Bob Dylan and the Diaconate

1965 Newport Folk Festival

1965 Newport Folk Festival

Saturday is going to be a special birthday. I’m not always good at remembering birthdays, and I don’t know why this one stands out to me each year, but this one always seems to catch my attention. There must be something about the Times that are A-Changin’ to spring, or something musical Blowin’ in the Wind. On Saturday, the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan will be 73 years old.

It would be tempting to say that this aging artist is a fixture of the Baby Boomer generation. Much of his fame came from the 60s; his relationship with Joan Baez; and the civil rights movement. Why would a self-respecting Gen Xer, such as myself, have any interest in Bob Dylan?

As much as his iconic gravelly voice catches my attention, so too do the frequent shifts in his music style. Bob Dylan reimagined himself more times than any other singer-songwriter I can think of. His innovations, and his refusal to be swayed by critics, are part of what makes Bob Dylan a musical genius, and part of why I really like him.

Bob Dylan is a pivotal figure in American music. Bruce Springsteen spoke at his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He said, “Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body.” The Beatles cited him as an influence, and Jimmi Hendrix famously covered his tune “All Along the Watchtower.” Few artists have had the staying power of Bob Dylan. All the while the times were a-changing… so was he.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, he changed his name to Dylan because he liked the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He brought a literary style to folk music, with complex and poetic lyrics. It was an unprecedented shift in folk music, and while we can look back on it in awe, not all of his contemporaries appreciated it. At the 1965 Hampton Folk Festival he was boo-ed off the stage when he started playing an electric guitar!

Bob Dylan was never what anyone wanted him to be. He tried his best to share the gift he’d been given, but it was not always received well. He may have enjoyed popular success for all the songs we know him for, but it wasn’t until 1973 that he won a Grammy for a concert album. Dylan is the kind figure in our culture who makes the rest of us take a critical look at ourselves – and who and what we want to say we are. So much of the content of Dylan’s music is based on making the connections to justice and peace, and our rightful place in the context of the people around us. His lyrics were often confrontational, and while we’re shifting uncomfortably in our seats at what Dylan shows us, we can feel a tension and unrest that feels like a hard rain falling.

Aw… gosh. Why am I telling you more than you ever wanted to know about Bob Dylan? Well, it’s because I’m trying to tell you about the first Deacon: Stephen, from our first reading from Acts. Isn’t it obvious? These two share a special kinship. It’s not music.

Like Dylan, Stephen is also pivotal figure. As the first Deacon in Christianity, Stephen was compelled to line out for the Sanhedrin the connections between the God of Abraham and Moses, with Jesus the Messiah. It’s a long story, and in the end he implicates the Sanhedrin as “stiff-necked people.” He catches them in the act of refusing to allow the Holy Spirit to move their hearts and minds. He forces them to look at the inequities in society to which they acquiesce.

Stephen was not what everyone wanted him to be. He was called by God to a mission that was different from anything that had come before him. Something new was about to happen. We have no background for Stephen that we can point to, but it was likely he was a person of some means. Stephen was willing to give up all his comforts to take on the role of a servant to God’s people. His story, short though it may be, gives us a blueprint for how we are to see ourselves in the context of the call to faith among the people around us. Whatever means Stephen might have come from no longer matter in this beatific moment. When he gazes upon the throne of God, no earthly thing holds any value for him anymore. He’s got nothing, and nothing left to lose.

The first Deacons were designated to serve at tables, which is why Deacon Marlyn sets the table for us each week. Deacons make sure wealth is redistributed equitably, which is why Deacon Marlyn fills the chalices with the wine and makes sure we have enough bread to distribute. Service at the Table is an ancient and sacred task that Deacons oversee.

They’re also charged with proclaiming the Gospel, which is why Deacon Marlyn brings the Gospel down into the midst of you. When she shares the Word of God, she does so as though the events on the page are happening right now, and calls us to make the connection between what has happened in the past to what’s going on right now. That is what Stephen did just prior to where our reading begins today.

Deacons don’t always say things that make us feel good about ourselves. Part of their value to the Church is that they are ordained to make us uncomfortable – to point out our shortcomings, and where we think too highly of ourselves. Deacons call us out on our self-importance. The contributions of Stephen, and every other Deacon since him, cannot be overstated.

Since this moment recorded in the Acts of the Apostles many others have followed Stephen’s example of connecting the things that came before us with all that Jesus calls us to become. It’s up to us to receive the message they have for us and to put it into action. In what ways do we fail to redistribute wealth to all equitably? Where do our egos make us “stiff-necked people?” Countless saints and martyrs have been boo-ed off the stage when they challenged the inertia of the Church. In some cases, the Church stoned them just like they said they would.

The transformative moment for Stephen comes at the very beginning of our reading when he gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God. In this mystical moment Stephen realizes that the kingdom of heaven is all that matters. All the trappings of the temporal world are meant to be shed. To truly be in the kingdom of heaven means that the facades that we hide behind are stripped away and we are transparent to one another – revealing the capital T Truth of being united to God through Jesus Christ. It’s from that that we begin the journey of faith within the context of the people around us.

Stephen is a powerful role model for Christians – or perhaps more accurately, a powerless role model. I pray that more people come to the conclusion Stephen did about the true meaning of being a disciple Jesus Christ. We were not put on this planet to hoard resources, but to become poor. We were never meant to be power-brokers among the faithful. Christianity is at its best when it’s the underdog. We are closer to the kingdom of heaven when we become invisible now with no secrets to conceal. This is the mystical beauty of faith to which I have pledged my life. Imagine what Christianity would be like if we all took Stephen as a role model. I hope one day to be as powerless as Stephen, and see the beatific vision. And yes, I know full well what the result might get me.

