Have you noticed how often Jesus uses meals and the feeding of people to teach about his mission? In today’s Gospel Jesus suggests that his host, the Pharisee, should change his guest list and instead of inviting his family and friends, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Probably these suggested guests would be strangers, or perhaps they would be known to the Pharisee as the social pariahs of the community – likely, they would not be people with whom the Pharisee would normally be friendly.
Now why would the Pharisee take Jesus’ suggestion? After all, Jesus is asking him to do something that the Pharisee would see as not being in his best interest. To invite the needy, the poor, the sick to dine??? It simply was not done. It was one thing to give alms to those in need; it would be quite another to invite the lowly into one’s home for a meal. It would be the equivalent of committing social suicide and depending on who was invited, it would also be violating the religious laws of the day — laws the Pharisees, who were not bad people – tried very hard to honor.
In recent Gospels, Jesus has been calling for a new order as his time on Earth has been coming closer to its end. He wants a new way of relating to each other through compassion and service to all people, including the outcasts of society, to be embraced by those in power.
Two weeks ago, I preached about another occasion at which Jesus told people that their accepted way of life, their social norms, the status quo, needed to change. In that sermon, I referenced a text that reminded us that Jesus’ missional agenda of compassion, mercy and justice actually can change the status quo, that the status quo can be shattered when we live into the Gospel. And now, in this week’s Gospel, Jesus is once again exhorting and prodding those in power and authority, the least likely to change their way of life, to participate in shattering the status quo. He calls for a way of life that totally would alter how their society functioned and would result in turning the world upside down. We see Jesus again being a troublemaker – or, another way of saying that is: Jesus was being Diaconal.
Why is that diaconal? As you know, Deacons are called to be servants, and we are also expected to be troublemakers, and pests. Martha and I thought that given the examples of Jesus as troublemaker found in recent Gospels that I would take the opportunity to try to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked about the Order of the Diaconate. What a Deacon is, and isn’t in the Episcopal Church.
I’m not surprised that there are questions about what a Deacon is….since St. Paul’s has never had a Deacon as a member of the clergy before. Actually not many churches in the diocese have had Deacons…. there are 180 worshiping parishes, plus all of the other types of places clergy serve in this diocese, with about 600 active and retired Priests and there are only 33 Deacons. So there are a lot of people in the Diocese who have not worshiped with Deacons.
First a little deacon history, since one question I’ve been asked is when and where deacons came from. The first commissioning of Deacons, 7 of them, was done by the Apostles shortly after the crucifixion and resurrection and is told in Acts 6. Then as the early Christian church grew, each church had a bishop as its shepherd……but then there weren’t a lot of churches, so each could have its own. Deacons assisted the Bishops, including taking the consecrated bread and wine from the church to homes where small groups of Christians gathered. Later when the number of Christians increased, the number of churches grew and the order of Priests emerged so each church could continue to have a shepherd — a Priest– and the Deacon continued to serve as the Bishop’s emissary to the increased number of parishes. Around the 14th century the number of Deacons declined in the western church, as the order of the Priesthood grew. And it wasn’t until, in the 19th century the order of Deacons actually was restored, beginning in Germany and among Roman Catholics in the late 20th century, eventually evolving to the current day Episcopalian Deacon’s.
As Deacons today in our faith tradition, one of our primary functions is still to assist
Bishops – I will periodically be called away to go to another Church and serve as the Chaplain to one of our Bishops, as I was last Palm Sunday. At times we are called away from the parish to serve in other diocesan functions when the Bishop determines. For example, the Bishop asked me to serve as the Diocesan Coordinator for disaster preparedness and response through Episcopal Relief and Development at the National Church, and a few weeks ago, I was called to serve on a Sunday at the Convent of St. Anne’s.
I often have been asked when I am going to take “the next step” to be a Priest — but there is no next step – this is it – the permanent diaconate is a full, and equal order, with the priesthood. It can get a little confusing for laity because Priests are Transitional Deacons for 6 months before they are ordained Priest. The calls are similar but not the same.
