St. Stephen Sermon (1993)

St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
Texts: Acts 6:8-7:2a,51-60;
Matt. 23:34-39; 2 Chron. 24:17-22

‘LORD, DO NOT HOLD THIS SIN AGAINST THEM’

Are you still getting together with family this week? On only this second day of Christmas we are still in the midst of our Christmas celebration, really. No doubt, we have probably already eaten a bit too much, perhaps spent a bit too much on presents. But we have enjoyed special family times of giving and caring for one another. That’s what Christmas has come to mean to us.

But in too many communities around this country and around this world, Christmas has come to mean something else: a time of senseless violence. I’ve heard several newscasters question recently whether or not the senseless violence seems to even escalate during this season. From a kidnapping/murder of a young girl in California to a man opening fire on a commuter train in New York; from a man shooting up a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma to a teacher killing his superintendent right here in our own backyard; literally, from West to East and from North to South, people are mourning their innocent victims from seemingly random acts of violence this Christmas-time. And we ask, “Why? What’s going on in our world? Am I crazy, or are things getting worse each day, each year, each Christmas-time?” The commentators speculate the reasons. Some say it’s because we’ve lost our basic respect for life; other say we’ve lost our respect for authority. Some suggest the problem is drugs; others the breakdown of the family and of family values.

But I read lessons from Scripture like the ones we have before us this morning, and I wonder if the problem of violence is really even a new one at all. For all our theories and conjectures about what is going wrong in our society, is it really terribly different from other times and other societies?

Well, we’ve already raised some big questions. Before we continue, though, perhaps we might pause a moment and ask why we’re raising such question today in the first place?! It’s Christmas! We’re still celebrating! Why talk about such depressing, unsettling matters at all? And today is my farewell sermon. Can’t we find more appropriate readings to the occasion than this? Who came up with these lessons for St. Stephen the Martyr on the day after Christmas? Well, first of all, December 26 as a day to remember St. Stephen has a longer history in the church than December 25 does for Christmas. Believe it or not, St. Stephen’s Day came earlier and was more important in the life of the early Church. Secondly, to be honest, I want these lessons. When I began considering this day as my final one here at Grace, I could hardly have chosen lessons myself more appropriate to expressing where my faith has gone in recent years. I have come to see the Christian message as speaking most directly to our human problem with violence. I am willing to even risk ‘interrupting’ our Christmas celebration, because I feel so strongly about this. Celebrations, after all, are usually most joyous when we most fully comprehend the Good News that we purport to celebrate. And the Good News I see us celebrating as Christians has especially to do with the Prince of Peace, whom God sent to us that first Christmas, one who most truly has a way out of the violence for us.

Last Sunday, at the early service, the sermon ended with this illustration:

On the wall of the museum of the concentration camp at Dachau is a moving photograph of a mother and her little girl being taken to the gas chamber at Auschwitz. The girl, who is walking in front of her mother, does not know where she is going. The mother, who walks behind, does know, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, the mother can do to stop this tragedy. In her helplessness, she performs the only act of love left to her. She places her hand over her little girl’s eyes so, at least, she will not have to see the horror which faces her. When people see this picture in the museum, they do not move quickly or easily to the next one. You can feel their emotion, almost hear their cries, “O God, don’t let that be all there is. Somewhere, somehow, set things right.”

The Christmas celebration is about the start of God’s setting things right. Even in the face of such unimaginable evil, such violence and death, Christmas celebrates the beginnings of our hope that some day things will be different. God does have a remedy for such violence and evil, and it began with the birth of the baby Jesus to Mary so long ago. I firmly believe that, if we are to find a re-vitalization of the Christian Gospel in our time, especially as a Good News absolutely centered in Jesus Christ, it will be around the issue of the terrible violence we face everywhere.

Now, my dilemma this morning is that I can’t retrace several years of personal growth of my convictions in one sermon. In fact, that’s part of why I feel the need to move on right now. Where I personally am at in understanding and interpreting the Christian faith, in reading all of Scripture, is too involved to deal out piecemeal through isolated sermons. So the thing I have missed the most in recent years has been other opportunities to work with adults in settings where I can more completely share my faith journey. To be faithful to my job description here simply has me doing other things. But, as I move on to another call, where I will have the opportunity to do some of those other things, I would like to at least leave you with a glimspe of my convictions, and humbly offer them to you for your continuing journeys in the faith.