If martyrdom is how the faithful meet their end, then so be it. The courage of Stephen and many, many others, to life faith boldly and unapologetically is empowering as well as inspiring. It is this example of discipleship that has done so much to develop the divine mission of the Church. I certainly won’t go looking for reasons for people to throw rocks at me, but if having this example of faith means martyrdom, then to quote Bob Dylan: “Well, I would not feel so all alone. Everybody must get stoned.”

Recognizing Jesus

What does Jesus look like? Have you seen him? Would you know him if you saw him? Recognizing Jesus is the critical issue for us in Luke’s accounts of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Luke is writing to his contemporary readers, but the hand of God moves his pen, because he’s also writing to Christians in every future generation. You say you follow Jesus, but how do you know you’re following him if you don’t recognize what he looks like?

Two of Jesus’ followers were going on a walk and Jesus appears to them, but Luke writes, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This is not a physical defect. They are not blind or stupid. Their inability to recognize Jesus indicates a more profound spiritual teaching than simple ignorance.

Have you ever noticed that there is no physical description of Jesus in the Gospels? We believe that Jesus Christ is the single most influential person that ever lived – we understand this person to be fully human and fully divine at the same time, and that this is the Son of God. Those are remarkable attributes to say the least. Yet nowhere do we find a physical description of this remarkable figure. I’ve come to believe that it is a divine omission – his physical looks would only be a distraction. But it leaves us with the question: how are we to recognize Jesus when we see him if we don’t know what he looks like?

This question is the most important thing Luke is leading us to in his Gospel. This question is critical for all future followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus appears in-person to some of his own disciples, and they don’t recognize him. They call him a “stranger in Jerusalem.” You would think that the people who spent so much time with Jesus would not be so oblivious. While it would be tempting to diagnose this “blindness” as the result of acute grief, or post-traumatic stress, or some other powerful emotional or psychological presentation, this is not an issue where they are blinded by their grief over the death of their friend. This inability to recognize Christ serves more important purpose.

The two travelling disciples are on the same learning curve as the women who brought spices to the tomb earlier in this chapter from Luke. They went looking for Jesus and were asked “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They went looking for what they expected to find, but the Messiah does not conform to our desires, and so what they were looking for was not there. Those living do not reside among those who are dead. Jesus was not dead, so why should he be in a tomb? Do you remember what we’ve read before from Isaiah 55? The Lord says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” God has plans for us that do not necessarily match the plans we make for ourselves. God does as God does, and while sometimes that falls in line with our objectives, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God does what we want God to do – or to be. This post-resurrection appearance illustrates nicely the quote from Isaiah.

The disciples described Jesus as “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” Jesus appeared to them as the one they had “hoped for to redeem Israel.” This was as far as they could go in understanding the nature and mission of the Messiah. They understood him only in human terms, and only insofar as their experiences would allow. Now this person who came with such hope for Israel is dead. They saw Jesus’ dead body, and as far as they’re concerned, that fact is their reality for all that Jesus can ever be now. Even though they were told that on the third day he would rise, these disciples just can’t stretch their comprehension to include that Jesus could possibly do what he said he would do. Jesus is not conforming to what dead people do. Therefore, the disciples can’t see him.

Jesus tries to get them to expand their understanding of the Messiah – tries to correct their vision so that they know Jesus when they see him. Jesus asks them, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” He tries to draw out their own experiences to restore their vision of the Messiah. They don’t seem to be able to remember anything about Jesus but his deceased body.

What Jesus looks like physically doesn’t matter. I believe there’s a divine purpose for the absence of physical descriptions of Christ in the Bible. Jesus chooses to reveal himself to us in more important and profound ways. We recognize Jesus by Word and action. Jesus said to Thomas in John’s Gospel, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” The disciples on the road do not recognize Jesus because they haven’t been remembering him in the way Jesus instructed.

We read, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” It’s important for us to note that Jesus begins to reveal himself to us in the Word of God – the scriptures. While Jesus was beginning to reveal himself to the disciples in this way, their hearts burned within them. Something was stirring – they were beginning to see. The next thing that Jesus does in his process of revealing himself to his disciples is by his actions. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Then they were able to recognize Jesus in their midst, and see Jesus for who he is. Does this pattern feel familiar to you: reading and interpreting the scriptures, and then breaking bread together? It should.

Sisters and brothers, this is how we recognize Jesus – in our own liturgy. Just like Jesus does with these two disciples, we begin to open our eyes by hearing and interpreting the scriptures first, then at the Table we take the bread, bless, break, and give it. Our own liturgy follows the pattern that Jesus uses to reveal himself to his disciples.

When we go looking for Jesus to conform to our expectations, he won’t be there. When we want God to show up, to be and do all the things that we want God to be and do, we’re not finding God. God’s desire to live up to our expectations has about as much life in it as a corpse in a tomb. If we want to see Jesus, we have to learn to look beyond our personal will. We have to remember him in the way he taught us in order to begin to recognize the Messiah.

Let me drive this point home: It’s important to remember all the times Jesus is invited to break bread with his people. He got a lot of dinner invitations in the Gospels.
Jesus never turned down an invitation to a meal where there was bread and wine to share. . . . .

Every time someone invites Jesus to break bread with them, he comes.
He shows up every time. . . . .

And when he’s at table with his people,
this guest had a knack for becoming the host. . . . .

And here we are, just a few minutes away from remembering Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

One last thing… there are two travelers in this story. Only one gets a name. Only one has a true speaking part. The other disciple is an active observer. In Luke’s masterful story-telling style Jesus is trying to get the disciples to recognize him; and Luke is trying to get us to recognize the identity of the other disciple. It is none other than us. When we remember Jesus in the breaking of the bread together, we take our place in the story of the resurrected Christ.

And that’s the good news.