The (Re)Birth of the Church, V: Inreach
Praise to the Lord of the frail and the ill
Who heals their afflictions or carries them till,
They leave this tired frame and to paradise fly.
To never be sick and never to die.
(Ministry of Music on October 10, 2021, Lord of the Small, Dan Forrest)
Fits my sermon pretty well.
Lisa Bond is fond of saying “Never wait a good pandemic.” I think what she means by that is don’t squander an opportunity during a time of crisis to rethink who you are and who you ought to be.
So the staff has been thinking about that and you’ve heard me quote a church consultant who says, “your church after this pandemic is not returning to a new normal, it’s returning to a new reality.” We’re trying to think about what that means and jettison what we don’t need any more and keep what we must keep. To do that we’re looking at the blueprint of the church in The Acts of the Apostles.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
The story I just read describes the creation of a new office in the early Christian Church—the office of Deacon—diakonos in Greek, which just means ‘minister’ or ‘servant.’
Deacons were set apart to serve the most rudimentary needs of the faithful—waiting on tables, as the Scripture says, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, comforting the bereaved.
This is the office Christine Hides was ordained to last week in the United Methodist Church. Presbyterians have Deacons; Roman Catholics have Deacons.
As a nondenominational church, Kenilworth Union does not have Deacons per se. The closest equivalent might be our Stephen Ministers, but the task is not limited to the Stephen Ministry.
I probably don’t have to point this out, but I will anyway—they’re called Stephen Ministers because Stephen was the first Deacon. One of the fundamental obligations of the Christian Church is to take care of its own. We might call it Inreach.
We don’t only take care of our own. Someone said that the Church exists for those who are not members of it—YET. So we also do Outreach. But first we take care of our own.
In the Scripture lesson this morning, Peter, James, and John complain that they’re too busy slinging hash at the food pantry to concentrate on their sermons, so they enlist seven more helpers to handle that obligation.
So the Christian Church has an inward, introverted focus—taking care of its own—and also an external, extroverted focus toward the rest of the world—preaching the Good News.
The Church exists to be shelter and nurture to the broken and the bereaved. We come not only to get but to give shelter and nurture. We come because it is safe here. We all know that we are flawed but loved, so there can be no judgement here. This is the first step toward claiming our genuine humanity—realizing that I am not God’s gift to the world and need your help to make my way through it.
When your husband simply disappears from work and family and neighborhood for a month, you can tell the church that he is in a rehab facility in Arizona for alcohol dependence.
The Church will keep your secret, and they will meet your sad news with genuine sympathy rather than Schadenfreude. No one will take secret pleasure from your pain here. This is not a competition. This is not a club. This is the place where we’re interested in your shelter and nurture and health and thriving, not our own.
In my August congregation in Northport, Michigan, there was a beloved member who needed dialysis three times a week. This went on for seven years. It’s a 45-minute drive from Northport to the nearest dialysis center in Traverse City. People from my little Chapel in Northport took turns driving him three times a week for seven years. This meant half a day, or most of day—driving 45 minutes to Traverse City, sitting with him while he received dialysis, or taking a walk on Grand Traverse Bay—not an entirely unpleasant duty—and then driving 45 minutes back home. They would squabble over the right to receive this sacred duty; there was a waiting list of drivers. Three times a week for seven years.
The obligation to provide shelter and nurture to the broken and the bereaved is not limited to the pastors and the Stephen Ministers. We can all provide shelter and nurture to the broken and bereaved because we’ve all needed that same shelter and nurture ourselves.
By the time you reach the age of 30 life has battered you around in some fashion and it might be precisely that experience of brokenness that equips you to help another.
Kate Bowler is a Professor of Church History at Duke University. When she was 35, the doctors told her she had Stage Four Colon Cancer. She has a young son. She says,
It was a month or so into my grueling chemotherapy regimen when my favorite nurse sat down next to me at the cancer clinic and said softly: “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I lost a baby.”
The way she said ‘baby,’ with the lightest touch, made me understand. She had nurtured a spark of life in her body and held that child in her arms, and somewhere along the way she had been forced to bury that piece of herself in the ground. I might have known by the way she smoothed all my frayed emotions and never pried for details about my illness. She knew what it was like to keep marching long after the world had ended.
Maybe you know what it’s like to keep marching long after the world has ended. Maybe that’s part of your sacred calling to provide shelter and nurture to another wounded person.
Annie Lamott has a two-year-old friend named Olivia. Annie loves Olivia because Olivia laughs so hard at all her jokes. Annie points to her dog Sadie, and says, with concern, “Isn’t that the ugliest cat you’ve ever seen?” And Olivia practically loses her mind laughing.
So when Olivia was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, her family’s world fell apart. But that’s just when their friends, moved with compassion, kicked in the stomach, smothered that family like a coat of paint. Everyone gave lots of money. They cleaned the house. They watched the children. They walked the dog.
The way that circle of friends gathered around that family, it reminded Anne Lamott of an Amish barn-raising. You know how the whole community gathers together to raise the wall on an Amish barn?
Things are pretty terrible for that family in a lot of ways most of the time, but at the same time, they got a miracle. It wasn’t the kind that comes in on a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float. And it wasn’t the one they wanted, where God would reach down from the sky and touch their little girl with a magic wand and restore her to perfect health.
Maybe that will still happen—who knows? I wouldn’t put anything past God, because she is one crafty mother. Still, they did get a miracle, one of those dusty little red-wagon miracles. We all know that the rains and the wind will come, and they will be cold—oh, God, they will be cold. But we will come too. We will have been building this Amish barn all along, so there will always be shelter.”
At my last church one of my members underwent serious surgery. We weren’t entirely sure he’d make it. He was single, never married, on in years, no one else. My wife went to the hospital to make sure someone was there to hold his hand when he woke from anesthesia.
When Kathy got to the room, she couldn’t wedge herself in for love or money; too many visitors in there; the nurses were having fits. You couldn’t shoehorn another Presbyterian in there.
There was Louise, an 80-something opera aficionada.
There was Judy Kelly, the Sallie Smith of Greenwich, ubiquitous as ever.
There was John, 23 years old, just graduated from Stanford, fourth-fastest freestyler in the NCAA at the time, spending a gap year before medical school serving as our Youth Minister, dangerously handsome, with that V-shaped swimmer’s body, broad at the shoulders, narrow at the waist, could have been intimidating, but never was.
John was telling stories and yukking it up with Louise, the opera aficionada, probably not about Puccini or Verdi, waiting for our friend to emerge from his ordeal.
No one had checked with anybody else to see if someone would be there. They just all showed up, unbidden, unexpected. It was all terribly inefficient; they all had some place else to be. We could have sent just one representative, but there they all were, Deacons every one, in spirit if not in name.
It happens here all the time. What else do you need to know about the Church, the body of Christ in the world after Jesus himself is long gone?
Kate Bowler, “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party, The New York Times, January 28, 2018.
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 147–154.