Devotional – Psalm 22.28

Devotional:

Psalm 22.28

For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.

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“What’s the difference between dominion and domination?” I asked the question before the Sunday School class with curiousity about how they might respond. We’ve been working our way through Diana Butler Bass’ book Grounded which address the particularity of God’s creation and humanity’s responsibility to be good stewards of this gift. At first the room was quiet as people put their thoughts together and then they started flooding out:

“Dominion is like a kind a gracious king who cares about the kingdom, whereas domination like a ruthless ruler who does whatever they want.”

“Dominion means responsibility and domination means destruction.”

We listened to one another and then took it a step further to contemplate whether we’ve cared for the earth with dominion or domination. We shared stories of pristine wilderness experiences and incredible natural beauty. However, we also shared anecdotes of ruined soil, toxic water, and tainted air.

In Genesis God’s gives humanity dominion over creation. We were given the responsibility to care for the planet with love and devotion. And our lives are such that today we are intimately connected with the dirt beneath our feet, the water we drink, and the air we breathe, even if we take them all for granted.

But we don’t care for creation simply because God told us to.

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On a primal and fundamental level we affirm that dominion first belong to the Lord, and that God rules over all nations. There might be days when this seems strange, and even paradoxical (particularly when we see images of atrocities from all across the world) but this world belongs to God first and only secondarily to us.

Imagine, if you can, that your best friend in the world offered to let you borrow his or her car, or maybe a house to stay in… Would you not take care of it even better than your own? Would the thought of his or her generosity be such that it would propel you to be an incredible steward of the gift rather than taking it for granted?

The earth is a precious, and at times fragile, gift. And, more often than not, we treat it terribly. We rarely think twice before flicking a piece of trash out the window while we’re driving, we take our clean drinking water for granted, and we assume that because a particular item of food is available at the grocery store that we are entitled to it.

But we are not entitled to anything.

This earth is a delicate gift offered to us with an expectation of responsibility. Just as we have been given dominion (not domination) over the earth, we remember that God has dominion over us.

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Devotional – Jonah 3.1-2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.1-2

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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Sometimes, we don’t want to say what God wants us to say. All of us have a little Jonah in us, and all of us have faced a Nineveh at some point and decided to run in the opposite direction.

However, there are times when God gives us the strength, courage, and wisdom to say what God commands us to say.

On Saturday morning 600 United Methodists from all over the Northern Virginia area gathered for a day of spiritual renewal and theological reflection. At the beginning of the event, the District Superintendent from the Alexandria District stood up and said, “By now you have all heard what our President said about the kinds of people he doesn’t want coming to our country. Well, last night I was driving home from church and I was listening to the radio when person after person denounced what the President said and the words he used. But there were three people in support of the President’s message: A member of the KKK, a member of the Neo-Nazi movement, and a pastor. Thank goodness it wasn’t a United Methodist Pastor, but most people outside the church do not differentiate between us.”

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The DS then went on to express his gratitude for our denomination, and in particular for our Council of Bishops, who publically condemned President Trump’s recent remarks against immigrants.

It’s not easy saying what God wants us to say. There are always people who will be angered by what the church has to say, and frustrated by the path of discipleship that calls for others to be better. But our Ninevehs are always waiting, and God has given us something to say.

Below is the statement from Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, on behalf of the whole council:

“We are appalled by the offensive, disgusting words attributed to President Donald Trump who is said to have referred to immigrants from African countries and Haiti, and the countries themselves, in an insulting and derogative manner.  According to various media accounts, President Trump made the remarks during a White House discussion with lawmakers on immigration.

As reported, President Trump’s words are not only offensive and harmful, they are racist.

We call upon all Christians, especially United Methodists, to condemn this characterization and further call for President Trump to apologize.

As United Methodists, we cherish our brothers and sisters from all parts of the world and we believe that God loves all creation regardless of where they live or where they come from.  As leaders of our global United Methodist Church, we are sickened by such uncouth language from the leader of a nation that was founded by immigrants and serves as a beacon to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Thousands of our clergy, laity and other highly skilled, productive citizens are from places President Trump has defamed with his comments.  The fact that he also insists the United States should consider more immigrants from Europe and Asia demonstrates the racist character of his comments.  This is a direct contradiction of God’s love for all people.  Further, these comments on the eve of celebrating Martin Luther King Day belies Dr. King’s witness and the United States’ ongoing battle against racism.

