Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The sermon preached at the Convent by The Reverend Maggie Helwig on August 3, 2013

The  Rev. Maggie Helwig
As some of you know, I'm the parish priest at St Stephen-in-the-Fields, so it is quite meaningful for me to be celebrating the saint with you today. The feast of St Stephen was tradtionally celebrated on December 26, the “feast of Stephen” mentioned in the famous carol, “Good King Wenceslas.” Acknowledging that this is a fairly terrible day to try to get anyone into church, the calendar now allows for the feast to be marked in early August instead; which, as far as getting people into church goes, is not actually all that much better, but there you go.

Stephen was the first martyr of the early church, stoned to death by an angry mob, and the prayers and readings for today focus very much on that, and on the pattern he sets for commitment in the face of, and to the point of, death, without returning violence. But I'd like to look at another aspect of Stephen's story today, because he was not only the first martyr, he was one of the first deacons, and that's something we talk about less and perhaps understand even less well than we do his martyrdom.

It is a striking moment in the very early church, and in its way a troubling one, the point when the apostles decide that they are too busy and important to be feeding poor widows, and create a separate order, the deacons, to deal with all this table-serving business. There was more than just that involved, of course. This was also part of the internal politics of balancing the two main communities in the early church, the native Palestinians from whom the original apostles all probably came, and the diaspora Jews whose native language was Greek – the original deacons all apparently belonged to this second group, and it gave them a place within the emerging structure. But it's clear enough from the story in Acts that the creation of the first deacons was in some part about the apostles judging that service to the vulnerable was not quite worth their very important time and energy. It is one of those moments in Acts when the barely-forming church reveals itself to be a very human community, living out the new life in Christ to the best of its ability but always inclined to slide gently backwards into familiar old ways of understanding.

The word “deacon” comes from a Greek verb, diakonein, to serve. It's quite a common verb, but all through each of the four Gospels, the word is used almost exclusively of women. It is women who serve, who carry out the less prestigious, necessary, life-sustaining humble work of feeding and caring and tending. It is Peter's mother-in-law, raised from sickness so she can serve the apostles their dinner. It is Martha of Bethany. It is the group of women who came with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem and supported the apostolic mission from their own resources.

Women, I can only think now, very much like the amazing Sister Constance, whose long life of service in this world ended yesterday evening – her birthday into glory, as they say of the saints. Women who, like Constance, got out there and did what needed doing for the sick and the hungry and the aging and the dying, did what had to be done until they could do no more.

Now, I said the word was used “almost” exclusively of women. There is one male person in the Gospels to whom the word diakonein is attached, in fact frequently attached. And that one man is Jesus. In fact, it is the word he uses to summarize the entire meaning of his earthly ministry -- “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” to diakonein. Jesus, the incarnate Word who bends down to wash the feet of Peter and the rest, did not see diakonia as unworthy, did not scorn the work of slaves and women but identified it as the fundamental work by which we should understand his whole earthly life. All of it – healing and teaching and feeding, walking with the poor and the outcast, going voluntarily into the hands of power, death on the cross and resurrection – diakonia. Service. The Bread of Life waits upon all our tables.

The order of deacons in the church has been through a number of vanishings and recoveries, and is understood differently in different denominations, but it's made clear, in the Anglican and Roman Catholic rites for ordaining a deacon, that it is still intended fundamentally as a call to service. Deacons are called to serve the vulnerable, weak and needy, to feed the hungry and visit the sick – and more than that, to speak for the vulnerable when they cannot make their own voices heard. To bring the suffering of the world into the church and make it known, and call us all to be responsible to that suffering, to tend the wounds of the world and to try to create a better one.

Everyone who is ordained a priest is ordained a deacon first, and remains a deacon forever. But, insofar as all Christians are called by baptism to share in the life of Christ, and insofar as Jesus identified diakonia as the meaning of his life, in that sense all Christians are called, fundamentally called, to be deacons. And we see the work of the deacon at the core of all those lives we recognize as showing forth the truth of Christ. Sometimes I think we don't need so much to remind ourselves of the priesthood of all believers as we do of the diaconate of all believers. In some ways, that life of service, that humility, that openness to the world, which is the first necessary basis of all our various vocations.

Oddly enough, that carol I mentioned earlier, that old favourite about the feast of Stephen, that song actually gets it; for it is, after all, about a king who sets out into the snow and storm to bring food and firewood to a poor man. It's not without meaning that it's set on Stephen's traditional feast day. For it tells us that all human status, all worldly importance, is an incidental thing, and that the real calling is to get out there in the wind and do what is needful. Get on our bikes, as Constance did. So let us do, then, on this feast of Stephen and always.

The  Reverend Maggie Helwig was appointed priest-in-charge of St. Stephen- in- the- Fields in Toronto  in May 2013.
Before her ordination, Maggie worked as a writer, editor, arts organizer, and human rights activist. She spent nearly ten years as an organizer of the Friday Out of the Cold/Out of the Heat meal program, which began at St Stephen’s and is now hosted by St Thomas, Huron Street; she also worked as a parish outreach facilitator for York-Credit Valley, and chairs the diocesan Social Justice and Advocacy Committee. She has published twelve books of poetry, essays and fiction, and her most recent novel, Girls Fall Down (which includes scenes set in a slightly fictionalized St Stephen’s), was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award in 2009, and chosen as the Toronto Public Library’s One Book Toronto in 2012. She has been the literary editor of Canadian Forum, the co-coordinator of the Toronto Small Press Fair and the associate director of the Scream Literary Festival. Maggie was ordained priest in the Anglican church in January 2012, and has served as the assistant curate at St Timothy’s, North Toronto. She has lived near St Stephen’s for most of her adult life (currently in the Alexandra Park area, a few minutes to the south) and is very excited to be joining the parish as their priest. She hopes to work with the congregation and the community to revitalize their long tradition of engaged urban ministry in the Catholic tradition at St. Stephen- in- the- Fields in Toronto