What Deacons do... What can we do together?
What gifts we lack will be found in their fullness when we come together with others outside our Parish who turn out to have the gifts we need. And those gifts are often found in the most surprising places… we find Jesus in the face of the most unexpected people. The people we think we are there to help, will turn out to be the people who save us….
Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 (2 Lent)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
Friends, my name is Ron Steed, which is a problem, because someone around here is going to shout “Hey Ron", and is going to get a much bigger response than they were expecting! I was just ordained as a Deacon, and I am happy to report that you are the people my Bishop has sent me to serve. Just a little bit about me. My artist wife is named Roxanne and we have twin daughters, Heather and Chelsea who live in Washington, D.C. No grandkids yet. I grew up in a little suburb of Atlanta, GA and I spent a career sailing nuclear submarines and living all over the nation; we moved over a dozen times. I transitioned from the Navy in 2007 to open a consulting business, and we decided to put down roots here in Southeast Connecticut. I am a cradle Episcopalian, but left the church near the end of college, since my childhood version of God just couldn’t handle the world I was learning about. I came back to the church about 11 years ago having encountered God from an adult perspective for the first time in my life and discovering to my shock and surprise, that God was more than adequate to the task of dealing with the world. It has been a rollercoaster ride for me ever since, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
I’d like to spend some time talking about what Deacons do, and a little bit about what we might do together. Deacons come in two varieties in the Episcopal Church. Every priest is ALSO ordained as a Deacon and I certainly see the gifts of the diaconate in the character of all the priests I know. The other kind of Deacon is called a vocational Deacon, and they will NOT go on to be Priests. I am one of those. Vatican II in 1964 recognized that the Holy Spirit seemed to be calling some Christians to exercise ministry in this modern age solely as Deacons, and Episcopalians were among those who responded to this by revitalizing this ancient ministry of vocational Deacons like me.
In the Book of Common Prayer on page 855, there are four ministers of the church: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. None of these ministries are more important than the other and they are not “ranks" like in the military, but I think it is significant that lay people are listed first and deacons last. You are the primary order of ministers in the church and you can see there what your ministry is. On the next page, it talks about Deacons, who are “to represent Christ and his Church particularly as a servant of those in need; and to assist in the proclamation of the Gospel and the sacraments. Deacons are “ordained" to an “ordered relationship" with a bishop and with the church, and lay persons have a more voluntary relationship with the church. Those relationships help the Holy Spirit to work through all of us in wonderful ways. By our baptism, we are all fully part of the body of Christ and fully authorized to be ministers of Christ’s reconciling work. Whether we are ordained or volunteers, none of these relationships are better or worse… it’s not about better or worse… it’s just about different ways God calls us to serve so that the Spirit can work through us and through our relationships.
So the heart of a Deacon is service to God for all people, particularly to the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely. Deacons are called to be “servant leaders" who help all ministers, lay persons, priests, and bishops, to live out that part of the baptismal vow that says we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves". So you will hear me urging you in sermons and meetings and at fish dinners to get out into this village, into the region, and into the neighborhoods where you live, to work WITH the elderly, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoner, the sick, and the dispossessed. The service I am urging on you is not to be found in these pews, so much as it is out there in the world, everywhere people live and work. That is why Deacons do the dismissal. We are sending you out into the fields of the Lord to DO your ministry of service. God is already out there ahead of us… has been for a long time, and our baptismal vocation is to discover where and how God is at work and to “roll up our sleeves" in service.
Deacons also “proclaim the Gospel" because the “good news" is tied so strongly to God’s mission. That’s why a Deacon will read the gospel during worship, and when a Deacon preaches, they tend to have only one sermon; “go do the Gospel of Christ out there in the neighborhood!" That Gospel comes in a lot of forms: “The Kingdom of God is at hand" is one way to put it, “God is with us" all the time especially in our suffering, the Holy Spirit is within us and we are given gifts of the Spirit for use in God’s mission. All of that saving action and more is the “good news" of Jesus Christ. Deacons can’t help themselves but to say that!
This focus on the Gospel and on God’s mission is one reason that Deacons are sometimes described as “standing in the doorway of the church", urging its ministers, out into the world, and THEN to interpret back to the church the things we discover about the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. So it is a two-way dialog that Deacons are engaged in between the world and the church. God is in both places, and justice for the poor is a major theme of the conversation.
And that brings me to the final characteristic of deacons. At consecration, the Bishop asks the Holy Spirit to make deacons “modest and humble, strong and constant". I love that pile-up of virtues, because they seem paradoxical to me. Can you be both modest and humble at the same time you are strong and constant? Well, I think that is the paradox of servant leadership right there. The servant leader is not usually the one out front… that is the place for a lay minister in my opinion. But the servant leader stands at your side or just a little behind, giving you courage and confidence in ministry, helping to clarify your thinking, helping you to understand the needs of the world. I think that is where you will find me here at St James… by your side… or a little behind.
So, what is God calling us to do together? That wind blows where it choses but we hear the sound of it. First, the whole story of the Bible… the thing you see when you squint and look across the arc of the narrative from Genesis to Revelation, is that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but rather, to save the world through him… and Jesus works THROUGH people who are ALSO part of the problem; that seems to be God’s strategy with the struggling People of Israel, with the hapless disciples, with the Church, and with you and me. AND, God equips us with the Holy Spirit who dwells within each of us. AND if we are willing to set our egos aside, the Spirit fills us with the gifts we need for God’s work. Not with the gifts we THINK we need like wealth, and accountants, and iphones; but with kindness, and generosity, and healing… friends, we get filled with love. This Parish already has almost ALL the gifts it needs to do God’s mission. I don’t have to know you well to know that that is true here. What gifts we lack will be found in their fullness when we come together with others outside our Parish who turn out to have the gifts we need. And those gifts are often found in the most surprising places… we find Jesus in the face of the most unexpected people. The people we think we are there to help, will turn out to be the people who save us. So coming together… collaboration… seems to be a necessary part of the saving plan. Look for situations where there is a deep, deep need for healing, for reconciling enemies (or families), and for restoring broken relationships. God is present in those hard problems, and we are called to help in some way: healing, reconciling, and restoring. That is how Jesus is saving the world, and it is more than adequate. That is the Gospel of the Lord.
Friends, thank you for the generous welcome. I can’t wait to send you out into the world this morning! But, like so many neighbors in Southeast CT, I’m hungry. Let’s get fed here, so we can go to work out there!