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May 1 Sermon: ‘A Drum Major for Service’

By Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton, Ohio East Area

A Drum Major for Service, some of you recognize from whence cometh that imagery. Some months before Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, he preached his own eulogy at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. In the verbal requiem, King spelled out his bequest using an image he thought worth remembering. “Tell them I was a drum major,” he said. “Say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness ... and all of the other shallow things won’t matter.”

In the sermon, I want to focus on the legacy of a deacon in the New Testament Church. For when I catch the drumbeat of his journey, the rhythm of his itineracy, and the pep in his step, the preacher cannot help but label Philip the deacon, “a drum major for service.” His witness enlivens the spirit, warms the heart and lights the way. Review three of his service appointments with me. Observe Philip in the Jerusalem Kirche. Follow him into Samaria. And catch up with Philip on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. When this review is done, I think you’ll agree; Philip, the deacon, is a drum major for service.

The Jerusalem Kirche

When I served on GCOM from 1988–1996, the executive committee had a meeting overseas. In pursuit of our focus on the global church, we fanned out across Europe before we met in Berlin. Some of us traveled to Copenhagen in Denmark. A lot of memories stayed with me from that trip. For example, the elderly couple hosting me served wonderful breakfasts. But one menu item tested my good manners. They expected me to chase down every breakfast eaten with a big fat spoon of fish oil. I complied and survived.

More memorable was my visit to Jerusalem Kirche or the Jerusalem Church. Jerusalem Methodist Kirche had a thriving ministry to street people. An entrance point of their huge facility sat right on the street. And a room, spacious enough for a storefront church, provided hospitality and a warm welcome for street people. Chairs and tables, coffee, tea and water, Danish pastry and a bathroom were among the many offerings. For a brief time, the church’s two young pastors enlisted us for active duty. When the street people came in, we sat at table with them. We listened to them. We talked to them. We ate and drank with them. If the truth were told, we served Christ in the person of street people representing “the least of these.”

In the first century Jerusalem church, Hellenist or Greek widows fit the category of “the least of these.” Although the church is growing and people are relatively happy, there is a problem. Discrimination jeopardizes the lives of Greek widows. Because of their race, their language and/or cultural differences, these women do not receive an equal share of the daily food distribution. To address this mess, the twelve ask the congregation to recruit seven leaders from among them able to lead this ministry of social justice. The plan accomplishes two goals: first, the 12 do not have to compromise their preaching ministry. And second, the 12 extend the ministry of the church by commissioning new leadership for particular roles. Philip is among seven men specifically chosen to be deacons.

William Barclay’s commentary on the Book of Acts makes an interesting point concerning the role of seven deacons. “... The first officeholders to be appointed were chosen not to talk but for practical service.” Using disciplinary language, the deacons’ combat a situation where “people are unfairly granted privileges and benefits” denied to others.

By making sure that the distribution of food is equitable for Greek widows, the seven indirectly work for the equal rights of all women in the church. Most interesting and revelatory, the first officeholders were chosen to serve women, whose status is precarious at best. In Old and New Testament times, the death of a husband often terminates the inheritance rights of women, exposing them to abandonment, exploitation and degradation, thereby complicating their ability to survive.

If a woman belongs to the wrong racial group, it’s even worse. But God, who sits high and looks low, God, who makes a way out of no way, God, our burden bearer in the heat of the day, calls out seven deacons to be an advocate for Hellenist widows and righteousness.

Are we not more fortunate today in our connection? United Methodist Women are one of many groups the church utilizes to support women. Part of Paragraph 1317 in the 2000 Book of Discipline expresses this witness: “Women’s Division shall be an advocate for the oppressed and dispossessed with special attention to the needs of women and children…” While the first century Jerusalem Kirche does not have a Women’s Division, the primary task of the church’s first seven deacons has to do with advocacy for women, Hellenist women in particular. Hence, a social justice ministry on behalf of Greek widows stands first on the list of accomplishments in Philip’s service record.

