Feast of Saint Stephen

Sermon for Feast of Saint Stephen, Sunday, August 02 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15; Psalm 31:1-7, 16; Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51c-60; Matthew 23:34-39

He was not part of the original group of disciples, our patron Stephen; there’s no indication that he ever met Jesus face to face. And he had a Greek name, Stephanos. He was not a Palestinian Jew, like Peter and James and John and the rest; he was part of the Jewish diaspora, maybe born far away from Palestine, maybe somone who dressed differently, spoke differently, possibly had Greek as his first language rather than the Aramaic which Jesus and the disciples spoke. He was not alone—the early church had clearly attracted a good number others from the diaspora, because the initial conflict which brought Stephen into prominence was about the “Greek widows”, the vulnerable elders of this somewhat marginal group, and the sense by others from their community that they were being neglected.

The establishment of the order of deacons, as described in the book of Acts, was the attempt to find a solution to this problem in the community, and it is fascinating to me because it marks the exact moment when you can see the early church starting to go off-track, the moment when the original apostles decide that they are too busy and important to pursue work of simple and humble service, of diakonia, which Christ himself had specifically named as his life’s work, and set up the order of deacons to take care of the “outsiders” for them, while they studied and prayed and, to be frank, kept within the group with which they were familiar and comfortable.

That call to diakonia, to service, to the margins, has always been part of the charism of this parish, and I have spoken about that often enough before. We have seen it again, in the crisis of these recent months, when it was instantly clear that our drop-ins and our breakfasts would continue, that people from the parish would continue to come out and serve if they were able, to support in other ways if that wasn’t possible for them. When many other meal and drop-in programmes around the city were choosing to shut down, this little poor scrappy church kept going, at one point running one of only five open drop-ins in the whole city of Toronto—and it is all of you, in your various ways, who have done this, who have lived out Stephen’s calling at a moment when you might have chosen otherwise.

But, of course, Stephen is remembered primarily as the first martyr. We can reflect on the interesting fact that it was not any one of the original disciples; though a number of them would ultimately be martyred, they were not the first to die for this new faith. It was—as perhaps it almost always is—the one slightly on the edge of things, the one with the complicated history. 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.

Martyrdom can be a problematic concept, and I’m aware that it’s an aspect of Stephen’s story which I have spoken about less often. The church has often misused the language of martyrdom to promote self-hatred or self-destruction or the acceptance of unnecessary pain, and none of these are God’s desire, not the will of the nurturing God who would protect and cherish as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. The call to offer one’s life for faith, for justice, for love, is a rare calling, and not always our best choice; sometimes, to remain alive, to refuse unjust suffering, to make one’s fully lived life an expression of God’s word, is the most important and subversive thing of all. Sometimes, our responsibility for others requires stepping back from danger. But, at the same time, justice never comes without risk. To begin to know what risk is right for us to take, and to take it freely and gracefully, is a part of discernment for each one of us.

Health care workers have taken considerable risks in these last months, and some have died, though it has not been the nightmare of SARS; they have done this voluntarily, because they chose their vocations and have lived them out. But others have been pushed into risk by unjust systems. Migrant farm workers have suffered greatly, and are still suffering, from the virus overlaid on their already inhuman living and working conditions. And recent Toronto data shows that this illness has been profoundly racialized, that an overwhelming majority of cases since May have been among people of colour, and most especially Black people. This is not the free and deliberate risk of prophecy and martyrdom, it is the cold infliction of risk by capitalism and white supremacy, and must be called out and resisted.

Many of us, this past week, have watched some or all of the events honouring Congressman John Lewis in the United States. John Lewis was not, in the traditional sense, a martyr. Unlike some of his friends and colleagues—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Chaney—he was not murdered; he lived a long life of devoted work for justice—including being, I’m fairly sure, the only member of Congress ever to organize a sit-in on the floor of Congress, when House Republicans blocked a vote on gun control. But he had, years earlier, faced his moment of possible martyrdom on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, as he knelt to pray at the head of a line of civil rights marchers, and white segregationist state troopers attacked him with their batons and fractured his skull, and he believed in that moment.as he lost consciousness, that his life was over. Last week, his body was carried over that same bridge, lying in state, in a carriage pulled by two black horses. Not long before that, the night before he went into the hospital for the last time, he went, with the last of his strength, to join the Black Lives Matter protestors outside the White House; and in hospital, he wrote a letter to them, and to all of us, with instructions that it should be published on the day of his funeral.

I know I will not be the only preacher reading from that letter today. Maybe every preacher on this continent should be reading from that letter today. Right now, I’ll read only the last two paragraphs.

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

As words for our patronal feast in this time, I think that will do well enough.