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.

Remembering the Stones: Sermon for May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he 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.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

When I was in seminary the most dreaded class was preaching. Many people have an aversion to public speaking, future ministers included, so that’s not surprising. But the word around campus was that preaching class would rip you apart before putting you back together. There were plenty of stories about feedback and how your sermons would be videotaped and you would be forced to watch yourself as you stumbled over readings or swayed back and forth in the pulpit.

So on the first day of preaching class, we all walked in and sat uneasily at our tables. And one of the preaching professors got up and started reading stories like this one from the book of Acts. They were stories about how the early Christians were beaten or imprisoned or even killed for their faith. And at the end he turned to us and said “that’s what they endured to preach the Gospel…I think you’re going to be just fine.”

Today’s story is not an easy one. It’s the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which means the first person to die for their Christian faith. He is called to trial and asked about his faith. And instead of lying or recanting, he tells them about what he believes about Jesus. And they respond by stoning him.

The book of Acts is full of stories like this. It’s a book about how those early disciples in the uncertain days were learning to be the church together, and were facing the very real consequences of what it meant to claim their faith. And it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from church.

It’s funny, because sometimes I think the modern church needs to go back and read Acts from time to time. We need to remember our roots. And we need to remember those stones. Sometimes we need to see that stark reminder. Sometimes we need to know that ours is a faith for which peopled died.

The reality is that the faith of the early church was a lot different than the faith of American, middle-class Christianity. No one is waiting at our church doors to stone us. We are not losing anything except maybe an extra hour of sleep by being here. We are under no threat being here. And really, if you want to, you can walk out the church door today and not think about your faith again until next Sunday morning.

That’s our luxury. But sometimes that is also our problem.

We live in a culture where almost everything else is done for our convenience or pleasure. We expect to have things our way. We demand that we be served. We expect that things will be done the way we want. We don’t like being inconvenienced. And we are often all-too-quick to remind those we believe are there to serve us that there are other options down the road.

And sometimes that attitude even finds its way to our churches. We become not disciples, but consumers, looking to be fed, or be inspired, or be made happy. The church becomes a vehicle for meeting our own needs and wants.

But here’s the hard truth that stories like today’s remind us of: the church does not exist for us. This building is not here for us. This worship service is not about us. The committee meetings and decisions we make are not about us.

Instead, the church, and everything about Christian life, is about Jesus and his will for us and for the world.

That’s a little distressing to hear, perhaps. Because it goes against almost everything else we encounter in our culture. This isn’t about us and the way we want it. It’s not about our comfort and convenience. It’s not about whether or not things fit into our schedule or preferred timeline. It’s about Jesus. We are not the served. We are the servants.

And sometimes we are called to make great sacrifices as a result. And sometimes we are asked to put aside our self and find our identity in Christ instead.

Stephen did that in a literal way. The Scripture right before the passage we read today tells of Stephen being on trial, and being asked whether the charges against him, about whether he followed Christ, were true. And Stephen responds with a long speech in which he testifies to his faith in Christ, and even tells those gathered some hard truths about what it means to follow God’s will, and how they had often dropped the ball.

That’s when they decided to stone him, by the way. Even though his words were true, hearing the truth enraged them and they had to literally kill the messenger.

And yet, even in his dying moments, he was a witness to something greater than himself. Scripture tells us that as Stephen was being stoned, there was a young man watching. He was one of the people persecuting Stephen. The others gave him their coats to watch as they killed Stephen. And he stood there, watching what it meant to have faith in Christ, and what the consequences could be.

His name was Saul, but we know him all this time later as Paul, the great messenger of Christ’s life and love. He was not converted to faith that day. That came later on the Damascus road. But before he ever believed, he understood the potential costs of being Christ’s disciple.

Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe we should be more up-front in the church about the potential costs of following Christ. Maybe we should have a sort of disclosure process before someone decides to join, not to discourage them, but to just be honest. Because, if we are all being honest about this, following Christ means that you are going to lose your life.

I don’t mean literally. At least not in the sense that Stephen did. We have that luxury now. But if you are doing this Christian faith thing honestly, you are going to lose your life. You are going to lose the illusion that you are in control. You are going to lose the perception that it is all about you and your needs. And you are going to lose the right to have it your way. You are going to lose the life you know, and maybe the life you have always wanted.

That’s the cost of discipleship. That phrase, “cost of discipleship”, comes from a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor who managed to get out of his home country and secure a seminary teaching post in New York City when the Nazis rose to power. He was safely stateside, and out of harms way.

And yet, he did not feel that he was doing what Christ had called him to do with his life. And so, he went back to Germany, and worked as a Christian pastor to oppose Hitler and his regime. When he went back, he knew in a real way that he was signing his own death certificate. And yet, he went anyway. Because, like Stephen, he felt like he had no choice. And like Stephen, in the end he too became a martyr.

That’s not a very cheerful story, I know. But, for me at least, it is an inspiring one. It’s good to have examples of selfless faith. And it’s good to have reminders that sometimes our faith calls us to do the things that we do not want to do, even to the point of losing the life we know.

For you and I, hopefully, we will never have to make a choice to literally give up our lives in order to follow Christ. But we will have to make, everyday and in dozens of ways, a choice to give up the life we know, the life we want, and the life we hope for, for something else.

The good news is that the “something else” is something better.

Because Christ doesn’t call us to give up our life and follow him for no reason at all. He doesn’t call us to something hard in order to make us miserable and to hurt us. Christ calls us from the lives we know and imagine to a life that is unimaginable in its meaning and its depth.

No, we no longer get to have it “our way”. Now we get to have it Christ’s way. And, if we really open ourselves up to that, we find that it is more incredible than we could have imagined.

But that day that he watched Stephen die, do you think Paul believed that? Do you think he was saying, “I want to follow that guy?” No. And I wouldn’t have wanted to either.

But when that blinding light finally hits you, like it did Paul, you realize that you can do no other, and that life itself is a small price to pay for a life of meaning.

So, what price are you willing to pay? What is the cost of discipleship for you? I’m not talking about buying grace or anything like that. You can’t do that. But, what are you willing to turn over to God in order that you might live a life of gratitude for the gifts you have been given? What are you willing to lie down on the ground, or cast off like a stone, so that you might follow him into something else?

What are you holding onto, and what are you willing to let go of in order to claim something better? It’s a question worth asking for all who would follow Christ, and it’s a question that can change our lives.

May our lives be changed by Christ’s call to discipleship, and may we choose to pay the cost. Amen.