2 Chronicles 24:17-22
Doesn’t it seem a little odd that the day after Christmas, when we hear about how the little baby in the manger changed the world, we have the day that honours St. Stephen and all the martyrs? It seems a little disjointed to be celebrating a birth one day and remembering the dead the next. It’s a bit of a downer to go from blissful Mary and Joseph and choirs of jubilant angels to the brutal, bloody stoning of Zechariah and Stephen. So why do we put these two days right next to each other?
Well, to be honest, I think it’s to remind us that although Christmas is first and foremost about God’s love for us, it’s not about the kind of love that dresses baby girls in pink and baby boys in blue and looks, dewy-eyed, on fuzzy baby rabbits and kittens and cute little puppies. That love is okay, but it’s not a love that changes the world. The love of God that burst through on Christmas is a love that is powerful, and overwhelming. It’s a love that challenges you and pushes you to achieve things you never could before. The love of God that came through the birth of a child is dirty, and messy, and rooted in the grittiness of human life. It’s a love that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the world, from sin, or suffering, or death. That’s the kind of love that changes the world.
And so we have, today, examples of what that love looks like. We have stories of people - martyrs, which simply means witnesses - who have taken God’s love to heart, and lived it out - witnessed to it, and we have the blunt truth of what happens when people do that.
But let’s start out with how these people whom we call martyrs lived. Now, martyrs aren’t people who go out to die for their faith. Martyrs, as I’ve said, are simply witnesses. They witness, by the way they live their lives, to the truth of the love of God for all. Martyrs are simply witnesses who have died as a direct result of the way they have lived out that love.
For Christians, our most important martyr is Jesus Christ. Of course, he was more than a martyr, but he did live a life that witnessed to God’s love. He welcomed the company of sinners over the company of the righteous, he ate with people nobody else would eat with, he touched people that were ruled untouchable and healed them, he forgave sins that were considered unforgivable, he shared God’s love with those who were deemed unworthy of that love. And there were others who lived like him, if not as fully.
There was Stephen, whom we call the first martyr. Stephen was, believe it or not, a waiter. The church calls him a deacon, which is a nice, churchly way of describing what he did, but we would call him a waiter. In Chapter Five in the Book of Acts, it says that there were a number of Greek widows who weren’t getting their daily food distribution, and so the twelve apostles appointed Stephen and six others to "wait on tables." (You might ask yourself, someday, why the apostles considered their work more important than serving widows, but we’ll leave that for now.) In any case, Stephen was appointed to wait on tables, and so he served the widows, whom nobody else thought worthy of their attention. And in doing so, he was a witness to God’s love in the world.
But, just in case you think that all martyrs were men who lived a long time ago in a country far, far away, we also have the story of an American - Sister Ita Ford. Ita, like Stephen and Jesus, was committed to living a life that showed God’s love for people. And she chose to do that by living among the persecuted and oppressed in El Salvador during the early 1980s. Not so long ago. She lived with them, and fed them, and stood in solidarity with them, like Jesus and the poor of his time, because that was what it meant to her to live the love of Christ. The day before her death, she quoted Archbishop Oscar Romero, another martyr, when she said "Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive - and to be found dead." Ita Ford, like Stephen and like Jesus, took to heart God’s love for the world and lived it to her fullest.
But there is a problem when you live your life like that. There is a problem when you live out God’s love in the world, when you stand in solidarity with the oppressed and rejected, when you feed those whom people want to starve, when you love those whom people are dedicated to destroying. The problem is that there are people who want to stop you. The darkness hates the light. Evil hates good. People who have built their lives on the backs of others, people who rely on the oppression of others to survive, well, they’re not too happy when someone tries to take those things away from them. And they will do anything and everything to stop that from happening. Including kill.
And that’s what happened to Jesus, and to Stephen, and to Ita. These people, and all martyrs, were so committed to living their lives loving others that the only way to stop them was to kill them. And so Jesus was nailed to a cross, Stephen was stoned to death, and Ita... Well, on December 2nd, 1980, Ita and three other women were kidnapped by the National Guard of El Salvador - who evidently did not like the way they lived out God’s love - and they were taken into the countryside, were abused, and then murdered. http://www.rtfcam.org/martyrs/women/women.htm It was the only way to stop them.
But here’s the thing: the darkness has not overcome the light and God’s will is for life, not death, to flourish.
And it does. Jesus Christ, who, because of the way he loved, was crucified, died, and was buried, on the third day was raised from the dead. He was given new life. Through Jesus, God showed us that God is committed, God has a covenant with us, that precludes the permanence of death. In the resurrection of Christ, we see that living a life that brings God’s love to all people actually results in the power of death being broken. Yes, we die, but we are promised the same new life that Christ received, and in our dying, the world is given new life.
The life that Jesus lived, that caused him to die on a cross, that life has changed the world. That way of living, that way of loving, has inspired millions of people to care for those less fortunate than themselves. Aside from Stephen and Ita Ford, there’s the Salvation Army, the Quakers, the Red Cross, Mother Theresa, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity - the list goes on of people and organizations who were inspired by Jesus to serve the poor. The number of lives they have touched because of that are too many to count, and the effect is new life for the world. And no darkness can stop that light and that love from spreading.
So, the question I always ask, what does that mean for us? How does this apply to our lives?
Well, we are called, each one of us, to live the lives of martyrs. Now, that sounds tough, but I believe that it’s true: we are all called to live lives that witness to God’s love for the world, and we are called to live them in ways that provoke others. What I mean is that if our choice of who to love and serve does not anger others, then maybe we have to consider whether or not we’ve made radical enough choices. Now, this doesn’t have to be done in El Salvador, or in Greece, or in some remote country of the world. Some of you might, indeed, be called to go there. But most of us are called to be witnesses - martyrs - right where we are, in this time, in this place. At this exact moment, I can think of no better example of that than Dru Stewart, the teenager who, just a few weeks ago, in this city, stood up for a pregnant, unwed mother, and was killed because of it. Like Dru, we are called to love the strangers and outcasts who are already in our lives, to keep company with those less fortunate than us on our own streets, in our own homes, at our own workplaces. We are called to make every single day of our lives a witness to the love of Christmas, and Easter, and to the new life that God has promised.
We can expect opposition - from others, who don’t like the company we keep, from friends, from strangers, even from other Christians. We can expect opposition from ourselves - from our own doubts, from our own fears. But we are called to go through that opposition to the other side, to move from the darkness to the light.
By now, you might be thinking, well, not me. I’m not called. I don’t have what it takes. I’m not that brave. Well, no, you’re not. Neither am I. Neither was Stephen, or Ita. But God - God gives us what we need to accept that calling. God gives us the Holy Spirit. The reading in Acts makes it very clear that Stephen was only able to do what he did because he was filled with the Spirit of God. Jesus did what he did because he was filled with the Spirit of God. Even Zechariah, the prophet from the Old Testament who told the king that God was angry with him, he, too, could only do that because he was filled with the Spirit of God. And so are we.
So there you have it - there’s the reason St. Stephen’s Day, the day of the martyrs, follows immediately after Christmas. We proclaim that the birth of Christ did indeed change the world. And now we know that it’s changed, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, through our witness. It’s not easy, it’s not always safe, but God has empowered us to be witnesses and, through our actions, the love shown to us on Christmas does indeed change the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.