Monday, December 27, 2010

St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr - December 26, 2010 (Acts 68--7:2a, 51-60)

“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen...”

That lesser-known Christmas carol about a Czech king from the tenth century is most likely how most of us have heard of St. Stephen, (and, for that matter, King Wenceslas). Coincidentally, the next line of the song goes like this:
“When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.”

It seems to be a common occurrence—even in Virginia—to have snow lying round about on the feast of Stephen, which is the day after western Christmas. People might find it a bit perplexing, if not jarring, that on December 26th, one blessed day after the celebration of Jesus’ birth—when we are presumably still glowing with joy and peace from hearing the story of what happened in Bethlehem—we commemorate the death of St. Stephen, one of the church’s first deacons and the very first recorded martyr of the church.

It does seem a little odd, I suppose. Stephen was stoned to death out in public, quite a contrast from the serenity of the manger birth. Stoning was a horrible way to die. People picked up rocks and pelted someone with them until he or she died, usually of internal injuries. While they did this, they typically shouted insults. This is the image with which we are presented one blessed day after Jesus was softly laid by his mother in the hay and the angels and shepherds gathered around in adoration. It’s not that we have anything against Stephen or that he died for the faith, for that matter, but maybe we need a little down-time after Christmas before we dive into all that heavy stuff.

Stoning of Stephen, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont

But whether you are fazed by the juxtaposition of these two seemingly contrasting commemorations or not, one point needs to be clarified: St. Stephen’s Day is not placed after Christmas. Rather, it is the other way around: the celebration of Christ’s birth has been placed on the day before the day to remember St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. You see, no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. Christmas did not officially end up on December 25th until the beginning of the second century, and even then that was only in churches of the western traditions, of which we are a part. Eastern strands of Christianity retained their Christmas celebrations on January 6th or 7th, the original date of Christmas, and still do to this day. The commemoration of St. Stephen, on the other hand, appears on some of the earliest Christian calendars on either the 26th or 27th of December, which leads some historians to believe that December 26th or 27th or some date around here may actually be the date Stephen was martyred. So, with that in mind, we end up with the strange and perhaps startling conclusion that before Christians were celebrating the birth of Christ, they were commemorating the deaths of their saints!

It is in the deaths of the baptized—whether they were martyred or whether they died peacefully from natural causes (but especially if they are martyred)—where we find the pinnacle of their witness to Christ. At the point when this life ends, one’s faith can cling to nothing else but God. At that moment, the hopes and fears of all their years are thrust into God’s hands in the hope that Christ, the one person who has triumphed over death and the grave, will call them to eternal life. For those in the early church, this was extremely important. Birthdays were rarely mentioned or cared about. It was one’s date of death that spurred those still living to look to heaven. Stephen’s last words in this morning’s lesson from Acts, as the stones come raining down, testify to this: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Not only does he cling to Jesus as he dies, but he also sees it as a chance to testify.

The word “martyr,” in fact, actually means “witness.” Someone who is killed on account of their faith gives the utmost witness to that faith’s hope. Stephen’s martyrdom was the first recorded martyrdom in Christianity. He was the first person to die because of Jesus’ resurrection. If I were an early Christian, or even if I had been hurling those stones, you’d better believe that would make an impression on me—watching someone refuse to back down from this assertion that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. In fact, that should have an effect on any Christian living today. One of my colleagues once called this “St. Reality” day. Perhaps so: confessing faith can lead to hard times, even death in some cases. And so we continue to commemorate St. Stephen as one way of reminding us of this reality.

The Stoning of Stephen, Annibale Carracci (1603-04)
Other than being the church’s first martyr, Stephen was also one of the church’s first deacons. What was a deacon? Well, we learn from Acts, chapter 6, that a conflict was arising in the early church over the distribution of alms and food to widows in the church. The widows of Greek descent were complaining that the widows of Jewish descent were getting a greater proportion of food and financial assistance. Therefore, the disciples gathered the believers together and hammered out a way to deal with the problem. They decided to appoint seven people and entrust them with the task of keeping the church books accurate and making sure that the money that was being collected for the needy was being distributed fairly. Those seven were called deacons, a Greek word that means, literally, to “wait on tables,” or “to serve.” Stephen was one of those original seven deacons, which essentially makes Stephen one of the first people to get pressed into serving on Church council. For that alone we should remember him and say, “God rest his soul!”

