Saint Stephen

Sermon for Saint Stephen, Sunday, August 2 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 26:1-9,12-15; Ps 31:1-7,16: Acts 6:8-7:2a,51c-60; Mt 23:34-39

The feast of St Stephen – the patron saint of this parish – was tradtionally celebrated on December 26. Acknowledging that this is a fairly terrible day to try to get anyone into church, the calendar now allows for the feast to be marked in early August instead; which, as far as getting people into church goes, is not actually all that much better, so I’m very glad to see you all here today.

Stephen was the first martyr of the early church, stoned to death by an angry mob, and the prayers and readings for today focus on that, and on the pattern he sets for commitment in the face of, and to the point of, death, without returning violence, and for forgiveness of those determined to kill him. And these are important and worthy parts of his story. But I’d like to look at another aspect of Stephen’s story today, because he was not only the first martyr, he was one of the first deacons, and that’s something we talk about less, and perhaps understand even less well, than we do his martyrdom.

It is a striking moment in the very early church, and in its way a troubling one, the point when the apostles decide that they are too busy and important to be feeding poor widows, and create a separate order, the deacons, to deal with all this table-serving business.

There was more than just that involved, of course. This was also part of the internal politics of balancing the two main communities in the early church, the native Palestinians from whom the original apostles all probably came, and the diaspora Jews whose native language was Greek – the original deacons all apparently belonged to this second group, and it gave them a place within the emerging structure. But it’s clear enough from the story in Acts that the creation of the first deacons was in some part about the apostles judging that service to the vulnerable was not quite worth their very important time and energy. It is one of those moments in Acts when the barely-forming church reveals itself to be a very human community, living out the new life in Christ to the best of its ability but always inclined to slide gently backwards into familiar old ways of understanding. And so, the deacons; the ones who were charged with the realization of the vision, in the concrete details of the actual world.

The word “deacon” comes from a Greek verb, diakonein, to serve. It’s quite a common verb, but it is used in a very specific way. All through each of the four Gospels, the word is used almost exclusively of women. It is women who serve, who carry out the less prestigious, necessary, life-sustaining humble work of feeding and caring and tending. It is Peter’s mother-in-law, raised from sickness so she can serve the apostles their dinner. It is Martha of Bethany. It is the women who came with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and who supported the apostolic mission from their own resources.

Now, I said “almost” exclusively. There is one male person in the Gospels to whom the word diakonein is attached, in fact frequently attached. And that one man is Jesus. In fact, it is the word he uses to summarize the entire meaning of his earthly ministry — “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” to diakonein. Jesus, the incarnate Word who bends down to wash the feet of Peter and the rest, did not see diakonia as unworthy, did not scorn the work of slaves and women but identified it as the fundamental work by which we should understand his whole earthly life. All of it – healing and teaching and feeding, walking with the poor and the outcast, going voluntarily into the hands of power, death on the cross and resurrection – diakonia. Service. The Bread of Life waits upon all our tables.

Everyone who is ordained a priest is ordained a deacon first, and remains a deacon forever. That calling to service is not erasable. For me, the understanding that I am a deacon forever as well as a priest has always been extremely important, and for that reason among others I am very glad to be serving in a parish dedicated to the first deacon. But, insofar as all Christians are called by baptism to share in the life of Christ, and insofar as Jesus identified diakonia as the meaning of his life, in that sense all Christians are called to be deacons. Sometimes I think we don’t need so much to remind ourselves of the priesthood of all believers as we do of the diaconate of all believers. In some ways, that is the first necessary basis of all our various vocations.

It may be that it was in part because Stephen took on the identification with Christ in a life of service and self-offering that he became the first person in the church to make that identification in death as well as life, to offer himself into the hands of violent men, and offer no violence but only forgiveness in return. It is maybe not a coincidence that deacon and martyr are modelled for us by the same person.

There’s another detail I’d like to look at, in this story. It’s mentioned almost incidentally, but is considered important enough to mention — among those involved in his execution was a brilliant and difficult man named Saul of Tarsus. Saul who became Paul. The man who shaped so much of our theology, the man who, for all his difficulties, and for all that he said some things which have damaged us, was also essential to the creation of the Christian community, whose writings were sometimes brilliant and beautiful, the man who knew, by the end of his life, on some deep level of his being, that neither principalities nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God, and who could communicate this to the world.

We must assume that Paul carried that moment with him, his complicity in violence and the offered forgiveness, and some of the ways in which he shaped the future of Christian thought must be, to some degree, rooted in that moment. The knowledge of human evil, and the knowledge of human possibility, of what we can become when we believe ourselves loved, what we can forgive when we know ourselves to be forgiven. Stephen’s influence runs deep, and this aspect of it is not often thought of. Certainly Stephen himself could not have suspected, as the stoning began, that he was shaping history in quite such a way, could not have imagined what his offering would achieve.

And it is the same, I think, with many of our own smaller and greater offerings; we do not know, we may never know, what has been accomplished. We do the work we find before us, one small thing and then another small thing. We give what we can to the lost and hungry world, we speak truth to power as we’re able. We make what beauty we can, we protest and we educate, and we try to build small islands of humanity, and surely much of the time it all seems futile, as futile as one man dying outside the city for an eccentric idea about a God who came to us in our flesh, who died for the love of us all, who rose again because love cannot die. As pointless as that.

And perhaps that is part of the humility of diakonia, learning to let go of certainty, of results, learning to accept that our offerings will rarely be recognized even by ourselves, let alone the rest of the world.

To live in that obscurity, that unknowing – that persistent, unsupported, essential faith.

I think that churches do, often, come to carry something of the nature of their patron saints. And I think that this parish does that very clearly. This is a parish which has always, from the beginnings of its history, been known as a church for the poor and a church among the poor. It is a parish where feeding the hungry has always been a central and deeply valued ministry. It is, and it has long been, safe space for the marginal, the struggling, the outcast. When this parish is its best self, it is a deacon parish, it is –we all are — diakonia. And that is an extraordinary gift and calling. To be responsible for that service and that witness. The humility of women and servants, the willingness to give all that is left to give. As Saul’s story tells us, there is no knowing who may be shaped by this and how. It only falls to us to live this out, here and now and always.