We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, whose parents during his infancy, had to flee to Africa to escape from the wrath of King Herod.  Millions of immigrants across the globe are running away from such despicable and life-threatening events. Hence, we have the Christian duty to be supportive of them as they flee political, cultural and social dangers in their native homes.

We will not stand by and allow our brothers and sisters to be maligned in such a crude manner.  We call on all United Methodists, all people of faith, and the political leadership of the United States to speak up and speak against such demeaning and racist comments.

Christ reminds us that it is by love that they will know that we are Christians. Let’s demonstrate that love for all of God’s people by saying no to racism; no to discrimination and no to bigotry.”

Devotional – Psalm 1.1

Devotional:

Psalm 1.1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. 

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“Tell me something good.” This is one of my favorite ways to begin a conversation precisely because we tend to focus on the negative. As a pastor, it only takes a few minutes before people begin to open up about what is really going on in their lives and they share things that they have kept bottled up for a long time. As Christians, we are called to the ministry of presence with our fellow disciples to provide ears to hear. However, sometimes the negativity can be so overpowering that we neglect to focus on the good things in our lives.

I spent part of last week with other United Methodist pastors from the Virginia Conference. We met together in Blackstone, VA and shared reflections about our ministries and how we are continuing to respond to God’s call in our lives. For as much as people are ready to vent with their pastors about negativity, pastors are far worse when venting to other pastors. After spending so much time being present for others, we tend to neglect the importance of reflection and seeking out others to help us with our baggage. Within the first moments that we gathered together the conversation quickly turned to challenges and disappointments in the ministry.

When we broke away from our sessions to share meals together I tried to reorient the conversation toward the good, but my efforts were largely fruitless. It was as if we were trying to make the most out of our time together before heading back to our churches and we just kept dumping all of our worries and anxieties on one another. But then something amazing happened…

We were sitting in a circle when our leader told us to break off into small groups and share the names of people for whom we knew we had been fruitful. We were told to focus on the good and the positive as we shared our stories. Then when we regathered as a group we went around the circle praying for the names we had raised, gave thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then we thanked God for putting us in their lives.

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Why is it so hard to focus on the good? Psalm 1 affirms that happiness can be found in  those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or follow the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but we forget how important it is to celebrate the goodness of God in our lives. Instead we listen to the wicked, follow the sinners, and scoff from our chairs. How much happier could we be if we followed the advice of Psalm 1.1?

This week, let us strive to focus on the good in our lives. Instead of dwelling in the negative, let us give thanks to God for the people we have shaped and the people who have shaped us.

Authorized for What? – Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32

Matthew 21.23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to the, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

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Jesus does what Jesus wants. He has gone all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, bringing sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. He has fed the multitudes miraculously, walked on water, and calmed the storm. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a derelict donkey, charged into the temple and drove out the money-lenders while overturning the tables. Radical and revolutionary, Jesus does what he wants, and now the chief priests and the elders want to stop him in his tracks.

“Who in the world do you think you are? Who gave you the authority to do these things?” Of course, “these things,” refer to him cleansing the temple, curing the blind and lame, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, listening to the weak, and giving hope to the hopeless. The question has been posed to Jesus before, but never has the question been more ominous; Jesus is in enemy territory and those asking the question will constitute the court that will later sentence him to death by crucifixion.

What gives you the right to come in here and tell us how we are supposed to understand the world?” They do not really want an answer to their question. Instead, they are seeking an opportunity to trap Jesus by means of his response. So Jesus does what he wants: He ignores their question for the moment and proposes a counter-question that they too cannot answer without getting in trouble.

“I will ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests and the elders argue among themselves about how they can answer. This is a classic Catch-22; “If we say his baptism was from heaven then Jesus will ask why we did not believe him and have him beheaded, and if we say it was an earthly thing the crowds will revolt against us because they all regard John as a prophet.” Caught in a dilemma of their own making, they recognize that there is no way they can answer the question without putting themselves in a worse position, so they answer with the answer that students have relied on for centuries, “We do not know.”

