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Happy Mothers’ Day Everyone
Some time ago, I wrote in the front of my Book of Common Prayer, “If now and then you don’t think your sermons might be a bit risky, then you are not a deacon.” It might surprise you to learn that deacons sometimes wonder if their sermons are too political, too radical, and too challenging for the communities they serve.
Deacons are described as having a prophetic voice and are encouraged to be truth-tellers when it comes to societal ills and the mistreatment of God’s children. And yet, deacons have always known that telling the truth is not always well received.
In today’s first lesson, we learn that the first Christian martyr and deacon, St. Stephen, was stoned to death because he proclaimed the risen Christ. However, there was much more to the story according to Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
Stephen was one of the “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3), who were chosen by the apostles to relieve them of the administrative burden of “serving tables and caring for the widows.” By this appointment to assist the apostles, Stephen, the first-named of those the New Testament calls “The Seven,” became the first to do what the Church traditionally considers to be the work and ministry of a deacon.
It is apparent that Stephen’s activities involved more than simply “serving tables,” for the Acts of the Apostles speaks of his preaching and performing many miracles. These activities led him into conflict with some of the Jews (read as priestly authorities), who accused him of blasphemy, and brought him before the Sanhedrin. His powerful sermon before the Council is recorded in the seventh chapter of Acts. His denunciations of the Sanhedrin so enraged its members that, without a trial, they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death.” (Adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts). By the way, the reference about serving tables is about the distribution of food.
Stephen was a servant leader, an evangelist, and a passionate follower of Christ. His commitment to the truth no doubt shortened his life. Yet, his willingness to speak truth to power still stands as a value highly prized by many in the diaconate.
Episcopal deacons serve in a variety of ways. If they still have a secular job, most often, their work is in service to others. They may work in nonprofits, healthcare, law enforcement, social services, the military, and in some instances, service minded corporations. Wherever they work, they are asked to “make Christ’s redemptive love known by word and example to those among whom they live, work, and worship. Deacons are also asked to interpret to the Church (all of us) the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” (BCP, p. 543). Deacons are expected to have a prophetic voice.
In the Sojourners article, What does it mean to be prophetic today? (source – https://sojo.net/media/what-does-it-mean-be-prophetic-today) Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary, says that he thinks “a prophet is someone that tries to articulate the world as though God were really active in the world. And, that means on the one hand, to identify those parts of our world order that are contradictory to God, but on the other hand, it means to talk about the will and purpose that God has for the world that will indeed come to fruition even in circumstances that we can’t imagine.”
A deacon is expected to talk about what is contradictory to the will of God and to talk about what God is doing in the world, even if we cannot fathom how it will all work out. The first part, talking about what is contradictory to God, is the risky part. And while no Episcopal Deacons have been stoned lately as far as I know, we live in a society that is increasingly uncivil, angry and contentious, making it a challenge to speak truth to power.
Nevertheless, I am ready to speak about what I believe to be true. I will rely on what Jesus said, I will not let my heart be troubled. I will trust in God and believe in Jesus as I share with you what I think is contradictory to God.
I believe that it is contradictory to God to withhold nutrition assistance benefits to hungry people because you are afraid that they will use those benefits longer than you deem necessary. If we have money to bail out big corporations, we have money to feed people. Jesus gave us clear direction when he said, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17).
I believe it is contradictory to God to withhold care for the sick. By not letting all people access health insurance regardless of immigration status. (Matthew 25:35).
I believe it is contradictory to God to be inhospitable to strangers, as revealed in the way we treat immigrants who are still incarcerated at our borders and who are at considerable risk for contracting COVID. It is also contradictory to God and unacceptable to have an “oh well, some people will die” attitude about immigrants, people in nursing homes, and prisoners because the powers that be do not value their lives as much as others. (Hebrews 13:2).
And I believe it is contradictory to God to oppress the poor by ordering people to work in places that will not take the necessary precautions to keep them safe. A choice between protecting your health or working in an unsafe environment is no choice at all. (Psalm 140:12).
Some of our government and community leaders are doing their best to provide for us. However, we have too many leaders who do not seem to understand the devastation being visited upon our families, friends, and neighbors when they do not taking this pandemic seriously.
Thank God we are not totally at the mercy of powerful and insensitive people who lack compassion for those who are suffering. Thank God there are people called to care for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Thank God, we have ministers who feed the hungry, visit prisoners, and work to shelter people who are homeless. Thank God some folks are committed to calling other people regularly, so they will not be lonely. Thank God, we can worship online and share our love of God without fear of persecution. Thank God we recognize the heroes among us who put their lives on the line to save others.
God continues to work through us to achieve the greater good. As members of my family like to say, “God will make a way out of no way.”
The pandemic has changed our way of life and forced us to rethink how to be in the world. Many of those changes will be with us for months to come. The pandemic has revealed how vulnerable many people are when it comes to having enough to eat, being financially secure, and accessing healthcare. It seems that those who had few resources, to begin with, have even less now. Nothing can be taken for granted, and no one is immune to the unpredictable nature of this health crisis.
Therefore, we must continue to care for one another by keeping practices that make the community safe for all of us, not just some of us. We must continue to be kind, caring, and thoughtful amid the stress of this pandemic. We must act as representatives of Christ Jesus, who asked us to love one another as he loved us.
I leave you with a prayer that is often attributed to another saint, Francis, for it is a good reminder of how we can continue to serve God and one another as we live through this pandemic:
St. Francis Prayer
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.