“A DEACON SPEAKS”
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
April 30, 2017
A letter arrived to the church a couple of weeks ago. With all letters, there is a sense of not knowing what it will be about. You have felt it, I’m sure. You begin to open an envelope and unfold the papers inside and you are not certain if this will be full of praises or protests, brimming with good news or sharing the worst. Email can bring the same rush of emotions but something is lost in the click of a button versus the slide of paper. This is just the nature of any letter we receive. We cannot control it. It has already been written and we have just to take it in, no matter what.
The letter was from a young woman named Ashley Ann Parker. Ashley is in her mid-20s and she was the social worker on the baby floor of Mercy Hospital. She recently took a new job at a hospital in Portland, Oregon. She lived here in Fort Smith for probably about 3 years, not long.
Stephen, whom we meet in Acts today, is not long in our memory. He only appears in 2 chapters. When Luke wrote about him he made sure we knew he was Greek. He told us that Stephen came recommended for a ministry that sounds pretty similar to running a soup kitchen or a food bank. He told us that Stephen stepped out from the group and began giving sermons that got him in trouble and then got him killed.
Any letter Stephen might have written of himself would have included these same things. His speech in Acts 7 is one of the longest ones we have in the New Testament and his Greek identity was important to him. It is one of the main reasons he got the gig with the food pantry, because he could communicate with the people who were using it. If he’d written anything about himself, these would have been two that were at the top.
When Ashley Ann came to the church the first time, she arrived at night. She was coming seeking a church home because she was feeling spiritually dried out. Her work, especially in the Neo-natal ICU was filling her with terrible grief and she was in this city as a transplant, all alone, with the nearest family hours away. When we met her, Phil and I were so excited. We were hopeful she would join the church. Or join in with the young adult group. Or want to take a class.
But she never did. Months would pass and we wouldn’t see her at all. Then, about a year ago, we saw her again. She sat in the back of the sanctuary and she often slipped in during the first hymn and left before the last hymn had ended. And it felt like a waste, like a disappointment, like a failure. Ashley Ann had wanted a church, been actively seeking one, and we had not managed to bring her in, to integrate her among us, to involve her in our mission. And now she was leaving, moving on. What a failure.
At Stephen’s death, waste and failure hang strongly in the air. This young man, who was so clearly faithful and able, is cut down in his prime. There is not much in this world that feels more wasteful than someone being killed. And yet he was. Even worse, his speech that got him killed, was a strange one to give. In it he really doesn’t speak to the accusations against him. He doesn’t share about the transformative power of Jesus. Instead he rails at the court that they are faithless and murdering idiots! There are things worth dying for but it feels disappointing that Stephen is killed over these insults rather than over his preaching of the gospel.
And, to cap it all off, it is out of Stephen’s speech and then murder, that the Christian community starts being terribly oppressed so that they have to leave Jerusalem and scatter across the region. It feels like a waste, like a failure.
But the thing is, Stephen changes everything. And I don’t think it is because of what Luke spent most of his ink writing. It wasn’t his speech or even his service at the food bank that changed things. It was his prayer that did it. It is not such a momentous thing that Stephen would pray as he is dying. Most of us would. It is what he prayed that matters. Right before he died he prayed, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” He prayed, Forgive my enemies.
We don’t know how many people heard his final words that day. But we know at least one person did. We know Saul heard it because he was right there. And we know that Saul was Stephen’s enemy. So, it turns out, that Stephen prayed for Saul that day. Did it matter to Saul, this prayer that was said for him by a dying man? Was this the first domino to fall that would begin a chain reaction that turned his own life upside down? We can never fully know.
We do know that Saul redoubled his efforts to persecute Christians just after this. But we also know that, within a chapter he will be on his knees and calling Jesus Lord. One other thing we know is that Paul talked about his own conversion many times. We have a few examples of it in the book of Acts and in his letters. And almost every time he tells of his conversion he mentions the day that he stood and watched as Stephen died; he watched how Stephen died.
Did Stephen’s prayer matter? Did it change the course of Saul’s life? Stephen was never going to know, could never have even considered it. We will never fully know either. And that is the point. But the first time he was allowed to officially share anything as an apostle, the one thing he wants people to know about Jesus is this: “through this man,” he says in chapter 13, “is forgiveness of sins…by him, you can be set free from your sin.” That’s it. That is his complete first message about Jesus: he forgives you.
We know that Stephen was the first martyr for the Church. But martyr just means “witness” and, more than someone who died, I believe he was a great witness to Jesus. The letter in the mail from Paul gives us hints that this is so. That Stephen transformed things in ways he never could have foreseen. And we only know because of what Paul writes and sends in his letters.
In opening the letter from Ashley Ann I could not imagine what she would write. Would it be perfunctory: sharing a change of address? Would it be reproving: sorry things never worked but thanks anyway? Here is what she wrote:
“I have never done anything like this before [moving across the country alone]. I really feel
like I have no earthly clue what I’m doing…but I keep praying and putting faith in God…by
the way, I already made contact with First Pres of Portland. Pretty cool bunch…I’ve been
talking to a lady my age and she and her husband have offered help and support as I make
this transition. They sent me pictures of the sanctuary—reminds me of First Presbyterian.
I want you to genuinely know that First Pres has been the first home church I’ve known in
my life. Many thanks for being so welcoming and please thank everyone for being so kind
Stephen is the first martyr of the Church, the first witness. But he certainly wasn’t the last one. Someone martyred Ashley Ann while she was here. Probably way more than one. It took many of you to did this. And you probably never even knew it. And never would have known, if not for this letter in the mail.
But that is how it is. We are always martyring, always standing as a witness to something. And we can lose focus because we do not get many letters reminding us that our witness matters. But it does. For not all letters are sent but they are, all the time, being written. Our witness is being remembered, positively or negatively.
What is remembered is probably not the big banner moments and it is not what we haven’t done as well as we’d like. What is remembered is who you are when life is hard. What is remembered is who you point to when it matters. And we are doing it. At least we did for Ashley Ann. So keep being martyrs, all of us, let’s keep it up. For we cannot control what will be written about us but if we will be witnesses to Jesus, then we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will write something about us that is more wonderful, bigger and more transformative than we could ever have imagined. Amen.