Hellenist Widows Matter

This video is the full service from Sunday, July 12, 2020.


This is a transcript from the July 12, 2020 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

If you are of a certain age, you will recognize this symbol as the symbol for crisis, and you will perhaps remember that we were told that this is two Chinese symbols put together, that together it is danger and opportunity and that is what makes a crisis. You will remember that because that was ubiquitous across all offices and workplaces about 20, 25 years ago. Some earnest manager, trying to inspire everyone, would put this up in order to get everybody's attention and to remind everyone that what we see as a crisis is danger but it's also an opportunity.

Danger and Opportunity | New Hope Presbyterian Church | Castle Rock, CO

You remember that. By that, I remember having an office and having a workplace where you could put posters up. Well, I don't believe they understood anything about Chinese and didn't have any offices or motivational posters. The people in this passage this morning would certainly have understood the connection. It is in Acts Chapter 6 and it is a crisis, truly it is a crisis. A time that is fraught with opportunity but it is also fraught with danger. Here's what it says in Acts Chapter 6. Let's listen for God in these words that we might hear God in our times.

"Now, during those days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The twelve called together with the whole community of the disciples and said, "It's not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we,

for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word."

Now, what they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith."

What's going on here? Well, first you have to understand a little bit about who these Hellenists are. A Hellenist was a Jew, but it was a Jew who spoke Greek and probably didn't speak Aramaic of the Jerusalem Jews. This was more of a worldly Jew if you will. It was part of the diaspora, the scattered once across the world and who knew Greek with partial to Greek customs. They did not use the same Hebrew scripture. They couldn't read it. They have a Greek scripture. We called the Septuagint today. It's a little different. They weren't even though that much trusted.

Hellenists | New Hope Presbyterian Church | Castle Rock, CO

Sure, they were Jews but if you were to use the political rhetoric of the day, they were Jews in name only. They weren't exactly trusted. There were more outsiders. They were way too much and too familiar and too comfortable with the Greek customs of their day, and so they were sort of marginalized. What they're setting up is this story of here come these marginalized people. These people who really aren't in the inner circle and now, they're coming and they're complaining. Of course, they are.

They're saying, "Listen, our widows, the Hellenists widows aren't getting the same care, where they're being neglected in the daily distribution of food." This is a big deal. This is a big deal and the response, if we were looking for responses, in some places, we might recognize would be somebody could have said,

"Listen. Don't talk like that. All widows matter,"

but they didn't say that. They didn't say that because widows indeed do matter. Widows are sort of like the canary in the coal mine if you will in the Jewish community. The widows and the orphans are the most dispossess, the most vulnerable. They are the most, therefore loved by God and cared for because God cares for the vulnerable. In the Psalms, God is portrayed as the Father of the orphans and the protector of the widows. You didn't mess with those people unless you wanted to mess with God.

James, brother of Jesus, carries the same theme through later on when he's saying, "Listen, you want to know what true faith is? True faith is taking care of the widows and the orphans. If you're not doing that, it really doesn't matter what you say you believe. It doesn't matter what you argue about. It doesn't tell me what doctrines you hold or beliefs you profess. That's the litmus test." So yes, this was a big deal. They understood and I think the reason there isn't this back and forth of diminishing the widows is because they understood that, "Yes, all widows matter, but we can't say that unless Hellenists widows matter too," and so they took this seriously.

Pure Religions | New Hope Presbyterian Church | Castle Rock, CO

Now, to our ears and I would have to say our translation doesn't help this, it sounds like the apostles are being a little dismissive when they're saying, "We can't be bothered by waiting on tables. We've got things to do. We've got to study the word." I think that's a rather poor and unfortunate translation because the word for waiting on tables and that phrase for serving the word, are one and the same. It uses the word "serve", that we are going to serve our task and we need someone else to serve over here.

It's not that serving the poor, the widows, the orphans was too small for them, it was too big. It was too big just to let that go.
​​​​​​​It needed more attention than that.

They came up with this idea that said, "Listen, we want you to pick the best of the best among us who is going to make sure that this is taken care of." Now, they created what are called deacons because that's the word for serve, that's what they're going to "diakonia" the word and they want some of that "diakonia" the poor. Because of this, then they thought that this is going to help and they did.

Then what was amazing because this had never been done before, this has never been created before, the next thing they did was they recognized that the power and authority doesn't belong just to a few, it now belongs to the many and that there are different gifts throughout the body and that we all need to express them.

