Deacons: Teaching Us to See Need

Ordination Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Lane
June 20, 2009
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine

Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 119:33-40; Acts 6:2-7; Luke 22:24-27

When I served in parish ministry one of my favorite services was the service of Maundy Thursday with its agape supper and foot-washing. There is a simplicity and directness to the service I found very appealing. The message is eat and drink and be like Jesus, and even very young children could grasp it. We held the service in the parish dining hall where spilling water wouldn’t be a problem. The children loved that part. Making a mess was part of the liturgy, and a grown up got down and washed your feet! Too cool!

The foot washing was never really popular. I think it grew to maybe 30 people over the years. There was always a particular awkwardness to the foot washing. I always found myself a little flushed afterwards. I discovered that no one thinks they have nice feet. And a lot of people actually have club toes and messed up toenails. There’s a kind of reversal of the expected social order. And then there’s the whole matter of offering personal service, of treating someone’s unlovely feet with reverence. It’s recognition of an intimate, a sacred, a holy, connection with someone I don’t usually think of in that way. After a time, I came to see the awkwardness of the foot washing as the whole point: a reminder that social conventions are simply that – matters of arbitrary status – and a reminder that the service of Christ always involves relationships of love and care with other folks – folks who are all pretty much the same under their socks.

The early church made the connection between preaching Christ and serving Christ pretty early on – in fact, almost immediately. The apostles quickly discovered that there was more work to do then they could manage by themselves. They saw their primary responsibility as preaching the good news of the Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Yet they recognized their responsibility for what their preaching produced. Everywhere they went communities of believers sprang up. And those communities needed to be supported and organized, worship needed to be conducted, instruction needed to be offered. And then, in every community, there were those members who could not really care for themselves – who were poor or sick or old. The community needed to care for them.

Indeed, care for the widows and orphans soon became a major undertaking, so important and so time-consuming that the apostles needed help. And so the first servants of the church were chosen, the Magnificent Seven, who were given responsibility to care for weaker members of the community, to visit the sick, to prepare for worship.

And so, from the very earliest days, the church was marked by worship, by preaching and teaching, and by service. We now call the icons of Christ’s service deacons. Deacons represented Christ’s own service. Deacons represented and were emissaries of the bishop. Deacons shared the gifts of the community with the wider world.

But foot washing has never been all that popular in the church. As the church grew, the deacons were soon outnumbered by the elders, the leaders of the local communities, who represented the apostles in that place and led the services of worship. And over time, as the church embraced the trappings of empire, the offices of deacon, priest and bishop became hierarchical and serial. Eventually the diaconate became a stepping stone from the offices of acolyte and sub-deacon to the office of priest.  And it has remained that way until today. We still require priests to be transitional deacons before they may be ordained priests.

The recovery of baptism and the renewal of the diaconate both began in the Vatican II era in the mid 20th century. It’s probably no surprise that they’re linked because both movements are rooted in the conviction that the church is the body: the church is the body of Christ whose members carry the ministry of Christ to the world. And because that’s so, what happens outside the church is every bit as important as what happens inside the church. The renewal of the diaconate is helping us to recover our balance as a church, to rediscover the ancient balance of worship and service.

And perhaps, even more important, the diaconate is helping us recover our theological conviction that the purpose of the church is to help us grow up into Christ, to be like Jesus, to be like the one washing the feet. “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. I am among you as one who serves.”

To make direct, intimate human service the goal of the Christian life is awkward. It means to forego our usual notions of status and power. It means to recognize our essential equality as human beings and the need we all have or will have for such personal care. It means to acknowledge that someplace close to the heart of our faith is the necessity of putting the neighbor in first place. It means being like Jesus with all the risks he once faced.

The world desperately needs this humble service. We are confronted by so many intractable problems in the 21st century – global warming, religious fundamentalism, declining standards of living, poverty, air and water pollution – you make your own list. None of these problems will be solved unless we are willing to humbly wash our neighbor’s feet.

We in Maine have done a good job with the renewal of the diaconate. We have deacons serving in many communities. But we have much more to do because the goal is not to make a lot of deacons. The goal is to help the people of God be like Jesus. Deacons can be for us persons whose own ministries serve as examples of the ministries to which we are all called as servants of Christ. Deacons bring the needs of the world into the life of the church so that we can see and respond in the name of Christ. Deacons help us pray for the world, recruit and train us for service, organize us to do Christ’s work. There is no limit to the need and no limit to the possibilities for service.

These ordinations this morning give me hope… not because I think these deacons are a source of cheap labor for the church – I’ve given them specific instructions to resist that – not because I think they will help us solve our financial problems as an institution, but because I think they will call us to wash feet. The heart of our baptismal promise is to live a life that is faithful to the one who calls us, the one who sees us all as children of one family, the one who understands that we all have the same needs and the same hopes, the one who died for us that we might live for him and one another.

My prayer for you, my friends and colleagues, is that you will simply get on with it. That with our support you will plunge into the work that lies before you, that you will show us the opportunities for our own service and help us claim them, that you will makes us feel a little awkward, help us to see the world as it really is – help us to see all those feet out there in need of a good washing.

God grant you the will and the grace to accomplish the ministry God sets before you.


One thought on “Deacons: Teaching Us to See Need”

  1. Fascinating sermon w/references to foot-washing. My first experience (Sandy Curtis, Redeemer, Addison,NY) was carried off with such panache I could accept the vivid ceremony. I am reminded of the dry dustiness of places where people have no socks, where open sandals expose feet to dangers and indignities of rough ground, where cleanliness is a rare blessing. Those people are my brothers & sisters in Christ; my widow’s mite must be shared to bring them precious water.

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