Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A sermon for the ordination of Jon Stratton to the Sacred Order of Deacons

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Michael D. Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday, June 6, 2012

“…in the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.” Amen. 

OK, let’s get one thing out of the way real quick.

Jon, you are not called to be a deacon. You know it. I know it. We all know it.

And because of that, there is a little dance … a little fiction we will be perpetuating here in a few minutes when Bishop Smith asks you if you are “truly called by God and God’s church to the life and work of a deacon” and you say “I believe I am so called.”

You and the church have discerned a call to ministry for you and we all know that call is to priesthood. And so what we do here this night is a little odd and probably more than anything serves to confuse people into thinking that a deacon is another word for priest in training instead of a wholly separate order with different skills required and responsibilities conferred.

But this isn’t going to be a rant against the transitional diaconate. Because I actually do think God can take this strange, vestigial … and somewhat purgatorial stage of ministry … and use it for great good in you and in the Church. But if that is going to happen, really what it comes down to is this. Will you let the charge you receive and the vows you take this night bind you. Will you say what you mean and live what you say this night. And will we, gathered here to witness and bless this event, live what we have already said this night and uphold you in this ministry.

So if we’re going to do it, let’s not cross our fingers and toes when we say these words. Let’s really do it. So let’s take a look at it, shall we? Everyone turn to page 8 and let’s see what this deacon thing is all about. Got it. Good. This is the examination and vows for a deacon. Basically, it’s the covenant we as Christ’s body the church and Jon are making with each other. So let’s make sure we’re reading the fine print here. In fact, let’s read it out loud together … those first two paragraphs.

My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely. 

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself. 

The most important statement is the very first one. Every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

 Following Jesus. That is what we are all about. All of us. There is no other purpose for the church. We are to follow Jesus, serving God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. Each of us and all of us.

Jon, your ordination is not about taking on that call. You and all of us who are baptized did that in baptism. Ordination is the church and you affirming that you have been gifted for leadership in helping each and all of us live into this call. You are to lead us in following Jesus. That is your job. That is your joy.

And we follow Jesus by trying to be like Jesus. The Gospel we just heard reminds us that following Jesus is about servanthood. And Jesus also tells us that the Christ is deeply present in the world’s most vulnerable. The poor. The weak. The sick. The lonely.  We are all to serve one another but particularly to be conscious of and seek and serve Christ in those poor, weak, sick and lonely.

Now there is plenty of this kind of service going on in the world, and there is no shortage of leaders in it. In the U.S. alone, there are more than one and a half million nonprofit organizations, many of them dedicated to serving the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.

Globally there is literally an aid and development industrial complex that tries to shift billions of dollars of resources and the force of political will toward helping the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.

Joining that is not what this is about. In fact, we as the church completely run off the rails when we think becoming a part of that is what we are about.

You are not being ordained tonight as the executive director of a nonprofit. No political or social agenda, no matter how deeply held it may be, should be at the heart of what we do and who we are. You are not being ordained tonight to lead us in serving all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely. You are being ordained as a minister in Christ’s body, the Church. And that means you are being ordained tonight to lead us in the name of Jesus Christ, to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.

The heart of what we do, the center from which everything we say and do needs to spring is our call to follow Jesus Christ and nothing else. That’s the whole ballgame. And that is what you are leading us in. Following Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. And because of that you and all of us are going to do this differently than the rest of the world.

Because as the Body of Christ, we don’t just feed and clothe and counsel people. We “make Christ and his redemptive love known.” We don’t just visit the sick and in prison, and give the thirsty a drink of water, we proclaim that ‘in serving the helpless we are serving Christ himself.”

As the Body of Christ, we have a different standard. It isn’t the metric of meals served and people housed. It is how effectively have we “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And keeping that focus – keeping your eyes and ours continually fixed on Jesus – that will be the biggest challenge of the rest of your life. Because, Jon, the world and the church will tempt you and all of us to care more about just about anything else than that. If your experience of ordained ministry is like mine and just about everyone I know, the only line of this charge you will be regularly held accountable for is “and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time.”

There is only one inoculation against this that I know of. And it’s right there front and center on the page before us.

You are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them.

Being faithful in prayer, in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and letting both be THE guiding force in your life. If you are going to be the servant leader that we desperately need to help us follow Jesus more closely, praying and reading and reflecting on scripture EVERY DAY must be the only non-negotiable thing in your life. Because if you do it, it will have ripple effects of transformation in the church because you will lead us into it, too. And if you don’t, it will have ripple effects in Christ’s body just as powerful the other way.

About 80 years ago, the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury on the eve of the Lambeth Conference. She could have written it today. And in a time where we are spending so much time anxiously fretting about church structure and cultural relevance, it is probably the most important text on Christian leadership we can consider. She writes about the priesthood, and since that’s where you’re headed, I think we can use it here, but really it applies to the diaconate, too. Here’s part of what she says:

The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice. Her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy, and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life. The Church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God, and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the priest. …

God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him…. The future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman’s theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained. However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest. Divine renewal can only come through those whose roots are in the world of prayer.

Jon, would you please stand.

You are ordained tonight not to make us a more effective organization or to increase our average Sunday attendance or even to help us serve the poor. You are ordained this night to lead us in loving and following Jesus. To lead us in laying down our lives in love of a God who became one of us in Jesus the Christ and laid down his life on the cross.

And I need you to listen to me because it is really this simple. You are gifted enough that just on your own talents, you will be able to accomplish those “other duties as assigned” well enough that people will view you as a successful deacon or priest whether you pray and read scripture or not. And that temptation will be seductive. But if all you rely on is your own bag of tricks – and it’s a deep one, so it will be tempting – but if you just rely on that, you will never, never lead us into the kind of relationship with Christ that we need and which we crave. It will never, never, ever happen.

But if you every day without fail, spend time in prayer and scripture study. If you let your life be shaped by them. If you lead us by example in cultivating the inner life of communion with Christ that helps us not just serve all people but in the name of Jesus Christ serve all people. Well, then there is no limit to the transformation of hearts and the church that God’s Spirit can effect through you.

Jon, mean and live what you hear and say this night. Study the Holy Scriptures. Seek nourishment from them. Model your life upon them. Be faithful in prayer and reading and study of scripture. Lead us into following Jesus.

Would the rest of you please stand.

We have pledged to uphold Jon in this ministry. And the best way we can do this is every time we see him asking him three questions. The first two are these:

*Have you spent time in prayer today, Jon?
*Have you read your Bible today, Jon?

Be fearless and relentless in asking him those questions. He needs us to ask him those questions. And don’t be surprised if he asks them right back to you, because that’s what he’s supposed to do.

Because if he answers yes to those questions, we can ask him a third question, and he will be able to answer that, too. That third question is:

 Jon, can you show me Jesus?

His answer will change our life, because we will be able to see it changing his.

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