Scripture: Acts 6:1–8, 7:51–60
Do you all know the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads?” It is a way to poke fun at sensational news broadcasts, which seem to believe that if a news story is about a death, or a fire, or a tragedy, or even a dangerous situation, then it should lead the news cycle! Even if other things are happening that have much more impact on the way that people live their lives, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
For the last 2,000 years, I think that the Church has gotten a little caught up in this. If there is one thing you know about Stephen, it is probably the fact that he was killed. Stoned by those who disagreed with him. And the Church has focused on that fact more than much else that he did! He is often heralded as the first Christian martyr. It is hard to find a picture of him that doesn’t somehow involve stones…there are ancient icons that have these rocks hovering by his body…and even Sunday school curriculum shows some pretty graphic, bloody pictures of Stephen. I mean, he is patron saint of stonemasons, for crying out loud! Come on, Church, can we do better by Stephen?
I think we should. While his sacrifice at the end of the story is definitely important, it is not the only important thing that happens. And I think it distracts us from what might be even more important.
First, let’s set the stage. Before we hear anything about Stephen, we learn that there is an injustice happening in the early church. Acts 2 describes that the community sold its possessions and shared everything communally. Everyone shared and everyone received. But by the time we get to Acts 6, we see that this arrangement wasn’t working out for everyone. Scholar Justo Gonzalez shocked me when he suggests that the events of this chapter likely took place six years after the Pentecost. The Early Church has been preaching and growing for a significant time, trying to figure out how to live this communal life of Christ. At this point, they would have all still considered themselves Jewish, but were Christ-followers within that broader faith. Now, a handful of years later, there are inequities. “All were together and had all things in common” is falling short of the ideal. Specifically, there are inequities between two types of widows. As you have heard me say before, widows were often the most vulnerable in the society, as they had no husband to provide resources, nor ability to work for themselves. The Bible, from the Torah to Hebrews, talks about making sure that we take care of the widows and orphans. They are 1 and 1a on the list of vulnerable people that we should care for.
But the Early Church had set up invisible lines between two kinds of widows. There were the widows who were born in Palestine, in what we might call the Holy Land, who spoke Aramaic and were considered culturally Hebrew. Acts calls them the Hebrew widows. Then, there were those who were from outside of Palestine, often called the Diaspora, who were religiously Jewish but culturally more like the Greco-Roman culture that surrounded them. Acts calls them Hellenist widows, referring to the culture where they came from more than language that they spoke.
The bottom line is that there were insiders and outsiders. Closer to the central hub of Jerusalem, the Hebrew (Palestinian) widows were being cared for with enough food and shelter and attention. But farther away, the Hellenistic widows were being neglected. As much as the Early Church wanted to take care of everyone, and talking about taking care of everyone, and even stormed through the Temple like Jesus did and told the religious leaders to take care of everyone, there were still inequities and injustices. It happens. It always happens.
It still happens. I want to thank the good folks at the Lawrence Journal World for making my sermon illustration easy this week. For those of you who get the paper, you might have seen the same thing that I did. On Tuesday, two big pieces of news landed on the front page.
- The first is the surprise announcement that Brandon Woods will be closing their nursing facility by the end of the year, if not earlier. If you do not live in town, you may not know that Brandon Woods is one of the bigger elder care facilities in the community, and is set up with graduated care, allowing its residents to live as independently as possible, until the need for greater care is required. But now, the out-of-state owners have announced that they will be closing the facility that cares for those greatest needs, and focusing on the independent and assisted living segments instead. The nursing care is just too expensive.
- The second is the announcement that Kennedy Elementary School will be closed next month. Full disclosure, my wife Kimberly teaches at Kennedy, and so I have been able to see first-hand what a special place that school has become especially in the last few years. It is a smaller neighborhood school, and also one that cares for some of the greatest at-risk families in our community. Many of our indigenous families in town attend there, as it is closely connected to Haskell University. Kennedy has made major gains in academic scoring in the last few years, but now, to save money, the school is closing.
Community of Lawrence, where did we go wrong? Like the Early Church, we have somehow managed to say at once that the needs of our most vulnerable, our most at-risk residents, our most marginalized, literally our widows and orphans, is “too expensive.” And I am not going to just point fingers at the school district, or at the owners of Brandon Woods. Just like I said a few weeks ago, this is about “all y’all.” This is on all of us:
- Anyone who has perpetuated the myth that east Lawrence schools are bad and filled with bad kids, and insisted that we draw boundary lines that shrink and starve those neighborhoods, so our kids don’t have to be around “those people.”
- Anyone who has perpetuated the myths that nursing homes are gross or dangerous.
- Anyone who has complained about our schools or our teachers for not working enough miracles in the lives of our children.
- Anyone who has complained about our nurses and medical staff for not working enough miracles in the lives of our least healthy elderly adults.
