Radical Stewardship!

“Radical Stewardship!“

Stephen stoning Acts 7

Acts 7:8-9, 57-59 – July 12, 2015

When you have a crisis or serious situation around the house, or personal matters that require some assistance, who is the first person you think of? Who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? Do you have someone in mind? That’s who, that’s what I think of when I think about Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Early Church.

Here we are, in the next installment of our summer sermon series from the Book of Acts, Postcards from the Early Church. I’ve mentioned this before, of how this sermon series reminds me a bit of a radio serial. “When last we left our intrepid heroes . . . “ Last week, we took a look at the first recorded church conflict, in Acts 6.

This tension and conflict revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. It escalated into a problem between two separate groups of believers in the early Church. Jews separated by language and by culture. One Greek-speaking group of Jews—a minority group—claimed they were being overlooked, and were being left out in the charity distribution to widows.

Remember, the twelve Apostles needed help, so they called upon the whole congregation to choose deacons, people of good standing, stature, and wisdom to serve the congregation. Among these Greek-speaking men was someone named Stephen. Like the others, he was appointed and ordained to take care of social welfare matters in the congregation.

Let’s take a closer look at Acts 6, and see what it has to say about Stephen and the other deacons. I’ll be reading from a modern translation, called The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson. “[The congregation] went ahead and chose [seven Greek-speaking men.] Praying, the apostles laid on hands and commissioned them for their task. The Word of God prospered. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased dramatically. Not least, a great many priests submitted themselves to the faith.”

In these deacons, we have seven respected believers, people of wisdom, with Greek names. What’s more, one man was even a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. These Greek-speaking believers were good stewards of the gifts God had entrusted to them. They were also good stewards of what the congregation in Jerusalem had entrusted to them, too.

The book of Acts is not specific, but I can imagine them taking up their new duties. Going around the main part of Jerusalem and perhaps the suburbs, too. Checking up on the widows and those who could not come to services regularly. Making sure that the elderly, the young ones, and the infirm had enough to eat, and if need be, medical care. In this way, the deacons freed up the Apostles to continue in prayer, and preaching and teaching God’s Word.

Whatever they were doing must have done the job. We can see, as Dr. Luke said, the number of believers continued to grow—and grow!

What about us, here, today? Think about the things God has given you stewardship over. What gifts and talents do you have to offer the church? What can you offer to your neighbors? I’d like you to think about that, as we continue to look at Stephen.

Acts 6 lifts him up as a stand-out, as far as the new deacons are concerned. Stephen does an exceptional job. If there were Olympic-level competition in being a deacon, I suspect Stephen would be right up there, competing for a medal. He is a stellar deacon, serving the congregation! Listen to our passage from Acts: “Stephen, brimming with God’s grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.”

Remember how I opened this sermon? How I asked everyone here to think of someone who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? I just so happen to have someone like this in my extended family. My brother-in-law, married to my husband’s sister. Rick is one of the nicest guys you could meet. He was a volunteer fireman in his small town. Now he’s a fire inspector in his region of Michigan.

But that’s not what I wanted to highlight about Rick. Instead, he goes above and beyond when he’s asked to help. Now that my father-in-law is in his mid-eighties, my husband and I are sure glad that Rick lives only about a half hour’s drive away from Grandpa Jones. Rick is handy around the house, always keeps a cool head no matter what, and is just a swell guy to have around. Not only that, he’s an elder in his Presbyterian church, and a pillar of the community. Very much the kind of person I imagine Stephen to have been.

Back to Acts 6: “Then some men went up against Stephen trying to argue him down. But they were no match for his wisdom and spirit when he spoke.”  

It seems that Stephen is not only an outstanding deacon, excellent at serving others in the congregation, but I understand God has blessed him personally. Abundantly. He is an excellent steward of both his personal gifts, as well as God’s gifts of life and blessing for others. He must have been articulate, too. Fantastic at expressing himself, with wisdom and holy insight.

