Sermon for Saint Stephen, Sunday, August 7 2016, 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
I have observed before that we have a patron saint who is strikingly suitable to our parish—that although the lectionary puts a lot of stress on Stephen being the first martyr, he was also the first deacon of the early church, the first person to be part of that order dedicated especially to serving the poor and the vulnerable, going out into the world and discovering and meeting the world’s needs, and bringing them back to the church to empower others to be part of that work.
And I’ve talked more than once about that fascinating verb, diakonein, the way that it is used the Gospels; that it 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. All those women, all those people of low status and little importance, doing the work by which our human lives are sustained.
Now, I said “almost” exclusively. There is one male person in the Gospels to whom the verb diakonein is attached, in fact frequently attached. And that one man is, of course, 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. So the work of service, the work of the deacon—which is not only the work of those ordained as deacons, but properly the work of the whole church—is a particular identification with the earthly ministry of Christ, just as the deaths of martyrs, the deaths of those who offer their lives for truth and justice, are an identification with Christ’s death. That entire offering, our lives in their particularity and fullness, in whatever way we find ourselves called to offer, that is the message of Stephen’s life and death, and it is a wonderful and intimidating calling for a parish to have.
But, because this is something we’ve talked about not only at our patronal festival each year, but also as we’ve gone through the process of beginning to raise up a vocational deacon or deacons in this parish, I’d like to try to take another angle on Stephen today, and think about Stephen as storyteller.
The book of Acts is, in an important way, about making narrative. Almost all of the climactic points involve someone telling this new story of the crucified and risen Messiah, and finding ways to use that story to retell, to re-interpret, other stories; most especially, to reframe the narrative arc of the Hebrew scriptures, which were and remained the central holy texts of the early Christians. Peter, throughout the early chapters, is rummaging in the prophets and the psalms to find ways of explaining what has happened, to put this overwhelming new experience into words. But none of his efforts come close to the comprehensive and exhaustive narrative which Stephen produces before his death, which takes up an entire long chapter of the book of Acts, and of which only a small part is reproduced here—Stephen goes right back to the beginning of the story of the covenant, the calling of Abram away from his home, and marches his hearers right through the entire history of Israel up to that point, shaping it all into a story which points to this moment, this time and place, the astonishing events through which the disciples have lived, the events which are both the final meaning towards which all the narrative tends, and the only point from which the story can be properly understood, the blaze of resurrection light which makes everything else into a new kind of story, a story fully understood only now, for the first time.
And in this, too, Stephen is a model for us, because this too is a work to which we are called—the constant unfolding of the story of God’s people, the interaction between our texts and our histories and our own lived experiences, the light of the presence of God and the fire of the Holy Spirit renewing the old stories, making them alive, making them sudden and instant and here, now, always.
It may be significant that Stephen, at least to judge from his name, was at least partly Greek in his background, possibly from a mixed family, or possibly a Greek convert to Judaism. Someone, then, for whom the story had never been uncomplicated, who had always had to do some sort of work to make it his own—a work he carried on in the moments before his death, incorporating this new story, the God who came into this world of flesh, the God who suffered for love, who died at the hands of power and rose again, the God he had experienced in this new community, in the breaking of bread, in the work of service, in the lives of the hungry.
And it is also significant that one of the people involved in the stoning of Stephen was a young man named Saul, from Tarsus, the young man who would fall on the road to Damascus, stunned by the light, and become the apostle Paul. The writer of Acts seems to have been close to Paul, to have travelled with him, and this mention cannot be incidental. We are meant to understand that this was one of the moments to led towards Damascus, that Saul who became Paul never forgot his complicity in this first murder, and never forgot what he had seen that day—the vision of human possibility, what we can endure when we know we are loved, what we can forgive when we know we are forgiven.
And Paul, eventually, would become one of the great storymakers, the one who would take the story of Jesus of Nazareth and reshape not only the narrative of the Abrahamic covenant, but the whole story from creation onwards, every bit of it, and the language of Greek philosophy and cosmology, and every other resource which crossed his path, for all story, all language, all human thought, was being made new, moment by moment, in the encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. None of what we understood was ever stable. It is all re-read, re-made, re-created, by the new story, and by our own work in telling that story, our own encounters with that light, our own efforts to speak of it in every way the world offers, in all our complex lives.
So we, Stephen’s parish, are called to Stephen’s life in all its aspects. We are called as deacons, as servants of the needy suffering world, as the ones who will go into that world defenceless and without much status, to tend and feed and care. We are called as complicated people with mixed-up identities, called to be people who walk the boundaries of identity, who acknowledge our privilege and our complicity alongside our weakness and our littleness, who try to speak more than one language, belong to the broken whole that is creation. We are called to offer up our lives, in whatever form that may take—not, for most of us, the death of the martyr, although that sometimes comes, without warning, and all we can offer to violence is vulnerability.
And we are called to be the storytellers and storymakers, to read our texts so thoroughly, to learn them so deeply, that in our deepest crises we can call on them, and call them into new life, can read our experience of God into those texts and create a new understanding of the story which goes on, which answers the sudden violent moment, which answers the grief, which answers the long slog of daily struggle. And it may be that those who hate us, those who hurt us, even those who laugh at us and ignore, will find themselves changed, in ways neither they nor we can recognize at the time. In ways we may never know.
As I’ve said before, it is no small thing, to belong to a parish dedicated to St Stephen. Yesterday we had caution tape strung up along the steps to the chancel, and although that was for the work on the organ, it was really tempting to leave it there; because it is a serious thing, to take this on. To receive the bread which is the body, to become the body which is bread for the poor. To be deacon, martyr, creator of meaning. But it is to this which we have all been invited, however we came to these doors. Come forward, then, and claim it, this church in Stephen’s name.