Stephen: failed banquet manager (sermon)

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Texts: Acts 6:51-58, John 14:1-14

Let us pray.   May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Maybe you’ve noticed that for our second reading this Easter season, we’ve been spending a lot of time in the book of Acts.  Acts is a pretty cool book.  It’s the sequel to the gospel of Luke, probably written by the same person, but unlike other sequels—Grease 2, the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, or any of the most recent Star Wars movies spring to mind —this one is just as good as the original.

These are the tales of the earliest Christian community, of the apostles and disciples gathered together in Jerusalem in the first days after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. In these past two weeks we’ve been hearing stories that would lead us to believe that this community was a utopia.  People held property in common, met in the Temple courts, testified about Jesus, healed the sick, and devoted themselves to the breaking of bread in each others’ houses.

But as with most new organizations, the honeymoon period is fleeting, and before long, arguments start breaking out between the Greek Jews and the Hebraic Jews in the community, because the widows aren’t getting their full share at mealtimes.  So the poor apostles, who are busy healing people, getting thrown in prison, then getting miraculously released from prison, being chastised and beaten by the authorities, and preaching in Solomon’s Portico, take a good look at their schedules and say, “We do not have time to be waiters.  Elect people from the community, and they will be put in charge of making sure everyone gets a fair share at mealtimes.”

So the community raises up a man named Stephen, among others, and the apostles lay their hands on them and pray over them. Funny thing, though: we never hear a peep about Stephen’s career as banquet manager.  The very next thing we hear about Stephen is that he’s been out preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus Christ, and he’s gotten in trouble with the Sanhedrin.  Up before the authorities, he’s accused of teaching falsely about Moses and the prophets.  The Sanhedrin asks him if this is true.

“St. Stephen,” Luis de Morales. Wikimedia Commons.

In response, Stephen issues a long sermon–the fifty verses of scripture that precede our reading today–describing the narrative of the entire Torah–that’s Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  And he throws in the 1st and 2nd book of Kings.  And then the prophets too, for good measure.  He also proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and points out that in every instance when God has lifted up an anointed one from among the people–Moses, David, Jesus–there’s always been a group of Israelites who resist their leadership, and therefore resist God’s will.  “You are those people today,” Stephen tells his audience. Whereupon they drag him outside the city and stone him.

Well, there’s a plot twist for you.

What really gets me about Stephen’s story is that he is never called to preach.  He is called to distribute bread, to enact justice.  But we never hear about that part of Stephen’s ministry.  Instead we hear about the tremendous boldness of his proclamation, and the deadly trouble it got him into.

Our calls carry us into unknown, often surprising, even dangerous places.  Sometimes we find ourselves in places we never intended to visit, in roles we never intended to fill, in jobs we didn’t sign up for.  Sometimes we find ourselves thinking, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  We wonder how God could possible take the mess we’re in and get resurrection out of it.

“Stoning of St. Stephen,” Paolo Uccello. Wikimedia Commons.

Which brings me to Johanna, your previous intern.  Many of you know that during this past year Johanna has been treated for breast cancer.

In order to help process everything that was happening to her, Johanna started a blog, which now contains the account of her journey from diagnosis to double mastectomy and reconstruction.  That blog has become a resource and a source of hope for other women struggling with breast cancer, which in itself is a wonderful thing.

Last month, Johanna went through the final installment of several surgeries, this one an outpatient procedure to replace her after-surgery, placeholder implants with more realistic silicone implants.  She recently wrote an open love letter about her new boobs, a part of which I’m going to share with you now, with her permission:

My new breasts really are lovely, even with a giant red scar across the front of each. They aren’t real boobs, no, and nothing manmade ever will be. My real boobs were nice, too, for a lot of reasons, but then again, they tried to kill me. But these… as I took a closer look, I started noticing again all the subtle improvements over the old implants. …The old implants, well, they did the job. They filled out my clothes. They took away what would have been a lack and replaced it with a roughly boob-shaped, skin-covered mass. They were nice, and even, and steady. But the new ones… they are kind. They are gentle. They are what you would want in a friend. They are soft, to touch, to feel and to see. They more than do the job – they do it with grace.

