A sermon preached at the ordination of Billy Adams, Ken Casey, and Pete Womack to the Sacred Order of Deacons.
Unless you were some super cool lifeguard at Kentucky Kingdom, I think most people believe that their earliest jobs are some of the hardest on earth. That’s why so many “entry level” jobs have dictums associated with them. Retail workers are quick to suggest that everyone should work retail one December, just to see what it is like. I’m sure that everyone who has ever worked as a counselor at All Saints’ thinks it is a job everyone else in the world should do at least once. I am a firm believer that every human being should have to wait tables for six months before they are allowed to go to college or start a career.
I was about twenty when I got my first job waiting tables. It was at Garfield’s, a hotel restaurant inside the Eden Resort back in Lancaster, PA. Garfield’s is a quirky place. Back around the turn of the century, Garfield’s was known for three things: crab cakes, made with lump crab meat hand-picked by a man named Carlos; $4.99 chicken pot pie Monday – a favorite among young Mennonite couples; and the totally random Pizza Hut lunch buffet right in the middle of the restaurant. At the time, the owner of the Eden Resort was such a huge fan of Pizza Hut pizza that he bought himself a franchise so that he could eat it whenever he wanted, and to help pay for it, he used Pizza Hut pizza to stock a buffet for his hotel. Being a hotel restaurant, Garfield’s was open 365 days a year. We served Thanksgiving dinner from 11am until 9pm. Christmas Day was a set menu all day long. Even now, the most money I’ve ever made in a single day was Christmas Day 2001 when I worked a double shift, noon until 8pm, and brought home more than a thousand dollars.
The money in waiting tables isn’t bad, but it is hard earned. It is a physically demanding job with lots of walking and lifting. It is mentally taxing to always be thinking six steps ahead when that table is going to order, they will need drink refills, and over there will want their check. When the kitchen falls behind or messes something up, it costs you real money. And when paying for a meal, people tend to be very particular about their food. I think it is safe to say that I learned more about the human condition in my three years waiting tables than I have in my almost fifteen years of ordained ministry. Everyone should have to wait tables once in their life. It’ll make you a better tipper, and, I believe, a better person.
It strikes me as odd then, that our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles begins with the twelve apostles calling the community together to tender their collective resignation from serving. Some context offers a little explanation, but not much. Our lesson starts with chapter six, verse two, but if we go back just one more verse, we hear that a disagreement has bubbled up in the church. I’m sure you are all shocked to learn there is ever disagreement in the church. Certainly, this is the only one that’s been about a church supper. It seems the Greek speaking Christians thought that the largely Aramaic speaking Apostles were purposefully showing favoritism toward the Aramaic speaking widows in their daily food distribution. The Apostles, that is the eleven who had followed Jesus the closest, plus Tier 1A Matthias who had been selected to replace Judas, quickly decided that the growth of the fledgling Church had to be their priority, and so they crafted a memo that was a poorly written as it was misguided.
“It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” was clearly written by a Church that didn’t yet have deacons. Kellie Mysinger, a deacon who serves at Christ Church, Bowling Green, wouldn’t have let this through, I can assure you. The Greek word translated as “waiting tables” is diakonia, it is elsewhere translated as service or ministry. Diakonia, we will see in a moment, is at the heart of the calling of all Christians: laity, bishops, priests, and those whose very title means “to serve,” deacons. Before we go any further then, let’s add one more dictum to our ongoing list. Unless you actually handed out bread and fish to the 5,000, you never get to stop waiting tables in the Kingdom of God (and even then, it’s debatable).
It shouldn’t surprise us that the twelve would react the way they did. They’d been doing it for years, even while Jesus walked the earth alongside them. This morning’s Gospel story is one of their several adventures in missing the point. It was Thursday evening and Jesus and his disciples had just wrapped up sharing the most important meal ever. No sooner had Jesus finished instructing them to eat in remembrance of his body, broken for them and for the whole world, and to drink in remembrance of his blood, poured out for the remission of the sins of all, when the well-worn argument over which one of them was the greatest broke out, yet again. Since he knew what was looming in the coming hours, I believe that what Jesus says here can be read as the most important thing he wanted his disciples to remember. In a few short sentences, he lays out for the Apostles and all who would follow them, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (diakonia).For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves (diakonia)? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (diakonia).” Three times in those two sentences, Jesus uses the word, diakonia, once as a description of himself.
Diakonia is the heart of the Christian life. It is a core tenant of the Baptismal Covenant – to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Servant ministry is at the heart of the Examination at the ordination of both priests and bishops. And a double portion of diakonia is the calling into which Billy, Ken, and Pete will be ordained today. For Pete, this is the fullest expression of his calling, and while Ken and Billy will, God willing, later be ordained as priests, none of the three of you, not the bishop, not the canons, not me, nor any person, clergy or lay, in this Cathedral or online will ever have the luxury of saying, “I don’t think I’m going to wait tables anymore.” Diakonia is the calling which we all share for it was none other than Jesus of Nazareth who came to us as one who serves. Never forget that the example you are called to follow is that of Jesus Christ, who though he was God, humbled himself to a life of loving service to the poor, the outcast, the hungry, the oppressed, the powerful, the rich, the smug, the priests, the opinionated, the widows, the orphans, the lame, the Samaritan, the Hebrew, and the Greek.
Unlike my experience waiting tables at Garfield’s, the money in diakonia is terrible, but thankfully the work isn’t easy either. Diakonia requires lots of walking, lots of heavy lifting, lots of caring, heartbreak, and frustration, but it isn’t something we do alone. In a few minutes, Bishop White will invite the Holy Spirit to be present among us with power and might. He’ll lay hands on the three of you and pray, on behalf of us all, that the Spirit would strengthen you to share in Christ’s diakonia. It’s hard work, diakonia, but it is the work we share with one another and the help of the Holy Spirit. Never forget your calling to diakonia, to servant ministry, and please for the love of all that is holy, never stop waiting tables. Amen.