For me, the tremendous joy and hope of the Good News comes only after fully understanding how bad the bad news is. And the biggest obstacle to hearing the Good news is our not really wanting to face how bad the bad news is. We recoil from words like we hear from Jesus in this morning’s gospel. These are no doubt words we’d rather write off as some that Jesus really didn’t say. Matthew’s source somehow got them wrong. First of all, we don’t like to hear how long this has been going on. Jesus blames his audience for virtually all the righteous blood spilled from the time of Cain and Abel! Jesus’ answer to our question above, about violence somehow being new today, would seem to be, “Not really.” Violence has been our most basic problem since Cain killed Abel.

Moreover, Jesus’ words would seem to indicate just how widespread this problem with violence really is. Listen to whom he is talking. He is not talking with the drug-dealers, the scum, the common thugs. In fact, Jesus often got accused of hanging around precisely with some of those types. No, Jesus is talking with those looked upon as the upstanding citizens of his day. The Pharisees and scribes were those who knew the law the best, who abided by the law the best. They were the proverbial fabric of their society. Yet Jesus accused them of being the murderers! Could it be because the powers of violence and death somehow infiltrate the very fabric of human societies? And have so since Cain? And could it be that our own society is now entering a time when we are again having trouble keeping a lid on the violence? And that that is all any society ever really does: more or less adequately keep a lid on the violence? You see, that’s how bad the bad news is: Violence never really goes away completely, because it is woven into the very fabric of our societies. Yes, there are times when that violence blends into the fabric less noticeably, the times of our youth, say, when it seemed like there was so much less random violence; and there are times, like now, when the violence begins to stick out again. But when it comes to overall picture of human violence, things haven’t ultimately changed; it mostly just goes in cycles. Jesus’ words confront us with this bad news.

There is one more aspect of Jesus’ words we might point out, though: they do single out one form of violence as being special. Jesus makes special mention of killing the prophets. What I think he’s getting at here is the fact that violence works especially hard to cover its tracks. When it feels the threat of being revealed, it strikes out all the harder and more deadly. When Jesus speaks of the prophets, he means those who attempt to reveal how bad the bad news about violence really is; and their fate is generally to be silenced with death. This fact alone sheds new light on the Good News of Jesus Christ. For he, too, was a prophet who spoke out against the violence, one who ended up killed for it. It is not just Jesus’ words but ultimately his actions that matter the most. In being raised up to new life and appearing to the disciples, God made sure that he wasn’t silenced. This time, violence and death would not have the last word! Jesus lived an alternate way and spoke an alternative word: that of loving service. And that way not only denies the last word to violence and death, but it continues to speak through the lives of those who follow in that way…and those who follow in the way of Christ live by the hope and promise that someday the word of loving service will be the last word.

And perhaps the best news of all, then, is that we, my friends, you and I, are those folks who are called to follow in the way. We are the ones who have come to know that violence and death do not have the last word. We are the ones who have been shown the alternate way of loving service. And we are the ones called to live that new life with one another.

I can’t quite finish without calling your attention to one last detail about this morning’s lessons. Did you notice who it is that Luke tells us followed so closely in the way of Jesus that he was the first one martyred like Jesus, that he even forgave his enemies in the same way as Jesus, breaking the violent circle of vengeance? Was it the preacher, the apostle, like St. Peter? No, it was the deacon, Stephen, one who had been called to tasks of loving service to the widows and to the poor. He, of course, is the one whom our modern Stephen Ministry is named after, a ministry here at Grace which will always hold a special place in my heart.

Dear People of Grace, cherish all those ways of caring for and of serving one another. There are so many ways on Sunday morning as you gather for your worship service, as you gather to learn and to teach your children. Embrace all the ways in which you can care for and serve one another. Stephen Ministry is a precious gift, the new Helping Hands is a gift, and the new Koinonia groups are a gift. May God bless you and increase your efforts to lovingly serve one another. And, in the face of a world of violence, may God bless you to truly know what Good News that is! In Christ’s Spirit, you are able to live that new life of loving service. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Howell, MI, December 26, 1993

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