5/7/2023 SERMON: ‘A Bad Apple and Some Stones’
Rev. Jane Courtright
People who hear the story of Stephen feel drawn to him.
Children who hear the story in Sunday School
feel the pain & strength of Stephen & they like him.
Teenagers feel the tension & drama of the story,
and they see Stephen as a Biblical hero.
And for some reason, as we grow older,
as we live our own faith for decades,
Stephen becomes more real than ever to us!
All this is odd in a way:
Stephen is mentioned in chapters 6 & 7,
and in the 2nd verse of chapter 8 in Acts,
but nowhere else in the Bible.
But then, maybe that’s WHY
So many of us feel drawn to Stephen.
We have so few known facts about him,
That we have the opportunity to fill in the details!
Let’s take a look at Stephen’s story,
and at how his name first appears.
Early in Acts, chapter 6, it says that after Jesus died,
it took awhile for his followers.
To settle down and get organized.
(The process was no easier then
than it has been ever since!)
One problem that came up early in the game
Was how to take care of the poor,
Especially the widows who (particularly in that time)
Could not support themselves.
The apostles decided to appoint a group (a COMMITTEE?)
To handle this side of things.
This is where we first hear about Stephen,
because he is one of the appointed.
But Stephen’s career was a short one.
Because in addition to what he could do to help the poor,
he healed and he preached –
he talked about his convictions
and how his life had been changed.
Didn’t take long before the religious authorities of the time
called Stephen ‘on the mat’ to defend his ‘far-out’ beliefs
as best he could!
You see, as far as they were concerned,
he was a ‘bad apple!’
In response, Stephen didn’t really answer the question
he had been asked:
“Are these things (of which you’ve been accused), SO?”
Instead, he began to preach!
And his long sermon is nearly the whole of Acts, chap. 8,
Two whole chapters of our Bible!
Just a few minutes ago,
you heard a small part of his sermon. Don’t’ worry:
I’m not going to read Stephen’s entire sermon to you!
But here’s the gist of his sermon,
as paraphrased & condensed by Frederich Buechner:
“Stephen said to them,
that from year 1, they had always been an onery lot.
Stiff-necked, he said, and circumcised as all get out
in one department,
but as cussed & mean as everybody else in all the others!
They’d given Moses a hard time in the wilderness,
And there hadn’t been a saint or prophet since
that they hadn’t had it in for!
He went on to say that the way they’d treated Jesus
was the last and worst example
Of how they were not only missing the boat,
but doing their damndest to sink it!”
Then, as Buechner puts it,
“The authorities are naturally enraged!
They illustrated the accuracy of Stephen’s sermon
by taking him out & stoning him to death!”
Can’t you just see Stephen speaking, preaching?
Stephen, just standing there, tall and strong,
head thrown back, eyes flashing….
Can’t you just hear him?
Voice sure & strong
as he told them about Moses & his call.
About how God spoke to Moses
out of a burning bush and told him
he was standing on holy ground.
& yet, it is at that moment that we fear for Stephen.
Somehow we know that he, too
had seen his burning bush.
He, to, had answered the call of God.
He, too, wouldn’t stop until he had spoken
all he was inspired to say.
I stand before you this morning,
And I still see Stephen over 200 years later.
I see a Stephen at about my own age,
standing straight, his face shining
with inner strength and confidence,
but with full knowledge of the consequences
of his actions and his mortality.
You may see an even older Stephen,
still straight, though perhaps not as tall,
His face wearing the lines of suffering & character,
his eyes the eyes of one who has seen
the heights and depths of human experience,
still having the courage to love.
We are the spiritual descendants of Stephen,
followers of ‘The Way,’ the Way of Jesus.
And so, it is appropriate for each of us
to see Stephen differently,
as a child or a young person
or someone who is mature or
someone who is older;
from WHEREVER we ARE in our lives.
Because each of us, whatever age we are,
yearns to be like Stephen:
To care so passionately & surely
about something some cause,
that we are willing to suffer/even to be stoned
(literally or verbally or otherwise) for it!
There are Stephens and Stephanies of all ages.
They are the ones who truly follow ‘The Way’
so very much like Jesus, finally left alone,
no one standing with them.
These Stephanies and Stephens give their all,
as Peter, Paul & Mary sing in their song
“For the Love of It All.”
In this song, Peter, Paul and Mary
Identify these Stephens & Stephanies as:
“Irresistible targets, I heard someone say:
They were speaking of angels
who are so courageous day after day.
Gunned down on the highways,
as we often recall…
I hear a scream, I have a dream
….for the love of it all!”
Angels like Ghandi & Martin Luther King, Jr.
…….gunned down for their beliefs and actions.
Angels like Linda Brown.
We remember the famous court case
‘Brown vs. the Board of Education.’
She endured many stones of bigoted words & shunning.
Angels like Archbishop Romero,
who was murdered in his own church
ftor his beliefs shown in word & action.
Angels like young people who stand up
For what they believe at their jobs,
In their school classrooms and hallways.
Who stand against hate & discrimination
& exclusion of any kind.
Who stand so often alone,
.. who risk real stones being thrown at them.
-Bullying stones in the form of black eyes,
verbal taunting, hurtful names, being excluded,
….sometimes even in the form of gunfire.
One more thing:
there are Stephens & Stephanies
who have grown up, who ARE growing up,
who are members of THIS church;
who know that God is calling them to live
the Way of Jesus in her or his own way.
Some are young & idealistic,
some are mature adults,
& some are a bit older and grey=haired.
I have met some in this Church of Peace
United Church of Christ.
You KNOW some of our Stephens & Stephanies.
You may be one yourself!
They can all be so easily stoned,
even to death or simply ignored –
given no chance to speak.
Unless we, people of God,
become living stones that make up
a Body of Christ, the church.
Let us, individually, and as a church:
as the people of THIS church,
make a personal commitment to stand
with these Stephanies & Stephens!