Sermon - Alan Ferguson
Our second reading this morning is from the book of Acts, chapters 6 and 7:
7 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” 2 And Stephen replied:
56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
So, how’s that for a bright, sunny story to lift up our spirits this fine Sunday morning? Stephen, a man full of faith who has decided to follow Jesus, is chosen to lead, then falsely accused and, ultimately stoned to death for his faithfulness.
A few minutes ago, Steve sang a song written by Mac Davis and recorded by Elvis Presley nearly fifty years ago. Did anyone remember that song? It chronicles a life that was entirely too short, as seen through the mother’s eyes.
At the child’s birth, his mamma cries. She cries not because she is angry at the newborn, or because she regrets having him, but because of the life that she knows he will endure and, possibly, worries about the likelihood – later proven true – that the world into which he was born will be too much for him to survive.
Then, at the end of the song, when he has been shot to die in the street, another tragedy is just unfolding. “As her young man dies, on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’ another baby child is born in the ghetto. And his mama cries.”
So, what does all of this have to do with today’s scripture reading and the stoning of Stephen? How do we compare the errant ways of a young man in the Chicago ghettos with our first Christian martyr? Well, as far as I can tell, we can’t. They are entirely unrelated and diametrically opposed stories.
Or, are they? There’s one little connection I see that ties them together, which is that both suffered the ultimate price for choices they made in life.
Stephen chose the way of righteousness, following Jesus. Even as death was upon him, his faith would not falter. Stephen saw the glory of God, and knew that his faith would overcome death.
The young man of song, on the other hand, made some very poor choices in his few short years. That fateful morning, he crossed a line that would cost him his life…suffering the end that his mother perhaps foresaw that day he was born. She knew his life would be difficult, even miserable. She feared that the reality of life in the ghetto would be too much. And, she was right. Maybe he got what he deserved for making those poor choices and bad decisions? Maybe.
But, what if neither he nor Stephen had a choice? I mean, I didn’t choose to be a Christian. In fact, I have fought vigorously against faith at one point or another in my life. But…I just can’t help it. I am a Christian, no matter how much I might have tried to deny it. Perhaps the same was true for Stephen. Then again, it would have been in his mortal interest to at least deny his faith in Christ, to at least stand a chance of avoiding the stones that he knew were coming. God would have forgiven him, and what human would have blamed him? No: he made a choice to proclaim his faith, though he knew what would come. He made a conscious decision that cost him his life.
Yet, there are people among us today who are repudiated, tortured, and even killed…not for choices they make, but, rather, simply for who…and for how…they are, and for being true to themselves. Perhaps some of you know one of these people? Think about it…look around. Who?
Now, as many of you know, several members of our congregation joined together last year to form the new Mount Horeb Area Chapter of PFLAG. PFLAG is an organization of local folks who provide support, education, and advocacy for the LGBTQ community, as well as their family, friends, and allies. I sort of went along, just to be a part. After all, with the 2015 Supreme Court decision enshrining marriage equality, I thought that we had arrived. We had won the ultimate victory, and our work was done. The hatred, and bigotry, and oppression that I had grown up with and lived life with was now a thing of the past.
As word spread, folks from outside our congregation stepped forward, and said, “Me too!” Most of these were straight folks. Some had friends or family members who are LGBTQ, while others just wanted to show support. Cool!
We plodded along, dotting the t’s and crossing our i’s. We jumped through hoops and enlisted the help of a supportive local attorney to do the legal stuff. I thought, if nothing else, I am getting to meet a nice group of people…still not convinced that we were really needed.
Then, along came our first Chapter meeting, in February of this year. I expected a lot of comradery and good cheer. What I saw provided a jolt like I haven’t experienced in a long, long time.
I remember October 6, 1998 like it was yesterday. A young man I had never heard of was found beaten and tied like a scarecrow to a fence, near Laramie, Wyoming. His crime? He was gay. Matthew Shepard would have been 40 years old now. I make no apology for the fact that I still mourn for him.
That was nearly 20 years ago, though. Why bring it up now? What relation does it have to today…to here and now? “Quit bringing up the past,” some would say. But, most of us have heard the expression, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Matthew Shepard’s story is being repeated today. We haven’t learned from it…not enough, anyway. Those of us who are different not because of choices we make – as Stephen was - but simply because of how we are born, continue to suffer at the hands of society. Don’t believe me?
June 17, 2015. Nine people were killed during prayer service at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people. Praying. Worshiping God. Murdered as they gathered. Their crimes? They were African American.
On June 12, 2016, forty-nine people were killed, gunned down at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Their crimes? They were dancing and having fun at a gay nightclub. Forty-nine lives snuffed out.
February 22, 2017. An angry white man walked into Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas. There, patrons were happily watching a basketball game on television. Among the bar’s patrons were two men from India who worked for Garmin, manufacturer of popular GPS units, and living legally in the US. The man walked in, yelling racial slurs, telling the two Indian men to “get out of my country,” and calling them “terrorists.” Mistaking the two men for “Iranians,” the American opened fire. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, was killed in the attack, and Alok Madasani, 32, was wounded.
Since January 1st of this year, nine transgender women have been killed in the United States. All were women of color. Nine deaths in four months.
All these people I have mentioned were slaughtered because they were different…or at least, someone thought they were different. Many of the people killed in Orlando were gay or lesbian. These folks - neighbors, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles – died not for choices they made, but simply for who they were.
