Easter 5A – Acts 7:55-60; The Martyrdom of Stephen

Easter 5A – Acts 7:55-60; The Martyrdom of Stephen May 22, 2014

Here’s my sermon from last week. If you are a pastor, feel free to copy and steal everything.

2014.05.18 – Easter 05
Acts 7 – Martyrdom of Steven

Awhile back I heard a story about a woman named Marie Walsh; just your typical suburban soccer mom: married for 23 years to a successful accountant, three kids in high school & college, close knit happy family, everything about her life seemed completely normal.

Until one morning phone rang & man said he was trimming trees next door & a branch hit her house, could she make sure there was no damage? She walked outside & was met with federal marshals w/badges. They said, “Are you Susan LeFever?”

She said, “No, I’m Marie Walsh.” And then they showed her a copy of a mug shot of herself at age 19… the last time she went by the name Susan LeFever. And she knew the two lives she had been trying so hard to keep apart had now crashed together.

33 years earlier (1960s-70s) Susan LeFever had been a spirited teenager. She wore paisley, fringed sued Jackets, listened to Bob Dylan & did everything she could do to drive her parents crazy, including smoking weed. She was a bit rebellious, but for most part just a normal kid. At some point drugs became an escape (tried cocaine & heroin). After high school she realized she had to get her life together, so she moved away from her friends, stopped all the drugs, got a job, and enrolled in a local Detroit Junior College.

One night a friend stopped by her apartment—a guy she had only met a couple of times & she gave him a ride to a local pizza place. She waited in the car, but he was taking forever, so she went inside, when suddenly they were surrounded by police. The kid she was with had been inside selling a 2.5 grams of heroin (about a teaspoon), they arrested him, and they arrested & charged her as an accomplice.

When she was interrogated, the detectives told Her they didn’t want her, they just wanted some names. But she didn’t have any names to give them. Her bail was set at $175 & her family came to get her.

Her uncle was an attorney in town; he said she should take a plea deal. It was her 1st offense so they’d give her a year’s probation. She was reluctant because it involved lying & admitting she had done something she didn’t do. But she had been ignoring the advice of the adults in her life for too long, she finally felt like she should do what she was told. She showed up in court & lied to the judge, pleading guilty expecting a year’s probation. But out of nowhere, the judge said that he wanted to make an example of her & he sentenced her to 10-20 yrs (the guy who sold the drugs got less than 3yrs). The next day she was taken to a medium security prison…within months she became severely depressed & suicidal.

8 months later her grandfather came to visit her in prison. He was a well respected man from a prominent Detroit family. He told her he had tried everything, but was out of options & she was stuck there. He also said he believed her sentence was unjust & that she shouldn’t have to stay. He was a straight-laced man, so what he said next was a shocker. He told her that he thought her only option was to escape… he had a plan, & if she wanted to try it, he would help her. She agreed.

One winter morning while it was still dark out, she was on the way to her prison job & she bolted for the 20 ft. high prison fence. She climbed up, threw her coat over the barbed wire, scrambled over, dropped to the ground, started running & didn’t stop… (except when she heard a helicopter overhead looking for her). Finally she reached the edge of the woods and saw her grandfather’s car waiting right where he promised to be. She jumped in the back seat and they took off.

He drove 30 miles to his house where she cleaned up, changed clothes, said goodbye to her family & w/$200 to her name – hitched ride to California with some friends. She created a new identity, got a job, roommates, and built a new life as Marie Day. A few years later she met Allen Walsh. They dated, fell in love, and got married. She had 3 kids, was involved in church, & charity work…

Marie said that the hardest thing about that time was that she could never tell the truth about her life to the people she loved the most… she was married for 25 years, a mom, good family. It was killing her couldn’t tell the truth to the people she loved the most.

Once she even hired a lawyer to approach the prosecutor back home, asking him to reopen the case & appeal the sentence. He refused & told her if she came back he’d tack on an extra 5 yrs if he caught her. She kept a low profile, never even got so much as a speeding ticket (which to me is honestly the most remarkable thing about this whole story), and for nearly 30yrs… till the day she was taken away by federal marshals, she could never tell the truth about her life.

After she was taken into custody at age 53, they took her straight to prison. The press started asking questions & it became an embarrassment for the justice system, both because she had escaped & because they had sentenced a teenager to 20 yrs in prison for a minor drug case (today this crime wouldn’t even involve jail time) so they finally released her on parole & she went home.

How crazy is that story? I mean she was a completely normal woman… I keep looking at my female neighbors wondering which of them is a fugitive from justice. My money is on _______. I know it’s not my wife… or IS it?

Walsh says that she used to lie to her parents all the time as a teenager. But the one time when she really wanted to tell the truth, she let the adults in her life convince her not to. And that one lie made it so she couldn’t tell the truth for 3 decades

Have you ever seen a plea bargain in person? I’ve seen a few. The judge asks the defendant over & over if they committed the crime, asking several different ways & you have to say yes every time. And you do this knowing that after you plead guilty the judge is free to ignore the deal & impose whatever sentence he wants.