Then they did something else that had never been done before, it's the first time it shows up, at least in the Bible is that then they said, "Choose from among yourselves" but the word choose is the word that we would use for vote by raise of hands or to standing up, vote. This was recognizing there's something that's going on and this decision belongs to everyone and so they voted.

Now, the reverberations of that carry through in our tradition at least to today. We have ordered ministries of elders and deacons and we vote on them. We vote on them around the gifts that each people and each group has and tasks that they have been given to do because they're terribly important.

After the service today, at least at the recorded part, we're going to move to the Zoom part while we're in the live Zoom room together we are going to ordain and install laying on of hands of our elders and deacons, so this carries through, but for all of that, there's something that's even more amazing. It's not that creating a structure that had never been created before was amazing, it was. It wasn't the fact that they recognized the gifts of the many, that's pretty amazing for the first time. It wasn't even that they voted, but that was revolutionary. What was more amazing about this passage that speaks to the crisis of this day is who they chose.

Our passage it gives the names of several of them, all seven. It says, "They chose amongst themselves, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch." What the readers and the people back then would have known is that these are all Greek names. Scholars suggest that the vast majority, if not all of the ones who were voted on were Hellenists Jews. They were the marginalized ones. There are the ones who weren't really trusted. They were the ones who were different and they gave them the power.

Rather than hold on to power which is what all organizations tend to do and we, as humans, do, what they did was they give it away. In so doing, they created something that was amazing. How did they know how to do this? How did they come up with things that had never been done? How do they even know they could do these things? I think the answer is back to what the disciples were doing.

We have been given a particular task, ours is to attend to, it's to study, it's to serve the word. By doing so, you go beyond just what the word says. You go beyond just what has been done in the past, as you attend to the word, and the example is the apostles, you begin to catch what God is up to. Something is going on and maybe we even begin to see that God is doing something and now we need to change.

It is not just about seeing what has been done in the past. It is about looking at what God may yet be doing. It starts with the attending to the word and listening carefully, because if we listen carefully to the word and we do not hear the cry of the poor and the vulnerable, if we are not able to attend and to catch what God is about to do in our time, then we better go back and listen better because God is up to something.

That's the crisis. The crisis in our lives and we're in a big one right now in our world and in our nation. Whether it is giant or whether it is small, in our families, in our communities, in our churches, in our workplaces that we used to have, where we used to hang posters, our ability to navigate those places and do well will enlarge each of the ability that we have to attend to and discern what God is up to next.

I'm going to pause there because Leanne and Randy created this beautiful piece that is meant to help us do just that. It is meant to help us listen, be attentive, and to respond to what God is doing through the word and through our lives. Let's listen.

Leanne: Let us be drawn to the quiet places. Settle into the silence. Dwell with the infinite in the sacred stillness. Let us hear God's holy wisdom of the ancient words.

Ancient Words | New Hope Presbyterian Church | Castle Rock, CO


Holy words long preserved,

For our walk in this world,

They resound with God's own heart,

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

Words of Life, words of Hope,

Give us strength, to help us cope,

In this world, where e'er we roam,

Ancient words will guide us home.

Ancient words ever true,

Changing me and changing you,

We have come with open hearts,

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

We have come with open hearts,

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

Holy words of our Faith

Handed down to this age,

Came to us through sacrifice,

Oh, heed the faithful words of Christ.

Holy words long preserved,

For our walk in this world,

They resound with God's own heart,

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

Ancient words ever true,

Changing me and changing you,

We have come with open hearts,

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

Ancient words ever true,

Changing me and changing you,

We have come with open hearts,

Oh, let the ancient words impart.

What do you think would have happened if the apostles hadn't done what they did? If they hadn't taken that particular tack? If they had come to this crisis and gone a different way? What do you think would have happened if rather than listen to and be moved by the cry of the poor and the widows, they had decided that that wasn't their thing right now and they needed just to focus on the work of their own soul?

What do you think would have happened if they hadn't entrusted people who were on the outside, on the margins, and brought them in and given them, empowered them with things like authority, money? What do you think would have happened if they hadn't created structures because they'd said, "Well, that's never been done before."? Or, "We can't give people a vote." What if they had kept the power and the authority for just a few rather than recognize what God was trying to do in their midst, which was give it to the many? What do you think would have happened?

