Saint Stephen

Sermon for Saint Stephen, Sunday, July 30 2017, 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 lectionary puts a lot of stress on Stephen being the first martyr—you can’t miss that in the readings for today. But, of course, as I’ve observed often before, 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. That 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. To be a deacon for the world’s needs. So the work of service, the work of the deacon—which is really the work of the whole church—is a particular identification with the earthly ministry of Christ.

And in the same way, 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 there’s another aspect of Stephen we can look at today, one which we haven’t much talked about in past years—it is in Stephen’s story that we see one of the first examples of the early church struggling with difference, with diversity, with shifting boundaries. There was some diversity in the very first group of apostles, of course. There were men and women, for one thing. There were fishermen and tax collectors, and around the edges there was even at least one rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, and perhaps Nicodemus from the Temple elite. But they were all Palestinian Jews, they all probably spoke Aramaic, they all shared the same basic culture.

But Stephen’s name, like the names of all those first made deacons, is Greek. Most likely, he was part of the Jewish diaspora, raised somewhere else in the empire, probably speaking Greek as a first language. Strange, foreign, to the original apostles. And the problem which led to the creation of the deacons in the first place was a cultural problem, with the Greek-speaking Jews perceiving their widows, their vulnerable ones, to be neglected, ignored in favour of those more directly like the original apostles.

We can’t understand, at this distance, how this related to the social hierarchies of the time exactly. The Greek-speakers might have been an elite to some degree, seemed more highly educated, more aware of the world, but still Jews, still a colonized and oppressed people living under the rule of Rome, and those who joined the early church were probably still mostly poor, because most of the early converts were. Poor enough, anyway, that their most pressing concern was finding people who would feed vulnerable women in their community who apparently had little other economic support.

The creation of the order of deacons may not have been the ideal solution to this—again, at this distance in time, we really can’t tell if appointing Greek-speaking disciples to feed the widows was something like cultural self-determination, or something like saying that the original apostles really just couldn’t make time for a bunch of old Greek ladies. But it has become an ongoing gift to the church, a reminder that it was Christ himself who washed the feet of the disciples and sent them into the world to do the same. And it would be Stephen, one of the Greeks, one of the strangers, one of the ones who didn’t fit the original pattern, who would be the first person willing to die for this belief. Perhaps partly because it had been necessary for him to work harder, to claim this story as his own despite his difference, that it became a story worth his whole life.

Peter, throughout the early chapters of Acts, 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, that one story which all Jews knew as their origin, 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 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 consumes even the darkness of his own impending death.

For that death is what power—even small power—persistently demands, our gospel today tells us. The prophets, the difficult ones who say complicated things, who compel us to see how often we betray all that is best in ourselves and our histories, are always unwelcome, will always become the lightning rods for violence. And more often than not, that prophetic voice, and the willingness to risk which it requires, emerges from difference, from those who in some way have already been partly on the outside. If we are to claim any bit of the courage of those prophets, maybe it begins with claiming our own difference, the strength of our own strangeness, whatever, for each of us, it may be.

And this too may be part of the special charism of this parish. We all know, I think, that we have Stephen’s identity as deacon stamped on our community deeply, that our calling to serve the most vulnerable in our community, to feed and to care for the marginalized, and to tend the wounds of our society, is a huge part of who we are. But part of that, I believe, comes from the unusual capacity of many people here to own our own vulnerabilities, to acknowledge the various ways in which we are different, strange, outsiders sometimes, and to draw strength from this, to make it a part of our service, and our preaching, the way we tell the story and where we find ourselves in it.

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 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. The men who killed Stephen lay their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. That Saul who would become first the most dedicated enemy of the early church, but finally its great storyteller, the one who would gather up the threads of Stephen’s dying speech and weave in even more, the story from Genesis onwards, the concepts of Greek philosophy, all the texts in his known world. The person who wrote of Stephen’s martyrdom 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, the vision of what we can endure when we know we are loved, what we can accept when we acknowledge ourselves as frail creations of the Word, and, perhaps most of all, what we can forgive when we know we are forgiven.