Acts 6: 1-7
September 22, 2013
So, did you get what happened here? Some people in the church went to the pastors and said, “Hey. The care, the charity of the church, is not being distributed fairly. You Hebrews aren’t giving our Hellenist widows their fair share.”
And the pastors’ response does not seem very Christian. Certainly not very Mennonite: “Well, we’re busy doing the important work of preaching. It’s not our job to wait tables.”
These twelve men, at least eleven of whom had watched Jesus wrap a towel around his waist and wash their filthy feet in the upper room, said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” They appoint seven other men to “wait on tables” so that they can remain devoted to prayer and preaching.
Just who do these guys think they are, anyway? Too busy praying to feed hungry widows? I spent a good part of the week frustrated with these apostles and their poor leadership model.
And, to be honest, I also spent some time this week fantasizing about what my job might be like if I could just devote myself to prayer and preaching. No meetings. No pastoral visits. No worship coordinating. I wouldn’t even have to check email. Maybe these guys were onto something after all.
The more I thought about it, the more I decided that they were, indeed, onto something. Remember that this community we read about in Acts is making up the whole church thing as they go along. They don’t have any books about leadership models. No conference or denominational guidelines for membership or ordination or worship practices. Just a bunch of people who want to follow Jesus and figure that somehow involves them all being together and taking care of each other and sharing God’s word through Jesus with the world.
We would expect things to get messy. We would expect disagreements and misunderstandings, people lurching off in wrong directions and having to come back and try again.
The apostles had a difficult task, and I do think they are onto something here with their refusal to wait tables.
Today you can google “clergy burn out” and come up with about 150,000 hits–articles about high rates of obesity, high blood pressure, divorce, and depression among pastors of all kinds. And a lot of pastor stress comes from the expectations–of congregations and the clergy themselves. From this idea that pastors are responsible for the church. That pastors have to do all of the ministry. Pastors have to be available all the time.
Pastors have to be able to preach and pray–yes. And also balance a budget, take phone calls at all hours, referee disagreements within the congregation, fix the toilet, minister to the troubled people that contact the church for help, maintain relationships with other clergy in the town and denomination, choose hymns, write newsletter articles, manage schedules . . . I could go on. And on.
Now let me say clearly that I do not feel this kind of pressure. Maybe because I’m part time. Because you all understand that I’m raising three children in addition to pastoring the church. Because you all are compassionate, grace-filled, reasonable people. Because it has become very clear that I am not good at plenty of things on the pastor list. (Back when the church was discussing the possibility of hiring an administrative assistant, Thomas accused me of messing up office stuff on purpose to sway the decision. I assured him I was just that bad with details.)
Whatever the reasons, I honestly do not put myself in this category of burned out pastors. But there are plenty of them. Plenty of pastors who would do well to say, “You know what, painting the Agape Sunday School room is just not in my job description. I can see that job needs to be done, so let’s appoint seven people to do it.”
The actual words of the apostles here do sound arrogant, but the principle is sound: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” The leaders of the church have a certain role, and if they extend too far beyond that role they will not be able to serve the church well.
And that goes for lay people in the church too. Most of you knew Lola. You might remember that she and Ken used to clean this building for us every week. Well, Lola once made a deal with me. I didn’t have to sweep the floor and she would never have to preach a sermon.
In scripture, it’s not just the 12 apostles that recognize the need for different people to play different roles in the community. Paul uses the metaphor of a body with many parts. If you’re on the full-Bible reading plan, you read that part of 1 Corinthians this week. He also writes basically the same thing to the church in Rome: different people have different roles within the Christian community.
It seems that this sort of division of labor is one of the first things the early church figured out: everyone cannot do everything. Community works best when the work is spread out among the members.
Yes, we can read the apostles’ response here in Acts as a snotty, “We’re too good for that lowly work.” But we can also read it as a wise implementation of a broader leadership structure. Church historian Justo Gonzales* suggests that if the apostles had been truly power-hungry, they could have ignored the problem altogether. Certainly those Hebrew apostles were not required to welcome seven Hellenists into the leadership ranks of the church–which they willingly did.
Perhaps this is not about arrogance, but simply about good leadership. “We will preach and pray. You will coordinate the dispensing of food to the needy.”
Over the course of the week I convinced myself that these twelve guys maybe weren’t so bad after all. They’re just being smart. Trying to save themselves from burnout. Setting a good example about division of labor within the church.
It is a good thing for each of us to have our niche. We are all better at different things.
And I think–all of you listen, please–especially those who feel guilt-ridden for not doing enough–I think the apostles here give us permission to say “no.” Not “no, I don’t care.” But “no, I can’t be the one to do that.”
A few weeks ago there was a call for nationwide protests against the tar sands pipelines. It was the weekend of our open house party. So rather than travel to a protest or organize one myself, I simply sent out an email and wrote a blog post about the event; I suggested that we could at least offer prayer for our beautiful, fragile world.
Someone read that blog post and left a comment stating that people like me were the problem–people who say they care but don’t do anything. And while I knew that criticism was invalid, I spent weeks composing a response in my head. I wanted to tell this person that every yes we say is an infinite number of “no”s. If I had gone to a protest event, I would have had to say no to unpacking and cleaning the house, hosting the party, being with my family, watching the hummingbirds, seeing old friends . . . For every thing we choose to do, we are also choosing to not do anything else at that moment. We have to make decisions as faithfully as we can, trusting in the work of the whole body and the grace of God.
The apostles realized that saying “yes” to personally resolving the situation with the distribution of food would have meant saying “no” to some of the praying and preaching they were doing. And it might not be that any of it was more important than the rest of it–Paul’s writings certainly indicate that there is not a hierarchy of service–but simply that one person, even one group of people, cannot do everything that we, as Christ followers, want to see done in the world.
So a smart church, a faithful church, appoints different groups of people to different tasks. (Remember this in a few weeks when the nominating committee people start calling.)
And as far as our reading this morning goes, that is maybe the key lesson. The apostles made a wise structural decision and, “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.”
Division of responsibility. Yes? Permission to say “no.” Right?
But some of you are doing the reading plan. So you didn’t just read Acts 6:1-7. You read through the first verse of chapter 8. So you know that at the end of chapter 7, Stephen is stoned.
And for those who don’t remember the story, let me assure you that he was not stoned for distributing food to widows.
That was supposed to be his job, right? Stephen was appointed by the apostles to oversee the distribution of food. The apostles prayed for him and the other six; laid their hands on them and sent them forth to distribute food. Three verses later Stephen is in trouble with people at the synagogue for preaching and doing signs and wonders.
Stephen had a role in the church and the Spirit calls him out beyond that role. Later in Acts we also see Philip preaching–even though he was supposed to be distributing food as well.
And I’d like to think that, perhaps, Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the rest of the twelve found themselves giving food to widows every once in awhile.
Because that’s how church works. We discern each others gifts and assign roles. And that is good. And it helps us function; it helps us do ministry–do the work of God in this place.
Then the Spirit comes in and shakes things up now and then. Despite the deal I made with Lola, I have been known to sweep floors. And while we never got Lola behind the pulpit, her life and words certainly spoke the Word of God to many people.
We are called to be organized and open. Focused and free to expand. It’s a tricky, tension-filled place to be.
But nobody said that being church was easy. And nobody says that we have to be perfect. The key for the early church–and probably for us–is to listen to each other and the Holy Spirit. The better we listen, the more faithfully we can follow the way of Jesus. Amen.
*Gonzalez, Justo, “When the Spirit Makes for Trouble,” Journal for Preachers, 2008.