The folks who put together our schedule of Bible readings did something really weird today. In our first lesson, they gave us the very end of the story about Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith. But they skipped everything about him leading up to his execution. So for the sermon today, I’m going to go back and talk through his story because the way it is written gives us a few things to think about.
(Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2011 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10; find it also on Day1.org as part of the series “Young Leaders of the Church” series.)
Having the flu changed my life. The day was Thursday, March 13th, 2008, and I was sitting on my futon with my computer on my lap. Quite suddenly, I realized how clammy and hot I felt. Half an hour before, I had felt just fine, but in just thirty minutes my insides decided that they needed desperately to become my outsides. I put my computer on the floor, leapt up, and staggered into the bathroom. I was ill for five days, and during that time all I did was sleep and watch my recently acquired complete series of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD. For those five days, I did not open the lid of my laptop. I did not press the power button. And I did not log in to the computer game that had dominated my life for nearly two years.
The following Tuesday, when I felt that I could walk around without gripping the furniture for support, I stumbled over to the computer and deleted World of Warcraft from the hard drive. I tossed the game discs in the trash. And in the three years, two months, and two days since contracting the flu bug, I have never logged back into the game. The flu acted as the catalyst for the breaking of my addiction to the computer game. The illness put me on the disabled list for a week right before Easter, but no matter how awful the flu made me feel, I thank God every day for the not-so-gentle push away from the stagnant life I was living. I thank God every day for yanking me out of the comfortable sheepfold that I had built up around me. I thank God every day for pulling me kicking and screaming through the gate, away from my dormant life and toward a life full of God.
This not-so-gentle shove out of the sheepfold happens in today’s Gospel reading, although I doubt you noticed any mention of being kicked through the gate in Jesus’ words. We’ll get back to this shove in a moment. First, notice that in John chapter 10, Jesus employs the imagery of first century shepherding practice in an attempt to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, the most experience I’ve ever had with sheep was in southern England, where I spent one windy afternoon dodging the sheep’s ubiquitous droppings while trying to appreciate the mystery of Avebury’s standing stones. If you’re anything like me, you have no clue about shepherding practice of any sort, ancient or modern. Therefore, in order to access what John calls a “figure of speech,” we first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus’ choice of image, and second we embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations.
So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside next to the sheep of several other shepherds who share this particular fold. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.
When the shepherd arises the next morning, Jesus explains, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheepfold may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.
Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English hides the special word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.
Now, perhaps those dimwitted, wooly animals trod placidly from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He’s talking about us, about you and me. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking the word that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don’t know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.
For two years, my sheepfold was the virtual world created in the computer game World of Warcraft. I lived there more than I did in the real world. I played every day. Often I ate all three meals in front of my computer. But during those stagnant months that stretched into years, I didn’t live. I existed. I simply settled myself in my sheepfold. My mind numbed. My heart hibernated. My spirit deflated. But I didn’t notice because I was safe and I was comfortable. Then the flu hit, and I was too weak to resist the pulling and yanking that God had been doing for who knows how long. God drove me out of my sheepfold. And my life began anew.
This is the message of the Resurrection: life cannot be conquered – not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens – fully, intensely, eternally. Indeed, Jesus tells us this morning: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to offer us abundant life.
And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds – whatever they may be – we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.
We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. Christ drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God’s unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.
(Sermon for Sunday, December 26, 2010 || Feast of St. Stephen ||Acts 6:8—7:2a, 51c-60)*
There’s an old joke about Star Trek concerning “expendable crewmen.” When members of the main cast beamed down to a planet, the away team always seemed to include one extra person whom the audience had never seen before. Predictably, the writers killed off this extra a few minutes later to show the dire urgency of the crew’s predicament. Seemingly, Luke (the writer of the Acts of the Apostles) and the writers of Star Trek have this in common. Luke introduces Stephen in chapter six, and he’s dead by the end of chapter seven. The patron saint of this church appears in all of two chapters of one book of the Bible. And his death shows that the situation for Jesus’ followers is, indeed, dire. Could the founders of this church have possibly named our parish after an expendable crewman?
At first glance, Stephen sure looks like a prime candidate for this expendable crewman status. We know nothing about him besides the fact that he was among the first seven deacons chosen by the apostles. Also, his feast day happens to be the day after Christmas, which is like having your birthday and Christmas right near each other and only getting one set of presents a year. And furthermore, the framers of our lectionary readings effectively gutted Stephen’s story. We just heard the beginning and the end, but we missed Stephen’s epic sermon in the middle. These three reasons all but confirm Stephen’s expendable condition. I might as well stop right now because Stephen was never part of the main crew anyway.
