This afternoon, the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania will be decided when the champions of the US bracket and the International bracket square off against one another in the final and deciding game. Yet, perhaps the team that has most captured the hearts of Little League fans this year will not play this afternoon. They are the Latin American Champions from the country of Venezuela.
To put it mildly, it is a minor miracle that the boys from Venezuela even made it to Williamsport at all. Even though the tournament picks up the travel and lodging expenses for the teams who earn the right to play there, any other costs associated with getting to the tournament are the responsibility of the team. This sounds like a bargain. But, in Venezuela even the cost of the Visa, which is roughly $170 US dollars, is far out of reach for almost every family who has a boy on the team.
Ultimately, two major league players from Venezuela pulled a few strings and provided the funds for the team to make it. But, the same wasn’t true for their parents. In fact, of all of the boys on the team, only three parents made the trip. One of the three, a father, did so by spending all of his life’s savings. Another of the three, a mom, had the help of extended family in Australia who helped to cover her costs. In turn, when the boys from Venezuela took the field to play on the grandest stage of childhood sports, their cheering section was virtually empty. Or, at least, that is what one would have assumed.
In reality, however, this is one of those unexpected beautiful places where sports inspires and teaches us of what can be. What happened instead was that others became surrogate fans of the boys from Venezuela by taking the seats their parents should have filled. Some of the surrogates were other Venezuela nationals who lived in the region and who came to lend their support. Other surrogates were extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins who had immigrated to the US – and who became the boys moms and dads for the tournament. Still others were virtual strangers with no ties or affiliation whatsoever but who out of their human goodness understood that no little boy should play baseball without someone there to cheer them on. This hodgepodge group filled the stands, waved flags and made sure that when Venezuela played someone was there to cheer them on.
My friends, that is what we are here to do for one another. The beauty of Christian community is the call to be family to each other even when we are not really related by flesh and blood. Just as God has adopted us as his children, we adopt one another as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters so that we all have people in our lives to sit in our bleachers to celebrate with us our greatest victories and to cry with us in our deepest hurts.
Julie, at its very core, this is what you have been called to do as a Deacon. Yes, our Deacons help enact the business of the church. Yes, our Deacons are decision makers and lead us financially, serve on committees and offer they wisdom in key moments of church life. But, first and foremost, our Deacons are here to lead us in the way of serving, loving and ministering to each other which in its essence is the act of being a fan in the stands of one another’s lives. It happens as we see each other as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters – as family – and as we cheer one another on or carry each others burdens when there is no one else to take up that responsibility.
And, just as you are called to do this for us, we will do this for you. As you serve us, we will serve you. As you love us, we will love you. As you play this role in our life, we will play this role in your life. This is what Christian community and Christian leadership is all about.
This is also what we see in our text for today from Romans 16. Here, the very first Deacon to be named in scripture in mentioned. Her name is Phoebe. She is a Deacon of the church in Cenchrea according to Paul. Though some of your translations use the word servant, the Greek term being translated here from the original text is the term diakonon which is the term deacon. Here the famous apostle is introducing her to a new community of believers, commending her work and asking them to take care of her. In essence, Paul is saying this. “Phoebe has lived a life of serving the people in Cenchrea as one of their deacons. She has cared for them in numerous loving ways. Now, I am asking you to do the same for her. She has loved others and will continue to do so. I ask that you love her in return.”
It’s beautiful isn’t it? This is what we can be as we serve and are served; as we occupy the stands of each others lives and others to do the same for us.
The famous minister John Claypool used to tell the story of the difference between heaven and hell this way. Claypool said that hell is the place where everyone is hungry and has a loaf of bread in their hands. But, everyone in hell also has a physical condition where their arms don’t work and thus the bread that they need is in their hands but they cannot get it to their mouth to eat. In heaven, Claypool says, the people have the same condition. But, what they have learned is that while they cannot get the bread to their mouth, they can maneuver into position and put it into the mouths of others. In heaven, they start by feeding others and find themselves well fed in the process. Amen.