Marie Walsh was asked 6 times if she admitted to selling drugs; each time she lied & said yes. As it turns out, that one lie in court—actually that one lie repeated 6 times—led her to a point where for 3 decades she could not tell the truth to anyone… not even to her husband and her children.

Here’s what this story is teaching me: I think I’ve always known telling the truth was a kind of moral obligation, you know? Always tell the truth. But until I heard this story, I’m not sure I ever realized telling the truth is a privilege. The ability to tell the truth is a gift… and it’s something we shouldn’t take for granted. Because the truth is very important to the world in which we live.

Stanley Hauerwas was asked recently what the greatest contribution is that Christians can make to any society, he said: “To tell the truth. Very simple. Just tell the truth and see what kinds of tensions that produces.”He goes on to explain that the reason it’s so important for Christians to tell the truth is because we know things about the world that the world itself doesn’t know—chief among these being that we are all sinful.

By sinful, Hauerwas doesn’t mean you’re a naughty boy/girl & you should feel really bad about it. He means we’re part of a world that is no longer rightly ordered. So there’s no peace; there is no shalom. There is way too much pain, and not enough flourishing. Christians are meant to be the one people who have been taught how to tell the truth about the way things really are. We understand why the world is a mess, & this knowledge is a gift; our greatest contribution to the world is ability to tell truth.

And most people in the world are unable to do simply because they don’t know the story of God. Since they don’t know the story of God, they don’t know their place in the world. Since they don’t know their place in the world, they think they can choose their own place. How they choose their own place is by listening to the culture tell them stories about what makes for a meaningful life. These stories end up doing a lot of damage & destroy a lot of lives.

Christians are supposed to be the one people who have the ability to tell the truth about the world (because we know the truth about the world.” We can the truth about God’s love & redemption without blushing, or apologizing. And then… we are supposed live in faithfulness & allegiance to that truth in front of a watching world.

Our scripture today is from Acts 6, and the story of the martyrdom of Stephen. And we see in Stephen’s life an example of what I’m talking about. Stephen came to prominence in the early church because the church had a problem. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” Acts 6:1

The church was growing so fast the infrastructure couldn’t keep up, and some of the widows were being overlooked. Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews were not rival sects, they were all part of one community of Jews who were devoted to Jesus. But they spoke different languages: the Hellenistic Jews spoke Greek, the Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic. And this complication was making the distribution of food to the needy ineffective for one side, (probably because all the disciples spoke only Aramaic).

So the disciples had the Greek speaking Jews select seven men to take responsibility for this issue. And Stephen was the first man chosen. He was wise & respected, and it turned out to be a good choice, because he became a powerful witness for Jesus—so much so that he came to the attention of some of the Temple leaders. They had him arrested. And in a trial reminiscent of Jesus’s trial, they hired false witnesses to accuse Stephen:

Acts 6:14 says, “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [the temple] and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” (this connects to all of the temple stuff we’ve been talking about the past 2 weeks).

And then Luke (who wrote the book of Acts), adds this detail: “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Acts 6:15. Apparently it was obvious to everyone that Stephen was innocent. You could just see it on his face. Then the high priest looked at Stephen & said, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

And Stephen launches into one of the most incredible passages in the Bible. It’s really long, so we can’t read the whole thing. If you have time, you should read all of Acts 6 & 7. He actually tells the story of Israel from beginning to end. Let me read some of it. He said:

“Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.’ … 6And God spoke in these terms, that his descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others, who would enslave them and mistreat them during four hundred years… 8Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day; and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs. 9“The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, 10and rescued him from all his afflictions, and enabled him to win favor and to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over all his household…”

Stephen goes on to tell the story of Moses in great detail; how Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter; how he ran away after killing the Egyptian slave driver; about the burning bush & Moses’ fight with Pharaoh, and how he led the people out of Egypt through the Red Sea. But the people had been unfaithful, worshiping a golden calf. Begging Moses to take them back to Egypt. So God led them into the wilderness; and patiently taught them to trust him for everything.

Now, up to this point everything he said has been a faithful recitation of Jewish history. The temple rulers were probably looking all smug. Stephen was doing exactly what he was supposed to do. He’s celebrating Jewish history & telling the story of God, all that’s left is to praise the temple.

But then he says, “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen.” The tent of testimony was like a portable temple they carried in wilderness. So their ears perk up… this is the crux move of the whole speech.

Stephen has reached the moment for his plea bargain. All he has to do is say a few flattering words about the temple & the high priest & they will probably just let him go. But he refuses to lie to save his own skin. Instead he says:

45 Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors. And it was there until the time of David, 46 who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.”

So far so good… but he better tread lightly. You just know the high priest is thinking, “Where is he going with this? This is where that brigand from Nazareth used to start in on us.” And Stephen, much like his rabbi Jesus, makes a brilliant move at this point. He quotes from the prophet Isaiah:

48Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, 49‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50Did not my hand make all these things?’