A related question I’m often asked is what is the difference between the Priest and the Deacon? One way to think about the similarities and differences of the 2 orders is to use a visual cue of both the Priest and the Deacon at the altar and door. Then, see the priest being primarily at the altar as a sacramental shepherd to the parish and spiritual overseer of the parish. Then see the Deacon being primarily at the door as a bridge to the community and a messenger who stands between the world and the church, with one foot in each, interpreting the church to the world and the world to the church. In the messenger role the Deacon sends the Gospel out into the world and then by being a nudge, brings the problems of the world back into the local and wider church. Many Deacons are bi-vocational, that is, we serve in the church as Deacons and have a job in the secular world. In part that is because in order to bring the problems and issues of the world into the church, we need to be in the world, even if not of the world. It also is important for many of us to be bi-vocational, since as Deacons, we do not receive any pay or have access to benefits from the parish, or from the Diocese. That is, in part, why unfortunately, you will see very few young Deacons.
While Deacons are called in the name of Jesus Christ to serve all people, we are called particularly to serve and care for the poor, the ill and the powerless and the lonely. That is a traditional role for deacons, and we do that in parishes and in community settings. For me, the community I serve outside of the St. Paul’s community is through Dinah’s House and through Episcopal Relief and Development.
A word here about the Rector and other clergy in a parish. Make no mistake, even though the two orders are equal orders, the Rector is in charge of the parish. It wouldn’t matter if instead of having a deacon as a second clergy person, this parish had a second priest as clergy, it would still be the Rector who would be the clergy person in charge of the parish. Deacons and other clergy serve at the direction of the Rector, primarily as a support and to assist in the raising up of the ministry of the Laity. However, it is the Bishop, on the recommendation of the Archdeacon, who decides which parish we are assigned to, whereas Priests are called by the parish. And while the Rector serves the Vestry, I serve directly under my Bishop, not the Rector or the Vestry. It can be sorta tricky for some, kind of like multiple matrix relationship, but I think Martha and I have figured it out pretty well.
The visible role of Deacons inside the church is most often seen in the liturgy and I will be writing in some detail about each of these liturgical pieces of the Deacon’s ministry in Constant Contact and The Labyrinth, but for now let me just mention them briefly. We preach and we administer the elements at communion. We proclaim the Gospel, prepare the altar for the Eucharist and we restore the altar after communion. We give the dismissal at the end of the service. In addition, most Deacons lead the Creed, begin the Prayers of the People and bid the Confession. We do not give absolution, give sacramental blessings, or consecrate the Eucharist because we are not sacramentalists and that is not our call, though we do have specific roles in each of those sacraments. By canon, or church law, we can do full services with Eucharist from reserve sacrament, and in various circumstances, we can lead all of the worship services through the liturgy of the word, and can perform most of the elements in weddings, funerals, baptisms. However, Bishop Alan has told us at this point he does not want us to do all of that – remember that there are over 600 active and retired Priests in the diocese and only 33 Deacons? – so he, understandably wants us to continue to focus on the truly diaconal elements of our calling, at least for now.
As we vow at our ordination, we willingly and joyfully take on the responsibility and privilege of serving the world and the church. And it’s not just that we serve poor, sick, powerless and lonely individuals, we also have to bring about changes to the broken parts of social systems that cause and allow so many people to be powerless and pushed to the edges of our society. Addressing structural evil in our society is a huge piece of what Deacons are to do as servant and as messenger. Whether the systems that need to be changed involve ridding our society of the evils of any of the isms, are about wage equality, speak to food availability, highlight access to healthcare, or address gun control — and unfortunately the list goes on —- the Deacon’s ministry, is called upon to sing out about structural evils in our world and to work toward making changes to the status quo, when needed. That can make things uncomfortable for parishioners and vestries — and truth be told, for the Deacon also — at times, as it did for the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. We are to try and be the conscious of the church, to stir up the hearts and the minds of the faithful, to make trouble, to constantly be nudging – as Bishop Alan says we are supposed to be pests. (My mother says I’m good at being a pest.)
While that may be what Deacons have been set aside to do through our ordination, Jesus makes it clear that we are all to speak to those issues. And he tells us all how to be the troublemaker through today’s parable and shows us how throughout his ministry. So let’s everybody go out and be trouble makers — but as we are told so often in Luke, let’s do it with love, and care and compassion.
In Joy and Peace—go make trouble. Amen