Sermon: The First Deacon
The First Deacon
Text: Mark 1:29-31
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-4-2018)
Every profession and trade, sport or hobby, has its own particular language. Spend time with a lawyer, a doctor, a carpenter, a plumber and you will hear unfamiliar words that ring odd to the ear. The church is no exception. Most people outside the church can manage quite well without ever hearing, much less understanding, such words as “narthex” or “vestibule,” “chancel” or “nave.”
The word “deacon” is one of those particular churchy words. For former Baptists, “deacon” conjures up images of those who govern the local church. For former Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, it conjures up images of those ordained in preparation for or in early stages of the priesthood. For those, like me, who grew up in the Southern stream of the Presbyterian Church, it conjures up images of those duly elected men – and at that time they were all men – who were keepers of the finances and overseers of the facilities.
In my earliest Sunday School days, I remember those really bad color prints in which Jesus was surrounded by his disciples and often was holding a sheep or Paul, standing tall and addressing the Athenians. In these Sunday School prints, Jesus and Paul were both quite muscular and were very white! But the most dramatic Sunday School poster of my childhood was not of Jesus or Paul. It was the poster of Stephen, from the book of Acts, preparing to be martyred for his faith. The caption at the bottom of the photo read “Stephen, the first deacon.”
I hate to argue with Sunday School art, but in this case, I must. In Acts 6, the disciples of Jesus commission seven men to lead the church, seven deacons, the first one named being Stephen. The first deacon, though, is introduced long before we ever hear of Stephen. The first deacon appears in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel and this deacon is neither a male nor a martyr. She is, though, a deacon, the first one we meet in the New Testament, and remarkably, Mark never mentions her name.
Her story is told quickly by Mark, amid a flurry of other stories about Jesus. After Shabbat services in the synagogue, Jesus, along with Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John head to the house of Simon and Andrew. They learn that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is in the bed with a fever. Jesus touches this unnamed woman and the fever leaves her. Unlike most people who need to rest and recuperate for a while after a fever breaks, this woman gets up and serves her family and guests, “to serve” being derived from the Greek, diaconeo or “deacon.”
Some read this story and rail against its paternalism. In the story, a woman is healed of her fever and four males in the room give her no time to recover, but expect her to serve them. Certainly, Mark wrote in a day of rampant paternalism, but in this case, I think his point is more profound than simply reinforcing more of the same myopic misogynist mindset of the day.
Later, in chapter 9, Jesus will teach his male followers, “Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant (diaconeo) of all” (9:35). Ofelia Ortega says of the first deacon: “Simon and the other disciples . . . did not perceive that the Son of God came to serve and to give his life for all (10:45). She, on the other hand, knows it. She has overcome all the selfishness and restrictive teachings . . . deep down she is already Christian, diakonisa, a servant of the church gathered in her son-in-law’s house” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, 334).
The Jesus we meet in Mark touches those no one else notices and calls on deacons of the church to do likewise. That leaves me wondering who are the untouched, waiting for a healing touch in America today? Who are the unnoticed ones just waiting for someone to notice them? And, where are the deacons who will notice the unnoticed and touch the untouchable?
I fear that all too often it is children in America today who go unnoticed and untouched, while they writhe in pain from a raging fever of neglect or cower in fear from too frequent abuse. Did you know that in America today, more than 13 million children, nearly 1 in 5, live below the poverty line, the majority of whom are children of color, that each day 7 children or teens commit suicide, 12 children or teens are killed by firearms, 36 children or teens die from household accidents. Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected and over 1.2 million children live unhoused, while 3.9 million children lack the health coverage they need to survive and thrive (Data from the Children’s Defense Fund website, www.childrensdefense.org). We did not hear those alarming statistics about children in the President’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday or, to be fair, in President Obama’s final State of the Union Address either.
Over those years, I spent many hours tutoring in city schools and met some of the finest teachers and brightest students imaginable. Yet, more often than not, I ended each year deeply troubled about how often children with the greatest needs go unnoticed, or worse, become pawns in state and federal political debates over education funding while their real needs go unnoticed and unmet.
Sharing a similar concern about children in the Bronx, the Rev. Heidi Neumark observes: “The majority of people living in the United States and attending our houses of worship would probably say that child sacrifice is a thing of the past. . . . I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there are many neighborhoods in our nation and in this city where child sacrifice is a daily event. . . . Like so many schools in poor neighborhoods around the nation, the school across the street from the prison is a ‘feeder’ school. It feeds children right into the prison” (Breathing Space, 148-149).
Deacons, servants of Jesus, notice children who are struggling to read at the Red Hill School in North Garden, Virginia, and they do something about it. Deacons, servants of Jesus, notice migrant children who come and go in this area, but who too often live in extreme poverty and experience interrupted education, and they do something about it. Deacons, servants of Jesus, notice when young girls speak about being abused and do not doubt them or shut them up, but they do something about it.
Cove is blessed with a community of “deacons,” not formally ordained deacons like Stephen, but deacons nonetheless, women and men, servants of Jesus, who notice those who too easily go unnoticed, who speak out for the most vulnerable children and women, elderly and poor, who touch those who too often go untouched, and who discover capacities and gifts in those who have for too long been labeled and dismissed as the nameless, faceless “needy.” Cove is a congregation of deacons that knows that to be touched by Jesus is to be called to serve, called to leave this sanctuary to serve a world that God so loves, a world that Christ loved unto death.
Deacons, servants of Jesus, do not check into church on Sunday and then go on with life as usual the rest of the week. Deacons, servants of Jesus, follow the lead of the first deacon, the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. They follow her lead into hospital rooms where cancer is inserting its ugly self, into hospice rooms where death thinks it is about to win one more battle, into prison cells where hopelessness laughs at any attempts to offer hope, into the halls of Congress and State Houses where the most vulnerable are denied a seat at the table.
Deacons, servants of Jesus, know that there is always a seat at this table, for adults and children and that there is always food and drink at this table. This table is where we feast together, where we get the energy and imagination to serve our living and life-giving God.
I do not know about you, fellow deacons, but before I head back into God’s world that awaits us, I need something to eat. The table is set, deacons, let’s eat!