I think there would have been some hungry widows at least for a while. I think others might have picked it up. I think the greater danger and the greater tragedy would have been even if other people had picked that up, that there would still would have been a lot of widows, orphans, people who are on the outside, who would have gone to bed at night wondering whether or not they really did matter, whether they really did matter to people when push came to shove. I think there would have been a whole group of people who would never have gotten to express their gifts. I think the church would have been hobbled because of that.

Stephen is one of those new deacons. It gave him his voice and it gave him a place and he ends up becoming so powerful. Stephen becomes the very first martyr of the church and his death sparked a revolution. I think structures would have been left pretty much the way they were, power would have stayed pretty much where it was, authority would have stayed pretty much where it was. I think things would have stayed pretty much where they were, and not much would have changed. I think this new church thing probably would have faded off because really, not much really had changed.

But it didn't happen and thank God, truly thank God it didn't happen that way. That they did do what they did, that they did listen for what God was doing and read the scriptures not just as a prescription of what had been done and what always needed to be done that way, but as a prelude to maybe what God was yet to do. Maybe they read it in such a way and because of that, they were able to hear not only what God could do, but God was demanding to do. Because of that, at the end of this passage, very curious, it says,

"A great many priests converted that day."

You know who the hardest people to convince in any religious community are? It's the people who've hung around a long time, the old-timers, the long-timers, the people who get a little jaded because they've seen it all come, they've seen it all go, you're not going to impress them, maybe get a little jaded and a little cynical about the whole thing. Certainly, I think the priests were in that position. They had seen a lot of things.

It is interesting that they had seen the signs and the wonders, they had seen the amazing crowds, they couldn't help but feel the energy, but it was this that got their attention. It was like, "Ah, now here's something different. Here's people giving away power. Here's people including others. Here's the structures that actually help and don't hinder caring for the poor and the needy. Here is something that has God's fingerprints on it. I want to be a part of that."

I think that's still the crisis we're in. I think we are still in a crisis of a church that we could work in such aways that basically is interesting but becomes just less and less relevant. It doesn't matter how many programs you do, how many crowds you have, how many flyers we send out, if not much really changes, but imagine if people really did change. I think one of the great dangers of our time and for the last hundred years or more in the American church is we have taken this work of the discipling of the work of God in our lives and the work of justice and separated them as if they were optional.

We have some churches that are more discipling types of churches and caring for the inner work of the soul and others that they focus more on the justice and the caring. Isn't it interesting? Isn't it interesting that when you bring those two together, the results were explosive? Lives are changed, the community's changed, and it becomes the greatest work of evangelism.

I think that is the opportunity that is in front of us today too if we can heal that bridge. If we can look into our own hearts and say, "What do I need to do?" If I'm able to read scriptures and do the work of prayer in such a way that makes me more attuned to the needy, to the poor, to the outsider. If I am able to answer the call of the outsider and the needy, the least of these in such a way that it drives me back into deeper prayer, wouldn't that be amazing? Wouldn't it be amazing if a church came together and rather than divorce those two things, brought them back together again so that the church became better and better at caring for the least of these?

In order to do that, bringing the people who are on the margins, the least trusted, and say, "We need your help. We need to be more inclusive because we have too many blind spots. We can't hear what's going on, we need you to help us see and we need you to help work and to join us so that we can all do a better job." Wouldn't that be amazing? More than that, wouldn't that be the gospel itself? The good news of God embodied and lived out. Wouldn't that in fact be the completion of the prayer that you and I pray every week:

Your kingdom come, Your will be done,
on earth even as it already exists in heaven?

What would need to change in you this week? What needs to change in me? What would we need to do this week? Because the great crisis of the church then and now is not that there are problems, it's not that there are conflicts, that just means we're alive.

The great crisis, the great danger is that we will choose just to be more comfortable in ways that make us less and less able to hear and to respond to what God is doing in our time,

and a great opportunity, I think that gets realized the more and more that we pay attention to the charge, the charge that we go out with every week, that we give ourselves afresh this week.

"Go and love God with everything you got. Go and love your neighbor, as yourself. Go." As you go, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, may you abound with hope, to the power of the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen? As you go, whether or not you're going from here to the live version of this, so we get to ordain some elders and some deacons to their work, or whether you're going on to the work of your week, may the peace of Christ go with you, may the peace of Christ be with you. Go in peace.