Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, "Resurrection Responses: Stephen"

Sermon 5/22/11
Acts 7:55-60

Resurrection Responses: Stephen

Today we’re shifting our usual gears a little bit. Instead of looking at the gospel lesson today, we’re taking time to examine a story from the book of Acts – the Acts of the Apostles, the book, written by Luke, that records the development of the early church, the struggles and triumphs of the disciples who tried to carry out Jesus’ message after he returned to God. It is another one of our Resurrection Responses – how the disciples and first followers, first church members, responded to the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of new life.
Today, we examine a particular life found in Acts, that of Stephen, a man who takes up a small two chapter space in our scriptures. Stephen is known as the first martyr of the Christian faith, the first person who gave up his life because of his belief in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the scriptures. Today we read in Acts the account of Stephen’s death, as he was stoned by an angry mob. But his story starts a little earlier in the Book of Acts in Chapter 6. Unlike the disciples like Peter and company, Stephen’s task was not primarily as a preacher of the gospel at all – he wasn’t one of the missionaries. Stephen was part of a group of servants who had a special task in the early church. People outside of the faith criticized that the fervor of the disciples for preaching the gospel had caused them to neglect other duties like feeding the widowed and the needy. Their criticism was a reason for them to reject the teachings of Jesus – the disciples didn’t really take care of those in need! Why believe their message of good news? But the twelve responded, “‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’” So seven were chosen, one of whom was this man we read about today, Stephen. These seven looked on the needs of the least in their community, making sure that those who were without could receive food and be taken care of. In other words, Stephen wasn’t a preacher or a pastor, a missionary or a leader. He was a servant, a helper, a lay person in ministry. If Stephen were a 21st century believer, he might be any one of you – someone who stepped up to help meet the needs of the community.
So how did Stephen go from being such a servant to being the first to give his life for his faith in Jesus? It turns out that Stephen was a rowdy synagogue member. He wasn’t content to just go with the flow or keep quiet in his own community of faith. So Stephen and some of his fellow synagogue members were constantly debating and arguing about his involvement in this new faith. Eventually, his peers had enough, and began to plot against him. We read of their scheming in Acts: “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which [Stephen] spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ And all who sat in the council looked intently at [Stephen], and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
The authorities ask Stephen to respond to these accusations. And he does, in a big way. Stephen says that through the ages people have rejected the prophets that God sent to reach them, and just so they rejected Jesus, God-come-to-earth to reach them. He doesn’t try to soften his words, and he doesn’t try to make friends. He doesn’t temper what he says, or recant any of his beliefs, even though he is clearly in trouble. Stephen just says what is on his heart. In the verse before where our passage today begins, we find the response of the synagogue leaders to Stephen’s testimony: “When they heard these things,” we read, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Instead of being scared by the group, Stephen is fortified by the vision of Jesus he has that starts our reading today. He tries to share his vision, but his words fall on unhearing ears. The men drag Stephen into the street, they throw their coats at the feet of a man named Saul, and they stone Stephen to death, literally pelting rocks at him until he dies. Stephen’s last words echo Jesus’ on the cross, as he pleads for forgiveness for those who are putting him to death.
            Stephen, the first Christian we know of to give his life for his faith, was not one of the twelve, was not known for his preaching or leadership. He was just someone who was trying to serve others, and he was unwilling to say or do otherwise, even with the cost being his own life. The Greek word that gives us this word ‘martyr’ actually means ‘witness’ – like a witness in a trial. A witness is someone who says what they know, what they’ve seen and heard and experienced. We think of witnessing today in the church as going door to door talking about Jesus. But in the scriptures, witnessing was more like the legal kind of witnessing – just telling the truth. Stephen was a witness, a martyr, telling the truth about what he believed and why he was doing what he was.
When I was in college, I took a few psychology courses as part of my pre-theology major. I loved psychology. I loved particularly adolescent psychology, and driving my brother Todd crazy by telling him that his behaviors were typical adolescent behaviors. He didn’t like that very much. But I also remember clearly being intrigued by the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable, unsettled feeling your mind gets when there’s a gap or distortion or difference between what you believe should be true or feel should be true, and what you know is actually true. For a timely example:  a cult group predicts the end of the world. The end of the world does not arrive on schedule. But then the cult group seems more devoted than ever to its cause or purpose. This is because of cognitive dissonance – our minds are trying to compensate for the difference between what we think or want to be true and what is true, because our minds don’t like that gap. It doesn’t sit well with us. We try to get rid of any cognitive dissonance.
I’ve been thinking about how as people of faith we often experience cognitive dissonance – a gap between what we think we believe is true, and what is true. What we believe is true is what we think, the beliefs we say we hold, the views we have on issues and doctrines, our understanding of God. But what is true for our faith is our daily experience. What we actually do – that’s the concrete truth we experience. The dissonance comes because there is such a gap between what we say we believe, and what we actually do, between what we think is true, and what we experience as true.
There are healthier ways though of dealing with our cognitive dissonance than making our minds believe something we know to be false. For me, for example: I see a disparity between what I say I believe and what is really true according to what I do. I’m experiencing that cognitive dissonance. I say that addressing poverty is a huge justice issue that the gospels call us to give serious attention to – but if I don’t actually spend time serving the poor and building relationships, there’s a disconnect between my beliefs, and my actions. A dissonance. More than unsettling, that’s troubling to my spirituality, preventing my growth as a disciple. So I can deal with that in one of two ways: I can try and convince my mind that Jesus doesn’t really call us to serve the poor, or that giving a little here and a little there is really the kind of care for the least of these Jesus has in mind. Or, I can get my act together, and start building relationships, investing time and energy, and really serving those that Jesus spent so much of his time with. I would sum up our Christian spiritual journeys as a struggle to bring what we believe and what we actually do into harmony. Saying what we believe is the easy part. Doing it is the hard part.
Stephen was a man who had the courage to bring how he lived his life, what he did, in line with what he believed. He wouldn’t waver on either. Because of what he believed, he served God as best he could, with the gifts and talents he had. And because of what he believed, and how he lived, he wasn’t willing to separate his words and actions to make others more comfortable with him. It cost him his life. But I think if he had done otherwise, it would have cost him more – cost him his faith, his integrity, his discipleship. He placed a higher value on those things. Do we do the same? How much dissonance can we live with? What do you believe? What do you do? How much space is there between what you believe and what you do?
I think our journey as disciples is about taking steps to close the gap, to eliminate the spaces that we’ve created between what we believe and what we do. It isn’t an easy task. Like Stephen showed, it takes great courage, and sometimes great sacrifice. This kind of discipleship takes a lifetime to unfold, and can happen in steps that add up to great gifts, seen and unseen by us, always seen by God. Whatever it takes, despite failures and setbacks, despite challenges and obstacles, I think the struggle of discipleship is worth it. Psychologists might call it eliminating our cognitive dissonance. The scriptures, I think, describe it as the peace that passes our understanding. John Wesley might speak of it as things being well with your soul. Whatever you call it, I think we are called to strive after it, with courage, with hope, with God. Amen.

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