May 10. 2020
Acts 7: 55-60. Ps 31: 1-5, 15-16. 1 Peter 2: 2-10. John 14: 1-14
Happy Easter–for the fifth week in a row! Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Stoning of Stephen Day!
Yes, indeed, it is that time on the liturgical calendar where we acknowledge this special event–the stoning of the first deacon of the church. Yay. I’m not suggesting we celebrate this by replicating it, but let’s take a look at Stephen..
It seems more than appropriate that a deacon would get to preach this morning, because Stephen is considered to be the first deacon of the church, among those first seven appointed to do the work of taking care of the marginalized and vulnerable while the apostles were bringing so many into the primitive Christian church.
Acts is an interesting book. The time right after Easter is a good time to read it. Acts was written by Luke, as far as we know, in the storytelling style that he does so well. The movement of the apostles in the immediate time after the resurrection, the growing church, the turning away from the Jewish faith all culminate in this story of Stephen. He is not mentioned more than a handful of times, and his ministry seems to have been powerful, and quick. To get the full story, one only needs to turn back a couple of pages to Acts 6. The apostles are bringing in many people by speaking of Jesus’s mighty acts and powerful witness. But as they bring in followers, some complain that they aren’t doing what they preach. The vulnerable, the marginalized, the widows and orphans are being neglected. The original seven deacons are appointed to go and do, to take care of, to tend to the needs. We read, “The word of God continued to spread, the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.”
But the established synagogue community was threatening and hostile. Stirring up false rumors and witnesses, they brought Stephen in front of the council. The high priest confronted him with the charges, even though Stephen’s face appeared like the face of an angel. In his defense, Stephen spent several pages and a whole chapter reciting back the Jewish history from Abraham through Solomon and ending with a scathing indictment against those who stood there about how many prophets had been killed by this church, including Jesus. The council became enraged and dragged him away to be stoned. But here is where we see Stephen’s strength and faith. In an eerie calmness of Spirit, he echoes the words of Jesus at crucifixion as he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…and… Do not hold this against them.”
What does this story have to do with us today? What does the Spirit say to us, God’s people, in this reading?
First, of course, we have Stephen, a faith-filled, compassionate, powerful follower who became obedient to the church fathers and ministered to the marginalized. We recognize that he could have become a church leader like Peter or John. But he chose obedience and humility. He chose to put Jesus’ words into action, to serve those who lived on the streets, to feed the starving humanity, to heal those who hurt and needed help. He served the widows and orphans. He became the hands and feet of Christ. He is who we all strive to be. Stephen, as the first deacon, as the cornerstone of an important ministry, embodies the obedience, witness and faith that deacons promise to strive for when they are ordained.
In the service for the ordination of deacons, found in the Book of Common Prayer, the bishop directly asks each ordinand this question. “Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” And the ordinand answers–“I am willing and ready to do so…” (BCP, page 538)
Obey your bishop. That word is strong and powerful and difficult.
Obedience, obey become a stumbling block to us, a word in the way of our smooth life journey. Obedience sticks on our tongue and we have trouble repeating the word obey. We regularly eliminate it from the marriage vows. We notice it, perhaps negatively, every time we hear it.
Obedience walks a thin line next to obeisance, next to submission, next to inferior. It makes us uncomfortable to walk there. It makes us feel that someone else is in control, has the power.
When I was ordained as a deacon, I promised–Promised–to obey my bishop. PROMISED TO OBEY. Again, those words are startling. When I thought about them, I was aware of what that might mean. What if my bishop, Bishop Ed K at the time, asked me to serve a church other than what was right in my town, other than the one I planned to go to? That was a real possibility. My church already had a deacon. Maybe I would be asked to serve in Tulsa, 40 miles away, or Grove, 50 miles away? Would I protest? Would I suggest something else? Would I obey? What if the Bishop suggested I do a different ministry, not in the church? How would I handle that? Would I protest with my own plan? Would I explain to him that I knew God called me to do this?
I knew I would obey. I had promised to obey. I knew that part of ministry is obedience with joy. It wasn’t a thought that sat easily upon this independent, strong-minded soul of mine. But it was important.
