Stephen’s Gift Sixth Week in the Season of Pentecost

Stephen’s Gift

Sixth Week in the Season of Pentecost

Within our faith community, guided by the Holy Scriptures, we are coming to the end of the season of Pentecost. This is the season where we relive the founding of the first faith community by the disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus. It took courage for them to come out of hiding and tell the truth about the murder of Jesus by the Romans – with the collaboration of their own religious leaders. It took faith – to overcome divisions among their own people and learn to work together. Last week we saw the disciples turn to the next generation of young people to lead the new community of faith. We also saw them turn to immigrants, those who were there in Jerusalem from other countries.

This week the scriptures tell the story of Stephen who emerged as a powerful young spiritual leader, feeding the people who were hungry and speaking truth to power about the injustice the people were suffering. We see that Stephen was killed for the stand that he took – and we see that there came a persecution that drove many people from Jerusalem, from that first community, and sent them running to other parts of the empire, even to Rome itself.

This forced removal of the faithful only served to spread that first community of faith to other places. It was in this way that faith communities, following the Way of Jesus, were established throughout the Roman Empire and in Rome itself. For us, the culmination of this season prepares us to move to the next season when scripture teaches us how many new communities of faith were established, using the example of that first community of the disciples.

This is a time when we pay special attention to the scriptures because they address directlyour current situation and our current effort to form communities of aith and resistance – like this one here. We can look back on what Jesus did and we can look back on what the disciples did – but we have to look now at ourselves and what we are doing.

The spread of the Way of Jesus, the communities of faith he called his disciples to form, came about because of the persecution of those who spoke against both the injustice they suffered at the hands of the Romans and the hypocrisy of their own religious leaders: hypocrisy and injustice.

This last week in the season of Pentecost included July 4th and this nation’s celebration of the Declaration of independence. During the July 4th week-end over 100 people were shot and many killed in the violence of the street. The culture of the gun and lack of respect for life lay like a dark cloud over the family celebrations and barbeques. Where did this disrespect for life come from? How is it that Black and Brown lives just don’t matter?

The Declaration of Independence stated the people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Let me remind you of the realities of injustice and hypocrisy in which the first communities of faith were formed.

Even as the nation talks about the people’s right to life the President and the Congress debate proposals to eliminate health care for millions of people. According to these proposals, your right to health care will depend on whether you have enough money to afford it.

Already, in our communities, people die twenty years sooner than in more affluent communities. They die of heart disease and diabetes, of asthma and cancer and HIV. They die because they don’t receive early detection and early treatment. More die of these diseases and the lack of health care than die of gunshots – many more – and yet these deaths are related. When you grow up in a community where there is no respect and care for life than you come to feel that life just doesn’t matter that much, your life and the life of those you take.

Hypocrisy and injustice: there is the clear July 4th statement about the sanctity of life and the reality of a nation that doesn’t respect life for people of color, for people who make just enough to survive and feed their family. That is the reality of hypocrisy and injustice today.

Over the July 4th weekend we were talking with two families. Both families are facing the deportation of one of the parents in the coming week – one the deportation of a father, one the deportation of a mother. One of the daughters confessed that she had been contemplating suicide at losing her mother, at having her mother taken away. Between the two families there are eight children, born here, raised here by hard working parents, parents which they may now be losing to President Trump’s new campaign.

Like the people in the Bible, these parents left their homes because of the violence and the repression and the poverty in their home countries. Now they face a similar violence and injustice here in Chicago. It is no wonder that they have become part of a community faith, guided by the Holy Scriptures, following the example of those who formed the Way of Jesus to help them overcome similar conditions.

In the community of faith our young people, our next generation, don’t grow up with a disrespect for life. In fact, they are working to save lives, to provide early detection and treatment to close that 20 year gap. Those involved in saving lives don’t turn to taking lives. Young people turn to organizations of violence because they have no organizations of solidarity that seek justice for their people – and a way of respect for themselves.

In the community of faith, we join together to defend our people from deportation, to resist the separation of families. We don’t turn away from each other in cowardice or indifference. Where the authorities disrespect our community, the community of faith defends our families. It stands against injustice and hypocrisy.

