Aloha. I just came back from Hawaii where I represented the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council at the ordination of The Rev. Peter Wu; one of the newly ordained deacons of that diocese and the latest addition to the list of Asian Clergy in The Episcopal Church.
My presence as the EAM Council’s President was indeed greatly appreciated by his family and others who are part of the EAM Network, as it was deemed an affirmation of the support we continue to give in raising Asian leadership in the various ministries of the TEC. I also had the chance to renew acquaintances and forge new ones.
The Ordination Service was at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu and was part of the Diocesan Convention Eucharist. As expected, the attendance was exceptionally large; considering the size of the cathedral, the number of convention delegates and the invited guests of the four Ordinands. The cathedral was really packed with many of the invited guests wearing red and for a moment it seemed I was about to attend Pentecost Sunday. Or maybe it was just the Chinese red color for luck in a religious context.
Something unique about the service was the inclusion of hymns in Hawaiian; the chanting of the Psalm, also in Hawaiian language and the abundance of leis especially the ones given to the newly ordained deacons. They virtually lost their necks, if you know what I mean.
The words deacon and diaconal or diaconate find their root in the Greek word “diakonia” which is roughly translated as “service”. As those who had been ordained transitional or vocational deacons would attest, the readings and sermon during their ordination services usually allude to the “service character” of their order of ministry, a ministry of servanthood.
As in this case, the Bishop preached about what his deacons are to expect now that they were about to join the ranks of those whose ministry is about service and servanthood and not about honor and distinction.
As he went about cautioning them of what could lie ahead of them, I was reminded of my own ordination to the diaconate, back in ’73. What was so vivid then in mine as it was in theirs, was the warning that it is never about honor but conversely, it is about the mandate of providing service for others; something that at times prove hard to follow.
And this is where Matthew 23:1-12, our gospel lesson for this Sunday, seems to be a good reminder of it. Again, as in the previous gospel last Sunday, it’s not that explicit at first, but it’s there, buried somewhere. So, let me work on that .
Matthew tells us that Jesus made some “unhealthy” remarks about the Scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus commented to his disciples that these supposedly “religious” leaders are in fact, a bit misleading. They’re not who and what they claim they are.
And here’s Jesus’ reasoning. First, he says, they love to sit on the seat of Moses, which is a seat of honor; a position of authority and one that demands respect. Logically then, whatever they say is worthy of emulation. Whatever they teach ought to be followed and obeyed.
And Jesus was willing to offer some concessions. He says you could follow what they say and teach you; they know what they’re talking about. After all, they’re the learned men of the Law. But, and here’s a big but, Jesus points out. But do not do what they do. Why? Because they do not practice what they preach; they do not “walk the talk”.
And to substantiate his claim, Jesus says: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”
These hard-to-swallow accusations have their contemporary parallels which could very well be the ones those in the ordained ministry, including the diaconate, might be tempted to indulge in.
And if I were to use an illustration, imagine someone in the ordained ministry who just loves to rub others with their title and position. “Excuse me. I’m the Rector, get it?” In other words, I’m the boss; it’s my way or the highway.”
And to juxtapose what Jesus said then with our contemporary scenario, in this case, Jesus would also have advised us that we could follow what that Rector says but not do what she does. We are not to emulate actions similar to the ones that Jesus warned his disciples about.
Jesus does not fancy unbridled lust for power. The reverse seems to be what he prefers. Listen once more to that verse that alludes to what Jesus claims the Scribes and the Pharisees do. “They, meaning the Scribes and Pharisees, they tie up burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.”
I think we can make some inference here as to what that ministry of service could look like. It could be that “lifting of finger” when applied to the task of “unburdening” someone of that with which he or she is heavily laden.
Now let me put some meat in what I’ve just said. In our various circles of relationships, we every so often find ourselves “burdened” with all sorts of problems; ranging from a relationship gone sour to a perennial thinning of our financial makeup or to an unbalanced church budget. For others it could be some health or mental related issues or a highly unstable employment or, quite seriously, they could be faith related issues. These are some of the more tangible and observable “loads” that are laden on the shoulders of some of us. And on more than a few occasions we need someone who might be willing to “lift up” those burdens.
This is where that diaconal ministry of service comes in. I am not saying, however, that this is all what deacons are supposed to do. No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that the diaconal ministry of service should come into the center stage and be made available not just by deacons but practically by all of us.
I believe that by virtue of our baptism, we share something in common with those who have been ordained deacons. It’s their ministry of service that we are also called to do as being the body of the baptized. Our ministry of service is the ministry of “lifting” up the burdens from the shoulders of people.
And it’s not an easy thing to do. In fact a serious question we ought to ask is: “How do we go about “lifting these burdens” from the shoulders of people?”
As we reflect on that question, a certain analogy might be of help. Many of you are familiar with instant replay in sports. It figures most prominently in football. It is a tool used to assist officials make the proper call by enabling them to see the play from different angles and viewpoints they were unable to see earlier. And it often is quite helpful, as those of you sports fans could attest, yes?
I think this example illustrates a way in which we can help others navigate some of the challenging waters in other people’s lives; things related to their common “burdens” that we also feel as we struggle to understand ourselves and matters of faith.
As you’ve heard me say a few times before, faith is really all about “seeing”. It’s about looking at the world and one another in a particular way – through the lens of faith, through the person of Christ Jesus and his saving acts.
So maybe one way of “lifting the burdens” from the shoulders of others is simply by helping them “see” their struggles and predicaments from the correct angle and in the proper light, just like what that instant replay gadget does.
In other words, if we know someone close to us feels heavily “burdened” by not having any idea where his life is heading or what God’s plan is for his family, perhaps we can do our ministry of service to others by helping him or them take baby steps in resolving the conflicts he is bound with.
Or if we know someone who feels “burdened” by not having answers to all of life’s questions, perhaps we can do our ministry of service by helping her see from another angle that asking the right questions is actually an evidence of faith and not a lack of.
There are still other examples of how we can participate with those who had been actually ordained deacons in their ministry of service. Suffice it to say that in this partnership with them our additional call is to support each other in the discharge of this ministry.
One quick caution for us all, though. Should we decide to do this ministry and fulfill its requirements, we could actually end up taking up other people’s burdens as our own and they could be as overwhelming to us as they had been with the others.
Let us remember, however, that many a times, all God is asking is that we shed a little light to someone and help him or her get a better view and different perspective of things. Our ministry of service does not have to mean “saving” them; that’s not our job. That’s God’s and we better let Him do his. Our job or better yet, our ministry is more about support, encouragement, care, comfort and shedding light to others.
Having said these, I now invite you to take another look at this thing called ministry of service. Enter into some discernment if you would be willing to share your “diakonia” and be partners with those who had actually been ordained as deacons. I invite you to “lift up” the burdens of others by your willingness to be witnesses of what you have professed when you became members of the baptized who follow Jesus , the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith.