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A Sermon for St. Stephen’s Day

By the Rev. Stephen Kern.

It is a privilege and a joy to be with you as we celebrate St. Stephen, my namesake, thank you. I can still remember learning about St. Stephen’s martyrdom in Sunday school in my late elementary years at Christ Church in a little town called Herkimer NY. I remember- probably excited as young boys can be by the action stories in the bible in which blood is spilt, I remember being troubled. Not so much moved by compassion for the suffering of the great saint, but troubled by the question, why in the world did my parents pick Stephen as my name?” Reading about his being stoned to death I remember wondering, maybe my parents don’t even like me! It of course seems silly now and I can assure you that my parents did and do love me very much.

It is clear that Stephen the saint was beloved of the Creator, who bestowed special blessings upon Stephen. He was full of power and grace, working signs and wonders among the people. He was also known for his fairness, integrity and organizational sense as he and six other men were chosen to administer a thorny issue. You recall one of the early internal disputes the church had to resolve was the fair distribution of support for widows of diverse cultural backgrounds. It was accused that the Hellenists, the Greek speaking widows were not receiving their fair share of food support when compared to that received by the Hebrews, the Aramaic speaking local widows. Different cultures, different languages, limited resources. Into this stormy challenge Stephen and the other men dove, testing all their skills of compassion, administration and tact. We assume the distribution became more equitable even as Stephen’s ministry became more controversial, and dangerous.

Jesus passionately laments Jerusalem, deeply yearning to gather in the people of the sacred city of David like a hen would gather her chicks into safety beneath the divine wings. But instead that city stones the ones sent to her…Stephen would be one.

He was a powerful a speaker at the synagogue of the Freedmen, former slaves now banded together in Old Testament faith. Stephen knew his Scriputre….in his speech, only a section of which we have heard Sister Brenda read, contains thirty citations from the Greek version of the bible, the Septuagint. The brotherhood of the freedmen could not refute him, filled with knowledge and the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, Scripture says false charges were brought up against him. It is beyond the scope of this reflection time to consider if the charges against him were really false because following Jesus would call for real change among those who hear! The charges leveled against him were that their beloved temple, the God-given centre of worship would be destroyed, and their divinely inspired customs delivered through mighty Moses would be changed. But isn’t this what happened? Didn’t these changes come? Jesus did say that you don’t put new wine in old wineskins for when fermentation continues the old wineskins can’t stretch enough and they rupture. You can’t put the life of the resurrected Messiah and the creative wind of the spirit in old ways without change, without transformation. Surely we as Anglicans must sense a kindship with those synagogue of the freedmen Jews who felt threatened by the power and the transformation displayed by St. Stephen and the early church. It’s hard to change…..

Television and movie actor Alan Alda wrote a book titled Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. In an interview, he explained the significance of the title:

I was 8 years old. My father was trying to stop me from sobbing because we were burying the dog, so he said, “Maybe we should have him stuffed.” We kept it on the porch, and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries.

There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that’s passed.

We are tempted to keep the corpse of our old life, our old comfortable ways, well-worn ways of thinking and perceiving even while the dynamic life of the Spirit continues to call us to keep the core of the faith and adapt to the world and overcome in the power of the spirit. Lord grant us courage in these changing days!

We all know the old joke, how many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? And the shocked indignant answer, change?! Change?

Well thank God our leadership does have the discernment and the courage to lead us into change. Just last night in a small zoom group, in preparation for Sunday service and the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Primate’s apology to survivor’s of the residential schools, we listened to former Primate Fred Hiltz’s apology for spiritual harm. In it he recognizes the sin of the church in squashing all forms of indigenous spirituality and points us instead to see indigenous spirituality as a resource for common worship. What was, sadly, once demonized, is now recognized as a path of life in service to Creator. As we live together, we can change, we can continue to grow, we can respond to the Spirit’s call, we can live in the dynamism of the Spirit. The Reformation cry continues over 500 years…. “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always being reformed”). The Spirit calls us forward!

Stephen was a man of deep faith with a breadth of Spirit that embraced the change the Spirit brings. We honour St. Stephen among the first of the deacons of the church. We honour St. Stephen as the first of martyrs, both red martyrs, those who suffer death in service of the Lord, and white martyrs, those who take on asceticism such as poverty, chastity and obedience in their witness to the life of Christ.

But let us also honour St. Stephen+ as a patron saint of change with the courage to embrace the transformation the Spirit brings, to proclaim the ancient faith to a new generation even while the old may resist. Let us too be filled with the Spirit, and in our daily lives and decision-making lift our eyes heavenward that we may by grace catch a glimpse of the divine glory and be renewed, commending our spirits into God’s strong hand.

Amen, Amen, even so, come Lord Jesus.