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April is not quite over yet, so there’s still time to squeeze in one more Easter story. To some of you, the end of today’s Scripture readings may have sounded eerily similar to the crucifixion we find ourselves returning to again and again this time of year. A Jewish radical who cared for the poor and spoke out against the religious authorities found himself falsely accused by lying witnesses, and put to a painful death while uttering “Lord do not hold this sin against them,” and “receive my spirit.” It should sound familiar. The Luke that wrote what we call Acts also wrote the accounts of the crucifixion that we’ve been referring to this particular Easter season. We’ve been on kind of a Luke stretch for several weeks now.

And even though today’s story takes place a couple of years after the death of Jesus, Luke’s callback was intentional. We’re supposed to see the connection between this man who died in the name of the early church, and the divine sacrifice of the son of God.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr.

And there’s a complicated word in this day and age. Martyr. Someone who dies for their faith, and whose death lights the fire of a cause that burns long after they’re gone. It brings to mind a lot of conflicting images. Martin Luther King, Jr. on one hand, the September 11th terrorists on the other. Joan of Arc, Osama bin Laden. Harvey Milk in the ‘70s, and Kamikaze pilots in the ‘40s. People who died as a result of the message they shouted to the world.

I’ve taken us to a pretty dark place already, and I’m sorry for that. I probably won’t be making as many jokes in this sermon as I have in the last couple. I think that… sometimes we need to see the dark in order to understand the light.

But let’s take a step back and return to our Scriptures for today, because it’s kind of a long story and I think today it’s more important than ever that we seek to understand it.

In the three or four years since Jesus’ left them, the remaining disciples had made great strides in building a movement within the holy city of Jerusalem. Even now, what we would come to call Christianity wasn’t yet its own distinct religion—it was still a relatively newborn sect of the Jewish faith finding its way within the established order, and growing in number.

But they were making waves. They were doing good work, and spreading the good news of Jesus. They had gotten big enough, in fact, that disagreements were springing up within their own ranks as to how best they as a faith community could serve God and live in faith. A group of folks within the… let’s call it church just because it’s easier than saying “pre-schism intra-religious growth” every time… a group of folks within the church spoke up, saying that their ministry wasn’t focused enough on providing food to the needy, and as a result particularly widows in the community were suffering.

The biggest movers and shakers of the church—these would be the Disciples—got involved in the discussion and offered some vision to the process. What the church was doing really well at that time was sharing the word of God. Teaching and worship. They couldn’t very well abandon such an important calling, or compromise it by stretching their work so thin that their existing ministry was weakened, so they asked the church who among them was full of the Spirit and wisdom to undertake the ministry of caring for the marginalized and vulnerable, while those with the passion and ability for worship and prayer could lead as they always had.

And that’s what they did. There were many among them who had the passion and ability to build the church’s ministry in this new and Spirit-led direction, and the church grew. What it did well it continued to do well, and the big new ideas it undertook flourished. The church was walking the walk and talking the talk.

Stephen was the loudest voice among the new initiative, and as often happens when we’re passionate about something, he ruffled some feathers. Some folks in the community got rubbed the wrong way, and they chose to push back. They incited those around them with harsh emotion and rhetoric, and dragged Stephen before the highest Jewish authority in Jerusalem.

Things only escalated from there. The large number that disagreed with Stephen began spouting lies about him and about what he had been saying. You see, much like Jesus Stephen had some aggressive ideas. He wanted to move Jerusalem from a place of complacency to a new way, and just like Jesus or Martin Luther King his words were radical and passionate. It was easy to twist his words to incite conflict and counterattack. Is there anyone here who remembers the angry responses that rose up against the Civil Rights Movement?

And Stephen… well, Stephen was not one to back down from a fight. His cause was righteous. Where would we be today if Martin Luther King or Jesus Christ had given up at the first sign of a dispute? He stood his ground.

He also doubled down. I cut out a portion of our reading today because it was very long, so let me summarize it here. In response to all the vitriol and misrepresentation, Stephen gave a long speech in which he essentially reinterpreted the entire story of the Bible as it stood then. He used it to rail against the establishment that was holding him on trial, saying that they had failed to uphold the cause of righteousness, that they were stubborn and ignorant and perpetuating a system of injustice and oppression.

