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Through the Dust – 5/6/2012

A century ago, a university professor visited the Zen master Nan-in, to ask him questions about his teaching. As the two sat down to talk, Nan-in served tea. He began by pouring his guest’s cup, and after it was filled he continued to pour until it overflowed. The hot tea crested the top of the cup and spilled out over the surface of the low table, spreading from there over the second edge. It began to soak into the floor-mat and still the master continued to pour. His guest was struck dumb at first, with surprise, and then he kept his tongue because he knew the teacher’s reputation: whatever he was doing must be for some purpose, and he tried to puzzle it out rather than speak up and admit that he did not understand. But after enough time and enough tea had passed, the learned scholar could no longer help himself. “It’s overfull,” he said. “No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”[i]

As we enter into this morning’s message together, I would ask you to take a moment now to check your level. Is your cup half full? At the brim? Overflowing? What space is there in you now to receive something new? Where, in the cluttered attic of your mind, might you be able to make room for fresh understanding?

Earlier in our service we heard from members of our Diaconate, a group which has a history stretching back to the early days of our congregation. Its root origins are actually far, far older than that. A Diaconate is a group of deacons, and the office of deacon has its beginnings in the early days of Christianity; by tradition, it can be traced back to the sixth chapter of the book of Acts. The disciples – the leading students of Jesus who had taken responsibility for his community of followers after his death – were receiving complaints from that same community. The early Christians held their property in common: each person was supposed to receive what they needed from the shared resources of the group. But some of the least fortunate members of the very early church were not getting enough to live on.

So they convened a meeting and declared that, and this is a quote, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” That is, in order to feed the hungry. Their sentiment suggests to me a powerful misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching that “Whatever you [do] for the least of these brothers and sisters, you [do] for me.” This gives the lie to the idea that there is a single, fundamental interpretation of the Christian tradition, or any other religion – from the earliest times, people have always chosen certain verses and teachings to weigh over others.

The leaders of the early church had determined that they needed to focus their efforts on “prayer and the ministry of the word” and so they appointed seven people considered to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom to whom they would entrust the responsibility of caring for the needy. Tradition considers these seven to be the first deacons, though they are never called by that name in the bible. So the first diaconate was established by the first disciples as a seven-person, non-member subcommittee for feeding the poor.

The word deacon is an English rendering of the Greek diakonos, a word that can be used for both for servants and for messengers. From the original charge to aid the poor, the office of deacon came to include any sort of work that supported the work of the church, and in particular, any effort to carry the message of the religion to new places and people. Today, in a variety of Christian denominations, people with the title deacon maintain some version of these dual mandates: acting as servants and messengers on behalf of their faith.

The original etymology of the word diakonos is uncertain, but one common explanation is that it derives from a Greek phrase meaning “through the dust”. This would encompass both uses of the words, whether it is the dust that settles over a house, for a servant, or the dust of the open road for a messenger.

When I was just starting out in my first apartment, there were a lot of things I had to learn. How to sign up with the electric company, for instance, how to file taxes, and how to clean. I don’t mean to give you the impression that I’d never done any cleaning up to that point. But that first apartment was the first place I’d ever been wholly responsible for that wasn’t my parents’ house or a temporary dorm room. And besides, I was sharing the space with my fiancé – a new level of cleanliness was called for.

I ended up reading a book on how to clean things more efficiently and effectively. It taught me some embarrassingly basic lessons, like how not to leave streaks on a mirror. But one of the other things that it emphasized was the importance of being able to see “though” dirt. When you’re scrubbing something – a dish or a floor or a countertop – there’s a layer of soap and water and grime that you’re working away at, and there’s the actual surface you’re trying to get to underneath. You become better at cleaning when you can see past that mess on top and intuitively know when it’s all ready to be rinsed away.

This points to a key quality for a deacon to possess: the ability to see through the dust. Specifically to look beyond the dust, the cruft, the spiritual detritus that covers over human beings and their imperfect institutions and see the fresh promise contained therein. A deacon is a servant of something bigger than themselves, a messenger of something that goes beyond their personal wisdom to a truth inherited from and shared with others.

