Almighty God, give us ears to hear, minds to understand and the will to do those things that you teach us today. Amen.
Today the Church is setting aside two persons to be deacons. It is a joyous occasion in the life of the Church and in the lives of Betsy Randall and Beverly Patterson.
So, what are we doing today? Is today a kind of “graduation” ceremony where we are telling the world that we have two people who have “made it” – that they’ve successfully navigated through a rather complicated and frustrating Ordination Process? Are marking the completion of an arduous journey and rewarding two people who have been faithful members of the Church?
No, today we are not marking the completion of anything and being ordained is definitely not a reward for past service. Being ordained is not a reward for anything nor is it a sign of any special competence. As one of my past Rectors said, proof that God loves His Church is that she has survived her clergy.
Ordination is setting apart a person for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Today, we set apart Beverly and Betsy as Deacons in Christ One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
The word “deacon,” “diakonos,” means “servant” or “minister.” It is translated as “minister” 20 times in the NT and as “servant” 8 times. In the passage we heard from Acts today, the Apostles say “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (diakeno) tables” and “we (the apostles) will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry (diakonia) of the word.” So the congregation (not the Apostles) picked out seven men, the apostles laid hands on them and the Church had its first deacons – assistants to the Apostles. Many scholars today don’t think of the 7 as deacons as we understand that term today. In one sense they are right, the office of deacon has evolved just as the office of Bishop and of Presbyter has. The Church has almost always taught that they were deacons and I tend to agree with the Church rather than modern scholars on what the Church did 2000 years ago.
Today the Office of Deacon is evolving still. In this diocese, we have a deacon responsible for Christian formation. We have deacons who handle pastoral care for congregations. We have deacons who are hospital chaplains, who work in ministries related to senior citizens, deal with end of life issues as Hospice Chaplains, work in translating Holy Scriptures in to various languages, and are involved in prison ministry. The office of deacon is one that ministers on the margins of society. We deacons have a mission of being the voice for those who have no voice and for helping them to find their voice. We deacons have changed from, what all the Books of Common Prayer from the Ordinal in 1550 to the 1928 BCP called “this inferior office” to an order with its own dignity and personality.
Today, I would like to discuss the Office of Deacon in three images: the Deacon as Icon of Jesus Christ, the Deacon as Prophet and the Deacon as a Walking Sacrament of Ministry.
Deacons are Icons of Jesus Christ the servant. In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus says that he is among us as “one who serves.” Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate, the one through whom all things were made – this same Jesus comes among us to serve. We hear that often, but do we really believe it? Let’s stop to think about it for a second. God. Comes. Among. Us. To. Serve. How many of us really believe that Jesus is among us as one who serves? George Herbert, the wonderful priest and poet of the 17th century, wrote thus:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning / if I lack'd anything.
"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here"; / Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply, / "Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame / Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?" /"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat." / So I did sit and eat.
St. Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Magnesians, describes deacons as being entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ. That is an awesome responsibility to lay on any person and today we lay that responsibility on two new deacons. Deacons, entrusted with the servant ministry of Jesus Christ are icons – windows through which the Church and the world can see Jesus and see the joy in giving themselves to the service of others. We human beings, made in God’s image, were designed to give. We, by design receive more when we give more. We were not designed to hold and horde. Our society has lied to us over and over again and we have all too often bought into that lie. Society tells us that we are individuals who exist for our own self-defined good. That is a lie. The truth is that we are persons designed by the Triune God to live in community whose life together reflects the inner life of the Holy Trinity where each person gives himself to the others. Our life together should reflect that inner life and it is the Deacon who should be the window, the Icon, into that life by showing us Our Lord who is among us as one who serves.
In addition to being Icons, Deacons are prophets. In the Examination, the Bishop tells the candidates that they are to “interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” This entails speaking to the Church things her members may not want to hear. In the Episcopal Church, we hear a lot about “prophetic voice” or the need to be “prophetic.” I think we hear that because we have forgotten what a prophet is or what a prophet does. The prophets never called Israel out of its covenant. They always called Israel to repent because they were not following their covenant. Likewise, the Deacon calls the Church to remember her Covenant and to repent. This is why the Deacon is the preferred person to invite the people to confess their sins in the Eucharistic liturgy. All too often we look the other way when confronted with the needs, concerns or hopes of the world – particularly if they are embodied in a person who is smelly or homeless or dying or poor or mentally ill or in prison. It is the deacon’s task to stand up to the Church and say “No! We promised we would care for them! It is not ‘someone’s’ responsibility to care for the poor, the sick, the uneducated, the smelly, and those we don’t like. It is our responsibility to care for them.” In caring for those on the margins of society, we are caring for Jesus himself.