He wasn’t wrong, and his words only served to further turn them off from his message and fan their anger into a full-blown rage. They took him outside the city and threw stones at him… until finally, he was dead.

The beginning of this story tells us about two movements within a church. A movement to preserve and re-commit to its existing ministry, and a movement to expand its ministry into a new calling. In a way, if you look at the origins of the words, it’s the story of conservatives and liberals. One group wishes to conserve the things that make it great, and another group seeks reform and generosity. These two definitions don’t need to be at each other’s throats like they are in today’s political world… we saw at the start of Acts 6 that conservative priorities and liberal priorities were able to live in harmony and even work together within the early church. Our church, First Parish, should be proud that it has within its pews and its committees people from across the ideological spectrum as well.

The rest of our Scripture story, however, tells of two responses to the “other ideology.” We see cooperation and co-existence as one example, and we see clash and martyrdom as another.

In the notes I jotted down while I was thinking about what I would say today, I wrote at this moment in the sermon outline the words “make chapter 6 real.”

At this point I don’t think I actually have to work very hard to do that. As the wonderful women of our Wednesday Bible Study pointed out to me, the beginning of Chapter 6 is the story of our church. First Parish.

For those of you who are new here, or are visitors among us, First Parish is in an interesting and exciting time in its history. For the first time in our 350 year history the congregation has come up with a new governance structure that better reflects the needs of the church today and allows the folks in the pews more leadership and agency in steering the church’s ministry. On top of that, we’ve just instituted a new vision and mission statement to stand as the core of everything we do here from now on, and we’re neck-deep in imagining and deciding on the first big steps toward whatever it is God is calling us to do… within this church, within the community of York, and within the wider world. Even now members are giving their opinions, feedback, and inspiration to the Church Council regarding the five big potential initiatives that have bubbled up from within this congregation that are bold, courageous, and can only be accomplished with God’s help, and that align with our new vision and mission. That’s not to mention the multitude of other good ideas that will be a bit easier for us to accomplish than the big five.

The people sitting in the pews around you, and many others who call First Parish their church, have recognized areas of ministry that they feel this church is called to commit to. Things that we aren’t doing already, or things that we could do better. Just like the early church in Acts 6.

And just like them, First Parish already does a lot of things really well. I’m looking at you, choir. And plenty of other ministries besides. I could be here all day naming them all. And just like the early church in Acts 6, in undertaking these new faithful steps in our ministry, it wouldn’t be right to neglect or bastardize our existing ministries; but, we have recognized that what we do do as a church isn’t enough to be fully faithful to the God that’s calling us.

So from among us will come Stephens and Philips and all the rest with the hard-to-pronounce names. Nicolaus and Parmesan and Timon and Pumba. Each of you here has a calling within you to some kind of ministry in this world, big small and in between. Each of you will find something in this church that speaks to you, that feeds you, that kindles a fire in you, that makes you feel the Spirit and shows you God’s work in this world.

And it won’t be everything. Not everything will be for you. Stephen’s passion and wisdom was for outreach and care to the vulnerable and the needy. The disciples found their hearts stirred more by worship and interpreting what the word of God was speaking to them. I’m personally very passionate about the Open and Affirming initiative, pursuing our own education and covenanting to actively share God’s borderless love and sanctuary to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Someone else here just isn’t spiritually fed by the traditional worship we do Sunday mornings, and loves the idea of an additional worship service at another time that invites relationship with God in a different way. Someone else doesn’t care about alternative services and thinks Open and Affirming is unnecessary, but feels that some of the people who need the love of God the most are in prison in our communities and elsewhere, suffering oppression and isolation. Someone else has gifts for outreach and a passion for service, and feels called to community hospitality, street ministry, or even refugee advocacy.

Just like the early church in Acts 6, following the way of Jesus this congregation will be moved to engage in the ministries that feed their spirits, and the beautiful umbrella of this church will encircle us all as siblings in Christ, whatever different paths our individual faiths take us down.

