June 23, 2019
Scripture Reading: Acts 6:1-15
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 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 at 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 priests became obedient to the faith. Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
It was an innocuous enough question; “Is it really a good use of time for a senior pastor to be having tea with folks when there is so much to do? Isn’t that a better job for an associate pastor, or a volunteer?”
I was in one of my many pastoral care courses with the Rev. Dr. Bob Dykstra. It’s not a stretch to say that, in Seminary, I majored in Dr. Dykstra. Every class of his that I could get into, from pastoral care of adolescents, to Sexuality and the Christian Body, I registered for. I can’t remember what class it was, but we were discussing the importance of visiting with people. Dykstra shared that his pastor growing up used to go and sit on his grandmother’s porch and drink tea with her every week. They talked about life, God, grandchildren, the weather, whatever she wanted. One of my classmates just couldn’t see how a Senior pastor, with all they had to do, from advocating alongside immigrants and the poor, preparing our sermons for Sunday mornings, to running stewardship campaigns, could afford to be at the tea table on the front porch of an elderly member.
In our Christian tradition, the ministry of presence is a high, holy office. It’s something that comes naturally to so many of you. But sometimes, just being with someone, and loving them, can feel a lot like an extravagance. Our culture puts a lot of stock on the idea of being “productive,” on what we make happen, on getting things done. In our capitalist society, if we’re not doing something, many of us start to feel some good ol’ fashioned protestant work ethic guilt. It’s easy as folks living in North America that following Jesus, involves a lot of doing and producing. This is one of those sermons that I’m preaching partially to myself. I’m someone who struggles with a lot of guilt when I let myself just be. Should I walk the Labyrinth and pray, or respond to that ever-growing e-mail inbox? Do I create space in our week for us to gather and pray, or recruit volunteers to work on a mission project?
The question my classmate asked has been rattling around my mind this week as I have been listening to this text for God’s word for us. The Apostles are whining about not having time to wait tables for the widows in the community, and their disdain for this work is causing problems.
The community brought together after Pentecost is a diverse gathering. There are two main groups who have found themselves living together, sharing their resources, and providing for one another’s physical needs, while praying and studying scripture. There are Jewish Christians who are referred in the text as Hebrews. These are Jewish Christians whose mother tongue is Aramaic, the language that Jesus most likely learned first. But there are also the Hellenists, who are also Jewish Christians, but whose native language is Greek. Most of these folks ancestors had left Palestine in the Diaspora, either taken away in bondage, or fled violence that had descended multiple times. Some of these folks returned and settled in Jerusalem, and these are some of the many people who heard of the mighty acts of God at the first fruits festival of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Thousands of folks have joined “The Way,” as the early Jesus Revolution was called, and folks of all ages, family structures, and abilities have found themselves living together. There are a lot of Church Potlucks, and there’s a need for folks to set the tables and bring food to the widows who need a little extra help. The Apostles are not particularly interested in this work of life together, and they’ve been lax in getting to know the Greek speaking women, who are consistently not getting the food they need. So the people do what church people do; they are direct, and share their needs with their leaders. They share that they know the Apostles are doing their best, but something needs to be done, and they work together. And so Stephen and a group of other wise and spirit filled folks are gathered, and ordained as Deacons, to care for the needs of the people. They’re folks who tap into deep wells of spirituality, but also have something else, Sophia, the holy wisdom that was present with God at the creation of the world.
The books of Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes are part of what is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as the Wisdom Tradition. These texts hold some of the oldest writings in scripture, and they reflect on the cultivation and living out of a place of deep, spiritual insight. For a tradition called wisdom, they are surprisingly mundane in their teachings, full of reflections on the every day, what some folks might call secular, but what the Hebrew and Early Christian Community understood to be sacred, these discussions of friendships, love and pleasure, approaches to our daily tasks and labors, about what leads to a meaningful life, when everything we seek after can feel like vapor and smoke. These ancient sages don’t dismiss these parts of life as inconsequential, but instead invite the reader to take pleasure in the work we do, and to be in relationships, be they friendships, family, or romantic, as a way of connecting to the divine wisdom of the universe. If God is everywhere, all can be sacred.