Stephen was active in the early church and helped it spread and grow. He is described repeatedly as a man full of grace and power and filled with the Holy Spirit, doing great wonders for the people. However, almost as soon as Stephen is chosen as deacon, he is arrested and brought before the council of the synagogue because of what he is saying about Jesus and about God. He is asked by the high priest about what he is preaching, and Stephen responds with a long sermon which basically recites all of the history of Israel, from Abraham all the way through Moses and the prophets, giving testimony of how God had been calling them to faithfulness. God has a long legacy of loving the people of earth. In fact, God’s is the longest legacy in the universe of loving humankind, yet his people continually have a hard time recognizing and responding to that love, instead choosing to worship other false gods and going their own way. The people get enraged at what Stephen says to them (he calls them stiff-necked, which is what Moses had also called them) to the point that they throw council procedure out the window and drag him out of the city right there and kill him.

There is a lot we may observe and remember from the account of Stephen’s martyrdom, but one of the most critical things worth noting is how sin and evil must resort to lying in order to make gains in this world. It is not by accident that the first question that used to be asked at a person’s baptism was, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?” They’ve changed the wording a little bit in the new hymnal, but for years that was the question put to a person who was being baptized. It was way of acknowledging that the only way the devil can advance his agenda is to make empty promises and spread deceit about God and what God has done for creation. The truth is that God has the longest and best legacy of love and justice in the history of the universe. Stephen speaks the truth as he knows it, that Jesus is the lone Righteous One who answers God’s call of complete and utter faithfulness without fault, even to death, on behalf of all people. Yet each time Stephen speaks, this truth is confronted with profound lies and falsity.

When he first starts to preach and do wonders of the truth in verse 11, this truth about God kicks up some protest. They stand up and argue with him. Then, as the scene continues, more lies. His accusers secretly instigate—that is, the start rumors—that Stephen is blaspheming. Then a little later we learn false witnesses are set up to bring charges against him before the council, even though when they look at him they see the face of an angel. Eventually, after his long, truth-filled speech, the accusers actually cover their ears in order to keep the truth out. Sin must lie and attempt to cover our ears in order to deny the reality that God loves the world and calls it to faithfulness. Sin must resort to lying and diverting attention and covering ears in order to drown out the truth of yesterday, that the word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

Cologne Cathedral
And we, even we who consider ourselves so faithful—we who love to reminisce about the birth of this Jesus—even we can and will forget this wonderful reality from time to time. We can just as easily hold the stones in our hands that will listen to the lies and try to silence and stifle the love God has for creation. C.S. Lewis, the British writer who converted to Christianity in adulthood, once said, “A true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to inner cesspool.” By hearing both the story of Christ’s birth as well as the stories of the saints who lived and died telling of that truthful love we can keep our hearts open to God’s power to cleanse our inner cesspools. It helps us remember that, like it or not, this is where our Lord’s birth leads us: to public witness of his love. The biggest lie that sin will tell us is that we are to keep it private, an inner cesspool of still, silent devotion. 

Therefore, let us know what deacon Stephen knew and exuded from his personality, full of grace and power: that Christ, the baby born in Bethehem is faithful for us, even through death. Just as we may still be imagining Mary and Joseph gathering up their helpless son and cradling him in safety, Jesus gathers us up and pulls us from the lies and deceit of the world—and of ourselves—and holds us to him like a mother hen holds her baby chicks. Just as Stephen looked up to see the glory of God, with Jesus standing at God’s right hand, we are promised that one day we will see him thus.