- Anyone who spends more time worried about a transgender athlete law in Kansas, impacting an estimated 5 or 6 young people statewide, instead of paying attention to the 500,000 students in Kansas who need politicians to pay attention to them.
- Anyone who pushes back on Medicare Expansion or Health Care Reform or the ACA, while across the state, hospitals and nursing homes close their doors forever.
Thank you, Journal World, because if it bleeds it leads, and I am not overstating this—that Tuesday’s paper screams loud and clear that there is blood on all of our hands. And it is the widows and orphans who will suffer the most.
With a similar level of anger and frustration, the Early Church bubbled over. There were insiders and there were outsiders. And the outsiders were getting left out. But that is not the end of the story. Look what happens in response. Again, it is Justo Gonzalez who helped me to see what was at stake here. The Hellenistic, outsider, enculturated Christians cried out for justice, and justice was given. The Twelve Apostles put their heads together and chose to empower seven individuals to bring justice to the community. They prayed about who to choose, found individuals who were sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit, laid hands on them (for the first time in the Early Church), and empowered them. And this was more than just creating a committee to look into the issue. This was more than just appointing a token member from the impacted community to some board. They gave these Seven the blessing, the power, and the authority to make sure that justice was done. The word here that the NRSV translates as “waiting on tables” is “diakonia,” which has both a connotation of servanthood and also of financial power. Some translations say “keeping accounts.” They gave them all the church credit cards! In short, Gonzalez writes, they brought these marginalized outsiders into the middle of the power structure and gave them what they needed to make things right. The Church of Jesus is radical in the fact that those who are most vulnerable, most in need, set the standard for the rest of the community. When someone has been marginalized, the Church of Jesus puts them in the center. Which is exactly what they did with Stephen. Sorry, it’s taken half the sermon to get to him, but you had to know why Stephen is important. Stephen is one of the Seven.
Now, let me tell you something about the food pantry. When you work the food pantry, look out. When you stand side-by-side with some of the most desperate and needy in our community, watch out. When you see the vulnerable and afraid and hurting week after week after week, be careful. Because there is a good chance you are going to get set on fire by the Spirit of God. The Twelve told the Seven, “Go take care of the food pantry,” and before they knew it the Seven had disappeared and started preaching the Gospel of a Risen Christ. And that is exactly what happened to Stephen. He saw the power of a God who cared for the most vulnerable in the community, and it set him on fire for the Gospel. He was brought in from the margins to the center, and couldn’t help but go back out to bring more in. From the very beginning, the Church of Jesus followed the food pantry team out the doors, and it changed the way they saw God and the world.
I would suggest that Stephen’s death and martyrdom is really a footnote in the story. What makes the story powerful is what got him killed in the first place. You see, when you go back out and bring the marginalized back in, the establishment doesn’t like it much. People don’t like it when you upset the status quo, when you break down the barriers and boundaries that they have set up. But Stephen, who lived his life by the rule of inclusion and embrace, even asking for forgiveness to the people as they were killing him, demonstrates what we are to be about in the Church of Jesus.
You know, there are two phrases that I have heard over and over again in the last year that I have come to hate.
It sets my teeth on edge when I hear that churches are considering “opening back up.” Because that implies that we have been closed. That implies that we turned the sign around and said we’d be back after the pandemic is over. That implies that this crew out here that you can’t see hasn’t been working their tails off to figure out how to get picture and sound and non-buffering video into your living rooms. That implies that we haven’t been doing Gospel ministry every single step of the way. In fact, follow me. If you want to see what an opened up church looks like, check out our food pantry. Church, you have been open! You have been hard at work. Week in and week out, you have been hard at work, caring for the needs of our community. And just this last week, while I watched some of those volunteers doing their work, one of the case managers for Bert Nash showed up. He works with families dealing with homelessness and housing insecurity, as well as mental health issues. And he said something that has stuck with me: “I don’t know where we’d be without the churches. So many more wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for your generosity.” That’s you all. That’s following the food pantry out into the world. And that is because we never closed up.
Another phrase sets my teeth on edge: “back to normal.” Let me make it clear that the last thing I want is to go back to normal. Back to 2019. Back to the pre-pandemic world. Because let’s be honest…was 2019 that great? Were there no outsiders in 2019? No people underfed in 2019? No people underhoused in 2019? No people marginalized and left out and ignored in 2019? No people suffering from mental health imbalances in 2019? Let me say this as clearly as I can, “if we go back to normal, we have failed.” Because God has better than normal in store. God has justice in store. God has restoration in store. God has healing and security and hope and health in store. God has a community who doesn’t make their children walk across 5 lane highways to get to school. God has a community who doesn’t tell their elderly that they are just out of luck. Church, let’s never go back to normal again…God has something better than normal in store. Church, let’s never go back to normal again. Just like the Early Church, let’s follow the food pantry out the doors. Let’s go out like Stephen and find the vulnerable and hurting and put them front and center. Let’s get back to being an abnormal family of love and inclusion and care. Let’s get to work being the Church of Jesus.