The Sojourn In Samaria

January 18th, 2003, we flew to Salvador, Bahia. The Committee to Eliminate Institutional Racism of the General Board of Global Ministries was on a mission, an immersion trip to beautiful Brazil.

In no time, we learned that: 

  1. Salvador is the city where most captured Africans were sent in Brazil.
  2. Slavery in the Americas lasted the longest in Brazil, ending in 1888.
  3. Afro-Brazilians are on the bottom rung of the social ladder with her indigenous peoples.
  4. Many marginalized Afro-Brazilians are confined to favelas, otherwise known as slums or ghettos.
  5. Favelas, like American ghettos, have problems with electricity, water, toxic wastes, sewage, public education, crime, health care, police protection, etc.
  6. Afro-Brazilians and indigenous peoples depend on African traditional religions, the religion of their ancestors and/or Christianity to nurture, support and protect them from hurt, harm and danger.

We experienced the power of the latter in a Sunday night worship service. Because of the tremendous heat, most worship services are held at night. Sunday, January 19th, 2003, the bishop was asked to preach at Engenho Velho, located in a favela or ghetto.

I preached with the assistance of a Portuguese translator, who just happens to be here. It wasn’t a great sermon. But at one transformational moment, the translator and I were of one accord. I didn’t know if she was preaching and I was translating in Portuguese or vice versa. In the words of Paul, “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles and by implication some United Methodists.”

All I know is God used me to preach the word to my Afro-Brazilian sisters and brothers. God used the “foolishness” of my preaching to touch somebody’s heart. Before we left Brazil, one of our hosts handed me a tiny card with this message penned in blue ink “Bishop, I can see the authority of God in your life. Thank you for coming and sharing your love and faith with us. May God keep blessing your ministry. Deus Te Abencoe. (Meaning God bless you) Engenho Velho. Salvador-Bahia-Brazil. God used me in a cross-racial/cross-cultural context.

And God used Philip in the same fashion. How did this occur? Philip’s social justice ministry in Jerusalem had gone well. Discrimination against Greek widows nose-dived dramatically. Now, these women received their food distribution on a par with Hebrew widows. But things soon changed.

Stephen, Philip’s partner in ministry, had a theological dogfight with the Sanhedrin over Jesus and his movement. Something about his name caused Stephen to raise the work and witness of a crucified and risen Savior as a paradigm worth emulating. Not only that, Stephen held Jerusalem’s holiest men accountable for not keeping the very law they were entrusted to uphold. For that, Stephen was falsely accused and subsequently stoned to death.

The same mob initiated a murderous pogrom against the church in Jerusalem. Therefore, most Christians fled the city at the urging of the 12. As a result, Philip lost his job. While persecution brought Philip’s table ministry to a standstill, it propelled him into another sphere of ministry.

Just as the arrest of Rosa Parks brought Dr. King into the Civil Rights Movement, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem launched Philip into a new ministry. Philip took off his apron and filled out an application to become a transitional deacon. Miraculously, he took hold of the gospel plow and began preaching the gospel. I know the spirit of the Lord got a hold of Philip. For voluntarily, Philip made a beeline for Samaria, a region most self-respecting Jews would avoid. There, he went to work in a cross-racial, cross-cultural context.

Philip arrives in Samaria as a member of the Jews, the “in group.” Jews like himself possess a great history and tradition. Philip is a member of God’s chosen people, a rank above all others. God resides and is worshipped in the Jerusalem temple. Hebrew Scripture is the word, containing the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings. Since the Jewish community values racial purity, they do not intermarry. Also, Jews have a well-known rule, guiding all relationships. They have nothing to do with Gentiles, especially Samaritans. But Philip, a self-respecting Jew intends to serve the Samaritan community, the “out group.”

