Sermon for September 7th, 2014
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Spiritual Gifts, Spiritual Ministries: Ministry
The summer between my Junior and Senior year in high school, I worked at a Sonic Drive-In fast food restaurant. For those of you familiar with the Upper Valley, it was the Sonic that's on Doniphan near Redd Road. I did not flip burgers at Sonic--I wasn't that lucky, or skilled. I had a lowlier (and less paying) job at Sonic...I was a car-hop. I carried people's burgers out from the kitchen to their cars, asked them if they needed more ketchup, smiled politely at their verbal abuse when someone in the kitchen had messed up their order, picked up their trash when they left, and at the end of the day, scraped their chewing gum off of the parking lot pavement with a metal spatula.
It was while performing this last duty one night that I had an epiphany: It occurred to me for the first time that a college education might be a good idea, so I didn't have to spend the rest of my life scraping up other people's chewing gum, picking up other people's trash, putting up with other people's bad manners, waiting on other people and, in short, serving other people.
After I got that college degree I became a high school teacher, and I remember one day scraping chewing gum off of the bottom of my classroom desks, thinking to myself...so much for that idea!
Eventually, I became a pastor--a job where I am daily haunted by the words of Jesus (in Mark 10:43-44): "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all."
These days I am a much better paid servant...but I am still no less a servant than I was in high school, back in the parking lot of Sonic. And unfortunately, I have *still* had to scrape chewing gum off the pews on one or two occasions (let's maybe try to avoid that in the future, though, ok?).
The word that Jesus uses in Mark, translated "servant" is the Greek word διάκονος. It's actually the same root word Paul uses for the second spiritual gift in our list from Romans, the one we'll be discussing today, although for whatever reason, in Romans it's translated as "ministry" and "ministering." I prefer the translation in Mark--service, or servanthood--so that's how I'll be referring to this gift for the rest of the sermon.
For anyone just joining us this week, we are in the middle of a study on Spiritual Gifts and Spiritual Ministries, based on Paul's list in Romans chapter 12. We have learned that, contrary to popular belief, these "gifts" are not special talents or abilities that God gives to us, but rather they are what we give to God through the work and (especially in today's case) the service that we do for others, for God's people.
Today's gift--being a servant--is one that some people are definitely better at than others. I, for one, seem to have a particular knack for scraping chewing gum! However, as with all the spiritual gifts, being good at it or being bad at it doesn't matter too much in the end. All of the spiritual gifts are available for all of us to give, at any time--not based on our ability or preference, but rather on the needs of the community.
I've said this a number of times in the last few weeks, and I hope it's sinking in. But at this point, some of you might be feeling a little overwhelmed: "Wait a minute...you mean we're supposed to proclaim the gospel, serve others, teach others, encourage others, give generously, lead diligently, and show compassion cheerfully...and we're ALL supposed to do ALL of that ALL of the time?!?"
Well...that would certainly be awesome if we did all those things all of the time. But it might also be a little bit impractical. Last week we talked about prophecy, which is simply proclaiming God's good news. On Sundays we do this through the Sermon, the Songs/Anthems, the Children's Message...but fortunately for you, we don't do all these things at exactly the same time, or in the same way. We "divide and conquer," again not based on our talents or preferences, but on the needs and opportunities in the church.
This division of labor happened in the earliest days of the church. Listen to the following story from the book of Acts (chapter 6):
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve [apostles] called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the leaders became obedient to the faith.
What we witness in this story from Acts is nothing less than the birth of the Christian "servant" ministry, the διάκονος ministry, or as we pronounce this word in English, the "deacons" ministry.
Notice that the deacons' ministry is not born because seven people get together and say, "you know, we took this test on facebook that says we're really good at taking care of widows and distributing food. It's our spiritual gift. Take it or leave it." Instead, it happens because the church is growing rapidly, and there is a need in the community that is not being met. The leaders (the twelve apostles) assemble the people and say, in effect, "Listen, we can't do it all. We're busy sharing the gospel with people (that's the ministry of the word--notice that it's also the first gift in Paul's list: Prophecy!). But choose some people "that we may appoint to this task." Notice also that the qualifications say nothing about being good at serving others, or having experience in that area, or even liking it. The qualifications are simple, and the same for any leader in the church: Choose those who are in good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. God will take care of the rest. God will equip them to be good servants.
One in particular, Nicolaus, is described as being a proselyte of Antioch. In other words, he's an outsider (not part of the established Jewish "inner circle") and he's also a relative newcomer to the faith. Of the seven people that God called to this ministry, several later move into different ministries, like teaching or evangelism. But all seven answer the call, the need of the community at the time.
I said before that the word διάκονος means servant, and it does, but it has an even older meaning: διά is the preposition "through" and κονις is the Greek word for "dust." A Deacon is someone humble enough to walk through the very dust of the earth in order to serve another person--even the least and the lowest in God's community.
In a few months, we'll be electing a new class of deacons to serve in our church, just like the earliest disciples did so long ago. It is one of the oldest ministries of the church still in operation today. In fact, First Presbyterian Church of El Paso, in its 130+ year history, has elected and ordained over 1,296 men and women to serve in this role. I am grateful for their service, and I hope that every one of you here today at some point in your journey with us, has the opportunity to answer that same call, to serve others through the dust and through the chewing gum.
In that passage I read earlier from the book of Acts, the Twelve Apostles say "it is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables." The phrase "wait on tables" was probably a derogatory Greek expression, shorthand for any sort of work that a servant would do. But there's something fitting, sacred, familiar and beautiful in that particular image of a servant, someone who waits at a table.
It is the image of Jesus, on the last night of his earthly ministry. Knowing that his time was quickly running out, Jesus gathered his disciples around a table. He washed the dust off their feet. He broke bread, and he poured wine, and he served them. The very Son of God...the creator of the universe in all its majesty and splendour...the greatest and most perfect person ever to have walked the earth...humbled himself in order to serve some poor, uneducated, Galilean fishermen whom he called "friends." One of those friends was about to betray him, another would publicly deny him three times, and most would abandon him in his hour of need...but on that night, around that table, Jesus served them all. Jesus loved them all. And he asked them to love one another, to serve one another, and everytime they gathered around a table...to do this in remembrance of him.
Two thousand years later, we are still remembering him around this table. As we gather around his table to remember him today, may we also serve like he served, may we love like he loved, and may the gift of our service fill the world with his love.