Sermon for February 1, 2015 || On the Occasion of Annual Meeting & the Celebration of the Feast of St. Stephen || Jeremiah 26: 1-9, 12-15; Psalm 31: 1-5; Acts 6: 8 – 7:2a, 51c-60 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Some of you will know that the feast day of our patron saint, St. Stephen, is actually on December 26th. But since few of us are likely to come to church the day after Christmas—even when it happens to fall on a Sunday—I’m always grateful for the long-standing tradition here of defying the liturgical police once a year, so that on the morning of our Annual Meeting we get to celebrate St. Stephen in our worship together and in the divine feast we share at God’s altar. Not only that, but then we get to share another divine feast with a fabulous brunch made up of highly caloric but utterly heavenly delights like Chris Woodward’s French bread casserole!
Stephen is perhaps most celebrated as one of the first deacons of the church. And as disillusioning as it may be to discover that conflict has existed in the church since before it was even called church, the fact is that were it not for a conflict among the early followers of Jesus just a few years after his death and resurrection, we might never have heard of Stephen at all.
Remember that in Stephen’s time, the word “Christian” hadn’t even been coined yet, except as a derogatory term for those who followed Jesus, who were otherwise known as “followers of the Way.” And among those followers of the way were both Hebraic Jews and Greek-speaking, “Hellenized” Jews. Well, it seems that when it came to the daily distribution of food, the Hellenized Jews thought their widows were getting the short end of the stick, and they complained to the 12 apostles. So to settle the matter, the 12 apostles instructed the whole community of disciples to pick seven men “of good standing, full of the spirit and of wisdom,” whose ministry it would be to serve food and care for the widows, thereby freeing the 12 to devote themselves entirely to prayer and to preaching. As a result, the community chose Stephen and six other men, who were then prayed over by the apostles with the laying on of hands.
So when we think of Stephen, we often celebrate his ministry as a deacon—and there is a wonderful synchronicity between Stephen’s focus on feeding the poor and our own. It is so perfectly appropriate that as a church community our primary outreach ministries are ministries of feeding!
But Stephen did much else, beyond serving food and looking after widows. As we read in this morning’s excerpt from Acts, Stephen was a man who did “great wonders and signs among the people.” He was a miracle-worker and a healer. And if we were to read all sixty verses of Chapter 7, instead of just the beginning and the end bits appointed for today, we would know that Stephen was also one courageous truth-teller. Stephen spoke the truth about his faith and paid for it with his life: As our opening Collect makes clear, he became the first martyr among Jesus’ followers.
This then, is the aspect of our beloved patron saint Stephen that I’d like to hold up for us this morning: Not his martyrdom per se—because I’m doubtful any of us will likely be called upon to die for our faith in the literal sense; but what I want to hold up for us this morning is Stephen’s courageous truth-telling on behalf of his faith– and the self-sacrifice he was willing to make because of it.
Because for Christianity to survive in our world today, those of us who call ourselves Christians are going to have to die to ourselves and become truth-tellers. We’re going to have to come out of the closet and tell the truth about what we believe and why we believe it. And if we’re not sure about what we believe or why we believe it, we need to tell the truth about that, and take seriously the common work of figuring it out.
You may have seen reports of a recent survey by Barna Group in which a staggering 38% of Americans identified as un-churched, never-churched, or claimed no religious identity. According to a story on the survey reported by the Religious News Service, “roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are ‘post-Christian’ and ‘essentially secular in belief and practice.’”
Jesus is not exactly a popular figure in our dominant culture. What he teaches is an offense against those with power, but it is salvation to those without it. Couple this with a cultural taboo against discussing religion, or being seen as—God forbid—proselytizers, and what we are left with is a Church shamed into silence, a faith without a voice, the Good News of Jesus Christ and no one left to proclaim it.
This simply will not do. Churches across all denominations are losing members and many churches are closing their doors or on the brink of closing. You, and me, and mainstream Christians everywhere have got to be more courageous and more vocal about our faith. Yes, this will necessarily involve self-sacrifice—but nothing like what Stephen experienced! Nothing like so many Christians in other parts of the world still experience. It may mean sacrificing our pride on the altar of public opinion; giving up the comfort of the familiar for the anxiety of the new; or letting go of self-centered fear for the sake of the Gospel. It may mean taking risks, feeling awkward, stumbling for the right words, maybe even being embarrassed. It may mean stepping way out of our comfort zone and gently inviting others out of theirs. But it will most definitely mean standing up boldly as followers of Jesus Christ—even, if not especially, in “polite society.” It will mean confessing our faith, how it informs our life, and why it’s so important to us. Being good people isn’t enough anymore. It’s fantastic the way this church walks the walk, but we need to learn to talk the talk, too.
Listen to what David Kinnaman, the President of Barna Group, told the Religious News Service. He said “…the wall between the churched and the churchless is growing higher and more impenetrable as more people have no muscle memory of what it means to be a regular attender at a house of worship.”
Wow, that’s huge. And it’s heartbreaking! “…the wall between the churched and the churchless is growing higher and more impenetrable as more people have no muscle memory of what it means to be a regular attender at a house of worship.”
We who are churched have so much to offer the churchless! How can we possibly stand by and do nothing? We have the whole salvation story, the Good News of the Gospel, and the joy of the Resurrection. We have the grace of the Sacraments, the power of our prayers, the richness of our music, and the strength and support of our beloved community! We need to tell the world! We need to breech that wall between the churched and the churchless before it really is too late. You, and me, and all of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus.
We are about to baptize little Molly into Christ’s one holy, catholic and apostolic church. I want that church to be around for a long, long time. I don’t want Molly to grow up in a world that is “essentially secular in belief and practice.” I want Molly to grow up in a world where she’s not the only girl in her class who goes to church; where her local church is an integral and vitally important part of her community; and where religion and spirituality are celebrated as essential ingredients to the gift that is our humanity.
My prayer is that in the coming year, in honor of our patron saint, St. Stephen, and in thanksgiving for the One we follow (and in whom we live and move and have our being) we will commit ourselves to the challenge of becoming truth-tellers on behalf of our faith. Courageous, self-sacrificing, truth-tellers, for the sake of the “churchless” who have no idea what they’re missing, for the sake of the gospel without which we would be lost, and for the sake of Christ’s church of which we are each a part.
I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I don’t know what this truth-telling will look like yet. But let’s help each other figure it out. Let’s take this on together, as the people of St. Stephen’s Church, and let’s help each other imagine it, try it on and practice it— until like Stephen, we too are “full of the spirit and of wisdom,” and can boldly proclaim our faith to all those who have none. Amen.