The woman at the well in John’s Gospel displays an “out group” mentality in her encounter with Jesus. “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans. John 4:9). It’s true. Samaritans reject the notion that their Jewish heritage is not authentic; that intermarriage with foreigners cancels their birthright. They are God’s chosen too. Bi-racial does not equal less than. God is in God’s holy temple on Mt. Gerizim not in Jerusalem. The Pentateuch comprises their Bible. Even more, the assignment of an inferior or lower status to Samaritans over against Jews has no legitimate standing. Nevertheless, Samaritans live with the stigma of second-class citizenship.

Given my brief caricature of the relations between Jew and Samaritans, what happened when this transitional deacon preached the word is nothing short of amazing? The whole city responded to his preaching. With one accord, they heeded the words of Philip.

Unclean spirits were exorcised. The paralyzed and the lame were healed. Because Philip hid himself behind the cross, folk came to believe. Men, women, and children were baptized in the name of Jesus. Luke said it best; “There was joy in that city.”

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard about Philip’s success in Samaria, they forgot about the barriers that usually controlled how they related to Samaritans. Peter and John were sent to investigate. Discovering that the new converts had only been baptized in the name of Jesus, Peter and John prayed that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Then, they laid hands on them. And the “Ghost” of Pentecost broke out, all over again.

When the Samaritans thought about just how good God had been to them, they made a joyful noise unto the Lord. The Assyrians couldn’t destroy them. The Romans couldn’t break them. Jewish relatives couldn’t separate them from the love of God. In the face of God’s goodness, the Samaritans could not hold their peace. And neither can I.

The Road From Jerusalem To Gaza

I’m convinced. They’ve got the gift of communication. Learned in the classroom of survival, street merchants in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa compelled tourists to buy something by the power of their words, personality and determination.

When our group stepped off the hotel grounds, they met us in the street. They walked down to market by our side, chatting unreservedly. They accompanied us on the short boat ride to the infamous Goree Island, a former holding and shipping point for enslaved Africans to the Americas.

“Hello, my brother” or “Hello, my sister” preceded the sales pitch. Their engaging salutation carried over into personal questions like, “What’s your name?” “What state are you from?” “Are you married?” “How is your husband or wife?” “Do you have kids?” “Have you decided what you going to buy to take home?” Then, the bargaining and haggling began. Every “no” to their sales pitch meant “yes.” They refused to take “no” for an answer. Of course, “yes,” meant “yes.” Either way, they made a sale.

Without our consent, some of the street merchants hired themselves as our guides on Goree Island. Guess what? They collected.

En route to the hotel, a young woman approached and began walking beside me. To outsmart her, I displayed my bag with merchandise already purchased for my wife and adult children. No matter, she proceeded to tell me how difficult it was to support her family as a single parent. She had two hungry babies at home. And they needed food. Couldn’t I just spare my pocket change to help her on the way? Because of this mother’s plea, she received my pocket change and more. Her plan worked. I believed her.

Individually or collectively, the street vendors were effective. Alongside winsome personalities and persistence, the power of their words won the day.

The power of words won the day in Philip’s third appointment. All it took was a litany of one-liners, seven of them to be exact. For example, the angel of the Lord said, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” God’s order was stunning. Philip had succeeded in creating a new thing. Bound together in unity were folk known for hating one another, a Jewish preacher and a Samaritan congregation. But, Philip was itinerant. When God’s angel called Philip to a new appointment, he responded immediately, going on the road again.

On the road, the deacon saw a gorgeous chariot. A well coiffed Ethiopian eunuch in charge of queen Candace’s treasury was returning home. He had come to Jerusalem for worship and perhaps Disciple Bible Study. The eunuch was reading the book of Isaiah. And the spirit of the Lord said, “Go up and join this chariot.” This second one-liner put all three appointments in perspective.

In his first appointment, Philip’s congregation and the disciples called him to serve the Greek widows. In the second, Philip voluntarily chose to work among the Samaritans. In his third service appointment, the first and third persons of the Trinity charged Philip to seek out the Ethiopian eunuch. The Godhead wanted to make sure that Philip ministered to the ultimate outcast, a eunuch from Africa. Though well to do, the eunuch was just an African, an Ethiopian. Not a single drop of Jewish blood coursed in his veins, strike one.