I imagine then, that Jesus smiled while saying, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

When I was in seminary a professor named Warren Smith led my class through the great wonders of Church History. We studied some of the greatest theologians and mapped the various trajectories of theological positions that have brought our church through the centuries. After a semester of heavy reading and writing, Dr. Smith ended his final lecture with a story…

When he was a young pastor he was appointed to a church fresh out of seminary and did his best to proclaim the Word, serve those in need, and live into God’s kingdom on earth. For months the church listened deeply to his sermons and prayers, and grew in their love of God and neighbor. However, there was one older woman who never spoke to Dr. Smith after worship. She would sit patiently in her pew, unaffected by his words and gestures, and would return to the parking lot without saying a word to the young pastor. That was the typical routine until one Sunday she made her way in the receiving line following church.

Who do you think you are?” she began. “To come into this church and tell us how to live our lives. I have been a Christian longer than you have been alive. What could you possibly teach me about what it means to follow Christ?” And with that, she left.

Her words struck deep in Dr. Smith’s soul. Was she right? What could he possibly teach someone who had been following the Lord for decades when he had just graduated from seminary? Dr. Smith however, is not one to go gently into the night.

The following Sunday, Dr. Smith made his way to the pulpit and began to preach with words that resonated throughout the sanctuary: “I know I may look young from this pulpit. I know that some of you might be concerned with my ability to preach and teach in this church considering my age. But when I stand in this pulpit I AM 4,000 YEARS OLD. I speak with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Christ because the Lord is with me even to the end of the age.”

“So too,” he said to my class, “remember that you have been authorized to do incredible things and you are older than you think.”

When Dr. Smith’s authority was challenged he responded by recalling the great tradition of the living Word that is brought forth into new life on a regular basis. He looked back in order to look forward. He validated his responsibility by acknowledging his earthly youth while at the same time affirming his divine wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus’ authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders he responded with an unanswerable question, and then with a parable. The parable becomes the lens by which they can see their error and envision a proper understanding of God’s reign in the world.

What do you think? There was a man with two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later he changed his mind and went to work in the field. The father went to the second son and asked him to work in the field as well. The second son agrees to work, but never went to the vineyard. Which of these two sons did the will of his father?

The chief priests and elders respond in unison, “the first.” It is obvious that even though the son refused to work, the fact that he did, in the end, is far better than the son who agrees to work and never enters the vineyard. Jesus then uses the parable to draw the unmistakable conclusion that they, the chief priests and elders, are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but they did. Even after you saw what he did, you did not change your minds and believe. You preach and preach, but you never practice the words you proclaim.

Jesus responding with a parable is typical of the gospels, and helpful for bringing about new understanding. He uses a story in order to open up the kingdom of God to show that it works in a way that is approachable and livable.

What do you think of the parable? In your faith journey do you feel like the first brother? Was there a time that you rejected the calling of God on your life, refused to believe, only to find yourself caught up in the grace of God and working in the vineyard of the kingdom? Is your faith vibrantly alive and fruitful?

Or do you feel like the second brother? Was there a time that your faith was so alive that you were willing to say “yes yes” to God’s call on your life only to find yourself apathetic to the work of the church in the kingdom? Is your faith stagnant and fruitless?

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Individually, we can respond to God’s call in faithful ways by reaching out to others in our community and letting God’s love abound in their lives through our actions. But collectively, as a church, it can be quite difficult to be Christ’s body for the world.

This week I met with a handful of other Methodist clergy from the valley and we discussed our local churches, some of the challenges facing our congregations, and the fruit that has come forth during our time of service. We talked about new ministry ideas that might help share the Good News with people in our communities while also affirming the many challenges of being the church for the world today. But, to be honest, most of the conversation was a time for the leaders to complain about the lack of enthusiasm in their churches, their inability to see the call of the church and the mission of God in the world. At one point a friend of mine shook his head and said softly, “It can be so depressing to hear that most of our churches are far more concerned with maintenance, than mission.

One of the hardest things to admit, as a church, is that we are more often like that second son than the first. After all, here we are sitting in the vineyard, preparing to go out to harvest the grapes. But as Christians, we can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. How sad is it that “church work” can quickly degenerate into conversations about maintaining our building, with no excitement about what God’s living Word and grace are doing in our community? How sad is it that the majority of our conversations and budget are focused on making sure that the church will still be here next Sunday instead of focusing on the renewal of the church and the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Like the second brother we say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path. 

I’ll admit that our church is changing, we are slowly moving away from the maintenance model and are becoming lively and excited about the ways we can be Christ’s body for the world. We are no longer content with just being a building where people can sit together on a Sunday morning. A church is not a building. A church is the work of the people for the vineyard, for the kingdom.