The Apostles are struggling with Wisdom in our story this morning, missing it’s connection to Spirit, much like my classmate was all those years ago in our pastoral care class. Professor Dykstra’s response would fit in right along the words of the writer’s of Ecclesiastes and proverbs. Dykstra heard the question, and smiled. “It’s just not possible to be a good pastor if you can’t take on the priorities of Jesus; to be with children, the elderly, the sick, outcast, and marginalized. If a pastor doesn’t have time to have tea with their elder members on their front porch, then they certainly don’t have time to be preaching.”
Those words have been on my mind all week. The constant refrain of “There’s work to do! Focus!” has been loud in my mind. But I’ve also heard Dykstra’s words, and found myself stopping this week to pray for you all, and to take the time to be with folks. This week that has seemed to be where there is wisdom to be gained, not some insight to preach on, but a connection to God that has deeper gifts to offer when life is hard. So this week I swung by the Adoration Chapel at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, lighting a candle for all of you who I am carrying in prayer. And then I went and had desert with Ethel Riggin, and got to enjoy the joy just being together. It was simple, but the wisdom of Dykstra, of scripture, sometimes it leads us to simple actions that remind us of what the good life is.
Life is so fleeting and painful and beautiful, and there are times where Wisdom and Spirit all get mixed together. I think that all of us, when we are able, should be waiting tables, lavishly spread for the hungry in our midst, tables our world tells us we have no business sitting at, and yet Christ sets us a space, pulls out a chair. There are times when what we are called to do is have coffee cake with folks, and just be with people that we love, especially when they are struggling. There is wisdom in being with those who are society has a tendency to marginalize because they don’t produce. This is not a romanticizing of poverty, illness, or the struggles of aging, it’s not a maintaining of oppressive structures. Instead, when we slow down to bask in the hospitality of a God who always makes time to just be, our lives can teach us that our existence is vanity, vapor, and yet…And Yet. There is more. There is beauty. And that beauty, it comes aflame with the Holy Spirit when we care, when we serve, most vividly when we love. And then, oh Children, it is so beautiful and heartbreakingly alive, I can barely put it into words. It is mystical and fleeting, yes, but also eternal. The apostles were wrong. They were completely wrong. The word of God they said they wanted to study and preach, it was right there at those tables of Hellenist Widows. If only they would sit down. I take comfort that the same Spirit that doesn’t give up on them is the same Spirit that is loose in our world. There is true scriptural study there, God’s vision of Shalom made flesh and Blood. Stephen, in our scripture reading he becomes a Deacon, and he sits with this wisdom. And when he is arrested, and asked to answer to authorities who see him as a risk to keeping the peace, he preaches all the Apostles to shame. Take some time this week, pulling your Bible off the shelf, or pulling it up online, and read what he says. The community of Luke Acts tells us that his face is like that of an Angel, radiating, reflecting the light of God that the heavenly beings bask in, and reflect into this shadowy world. I imagine his face was carouscurio, the light and the dark, the shimmering and the shadow, the ephemeral and the eternal all in one. That’s where there’s wisdom, and hope, and God sighing “Yes child. Here’s where there is life and new life, revolution and an unending reign of love and justice and wholeness. If only you will join this dance of us.”
Beloved, our lives are fleeting, and it can be hard to find meaning in the day to day. But the surprising grace of the Gospel, of the ancient wisdom of our Hebrew teachers, is that in the everyday, we can find surprising delight, the very presence of God, the source of all true wisdom and delight.
So as our world grows dark with the threat of mass deportations of immigrants, the rattling of sabers and calls for escalating tensions in Iran and the threat of war, may we remember the importance of listening to the deep wisdom that comes through our ministry of presence with one another, and with those who are so often forgotten and marginalized. If we risk showing up at tables, or living rooms, if we risk being in the presence of immigrants and refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented folks, our Neighbors in Woodbourne-McCabe, maybe, just maybe, we can hear the call of Wisdom to partner in the Spirit-filled work that can show us the Presence of The Word of God in our midst, the light in the darkness that the darkness did not, and will not, overcome.
Please God, may it be so. In the Name of the Prince of Peace, the Mother of All, and the Sweet Communion of the Holy Spirit, Amen.