November 10th, 2019, 22nd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 27) YR C
God is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.
Luke 20: 27-38
I have a dream. I have had the same dream several times, starting about 15 years ago.
I am standing in a church, a compilation of several churches I know and love. I’m at the altar, surrounded by beautiful stained glass, hearing rich organ music–aware of a full church of people when a wall of the church slowly collapses. The sunlight suddenly streams in, and as I’m thinking, oh no, the church is in ruins, I can see outside. I see people looking into the church just as we are all looking outward in shock. One person tries to climb over the rubble to get into the church.
I’m shocked, and then I am suddenly trying to build a bridge from the church to the outside, using the bricks. More walls start to crumble, and more people help to build the bridge. The bridge is busy with people coming and going from the church. I look back into the church, and it is full of sunshine and people. It is even more beautiful than it was before, even though one of its walls continues to crumble, brick by brick.
This dream no longer surprises me when it comes. I nestle into it, like a comfortable blanket. I look forward, in my dream, to seeing the inside of the church full of sunshine and people. Sometimes it doesn’t complete itself. I wake in the middle of building a bridge or the cat wakens me as the wall starts to fall. But I know the story. It’s still comfortable.
It’s the dream of my calling. It brought me into the realization of why God was asking me to become a deacon, and how I could do it.
I am a deacon–a vocational deacon , in it for life. God has called me and I have been able to respond. I went to a special seminary, I was ordained, I wear a collar, I preach. But underneath those visible signs, there is a deep place to which I am called that scares the heck out of me. It is the Jesus place. It is not what I do–it is who I am.
Pretty much everyone knows what a priest is, even outside this denomination. But many people, even in the Episcopal church don’t understand what a deacon is, or does. The confusion about what a deacon is can inhibit the work they do. This church, with its tradition of having deacons and with your welcoming arms, has been quick to include me on every level. But I suspect many of you are wondering why I’m here.
So then, what is a deacon?
Deacons are the next to the oldest order. As the church was forming, the 12 disciples realized they couldn’t do it all. 7 deacons, Stephen among them, were called and charged with taking care of the widows and orphans–the marginalized. They were feeding and caring for those in need while the 12 continued teaching and baptizing. By this time (read Acts 6), the number of converts was in the 1000’s. Money and resources were being made available abundantly to the growing community. It was the deacons’ responsibility to be sure all were fed, and presumably looked after. And since that time, Deacons have assumed an important role in the church function.
A fellow deacon wrote these word, “In a time when the church is ever more aware of the need to be relevant to the world today, the order of deacons is here to provide a model for how we might do that. Deacons are advocates, motivators, and innovators. They invite the homeless inside, they preach truths that are inconvenient. At every service, they send the people out into the world to serve the Lord.
“There is no church separate from the world. There are no people who deserve membership and people who do not. Every church that dismisses the poor from the doorstep so they won’t disturb worship has entirely missed the point of Jesus’ message. Jesus did not show up here on earth-or in my life–to make anyone comfortable.”
As in the dream I mentioned, a deacon is a bridge builder between the people of the church and the people who are not of the church. We find ways to lead people, and the body of Christ, out into the community, pointing toward those who need us most, who need to be fed, supported, loved, rescued, and encouraged. We are also charged with helping people find their way back into the church, building easy paths to walking through the church doors, making all welcome, forging new relationships as people enter our doors. One of the clearest examples of what I’m talking about happened many years ago, at the beginning of my diaconate. I was visiting a friend from my teaching days, and she showed me a picture album of her recent adventure. She’d been on a house building mission with her church to Mexico (in the days we could come and go so easily). Something stirred within me and wouldn’t let go. I brought the idea to the church, and within a year, I spearheaded a trip to Piedras Negras. Our church went 2 more years after that, under lay leadership. In the process, we made friends in Mexico, in other churches, and attracted some people to the church who wanted to be a part of the project. Bridges were built all over the place and the church felt more open as we worked together to make those trips happen. That also set the scene for that church to become aware of needs from the hispanic community and advocates for the just treatment of immigrants. Our hearts and minds expanded outward.
What I just said sounds exactly like what you have been doing routinely for many years. So why am I here? Why do I feel, crazy as it sounds, that God put me exactly here? You are already feeding, housing, providing for and including the homeless and the marginalized. Your ministry to the world is far reaching. The doors of this church are opened wide to all who come by. How can I possibly be of any service to this church
As I was listening and writing this homily, I realized that as you already move outward so well, I think the answer will be in bridge work. I will be your voice and presence in different corners of the community. I will keep an ear tuned to the community at large, finding ways to make Christ more obvious as we work with those in need. For example, I am becoming active in the micro-dwellers group–an advocacy group that is looking at many creative solutions to the housing crisis that affects many economic levels within our community. I will provide support and Jesus words to you as you continue to do all good works.
