When I was in college my campus job was working in the dining hall.
Five nights a week at this small women’s college we had waitressed family-style dinners, and usually two of those five nights I was working.
The student-waitresses carried big metal trays filled with platters and bowls of food for tables of eight – three tables per waitress.
After everyone was finished eating we collected up the dirty plates and cutlery and glasses, took them to the dish room and then went to the kitchen where we picked up dessert – servings of cake or pie or ice cream, or whatever dessert happened to be that night.
At the end of the meals the tables were cleared, wiped down and swept beneath.
This was hard work; the trays were heavy, people often made a mess of their plates, china and utensils were usually sticky or greasy, and there was more than once when I stepped on a wet patch on the floor, only to slip and fall with a fully-loaded tray.
But it was different than waiting tables in a restaurant.
The student-diners were my peers and classmates and friends.
In our small, rural academic community there was only one dining hall, the snack bar wasn’t open at meal times, the off-campus options were the real dive of a bar a mile away or the over-priced college-owned inn; any kind of fast-food was in the nearest big town – 15 miles away.
So shared meals at college were as essential as labs, lectures, rehearsals or the library.
We came together in the dining hall to eat, to socialize, to continue a classroom debate or argument, to hear all-school announcements, to be silly and to blow off steam.
It all built the bonds of our community, but a lot of that social fabric was made possible by the students who waitressed, or worked as lab assistants or library staff, or teaching assistants or lifeguards at the pool or any of the other campus jobs.
We served each other for the good of the whole, as well as for our work-study money.
The same thing happened in the early days of the Church.
As more and more people came to faith in Christ the community of believers grew, and the leadership found it difficult to keep up with all the aspects of caring for this spiritual community that also had very real physical needs.
In fact, some people were starting to fall through the cracks: the Greek-speaking widows were getting short-changed in the daily distribution of food, and so they complained to the apostles against the Hebrew-speaking portion of the community.
The size and diversity of the Church was growing beyond what the apostles alone could handle, somebody needed to make sure everyone was getting fed, and so the apostles asked the community to raise up leadership from among themselves to take on this task of overseeing the people’s physical needs.
Seven were chosen, all with Greek names – including Stephen who became the first martyr for the Christian faith.
And as the Book of Acts tells us: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.”
As the spiritual and physical needs of the whole community were met – Greeks, as well as Hebrews; the newly-arrived, as well as the long-timers; the widows, as well as those who had means of support from their families – as the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all were valued and attended to, the mission of the Church went forward and grew and flourished.
The well-being of the Christian body and the success of its evangelism was dependent on these seven deacons, those called to diakonia – the ministry of service.
And that is so because the Lord they served is one who takes account of the small, the poor, the least, the outsiders, the powerless, the down-trodden, the grief-stricken and the hurting; all of these are precious in God’s sight.
Jesus told the apostles - the Twelve, his closest friends, his inner circle - that they were not to argue about who was the greatest, but that “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”
And he said this in response to an argument the Twelvewere having at the Last Supper, as Jesus shared his last meal with them.
That may seem incredible to us now, to think of the disciples arguing about their own standing and stature in the face of the impending death of their rabbi and Lord, but it’s a good reminder for us.
Too often, when we focus on ourselves, we can forget what we are about, we can overlook God’s priorities, and we need to hear Jesus calling us back to what is real and what is important: “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves… [for] I am among you as one who serves.”
The ministry of a deacon is a gift to the Church, a gift to all of us, because this ministry keeps reminding us that we are all called to service, we are all called to reach out, we are all called to humility, we are all to take our place in the fabric of the Christian community – one person interwoven with the next.
Diaconal ministry reminds us very clearly that “it’s not about you,” because being a follower of Jesus is about loving God and loving our neighbor, and not about our own self-importance.
And so we come to this day when we are setting aside a deacon, raising up from among us one who will be an example and a role model of service, a leader who values the needs of the whole community, one who will pay attention to those least likely to draw attention to themselves – in the Church and outside it.
Beth does this as well as anyone I know.
She has offered her considerable skills and talents - and her willingness to take risks and push herself beyond what is easy or comfortable – in five different congregations in this diocese, in a women’s shelter, and in several national church organizations – all places where it could be very easy to forget what Jesus says about service and humility.
We know, and Beth and the Bishop and the Commission on Ministry (on behalf of the Church) have discerned, that her call to ministry is ultimately as a priest; but this ordination as a deacon today is so important.
It is an indelible mark that will remain with Beth throughout her life – a call to service, to diakonia, to drawing the circle wide, to including those who would otherwise be left behind; God’s mission of love and compassion in a broken and hurting world; an icon of service for the whole Church.
And now Beth and Peter and Phoebe, will you please stand.
You have come to a new threshold in the life of your family as Beth is about to be ordained.
Prior to this, Beth and Peter, you have made vows before God: baptismal vows, confirmation vows, marriage vows, vows as parents of a baptized child.
Those vows and promises continue; they are not trumped by ordination, but ordination does cast a different light, does shade things differently in the life of a family.
And so Peter and Phoebe, Beth will need your support – which you have already given so generously – but she will also need you sometimes to help her stay grounded in her relationships as wife and mother, to remind her to pray and to play (Phoebe, I know you are particularly good at the playing part and you’ll be able to help your mom with this).
Beth, please remain standing; Peter and Phoebe, you may be seated.
Beth, my friend, my colleague, my sister in Christ – my charge to you this day, and my prayer for you, is that in your ministry and in your life you will always know the love and joy of Jesus, that you will serve others with the love and joy of Jesus, that you will continue to draw the circle wide in the love and joy of Jesus – and always for God’s glory and for the building up of God’s people and kingdom and Church. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
Trinity and St. Philip’s Cathedral, Newark, NJ
Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate
June 4, 2011