Serving Even in Discomfort

This week’s passage (Acts 6:1-7:44) covers a lot of ground. It begins with a conflict in the church. The Greek Christians were complaining that when they were giving food to the widows the Greek widows were not being given as much as the Hebrew widows. There’s a conflict over which group within the Christian community is more important or more deserving. We’ve seen Jesus addressing similar issues in his own community as he tries to help people understand that one group is not more important than another but that all have a place in God’s kingdom. The early Christians continued to struggle with the practice of breaking down barriers and seeing “the other” as an equal. We continue to struggle with this in our own community and congregation.

But the disciples have a solution. “We’re too busy preaching the word of God to worry about feeding the widows so let’s appoint leaders to distribute the food and look after the needs of the poor.” The Greek word used to describe these leaders is diaconia. It is means to serve and it’s where we get the words deacon/deaconess and diaconal. After these people are named, the disciples pray and lay their hands on them. The Greek word here is ordinatio and from this comes ordination. Ordinatio means to lay hands on someone, to pray over them and commission them to a particular ministry.

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As a Diaconal minister, this story is rooted my identity—to serve. One of the reasons I find myself called to diaconal ministry is its commitment to serve and stand with those who are most marginalized. Training for diaconal ministers covers a wide range of places where people can be marginalized. In the social ministry year we covered topics including: Residential schools, addictions, colonization, globalization, violence and abuse, disabilities, prison ministry, refugees, militarism and non-violence, poverty, sexual orientation and gender identity, racism and many more. We were encouraged to experience as many different people as possible and learn directly from people who live these realities. The role of diaconal ministry is one that supports people in current situations and provides pastoral care, Diaconal ministry encourages people to find their own voice and then works alongside a community to transform individual lives and communities. I see my role as serving you and together serving the community beyond our doors.

It took me a long time to be comfortable with the idea of serving. I struggled with the word serving because of it’s close ties to servant. I don’t know anyone who is a servant but it conjures up images of always being at someone else’s beck and call and always following someone’s orders. What I have come to realize is that my call is to serve God. I do that by serving people. It is service that requires me to give of myself, my energy, my creativity. As a person of faith, I have to serve God. I need to do what is required and expected of me because I my faith, because of my understanding of scripture and God’s purpose in the world. This service brings joy and hope into my life. It is service that requires me to be in relationship with others. Sometimes it is challenging. Sometimes it is inconvenient. Sometimes it is exhausting. Sometimes it brings me into conflict.

Sometimes, even within the Christian church, my understanding of Christ’s radical into inclusivity and welcome leads to conflict. At times, it would be easier to remain silent but my faith requires me to challenge injustice. This week Yorkton celebrates it’s 2nd Pride week. There are many people in our community who live in fear because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There are people who feel they can’t come to church because they will not be welcome or safe. What does that say about us as a church? I don’t want to live in a community where people feel unsafe because of who they are. I believe we are all created in God’s image and loved by God. Our communities and churches need to celebrate the diversity that God creates.

Sometimes, we might feel that we don’t know anyone who identifies as sexually diverse so it doesn’t impact on us directly. You might be surprised who you know that doesn’t tell you this part of themselves because they don’t feel safe. You might be surprised by who is a part of your congregation. When people don’t feel safe, I believe that the entire community suffers and the body of Christ is broken.

Stephen was commissioned to a particular ministry. I am commissioned to a particular ministry. All of us are commissioned to ministry when we are baptized. We lay hands on an infant or adult. We give a blessing and send them out into the world to be God’s hands and feet. We reaffirm these commitments in confirmations and professions of faith. Ministry—caring for the poor and marginalized is not limited to a few people but is an expectation of all people of faith.

We are entering the time of year when many communities host Pride events. I encourage you to attend at least one event this season. Your presence helps people to know that they belong, that they are welcome and that they are safe. Your presence helps to heal the body of Christ. For some of us, participating in these events might stretch our comfort zone. It might unsettle us. It is an opportunity for us to celebrate and affirm the diversity that God creates.

If Stephen could risk his life for his faith, perhaps we can risk some discomfort.

The Building Blocks of Christian Community

This is a reflection based on Acts 2:42-47 about the early church and the building blocks for the modern church.