It is important that deacons also support the framework of the church from within. I will be present through church growth and change,. The church will change as we do this Jesus work. There is no doubt about that. It will change if it is to survive, and helping with change is a deacon thing.
Perhaps I can provide a new perspective, a clarity and focus of someone who has lived a few years and sees things a little differently..I believe that we should be widening the sphere of the church so that there is more and more room for other in it. I see a day coming when there is no “in” the church and “out” of the church, just the all-powerful presence of God everywhere. This is a loving active community, but the Body of Christ extends far beyond these doors. Making church looks like working for justice and peace for all people, and that’s what I’m here to facilitate–bringing all of us into the project, all of us inside and all of us outside.
I’ve been noticing something about the Valley that I had forgotten. These cold Fall mornings often bring fog–a dense, damp fog that does a great job of obscuring the landscape. But the fog always lifts to reveal the weather of the day. Some days it’s just cold and gray. Some days it reveals surroundings sharp with sunshine and light. Some days the fog lifts for a few hours, then wraps back in again before night falls. But the fog doesn’t change what is there. The trees still line the streets, the hills surround the city, and people still randomly walk across the street in traffic. The fog merely means we must watch more carefully and trust that we will soon see clearly again.
To extend the fog metaphor a bit, I see my role as deacon to remind people of the eternal presence of Jesus even in the midst of dense fog, to help roll back the fog a bit, to provide moments of clarity in the daily fog of the church, and to take care of those who just cannot see through their own personal fog.
The letter to the Thessalonians and the gospel resonate with us today as we listen to the confusion and misinformation of the times. In Luke, the Sadducees are attempting to catch Jesus, to create Fake News, as it were, and ask him a ridiculous question about a poor widow, passed from brother to brother, bearing children with each union only to create confusion for herself in Heaven. Which man is now her husband? Jesus, instead of ignoring the rudeness of the challenge, takes this opportunity to talk about how different things are in the life after death. It is not at all the same, he reminds his listeners. There is no marriage and birth in heaven. Life is of God, in God, not in human form. He may or may not have been gentle in his response, but for those who had ears to hear, they must have heard him saying that our convoluted rules and roles mean nothing to God. Those rules were made for earth and man in his human form. As we ponder the changing, evolving rules in our own society now, we look again at what will be important in our resurrected life. Will it matter a great deal to our God if we went to one church or another? Will it matter to us? Will it be of any concern what occupation we chose on earth? Or where we lived? Or how much money we made? Will it matter to our future beings who we married or didn’t marry? Will it even matter how we chose to do church? Heaven is not of this world. Heaven is not man made. We cannot know or see what comes, but Jesus reassures us that it is vastly different.
” What Jesus points out to the Sadduccees is that eternal life is not simply the continuation of mortal life beyond death. Whatever the reality is on the other side of earthly life, we should not think of it as a continuation of this life that affords us an opportunity to complete still imperfect works. Indeed, we humans have to do now what we can do for the good, such as help the needy, work for the improvement of the human situation, resist egoistic threats to fellow humans and other creatures.”
All that we can know is that God is a God of those alive in Heaven, not of our dead bodies. We will join the saints, our ancestors, our beloveds who were there before us. We will all be alive in God, however that may manifest.
In the same manner, Paul reminds the church at Thessalonica that the end times are not actually upon them. We gather from this letter that the church is in a state of high anxiety and panic, thinking that the end times would come within a few days, that perhaps those days were even upon them now. Again, someone’s Fake News has given rise to high anxiety and confusion. Paul tells them that their apocalyptic fears are misplaced and that they should trust the words he has given them. That they have more to do than to wait for the end. They are to continue to build the church, to take care of each other, to speak the words they have learned. Paul could not have known how important this early church was, what a foundation they were laying. But he did know that their call was to do well in their moment.
In both stories, we are reminded that our job is now, our focus is now, what matters is how we do this life, how we carry Christ into the world, how we treat each other, how faithful we are to the love and grace that God provides for us. There are so many changes and chances in this world. There is so much to worry about, to find to be anxious about. Sometimes we feel that we are in a deep fog that will never lift. We could fall into the trap of spinning our wheels, engaging in vitriolic rhetoric, or giving up and sitting around waiting for it all to end. We could dissolve into depressed puddles of fear and guilt. But these are not the end times for us. This time is present for us to embrace, to enjoy, to create good things for those who have little. We are to continue working to build bridges, to bring Christ into the world, to open our arms and our church doors to all around us, to doing what we are called to do–however vague that feels at times. For this time, this moment…for the people around us who need us… for those with whom we share our journey, we give thanks.