Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sermon -- 8 Feb 2009 (Ordination)

5th SUN AFTER EPIPHANY — 8 Feb 2009
The Ordination of Judith Crossett to the Diaconate
Trinity Church — 3:00 p.m.

Jer 1:4-9; Ps 84; Acts 6:1-7; Luke 22:24-27
From the Second Reading this afternoon, from the Book of Acts:
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [that is, the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, who had come into Jerusalem from the diaspora] complained against the Hebrews [the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, who were the locals] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
Well, now, what’s that all about? At first glance, it looks like the apostles are saying, “Hey, we’re busy doing the cool stuff like preaching the Gospel, we need some other people to do the scut work for us.” And that’s where the Order of Deacons comes from!

Well, not exactly.

Despite the fact that this passage from Acts has been one of the readings at the ordination of deacons since 1549 (well, actually, 1550), and it has often been seen as the Scriptural warrant for the diaconate as an order of ministry in the church, it’s really not that simple. For one thing, the Seven upon whom the apostles lay their hands with prayer are nowhere called “deacons.” It’s true that their initial task is the “deaconing,” the serving, of tables (that is, the distribution of food to the poor); but that is so the twelve can devote themselves to prayer and the “deaconing,” the serving, of the word. For another thing, who says that the twelve are the only ones to devote themselves to prayer? And for yet another thing, according to what follows in the Acts of the Apostles, “waiting on tables” is not what the seven actually do! Well, five of them, we don’t know what they do; we never hear of them by name again! But two of them: Stephen, full of grace and power, goes out and proclaims the Gospel with great effect, is arrested and dragged before the Sanhedrin, to whom he recounts God’s acts of salvation in Israel culminating with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is sentenced to death by stoning, thus becoming the first Christian martyr. The other of them, Philip, goes down to the city of Samaria and proclaims Christ to them with great success, and then he travels down the road to Gaza where he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch traveling in his chariot, and Philip converts and baptizes him. Philip then settles in the city of Caesarea on the coast. We hear of him once more, a number of years later, when he is described as an evangelist, who has four daughters who have the gift of prophecy, and who is host to St. Paul as he comes through Caesarea on the way to his last visit to Jerusalem. In other words, Stephen and Philip apparently devoted themselves to the service of the Word!

So much for waiting on tables. Good help is hard to find.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles was written something like fifty or sixty years after these early events, and St. Luke wasn’t there. So this story, circulating in and from the Christian community in Jerusalem (who by the time of the writing of Acts had been driven out of, or escaped from, Jerusalem), may not have all its ecclesiastical details right. But there are some basic aspects that I think this story does have right: one, that the Twelve very early on recognized that they needed assistance in their ministry; and two, specifically, they needed help with the ministry to the diaspora Jewish families — Greek speaking — who had joined the community in Jerusalem. Although it is unlikely that the Twelve did not speak any Greek — particularly since they were Galileans — they may not have been very fluent in it. They needed assistants who spoke Greek well and who could minister particularly to the poor widows in the community. Keep in mind that the locals, on the whole, had extended families upon whom their widows could rely. The “Hellenist” immigrant women, if they were widowed, had no local family and thus no resources. So it was not so much a matter of the Twelve doing the cool stuff, like preaching the Gospel and running the Church, and the Seven doing the scut work. It was a matter of a needed ministry of service being identified, and people selected for it who could do that ministry better than the Twelve could, apparently including preaching the Gospel in Greek.

Note that St. Luke, the author of this account in Acts, does understand about the ministry of service. In Luke’s Gospel this afternoon we heard Jesus tell his disciples, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” We’ve been reading that passage with regular frequency for over nineteen hundred years. Most of the time we seem not to have paid any attention to it at all.

Christian ministry is not about power, in anything like our usual human sense of the word. Power for us means control, it means the authority to command, it means the ability to impose our own will. The temptation to exercise earthly power is the besetting sin of the Church — all the Church, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal — going back to and even before the time of the Emperor Constantine — and we don’t resist that temptation very well.

That’s why it is very important that in the past couple of generations the Church has again ordained persons to the order of Deacons — vocational Deacons, not just transient new clergy on their way to another ministry. (Yet it is also vital, as I have said before, that we Priests and yes, even Bishops, my lord! should first be Deacons, because that is the essence of the ministry of Christ in the world. “I am among you as one who serves.”)

Of course Judith has been in servant ministry for many years. She is a physician, a psychiatrist, ministering to the healing of mind and soul as well as body. More recently she has been serving those who for whatever reason find themselves homeless, through the work of Shelter House and the Consultation of Religious Communities. As a Deacon, Judith, you will continue not only in servant ministry but as a model of Christian ministry to the rest of us in the Church. And it is a ministry that includes, as did that of Stephen and Philip, the proclaiming of the Gospel by word as well as by action in service. This is why Bishop Alan, after he lays hands on your head with prayer, will also give you a Bible.

