There has been a fascinating debate this spring in the town of my alma mater.
One Friday towards the end of February, workers installed a sculpture outside the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, on the edge of a pretty nice neighborhood in Davidson, NC. The church had received a bequest of some $22,000. The woman who left the money was a big proponent of public art, so the church used the money to purchase a metal sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Buck called, "Homeless Jesus." On a bench, facing the street in front of the church, lies a man, almost entirely covered by a blanket – not unlike scenes we see too often, in larger cities or here in Durham. The thing that makes this sculpture even more interesting is that the thing identifying the man is his feet, sticking out from the blanket, with holes, nail holes, in each foot.
Response has been predictable. According to an NPR report from Palm Sunday, the first night a woman who lived across the street called the police, thinking it was an actual vagrant. "That’s right," the reporter said, "someone called the cops on Jesus." Another neighbor thinks it disturbing, makes him feel uncomfortable, perhaps affecting his property values. Others see a poignant reminder of the kind of life Jesus lived, receiving hospitality from friends and strangers. Certainly there is Matthew 25 – just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. Another neighbor sadly noted that it was powerful at first, then simply blended into the background, just like the homeless and poor do for us, day after day. Sometimes we notice. Other times, we don’t even see them…1
It is kind of amazing, and somewhat sad, what amounts to a risk for the church these days. We first meet Stephen in Acts 6. The early church was growing by leaps and bounds; the disciples were on fire from Pentecost, spreading the gospel with passion. But, as things grow, logistics became complicated. Word had gotten to the disciples that some widows hadn’t been receiving their daily food distribution. So the disciples pull together a team – we often generally think of these folks as the first deacons -to meet those needs, to make sure the community responds faithfully to the poor among us. Acts 6:5 lists 7 men (yes, men) set aside that day. But even then, our author, Luke, singles out Stephen as someone "full of faith and the Holy Spirit."
But not surprisingly, this gets him into trouble. In the next scene Luke tells us Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Because of these signs, he stirred up envy and hostility, and so was brought before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court) to be examined. Acts 7 is Stephen’s sermon in response. He declares that his people, the Jews, blatantly disregard God’s law, which they claim to follow to the letter, and that when God sent His Son as Redeemer, they tolerated Him only 3 years before they nailed Him to the cross.2 He ends his speech with a dramatic flair, saying to the court, "YOU are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet YOU have not kept it."
The religious leaders were furious, so were the crowds, and they became enraged, Luke says, more literally, ‘cut to the quick.’ They ground, gnashed, their teeth, the text says.3 Stephen, known to history as the first Christian martyr is, Luke tells us, filled with the Holy Spirit. Stephen stares up and sees the glory of God. This scene links us to many earlier places in scripture – he sees the heavens opened, like at Jesus’ baptism – and the Son of Man, the beloved, at the right hand of God. The crowd covers their ears, rushes him, drags him out of the city, and begins to stone him. These short verses are filled with so much raw, human emotion. We get one side note – that the crowd laid their cloaks at the feet of a man named Saul, a man we will get to know much more later on, who will first persecute with zeal, then, converted, proclaim the gospel with just as much passion, then known as Paul. As the stones begin to land, the text says – how painful and terrifying that must that have been – Stephen stands, clearly taking inspiration from the suffering of Jesus, and asks Jesus to receive him, and that his murderers be forgiven. When he had said this, Luke writes, he died.
This is a powerful story, one that inspired generations of martyrs in the early church and throughout the middle ages and Reformation. Stephen stirred up considerable opposition through his Spirit-inspired faithfulness, and stood firm, amazingly, unto death. But I wonder what risks of consequence we take for our faithfulness today. While there are people around the world, in Africa and Asia and the Middle East, who gather and worship under real, personal threat, we – here in the privileged American south – don’t have a parallel experience. Surely Christians do not reign in culture as we once did, and I am not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. But there is nothing we encounter with respect to our faith that is anything like the deep and personal threat Stephen encountered. I wonder if I could be as faithful as he was in similar circumstances. How do you think you might respond?
This also got me thinking about the sacrifices we make for our faith. I imagine there are those of you who haven’t felt free to speak of your faith at work, or who have seen the suspicion of neighbors when you mentioned something you were doing at church. I would be interested in talking with you about what that might look like in your workplace – not necessarily trying to convert colleagues by asking if they know Jesus, but converting people with your kindness, your humility, your respect for your coworkers. My guess is in every place you work, there is space to proclaiming with your lives that Jesus Christ is calling you, calling us, to a different way of living in the world. And, sometimes, it’s not the worst thing in the world to be willing to speak of your faith if someone asks, even – God forbid – inviting someone to come to worship.
This church has always had a bit of a rebellious streak – that is one of the things I love about this place – albeit one that is grounded in privilege. This past year we celebrated 50 remarkable years by telling stories of deep commitment, of sacrificial giving, of building homes for others, of traveling to eastern NC or the gulf coast for disaster relief, of people who have continued to, in a world that does less and less of it, gather and worship and sing. We have taught our kids and our youth – evidenced in such wonderful ways by our youth last Sunday – that the world is not about THEM, but about the ways God had created them and given them gifts to serve. New members continue to come – 20 more at the session meeting tonight – we work on strategic planning for the future. We listen. We pray.
But I wonder how much of this involved real risk, anything like the kind that Stephen experienced? I wonder what that might look like as we embark up on a second half-century together. Not risk for the sake of risk, to feel excited and perhaps a little self-righteous, but faithfulness that puts us in conflict with the values of the world. To give for others not with our extra, but with more than we think we can give. To be a little less attentive to where we are in the social hierarchy. To be willing to rearrange our priorities, to tell our kids’ coaches that church is more important. To lead Durham in building more affordable housing so that those who are sleeping on benches have places to move into. To risk reaching out to our neighborhood kids, to people different from us – in background or race or circumstance – and see what love can do, and see what we can learn. To risk being rejected. To risk being thought a little odd. I wonder what that might look like.
We’ll baptize sweet little Hattie at 11am, another child come as gift from God. As she grows, what will we show her about what faith means? What risks might you be willing to take, in the name of the Risen One?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Read more at Statue Of A Homeless Jesus Startles A Wealthy Community on NPR. Final comment comes from a personal email from a friend of Sara and David Pottenger.
2. This summary from "God Pause," the daily email reflection from Luther Seminary, May 12, 2014.
3. Language work from Bibleworks.