Again, when Mike and I first hoped and planned to come to Oregon, we had to ask the permission of two bishops! I’ve told that to several people, especially those outside our faith tradition, and it makes their eyebrows go clear into their hairlines. My strong-minded daughters almost came unglued. I quit sharing quite so much of the process with them. First we had to ask permission of our Bishop in Oklahoma to check with the Bishop of Oregon. Then we had to ask permission of the Bishop of Oregon to begin the process. All this asking of permission is rather odd for most adults, I might say. When we were really ready to move, we asked the Bishop of Oregon, once again, for a place to be in ministry. Now, honestly, if we had gone to Bishop Michael and told him that we had bought a house in Newport and could he use us?, I’m sure he would have done so. However, we chose to make it a faith matter. We asked him where he wanted us. He gave us four choices, one of which was Eugene. Eugene became obvious to us. Then the Bishop placed us in our churches–the night before we first appeared at them. We did not know which churches we had been asked to serve until the Saturday night before we showed up. St. Thomas and Resurrection were both fairly sure to get us as deacons, but we waited on the Bishop to tell us where and when. We obeyed, both as a sign of respect for the church and the bishop, and as a matter of faith.
It was obviously a God thing. We are where we are supposed to be. From the beginning of my time here, I felt it was right. I will be honest with you, it was not as much a joy to serve apart from Mike. We had a few years of a dual ministry in Bartlesville, and enjoyed the team work. But we knew that here we would be apart every Sunday, and it was an adjustment. Of course, now we are together and apart. Both/and. We have found a way to do an evening ministry together, but our church work is still separate, although we can “go” to both services on Sunday.
We have both learned to obey, to follow the rules and guidelines set before us, to walk in faith that this is a right and good thing. It isn’t always comfortable to obey. It is sometimes inconvenient. But it is always faith filled.
Stephen showed such supreme obedience that when he died of such painful and humiliating death, he echoed Christ’s death. He asked forgiveness for those that stoned him, for those that reviled him and created such havoc. He died as he lived, in supreme and total faith.
There’s something else about this story of Stephen. Just as with Christ’s death and resurrection, Stephen’s death led to a whole new ministry. After the stoning of Stephen, with Saul’s approval, the established religion’s persecutions of the new church intensified and literally drove the movement out into the world around. From the 8th chapter of Acts on, we witness a tidal wave of Christianity throughout the world. Christianity spread and grew stronger. Paul had an absolute conversion experience. And Stephen’s example of steadfast faith, powerful spirit, and absolute obedience became a turning point in church history.
So here we are, in another moment of history that will be remembered. And now we, each one, are called to obey. In this new and skewed environment of illness and prevention, we are called to obey. We are called to wear masks, keep our distance, avoid making or being a crowd, stay home, and work to eradicate something we can’t see. All we can see are the results of our obedience, or lack of obedience. We are life savers or we are life threateners. We are Stephens or we are stoners. We are disciples or we aren’t. But this obedience thing doesn’t actually feel important sometimes. I mean, if no one wears a mask on the trail, why should I? If lots of folks go to the store randomly, why can’t I? If some states are opening restaurants, shouldn’t we? And who is right, really? Can we balance what we know we should do to protect ourselves with what we know we need to do to survive financially? Whose truth do we choose?
This is a hard one. It doesn’t feel like obedience as much as it feels like fear mixed with inconvenience. We don’t feel like we are in ministry so much. We are even prevented from doing some of our regular ministry stuff–visiting the sick, tending to those who are dying. And yet we are, each one, in the business of saving lives. We are saving our own lives and those whom we love. We are saving the lives of those who we come in contact with, the people we meet on the street, those who serve us can be saved by our actions. This is where faith comes and shows us what to do. This is where we wear our religion on our collective sleeve, and in our face masks. This is where we listen to the Spirit telling God’s people what they must do.
Obedience is a hard word, but we know what it means for each of us. We have heard the words of Jesus every Sunday, guiding us, setting down alternate rules, leading us to faith and truth. Now is no different. We are strong, we are faithful, we are upheld by a God who loves us immensely. We will make it through this and come out with a new ministry, a new way to do church, and new feeling of faith and strength and love. We don’t know what is to come. Perhaps this time will prove a turning point for our beloved church. Perhaps we will do things in a new and better way. Perhaps we will learn more about obedience than we ever wanted to know. We will change. We will go through this. We will see each other again.
So now, dear people of God, let us listen to the Spirit well. Let us reflect on Stephen and obedience and sacrifice. And let us await our time of collective healing with a sense of anticipation and joy. May God hold you in health and peace and strength. Amen.