Good King Wenceslas: Sermon for May 14, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be heard here or downloaded as a podcast on iTunes.

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 Then 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.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

7:60 Then 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.

When I was 8, I started taking piano lessons. I was given a stack of those lesson books that kids get, with the very simple songs that you can sort of plunk out with one finger. And I remember being very excited about it because it was a Christmas one, and I knew these songs, and so as I was finding the right key with one finger I could sing the words.

So, jin…gle bells…jin-gle…bells. Or, we wish you a mer-ry Christ-mas…

But there was one song I didn’t know, and it had these words I didn’t understand: “good King Wen-sa-les? Wen-ces-las? looked out….on the feast of Ste…phen.”

Who was King What’s-his-name? And what was the “feast of Stephen”? In my 8-year-old mind I thought it was some physical place that the king was looking at out his window. And I had no idea what any of this had to do with Christmas.

My piano aptitude never really progressed much past those books, but my theological training did. So years later I would read the text from today, and I’d learn who Stephen was, and that the Feast of Stephen was actually a feast day that takes place on the day after Christmas.

So, why did Stephen have a special day? Well, you only get a feast day by being a saint. And Stephen is not just a saint, but is also commonly recognized as the first martyr of the Christian faith. He was a deacon in the early church and that alone put him in danger because he was professing a faith that was considered blasphemous. And when he was brought to trial, instead of recanting or saying something to save himself, he instead doubled-down, and gave this long speech to the religious authorities that ended in him accusing them of not following the law.

The court and the crowd were enraged, and they attacked Stephen, and stoned him to death. Deacon Stephen became the first Christian to die for his faith, and in doing so he became a martyr and a saint.

So, next time the nominating committee asks if you might like to be a deacon for this church…just remember that the job has gotten a little less dangerous over time.

The reality is that few of us, especially in our American context, will ever have to die for our faith. But back then, being a Christian was akin to accepting a death sentence. And those who died for their faith became martyrs.

We hear that word now and we probably think of it in two ways: one, as great heroes who die for their faith and beliefs. Those are people like Dr. King, Bishop Oscar Romero, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But we might think about it another way too; a negative way. Maybe you’ve known someone who always seems so put upon and needlessly self-sacrificial, and always seems to be begging other people to notice it. You might roll your eyes and say, “Ugh, that guy is such a martyr.”

Chances are good that you don’t want to see yourself as a martyr in either of those ways. You may love your faith, and work for goodness in the world, but you probably don’t want to end up dead. Likewise, you probably don’t want to be the person that people dismiss as having a martyr complex either. You probably just want to be a good person who gets through life unscathed.

Fair enough. But it’s important to know what that word “martyr” really means. The Greek word the New Testament uses is μαρτυρία (marturia) which literally means “witness” or one who gives “testimony”. A martyr, in the literal sense of the word, is not someone who dies, but someone who bears witness to a greater truth.

For Christians, this means being a witness to the greater love of God. And in a world like the one we have today, where there is so much hatred, violence, and worship of false idols, it means showing the people around you that there is another way to live.

In a real way that is what Stephen was doing in front of the religious authorities. Every religion everywhere has seen corruption and hypocrisy at times, and the ones who were judging Stephen were not immune to that. They were so comfortable in their own understanding of their faith that they heard Stephen’s witness to Christ, his testimony, as a threat. And so, they killed him.

As Christians we, as much as Stephen, are called to witness to God’s love and justice to the world. And, like Stephen, our testimony will sometimes fall on ears that do not wish to hear it. Unlike Stephen, that probably does not mean that we will be in any mortal peril. But, that means that sometimes we will be ignored. Other times we will rejected. And sometimes we will pay a price for refusing to compromise our beliefs and values.

That’s a good sign. Because if your Christian faith does not require you to stand up against the injustice of our world from time to time, something is wrong.

But the good news is that when you are being witnesses to God’s love, when you are giving your testimony, others just might notice. It was that way for a young man named Saul who was at the council that day. Saul was what we might today call a “company man”. He bought into the ideas of the ruling religious authorities, and he believed that anyone who challenged them was dangerous.

That day, as the crowd killed Stephen, they laid their coats at his feet. And Saul just stood there, and watched.

We don’t remember Saul for this moment though. Instead we remember him by the name he came to be known as: Paul. It is Paul who, perhaps more than anyone else, carried the testimony of Christ’s love and grace to others. After his conversion, he became an unparalleled witness to the Gospel.

And while we are taught that Paul’s change of heart came in a flash of blinding light while walking down the Damascus Road, I wonder if maybe it didn’t start on this day, when he heard Stephen, and he saw a man willing to die for what he believed in. Maybe it came when Stephen called out to Jesus to not judge the ones who killed him, and showed Christ’s love and grace to the very end.

I think it might have happened that way, because I think that’s how faith happens for most of us. We come to believe not because we study our way to faith, or even pray our way there, but because people in our lives are witnesses to God’s love, and because we see that witness, and we want to follow along.

On this Mother’s Day I think about that, and I recall some statistics I saw a few years ago. People were trying to figure out why some kids grew up to value their faith as adults, and others didn’t. And what they found was this: the biggest influence in whether a child would grow into a person of faith was not the particular church in which they grew up, or the pastor, or the young group, or anything like that. It was this: the parents.

82% of kids whose parents “talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs, and were active in their congregations were religiously active as young adults.” By contrast, just 1% of those whose parents attached value to their faith were religiously active at the same age.

In other words, faith starts with mothers, and fathers, and parents. And it continues with every adult who is in a young person’s life. It is the job of those people to be witnesses, and to testify by the way they live to what really matters.

This world is in need of a new generation who can live lives full of God’s grace and love. We need witnesses to a better way. We need morally courageous young people who can transform the brokenness of our world. And our faith can give them the tools they need to do this work. It’s our job not to hide those tools, but to show them how to use them.

I’ll close with this. At the beginning I was talking about the song, “Good King Wenceslas” and the Feast of Stephen. It turns out that King Wenceslas was a real guy, but he was really only a duke in what’s now the Czech Republic. And legend has it that one day he did look out his window, on December 26th, and he saw a beggar, or as the song says, “a poor man, gathering winter’s fuel”.

What the song doesn’t make clear is that the man was very far away, and the weather was very bad. But Wenceslas was a good man, and he wanted to help the man. And so he set off, along with his page, his assistant, to give the man money.

It was so cold and snowy, though, that it was tough going. Wenceslas’s page wanted to turn back and go home. But the king told him, “I’ll walk in front of you and make the path. Just walk in my footsteps. It will be easier, and warmer for you, and you’ll know the way to go.”

That’s the work of a witness, and that’s the work of anyone who cares about who comes after us. We clear the path, and we lead by example. We show by our lives what is important, and we teach the next generation how to walk this path. And we do this because Stephen and Paul and Wenceslas and a host of other witnesses, sometimes known only to us, showed us the way first. And we do this because what was done for us, we are now called to do for others.

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