But wait just a minute. Let’s look a little bit closer at this by going backwards through my three reasons for Stephen’s supposed expendability. If you look at your bulletin, you’ll notice that we skipped from verse two to verse 51 of chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostles. The stitching up of the hole between these verses happens so seamlessly that you’d never ever notice. Here’s what I mean: “And Stephen replied, ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.’ ”
Did you catch the break between verse two and verse 51? Stephen says, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me,” and then he launches into a beautiful and concise summary of a sizable chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures. He recounts the stories of Abraham and Joseph and Moses. Finally, he arrives at David and Solomon and the building of the Temple. All the while, Stephen teaches about the history and traditions of Israel, and his audience is the very group of people, who are supposed to be the most knowledgeable about those topics.
Now, I can’t find hard data to support this, but I’m pretty sure that besides Jesus, Peter, and Paul, Stephen has more dialogue than any other person in the narratives of the New Testament. And all in the space of two chapters! He seems less expendable now for sure. Stephen’s epic sermon (which I’m assigning as homework for next week – just kidding) serves as a link between Stephen’s witness as a follower of Jesus and the oldest traditions of the Hebrew people. His accusers brought him to the council on trumped up charges of blasphemy against the very tradition that his speech confirms. But buried in his sermon is something that shows that Stephen, though a courageous Christian witness, doesn’t quite have everything figured out.
Nine times during the speech that we didn’t read this morning, Stephen refers to the folks in the old stories as “our ancestors.” We all come from Abraham, our common ancestor, Stephen says. Our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt. Our ancestors made the golden calf. Our ancestors brought God’s holy tent into the land of promise. Nine times, he claims kinship with his accusers and with the angry council members.
But then, when the reading we heard this morning picks up again, Stephen switches. “You stiff-necked people,” he says, “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?” When Stephen accuses his accusers of persecution, he removes himself from the group. Because he is now being persecuted himself, he claims no complicity in the sins of “your” ancestors, who, of course, are his, as well.
With this switch from “our” to “your,” Stephen severs the connection he had with his accusers and the council. A few minutes later, they violently drag him out of the city and stone him to death. Of course, their act of murder is the greater sin. But by removing himself from the corporate sin of their common ancestors, Stephen ignores the negative effects, which that sin has on his life. He turns a blind eye to the fact that the sins of the ancestor have somehow shaped, or better yet, misshaped him.
And this is where we come back to reason number two for Stephen’s supposed expendability. His feast day is today, the day after Christmas. Many saints have their feast days on the anniversaries of their deaths, but we don’t know on what day Stephen died. There is, however, a blessing hidden in this seemingly unfortunate placement of Stephen’s feast. Stephen’s death and Jesus’ birth are linked by virtue of our calendar. In both Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers take great pains through lengthy genealogies to plant Jesus squarely in the line of Israel’s succession going back to Abraham and beyond. And in his birth in that little town of Bethlehem, the town of king David, Jesus marks the culmination of the tradition of David, as well as the other folks Stephen mentions in his sermon.
Thus, Jesus’ Incarnation happens as part of Israel’s history in order to redeem Israel’s history. By removing himself through his judgment of the council from the negative pieces of that history, Stephen removes himself from the need for that redemption. Of course, no one, not even a man “full of grace and power” (as Luke names Stephen) is above the need for redemption. Even the first martyr of the church, for whom our parish is named, is misshapen by the corporate sin of this world.
The good news is this: through Jesus’ Incarnation as a flesh and blood person and through his death, which Stephen’s martyrdom recalls, Jesus accomplished that redemption and gives us the chance to be reshaped into new and better forms. And this is where we come back to reason number one for Stephen’s supposed expendability. We know next to nothing about this man who died for the love of his Lord. But we do know that, at the end of his life, he did not add to the world’s cycle of violence by wishing vengeance on his attackers. We do know that he loved and served people in need as one of the church’s first deacons. We do know that he was a man “full of faith and Holy Spirit.”
And finally, we do know, that whatever his misshapenness and his sin, whatever his success and his witness, Stephen’s life and death find redemption in the love of God, made known in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
* At church, I preached this text to three gracious and attentive women at the 8:00am service and decided it didn’t work read as a manuscript. So, at the 10:00am, I preached this content without the text and it worked so much better.