Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Today we’ve been introduced to seven biblical characters whose names may be newer to you: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. They don’t get a lot of column inches in the New Testament, but as we’ve heard they had an important role to play.
By this point in the story of the early Church, the better-known apostles had thrown themselves into spreading the good news of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. Unfortunately, other important work was being neglected. Remember last week when we talked about the first Christian communities sharing all things in common to ensure no one among them was in need? That was a great plan, but it turns out there were holes in the system. Some actually were in need - widows who were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. So it was time for a midcourse correction.
Enter the first ever class of ordained deacons! These seven are appointed to the critical work of food distribution in the early Church. Part kitchen crew, part congregational care team, part Meals on Wheels (though perhaps minus the wheels), they’re set apart with prayer and the laying on of hands. Once they’re in place, the apostles can return to their preaching task with peace of mind that the community will be well cared for.
With our own church deacons gathering later today for their second online meeting since the pandemic hit our area, I want to take a few minutes to highlight the important work they do for us and for our larger community. Deacons are called to ministries of compassion and service, which translates to two main priorities: congregational care and mission & outreach.
As a quick aside here, I should explain that in the Presbyterian Church, once a deacon, always a deacon, so could we have all of you who have ever been ordained as deacons raise a hand so we can see how many of you are with us? Take a minute to peek at each screen of faces if you like. Thank you for your service!
OK, back to deacons’ roles. Without built-in opportunities to see each other regularly at church, without even a way to visit one another at home, we want first of all to be sure everyone in our church family is holding up ok through their respective challenges in isolation. So our deacons have been helping me check in with individual members. Some of you may have been on the receiving ends of those kinds of calls and notes.
Meanwhile the mission and outreach piece has been even trickier with so many limitations to hands-on service. Normally deacon projects would include things like collecting & sharing hygiene supplies or blankets or warm clothes with those who need them, or leading us in a canned food drive for our local food bank. We can’t do these things right now, but I applaud our deacons’ persistence, along with their resourcefulness and creativity. For instance, Dave & Lisa Bowman delivered a big order of Subway subs to our neighbors at the Tiny Cabins a few weeks ago when we couldn’t gather as a congregation for our monthly Sandwich Sunday. And Cheri Yonich and her friend Barb prepared and packed 115 boxed meals when our team couldn’t provide our usual hot meal for homeless individuals through Operation Nightwatch earlier this month.
Our deacons also moved quickly to establish a special offering for the purpose of assisting any church members who end up in financial need and also to enable us to send extra funds to local organizations like Ballard Food Bank. Food bank supplies are being depleted at an incredible rate as so many people suddenly find themselves out of work. I’m proud of our deacons for donating $500 immediately to the food bank, from the first $1000 or so we took in for that special offering. We’re grateful to all of you who’ve contributed to that special offering, too, which is now something like $2700 and counting. When our deacons meet again after worship today this will allow them to reach out to our community even further on your behalf. They’ll carefully steward any additional funds you give them as well.
I invite your prayers for our 2020 deacons as we continue to make our way through this pandemic. This is uncharted territory for all of us, and it presents particular challenges for those tasked with ministries of compassion and service. How can we serve as the hands and feet of Jesus when we’re supposed to be keeping our hands to ourselves? No doubt our infinitely creative God will help us come up with new ways of reaching out, and I also believe there can be roles for each one of us to play.
We know not all of you can prepare or deliver a big meal for people experiencing homelessness. Not all of you can give a monetary donation to our Deacons Fund. Some of you have your hands more than full simply caring for your children, doing your jobs, and dealing with the kinds of personal and family concerns we’ve been praying about through our emailed prayer list each week. But perhaps you could be a noticer of needs, directing our deacons’ attention to an area where we could make a difference. Or perhaps you could make a phone call or send a note to let someone know you care.
This is the beauty of being part of a church body. None of us are walking through this strange season alone. Together we’ll care for one another and hold each other in prayer. Together we’ll serve our neighbors. You don’t have to be a famous apostle like Peter or Paul to make a difference. Every single person in the Church’s story has been important, and I’m grateful for your part in that story. For such a time as this God has drawn each one of you to Magnolia Presbyterian Church. For such a time as this.
On that note, one final observation about timing. Just before we had to stop gathering in person this spring, our church officers had our final retreat of the year with Renewal Ministries Northwest. With absolutely no idea any of this social distancing was coming, we asked in prayer that day: what kind of growth in service and faithfulness does God desire for us? And here are the answers we were given. Be open to new models of ministry. Build strong relationships to support and challenge our church family and community. Modernize communication with our neighbors. Again, that was: openness to new models, strong relationships within and outside our congregation, modernized communication with our neighbors. Could you think of a more perfect rallying cry for surviving COVID-19 as a faith community? We may not have seen any of this coming, but the Holy Spirit knew just what we’d need this year.
Granted, some days will be harder than others. I imagine we’ll each take turns feeling tired or discouraged or even frightened along the way. And we won’t always know immediately just how God is calling us to reach out to others.
But God knows. And God’s Spirit remains close at hand to sustain us, inspire us, and guide us through the days ahead. Thanks be to God!