Remember, the Early Church was located in Jerusalem in these early days. Jerusalem was not friendly to the group of believers in the Risen Messiah Jesus. (I’m getting worried about what is going to happen.) Let’s read some more from Acts. “So in secret, the men bribed others to lie: ‘We heard him cursing Moses and God.’ That stirred up the people, the religious leaders, and religion scholars. They grabbed Stephen and took him before the High Council. ”

Ah. The High Council. In other words, the religiously powerful. I see them as those who block access to God. As a United Methodist commentary says, “those who use and interpret the Law in order to control access to God’s gifts. It seems that Stephen is so good at doling out ‘life abundant’ to anyone and everyone, that the religiously powerful go to unscrupulous lengths to stop him from doing what they perceive to be their job exclusively.”

Stephen continues to be a stand-out steward of the gifts God has given him. Even in his lengthy defense to the High Council—he takes almost all of Acts chapter 7 to go through the history of the nation of Israel, showing how ungrateful and stiff-necked the Jewish people are.

Just listen to the climax of Stephen’s defense: “And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition—traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels—gift-wrapped!—and you squandered it!”

“At that point [the Council] went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed—he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side. He said, ‘Oh! I see heaven open wide and the Son of Man standing at God’s side!’

57-58 “Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede, they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them. 59-60 As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, ‘Master Jesus, take my life.’ Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Master, don’t blame them for this sin’—his last words. Then he died.”

As a commentator says, “Even as the council is extinguishing Stephen’s life – stone by hideous stone – he continues to dole out life and grace to them, his killers.”

Radical stewardship, indeed. He gave generously of God’s gifts of life and blessing for other believers. Such a stand-out, he was martyred for his stewardship of his gifts.

Stephen and his example of stewardship stand not only as an example for us, but for the Church Universal, and for the centuries. We can see that “The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.”

This is what this church does. This church has a regular collection of food for the Maine Township Food Pantry. We feed the hungry and provide for God’s table of grace. This congregation shares food—and we share God’s gifts of life—with the hungry, with the vulnerable, with those in need. This is serving in the way that God wants us to serve.

I will adapt Paul Waddell’s words, as he writes for the Center for Christian Ethics: “Christian [stewardship] is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and the unlikable, the weird and the strange, in gratitude to God and in imitation of Christ. For Christians, [stewardship] is not an occasional gesture but a whole way of being. It is not an interruption to our normal way of life but a habit, practice, or virtue that ought consistently to characterize our lives.”

Do you share God’s gifts of life, every day? Do we provide God’s table of grace for others, regularly? God calls each of us to be generous, each day. Be of service, one on one. Be excellent stewards—personally. God is calling, to you, and to me. Won’t you answer?

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(My thanks to “Radical Gratitude,” http://www.umfnw.org for several excellent ideas and quotes I used in this sermon. And, my thanks and deep appreciation for Eugene Peterson’s translation of selected verses from Acts 6 and 7;  “Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.”)

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

Generous with Our Faith

“Generous with Our Faith” – March 29, 2015

Jesus raising Lazarus John 11

John 11:25-27

Some people strive to be punctual. Even, early. My grandfather was like that. If he wasn’t fifteen minutes early for an appointment, he would consider himself late! Then, some people have a more fluid idea of time. They see a more relaxed framework of the spectrum of late- versus-early. These come down at different points on this spectrum. And then, we have Jesus.

Our Gospel reading is quite long today, from the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John. I wanted to read this whole passage in the context of this sermon. At the beginning of the reading, we have Jesus and His disciples, some distance from the town of Bethany, where His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. Let me set the scene. I will be using the awesome, modern version of the Gospel, translated by Eugene Peterson, called The Message.

1-3 A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

5-7 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days.

 

Here’s the situation in Bethany. We receive quite a lot of information here! Jesus was very close to all three siblings, to Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became very sick! So sick, that his sisters sent an emergency message, a call for help, to Jesus. The request to Jesus has been made. A sincere request, made by the loved ones of Lazarus. I suspect we all can relate to this earnest request. We’ve made similar prayers from time to time. Any number of us have sent SOS messages to Jesus, too!

Jesus made mention of showing God’s glory through Lazarus’ sickness. Obviously, He made this comment to His disciples, and I suspect to whomever else was there, listening to Him, at the time. And, as was often the case with Jesus and some of the cryptic things He said, people just did not understand what He meant, at the time. Back to Jesus:

After the two days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?” 11 Jesus replied, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.”

