The book of Acts begins with the early church sharing all things in common with glad and generous hearts. The early church was characterized by face-to face encounters. They embraced the well-being of the whole community, insuring that everyone had what they needed. But the honeymoon of the spirit of ecstatic spiritual experiences, shared meals, and radical generosity didn’t last forever. Just like in any relationship, conflicts emerged. Their informal patterns of leadership no longer worked.
Acts 6 starts with an argument between the Hellenist Greek speaking Jews and the Hebrew Aramaic speaking Jews. The Hellenist Jews lived in areas where Greek culture dominated. It’s possible they were descendants of Jews who lived in exile during the Assyrian invasion. They have now returned to their homeland, Israel, to live within the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The Hebrews were Jews who grew up in Israel, following the customs of the people in Judea and Galilee. There were more Hebrews than Hellenists, and conflict emerged. Greek speaking disciples complained that the larger Aramaic-speaking community were looking after the needs of their own when it was time to distribute food and other goods, and the Greek widows weren’t receiving a fair share. Widows were more susceptible to poverty. The law required the larger Aramaic community to support the widows through the daily distribution of food. The early community may have started practicing unjust economics, instead of the Spirit-inspired economics of radical generosity of sharing in Acts 2:42, thereby inadvertently repeating patterns of ethnic injustice.
The leaders basically responded: “We’re too busy with more important spiritual matters to wait tables; appoint your own servants to distribute the support to the widows and orphans, so you can be sure it’s fair.” They delegated the responsibility to a group of “seven men of good standing” who were “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” from the Greek-speaking community. Our first introduction to Stephen is that he was one of 7 Greek-speaking followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. They were called Deacons – Greek for diakonia/“servants.” Luke tells us that Stephen was “full of grace and power” and “did great wonders & signs among the people.” We don’t know what those wonders were, but we do know that he isn’t afraid to debate others at temple.
Ultimately, Stephen became the first Christian martyr when he was stoned to death. Today when we hear the word martyr, it tends to carry negative connotations. It can refer to people who exhibit a passive-aggressive stance of self- sacrifice. Martyr is also used in reference to extremist suicide bombers who violently destroy their lives and often the lives of others in the name of God or country. The word martyr comes from the Greek word martus, someone who is called to bear witness in matters of injustice. Stephen is called to bear witness to injustice, in stewarding money to be used to care for widows, orphans and the poor. He begins his stewardship ministry by ensuring that the neglected widows and others receive their “daily bread”.
So what did Stephen do to warrant an angry mob throwing rocks at his head? We don’t know what he said in chapter 6, but it was enough that a few leaders connive amongst themselves to tell lies about Stephen and frame him. They secretly instigate others into saying that Stephen spoke blasphemous words against Moses and God. “They seized him, and brought him before the Sanhedrin.” Stephen was now on trial before the highest Jewish court for the crime of heresy and blasphemy. While Jesus was basically silent before the San Hedrin, Stephen didn’t back down. He defends himself and preaches a scathing sermon. Using the revered history of the Jewish people, he demonstrates how the political, economic and religious leaders of Israel, in their desire to remain in control, have never been able to understand God’s redemptive action.
7:51-53: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands. You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Messiah, and you betrayed and murdered him. You received the law, yet you have not kept it”. By verse 54, they were furious with his accusatory rhetoric. “When they heard these things, the Sanhedrin became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” They threw him into a pit, and stone him to death.
13 years ago when I preached this text at Snoqualmie UMC in April 2008, I experienced my first standing ovation. The following week I had two different families in my office, telling me that they could no longer worship in a church that endorsed the kind of preaching I had offered. Fortunately, they did not instigate lies about me or throw me in a pit. But nonetheless, I was heartbroken and saddened by the loss of these two vibrant families. What had I done to warrant them walking away from a church where they had grown up and had become leaders? It was one of the worst seasons in pastoral ministry as self-doubt welled up in me about what I had done, and how my actions of preaching one sermon placed a wedge in the congregation, not recognizing that the wedge was already there. I simply exposed the rift. When the majority of people started clapping and rising to their feet, these families could no longer pretend. Their church was becoming more transparent and expansive in their welcome. They had different beliefs and values.
