Homily for the Ordination of Deacons June 27, 2010
(at Christ Church Cathedral)
Readings – Isaiah 6: 1—8; Phil 4: 4–9; Mark 10: 35–45
It has been a while since I preached in a cathedral, but this assignment made me think back to the first time I did, which was about 24 years ago. It was in conjunction with a Lenten study of a book called Rites for a New Age, by a very new author by the name of Michael Ingham, and the Dean had assigned me the final three chapters, called Ministry, Mission and Play. My unique interpretation of the final chapter on play involved a well-timed fall down the stairs of the pulpit, and a gorilla mask, neither of which I am young enough, or impudent enough, to pull off any more.
It’s great that we gather here in our Cathedral church, a spiritual centre for the city, a place from which ministry and mission flows to the community. It is the nucleus of our diocese, a place in which ministry and mission are birthed and nurtured on behalf of all of us. Bishop Michael, Dean Elliot, thank-you for the privilege of preaching here today.
It’s also a great thing that this diocese recognizes the importance of the ministry of the diaconate. My first bishop, Michael Peers, as we were preparing for my ordination to the diaconate, in May 1981, said that no matter what order of ministry we would eventually end up serving, we should always remain deacons at heart. I have tried to practice that.
The Anglican Church has a great heritage of ministry in the threefold order of bishops, priest and deacons. However, as the Gospel indicates, it’s important to put delusions of grandeur aside right from the beginning, because virtually all clergy, whether bishops, priests or deacons of the Anglican Church, after experience, almost always come to the realization that it’s really the ACW running the church anyway!
That’s not entirely facetious. The ministry of the ordained is set in a much broader context of the whole people of God, and is not to be seen in isolation. Each element loses meaning when disconnected from that larger picture of ministry. There is a relational aspect to this ministry of ours, as there is in the inner nature of God.
In a book called The Maundy Thursday Revolution, Beatrice Bruteau suggested that in washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus brought down the old temple of religious and social relationships. When a lord becomes a servant, the old hierarchical system becomes meaningless. The way of Jesus turned the old world of domination, patriarchy and violence upside down. Unfortunately, within a few centuries, the Church had pretty much put it back the old way again – as if to say, what did he know?
Being ordained can so easily become a matter of entitlements, preoccupations with what we wear, where we get to sit, and how we get treated, and justifications for our existence, that something of that dynamic edge of creative compassion can get lost. The liturgical roles given to deacons are reminders of the way the life of the community extends beyond the doors in compassionate service.
St. Paul had the kind of personality to be a Grand Inquisitor or something equally sinister. He had to learn the hard way how to be a servant. When Jesus said we must lose our life in order to find it he might well have been speaking of our need to escape the tyranny of the ego – in other words, lose your ego and you will find life emerging around you that corresponds with your new freedom. Paul didn’t entirely lose the obnoxious personality, but even in a prison cell, he was still confident of being centered in the love of God, and radically free in Christ. “The Lord is near; don’t worry about anything.”
Perhaps only once in a while or even once in a lifetime, there comes a moment, when you realize beyond doubt that you are not just a functionary working for an institution called the church, but a servant of the living God – and that does pretty much change everything. This is the kind of moment that the prophet Isaiah had in the Temple. Suddenly it is no longer an empty building, but a place full of the presence and power of God. Suddenly the sacred is no longer an abstract concept but a present, inter-active reality.
Isaiah might have been a priest for years, but from that moment on he was driven by a different motivation and vision. Christine, Robert and Christopher: it was a great privilege to share the retreat with you. I hope you will continue to create time and space in your life when and where the Spirit can remind you that you are not just institutional functionaries, employees, or church officials, but servants of God.
Isaiah had an experience which took him right out of himself. In an instant he became deeply aware of the larger context in which he had been so blissfully sleeping – “dead to the world,” as it were –and suddenly became not only willing, but able, to be a faithful servant of God and to go where he was needed. By being responsive to the call and the presence of God, the ordained serve as motivators, catalysts, for the whole Church.
In the ordination service it says “your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” Your ministry is meant to reveal something, to make something clear that is now obscure. Jesus urged his followers to pay attention – to look, to notice and listen to the world around them – to the environment, to the poor, to the things you might miss, or dismiss as insignificant, like a little old lady offering her gift at the Temple, or a little child, the way a bird flies or the way a flower smells. He praised those who were willing and able to see his face in the faces of the poor, the marginalized, and even our enemies. That is the kind of compassionate, reverential vision and spirituality that can motivate a deacon to make a difference in the world. Deacons, in their calling to serve in the world beyond the church, remind us that the church is not primarily about buildings, any more than family is primarily about the size and location of house you live in.
