Fifth Sunday of Easter

Introduction
As we continue to celebrate the fifty days of Easter, today’s gospel includes Jesus’ promise that he goes to prepare a place for his followers in his Father’s house. Our baptism commissions us to share Jesus’ mission in the world. As First Peter reminds us, we are a holy people, called to proclaim the one who called us out of darkness into light. In words and deeds we bear witness to the risen Christ—our way, our truth, our life.

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to follow in the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Acts 7:55-60  The martyrdom of Stephen
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10  God’s people chosen to proclaim God’s mighty acts
John 14:1-14  Christ the way, truth, and life

Sermon
Title:  A Witness that Lifts Up

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

Do you have a Debbie Downer in your life?  Gender is not important.  Debbie Downers can be male or female.  They are the ones who carry a dark cloud wherever they go.  Dim the bright lights of joy just by entering a room.  Sour a sweet experience with dire warnings or unwanted news. You grab a piece of beautiful fruit, you are poised to bite into it, and your Debbie Downer will point out the toxins and the pesticides and hormones that make the tasty fruit lethal.  You have a trip planned to a long desired destination and upon breaking the news, Debbie Downer points out the high crime rate and the poor water and waste systems that will welcome you when you get off the plane.  (If you even get off the plane, air travel being so dangerous.)  Thanks to Saturday Night Live, the Debbie Downers in our lives have a soundtrack when they perform their demoralizing duty – Wha-wha-wha.

Well, if you have such a person in your life, I have good news for them.  Be sure to tweet or message them, text them or email them.  Tell them that they have a potential patron saint.  His name is Stephen and he is front and center in today’s first reading.  If you don’t know him, he is an early member of the young church whose activities we are reading about in Acts these Sundays of Easter.  He must have been a stand out guy because he was chosen as one of seven first deacons of the church when the disciples needed help with the table service of feeding the poor that was bringing such attention to these followers of Jesus as they were exploring what it meant to continue to live as his followers now that he had ascended into heaven.

But Deacon Stephen also was a pretty fiery preacher and one of his sermons got some religious leaders mighty upset and in their fury they stoned poor Stephen to death.  (A good Debbie downer would say to anyone getting up to preach.  I wouldn’t do that if I were you, look what happened to Stephen.  Wha-wha-wha.)

But the reason I am nominating Stephen as the patron saint of Downer Addicted ones is really not his fault but more the fault of the calendar of saints and the calendar of readings which we call the lectionary.  Not only has Stephen’s death put a really damper on our Fifty days of Easter – here we are 29 days into the alleluia-filled season, just past half way.  Sure the lilies have faded but the butterflies are still flying.  In the midst of our resurrection joy, Stephen brings us a slap of real life, with a stone cold reminder that life in Jesus is not all opened tomb amazement, flowers and butterflies, and joy that is complete in the fulfillment of God’s promise of new life.  Pushing past Thomas with his doubts satisfied and two anxious disciples on the road finding peace in the Lord’s presence, here is Stephen who reminds us that this following Jesus, and witnessing to his radical teachings can stir up some pretty strong feelings in others, and even get you killed.  Stephen is the first in a long line of Christian martyrs who have died for the faith.

So that’s the lectionary reason for his nomination of patron saint of the Downer ones.  The calendar reason is that St. Stephen Day is December 26th.  Yup, that means with a frig filled with Christmas leftovers ready for some continued feasting, with just opened toys that have not broken yet (maybe), with Christmas trees still holding on to their needles and Christmas carols still on our lips, Stephen comes running in chased by a stoning crowd to bring us down from our Christmas high.  As if he is saying to us, that cute baby has come, but let’s remember the world that he has come to, what’s in store.  (Wha-wha-wha)  No silent nights here.  No joy can cure this world of its terrors.

Poor Stephen, he really does have a lot more to offer than these two actions of calendar makers which give him the appearance of the quintessential wet blanket that is thrown on two of our most joyous celebrations.

He is a great example of faith lived and an amazing witness to the resurrected Christ – a calling that all disciples of Jesus share.  While Thomas and Philip are grilling Jesus for explanations and proofs and validations at the table that night of his betrayal and arrest; Stephen has taken Jesus at his word that he has gone to prepare a place for us.  Stephen dies testifying his deep trust in the Christ-centered belief that this violence that he is suffering is not the end.  He cries out to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life –even in the face of injustice.  He even has the strength to emulate Christ in asking for forgiveness for the ones who are killing him as he breathes his last.  What a witness.

Stephen is clearly a living and dying example of the people that Peter is calling us to be in his letter that is our second reading – a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Stephen’s proclamation is loud and the light of the Spirit shines through him.

There is a little detail tacked on to the end of this violent scene that brings even more power to the witness of Stephen in his moment of death.  We read:  58Then 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.  A few chapters later in the book of Acts, that young man Saul will be on his way to Damascus to round up more believers of Jesus.  But Saul is struck down by a vision of the risen Christ that asks him why he is persecuting him.  One has to wonder if that witness proclaimed by Stephen in his dying had not stuck with Saul such that when Christ did make himself known to him, Saul knew that there must be something powerful in this way, truth and life in whose name Stephen not only died, but who also forgave.  Saul goes on to become Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles and the one who midwifes the global church of Christ that would change the world.

We never know the impact of our witness.  It need not be the dramatic forgiving of our killers.  Perhaps it is how we treat a co-worker, or a service person.  Perhaps it is standing up for someone who is suffering injustice.  Perhaps it is helping a Debbie Downer see a more positive way to see the world.  (Maybe that’s asking too much.)

As we consider the witness of Stephen who seems to show up in the midst of most joyous moments, may he remind us even in that joy to keep our eyes open to the real world Jesus came to save.  For maybe this makes our joy in Jesus even fuller.

And, in the midst of our trials and tribulations, let us, with the help of the Holy Spirit, remember to keep our eyes fixed on the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, Jesus who is worthy of our trust that our joy will be complete.

For not even being God’s Son keeps you from dying on the cross.  But that cross – that could have been the Debbie Downer of all times – was declared powerless by the resurrection.  The empty tomb is the witness that Jesus is not just the way, the truth and the life for a brief moment, nor for a few happy days, not just for a passing season, or for a certain stage in life.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life for living every moment of this life – happy, sad, challenging, inspiring, joyful, and depressing.  And he is the same even in our moment of death.

As we see by Stephen’s death witnessed by that young man Saul who would become Paul, often times our greatest testimony is not in the words we speak or preach, but in the life we live as we walk in the way, embracing the truth, and living the life of the risen Christ.  Jesus the Christ is the one who gathers us up who were no people, and has made us God’s people.  He is the one who, though the world may show us no mercy (Debbie Downers be vindicated), proclaims in word and deed the perfect mercy that God shows us.

No, Stephen is not bringing us down, from today’s Easter joy or from Christmas’ merriment.  Rather he is a witness to the power of the way, truth and life that is ours in Jesus Christ.  May we rise up with him and witness to the same.  Turning our wha-wha-whas into…

Alleluia, Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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