I wanted to put one of those text bubbles over Stephen’s head in this picture. I was going to have the caption say, “All I said was that maybe we should give some money to poor rather than spend $100 on a painting in the women’s restroom at church”, but better judgment prevailed.
St. Stephens Day is the day after Christmas. It is a holiday in Germany and other European countries and of course we get the great song “Good King Wenceslaus” because he looked out on the feast of Stephen, and found a poor man to help. Stephen was chosen to serve the poor, become one of the first deacons and a martyr. He is also afforded a great deal of space and ink in the book of Acts. His “speech” is recorded in Acts 7. The charge against him that led to his death was that he spoke words against “this place (temple) and the Law.” The point of his speech seems to be that God doesn’t live in temples built with hands, and we might surmise that in his mercy work he might have gotten some money from folks that might have gone to the temple instead. On Christmas when we think about God being born in a barn, temples and expensive churches seem a little off the mark.
Reading Acts again this morning I was grabbed by one of my pet peeves again and that is the stewardship issue. There are wonderful Christian stewards out there who leave bequests that are gracious and helpful. These we find out about after they die, but while they are alive they did not neglect the care for the poor and needy, the orphan and the widow. Their death gift is the icing on the cake if you will. But there are a great many who we hear whining, “we can’t do any mercy work because we have to pave the church parking lot or fix the church roof. I have a lot of money that I am sitting on but you never know what might happen. I am going to keep my horde and stash, but when I am dead you can have it and spend it on the starving and the needy and the sick etc”. Most of our Christian Charity is neither Christian nor charitable. Fund developers get really angry when I talk like this and I feel bad until I read Luther’s sermon on St. Stephen’s Day. I have to read it quite often.
Luther of course sees the situation that he was in with indulgences and the popes threats as akin to Stephen. He sees the fund raising for costly churches as actually destroying the church. In his frustration he says something he may have regretted, but I doubt it. He said, “There is no other reason for building churches than to afford a place where Christians may assemble to pray, to hear the Gospel and to receive the sacraments; if indeed there is a reason. When churches cease to be used for these purposes they should be pulled down, as other buildings are when no longer of use. As it is now, the desire of every individual in the world is to establish his own chapel or altar, even his own mass, with a view of securing salvation, of purchasing heaven……. I continue to assert that for the sake of exterminating the error mentioned, it would be well to overthrow at once all the churches in the world, and to utilize ordinary dwellings or the open air for preaching, praying and baptizing, and for all Christian requirements.”
He saw these endowments and the fund raising that procured them as a detriment to true faith which works it’s way out in helping the neighbor. Here is another part of his sermon –
Many a man passes by his poor neighbor who has a sick child or wife, or is otherwise in need of assistance, and makes no effort to minister to him, but instead contributes to endow some church. Or else while health remains he endeavors to heap up treasures, and when he comes at last to his deathbed makes a will bequeathing his estate to some certain institution. He will be surrounded by priests and monks. They will extol his act, absolve the religious man, administer the Sacrament and bury him with honors. They will proclaim his name from the pulpit and during mass, and will cry: “Here is worthy conduct indeed! The man has made ample provision for his soul.
Many blessings will hereafter be conferred upon him.” Yes, hereafter but, alas, eternally too late.
But no one while he is living warns of the man’s sins in not administering to the wants of his neighbor when it lies in his power to relieve; in passing him by, and ignoring him as the rich man did Lazarus in the Gospel. And he does not himself recognize his sins. Hence they must remain unconfessed, unrepented of and unabsolved, however many bulls, indulgences and spiritual fathers may have served. This neglect is the very sin concerning which Christ on the day of judgment will say: “I was… naked, and ye clothed me not.” Matthew 25:43. The religious one will then reply, “I heaped up treasures to establish an institution for thee, in obedience to the Pope’s decree, and hence he has absolved me from all my sins.” What can individuals such as he expect to hear but the sentence: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire”? For by their works they destroy the Christian faith, and for the sake of mere wood and stone despise Christian love.
Let us, therefore, beloved friends, be wise; wisdom is essential. Let us truly learn we are saved through faith in Christ and that alone. This fact has been made sufficiently manifest. Then let no one rely upon his own works.
Let us in our lifetime engage only in such works as shall profit our neighbors, being indifferent to testament and institution, and direct our efforts to bettering the full course of our neighbors’ lives.