Saturday, October 20, 2012

Stewardship as Diakonia

RCL Proper 29B
21 October 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Isaiah 53.4-12; Psalm 91.9-16; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45
            Imagine, for a moment, that you are at a formal cocktail party among the movers and shakers of Metro Vancouver society.  You are in the midst of a conversation where folks are sharing what various members of their families are doing.  Someone’s daughter is in law school.  Someone else’s grandson has just taken a management role in a large, well-known construction firm.  Another person mentions a niece who has just earned her accreditation as a chartered accountant.

            Then, at your left, you hear a familiar voice asking you, “Another hors d’Ĺ“uvres, ma’am?”  You turn and look into the familiar eyes of your youngest son who has worked in the so-called ‘service’ industry for the past five years, even since his graduation from high school.

            Do you pretend that you do not know each other?  Or do you say, “Friends, this is my youngest son.  I’ve always been proud of his decision to work in the hospitality sector of the service industry.  He loves to make people feel welcome so that they can fully enjoy whatever function they’re attending and that he’s serving.”

            In today’s economy people who work in the service industry are not always highly regarded.  Yet all of us have had experiences in restaurants, hotels, stores and other venues where the quality of service has either made the occasion a joyous, fulfilling one or a never-ending disaster that has left us stressed out and not a little put out.

            But today, at the heart of our reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus has the effrontery to call us to be servants, to join God’s ‘service’ industry devoted to the needs and concerns of others.  In the Greek of the New Testament the word diakonia and its various forms are the terms translated as ‘service’ or ‘to serve’ or ‘to be served’ or ‘servant’.  In recent years, the New Testament scholar, John Collins, has challenged theologians and preachers to re-discover what these daikon- words actually meant at the time of Jesus.  His discoveries have led us to a deeper and more challenging understanding of what it means to share in the diakonia of Jesus.

            Diakonia, Collins tells us, meant more than charity and kindness.  Genuine diakonia meant enabling another person to become more fully alive by freeing them to do what they were called to do.  Diakonia did not mean delivering meals as much as it meant working to change social, cultural and political structures that inhibit and obstruct God’s purposes from being realized in the lives of human beings.  In other words, to share in Jesus’ diakonia is to become an agent of God’s purposes.

            Let’s take the last verse of today’s gospel, for example.  Verse 45, in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, reads as follows:  “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give us life a ransom for many.”  John Collins suggests that the verse actually reads more like this:  “For God’s chosen one did not come to be waited upon like a guest at a banquet but rather to be the agent of God’s purposes by giving himself entirely in order to liberate many people.”

            My friends, you and I, through our baptism, are God’s chosen ones.  God has called us into this community of faith to be agents of the divine purposes.  Agents such as you and I are called to give ourselves, our hearts, our minds, our souls and our strength in order to liberate many people.  When I talk about stewardship as service, this is what I mean.

            So what does this mean for us in the here and now of a small parish in the midst of a neighbourhood that might know our building, our public image, but not know our presence, the living heart that is you and I?  It means that our role in God’s mission is discerning what, in our neighbourhood, is preventing our neighbours from becoming fully alive as beloved made in the image and likeness of God.  As I look around us, I can see two immediate obstacles.

            The first obstacle is loneliness.  Recently the Vancouver Foundation published a study entitled, “The Consequences of Loneliness”.  Fully 25% of those persons surveyed indicated that “they are alone often than they would like to be”.  Yesterday I heard someone comment at a workshop I was attending that there are many people who have a ‘friend’ in Japan on Facebook but do not know their next door neighbour. 

            At the beginning of creation, God looks at his creature, adam, the first human being, and says, “It is not good for the adam to be alone.”  God knows this.  We know this.  For this reason we, as a congregation, seek to make our building a gathering place for our community.  We may not always look at the groups who use our building as people whom we are serving by bringing them together, by breaking down some of the walls of separation, but that is what we are doing.  We maintain our building and devote the time of paid staff and volunteers so that people can come together and know that they are not alone.  Even if none of them ever venture through our doors for worship, we have, I believe, offered them diakonia as agents of God.

            A more visible sign of our diakonia is found in the many and various ways we reach out to people beyond our immediate community and membership.  Whether it is the preparing of Christmas boxes for the Mission to Seafarers or the Halloween sale that benefits children at risk, our diakonia is on display.  Whether it is the Safeway gift cards that we give out to those who are hungry or the time Christine spends helping refugees and newcomers to Canada gain access to programmes that enhance their human dignity, our diakonia is on display.  Whether it is Walter’s long-standing commitment to the Arbutus-Shaughnessy-Kerrisdale Friendship Society’s programmes for seniors and others who need care or Pam’s work with Special Olympics and Stepping Stone, our diakonia is on display.  The list could go on and on.

            The glory of God is a human being fully alive, said the second-century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons, and diakonia is, I think, working towards this glory.  As agents of God’s purposes you and I have made, make and will make decisions about how we use the resources God has entrusted to us.  This is our exercise of service, our participation in the diakonia of Jesus, as a dimension of stewardship.  But stay tuned; there are still other dimensions to come.

Let us pray.

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  [Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 304]

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