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Sermon Archives

Sounds Like Greek to Me

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Feb 12

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Lessons: Acts 6: 1-7

Deacons, past, present and future, along with early church history buffs in the crowd, this one’s for you -- both the passage I just read and this sermon.  If you are a newcomer to church life and all of this talk of a Diaconate sounds like Greek to you, well I have good news for you too, and a word of encouragement to speak up whenever any of us sound like we are speaking a different language.  The fact is, the first deacons of the first church, and I mean the very first deacons of that very first church in Acts, and all deacons since, might never have existed were it not for those who called out language barriers.

Allow me to explain-like many movements from which real transformation followed, it all began with a complaint!  The church had hardly come into being, yet already it was growing and already some of the people started complaining about a certain scarcity.   Churches, like every other institution, experience conflict –over budgets, search processes, methods of communion and other worship practices, over music, over communication, even over what makes for radical hospitality and extravagant welcome!  The Acts of the Apostles, also known in J.B. Phillips’ translation as “The Book of the Young Church in Action,” offers us a lasting assurance that this is nothing new.  Acts reminds us that from the get-go, there was always something to complain about in church.  However, our passage for today can also teach us some helpful lessons in leadership and how to actually deal with real and inevitable conflict and challenge.  On the surface, the passage is about the calling forth and laying hands on the very first diaconate.  Diakonia is the Greek root of Deacon, which means administer, as in distribute food and alms.  Digging into it just a little deeper though, we find it’s about so much more.

First, what’s evident is a basic conflict that arises whenever a group gets bigger.  In his book, Called to the Be the Church:  The Book of Acts for a New Day, UCC minister and church consultant Anthony Robinson has noted: “This conflict is, at its root, the economic disparity that threatens any rapidly growing group, no matter how cohesive in mind and practice;  “The disciples were increasing in number” and so their “widows were being neglected in daily distribution.”  Rapid growth puts the greatest pressure precisely on those points where the material needs of the community’s newest or most marginal members are evident.”  Sounds like a picture not only of the first century church but of our entire US economy, at least in the mid-1990’s when it was still growing.   Lesson one is about the importance of leaders naming and framing the issue!

A related lesson has to do with aligning whatever the issues are with the church’s basic values.  Providing for the widows cannot be ignored precisely because it cuts to the heart of who they are trying to be as a church.  As Robinson notes, this is a core identity issue for them and for any church that bears Christ’s name.  He writes: “The growing Christian movement is known by two things in particular:  their bold witness to Jesus and his resurrection, and that no one in their community is in need. Therefore, this situation is one of great moment.  Failure to deal with it means a continuing gap between what the community says of itself and what is actually the case.” Our current Deacons -- with help from the rest of you (you just promised!) -- are charged with the same work, of discerning and framing up those challenges that cut to heart of the matter what are our core identity and values as a church. Lesson two is about leaders distinguishing those issues and challenges that are focused on walking the talk from those issues that are relative distractions.

Third, in Acts 6, we see a need to mitigate this issue across barriers of language and culture.   The so-called Hellenists here, the ones bringing the complaints, are Greek speaking Jews who had become followers of the Way of Jesus.  To the Hebrews, the language of the Hellenists sounds like Greek to them, literally.  This oft-heard expression, taken from a line of Shakespeare, is a sure sign that someone has given up on listening.  The in-crowd stopped hearing the needs of the marginalized yet somehow the leaders of the early church found a way to deal with their conflict across cultures.  Lesson three is about leaders paying attention to linguistic and cultural barriers in a given community.

Already we find in these few lines tremendous model and microcosm of the church!  Already, there’s a lot that this First Church can learn from that First Church. We too are a growing community.  We too have managed, in some ways, to tend to needs of groups who at one point seemingly spoke different languages, particularly when it comes to becoming an open and affirming and a multigenerational community.  We’ve learned new languages of what love means, knew languages of email, Facebook, Twitter so we can better communicate across generations (some of us are still learning these languages!).  Yet one look at the hallway picture board of First Church staff and current Deacons will tell you we still have a long ways to go when it comes to becoming a truly multicultural, multilingual, multiracial church, especially in our leadership.  The only people of color on those boards right now are three out of our four sextons!  That ain’t right, amen?  Indeed, we have some serious work to do.  I pray -- I earnestly pray -- that those picture boards not only help us get to know our staff and deacons by name but that they also serve as ongoing agitation to all of us to reach out to, invite and include more persons of color in our life and leadership.  Indeed, we all should be asking:  what more can we be doing, and how do we need to be changing ourselves, to better walk the talk of our Open Door vision of hospitality to all?