That is the guidance on which we are building communities of faith and resistance. We know that some of the religious pay no attention to defending the community and do not speak truth to injustice as Jesus did, as the disciples did. We know that some religious divide our people. We form our community of faith and practice the Way of Jesus to renew the faith among our people and to bring our community together in a common practice of what Jesus preached.

The community of faith established by the disciples did not last too long in Jerusalem because of the repression. Yet their example created communities of faith and resistance throughout the Roman Empire – communities which gave the people strength and purpose and in fact outlasted the Empire itself. For people learn by observation and participation.

Steven observed the community of the disciples and the disciples gave him a way to participate in their efforts – and their faith. Because of this, thousands of people formed similar communities of faith and resistance throughout the empire and even in Rome itself. The faith and the example was brought by migrants but it soon brought in those born in those other areas –through observation and participation. That is what is happening in our movement today in Chicago – and throughout the nation. That is why so many are following the example of Elvira Arellano and Adalberto United Methodist Church, and have become sanctuary churches.

The disciples had a deep spiritual faith based on their experience. They had seen the faith and courage of Jesus that led to his crucifixion – and they had seen his resurrection. When Stephen was being attacked he looked to the heavens and he saw Jesus. You see, as you get deeper into the faith, you see yourself as God sees you. In God’s time, there is no death, no borders, no separation of people because of their color or religion, no hatred or envy or discrimination. There is only the love that continues the people of God, growing from one generation to the next, from one community to the next, respecting life, demanding justice, growing together by observation and participation in communities of faith.

We have all together seen a kind of crucifixion. Even with the injustices in this nation there seemed to be a steady progress. The nation grew from a nation with slavery to a nation in which civil rights were growing in respect. This nation’s arrogant and hurtful treatment of the nations of Latin America was challenged and some of those policies which broght so much pain to the people of the south were changing. Progress was slow – but it seemed inevitable. For millions of the undocumented the promise of security seemed about to be fulfilled. Then came the election of Donald Trump; then came a movement of hate to make America White Again. It was a crucifixion of our hopes. We were shocked and discouraged just like the disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus.

We have turned to our faith community. We have tried to do the work of the disciples. Here is the truth. Even when you are discouraged and it seems as if things are turning against you, turning against hope, if you just join together and do the work, your faith is restored, your hope is restored and the love between you grows again.

That is why we are working so hard to defend the families facing deportation, that is why we sent a delegation to San Antonio, to appeal to and to join with Latinos from all over the nation to stand up and defend all of our people.

As you just do the work of defending your community, of saving lives, of bringing unity among the people, you see Jesus as the disciples did, as Stephen did. You see Jesus in each other. You see his love and his willingness to sacrifice for his people. As you just do the work, you experience God’s purpose in planting a people in this nation from the south and making it grow in numbers, from one generation to the next, to bring the witness of his Kingdom to this nation and to and to transform the lives of his people on the continents of the Americas.

The Holy Scriptures teach us that God chooses a people to be his witness and he blesses them. He parted the waters to save them from the Donald Trump Pharoah of that time. When they forgot his love and his justice, he sent prophets to remind him of His Way. He didn’t bring you this far to leave you now. He gave you a precious gift: the gift of communities of faith to make you strong, to defend your people, to bring the power of faith, and to bring unity to a people. There is no obstacle we can’t overcome. If you practice the faith, if you practice the work of the community, if you show respect for the lives of your people, if you defend your people, if you sacrifice for your people, than your people will observe, you will invite them to participate and out of the current dark times there will come the light of unity and wisdom and we will be stronger than we were before. We are not discouraged by the crucifixion because we have seen the resurrection. We have looked to heaven and we received a double portion of the faith. We have been given the gift of communities of faith – if we just do the work that is given us God will do the rest, for He Is Our God And We Will Be His People!

The Holy Scriptures for the Sixth Week in Pentecost

Isaiah 61:1-7 The Year of the Lord’s Favor

61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor…..6 And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast. Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.

2 Kings 2:9-15 Elijah and Elisha

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied. “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.” As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

Acts 7:54-8:3 The Stoning of Stephen

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

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