This passage from the book of Acts gives us a snapshot of the early church. The priorities for the early church were learning the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, and prayers.

 Mizti J. Smith writes that it is “important that community building starts on the right foot.”[1] Learning, fellowship, communion and prayers were the building blocks of the early church and they need to be central to the present church.

It was important for the early church to wrestle with the stories that they heard about Jesus. It was important for them to understand the relevance of the gospel message in their own lives and in their own community so they committed themselves to learning and study. They grounded themselves in the Hebrew scriptures and put the stories of Jesus within that context. Then they had to wrestle with what all of this said about their own lives and community. What they discovered is that their faith required them to be in community with other believers and that their faith required them to live differently than those around them.

One of the ways in which the early church identified itself was through its fellowship. We hear fellowship and think coffee or potluck. The greek, koinonia, that is translated as fellowship is translated elsewhere as sharing. It shares its root with Diakonia which means to serve. So the idea of fellowship with coffee and potluck as we understand it is too narrow. Fellowship includes a commitment to sharing and to serving. Smith goes on to write that, “koinonia signifies mutuality and commonality among the new believers beyond potluck meals.”[2] Potluck fellowship encourages us to know one another. Koina pops up again when we are told that the early church shared “things in common” and that resources are distributed to anyone who has need.

Communion was a central way in which the early church remembered and grounded themselves in the story of Jesus. Communion was not celebrated at the Jewish temple where the early Christians worshiped as part of the Jewish community. Communion was celebrated separately in homes where Christians gathered and was one of the things that identified the Christian community as distinct from the Jewish community.

And then there are prayers…praying together. For the early church it would have been important to pray for strength to be faithful when there were so many pressures encouraging abandonment of the Jesus movement….It would just be easier to remain Jewish. People who were not Jewish but wanted to become Christian needed to convert to Judaism and follow the Jewish law. There was pressure within the Roman empire to squash the early church and we see examples of this throughout the book of Acts. Prayers to stay the course in the midst of these struggles would have been important. Prayers were an important part of the healing process and so praying for individuals would also have been important.

As I was reading this passage and the commentaries about it this week, I was reminded of my own call to Diaconal Ministry which comes from the words koinoia and diakonia. In the United Church diaconal ministers are called to a ministry of education, service and pastoral care.

When I was doing my training for diaconal ministry, we were always taught to make sure and offer refreshment whenever we gathered for any reason. At learning circles we took turns putting on coffee and providing snacks for the day. That has carried over into the ministry that I do. When people drop into the church asking for money or food I start by offering a cup of coffee and listening to their story. A woman said to me a few months ago that she has been to many churches and has never been offered a cup of coffee. She said it made her feel human and respected.  So whenever we gather here, regardless of who is present, I want to bring a sense of hospitality and welcome to the ministry that we do together.

Diaconal ministry includes an emphasis on education and learning. The early church grounded themselves in the scriptures and we need to continue doing the same. Sunday morning hardly scratches the surface of learning about scripture. I love scripture and the way it continues to speak to us in our own context and what’s happening around us. For example, the passage we heard this morning brings us back to the basics of being a Christian community. But it also requires us to look at the broader picture of the world. Since the first biblical stories there has been violence and inequality. Humans have been trying to figure out how to address and eliminate these experiences. Scripture tells that story. As humans listen to God word and spirit they find themselves given wisdom, courage, desire and an ability to challenge injustice and support and encourage those amongst us who are most in need. And we return Diakonia and service. Our learning about scripture and the world should lead us directly to a ministry of service and action. It should lead us to be generous with anyone who has need.

Finally in the early church, they prayed. Prayer is a way of opening ourselves to God’s spirit. It is a way of setting our intention for how we will live. It strengthens and encourages us on days that are painful or exhausting. It reminds us of God generous and abundant love for us and connects with other people of faith who share those prayers.

My hope and my prayer for us is that we will hold the basics of the early church in our collective memory and that these building blocks will be what supports and shapes our future. Amen.

 

1.  Mizti J. Smith. Commentary on Acts 2:42-47http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=895

 2. Mizti J. Smith. Commentary on Acts 2:42-47 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=895