Acts 6:1-7 and Galatians 6:2, 9-10
Today is Stephen Ministry Sunday and we have heard a little about Stephen Ministry and how it works. We have listened to some who have received care from a Stephen Minister. You have been introduced to our Stephen Ministers who have been trained to serve in our congregation. Stephen Ministry is a ministry of compassion and the biblical foundation for Stephen Ministry is found in Acts 6. The apostles who knew Jesus were in charge of the early church and they realized that they couldn’t do everything. Yet there was a lot of work to be done and among the needed work were ministries of compassion. In this illustration from Acts 6, it is care of widows that is specifically mentioned. Within the church seven men were found to be commissioned to provide care, chief among them was Stephen for whom Stephen Ministry is named. Those selected to serve alongside Stephen were identified as having good standing, being full of the Spirit and of wisdom. These qualities especially suited them to care for the needs of the widows in their community.
Today, Stephen Ministers are selected trained, and commissioned to serve in this special compassionate ministry. They are selected for their qualities of compassion, trustworthiness, faith and other qualities. Yet Stephen ministers are not the only ones who have these special qualities. Many of you seated in these pews this morning are people of compassion, people who care, who know that life can be challenging and are willing and desire to help others along the way. Galatians 6:2 reminds us that we are to, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is a big part of what we do for one another. Yet, verse 5 seems to contradict this for it reads: “for all must carry their own loads.” (Gal 6:5). We are to bear one another’s burdens, but each is to carry his or her own load. What is the difference? The Greek word for burden means something that is exceedingly heavy and troublesome. Think of a burden as something that can weigh a person down and crush them – like a giant boulder. This is the kind of burden people carry in times of crisis when their troubles seem ready to overwhelm them. On the other hand, the Greek word translated as load means the cargo or normal daily weight that a person carries. If you look at children waiting for school you will see many of them carrying backpacks, they are able to manage their own backpacks; they don’t need others to share that weight – it’s their daily cargo.
Problems arise when people act as if their “boulders” (or big problems) are just daily loads, and refuse help, or as if their “daily loads” are boulders they shouldn’t have to carry. You have probably seen this happen – the results of these two instances are either perpetual pain from carrying too much alone or irresponsibility from expecting others to carry it all. Stephen Ministers receive special training to help them identify the difference between the crushing burden and daily loads and they use that special training in their caring relationships.
Illustration: One day God spoke to a young man and asked him to carry three stones up the hill and the young man gladly agreed, happy to do anything that the Lord might want him to do. So he put the three stones in his wagon and started the long trip up the hill. The stones were not very heavy and it was a beautiful day, so he sang as he went, happy to be of service to the Lord.
As he was going through a small village, a friend stopped him and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was taking the wagon of rocks to the top of the mountain. The friend became excited as he explained he was just thinking about how he was going to get his rock to the top of the mountain, and would the man be willing to take the rock in his wagon as well? Happily, the man with the wagon took the friend’s rock and started on his way.
As he went along, more and more people asked him to take their rocks with him until the wagon grew fuller and fuller. The wagon felt huge and awkward as it lumbered and swayed over the ruts in the road. No longer was the man singing praises. Instead, resentment began to build inside. Frustrated, the man was beginning to have visions of giving up and letting the wagon roll backward. He grew more and more angry with the Lord for giving him such a difficult task to do. Finally, in sheer exhaustion, he pulled his wagon over to the side of the path, sat down, and told the Lord this was it. He had had enough and was quitting!
The Lord spoke to him again, and asked him what was the matter. He explained that the task he had been given was too hard and his burden too heavy. God then looked into the young man’s wagon. “Where did all these other rocks come from,” asked the Lord. “I only gave you three stones to carry up the hill.
We will get burned out, frustrated, and even angry if we let other people put their rocks in our wagon. We need to make sure that we are carrying the stones/burdens that God has given us. Sometimes God will ask us to help carry someone else’s rock, but He will not overburden us.
Scripture calls us to share the crushing weight of burdens that come into others’ lives, but to take responsibility for our own daily load. That isn’t always easy to do, sometimes our daily load seems heavier than other times, yet Jesus graciously offers to share in our burdens. “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
Helping to bear one another’s burdens is part of what Stephen and the other six helpers or deacons were charged with doing in our passage from Acts. The early church was growing and the apostles recognized their responsibility to preach and to teach, but they also recognized the church’s responsibility to social justice and to help, where possible, with the real burdens of life that people were carrying. The widows of the time, had no ability to help themselves. They were at the mercy of family members and if there were no family members, then the burden of trying to provide for themselves was more than they could bear. That’s where the actions of Stephen’s compassionate care became so important.
What are some of the ways we provide compassionate care to one another? What are some ways we help to carry one another’s burdens? (cards, meals, prayers, words, visit, our presence) One very simple and meaningful thing we can do is to think of Stephen Ministry when talking to people, we can pay attention and notice a need, be sensitive to what is going on in another’s life. We can be receptive to care for ourselves when we need it. Sometimes we must allow ourselves to be “one-anothered” or ministered to by those around you and possibly by a Stephen minister. (If you need help see me or another Stephen Leader)
In Stephen Ministry we use something called the Caregiver’s Compass to help us stay focused in our care. The four points of the compass remind us that in caring for others we are to be: Trustworthy, Compassionate, Full of Faith, Skilled, and at the center of the Compass is Christ, for at the heart of Stephen Ministry is Christ himself. In a nutshell, Stephen Ministry is Christ caring for people through people. This is what we do, when we help one another, we allow Christ to work through us. In our Stephen Ministry training, we learn that we may be caregivers, but God is the curegiver.
Caring for each other and carrying one another’s burdens is the task of the whole church. As a community of faith we bear a responsibility to each other – to love and to care – and in so doing we are the body of Christ.
May the Lord bless you and keep you, may his face shine upon you, may he lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.