Jesus was authorized by his father in heaven to do the will of God on earth. To overturn the tables in the temple, to call out the leaders of the people for their hypocrisy and limited vision, to seek out the last, least, and lost, to bring them a sense of wholeness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make disciples.

In the same way, Christ has authorized us to be his body for the kingdom of God. Today we have the remarkable responsibility of acting like God’s son, and the first son from the parable; even when we doubt our responsibility to the mission of God we are needed in the vineyard.

What are we doing as a church? Are we giving our tithes and offerings to God so that the church will stay open, so that we can hear an articulate and thoughtful 15 minute sermon every week. Are we content with letting our discipleship look like maintenance?

What are we doing as Christians? Are we radical people who believe that God continues to do amazing things in the world? Do we hope and pray for God’s will to really be done here on earth among us?

We have been authorized to do great and wonderful things in the world. Let us remember and believe that the Lord will provide, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, and that we have been called to work in the vineyard.

Amen.

Getting Stoned With Stephen – Sermon on Acts 7.54-60

Acts 7.54-60

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. When they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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I was standing in front of a packed lecture hall, talking about Jesus according to the gospels, when I began to notice that the crowd was turning against me. For the previous three weeks I had stood in the front of that same room, a brilliantly bright powerpoint displayed on the screen behind me, making my way through the original Greek text of the gospel according to St. Mark. Each week we focused on a different element of Mark’s writing, comparing his gospel with the others, and generally reflecting on how this gospel still speaks fresh and new words into our lives.

It had seemed as if everyone was on board with what I was talking about, until the conversation moved to the cost of discipleship. I recognize now that I probably went to far, but at the time I felt the truth was worth exploring.

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This is what I said: “In the gospels, particularly Mark, Jesus makes it very clear that following him, taking up our own crosses, being a disciple, will cost us our very lives.” Many people in attendance nodded. But then I continued, “Most of us here have no idea what that means. We sit in the comfort of our homes here in Michigan, sure we hear about all the bad things happening in the world, and even the bad things happening down the road in Detroit, but our lives will never be taken for our faith. We exist in such comfort with our faith that we can no longer even imagine what it would mean to give our lives for Christ, the cost of discipleship for us doesn’t cost very much at all.” “Well excuse me young man,” one of the women began, “but I go into downtown Detroit every week to serve food and give away clothing. My life is on the line for Christ every seven days. Don’t lecture me about the cost of discipleship.” This is when I should have stopped, apologized, and moved on, but I couldn’t help myself. So I asked her, “Do you go downtown every week because you believe thats the most and the best you can do as a disciple? Or do you go downtown with food and clothing every week because you feel guilty?

 

The early church had a problem. While the disciples were increasing in number, an argument developed over the distribution of food. Like us modern Methodists, a major conflict erupted not over proper theology, or reverence, but instead who was getting the appropriate amount of food. The twelve got together and asked for seven leaders to come forward in order to help with the organization of the early church, and to faithfully distribute the food among all the people. Stephen, described as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, was one of those chosen seven. 

In a short amount of time Stephen began to do great wonders and produce signs among the people. Once he stepped into the limelight of the early church, he rested under the microscope of many leaders and elders of the synagogues who argued with him. The leaders instigated some others to raise charges of heresy against Stephen and he soon found himself standing before the high-priest in order to defend his words and actions.

What followed is one of the most concise and deliberate retellings of the entire salvation story of God with God’s people. Stephen’s speech contains remembrances of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and the prophets. He weaves the story in and out of the major moments; the beginning of the covenant, the flight to Egypt, Moses’ calling, the delivery from slavery to the Promised Land, the commandments being given on Sinai. In just a few short paragraphs Stephen perfectly encompassed the Old Testament for the high priest.

Though very descriptive, Stephen committed no blasphemy in his speech. He fairly repeated that which we have detailed for us in the scriptures, but before he finished speaking he had one final message to deliver: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that have received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.