A few other brief observations:  The leaders in Acts, the apostles and the seven are clear about their role, what it is and what it is not.  They are clear about when to call in help and widen the circle.  Furthermore, they aren’t just chosen simply because they would say yes, they are chosen because they had exhibited the right gifts and skills for the job.  The seven of that First Church and nine of this First Church are qualified for the job! What’s more still, the apostles knew that this work of choosing who would wait on tables and feed the poor was too important of a decision to be made by just them.  The scripture tells us that the mandate was to  “select,” as in choose by careful and prudent and wise decision making who will lead.   The apostles left it to the community to decide.  I wonder if this discernment of gifts and ritual of ratification of the broader body sounds familiar, at least to those of you who were at our Annual Meeting last Sunday?  I hope so! Its amazing how similar our church is some 2000 years later.

In the centuries that followed, it became all the more clear that Deacons were doing far more than waiting tables.  Even before the 5th century, the office of Deacon was seen by the church to be held for life.  We joke around here that “once a deacon always a deacon” which is why so many came forward, but, as it turns out, this is such an old joke that it’s no joke! And though all of the “seven” so called first deacons in our passage from today are men, the New Testament elsewhere records the presence of women deacons.  Paul makes reference to deaconess Phoebe who had a primary role in one early church.  From those first centuries, deacons and deaconesses commonly read or chanted the gospel, received offerings or alms and inscribed names in the diptychs (not to be confused with the things you use to check your oil!).  The diptychs were the books which held the names of the living and departed who were part of the church and who were in need of prayer.  In some congregations, the diptych doubled as the Book of Life! 

Deacons were also responsible for the ministry or administration of the elements. They directed prayers of the people, as Adwoa will do shortly.  For John Calvin, the role of the deacons was primarily to administer alms and care for the poor and sick.  Our Deacons will help carry out that ministry next week when they offer healing prayer, and invite us all into what one of our former interns called a “a holy bubble” at our healing stations.  They will hear and hold the grief or pain that is brought forward, and they will pray with us, holding your concerns in confidence, and lifting them up to solace, comfort and presence of God.  What’s more, if you are in need of financial assistance, our Deacons will be glad to administer the alms that we have in our Deacons Fund.

For centuries, seven was the number. When this sanctuary was built, our forebears added one more.  Those chairs behind me?  Yup, those were Deacons chairs!  Maybe one of these days we can put them back into use, if only for kicks!  Barb, Martha, Karen Anne and the rest of you, you won’t need to worry anymore about coming early on Christmas Eve.  There’s room in one of those bad boys for your whole family!

In some churches the diaconate is seen as a necessary stage of preparation for the priesthood.  Not so here where we celebrate the priesthood of all believers (though if we were look at the roles of deacons in recent years, more than few have been led to pursue graduate theological education and professional pastoral vocations).

Today, our Deacons are considered the spiritual leaders of our congregation. You’ll see them fulfilling all the traditional roles, offering hospitality when they line up greeters, collecting alms when they line up ushers, leading prayers, distributing the sacraments, and cleaning out by hand all those little shot glasses when we serve communion in the pews.  As importantly, Deacons share their gifts of grace, wisdom and encouragement in helping to frame up issues for broader congregation-wide discussion and discernment.  You can bet that Deacons will be involved in shaping the conversations we will be having in March about who we are as a church and where God is leading us next, especially in this time of staff transition.

All of these roles require an extraordinary depth of commitment and spiritual maturity.  By virtue of our Annual Meeting two weeks ago, together we affirmed those gifts and today we celebrate a new team. And we do so with deep and abiding gratitude for all Deacons who came before to set the stage, including Nicanor and Prochorus and Deaconess Phoebe, including Deacon John Bridge who was here when this church was first settled almost four centuries ago and whose statue stands tall out on the Cambridge Common, and including our fabulous outgoing Deacon co-chairs, Joanne Paul and Adwoa Lewis Wilson.  

Now…having shared way more than some of you might have ever wanted or needed to know about the role of Deacons, I wonder.  Is any of this still sounding like Greek to you?  If so or if, for that matter, any of you ever feel unwelcome, outcast, or in need of something the church can provide, raise your concerns and indeed your complaints not only to me or the rest of the staff.  By all means, bring them to a Deacon as well!   For I can assure you, they truly are people of “good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who we may rightfully and faithfully, confidently and lovingly appoint to the task.  Amen.

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