My partner David is a ‘blue collar’ worker. Since he has no need to dress up for work, he owns only one suit, which he brings out on special occasions. He is most comfortable in a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt, and this is how you will see him dressed on most occasions, including on Sundays in church.
Now David is a man of deep faith, but he is not a ‘cradle Anglican’ as I am, so he does not necessarily know that this would not be seen by all Anglicans as proper Sunday attire. But even I was disturbed one Easter morning many years ago, when after the service in the parish we were attending at the time, I overheard one person say to another in a very judgmental way, “Oh, so he does own a suit.” I admit I had to bite my tongue at first to keep from hurling some equally snarky comeback. But I was also thinking, that God probably doesn’t really care how we are dressed when we come to church. What God probably really cares about, is that we are in church! And did we really want to be part of a community that put more stock in outer appearances than it did on what was in the heart of worshippers?
So, ‘listening in’ on the conversation between the Pharisees and the scribes who are grumbling about Jesus’ improper behaviour – fraternizing with sinners – seems like familiar territory. These scribes and Pharisees are not bad people. They represent the religious authorities who are trying to be faithful according to their own understanding of what that means. They think it is about proper decorum, about following the rules – and in their worldview it is about keeping those who don’t do as they do, in their proper place, on the outside. They forget that they were once the outcasts themselves – slaves in Egypt – and as people living under the pall of the Roman occupation, still have a marginal status in their own land. They forget the inclusive and welcoming nature of the God of love who liberates us from those things that enslave us; who ‘comes out to meet us’ and leads us home.
To help them see more effectively from God’s perspective, Jesus tells them a story about a father who’s love is so great, it can even overcome the rules of social convention to reconcile estranged brothers.
This story is intentionally told as an allegory – each character stands for someone else. The younger son represents the tax collectors and sinners; the elder son, the religious authorities; and the father represents God. It is intended to hold a mirror up so we, with the scribes and Pharasees, are able to see ourselves, and what God is doing in our midst.
Most of us would be able to identify with at least one of the two brothers, if not both. Maybe we are that lost, younger son – now returned to the heart of the family. Or maybe we are that faithful, elder son – feeling a little overlooked, and unsettled by the way the rules seem to have changed. But the story is purposely ambiguous and I can’t help but wonder if Jesus wants us to identify also with the father, who’s inclusive and welcoming love opens up the possibility of reconciliation between those who have been separated by very different ways of seeing and being.
Richard Rohr seems to support this idea when he writes, “… God isn’t looking for servants, slaves, or contestants to jump correctly through some arbitrary hoops. God simply wants mirroring images of God to live on this earth and to make the divine visible. That is, of course, the way love works. It always overflows, reproduces and multiplies itself. God is saying, as it were, ‘All I want are icons and mirrors out there who will communicate who I am, and what I’m about.’”
As we have been learning about the life of St. Francis of Assissi, it is clear that his passion for Christ enabled him to be a reflection of the profound love of God. And as a deacon of the church, he was meant also to be an icon – a symbol of God’s presence in, and love for the world.
Francis was not afraid to speak to the wealthy and powerful – he did travel as far as Egypt during the crusades to share the Christian faith with the Sultan Malek Kernel in an attempt to broker peace. But where Francis was most likely to be found was out there on the edge of the world with those, who for a variety of reasons, feel they do not belong. It is the unique position of the deacon – who traditionally has one foot at the altar, and one foot in the world – to work with those who have been marginalized, and by loving them help them to rediscover their own dignity, their own value, their own belovedness in the eyes of God. I like to say that if the priest is the shepherd, we deacons are the sheep dogs – finding the lost and staying with them until the shepherd can lead them home. Sometimes this requires a lot of ‘barking’ until the community of the faithful realize someone is missing!
Another role of the deacon is to be a sign of the servant ministry of Jesus, and to be a reminder to everyone that this is the ministry to which we are all called in our baptism. Our place is not in the centre of power, of comfort and predictability, but out there on the edges with Jesus and Francis – walking, standing, or sitting together with those who feel they have no other place of belonging.
Compassion means suffering together. So we share in their woundedness, so that together we might be healed.
In the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion, two of the five relate specifically to this Baptismal call to servant ministry:
This is not just deacon work, or priestly work, but the work of the whole Church:
- We are to respond to human need by loving service – by becoming active in community initiatives and partnerships; interfaith dialogue to break down barriers; build understanding; and see that everyone in our community can have life.
- We are to seek to transform unjust structures of society; to challenge violence of every kind; and to pursue peace and reconciliation.
Francis wrote, “We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather, we must be simple, humble, pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But before we run off into the mission fields, it is necessary to ask ourselves, “Who are the marginalized?” Some would seem obvious of course: in the early days of the Church the first to perform this traditional role of deacon were appointed to see that the widows and orphans were included in the distribution of food. And we would naturally include the poor, the sick, and the disenfranchised. But how do we by our attitudes and assumptions, marginalize others – in the world, in our communities, in our workplaces, and even in our churches? Perhaps we don’t have to travel very far to find the edge of the world.
And what are the unique gifts that God has given us as individuals and as a faith community to help us minister to the ‘outcasts and sinners’ of our time and place? How do we even know where to begin?
To this latter question Francis offers a possible answer. His devotion to Christ in every aspect of his life enabled him to ‘see’ in all people the image of Christ. Those outward differences begin to disappear when we see in another the object of our love. Francis would tell us: “Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
So when we, like Francis, devote ourselves to prayer, practice humility, and seek the face of Christ in the other, we are more able to see the marginalized even in those who seem to have wealth and power.
I think Jesus saw in the religious authorities the same separation that he saw in those they sought to exclude. In leaving the story open, he extends to them the same welcoming love that the Father has for that son who once was lost, but now is found.
If the world is not a safe or fair place for everyone – we have to take responsibility as individuals and as a faith community for not doing our part in God’s mission to heal and give life to the world.
God longs for justice for all people – a concept that bears no resemblance to the punitive retribution that masquerades as justice in our human systems.
To get there, Richard Rohr suggest we must “first observe what God is doing all the time and everywhere and then do the same thing. And what does God do? God does what God is: Love.”
And he continues, “God’s unimaginable restorative justice says to us God does not love you if and when you change. God loves you so that you can change.”
In the end it is not about how we look or dress, or even what we believe. It is about how we live. And in this Francis has the last word:
“Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.
May it be so for us all.