It was only after hearing these words that the people became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. While they began to torment him, he looked up and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing along the right side, and he declared this triumphantly to the people. But instead of listening, instead of looking up to see what he could see, they covered their own ears and with a loud shout rushed forward to grab him and take him out of the city. While they stoned him, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And with his final breath he cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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Stephen’s speech to the high priest and those gathered sealed his doom. Did he speak the kind of blasphemy against Moses and God like he was accused of? Nope. But Stephen went too far when he claimed that Jesus was at the right hand of the Lord, ready to rule. Stephen merely affirmed the same thing we claim every week when we stand and affirm the Apostles’ Creed, yet when he did it, it cost him his life. 

Some scholars and theologians claim that the climax of this episode in the book of Acts is Stephen’s death, when in fact the defining moment is the exaltation of Christ. Surrounded by his accusers and killers, Stephen continues to assert that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God, that he is the long awaited Messiah already changing the world.

Jesus is there with Stephen at the final moments of his life, and how fitting considering the fact that Stephen utters the same words that Christ did at his own death. While the stones were flying through the air, Stephen’s prayer was not for deliverance, but a declaration of trust. Not, “Lord, save me!” but “Lord, receive my spirit.” His prayer is one that looks forward, not backward. His prayer was for his enemies, and not himself.

At his death, Stephen did what all of us are called to do in every moment of our lives: he acted like Jesus. He was serene while everyone else was going crazy; he was forgiving while the crowds were vindictive; he prayed while the people acted as if God was not among them; he loved when he saw nothing but hate; he trusted the Lord when everything was claiming the contrary; he kept on hoping when there seemed nothing left to keep hope alive. All of this to tell the truth to the high priest and the crowd. All of this to die for what he believed in. All of this as the cost for his own discipleship.

What happened to Stephen is paradigmatic for what the church was like. Thousands upon thousands of Christians have given their lives in order to speak the truth of God’s reign in the world.

In the United States we have “freedom of religion.” This was instituted during the foundation of our nation and has secured the right to practice religion, regardless of orientation or denomination. For Christians, the freedom of religion means that we are free to exercise our faith in whatever ways necessary so long as we do so within certain limits, as long as we do not become fanatical. We can pray as a family at public restaurants so long as it is not too loud to disrupt the other patrons. We can teach our children to turn the other cheek and love their enemies so long as we are still willing to let them serve in the military. We can talk about controversial issues in church so long as we limit those conversations to this building.

Yet the story that we read today, the remembrance of Stephen’s final moments, reminds us practitioners of polite, civil, and calculated religion that once there were Christians who readily and joyfully parted with possessions, family, friends, even life itself to remain faithful.

Some might call Stephen fanatical and crazy (after all he was willing to give his live for his faith) but he is presented as a very rational person who died for the same faith by which he lived.

When I stood in front of that crowded lecture hall, talking to the Methodists of Birmingham, Michigan, I could sense their desire to be affirmed in their faith. They wanted me to believe that they were willing to give their lives for Jesus, but the truth is, most of them, and most of us here, will never be in a situation like Stephen’s. Christianity has become so complacent and accepted within our culture that we no longer feel the need to be radical and controversial when considering the ways of the world versus the ways of God.

Our faith used to be a movement. The early church used to be attacked, arrested, and silenced for their dedication to the Word. The first methodists used to be ridiculed for their methodical dedications to spiritual disciplines, feeding the poor, and befriending the outcasts.

What would it take for someone to ridicule you in your faith? I’m not saying that we are all called to stand trial for our God and give our lives like Stephen, but instead we need to ask ourselves if we are living up to the potential of faith that God sees in us.

Not all of us can be Stephens, but we can all be Christians. We can all speak the truth of what God has done for us. We can reclaim our commitment to changing the world for the kingdom of God. We can discover our faith in God by opening our eyes to the kind of faith that he has in us. How far would you go to demonstrate your faith in the world? What would it take to start ruffling people’s feathers here in Staunton by living as Christ’s body?

Speaking the truth can be the most difficult thing in the world, but at the same time it can also be the most faithful thing in the world. Perhaps you know someone who has, for too long, relied on alcohol to fill an emptiness in their lives but you’re too afraid to saying anything. Maybe you know someone who treats their spouse horribly and you’re unsure how you can help the situation. Perhaps you’ve seen someone embarrass or harass their children in public. Or maybe you need to be honest with yourself about something you need to change in your own life.

Stephen was willing to speak the harsh truth to a people who desperately needed to hear it. Stephen was prepared to give his own life for a man he barely knew that died on a cross and was raised again. How far are you willing to go? Amen.