Let us all be reminded that Christ whom we call our Lord did indeed come not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for all.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sermon -- 1 February 2009

4th after EPIPHANY — 1 February 2009
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00

Deut 18:15-20; Ps 111; 1Cor 8:1b-13; Mark 1:21-28

Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

In the Epistle today, St Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the matter of eating food which has been sacrificed to pagan idols. I suspect, that you were all thinking, as the Epistle was being read, “What is this all about?!” If ever there was an issue that on the surface seems to have nothing to do with life in eastern Iowa in the early 21st Century, eating meat which has been sacrificed to idols has got to be it! (As far as I know, there are no statues of the god Baal in the back room at the Hy-Vee supermarket!) However:

Corinth, where the new Christian community to whom Paul is writing was located, was a major seaport in Greece, a transshipment point for cargo between Asia Minor to the east and Rome to the west. It was a highly cosmopolitan city, with a thoroughly international, multiethnic population, and there were temples to just about every god and goddess on the face of the earth. And with all these temples, there was a lot of animal sacrificing going on, since that’s what you did in many of these pagan cults in those days. And in most animal sacrifices, only a small part of the animal’s carcass was actually wholly burned up as an offering to the god. So there was a lot of leftover meat around. And what the priests of the pagan temples did with all that meat was, (1) they ate it themselves, (2) they ran restaurants in the temple precincts, and (3) they wholesaled it to the city meat markets. So if you strolled down to the market to pick up a couple of lamb chops for supper, it was very likely that the meat came from an animal which had been offered in sacrifice in the temple of a pagan god.

And so the issue arose for the Christians: is it right for us, who worship the one true God and who are witnesses to God and God’s mighty acts for our salvation through God’s Son Jesus Christ — is it right for us to eat this meat which has presumably been used as the focal point of the worship of a false god? A fair question, and a real one, for this tiny band of Christians struggling to live and witness to their faith in a pagan world.

St Paul’s response is that in itself this is a trivial issue — since the pagan “gods” have no real existence anyway, there can’t be anything wrong with the meat, and there’s no inherent reason why it shouldn’t be eaten. However, there are other factors involved: if, for instance, seeing you eat meat which has been sacrificed to pagan gods should cause another member of the Church, a new convert perhaps, to lose faith, thinking that “well, I guess nothing really matters, and we can do whatever we want,” then by all means don’t eat the meat—it isn’t worth your brother’s or your sister’s soul.

The meat-offered-to-idols issue isn’t very real for us any more, but some similar things do arise for us. For instance, how complicit are we in the evils and injustices of the world? Do we know, or even care, whether or not our running shoes or our tee shirts are made by children in third world sweatshops? If we have investments, or at least if we participate in a pension fund that has investments, do we pay much attention to where that money is invested? Perhaps in companies that piously diversify into cookies in the United States, but aggressively market their tobacco overseas? Or who are clear-cutting the Amazon rainforest, or old growth hardwood forests in this country? Or dumping toxic industrial waste into somebody’s water supply?

Please understand: I’m not recruiting for a bandwagon for boycotting any certain product, or divesting of any particular corporate stock. A few comments about that: first of all, sometimes this works. It did with South Africa. (It took a while, and there were lots of other factors too, but basically the boycotts and divestitures ultimately worked.) But it doesn’t always have as much effect as we’d like. And sometimes boycotts and divestments are just a salve to our own guilty consciences. The fact of the matter is, we are deeply complicit in much of the world’s injustice and oppression (whether we own stocks or not!) and we don’t want to face that, and we don’t want to face the fact that there isn’t always a lot we can do to avoid it. Noncomplicity comes neither cheaply nor easily for human beings. Complicity in the world’s evil — even unwittingly — is part of what we as Christians mean by “original sin.”

So it becomes very easy for us to dismiss these things as trivial issues. I mean, it’s not always clear what real difference it actually makes to anyone but myself whether I own a few shares of stock in this or that corporation, or whether I buy this or that brand of sneakers. I’m just one person — does it really matter if I buy this brand, or if my pension fund owns stock in that corporation?

But before we too easily dismiss something as trivial, and blithely assume we can please ourselves regarding it, we need to stop and think about how our actions will affect other people, and how they will even affect ourselves. There are indirect as well as direct effects of what we do, and we are responsible for those effects. We do not have an absolute and unrestricted moral right to do whatever seems good or convenient to ourselves. We are responsible for the witness we make by the way we live in the world, as well as for the immediate consequences of our actions. The well-being of other human beings is never a trivial matter. It is never “not our problem”; it is never “none of our business.”

That doesn’t give us any quick answers to very complex and difficult moral questions. We have to struggle with these things, and people of good faith and good conscience may come to different conclusions. But we must all remember, as St Paul has been reminding the Corinthians and us, as we heard in the epistle reading a couple of weeks ago: “You are not your own. You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
(1 Cor. 6:19-20)