Saturday, June 27, 2020

“Greek Widows Matter and the Witness of Stephen” - June 21, 2020

Text: Acts 6, 7:54-60

Good morning and Happy Father’s Day to all of you!  A special word of thanks and appreciation for all of the fathers with us today.  

We are continuing in the Book of Acts this morning.  Acts is filled with amazing stories of faith.  Stories of courage and power and of the miraculous work of the Spirit.  Last week, we read how the church cared for one another to an amazing degree.  They had such a close fellowship, they provided for one another’s needs, they were led by the power of the Spirit.  Acts tells us about church the way church should be.

Except that - it really doesn’t.  Acts tells it all, the good and the bad.  There is much to aspire to, for sure, but we also find a lot that we definitely don’t want to repeat.  In our scripture today, two readings that tell the story of Stephen, we get both.

Last week we read from chapter 2.  It told us how the believers sold their goods in order to care for each other and that there was no one needy among them.  But that apparently didn’t last, and that wasn’t true everywhere.  In time an issue arose.

By the time we get to chapter 6, there was a system apparently in place to care for widows, with a daily distribution of food, a kind of first-century Meals on Wheels. Now remember, there was no Social Security, no pension plans, no government assistance programs.  If you did not have family around to care for you, you could be in big trouble very quickly.  But as the synagogues had done, the early church set up a system to care for widows, who were the most vulnerable members of society.  But in time, it appeared that some of the widows were being neglected in this food program. 

The text speaks of the Hebrews and the Hellenists.  The Hebrews were Aramaic-speaking.  They were longtime residents of Jerusalem and Israel.  The Hellenists were Greek-speaking. 

It arose in time that the Greek widows were not being cared for in the daily distribution of food.  Now, bear in mind that at this point, the church was essentially a sect within Judaism.  The local Jewish population spoke Aramaic.  They had deep roots and family ties in the area.  Greek-speaking Jews had grown up scattered in various parts of the Roman Empire.  Acts 2 speaks of devout Jews from every nation coming to Jerusalem.  Some settled there.  These folks were generally more cosmopolitan than the Aramaic-speaking Jews and often had their own synagogues, like the Synagogue of Freedman, which is mentioned in our reading.  They did not have the roots and often did not have the family ties of the Aramaic-speaking population.

The divisions of language and culture that existed among the Jewish population in Jerusalem found their way into the church, and the complaint was that the Greek-speaking widows were not being cared for as the other widows were.

You know, I have read this text many times before.  I had always noticed the apparent discrimination here, but this time, given the context we are in today, I understood this a little differently, a little more deeply perhaps.

You had a situation in which people were tired of mistreatment.  People started saying, “Greek Widows Matter.”  It’s not hard to imagine others responding, well, All Widows Matter.  And the fact was, of course, all widows mattered.  Every life matters to God.  Every person is precious to Jesus.  But precisely because all widows matter, in that moment, something needed to be done to care for those who were being treated as if they did not matter.

You know, given what we read of the early Christians, given the inclusive nature of the church at Pentecost, I doubt that anybody said, “Let’s withhold help for the Hellenists.  Let’s load up the delivery boxes for the Hebrew widows and shortchange the Greek widows.”  I doubt that there was a plan hatched to just skip the homes of Greek widows when deliveries were made.

I can imagine it was more of a case in which the needs of the Hebrew widows were more widely known.  As long-time residents, they were generally more plugged into society.  The way to report needs may have been more difficult for Greek speakers to navigate.  And since they were more cosmopolitan, since they had lived in these exotic places, there may have been an assumption that their needs were not so great.

In other words, you do not have to assume there was personal animosity involved.  Knowing how we humans are, that was probbaly a part of it, of course, but a large part of it may have been more of a problem with the system.

To their great credit, the church recognized the problem.  I am sure they had conversations.  I am sure they got educated about it.  They may have read about it.  But it did not stop there.  Education and awareness and an understanding of the history of the situation is vital.  But they went on to the next step.  They did something.  They changed policy.  They created a new structure.  Simply talking about the problem would not necessarily change things.

The apostles had a huge job sharing the gospel, spreading the Good News of Jesus, leading people to faith in Christ and establishing new churches.  They realized that more leadership was needed.  So the decision is made to try something new. The office of deacon was created. 