But God can it go wrong. It can go so wrong. Think of Stephen. Think of what could happen to our church. Faith and work, church and community, religion and politics… these are incendiary roads we walk. To accomplish this mission and vision, we are asking ourselves to be kindled by the Spirit and engage with our passions. When passion and emotion incite a new thing, embers can become a forest fire. We are blessed to have people in this church who come from different walks of life, different political parties, different social ideologies, different religious backgrounds, different cultural sensibilities… and all of those things are such sources of passion! Powerful and dangerous in equal measure. And so when one person or a group of people, fueled by the fire of the Spirit, push forward to the work of their new ministry, it’s not hard to imagine that just like Stephen they might ruffle some feathers. And it’s not hard to imagine another group of people rising to push back, fueled by their own passions. Angry words are shared, hostility reigns, the church is split, people leave, nothing gets done and we all suffer.

That’s the worst case scenario, and that’s the kind of thing we saw at the end of Chapter 7 with Stephen. And there’s something truthful about that, you know? Something real. We see it repeated throughout history. Many of the successful movements of institutional change that we look back on with pride happened this way. Jesus spoke out against a frozen and stagnating system, the system fought back, and his death incited a religion that changed the course of the entire world. Martin Luther King marched and railed against a system of deep-seated racism and a severe lack of equality, he was assassinated by someone who disagreed with him, and his death only served to make his movement more powerful. Harvey Milk was a gay politician who passed a bill to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and was shot by an opponent; his work ended, but today he is memorialized in law, film, and the hearts of those he fought for.

But all their paths are not the path we’re walking today. We’re not exactly trying to bring about a revolution against systems of power and injustice and oppression. Not this time anyway. Let’s not confuse those deadly and incendiary and truly righteous struggles with the righteous struggles we are embarking upon.

We are not Chapter 7 Stephen trying to conquer a society that stands for everything he is against. That is not the analogy we draw from our reading. We are the members of the early church, Chapter 6, the ones who recognize the strengths of their ministry and see areas to which God is calling them.

In the moment, it is so easy to confuse those two. That’s why I tried to put it in such clear language.

You see as members of this church, who are passionate about certain components of this church’s ministry, it will be too easy for us to put ourselves in Stephen’s place, or Dr. King’s place, or like the French maiden Joan of Arc lead a war against an unrighteous occupying force. Passions have a way of drawing battle lines… and sometimes you do have to speak to power with a loud voice, and push against stubborn systems and those that oppress. Social change doesn’t happen without passion, or even without righteous anger. But those kinds of fights are not what we are about to undertake among ourselves. Let us not get our passions confused.

When a voice rises up in this congregation about a ministry that sparks disagreement—and it will—or passions arise that run counter to each other—and they will—it will be too easy to become a voice like Stephen. Or a voice like the ones that threw stones. It is too easy in that moment to think that we must strive against the opponent like the righteous fight of Dr. King, or to go to war against those who threaten our very way of life… but we must remember that we are not fighting that battle! That metaphor has no place in what we’re doing here at First Parish at this moment. It’s valid in some other context. Some other endeavor. …Some other sermon.

We cannot let the fires of our own passions consume us or our fellow children of God. When these passions rise, and we find ourselves instinctually preparing to draw battle lines, let us remember that we are the beginning of Chapter 6. We are a faith community called to many things, and we are learning together how each of us can best live into that calling in different ways.

The beauty of a complicated Scripture like the one we read today is that it is somehow both an example to follow and a cautionary tale. In all things, let us remember who we are and what we are doing.

We are First Parish. Following the way of Jesus, we aspire to authentically invite, courageously include, and generously serve all with compassion and grace. Following the way of Jesus, we celebrate inspirational worship; we create life-changing experiences for children, youth, families, and individuals of all kinds; and we practice meaningful congregational care. And all while respecting our diversity, we courageously advocate for justice and mercy, and intentionally respond to the needs of our community and the world.

We stand where early Christianity stood at the start of Acts Chapter 6, but our path is not Stephen’s path. We have a different path. And thanks be to God I don’t really know what that path’s going to look like. I just know that it is lined with love. The love that we must remember to share with each other, no matter what.

The rest of it? Well, we’ll have to discover that together. Together.

Together. Amen.