For now, see this truth in the wood of the cross, and taste it in the bread and the wine. Feel this truth in the water splashed on your head at baptism. Sing this legacy of love in the hymns of the church, and pray this truth with the might of Stephen, deacon and martyr.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail the sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glories by,
Born that we no more may die.
Born to raise each child of earth
Born to give us second birth!
Hark! The Herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Merry Christmas!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year A] - December 19, 2010 (Matthew 1:18-25)

‘Twas the sixth day before Christmas, and all through the city
Everybody was stirring to make sure things looked pretty.
Stockings were hung and Christmas trees trimmed.
Candlelight brightened while daylight’s glow dimmed.
Wreathes on the doors and inflatable Santas on the lawn
Proclaimed the news that the special day would soon dawn.
The frenzy to get out and string up some lights
Gave purpose and urgency to December nights
While some folks decked the halls in more subtle ways
Others gave new meaning to the term “Tacky Light displays.”
Blinking and flashing, from treetops festooned
And, of course, synchronized, and to a radio tuned.
With garland and tinsel, greenery real or plastic.
The point was to make ordinary things look fantastic.
Amid the bleak gray of winter atmosphere
Stood colonies of snowmen and moveable reindeer.
The shopping malls, too, were a sight to remember—
Nevermind that the decorations had been up since September—
Their glitzy and glamorous holiday fashion
Was a mood-setting trick so you’d spend with a passion.
For those who preferred displays of a more religious kind
Noticed that nativity scenes were not hard to find.
Drivers on Horsepen enjoyed the decoration
Set up by one particular Lutheran congregation.
Their display was more subdued. But not to be outdone,
They used life-size figures that could be moved one-by-one.
And almost as mysteriously as the Word became flesh
The shepherds and wise men crept their way to the crèche.
Yes, from Southside to Ashland, from Churchill to Glen Allen:
Christmas by the bushel. Yuletide cheer by the gallon.

The brightness and gaiety of the outside décor
Was matched by attention to detail indoor.
With ribbons and garland they carefully set their tables
With as much precision as they strew lights on their gables.
Brown paper packages tied up with strings?
Try bright-colored wrapping paper and glittery things!
Gingerbread houses and mistletoe sprigs,
Poinsettia plants and frasier fir twigs.
Decorations both outside and in went to show
The holidays were about making everything just-so.
Tradition and custom dictated the season
Every bauble had a story; every ritual a reason.
Whether the model was Clark Griswold or Currier and Ives
The conventions of Christmas consumed many folks’ lives.

But in that congregation with that moveable nativity
The worshippers shuffled in for their weekly activity.
With Kevin playing organ and Pastor Chris leading
They had just settled down for one last Advent reading.
The lessons they heard spoke of hope and salvation
From Isaiah’s pronouncements to Paul’s Rome salutation
But the Scripture that ignited the most imagination
Was the story of a man in a sticky situation.
Like their own custom-dictated Christmas condition
This fellow lived in times that were bound by tradition.
People knew that God’s statutes were part of God’s call,
And what was lawful and righteous should be followed by all.
Like boundaries and rules to a game that is played
God’s law for his people could never be swayed.
To say nothing at all of sin’s power to ensnare
The law was their assurance of God’s constant care.
Ever since those long days of wilderness wandering—
When they’d had plenty time to do some good pondering—
God’s people had known that his covenants contained
The discipline and wisdom for their life to be sustained.
From the mouths of the prophets and announced from each steeple
It was God’s way of dwelling in the lives of his people.

And this Joseph knew, as a humble young man.
He obeyed the commandments, trusted God had a plan.
Matthew calls him righteous—a high honor, indeed—
Which was a way of saying he let God take the lead.
We can trust, for example, he had his ducks in a row:
First betrothal, then marriage, then children in tow.
The contract had been signed, both families were ready
To support and provide them a life that was steady.
So imagine, then, friends, what he first must surmise
At the discovery of his fiancée’s pregnant surprise.
The law was clear in what justice dictated:
An adulteress would be stoned; the contract negated.
Life would go on. Joseph’s family would recover,
And no one would ever know Mary’s mysterious lover.
There was one more option: to call it off neatly.
A judge could be found to annul the marriage discretely.
A righteous man would bend backwards to prevent a big show,
And Mary’s transgression would be kept on the down-low.

