s089g99, Somerton Park 26/12/99 St Stephen

"What you are to say will be given to you" Matthew 10.19

Our lectionary recommends us to transfer the feast of St Stephen to the 29th of December so that we use the readings for the First Sunday after Christmass today. However this would mean that St Stephen would never be celebrated on a Sunday, which seems sad.

I want to testify to the truth of the saying of Jesus: "what you are to say will be given to you" (Matt 10:19) but that this does not mean we do nothing at all, simply waiting for divine inspiration.

Preaching extempore (without text or notes) is in fact far more difficult than preaching from a prepared text. If I was to preach "extempore" every week, I would do nothing else but prepare for those sermons. And I would also be a nervous wreck - or more of a nervous wreck!

Real extempore preaching - that is preaching with no preparation, text or notes, actually never happens. It is the same thing with extempore prayer - it's easy once you get into the swing of it - but this "practice" really means the prayer is no longer truly extempore.

Another misconception is that clergy should all be great preachers like the great preachers - Billy Graham for instance. But Billy Graham of course travels the world, preaching essentially the same sermon many times. Naturally he has become powerful with his words. In the country I always found that those who heard my Christmass or Easter sermon at the 11am service after I had preached it a number of times, actually got the best version, the one that started to approach what I actually wanted to say in the first place.

However moving from place to place preaching the same message is a quite different, and actually much easier, exercise than being a parish priest in one church, delivering (God willing) a new and inspiring message each and every week. I have found the truth of this with my work with the Mothers Union. The expectation that clergy will be able to preach like Billy Graham each and every week is quite unreasonable. It would even be unreasonable to expect it of him.

Words are given, not just as we wait for God, but also as we study, prepare and pray about what we should say. Indeed I would say that I am only now (after many years of preaching) beginning to realise what I want to say - the message that God wants me to proclaim. Having realised that message, at least in part, I look at the scriptures set for the day and see how they illuminate or contrast that message. It means I become a little repetitive too :-)

St Stephen was an interesting character. Of him as a person we know virtually nothing. In Acts we find him first in chapter six, one of seven set apart to administer the daily distribution of food to the widows. The "Hellenists complained against the Hebrews" we are told. Things haven't changed much have they? As a result seven Greek persons were appointed as deacons. If you complain, you get the job to do. Again things haven't changed.

But it seems Stephen exceeded his authority, and started doing "signs and wonders among the people". He actively debated with the members of the synagogue, and for his impertinence, was hauled before the High Council. Here he preached to them, in what must be one of the longest sermons, certainly in the New Testament. St Peter's first sermon on the day of Pentecost was but 22 verses. Over 50 verses of Acts chapter 7, which we do not read at length, are devoted to Stephen's words. The last verses of chapter seven describe his martyrdom.

It is a mute point whether God actually wanted Stephen to exceed his authority and to say to the religious authorities: "You stiff-necked people, 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? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers." (Acts 7:51-52) He was, as I have said of Greek not Jewish extraction. If this served to alienate the authorities, as seems likely was the case, was this what God wanted?

So in just two chapters of Acts, Stephen appears, preaches and is killed; truly a "shooting star" - here today and gone the next - the first person martyred for the Christian faith.

Stephen is of course looked to as the first of the seven deacons. But he was not the only one to exceed his authority. The other was Philip the evangelist, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle, our Patron Saint. He also had a much wider ministry than the social work of the early Church - he was found flitting to and fro, converting the Ethiopian eunuch, and preaching and performing miracles in the towns of Samaria. The other five deacons probably did what the Apostles told them to do - arranging the daily distribution of food to the widows and other than this one mention of each of their names, they are never heard of again. Again nothing has changed much. Those who actually do the day to day work are the first to be forgotten.

I suppose on "the feast of Stephen" I should also mention Good King Wenceslas. He was a Bohemian prince and martyr who lived from about 907 - 929 AD. Bohemia was, I understand, part of what is now the Czech Republic, centred around Prague. I am not sure of the transition of the name of the country - to the meaning for "bohemian" as a "Gypsy of society", and so "an artist, literary man or actor who leads a vagabond, or irregular and unconventional life." (SOED p198). Wenceslas took power in 922. He was a pious man, he worked for the cultural and religious improvement of his country. It was likely that his policy of friendly relations with the west and Germany that lead to his being murdered by his brother. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that his name "has become familiar through J.M. Neales Christmass Carol ... but it's contents are wholly imaginary."

Turning back to the martyrdom of Stephen, we are told that he saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Visions are not especially rare, particularly to people who are under particular stress, either self induced or inflicted upon one. The percentage of people who readily admit of some religious experience in their life is very high, I seem to recall reading in the high 90%'s, though I've forgotten where I read it. The question is where the vision leads one, towards God or away. For Stephen it lead towards God. He saw Jesus standing at God's right hand. What Stephen actually saw cannot be determined, but the message is clear - Jesus is God's right hand man - the one who does God's will in creation. Jesus - who accepted the offerings of sinners.

Inspired by this vision, Stephen commended his own life into Jesus' hands; and ultimately this is all any of us can do. There is little point in wishing ourselves to be holier, or better, or more charitable, or whatever. We simply put ourselves into God's hands for him / her to use us as he or she wills.

Finally Stephen prays "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" and here he echoes Jesus' own words on the cross "Father forgive them for they know not what they do". This is what separates our faith in Christ and all that would seek to enslave us to fear. Jesus' readiness to forgive and to love in the hallmark of our faith. In all the world religions I see plenty who hold up before us good and honourable motives and actions, plenty which teach us valuable lessons about ourselves and our own motivations.

To me however it is a particular hallmark of Christianity, at least potentially, if not in actuality all that much, to see good in all others. To see others as people to accept not convert. To see others not as sinners to get to repent but as people from whom to accept contributions. To see others who oppose us as people to forgive not to fight. Christianity is only as right as it is accepting of others who differ from us - even though I would be the first to say that God doesn't call us to die for him / her. God has surely done enough dying for everyone.

 

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