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Stephen and the German immigrants

by davesandel on April 19th, 2021

Monday, April 19, 2021         (today’s lectionary)

Stephen and the German immigrants

Some members of the Synagogue of Freedmen debated with Stephen, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.

Uh-oh. Stephen is going to get stoned pretty soon here, and his spirit-led life will be cut short. What is wrong with these people! They always have to be right. What is wrong with me? Don’t I do the same thing?

All those who sat in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

But how did those powerful rulers take that in? They were inexorably anti-Christian, thought they needed to protect their heritage and homeland from the proliferating profanity of lies about Jesus.

Can I imagine being in Stephen’s place?

Though princes meet and speak against me, your servant meditates on your statutes. Let me understand the way of your precepts, Lord. Remove from me the way of falsehood, sustain me in the way of truth.

To get a feel for what Stephen was going through, I think about Germany in 1831. In the early nineteenth century, princes in Germany insisted on exacting labor and money from anyone under their control to fund wars that went on for decades. In the midst of this oppression, 20,000 of the serfs came to Texas within just a couple of decades:

Stephen F. Austin had to vouch to Mexican authorities for the character of his colonists. Johann Friedrich Ernst, who had a wife and five children, seemed to fit the bill. What Austin didn’t know was that Ernst’s name was really Dirks, his money was embezzled from the Oldenburg post office, and he was on the lam from the duke’s police.

No matter—it was common for fugitives to reinvent themselves in Texas. Ernst took his grant in the northern reach of Austin’s colony, between the present cities of La Grange and Brenham, arriving in high spring when the rolling prairies were blooming with wildflowers. The Ernsts made a go of it, and the following February he wrote a letter home, describing the new land: “A father of a family … receives on his arrival … a small kingdom. … The expenses for the land need not be paid immediately. … Climate like that of Sicily. The soil needs no fertilizer. No winter, almost like March in Germany. Bees, birds, and butterflies the whole winter through. … Meadows with the most charming flowers. … Scarcely three months work a year. No need for money, free exercise of religion.”

Ernst’s letter landed like a bombshell when newspapers published it throughout the patchwork quilt of German states, rife with political discontent and economic depression. Sell out! Pack up! Head for Texas!

Stephen stayed. But despite that, the parallels are powerful, because the Germans carried their hard-working Protestant work ethic and their Lutheran-Catholic determination to live moral lives for Christ across the sea and into their new homes. They built with stone and brick rather than sagebrush and mesquite. (The three little pigs would be proud.) They spoke up against secession and slavery, and many were killed for their beliefs.

I imagine some of the faithful German fathers and mothers named their sons Stephen. In Texas today, their communities (Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Comfort, Luckenbach, Warburg, and many others) outlasted their opponents, and they still thrive.

Jesus said to the hangers-on around him, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

(Acts 6, Psalm 119, Matthew 4, John 6)


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