Earlier in the week, I showed up outside the local high school wearing my clergy collar, in solidarity with some of the church’s youth and their parents for what was known as The National Day of Silence – a day in which students choose to be silent throughout the day to show their support and recognition for LGBTQIA community. It can also be used as a day to recognize anyone that is silenced. A prominent anti-gay-rights activist, Rev. Ken Hutcherson, called for a counter-protest, calling for 1,000 “prayer warriors” to protest in front of the school. It quickly turned controversial with conflict heating up.
During my sermon the Sunday after the Day of Silence, I preached the lectionary text from Acts 7. I asked a rhetorical question about why Stephen had to be so scathing in his rebuke, provoking his accusers, instead of choosing a more diplomatic route. In so doing he made enemies of some powerful leaders of the synagogue.
What we need to remember is that Martyrs – those who bear witness -are scrutinized, not for their convictions, but for expressing their convictions.
It’s safer if you remain silent. But Martyrs/witnesses take a stand in the face of injustice – as in Martin Luther’s famous quote –
“Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”
A martyr is willing to speak out against the injustices of the world.
What you should know is that I was serving a more conservative church, where Angie was invisible in my life. Nobody in the church knew about her existence, and I lived in fear of being found out, of splitting the church in half because of the person I loved, of losing my vocation by having my ordination stripped away. I ended that sermon recognizing that the church held different opinions regarding LGBTQIA issues and other issues, but in the end, wouldn’t we rather be accused of loving too much? I quoted the words of a song by AnneMarie Russell called The Side of Grace –
If I’m wrong, I’d rather be found standing on the side of grace.
And if I march on the outside, let it be for the sake of love.
If I error, let it be on the side of grace.
That’s when the applause broke out, and people rose to their feet. While it was devastating to lose people in the church because of that particular sermon, the stand I took that day made a difference to the church community as a whole, and to at least four of my confirmation youth present that day who, unbeknownst to me, were questioning their sexuality, and now as mature 20-somethings, have come out as part of the LGBTQIA community. It would take me six more years before I would have the same courage.
It would have been one thing if I had simply shown up in solidarity at the high school and remained silent. But I chose to speak up and bring the issue inside the walls of the church. This story of Stephen and my own personal experience reminds me that there is an inevitable tension, even conflict, when you start expressing your convictions. When it comes to justice issues, it can get you into trouble. God calls us to love everyone, and yet, there are those who become “enraged and grind their teeth” when unconditional love & acceptance is preached or taught, especially when it calls for justice on behalf of those who are oppressed by the dominant culture, like the LGBTQIA community, people of other faiths, or people of color.
Recently, I put a message on the church’s reader board that said,
“We would rather be excluded for who we include, than included for who we exclude.”
I believe that is a message the faithful people of this church endorse. But I can’t tell you the number of times, via social media, email, and phone messages that I have been accused of leading this congregation straight to H-E- double toothpicks because we believe that pro-life means more than childbirth, that it is also about a child fed, educated and provided for; because we believe that science and living a life of faith are not mutually exclusive; because we are a Reconciling and Open & Affirming church; because we are an immigrant welcoming community; because we recognize white privilege exists and we are actively talking about what it means to be on an anti-racist journey, and that it is not enough to celebrate Juneteenth – we also have to help enact policy that advocates for racial justice – LIKE – Restoring the Voting Rights Act, Passing a Federal Living Wage, Providing Healthcare for ALL, allowing schools and teachers to teach critical race theory, advocating for the reversal of the decades-long militarization of the police.
Most of us will never be taken to task for our faith. We likely will never face an angry mob. I don’t believe we should seek martyrdom, but we need to recognize that it can happen if we truly live out our faith and our convictions. Like Martin Luther, where do you take a stand because you can do no other? Where are the places or what are the issues that you are compelled to speak boldly about? We sometimes need to speak the hard word, because of our convictions of faith, than to remain silent. And at the end of the day, we need to go to God in prayer saying, in the midst of and in spite of all that has transpired, It is Well with My Soul.