Sermon May 7, 2017 Story of Stephen by Rev. June Fothergill Acts 6-8
I remember going to a little church in Appalachia which was right across from the Henderson Settlement, a UMC mission station. We arrived early and no one greeted us. We sat around for awhile and finally some other folks came along. The congregation started to gather. Someone got us to start some group singing. Then about half way through the service a man ran in went straight up to the pulpit and preached a sermon putting down the United Methodist Church. Then after he was finished speaking her left without a word to any of us. The day before, I had just seen the good work of the Henderson Settlement of the United Methodist Church. They were meeting many needs of the surrounding community. The people there had been helpful and friendly but the experience of that little church was frankly hurtful- right across the street. Have you ever felt that way? Ever felt like your needs and perspective was not being heard or valued? Felt left out of the “in” group?
This story of Stephen starts with an experience of alienation. One group in the new church community is feeling left out. The Hellenists are concerned that their widows are not getting the same treatment and help as the Hebrew’s widows. The church leaders listen and deal with a brewing conflict. They recognize that they are going to need to share leadership more broadly. They can’t do it all themselves. They decided the area where they want to focus – evangelism and find help with the social service ministries inspired by Jesus. They develop the criteria for leadership- wisdom and Spirit filled. And they show wisdom in asking the community affected to chose the new leaders and then ritually accepting and recognizing those leaders through laying on of hands. In this way they expand the leadership of the group and address the feelings of alienation one group had. Like much of the descriptions of how the early church operated in Acts, I am in a bit of awe at how well it all worked out and wonder about the details. Was it really that easy? How did the group choose the man? What about the women? Etc, Etc. But the important thing is that they became aware of a problem and dealt with it in a wise and caring manner. I pray that God will continue to teach us how to do the same.
But the troubles are not over. This band of Jesus’ followers has much in store. They have dealt with an internal conflict but there is more trouble brewing from the outside. Stephen one of the Seven who was highlighted as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, grace and power begins to preach and do signs and wonders among the people. It seems that the folk in one of the synagogues- a synagogue made up of people who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world. Synagogue made up of Greek speaking, Hellenistic culture people. IN other words Stephen’s own people. disagreed with him. Could it be that this had been his synagogue before he converted to Christ? Could it be that he spoke especially to them because he longed for them to join him in knowing Christ and the Holy Spirit? We don’t know but we can imagine. Acts tells us that Stephen won the arguments- “But they could not with stand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.”
Then the real troubles for Stephen began. His opponents started going behind his back and instigating others to give false and misleading statements about him. To set up false witnesses. To make it look like he was a threat to their way of life, their faith, and their deepest values. This happens sometimes when we share our faith in words and actions. Not everyone will understand or agree. I remember several years ago the neighborhood around Sunnyside UMC in Portland caused trouble for the ministry with the homeless at that location. The neighborhood had changed from rather run down and working class to more upscale and wealthy. They didn’t want “those kinds of people in their neighborhood. I remember hearing stories of the Koinania ministry in Georgia getting in trouble because they included both blacks and whites in their community in a time of segregation.
In the midst of troubled times, Stephen gives us a model for courageous leadership and service:
- Stephen was centered on Christ. When the false accusations came against him, scripture says he face was like that of an angel. He opened himself to the power of the Holy Spirit to sustain and strengthen him in the midst of threats and trouble.
I am grateful for Stephen’s witness to us today. When troubles come whether internal or external, we have an incredible resource. We have the power of the Holy Spirit from Christ Jesus our Lord. We can turn to God in prayer and meditation and praise that will uphold and strengthen each of us. And we as a community of faith can support one another in prayer and spiritual wisdom. We can keep being open to ways Christ shows us to strengthen this ministry of prayer and mutual spiritual support.
I am looking forward to starting a Disciple Bible class this coming fall. Reading and listening to God through scripture is one of the ways we grow in our relationship with Christ. That we learn to stay Christ centered.
- Stephen was courageous. He did not back down from preaching and confronting his people with the truth about themselves and Jesus. Follower s of Jesus stand up for their faith in an unbelieving or hostile environment and face consequences. I have to admit being courageous is challenging. It is easy for me to let fear and feelings of inadequacy keep me from stepping up to truly share my faith in a troubled environment. Sometimes, I want to just fade away into the background or not try the hard thing. Yet, somehow, when I take a small step- God supplies the courage. Courage is not the same as not feeling fear. Courage is stepping out even when we are afraid. Courage is taking a deep breath and trusting God to be with us. It is realizing that God has given to each of us all the spiritual and other gifts we need to do what God calls us to do. We are enough!
For Stephen courage meant that he stepped out of his role as a service provider to become a teacher of the faith, not just to like minded fellow believers but to the scoffers and the skeptics of the Council. He spoke truth to power. I think of the courageous young people who are coming out of the shadows to share their stories of having lived in this country almost all their lives without any way to become citizens. Who take the risk to put a face on an injustice? I think of those Christian who live in countries where there is not religious freedom who face persecution when they practice their Christian faith. I think of the young women who because of her strong beliefs chooses to have a baby rather than an abortion. When we are facing a troubled time that is asking of us courage- we can remember Stephen and all these others and find our won courage from God!
Finally, Stephen was compassionate in the face of enemies. He extended a prayer of forgiveness as he died. He had compassion for those with whom he disagreed and who threatened him. Being Christ centered and full of the Holy Spirit made him courageous but it also gave him compassion. His last words as the stones where flying were. ““Lord do not hold this sin against them”. Could it be that Stephan’s prayer as he died under the pelting stones was answered when God called Saul on his road to Damascus a little while later? Could it be that his compassion opened a way for God to heal that angry young man that had agreed with his stoning and went on a rampage against the believers of Jesus?
What we do know is that after Stephen’s martyrdom, the believers experience persecution that led them to spread out into new places. And they took with them their faith in Jesus. They lamented Stephen’s death but in vs. 8:4 it tells us, “now those who were scattered went from place to place proclaiming the word.” In the midst of troubles, they found the courage and compassion to keep going. They realized that Christ went with them. The experience of Stephen seeing and proclaiming Christ present and there for him in his hour of need inspired others in their struggle. His compassion in the face of threat and death inspires all us still to dig deep the compassion of Christ in our struggles.
I close with a story. Claudine ran a machine beside Ina in the garment factory. In the tough, vulgar sometimes cruel atmosphere of the factory religion was a subject to be ridiculed and mocked. Claudine and Ina visited a little as they worked. “I learn a lot in my Bible class at church, Claudine ventured one day. Surprised to hear Bible study mentioned, Ina was quiet for a moment. “I would like to know more about the scriptures, “she confided. Claudine suggest that they bring their Bibles and study together once a week. They sought an unused corner of the plant, invited a few others and studied what the scriptures had to say to them. Quietly Christian reform began in that garment factory. Two or three of them sat down with their Bible and talked about how God speaks to them through the scriptures. Others listened from nearby and soon joined them with their Bibles. There was no preaching, no criticism- just a few Christians sharing their light with one another. Claudine taught Ina and other that God’s love can do miracle when hearts are opened to receive God’s word. ( Upper Room, June 29, 1997 “ God at Work “ by Ina Mae Brooks, Missouri)
AS we come to communion today. I invite us to be in prayer that we like Stephen might stay centered on Christ our Lord and discover the courage and compassion Christ has for our living of these days.