Monday, June 07, 2010

Called to Service in Christ's Name: A Sermon on the Diaconate

Preached for the Ordination of Deacons for the Diocese of West Missouri
June 5, 2010
Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral
Kansas City, Missouri

Let me begin with a story. It’s based on a teaching story from Idries Shah, but adapted a bit.

Two neighbors lived side by side in a small town in Turkey. One, Hakim, owned a dog. One night Hakim’s dog got out, and found itself a chicken carcass to enjoy. Unfortunately, it chose to enjoy the carcass and leave it on the porch of Rahim, Hakim’s neighbor.

This became a matter of an argument, and then a dispute between Hakim and Rahim. They couldn’t settle it between them, and so they took it to the town’s qadi, the local expert in law and custom. Each man was insistent, and each man had his vocal supporters, as well as a number of neighbors who had just gathered to watch.

The qadi looked out and in the crowd he saw Mullah Nasrudin. Now, the Mullah had been something a thorn in the qadi’s side. He claimed some spiritual expertise, and had gathered something of a following in the area. He had also been something of a public critic of the qadi’s decisions. So, the qadi thought he would take the Mullah down a peg. He said, “The learned Mullah Nasrudin is here. Let him hear the pleas and make the decision.”

So, the Mullah took his place and called the two men forward. Rahim said, “It’s Hakim’s dog, and he should clean up the carcass.”

Hakim said, “It’s Rahim’s porch, and he should clean up the carcass.”

The Mullah paused for a moment, and then said, “This is indeed a difficult case, dividing the community. It is Hakim’s dog; and it is Rahim’s porch. However, it is the responsibility of the courts to resolve these issues between neighbor and neighbor. Therefore, the qadi should clean up the carcass.”

Now, the point of the story was to challenge the stuffiness of the qadi, and I’m sure there was some laughter among those who first heard it. At the same time, if it seems an unlikely response in reality, it seems to me a very Christian response. After all consider from today’s Gospel, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves;” or, from today’s Epistle, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

That was certainly the case, I think, for the first deacons. They were called on to resolve a dispute in the community. In the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem there were those who spoke primarily Aramaic, and those who spoke primarily Greek; and the Greek-speakers thought their widows were being neglected. This was a commune, really, and all were supposed to receive what they needed, but the Greek-speakers thought their folk were getting short-changed. So, they called on the Apostles for justice. Specifically, they called on the Apostles for better waiters.

And the Apostles offered the laity themselves a role in the decision. “Select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.” Think about that for a moment. These were men, really, not unlike the qadi in our story. They were men who knew the faith and who had not only demonstrated that they know how to live out the faith, but had also gained a public reputation for it. Yet the ministry to which they were called was to be better waiters.

Human nature being what it is, did they stop and wonder at that, as we might? Did they stop and think, “God has called me – perhaps has been calling me, like Jeremiah, from before I was born – but, to be a waiter?” After all, even Jesus had noted the common opinion that the person seated at the table was more important than the waiter.

I would like to think that they didn’t. After all, these were men who knew that Jesus had said, “But I am among you as one who serves.” Perhaps some of them had heard Jesus say it themselves. This was a community that knew that such service was essential to Jesus’ standards of spiritual maturity and wisdom. Perhaps this was the sort of evidence of being full of the Spirit that led the community to choose these first seven men.

It is this same understanding of the ministry, and especially of the diaconate, that continues to shape what we do today. Of course, as with many matters of the faith, we have come to see these things more broadly. As we have come to understand that “Blessed are the cheesemakers” really applies to all producers of dairy products (let the reader understand), we have come to see that diaconal ministry goes well beyond simply being a waiter at our own tables. Remember that the ministry to which God called Jeremiah was not simply to Israel, but “to the goiim” – and not simply the nations beyond Israel, but also the poor and neglected within Israel. We might look to the “Outline of the Faith” as it says, “The ministry of a deacon is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as a servant of those in need….” We might attend to what we are about today, and to words that we will shortly hear spoken to these ordinands: “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” Indeed, we need only listen to this theme in today’s lessons, a theme that they have claimed for their own ministries in choosing these lessons for their ordination.

Now, of course, one might ask what about this theme is specific to deacons. After all, this understanding of ministry, this call to service, is not specific to one order. All of us commit again and again to demonstrate the Gospel by serving Christ in all persons and loving neighbor as self, by seeking justice and respecting the dignity of all. I have been thinking of late that, as much as there is a priesthood of all believers, there is surely a diaconate of all believers, a call to all of us to reflect what God has done in Christ in our care and service for others.

But we are a people of the Incarnation, we Episcopalians. We believe not only that God came among us in Christ, truly human for our sake, but also that in the Spirit God continues to call human beings to “in-carnate,” to make manifest, the work of Christ in the world. So, some are called by God and raised up by the community especially to model for us and to lead us in ministries of compassion and service. They are called, as these new deacons have been called, to lead us so that we are in the world as those who serve, as those who are willing to be slaves of others for Jesus’ sake.

Let me say to the ordinands, thank you for your leadership as deacons, not least, and not really first, in choosing today’s lessons. There are differences in your ministries, and so there is no single charge to give. One of you is called to a focused ministry as a vocational deacon, a singular and direct demonstration of service. I know you’re exploring that call in health care, serving many who have no faith in a medical culture that often has no idea what to do with faith. Take your place waiting – at tables, at bedsides, in hallways and waiting rooms – and become what I often say chaplains are: the fingertips of the Body of Christ, touching with his compassion wounded bodies and souls.

For one of you, as a transitional deacon your ministry will not be so focused; but I am one of those who cherishes the diaconal work that is still a part of my ministry. I say of myself without hesitation, “Once a deacon, always a deacon.” Claim your own diaconate, so that you can support and work beside those deacons with whom the Church partners you; and so that you can make incarnate the call to service, especially when there is no deacon with you to model it better.

Both of you, wherever you serve, lead us in addressing the needs of our neighbors, whether the work is on our neighbor’s porch or half a world away. Call forth the diaconate of all believers, and show us all how we might be in the world and for the world as those who serve in Christ’s name.

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