Sermon for St Stephen’s Day

May our thoughts open our hearts to the divine promptings and the inadequacy of these words be of some good purpose in the name of the Word himself, our focus, our inspirer and our friend, the young man of Nazareth whose Spirit is with us.

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It was of course a joy and delight to accept Fr Dennis’ invitation to try to say something worthwhile on this special day in this special place on this Feast of Stephen when the snow lays all about deep and crisp and even- that is at Mt Buller, not Wenceslas’ Prague.

You can’t get away from St Stephen here. Few churches have so many depictions of their patron saint in their windows.

There is the window at the east end with the rather effete young man seemingly saying ‘If you want to throw stones at me, then have a nice day and go for it’,  all the while with his head demurely and piously held to one side. I’ve known some clergy like that — no names no pack drill — but what you see is not what you get, believe me.

Then there is the one to gaze at during morning tea. You’ve got to admire the man.  When he knew what was about to happen he obviously dashed out and put on his dalmatic so he would look at least be properly dressed.

Then there is Stephen the servant in the true role of a deacon which remains for ever part of all ordained and baptised.

Take your pick- plenty of choice, all say something: a young man giving of himself in discipleship. However I want to take a slightly different tack this morning by telling three stories.

The first is from the autobiography of the writer, Richard Church, and his experience as a seven-year old boy. He had never thought he had a problem with his vision but his mother did (an irritating characteristic of mothers, they always know better than we do), so he was taken to the local optician and ended up with his first pair of glasses. Here are his words describing what happened when he left to walk home (with mother, of course):

I looked upward, and saw the sky… I saw the stars, and I saw them for the first time… clear pin-points of light, diamond-hard, standing not upon a velvet surfaced but floating in space some near some far in an awe-striking perspective that came as a revelation to my newly-         educated eyes. I felt myself swept up into that traffic of the night sky.    [Over the Bridge, 1956, page 85]

Just leave that in your mind for a moment for there is another story to tell. In the beautiful city of Winchester you will find St Lawrence Church- if you are lucky. It is a tiny and ancient place, reached by stairs, and surrounded and dwarfed by other buildings.  At its entrance there is a printed message:

Enter this door

As if the floor within were gold

And every wall of jewels, all of wealth untold

As if a choir

In robes of fire were singing here

Nor shout — Nor rush

But hush

For God is here.

This story has another part. Sixty years or so ago quite on a whim I caught a different tram home from university and was walking along an unfamiliar street when I saw a most unprepossessing building,  partly brick, partly wooden and obviously incomplete. The door was open. In the porch those very same words were there beginning with ‘Enter this door As if the floor within were gold’. So I entered and there in St James’ East St Kilda was a sacred space and like Richard Church ‘I felt myself swept up’. It was to become a transforming moment for me as I worshipped and served there with its Parish Priest, Walter Green for some years.

Story number three. The story of a young man who had grasped a sense of meaning and purpose in faith and spoke what he believed and not what was acceptable to the powerful of the time, so

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.* But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  [Acts 7; 54-56]

What dramatic words at the end of the story, ‘ and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. All the more dramatic for those who were among the first read Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and for us today when we know that the young man named Saul travelling later in Syria,  in a crisis of conscience perhaps, also glimpsed the sacred- and his life was changed for ever.

Whether we think of catching the vision in a time of great trial, in a special place or an unexpected moment these are all ways in which lives are fulfilled with a sense of the sacred which, using Rowan Williams’ words, ‘awareness of depth in the observable world’. [Grace and security...  The Tablet, 16 July 2005, p. 22]

The sense of the sacred is the very heart of the belief of any faith community and institutional religions have often let us down.  When they measure their life by adherence to rules, see ‘success’- whatever that means- in terms of the measurable, and regard times of worship as little more than club meetings with attitude then they are blocking the arteries to the heart of faith.

Those who are ready to judge others more by what they do than by seeing who they are, those whose eyes are fixed on the mirror and their own reflection and not on the heart of love have really lost the purpose of their being.

One of the great heroes of the Anglican Church, Bishop Westcott, said to his fellow-Christians that ‘we look through the temporal to the eternal’ and cautioned them and all people that those ‘who leave the unseen our of account live in a soul-less world’. [Christus Consummator, 1890, pages 67 and63]

That this needs to be reasserted there is little doubt, that catholic Anglicans especially are in a position to do this as we look at all experiences of the observable world and

Enter each and every door

As if the floor within were gold

And every wall of jewels all of wealth untold

As if a choir

In robes of fire were singing here

Nor shout — Nor rush

But hush

For God is here.