Seven men are appointed to be in charge of caring for physical needs.  They are the first deacons.  While they are seven men, later in Acts we read about Phoebe, a woman who was a deacon.  The word “deacon” basically means waiter -- someone who waits on tables.  

Now, here is the thing that I had not quite noticed but which became clear to me as I looked at this passage from the perspective of 2020: it is not at all a stretch to say that the office of deacon was created largely as a response to systemic racism.  Think about that.  Responding to injustice by creating new things - living out our faith in creative ways that are appropriate for our context - is a part of the church’s DNA.

We read a list of the first seven deacons, who were given the task of caring for widows and persons in need.  But as we know, you can’t just draw a sharp line between preaching and teaching on the one hand and service on the other.  The twelve apostles were not exempt from service, and the deacons did not stick exclusively to serving those with physical needs.  And for that matter, ministry is not just for the pastors and deacons to take care of.  We all have a responsibility to live out our faith through both worship and service.

As it turns out, Stephen, one of these seven deacons, was a powerful preacher who did signs and wonders among the people.  Stephen preached and taught about Jesus, and some of the Greek-speaking Jews at the Synagogue of the Freedmen did not appreciate this.  They argued with Stephen but tended to lose the debates, and eventually they hatched a plot to deal with him.  They trumped up charges against him.

Our reading this morning starts at the beginning of chapter 6 and concludes at the end of chapter 7.  Now, we spared you having to hear the first fifty verses of chapter 7.  It is the longest sermon recorded in the Book of Acts and maybe in the Bible. 

Stephen begins with Abraham and moves through the Old Testament, recounting the history of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people.  No one could disagree with what he said until he got to the part about killing the prophets and opposing the Holy Spirit.  “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?  Come on, which one?”  Stephen is in their face.

At this point, Stephen seems to know where all of this I sheading, and he does not hold back.  In the end, the crowd
covered their ears and shouted as they went after him.

Covered their ears and shouted?  What is that about?  Well, I’d like you to do something for me.  Put your hands over your ears.  Guess what?  You can still hear me.  To really shut me out, you need to cover your ears and shout at the same time.  (Since I don’t have to hear you, you can try that if you want.)  As he spoke of seeing Jesus at the right hand of God, the crowd considered his words blasphemy.  They that covered their ears and shouted as they rushed at him.  They drug him out of the city and stoned him to death.

Aren’t you glad that over the last 2000 years, we humans have learned to deal with our differences constructively, that we don’t have to resort to violence or the threat of violence toward those with whom we disagree?

Clearly, things haven’t changed much.  We may not personally throw stones, but we can definitely throw words.  We can demonize those who are different and make them less than a person.  Like those who covered their ears and shouted at Stephen, we don’t always want to listen.  We use labels and stereotypes and can just write off the other person.  There is physical stoning, and then there is verbal stoning and psychological stoning and maybe even spiritual stoning.

The culture of labeling and blaming and opposing and turning so easily to violence, in our hearts if not in our actions, can affect all of us.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to love instead of hate because hate destroys.  We love instead of hate through the power God gives us.  We love instead of hate as we follow the example of Jesus, and the example of Stephen.  We refuse to pick up stones not only because of what it can do to others, but because of what is can do to us. 

Being faithful can mean bringing hope and comfort to others.  It means taking care of needs, as these early Christians did, however imperfectly.  It means making changes and responding in ways that work toward both mercy and justice for all.  It can also mean taking stands that aren’t so popular.  When in the course of offering a prophetic word, when in the course of speaking the truth, and especially speaking truth to power, we may encounter opposition.  Doing the right thing can come with a cost. 

Well, nobody said being a deacon would be easy.  On the other hand, our deacons today can look to Stephen and realize that maybe they don’t have it so hard.

One of the very first deacons got himself killed for following Jesus.  As he is being stoned, Stephen prays for those who are killing him.  “Lord Jesus, do not hold this sin against them,” he says.  It reminds us of Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

There is one little detail we find at the end of this story.  Those who were stoning him “set their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  Stephen prays for his murderers, and those prayers are answered.  Saul, of course, becomes the great missionary Paul.  Augustine said, “The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.”  And if that is true, then in large measure, we owe the church itself to the prayer of Stephen.  Amen.

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