Finally, I would like to talk about the Deacon as a walking sacrament. As we all know, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, give by Christ as a sure and certain means by which we receive that Grace. Now, I am not trying to add to the list of Sacraments. But Deacons are outward and visible signs of the grace that is ministry. God gives us work to do for His kingdom, not because He needs us to do it but so that we can participate with God in the growth of His kingdom. Ministry is, itself, a gift from God and as I said earlier, we were designed by God to receive much more than we give when we are involved in ministry. The Deacons among us remind us that we were designed to give and we receive and grow more when we give than we do when we take or when we hold on to what we have.
Let me take just a moment to talk about ministry. I remember about 9 years ago when I started my own path towards ordination. I thought that ordination would expand my opportunities for ministry. I quickly learned that not to be the case. Rather than expanding opportunities for ministry, ordination focuses your ministry. And just as focusing light restricts where it shines, ordination restricts your ministry. But where you do minister is brighter because the ministry is more focused. A deacons’ ministry is more focused than that of a layperson’s. Likewise a priest’s ministry is more focused than a deacon’s and the ministry of Bishop is the most focused and the most restricted.
Deacons are outward and visible signs of ministry. Their focus in ministry helps others to see their own ministries. Deacons enable the Church to minister and to find new ministries the Church didn’t know about.
So, we see Deacons as Icon’s of Jesus Christ the Servant by which we more clearly see how God comes among us to serve us and to help us serve others. We see the deacon as the prophetic voice to the Church that reminds the Church of her Covenant with God when the Church forgets and we see the Deacon as a Walking Sacrament of the grace and gift of ministry – as one who models and empowers the ministry that God gives us. Deacons are all these things and so much more.
It has grown customary for the preacher to deliver a charge to the ordinands towards the end of the sermon. Betsy and Beverly, will you please stand.
Today you are being ordained as deacons. You are being set apart to be Icons, Prophets, and Walking Sacraments to help the Church see Jesus, recall her covenant with her Lord and to go forth in Jesus’ name to minister to others. My charge to you is three fold. First, you are to interpret to the Church, the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. What the world needs more than anything else is Jesus. Give us Jesus. Be that Icon of Jesus so that the world can see its need of Him. Be faithful in prayer and study so that you can give us Jesus. In giving us Jesus, together, we all can give the world Jesus.
Second, you both plan on being ordained presbyters at a future date. That is good. But, let this time be a time to be formed as Deacons – not as Junior Priests. Let God form you into His servants. Find an experienced deacon and let him or her help you become the Deacon you are called to be. In the parishes where you will work, you will encounter pressure to “get on with being ordained a priest.” Don’t give in to that pressure because it is from half-baked deacons that we get half-baked priests. Find some work that is distinctively diaconal. Spend some time at a homeless shelter; work in a food bank; go to prison. Bring members of the church with you and get them involved in ministry. Let God continue to form you as deacons. When you believe you have sufficiently been formed as deacons, then come before the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee to be ordained as presbyters.
Finally, never forget that you continue to be deacons even after you are ordained as presbyters. Let your diaconal formation help to form you as priests. Let God continue to form you as deacons even as He forms you as priests.
One of the men I did Clinical Pastoral Education with five years ago was a Dominican monk who was ordained deacon and then priest. I was present at his diaconal ordination. While I have my issues with how Rome does some things, I believe they nailed the Bishop’s charge to the deacons at ordination. In a minute, Bishop Stanton will lay his hands on you and make you Deacons. He will then give you a Bible as a sign of your authority to proclaim God’s word. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Bishop hands the new Deacon a Book of the Gospels with these words (mark them well): “Receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ whose herald you now are. Read what you have received. Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Live what you teach.” Beverly and Betsy, soon you will join the ranks of Deacons in Christ’s one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. You will be given the Holy Scriptures. Read them. Believe them. Teach them. Live them.
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.