So Joseph went to bed with the firm resolution
That a private dismissal was the most respectable solution.
But that night he had dreams as he tossed in his bed
Not of visions of sugar-plums—but of an angel instead.
A messenger from God gave him news of a birth
That would bring hope and salvation to all of the earth.
This child was the one on whom history had waited
To initiate the promise they’d anticipated
From that day when Satan had first conquered and won
Influence and power over everyone.
His name would be Jesus, which had rich connotations
For in his native Hebrew that meant “Savior of Nations.”
From sin’s dark corruption he’d set them all free.
And, redeemed by his love, God’s people they’d be.
So all this good news came to Joseph by dream
From an angel who’d been sent by the one God supreme.
But the biggest shock to Joseph’s ears—we can assume—
Was that this child was the babe in his fiancée’s womb!
She’d not been with a man, as it had been perceived,
But the Holy Spirit was the one who new life had conceived!
Mary, it turned out, had not been an unfaithful mate;
Rather God had chosen her, and this was her fate.
And thus the angel’s message as Joseph tossed in his bedding:
“Righteous one, do not fear. Go ahead with the wedding.”

"The Dream of St. Joseph," Rembrandt (1650-55)

So Joseph woke up with a whole different view.
What before was no option was now the right thing to do:
To marry a woman who would soon bear a child
And shelter her, guard her and keep her undefiled.
And the son to be born would be in Joseph’s protection.
He’d care for him too, and give him direction.
Though that child, as God’s Son, would be Savior of Nations
And belong, like no other, to the whole of creation,
Joseph would be the one who’d teach the child how to grow,
How to talk, how to work, and other things he should know.
The result of that dream was a whole future changed
Joseph’s own hopes now altered, his life rearranged.
As Joseph had learned when he had his decision resolved,
One can have things just-so…and then God gets involved.

And that was the message to those Lutherans that morning:
God can surprise with his grace and change your plans without warning.
For, you see, Joseph’s challenge was to adjust to God’s word
Receive it, believe it, and trust what he heard:
That God had now chosen with his people to dwell
Not as law, nor as temple, but as Emmanuel.
And by that we mean human—not a statue of stone—
But flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.
As true God and true man Christ invades this dark sphere
And announces God’s kingdom to folks far and near.
In Jesus God ventures forth into dangerous new lands:
To risk to being born and putting his life in our hands.
With a true Son on earth, God meets us face to face:
A divine participation with the whole human race.
God is with us, not remote or removed,
But in life and in death, as the cross has now proved.
God is with us. From this the believer derives
That in Jesus Christ God takes up space in our lives.
You see, Joseph was not making room for a concept,
For a doctrine about God, or some religious precept.
Joseph’s life was rearranged on account of a person,
And no amount of reasoning or wishing or cursin’
Could alter the fact that God’s grace would come down
And grow up and live as a man in his town.

That, my dear friends, is the real Christmas scandal,
On which, try as we may, we never get a handle.
For the thrust of so many of our holiday preparations
Is just about conjuring vague contemplations
Of beauty and love and the virtues of giving
Or the charity of others that make life worth living,
When really, like Joseph, we should concentrate on receiving
And guarding the Savior of Mary’s conceiving.
And instead of making sure everything is just-so,
We should hasten to his table, his mercy to know.
God’s presence among us is not some ethereal notion,
Or well-intended habits of religious devotion,
But in a particular person in a particular place
With particular parents and a particular face.

So both inside by the hearth or out where others can see it,
And if Tacky Light displays are your thing, then so be it…
Guard your traditions and customs, and the holiday things that you do
But most of all, guard this babe and see what he grows up to do.
And when Christmas often seems like a foregone conclusion
The news “God is with us” becomes a welcome intrusion.
When, what in our wandering lives should appear,
But a God who in mercy and compassion draws near!
His name is Lord Jesus, as Joseph was told,
And in his living and dying God’s love we behold.
Where two or three are gathered, we are promised he’s there.
And we’re equipped as his Body his message to share.
We live peace on earth, show good will to all men.
Thanks be to God! Merry Christmas! Amen!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.