Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ordination to the Diaconate

It is my deep and heartfelt prayer that the new deacons of the Diocese of Mississippi will have an easier time with their ministry than I did trying to figure out how to eliminate extra spaces between paragraphs in this post... What an honor and a joy it was to celebrate a big moment with them on Saturday!

Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 84; Acts 6:2-7; Luke 22:24-27

Now the word of Pam and Scott and Dennis came to me, saying, "Will you please preach at our ordination?"  I said yes then, but as the year turned and the time came to consider what I might say in the presence of these three friends who are willing and reading to enter the diaconate, this special ministry of servanthood: they are ready and willing, our liturgy says, to model their lives upon Holy Scriptures; to make Christ an dhis redemptive love known; to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world; and at all times, in their life and teaching, to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.  Oh, and to do other duties assigned to them from time to time...

I said yes then, but now, considering all that these three are ready and willing to do as deacons in the church...now I trembled and said, Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a priest.  But God is also willing and ready to do this, and so I shall humbly endeavor to speak whatever God commands.

I am only a priest, and a school chaplain at that.  Most of my homilies are preached before congregations of children and teenagers.  In fact, just three days ago, on the Feast of the Epiphany, I was standing in this very pulpit, not during the cathedral's brilliant festival of lights but earlier in the day, when all of St. Andrew's Middle School gathered here for our own celebration.  "The candles you hold," I told them, "represent the light of God that shines in and through you for all the world to see... So please...don't drip wax in your neighbor's hair, or use them for imaginary lightsaber duels, or do anything that might burn the church down.  There's an ordination here on Saturday, you know..."

Just three days ago.  By now the school jackets left behind have been gathered into lost and found, the programs folded into paper airplanes and crammed into pew racks have been recycled, and the candle was has mostly been cleaned up.  Three days ago there were rich red poinsettias climbing the steps into the choir and clustered around the high altar.  A wreath of evergreens and magnolia leaves stood beside the stairs, its four blue candles exchanged for white, a fifth white candle in the center announcing good news of great joy for all people.  And just below the pulpit, so near I could have breathed in the sweet baby smell, were figures of the holy family and the animals who attended the birth.  A camel kept watch from atop the organ.

It was all here, just three days ago.  But today it is all gone.  No poinsettias, no evergreens, no wreath.  No camels, no sheep, no stars.  The shepherds have returned to their fields and the magi to the east.  Even Mary, Joseph, and the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes have gone, no longer living in Bethlehem town but perhaps down in Egypt, or back up in Nazareth.  Tomorrow when we gather to worship in our communities, Jesus will be grown, with Jordan River mud beneath his feet and a dove over his head as a voice from heaven declares, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

For so long we were getting ready.  For so long we were waiting, anticipating, hoping, planning, and preparing.  For so long we journeyed, each day nearer with Mary and Joseph (who were also getting ready and waiting and anticipating and hoping and preparing), each day nearer with them to the big moment in that silent and holy night.  And then we waited and hoped and journeyed again, each day nearer with the magi to the big moment when yonder star revealed to them a perfect light.

What happens, though, when the big moment is gone?  When it is past, and there is only ordinary time ahead?

Howard Thurman, in whose remarkable life in the last century mingled theology and civil rights, poetry and preaching... Howard Thurman offered his understanding of what happens after the big moment in his poem entitled, "The Work of Christmas."  Thurman wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

What happens when the big moment is gone?  When it is past, and there is only ordinary time ahead?  We get to work.

So it was for Jeremiah, after the big moment when God called him, commissioned him, and touched him, putting God's own words in his mouth.  The work of prophesying began.  So it was for the disciples, after the big moment when Jesus, in sharing a meal of bread and wine, shared himself with them.  They struggled to understand his meaning, and he told them that true greatness was in giving one's self for the sake of others.  The work of serving began.

And so it will be for you, Pam and Scott and Dennis.  So it is for all of us at some point in our lives, or perhaps over and over again, when in a big moment like an epiphany we see clearly how God is calling us and equipping us and blessing us.  O God, Bishop Gray will pray as the three of you kneel before him.  O God...we praise you for the many ministries in your Church, and for calling these your servants to the order of deacons.  For so long you have been getting ready and waiting and anticipating and hoping and planning and preparing.  The big moment is finally here.

What will happen when it is gone?  When tomorrow we return to ordinary time?

You'll get to work.  In the words of Ormonde Plater, deacon in the Diocese of Louisiana, you will "through activity, word and example...encourage, enable, enlist, engage, entice, model, lead, animate, stimulate, inspire, inform, educate, permit, organize and support Christian people in ministry in the world, and...point to the present of Christ in God's poor."  It is extraordinary work, and we have already declared our desire that you be ordained to do it, and promised to uphold you in your ministry.  Soon we will say a loud "Amen!" when Bishop Gray prays, As your Son came not to be served but to serve, may these deacons share in Christ's service.

But we won't always listen to you when you enjoin us to serve.  The world won't always see what you see when you look into the eyes of God's poor.  Like King Herod we will be afraid of losing our power. Like the disciples we will want to know how much our work is worth.  Like Jeremiah we will doubt our ability to do the hard things that God asks.

And so, perhaps, will you.  When the big moment is gone and everything looks ordinary again, and the work is wearying, and the need is overwhelming, perhaps you also will say, Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak for I am only... I am only...

We are only... We are, each and every one of us, only people whom God knew before God formed us in the womb.  We are only people whom God consecrated before we were born.  Do not be afraid, God says to us, as God once said to Jeremiah, for I am with you...

This is the real meaning and the real work of Christmas and Epiphany, those big moments that today only appear gone, for God is now Emmanuel, God-with-us in each and every ordinary moment.  God's love has been made manifest in Jesus Christ, who taught us through activity, word and example to love and to serve all people.

The real meaning, the real work of the big moments is what we then go and do in ordinary time, in ordinary places.  The shepherds did not remain at the stable - they went out glorifying and praising God for all that the had seen and heard.  The magi did not betray the child Jesus - they returned home by another way that he might live to lead others home.  The disciples did not remain seated at the table - they learned to serve, and when they were called to minister in other ways, they appointed others to serve, to be the hands and feet and heart and eyes of Jesus Christ.

For Christ himself did not stay at the manger, or on the banks of the Jordan River.  He did not stay at the table in the Upper Room, or in the stone cold of the tomb.  Jesus remains Emmanuel, he remains God-with-us, going out into the world

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To be among us as one who serves.

When the sound of our singing is stilled, when the bread and wine from the table are cleared, when we are gathering our coats and preparing to go home, at the end of this service, our new deacons will dismiss us and this big moment will be over.  Then the work of deaconing will begin.

Pam and Scott and Dennis, as you will urge us moment after moment in your ministry, so let us now urge you: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.

Artwork: "Light in the Darkness," by Linda Witte Henke; "The Beating of God's Heart," by Brie Dodson; "Leaving the Cloister," by Shiela Robinette; "The Cross of Ubuntu," by Brother Anthony-Francis, Hermit; "An Invitation," by Deborah Scarff; "Places of Light #3," by Krystyna Sanderson.

1 comment:

Julie Nolte Owen said...

Simply beautiful, Jennifer. Well done!