Sermons

And Stephen Replied (Acts 6:1-7:2A)

Joan MacPherson, April 30, 2017
Part of the Sunday series, preached at a Sunday Morning service

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And Stephen Replied
Acts 6:1—7:2a
It’s funny these readings that we share each week. There are times when I go off and seek out a particular passage that coordinates in a particular way with something going on in the life of the church or the world but I have not done that since before November. What we have read and reflected on each week have been the readings that were “assigned” to that week from the Narrative Lectionary. These readings were selected/determined years ago and yet they have a relevancy that is oh so fitting. Profoundly so in many circumstances this year. But also curiously so today. This day when we have the gift of Steve Horhota bringing his barbershop quartet to our worship is the day when our reading is about Stephen. Steve Horhota may get some ribbing from his buddies…and I may be able to have some fun weaving together the ministries of Steve and Stephen. Steve may be glad that we stopped our reading where we did today though. We stopped before the crowd stoned Stephen. That is what ends up happening to him - this too familiar pattern of powers seeking to silence those who love and serve with compassion. We can’t deny or ignore the cost of love and the horrific ways those who fear love act. It’s real. Also real, more powerful, more enduring, life transforming, world healing is the love that is loose in the world and poured into each and all by God enabling us to be love and light in the world. Visible. Tangible. Risking. Loving. With the Holy One surrounding and infusing us in every moment and circumstance.
As we started worship our Steve and his fellow barber shoppers called out to God in a sung prayer. Let there be peace on earth. With God our creator, united all are we, let us walk with each other, in perfect harmony. The way they sang it made it look easy but perfect harmony is not easy. Its sounds amazing when it happens but it takes a lot of work and discordance happens along the way. The trips up and train wrecks are not what the musicians focus on but they experience them. It doesn’t feel good. Then they work on the perfect harmony. Work toward. Do things that help create it. Practice. Adjust. Practice some more.
They called out to God for God’s shalom to be real and then, then they did the very faithful, bold act of commitment singing ‘let it begin with me”. They (and any of us who hummed along) offered up ourselves to be part of creating God’s kingdom of peace, shalom, justice, compassion. We joined with our Steve and the Stephen from our sacred story to offer our lives to God’s work. We get to be a part of that way of love and hope. It’s incredibly exciting and wonderful and challenging and hard. That’s the work of the church. That’s what we are called to be as the body of Christ and followers of Jesus. Finding our place and our voice as we join in the prayer for peace and offer our lives to make it happen.
This is what happened with Stephen from our sacred story. It’s not long after Jesus had been executed and the tomb found empty. They had been devastated with his death but then they were turned upside when they experienced him with them in a new way. This was beyond what they had imagined. They had loved their rabbi, what he taught and how he connected them to the love and power of God. They were eager to be part of his way but when the government flexed its muscle and the crucifixion happened they thought it was done. They had thought God would prevent that death but it hadn’t happened. What questions must that have raised? We had hoped this Jesus was connecting us to the real power, the holy power, the healing love that our world needs. But he was dead so were we wrong all along? Then these experiences happened. These awarenesses of their friend Jesus present to them in a new way after his death. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t what they had imagined. But it was. In their fear, in their confusion this powerful love was present and offering a way through what was so hard. Those first disciples became even more passionate and active in their ministry and commitment to God. They were infectious and more and more people were drawn into the way. As followers of Jesus were generous, hospitable, bold, active, trusting in God, more and more people got on board. It was crazy really. They had imagined it ended with the nails and the cross but no, no it was a transition and the energy and grace is pouring out like wild fire and more and more people are waking up to God, to love, to community, to compassion.
More and more people metaphorically joining in to the “let their be peace on earth and let it begin with me” proclamation and plea. But, more and more people bring confusion and more needs. The early followers felt that. It wasn’t so organized. There were people that were seemingly getting overlooked. There was more ministry needed then what the 11 disciples could manage. So they expanded their group. They chose Stephen and a bunch of others with much harder to pronounce names. They gave them assignments and/but before Stephen and his crew was sent, they laid hands upon them, blessed them, recognized the spirit of God that infuses them and enables them to do the ministry and be the body of Christ in the world.
Our sacred story says that the word of God continued to spread. It was loose in the world. These followers couldn’t be stopped. So smitten were they. So in love with one who gave them life. It poured out of them and shaped the way moved, spoke and lived in the world. Those who bumped into them felt it. Some felt it and joined right in. Some felt it and were threatened. There was so much energy. There was so much compassion. There was so much sharing. If that keeps going? It’s going to mess up our systems and the way things work now. They began to get nervous. Gossip and slander bantered about. Slurs about Stephen that might slow down his influence and love. They confront and seize him and bring him before the council. The accusations are named and this is what it says in our sacred story, “And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Then the high priest asked him, "Are these things so?" And Stephen replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me…
In our sacred story Stephen speaks about God, the acts of God, the way of God, the love of God, the power of God. He carries on about the one who he loves and trusts. Then it goes down hill for him. It leads to him being stoned. Martyred. I can’t leave that part out. The way of faith is costly. It’s costly but its not sadistic. Stephen says listen and tells a story of life because he wants everyone to be able to know the love, the grace of God. Yup there are skeptics. Yup there are those that threaten. Yup it is hard. In that reality there are people who join in, sign up, speak out, serve, love, care, act. There are those who see there is need and hurt and they connect to a community of hope and join in. Stephen, Steve and every Tom, Dick and Harry, Jill, Sue and Sally - infused with the spirt, always infused by the Holy, with their lives figuratively quote Stephen - Brothers and sisters, listen to me - and then use their lives to make grace known. They are just lay people. They didn’t go to seminary. They don’t wear a stole around their necks and stand up here preaching away week after week. They are just lay people - this is how Eugene Peterson speaks about you, who are just lay people - “I have been trying to scrub the words “laity” and layperson of any and every hint of condescension and to recover biblical dignity, restore gospel vigor, to every random follower of Jesus. I want Christian men and women to carry the designation layperson boldly into workplace and marketplace, home and church, without deference, without apology. I want them to know that in the vocabulary of scripture they are the people of God; they are the laity, the laypersons, capable just as they are, as able as Mary and Elizabeth, as Peter and John - all layperson - to hear, obey, love and help one another along with the best of them as they follow Jesus…there are no experts in the company of Jesus. We are all beginners, necessarily followers, because we don’t know where we are going.”
You, you who are just lay people, I want to walk with you and together practice Jesus’ love. To work through the discordance that comes as we all seek to find our notes, our place, as people of hope leaning into God and bound to each other. Amen.

Joan MacPherson
Main Street Congregational UCC
April 30, 2017
Eugene Peterson - The Jesus Way

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Acts 6:1-7:2

6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

7:1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And Stephen said:

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, (ESV)

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