We Unitarian Universalists have a certain constitutional aversion to ranks and titles and special clubs. Somehow, over the centuries, as we grew out of our roots in the Christian tradition to something overlapping but distinct from it, we managed to retain an ordained class of clergy. Retained it only just barely. We accepted the common Protestant affirmation of the universal priesthood, and extended it to the priesthood and prophethood of all people. My own ordination was a profound and humbling moment for me, but it marked no shift in the atoms of my body, no transfiguration of my soul. The power of my language and action to curse and to bless was the same before it as after it; this is our theology, that all people share the same potential holiness. By going directly to priest and prophethood, we seem to have skipped over the rank of deacon all together.

But why not, the diaconate of all people? The ideal set forth by the teacher Jesus is one of service: one leads, one worships, one practices religion by serving needs greater than one’s own. Compatible messages are found in many other faiths as well. A deacon is a person devoted to a purpose, a thing worth living for. Agent Smith, the dark-suited villain of the Matrix trilogy of films inadvertently says something very true in the middle of one of his menacing dialogues: “Without purpose we would not exist. It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us. That guides us. That drives us. It is purpose that defines us. Purpose that binds us.”[ii]The world needs deacons – people who have discovered what they believe in, and are ready to work for it. Not for glory or reward, but because it is gives meaning to their lives.

As I thought about the role of a deacon in the world this week, the first person that came to mind was Bayard Rustin. Rustin was a social activist in the 20th century. He is not remembered often enough, but he was tireless and devoted in his pursuit of justice. He was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement from the late 1940s on, and is given partial if not major credit for the commitment to intentional nonviolence, a tactic he had seen used by Gandhi when he travelled to India a worked with the movement there. He was the chief organizer of the March on Washington, and he was never afraid to be out in front of the banners and behind the microphones. Bayard advocated on behalf of all his identities: not just as an African American, but also as a gay man and a socialist. He lived at a time when carrying any one of those labels was a profoundly dangerous thing. Yet he did not stop working for justice and positive change throughout his entire life, saying, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.” He exemplified the role of a deacon because his effort was always bent towards the social impact of his work, rather than any attention it might garner for him personally.

When the stories of great leaders are told to quickly or too carelessly, the people who supported them most closely, without whom they could never have succeeded at all, are often left out. So let me tell you briefly now a story with the critical supporter, the deacon of the tale, left in. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was a middle-aged merchant when he was called to transmit a divine message, as the tradition tells it. He had a practice, from time to time, of going up into the mountains to meditate. One day, the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision, placed before him a huge set of words written in fire, and demanded that he read them aloud. These were the first verses of the Qur’an – a name which might be translated as, ‘The Recitation’.

Muhammad was overcome by the experience and returned home from the mountain shaken and afraid. He did not know what was happening. He could not believe that he might be chosen for such a mission; he worried that he was losing his mind. The first person he told of his experience was his wife, Khadija. Khadija was a successful merchant – it was her business interests that Muhammad worked to support. She was student of religion, and she knew her husband well. He doubted himself, but she did not: do not worry, she told him. You are a good man; if someone had to carry this message, why not you? I believe in the truth of the message you bring. For this reason, Khadija is remembered as the first Muslim: because she believed before any other, including Muhammad.

To be a deacon, spiritually, requires a willingness to get down in the dirt of the way things are, and to work for the way things ought to be. Like the story of the man who owned a tree that came down in a heavy storm. He went out into his yard with an axe and set to chopping it up for fire wood. As he worked, some of his neighbors passed by and offered their advice on which branches he should tackle first, and how he should swing his axe. Only one of them lent their own arms to the work, helping to cut the wood and making the work lighter and faster. The Rev. Clinton Lee Scott told this story to explain his proverb, “If thou wouldst give good advice to the wood chopper, bring along thine axe.”[iii] The world does not suffer entirely from a lack of people of good will; there are enough of these, even if there could be more. What the world needs is folks who are ready to lend themselves to a cause they believe in, a purpose and a need that goes beyond the boundaries of their own mind or skin.

So I say to you, you elders who are members of our own particular Diaconate, you folks of any age gathered here, and most of all to myself: all of us have a charge as deacons – all of us are called to serve. But to get there we must empty ourselves enough to make space for that purpose in our hearts. Wendel Berry said that the music of our dance is “so subtle and vast that no ear hears it, except in fragments.” We gather in community in order to compare our notes on those fragments and together to discern precisely what we are supposed to be doing with our wondrous potential as human beings.

[i] From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

[ii] The Matrix Reloaded, by Andy and Lana Wachowski

[iii] Parish Parables, 1946.


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