12-13 The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.

14-15 Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

Jesus knows. I mean, Jesus really knows the situation some miles away. His disciples are confused, and at first think Lazarus is just asleep. But, no! Is this a major complication, or what? Sure, there are miracles all over the Old and New Testaments, but miracles of healing, or of feeding large groups of people. Not of reversing death itself! And, especially, after several days!

On top of the disciples’ confusion at the words and behavior of Jesus, Jesus wants to go back to Bethany, which is a town just down the road from Jerusalem. “Jesus, You can’t go there! The Jewish leaders are going to arrest You. Probably try to kill You, too!” Jesus goes anyway.

17-20 When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.

We see Mary and Martha, in the house of mourning. Two very different women, mourning in two very different ways. Many of their friends and acquaintances are with them, too. Sympathizing and mourning with them, as was the custom of the time. Martha goes to meet Jesus while her sister stays put.

21-22 Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.”

23 Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.”

24 Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”

25-26 “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

What a statement! What a testimony! Even though Martha is distraught at the death of her dear brother, she still has deep faith. As we’ve just heard, she states that her brother will be raised in the resurrection at the end of time. What does Jesus say? He does her one better.

I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Did you hear? Did everyone hear these words of faith? Words of hope? Words of new life? “The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live.” And then Martha responds again, with great faith. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

I could preach a solid sermon on this statement of Martha’s, alone. This ringing declaration, these great words of a rock-solid faith were made at such a devastating time for Martha. On top of everything, in the middle of mourning her brother, we can see that this is not just an intellectual admission or assent for Martha, but heartfelt belief. But wait, there’s more! Much more!

28 After saying this, Martha went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”

29-32 The moment Mary heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33-34 When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

34-35 “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept. 36 The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

37 Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”

We can tell, from these few scenes in the Gospel, that Martha, Mary and Lazarus had a close, intimate relationship. Mary even fell at Jesus’ feet, sobbing. Saying, “if only! If only You had been here!” The words of deep, gut-wrenching emotion are here, too. “Jesus wept.” We know that Jesus felt with Mary and Martha! We can see from this account that Jesus felt so badly and grieved with them, even though He knew what He was intending to do!

How often do we get into a situation where we have the opportunity to come alongside of someone who is devastated, a friend, a relative. Grieve alongside of them, and walk with them down that sorrowful road of mourning, loss, anger, anxiety. Grieve over the deep pain and loss in the reality of death. That’s why I think Jesus cried with Mary. And with Martha, and with the rest of the mourning people. Back to Jesus.

38-39 Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”

40 Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41-42 Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”

Practical Martha. “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days.” Wouldn’t that be something you might think of, too? I probably would have thought of it, too.

They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken aloud so that they might believe that you sent me.”

43-44 Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”

45-48 That was a turnaround for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him.

 

Because of this display of resurrection power, because Lazarus was brought back to life, we see that many believed that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah! The Son of God!

Let me ask: what do you believe? Do you think Jesus was just a great man? Did He preach great sermons, and live an exemplary life? Or, do you think Jesus was a prophet of God? A miracle-worker, like the prophets of the Old Testament, or like the Apostles? Or, the third option. Or—do you think Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah? The Son of God? As Jesus Himself said, the Resurrection and the Life?

Hear the words of Jesus! “The one who believes in Me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in Me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” Just as Jesus asked Martha so long ago, He is asking us, today, too. Can we respond with Martha, “Yes, Master. Yes, Lord. I believe.” With great faith. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus is asking. Do we, really, believe?

Jesus was generous, giving life abundantly to Lazarus. Can we do any less in our lives? We are encouraged to be generous with our faith! To believe Jesus. To take Him at His word, and to trust in Him. Like Martha. Like Mary. We find out that we can believe Him, we can trust Jesus when times are hard, difficult, through storms and suffering. We are also happy to trust Jesus when times are happy, when everything is going our way. Whatever is happening in your life today, can you believe Jesus? Can you be generous? Believe the good news of the Gospel. Have faith! Believe Jesus!

 

Thanks to Eugene Peterson for his wonderful translation The Message. I read most of John chapter 11, around which I have interwoven this message. “Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.”

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. #40acts Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)