At our first monthly PFLAG meeting in February, we had a total of 34 people in attendance. 34! In a largely liberal area in a very liberal county, that number was striking. I could hardly wait until we got to the introductions part of the meeting. And then…we got there. Some were there, as I mentioned earlier, just to be supportive. Some were there because they knew of PFLAG’s work and wanted to help. And, then there were those who needed us…the ones for whom this movement had begun back in the early 1970s.
Who do you suppose those people were? Gay kids? Transgender adults? They were…the parents. As the introductions proceeded around the circle, it came to them. Dad introduced himself and his wife. He worked up the courage to say, “Our child is transgender.”
And the mama cried.
She cried not because she is angry at their child, and not because she regrets having their child, but because of the life that she knows lies ahead. This child, who has basically been re-born, is up against tremendous odds in life. The parents know.
When I was in college working on my degree in criminal justice, one of our textbooks had a quote that has stuck with me in all the years since. I researched the quote recently, and found that it actually originated way back in the 1800s. It goes something like this:
“There are many ways one can do a right thing right. There are many ways one can do a right thing wrong. But, there is no way one can do a wrong thing right.”
It would have been easier for Stephen to have kept his beliefs to himself. Had he done so, he may have escaped the stoning and death that resulted from those beliefs. Yet, he could not. Stephen could not keep quiet about right. He could not spare his own life at the expense of his faith. He could not deny Jesus as the Messiah. And, as Stephen was stoned to death for proclaiming his faith, who stood by and watched? Saul. Saul stood and watched over the coats of those who were casting the murderous stones. He kept silent. He approved.
There is good news though. There are many people who cannot stay silent today about the harms that are inflicted, the deaths that are spurred by those who view the victims as “different.” Folks like you and me are speaking out, shouting loudly that intolerance cannot stand…that all of us – ALL of us – are made, and loved, and nurtured by God. We are ALL God’s children. That no one – NO ONE – has the right to judge another person on the basis of who – or how - that person is. They do not stand by silently as Saul did.
Stephen set the example for us. He showed us how to do the right thing right. “Yes,” Stephen said, “Jesus was and is the Messiah. Here’s the prophecy, the scriptures that tell us so.” Stephen could not sacrifice his soul to save his life. He could not deny who and how he was. Stephen was a Christian. He could neither change nor deny that fact. No matter the cost.
Thanks be to God.
The story for this Sunday bings us to the very earliest days of the Christian church—at time of vigorous growth by the new community of Jesus’ followers. This passage begins with a decision by the apostles to choose 7 capable men of good standing to care for the daily needs of the community while they focused on the preaching and teaching ministry.
In an instance I like to think indicated God’s sense of humor, Stephen, one of these men chosen to care for the physical needs of his fellow believers, becomes one of the greatest preachers in this young church, giving a clear and powerful witness to the High Priest and other Jewish leaders.
What is not humorous is the mob response that follows his rather lengthy and provocative sermon.
The questions for this week can be found following the story:
Acts 6.1-7.2a, 44-60
1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ 5What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 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.
8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ 12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these things so?’ 2And Stephen replied:
44 ‘Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46who found favour with God and asked that he might find a dwelling-place for the house of Jacob. 47But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says,
49 “Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
50 Did not my hand make all these things?”
51 ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’
54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
6:1-6 These are the earliest days of the new Jesus Movement. Pentecost has just happened. The Holy Spirit has been given to the church with great and convincing power. Converts to the movement are flooding in. Yet, in the middle of all the excitement, the infant church is divided—the Hellenists are complaining against the Hebrews because the daily bread was not being distributed fairly to their widows. The Hebrews were the Jewish followers of Jesus. The Hellenists were Greek (non-Jewish) followers of Jesus.
If the church this close to Pentecost could be so easily divided, what hope do we have for a united church?
What divisions are there in the larger church today that resemble this Hebrew/Hellenist divide?
What sorts of issues have divided our congregation (or other congregations you have seen)? How have they been resolved?
The people choose 7 men with Greek names to solve this Greek/Jew conflict. What do you think of their solution?
Could 7 Democrats in congress resolve the Democratic/Republican divide in Washington today? Why or why not?
Does Paul’s teaching from Galatians 3:28 apply to this situation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Clearly there are still men and women, as well as “Jews and Greeks” in the church today. What was Paul talking about?
Ch 6. 8-14 The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” were freed Jewish slaves, many of whom had gained Roman citizenship and were politically connected. They argue with Stephen, probably over matters of theology and politics, but he wins every argument. So the Freedmen bring in people to tell stories about Stephen—stories that range from exaggeration to distortion to outright lies
Is this where Mark Zukerburg got the idea for Facebook?
The Freedmen publish (proclaim, that is) “fake news” about Stephen. How could they get away with this? Why do you think these people were so quick to believe this fake news?
What would the people on both side of this conflict have had to do to avoid descending into violence? When was the line crossed that made the violence inevitable?
To his credit, the High Priest asks Stephen, “Are these things so?” Why doesn’t Stephen answer the question?
Just before the situation spirals out of control, Luke (the author of Acts) make a point of writing: “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (Ch 6:7). Was Stephen justified in saying this from Ch 7:51—“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…”
What advice would you give to Stephen about preaching to people when he knows they disagree with him?
Can you connect the dots between Stephen railing against the Jewish leaders with Christian anti-semitism as it has been manifested over the centuries?
Ch 7:60 “Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” Where have you heard this sentiment before? Did Stephen get what he asked for? Is it possible for forgiveness to ever be anything but undeserved?