Shaken By The Wind, Speaking With Boldness

It was an honor and privilege last weekend to participate in and address the 22nd DIAKONIA World Assembly meeting at Loyola University in Chicago. This quadrennial meeting brings together some 400 deacons, deaconesses, and diaconal ministers from a variety of Christian communions and from 26 countries including Germany, others in Western Europe, Africa, to the the U.S. and Caribbean, right across the globe to the Philippines.

The diaconate is, of course, an historic Christian ministry tracing its roots to those seven “proto deacons” in the Acts of the Apostles who were selected to “serve table” (feed the hungry) leaving the apostles free for prayer and the ministry of the word. Across the centuries, diaconal ministry has included the likes of Sts. Stephen and Phillip, Phoebe, Lawrence, Francis of Assisi, Nicholas Farrar, David Pendleton Oakerhater, Harriet Bedell, and in our own day Deacon Ormond Plater.

As my wife, Susanne Watson Epting (who is also a deacon), has demonstrated so clearly in her book Unexpected Consequences: The Renewal of the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church, this ministry has been a constant down the history of the church but has involved and changed over time and in different places. She traces some seven waves of development at least as we have experienced them in the Episcopal Church.

The theme of this recent DIAKONIA Assembly was “Shaken By the Wind” and various speakers and workshops explored just how it is that the diaconate itself, the church it serves, and the world in which it exists are being shaken by the wind in some quite surprising ways today. In my talk “Shaken By The Wind: Speaking With Boldness” I tried to trace some ways the diaconate itself has been shaken by the winds of change, but how deacons, deaconesses and diaconal ministers are called to respond to two particular “windy challenges” facing the the world and the church today — declining church membership and the simultaneous rise of right-wing extremism we see today in the United States, Europe and indeed in other parts of the world such as in the Philippines. I concluded my address with these words:

I hope that deacons, and those they form and lead in the church’s diakonia, will increasingly see their primary ministry as incarnating themselves in our changing and often troubled communities, listening deeply to the voices of need and concern and yes sometimes hope, and being bold enough to try and interpret those voices in ways the church will be challenged to respond to. Do not be afraid, dear friends, to tug on the sleeve of those in authority in church and society and to demand that those voices be heard! It’s your ministry.

It is challenging and perhaps even risky ministry in the context of the world in which we find ourselves. A world which is increasingly frightened by, and suspicious of, “the other” – the one who looks different, speaks another language, has unfamiliar life experiences, worships in a different tradition (or not at all). But this vocation is nothing else but the proclamation of the kingdom of God which is the church’s essential role. The Realm of God looks like this! It looks like a community of diversity which finds its unity in the worship and service of the one, true God.

Nationalism, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and unbridled greed must be named for what they are – sin! Sin is that which falls short of the values of the gospel and which separates us from God’s purposes and impedes the in-breaking of the kingdom which Jesus came to inaugurate.  Deacons, and the church they serve, must be clear about this kind of sin, and willing to confront it whether it appears in the world or in the church.

That is indeed a challenging and risky vocation. But we must know that it is the vocation into which we were baptized. For we were baptized in the Name of the Triune God we heard about in our scriptural readings for today: the One who created this good earth out of the formless void and called it Good (Genesis 1:1-5); the One who is the mediator of a new covenant and a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-29) ; and the One who filled the apostles (after the house in which they prayed had been shaken by the wind!) so that they spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31)!

Pray for that boldness, beloved. The times we live in…cry out for it!

I don’t think I was telling the wonderful multi-hued, deeply spiritual, and hard-working assembly at Loyola anything new. But I hope I encouraged them to rededicate themselves to the witness of “the diakonia of all believers” for the sake of the church — and the world!

 

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