Deacons Day sermon
On this Deacons Day, I want to start by saying how blessed I am to have been a deacon at St. Paul’s since 2001, how lucky I am that Chilton, our then-bishop, assigned me to you, how much I love being part of this faithful community! There’s nowhere else I’d rather celebrate Deacons Day.
Our bishop has charged his deacons to spend time today trying to deepen a congregation’s understanding of the deacon’s call and ministry, and I think today’s complicated gospel lesson offers a couple of ways to tackle that assignment.
Let’s start with Jesus’ assertion that disciples should emulate their teachers, and servants should be like their master. This seems the inverse of other gospel passages where Jesus talks about servant ministry where he says that those in positions of authority should take on the role of servants: “The greatest among you will be your servant,” “The leader should become like one who serves,” and finally Jesus’ blunt statement: “I am among you as one who serves.”
A deacon’s call is to this servant ministry, to be among you as one who serves. When priests are ordained, the bishop will sometime anoint their hands to undertake the sacramental ministry of consecrating, absolving, and blessing. Back when I was Archdeacon and coordinated the Deacon Formation Program for the diocese, at the preordination retreat, I would always anoint the feet of the ordinands in recognition that deacons’ ministries take them out of the church and into service in the world.
During the Eucharist itself, consider the symbolism of our different roles: my task as servant is to set and clear the table. Carolyn’s sacramental role is to consecrate, to celebrate Holy Communion. Even our stoles are different. As a deacon, mine is tied at the side to represent the towel Jesus wrapped around his waist as he washed and dried the feet of the disciples. At my ordination, I was given a Bible as a reminder to proclaim the gospel not only in church but through my actions in the world, and a towel to represent my role as an icon of Jesus’ servant ministry.
Now, I suspect that for a lot of people, seeing a deacon during a service on Sunday is pretty much all they know about what deacons “do,” so I want to take us back to the very first deacons. The Book of Acts tells us that the first seven deacons ordained by the apostles were originally tasked with ministering to the marginalized within the church, which they did – but look at where else we find them: Stephan became an eloquent teacher and preacher (for which he was stoned to death by those who didn’t like what he said), and Philip was called to share the gospel message with a queen’s financial advisor.
So when people ask, “What do deacons do?” it’s confusing because it’s both pastoral and prophetic. Part of our call, as our ordination service says, is to minister among “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” Following that call, in my own life as a deacon, I spent eight years as a pediatric hospice chaplain, and ten years in prison ministry. Chick, as most of you know, helped establish the Gathering Place across the street, a day shelter and welcoming space for the homeless and the lonely. If health issues hadn’t prevented it, he would be the deacon standing here today to tell you more about the Gathering Place, and invite you to join the volunteers who spend time with the guests. Please consider doing so!
But besides being servants of mercy, deacons are also called to prophetic witness– which brings us back to today’s gospel where Jesus says: “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Deacons may also be called to advocate for social justice, not just tending those in need but actively working to change systems, to “uncover” and “make known” the injustices that deliberately work to keep people marginalized. I’m currently co-facilitating my 5th Sacred Ground circle, trying to “make known” the reality of systemic racism, and Chick has always been outspoken in making known the root causes of poverty and homelessness, and working to change the systems.
This outspoken advocacy for those in need makes me think of 3rd century deacon Lawrence, who was ordered by the prefect in Rome to turn over all the church treasure to him. Instead, Lawrence distributed it among the poor, so that when the prefect showed up to collect it, Lawrence presented instead the city’s crippled, blind, widowed, the destitute and the suffering, and declared: “Here are the treasures of the church!” Lawrence spoke truth to power, reminding the church authorities that people are the true treasures, especially the least and the lost that Jesus so loved, and the church’s task is to care for them, not amass fortunes for itself. Like Stephen, Lawrence was killed for his words and actions, but he knew Jesus’ words from today’s gospel – “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” – so when the prefect placed him on a hot gridiron, legend says that after awhile he cheerfully declared: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!” St. Lawrence is considered the patron saint of cooks and comedians.
Fortunately most deacons are not stoned or roasted for their behavior; we also have deacon saints who were scholars and writers, missionaries and chaplains, and there’s always the beloved 13th century deacon, Francis of Assisi, who established his order of Friars Minor on the diaconal principal of non-stipendiary ministry among the marginalized.
What all of these deacons did, however – what all deacons are called to do – was to be a bridge between the church and the world, taking the compassion and mercy and justice of Jesus into the world, and bringing back to the church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. Deacons are not called out of the world, but into it. And we want company, which is why deacons give the dismissal: go in the name of Christ, go rejoicing, go in peace to love and serve.
In other words, go with me, go with each other, go help tend and mend this broken world, in the name of Jesus. Deacons may be the icon of Jesus’ servant ministry, but all of us are called to serve. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about being here: you are a congregation that does this in abundance. You haven’t needed a deacon to prod you into action. What happens after I retire in December will be up to the bishop – deacons actually “belong” to the bishop and so where we are assigned depends on the bishop (I won the lottery on that one)– but whether or not a deacon shows up right away, the servant and prophetic ministries of St. Paul’s will go on.
Of that I’m sure.