There is something very fitting about ordaining a deacon at the beginning of Advent. Advent’s road leads us toward a humble stable, seeking a prince of peace. The journey begins in darkness, yet the light that shines moves us onward seeking its fullness.
We live in global darkness, as millions of people are migrating, searching for home and safety instead of danger, peace instead of violence, abundant life instead of death and division. Almost 70 million are displaced: 40 million forced from home in their own countries (IDPs), 25 million refugees and 3 million seeking asylum. The caravans moving north from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are a sign of that urgent yearning for light. There are other seekers, too – Colombians seeking refuge in Ecuador and Brazil; Floridians and Puerto Ricans looking for light and dry land; Californians who’ve fled fire and mudslide, and the cold and hungry seeking shelter in almost every city.
Last week my husband and I joined a Thanksgiving potluck at his church in Nevada. Among us was a family of refugees who fled Syria years ago, and spent years in camps waiting to be resettled. The parents and children came to Reno just two years ago. The mother has learned English quite well, and so have the two grade school girls. Their father is more reluctant to speak, but smiles broadly. The older brother has severe autism and doesn’t speak at all. The toddler is just learning to speak, and will undoubtedly be fluent in Arabic and English. They are Muslim, and came with a family in the congregation who’ve been helping them find a home in this strange land. Amidst the fellowship and laughter of that Thanksgiving dinner, as we began to see the face of God in each one there, we knew we were on the road to light and peace.
Deacons are leaders on journeys toward the light – and the two deacons in that congregation were key to resettling this family. They organized 5 congregations in northern Nevada to furnish an apartment and make the family welcome, telling the story in the larger community and motivating people to help them along this long journey toward the light.
The word deacon comes from two Greek words – one that means through, or thoroughly, or from all sides. The other root word can mean to pursue, drive, chase, or urge on, and sometimes to follow; it can also mean to furnish, supply, or minister. In ancient Greece, a diakonos might be a table waiter, or a servant, or a messenger.
Years ago I knew a deacon who spoke of deacons as ‘nags,’ who pursue justice relentlessly, like the widow beating on the judge’s door day after day, year after year. Some people called her a steamroller, for she kept challenging the status quo, and pushing for something that looked a lot more like home for all God’s people. A vision of the Reign of God is the prophetic urge that drives a deacon. Jeremiah is convinced that God has put the living Word in his mouth so that he can nag people toward that vision of peace.
Deacons are also heralds or messengers of God’s Word (something like earthly angels). They announce God’s dream, and push us toward it. They spend their lives proclaiming the gospel, in word and deed, including proclaiming the gospel when we gather for Eucharist. Deacons do it in and out of church, sharing good news wherever there is need. The first deacons, like Stephen, were designated to go to the members of the community who didn’t have access to what Acts calls ‘the daily distribution.’ In particular they were excluded because they were Gentile, Greek-speaking women. The word was read in Aramaic or Hebrew, and they had no one to interpret or translate or teach. Reading the gospel in church, in a language people can understand, is essential to a deacon’s work, and it’s central to the identity of Episcopal worship. And the work of a deacon is to keep sharing that word of God in ways that people can understand.
That’s a large part of why Lilia has been called to this ministry. Her first appearance in this Episcopal community was about service – and about building bridges between people who spoke different languages and came from different cultures. Lilia has become such a bridge. Jesus came into this world to do just that, and Lilia is meant to be an incarnate icon, a window, an example of that reconciling ministry in human flesh. I expect that the bishop of Western Mexico, our partner diocese, will seek her help in building a bridge across this border, to begin to share the good news with our neighbors to the south.
The early deacons were often sent on missions from their communities into places of conflict and suffering. Some were sent to resolve differences; others to mobilize relief for the hurting and lost. Lilia is already doing that healing work in the midst of this multicultural community, and I pray she will continue to nag us all into deeper and richer relationships of love – here in this neighborhood and across the world.
Deacons have traditionally been agents of the bishop, as a particular kind of partner in ministry. The archdeacon of this diocese, Bob Nelson, is charged to maintain connections between the bishop and the community of deacons, and to mobilize and encourage them in their ministries. The kind of ministry we call administration is an ancient diaconal vocation – and Deacon Nancy Holland, who acts as Canon to the Ordinary (Bishop) is a prime example. Deacons who serve in congregations often coordinate pastoral care (which is why they’re responsible for the prayers of the people at the liturgy), and they ensure that we are all fed from the table of the Word. They gather in the gifts we offer to God (money, skills, the food we bless at this table) and they work to ensure that it’s distributed where there is need. In the ancient world the deacon was often literally a table waiter – most often at sacred meals, like the one we make here.
Deacons come in all the variety of human flesh, to share the love of God with people and communities where it isn’t known or being heard. Deacons go as prophets speaking that word of good news, as reconcilers of division, as agents of the church, and they encourage all the baptized to focus their own ministries of love and justice where there is need.
It’s exceedingly rare to have an ordination and confirmation in the same service, but we can rejoice that today Deacon Lilia and Jezabelle Angielynn Galaz give us an example of the partnership we all share: to make God’s love known in a hurting world. In this community of St. Paul’s, Deacon Lilia will be charged in some way to help Jezabelle develop and share the gifts she has for ministry in the promises she makes today. Together, we and all God’s people can be light in the darkness. Take your light, and get on the road, and we will see the light that the darkness cannot put out. Go, be light, bring light, and follow the light of Christ!
Onward toward the Reign of God!
¡Adelante al Reino de Dios!
Diaconal ordination, Lilia Mendoza
St. Paul’s, Yuma
Advent 1, 10
Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 84; 2Cor 4:1-6; Luke 22:24-27
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