The Feast of Stephen

a sermon for the 26th of December

As something extra for this season, we’re offering this simple recording of a song Alana Levandoski led us in as worship began on the 26th. It is very much ‘live,’ done very simply – though with a sophisticated little hand-held recorder – and reflects the space into which we were invited at the beginning of the liturgy.

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Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
When the morning stars sang together?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you?
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Listen, listen to creation sing in tongues
Listen, listen for the wisdom you can’t know

*     *     *     *     *

H

appy St. Stephen’s day. You may not be at all accustomed to thinking of the 26th of December as being anything other than the day of Boxing Day blow-out sales, or perhaps (if I’ve done my work…) as the second of the twelve days of Christmas. But in the traditional church calendar the 26th is also marked as St. Stephen’s day, or the Feast of Stephen. That might be striking a chord of familiarity.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel.
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel.

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That is the opening verse of a 19th century carol written by John Mason Neale, in which we hear the story of a good king who, upon seeing a poor man off in the distance gathering sticks to keep his fire burning, is moved to help. The good king sets out with his page to take the man food and drink and wood for his fire, but on the way home the two are caught in a snow storm. The king trudges on, cutting a path that allows his page to keep walking. As the carol presents it, so passionate is the king’s faith that his feet melt the snow and open the path for the page to walk through:

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.

And then the closing lines, which offer something of a moral lesson to all who would sing these words:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Well there actually was a King Wenceslas, and by most accounts he was relatively good news as a king. He reigned as king of Bohemia in the 900s, and had some reputation for fairness and compassion; for actually translating his Christian faith into practice. He was murdered in a plot orchestrated by his brother—who did not share his faith nor his character—and was almost immediately heralded as a saint and martyr. And it is his martyrdom as much as his reputation for compassion that linked him to St. Stephen’s day in the mind of the carol writer.

It might seem a bit odd to read the story of the stoning of Stephen during a season that we assume might be a bit more… well a bit more Christmasy. But the decision to mark the second day of this season by telling the story of the first Christian martyr is no accident.

If you were here on Christmas Eve, you’ll know that I spoke of the risk of surrounding Christmas with sentimentality and little else. To read aloud the story of the first Christian martyr on this, the second day of Christmas, is about as strong an antidote to sentimentality as you’re likely to find! What it says is this: once you’ve told the pretty story of Bethlehem you need to look at what it might cost to follow that babe once he’s grown up.

In the case of Stephen, the cost was high. Confident in his faith that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus God had acted to bring in a whole new covenant with humanity, he can’t not proclaim the good news. As in the case of Paul and of Peter and a host of others who would follow, this is met with deep opposition, and so Stephen is accused of blasphemy and hauled before the council. Undaunted, Stephen preaches—his speech fills the better part of the seventh chapter of Acts—which fuels the fires of those who would condemn him. He’s dragged into the public square, where he is killed by a violent mob. As he dies his words echo those spoken by Jesus from the cross:  “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Listen to what William Willimon has to say about the way that Luke understands the figure of Stephen:

Luke sees Stephen as a hero of the faith, a quite rational person who died for the same faith by which he lived. Indeed not to die for what you hold most dear would seem, to the church of Acts, to be the essence of irrationality, even insanity. So many Christians (and Jesus) died at the hands of the Empire because it was impossible to reconcile the Christian claim—that is, that God, not nations, rules the world—with those of a progressive world empire.

To follow the one born in the stable in Bethlehem might just mean being placed in a position of conflict with the way the world works. For all of the loveliness of the nativity story, our telling of it cannot stop short of the telling of the bigger and deeper story. It just can’t.

And so Willimon continues,

(A)s a Jew he knew that his life belonged to God, his life was, as his dying prayer indicated, held in the hands of God… What is worth living and dying for?

Not just what might be worth dying for, but what is worth living for? That is the real question to be asked when we tell the story of a martyr.

Is it a bit paradoxical to mark the death of a martyr with a feast, particularly in this festal season of Christmas? No. To mark a feast is not just about being grateful for good things; it is also to stubbornly and resiliently say something about how things should be and shall be. We tell a hard story, remember a costly discipleship, and then sing our alleluias, reminded that like Stephen before us our lives (and our deaths) are held safely in the hands of God.

May these 12 days bring you both a deep peace and new insight into what it is that is worth living for.

Amen.

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