Africans received the same treatment from the Jews as Samaritans. Jews had no dealings with Africans anymore than with Samaritans; strike two. According to Deuteronomy 23:1 eunuchs were excluded from worship in the temple, strike three. But God made sure Philip knew God wanted the Ethiopian within the fold.

With pep in his step, Philip ran alongside the chariot. There, he saw an Ethiopian, by hue “blacker than a thousand midnights.” Undeterred by the color of his skin and listening to the eunuch read from the prophet Isaiah, Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I unless someone guides me?” came the reply. Philip accepted the invitation to sit beside the eunuch in the chariot.

Now, engaged in Disciple Bible Study was one of the Bible’s historic odd couples, an African eunuch and a Jewish preacher with Grecian roots. Philip’s response to God’s call reminded the bishop of the primary duties of a pastor delineated in the Book of Discipline, paragraph 331.1. “A pastor is charged to preach the word, oversee the worship life of the congregation, read and teach the Scriptures, and engage the people in study and witness.” Under divine discipline, Philip did that.

Ironically, the Ethiopian eunuch read from the third servant song of Isaiah. (Isaiah 53) The prophet Isaiah described a suffering servant who was “despised and rejected by men and women, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; the suffering servant had borne our grief’s and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.”

After reading portions of Isaiah 53 such as “the suffering servant was led as a lamb to the slaughter like a sheep before his shearer is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth,” the eunuch popped the question. “About whom, may I ask, does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?

Here, my tradition took over. Philip suggested that Isaiah is talking about Jesus, the Rose of Sharon, the Lily of the Valley, the bright and Morning Star, the fairest of ten thousands. He told the eunuch about a spirit filled Jesus, anointed to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives. That same Jesus stood by a fellow colleague and deacon named Stephen while they stoned into the bosom of Abraham. That same Jesus died and rose again in order that all God’s children might secure the birthright of God’s grace and salvation. Hallelujah.

The power of Philip’s words got next to the eunuch. Like John Wesley, “his heart was strangely warmed.” And like Richard Allen “his dungeon shook; his chains flew off and glory to God, he cried, enough for me the Savior died.” When they came to some water, the eunuch could stand it no longer. He stopped the chariot and said to Philip, “Look here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Without a moment’s hesitation, both men went down to the water. Philip baptized him. When they came out of the water, the spirit of the Lord snatched Philip and the eunuch saw him no more.

One songwriter talked about the rejoicing of the dying thief. But the dying thief had nothing on the joy of the baptized eunuch. He had been “water washed and spirit born” into new life, glory to God. Tradition has it that the eunuch went back to Africa and told the story of his wilderness road experience with the so-called enemy. And when the eunuch informed his people about what God had done for him through Bible study and baptism, the “ghost” of Pentecost broke out, all over again. The church began to grow in Africa. Then as now, the world is hungry for the living bread. Am I right about it?

We have briefly reviewed three appointments on the service record of Philip the deacon. He served Greek women, on behalf of Jerusalem kirche, protecting them against injustice. He served Samaritans, folk tradition taught him to despise. And Philip served the Ethiopian eunuch, the ultimate outcast.

Like our Lord, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and countless others Philip “came not to be served but to serve.” By the amazing grace of God, Philip was a drum major for service, for justice, for peace and for righteousness. If you agree that Philip’s three service appointments revealed a kinship with our Lord who “came not to be served, but to serve,” give God the glory.

Finally, when the doxology is sung, the Benedictus and Deo Gratias offered and the 2004 General Conference has been consigned to history, I hope and pray the dominant theme of our witness and mission reflects the faith stance of Joshua who declared to Israel at a critical point of decision-making, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24: 15) Glory Hallelujah!! Glory Hallelujah!! Glory Hallelujah!!