About 90 years ago the French priest and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin suddenly understood the priesthood in much larger terms. As he contemplated how he might celebrate Easter out in the middle of a remote area of China, this insight came to him:
“Since once again, O Lord, in the steppes of Asia, I have no bread, no wine, no altar, I will raise myself above those symbols to the pure majesty of reality, and I will offer to you … upon the altar of the entire earth, the labor and the suffering of the world.
. . . O Lord, make us one!”
It seems to me that a similar revolution has to happen to the diaconate. As de Chardin saw greater implications in the Eucharist, in his own ministry, and in the theology of the Incarnation, it seems critical that the diaconate seeks an equally cosmic and holistic approach. The traditional role for deacons was pretty much circumscribed by the parish boundaries. As de Chardin saw a wider and deeper application of sacramental theology, we need a wider and deeper application of compassion, of genuine sympathy – of what it means to be a neighbour in a truly mutual sense.
Here again the reading from Isaiah the prophet is enlightening. “The posts of the door (or thresholds) shook.” Why was that so significant for Isaiah? How is it significant for us? I think any genuine call or movement or manifestation of God rattles the existing doors, the gates, the access points — the customary ways of coming and going – and makes us aware of what we have closed, and what needs to open. As Isaiah would go on to point out (Ch 49), Israel’s sense of calling was much too small, so the prophet painted an inspired picture of God’s calling going out to all known nations – a growing awareness of the place of the other in the grand scheme of things. As it says, “The whole earth is full of God’s glory.” Indeed, in Isaiah’s vision, just the hem of the garment filled up the entire Temple. The implication is that the rest of it, i.e. most of it, and thus where God is to be found, is outside the Temple. Isaiah’s vision re-focuses Israel’s ministry outward, to a deeper awareness of the place and importance of other people, in a much larger vision of what the ministry of the people of God was supposed to mean.
We need to see points of convergence in a confusing world, and principles of integration amidst the many disintegrating influences of our time. De Chardin said: “I want to teach people how to see God everywhere, to see God in all that is most hidden, most solid, and most ultimate in the world.” We will say to the ordinands: “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” If our deacons are being asked to say “Here I am, send me into the world,” if we are truly asking them to see God every place they go, it is essential that the Church listen to what the world is telling us through them. Too many times, the Church has gone to sleep, like Rip Van Winkle, while the world moved on, and we became strangers.
In its checkered past, the Church has made many mistakes and caused many distortions in how people relate to each other and to God. One of the most enduring errors is the dualistic, heaven or hell, Us and Them approach to life, and of treating God like a commodity that we own, as though the Church were something like a KFC franchise, and all we need to do is put on a funny white costume and stick to the recipe. Once upon a time we thought we had to save, to tell, to enlighten. Our task now is to understand, to reconcile and to heal misunderstandings, divisions and wounds which in many cases have been created by the church in the first place. The church in our time needs a very different apologetic than the church in other eras. Our ordained leaders are called to show the whole Church how to adopt the mindset of service, which, according to scripture, is the mind of Christ.
Too many Christians have defined the world in terms of where God is, and where God is not. The word “Religion” means to bind together, to re-connect, to reconcile and overcome separation. In our time religion has come to mean virtually the opposite to people. Deacons, I believe, are called to play a key role in creating connections, or helping the church see connections, in cases where we tend to be blind to them. We’re used to looking at things from the inside out. Part of your responsibility will be to help the church look at itself from the outside in.
I saw a movie a few years ago called Saving Grace: Has Anyone Seen the Pope Lately? The pope (Tom Conti) is reading some official papers in one of the Vatican gardens and a paper blows out of his hand and over the wall. He opens a door in the wall and suddenly finds himself locked outside the walls, in ordinary clothing, no longer separated from the world. But while Vatican officials obsess about his absence, he goes on an adventure of connecting with people and rediscovering his own role as Pontifex Maximus — the Great Bridge Builder.
You have before you people who are willing to build bridges, people who take very seriously this calling to be a servant. Each deacon will need to explore which kind of bridge and what kind of service will be a focus. I am certain that deacons have a key role to play in helping us recognize that the Church must be willing not just to give to the world but to receive; not just to preach to the world, but to listen and learn.
“Always remain a deacon at heart” – is to keep that passion for the poor and the powerless and the voiceless at the very heart of the church’s concern. To me, a deacon is one who helps the Church remember and at times re-consider its values and priorities: the least are not meant to be last; the poor are not worthless; the broken are not to be discarded; the lost or marginalized are not loved by God any less than those who believe they are found (saved).
These past few days, on the pre-ordination retreat, I got to journey with some amazing people, who have wonderful gifts and experiences. I don’t know if they learned anything from me, but I learned a lot from them. That these good and gifted people are prepared to offer themselves in service to the church and community is inspiring and indeed something to be celebrated. Each of them will be (and already is) a huge blessing to the life of our Church. I hope you will let them lead you, by service and by example, to a renewed relationship between the Church and the world God loves.
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers