Verna Dozier, African-American Educator, and Episcopal Leader, spoke at a total ministry conference in 1985 and challenged the church with the following:
Jesus called all of us to do greater things than he did, and then asked us why have we been so slow to be about it?
She suggested that there were three stumbling blocks, first the failure to see the full biblical story and its implications, the second was the mistaken correlation between membership in the church and membership in the Kingdom of God, and third our insistence on earning one’s salvation. (Episcopal News Service, February 28, 1985)
Dozier was devoted to forming and equipping saints for ministry. She was tireless in her teaching about the ministry of the laity, repeatedly urging people “not just to worship Jesus, but to follow him.” Dozier often referred to as a teacher of teachers; and acknowledged that her sermons were radical for her time. She said of herself, “I probably am one of the most radical voices in this church today, but people respond to me with great affection and love because I look like Aunt Jemima.” These quotes from Deacon Susanne Epting in her book, Unexpected Consequences, on the diaconate. I encourage you to read Epting’s book to explore not only the history of the diaconate, but also the consequences of the publication of the revised Book of Common Prayer 1973-1979.
My understanding of the diaconate is that of the ministry and mission of the people of the way, (known in Greek as laos tou theou, or ‘people of God’). as practiced in the first century, centuries before the Nicene Creed or the conversion of Constantine. You might ask, why is this important? We are challenged today by our Presiding Bishop Curry to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and how she would have us live into a baptismal theology, a theology that mirrored the early church…a people of the way, a people that lived as agents of transformation, a people of the way of love. A people of faith who had not yet committed primarily to the institutional church of the empire.
The diaconal role is not only to be a bridge between the church and the world, or a servant of the church, but more importantly to form and organize the priesthood of all believers (people of God) to be agents of transformation in a broken world. The diaconate historically serves as evangelist, catalyst, witness, intercessor, organizer, facilitator, visionary, nurturer, and interpreter.
Deacon Ormonde Plater writes: “deacons are the bridge between a church that is stuck in the old ways and a world that has journeyed light years away from the mindset of Thomas Cranmer”. He continues, “we deacons stir up the dust of a musty old church…our role is not only to make holy trouble, but we are also ordained to be leaders in a as laos tou theou of vitality and variety.” Plater continues “we listen to understand God and Jesus the poor servant. We do not flee the world as a mystic community.” As servants of transformation, we take the incarnation seriously, we recognize that the here and now has priority, we embrace a future that is not our own.
To be sure, provoking the faith community into exile is a complex task. Moving God’s People from a complacent place of comfort to a disoriented place of discomfort is a challenge. As we pray in the Romero Poem, we are but mere mission workers whose fruits we will never see.
It was not easy for Moses, for Jeremiah, certainly not for Jesus. Deacons are called to move the church away from privilege and to a place that will make a significant difference in a broken world. As a deacon, I am called to challenge the church when she gets in the way of herself. The diaconate will faithfully continue to provoke the church away from privilege and towards the reign of heaven, which the spirit is calling us towards. When the church pushes back, as it will, and has historically, we will continue to ask where the spirit is calling us, what would Jesus do, and who will assist in co creating God’s dream of the reign of heaven that is so near to us.
Shake the Dust and quoting the historical Gospel Hymn, Hold On, Hold On, Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold On.
Blessings and Peace