisdom and the power of the Spirit, a message that they couldn’t, wouldn’t hear, a blasphemy for it stood against what they had long held as the tradition of faith. In our modern church, we have brought this tradition of deacons forward and continue to wrestle with what it means to serve in this role in our church, what it means to commit oneself to our faith with such a conviction that they cannot help but share our experience of faith to the world, to take the church out into the world and bring the light of Christ wherever a hint of darkness resides.
When you commit yourself to being willing to carry that light of Christ into the darkest of places, you commit to running up against the forces of evil at work in this world, you commit to putting your life on the line for your faith, because you can’t not with the knowledge and depth of conviction that comes in our experience of our relationship to Christ, to God. The example of Stephen then serves to guide us and to put before us the question: are we living fully into our faith, into our conviction in faith, such that the world is aware of that faith, such that the light is driving out all traces of the darkness, such that we would even put our lives on the line to make this Good News known?
There are things that we can do, are doing, to live into the example of a holy life that is put before us in the life of Stephen. And, we have to continue to bring the light in these and many more ways, so that when we say we attend St. Stephen’s it is clear that we know what that means, the tradition we are connected to, the example we strive to match.
Homelessness is clearly a primary concern in our community today. We have made bold moves (opening a space that was sitting empty each night with the heat on) to try and answer an immediate need in regards to youth in our community who experience homelessness, specifically on those nights when no one should be sleeping outside or in their car because they are at risk of dying from that cold (not that youth should ever be sleeping anywhere but in a home, but this is our reality today). But, youth homelessness is just one part of the crisis that exists in our community. So, we do more. We show up for public hearings. We partner with other organizations in town. We allow our faith to move our hearts and seek solutions for our siblings in Christ who need more, more help, more love, more care, more. This is not a crisis that is going to go away any time soon without bold actions and deep convictions. This crisis calls us to be like Stephen, to remind others what it means to live a Christian faith, what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. To be willing to be on the outside of the majority to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. To be willing to give our lives over to fighting for our siblings in Christ.
We fight every week, every two months, every day, against the pangs of hunger that are felt throughout our community. Radical Love continues to serve over 100 people each week. Starting February 13th, those Wednesday feedings will move to our own parish hall because the need in Longview has grown exponentially. The need is ever increasing in our community, and we are boldly stepping forward to meet that need where it is most felt. FISH has seen an increase in families and mouths fed each cycle. This food meets the needs of families, of single adults, of children living with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Our distribution of FISH continues to grow in demand and our commitment to FISH is beginning to grow to match that need. We have Life-Pax available so that you can make an immediate difference in the life of someone who doesn’t know how to access anything else, who needs that food to carry them to their next meal. Each of these initiatives requires different commitments, different people in our congregation, different expressions of faith, but together they make a mark on our community and lets those who are in the most desperate of need know that at St. Stephen’s their hunger will be met with food.
This congregation also has expressed a deep commitment to a global issue that is felt here in this town, by the poorest amongst us, by all of us. Our commitment to being stewards of creation does not simply ring hollow as an empty promise of our faith. This congregation makes a concerted effort to fully live into what it means to be stewards of the gift of creation we have been given. We strive to educate ourselves on how our faith informs our practice of fighting for environmental justice. We have taken real actions to insure that this place lessens its own impact on our environment. And, we’re challenged to do more through our faith. To make it clear how our faith informs our understanding of this global crisis. To illustrate to others how our faith drives us to seek a healing of this gift of creation. To give up the life of consumption and excess, to lead by example, to be true stewards of what God has deemed as “very good.”
Stephen is more than a name that adorns this church. Stephen is an example for us of what it looks like to live a holy life, to hold deep conviction, to being willing to give of yourself, and in doing so, even in that moment of death, to seek forgiveness for those committing the act. And, that is the lasting memory we must take of Stephen. Not that we are simply called to bring light to the darkest places of the world. Not that we are called to answer the problems of our community, of our world with a response founded in faith. Not that we are called to give our lives for this work. But, that our faith and conviction be so deep, that even as we are being stoned to death, we seek forgiveness for those committing the act. We seek forgiveness for those whose hearts are hardened. We seek forgiveness for those who cannot hear the message we bring. We seek forgiveness for the injustices in this world, the injustices that continue to persist, the injustices that we can end and choose not to, the injustices that permeate our society, stretching their darkness into our souls, pitting us against one another when the reality is that we are all siblings in Christ and through Christ, with the light of Christ, we will fight back against that darkness, we will fight against those injustices, we will lay down our lives so that others may live. We as a church must embrace this example of Stephen so that when we say “We are St. Stephen’s” people do not question what that means. And, I firmly believe we are on our way.