As soon as he says this, everyone knew exactly what he was doing. He’s using the words of the prophets to critique the men who’ve put him on trial… he’s moving against the temple like Jesus did. It’s a brilliant tactical move; he’s calling them out but there’s nothing they can do about it because he’s quoting the prophets.“The Most High does not dwell in houses made w/human hands.” And I imagine at this point, a really long pregnant pause…

The High Priest who started out smugly eyeing Stephen from his throne of power… now he’s on the edge of his seat. Stephen is just staring him down. I imagine this long pause, the two of them facing off, and then Stephen says… almost in a whisper.

51”You stiff-necked people…”

Which, btw, is another quote—you recognize that? It’s what Moses called the people when he came down off the mountain and caught them worshipping the golden calf… they would’ve caught the reference.

You know those scenes from movies, like the British Parliment, or a courtroom trial where some pip-squeak is about to accuse someone powerful of corruption & injustice. And when they do, the crowd starts to yell & scream, some spurring him on, some shouting him down. It gets so loud the one giving the speech has to shout to be heard over them? That’s the way I imagine this scene. As soon as Stephen says ,”You stiff necked people,” they are all on their feet…

51”You have uncircumcised hearts & ears [circumcized only on outside—you only look like you are keeping the covenant. But in your hearts you don’t.] you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.

They are all yelling now, calling for Stephen’s hide, he has to yell to be heard:

52Which of the prophets did your ancestors NOT persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, [the Mess] and now YOU have become his betrayers and murderers. 53YOU are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” 54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Stephen died the same way Jesus died—asking God to forgive those who were killing him.

How about that for a story of courage & faith? And ever since that day, Christians all over the world have found in Stephen’s life, the strength to stand up & tell the truth about the world in which we are living. Stephen shows us what Hauerwas was saying: That the church’s job is to ”just tell the truth, plain & simple… and see what kinds of tensions that produces.”

There will be times when each of us face a similar situation in which we know the truth, & we’ll be tempted to keep our mouths shut. We won’t be facing death—I hope not. But we’ll face a person, peer group, narrative, cultural convention that’ll shame & punish us if we deviate from the norm.

And yet we will know that those we are facing are telling the wrong story—a story that will only add to the disorder under which we already suffer. And because we know the story of God, we will be the only ones who can see it. And we’ll have a choice: Are we going to tell the truth? Or are we going to go along with the crowd?

The real danger is that once we tell the lie—or even let the lie be told without opposition—we run the risk that we’ll have to live with it for the rest of our lives. Have you ever told a lie & then had to live w/it for a long time? It’s like the high school kid whose friends are all bragging about their girlfriends, and he tells them he’s got a girlfriend in Canada… He shows you a picture of his cousin (does this still happen w/social media?)

Once you tell the lie, you are stuck living with it. Stephen gives us another option.

Take the high school dating scenario: what would it mean for a high school boy who is getting ripped on for not having a girlfriend said: Why are you guys so afraid to just be yourselves w/out a girl? What are you afraid of that you can’t just be alone & be okay? Is this a cool contest? And not only that, but what good can come of high school dating, really?

That’s the kind of thing that unleashes the power of a different story.

A true story, told right after a lie? That’s powerful!

This is the stuff that matters in the world. You are sitting in a job interview & you can tell right away the folks you are interviewing with are sharks & they want you to join them. Will you play along, just to get the gig? It’s good money. Will you have the courage to say, “Hey, I’m not all about the money, and the conquest. I’m mostly about my family & a full life. If you want me to sell my soul to the company, mines not for sale.

Who will say that—just tell the truth—even if you don’t get the job. Who will tell the truth trusting that God will have your back.

I heard the story of a man who was the COO at a big software company. They were struggling and he had to layoff a bunch of his senior team. He was spending all day letting people go, and he had like 10 minutes in between meetings firing people. He was standing in his office looking out the window and he just broke down & started to cry. Just that moment the president of the company came in and saw him crying & said,“Man up… we’ve got more of these to do.”

The COO just calmly turned to face his boss and said, “If you think that’s what it means to be a man, you are lost. I’ve gone to their kids’ graduations, I’ve talked with them when their wives were fighting cancer, we’ve celebrated victories & mourned defeats—If I don’t get emotional when rip their hearts out that doesn’t make me a man/ sociopath.”

That’s such a Stephen move… just tell the truth.

It is the church’s great privilege to tell the truth—especially in a time when it seems like the ability to discern the true story of redemption is all too rare.

When the world says war, we say peace.

When the culture says despair, we say hope.

When they say win at any cost we say the last will be first.

When the world says revenge we say forgiveness.

When the world says more, we say enough.

When the world says bigger, better, stronger, higher, faster, we say faithfulness, people, faithfulness.

When the church goes crazy for the next big thing, we say, “I’ll take a long obedience in the same direction.”

We tell the truth… & we refuse to tell the lies that threaten to become our entry point to a story that just not our story. We realize that it is a gift to be able to tell the truth about the world & about our lives & about our God.

The church’s job is simply to tell the truth. I’m grateful to be a part of a community that takes this seriously.

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