Even the scars as they currently exist are a thing of beauty. They remind me of myself (if I may say so without sounding conceited) – a beautiful thing, that has seen some life, and has lived to tell the tale. They bear it well, and aren’t ashamed that the scars can be seen. The scars, indeed, become a part of the beauty.

The journey Johanna has taken with breast cancer was one that she never hoped she’d have to travel.  Like Jesus at Gethsemane, and like Stephen before the stone-clutching crowd, she had to make a call about what she was willing to sacrifice in order to really live, even though that call meant facing down the possibility of death.

And now, the road Johanna hoped she’d never walk has become a piece of her ministry.  She is an imitator of Christ, who when he appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, invited them to touch the wounds in his hands and side.  Like him, Johanna is gifted with the marvelous capacity for inviting people to see and touch her own woundedness, and recognize those scars as a beautiful signs of God’s grace.

These stories—Jesus’, Stephen’s, Johanna’s—these are Easter stories: stories of death and resurrection.  Stories that teach us that resurrection doesn’t reverse injury, but it absolutely redeems it, making even the moments when death’s presence seems overwhelming places where God’s Spirit can come and make us whole.  Stories that give us the strength not to let our hearts be troubled.

Because even though our calls carry us into unknown and often dangerous places, the promise we’ve received is that Jesus is waiting for us wherever we go.  That is the promise he made to his disciples in the upper room of today’s gospel, in a speech that he gives to them just before his Passion and death.  Although the disciples don’t get it right away–the disciples seldom do–Jesus is promising them that not even death can separate them from him–that where he is, there they will be also.

Woodland Pathway near Eas Mor Waterfall (Andy Beecroft). Shared under CC License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

We see that promise fulfilled as the first stones began landing on Stephen’s flesh, when he looks up and sees Jesus standing by God’s right hand in heaven.  The last thing Stephen sees, just before it seems that all hope was lost, is a reminder that death had lost its sting.  Christ was standing in triumph, waiting to meet him.  Wherever Jesus was, there would Stephen be also.  This is most certainly true.

We see that promise fulfilled in Johanna’s journey with breast cancer, in the moments when she catches a glimpse of her scarred body in the mirror and feels, not sorrow, but gratitude and hope for the future.

We see that promise fulfilled in every moment when we expect to find death and instead we meet with life.  When we let someone down, and meet with an embrace instead of blame.  When we say we’re sorry, and hear the words, “I forgive you.”  When we brace ourselves for the worst, and instead receive totally unexpected, unmerited grace.

Please, right now, while it’s fresh, think of such a moment in your own life.  I’ll wait.

This is a moment when you experienced the promise of Jesus’ presence—even in the darkest, most unlikely place—fulfilled.

And this moment that you’ve thought of—this moment is your testimony.  This moment, when you talk about not just what your faith in Jesus is but also about what it actually means for your life—that’s the good news God calls you to share with a world that sorely needs to hear it.

Even when the world resists your testimony, hurling back biting remarks like stones, trust that God is working through you anyway.  After all, the crowd that stones Stephen laid their cloaks at the feet of a certain young man.  And that man’s name was Saul…soon to become Paul.  But that’s an Acts story for another day.

Let us pray:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.




One Reply to “Stephen: failed banquet manager (sermon)”

  1. I thought of the time Jerry had a high fever (before Multiple Myeloma was diagnosed) and failed liver and kidney and I was able to be with him for six nights in the Columbus IN hospital. Stephen ministers prayed over him, as well as two visits from Past. Steve, after a few days and after two dialysis ‘s and we had an Indian internist that we really liked who explained medical things to us. Then my Christian nurse cousin stopped by and helped me give Jerry a shower. Jesus kept coming in as kind doctors, our daughter (former hospital nurse), and members of our church to bless us after the fever broke.

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