Sermon – Diaconal Ordinations 2019
Feast of Justin (Martyr at Rome, c. 167)
Perhaps the least consistently defined ministry in the Christian church is that of the deacon. Even within individual denominations, the roles deacons play vary broadly. From diocese to diocese across the Anglican Communion, aside from liturgical responsibilities, deacons serve in varying capacities. Even in congregations where deacons serve, when I ask communicants why the deacon reads the Gospel, or sets and tidies up the table, or reads certain prayers, and or gives the dismissal, they often look at me with eyes that regret having so dim a bishop and seem to say, “Why does the crucifer carry the cross? That’s the job – somewhere between acolyte and priest.”
That is the what
, not the why
. The reason she does those things in the Eucharistic liturgy is that they reflect the servanthood required of all disciples of Jesus, a servanthood that she is called to model, teach, encourage, and inspire. Thus, the deacon proclaims the Gospel, serves at tables of spiritual and physical nourishment, guides the intercessions of the church for God’s beloved, and sends us into the world to love and serve the Lord, sometimes
on Sundays and always
every day. I suspect that most communicants, when they observe a deacon serving in church, do not connect that person’s liturgical actions with their own vocation as a servant to the world. But what is done in the liturgy is intended to direct what is to be done in the world, and for deacons that is to “make Christ and his redemptive love known, by [their] word and example, to those among whom [they] live, and work, and worship,” to quote the ordinal.
In all four Gospels we hear Jesus teach about the vocation to servanthood – in directing the disciples’ response to the hungry crowds, in his conversations with Martha and Mary, in his exchange with the woman at the well, in the foot washing before his last meal with his closest friends, and in his response to James and John and the other disciples when they were bickering about who among them was the most important. All three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – include this last account in one form or another. Matthew portrays the mother of James and John as the instigator of the disciples’ dispute over preferential status when she petitions Jesus to favor her boys. Mark, on the other hand, holds James and John accountable for their own ambition, never mentioning their mother’s role as campaign manager. And Luke doesn’t mention the sons of Zebedee at all, perhaps acknowledging that the vulnerability to self-interest is common to us all.
In the Gospel lesson Deacon Anne has just proclaimed to us, Luke alone uses the image of the meal table to juxtapose the true authority of those who serve and those who are served. In setting this up, he uses a noun that is found nowhere else in the New Testament, εὐεργέτης
. We translate it as benefactor
, one who does good, from the Latin bene facere
. Interestingly, its verb form, εὐεργετέω
, to benefit or do good, is also used only once in the New Testament, again by Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles. As well, the word for the product of such an action, εὐεργεςία
, a good deed or beneficence, is used once by Luke in Acts and once in the First Letter of Timothy, and nowhere else. When we find a word so rarely used in scripture yet repeated by the same writer, we can suspect that it is of particular importance to that author. We can assume that Luke wants us to consider the differing economies by which we might understand beneficence and the transformative effect of doing good.
In Luke’s account, Jesus points out that those in authority, those who “lorded” over others, were called benefactors, the ones who do good. The verb to lord
here is not pejorative, it simply means to govern. Indeed, εὐεργέτηςwas a formal term. They were, in name, those who provided for others. Yet Jesus was asking whether in fact goodness was really what these benefactors were doing. The experience of his audience was that they provided for themselves, but not necessarily for others. Jesus’s disciples, on the other hand, both then and now, are to do the opposite, they are to do good by serving others, not by lording over them; they are to do good in self-sacrifice, not in self-interest. And so, he asks themrhetorically, “Who is greater, the one who is at
the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at
the table?” By most human economies, yes, it is. “But I am among you,” he continues, “as one who serves.” Two economies: worldly and divine; earthly and heavenly; ours and God’s.
For Jesus, and for Luke, in the divine economy, real good is done in the service of others, all others, not just the home team, and no matter who and how undeserving the other may be. And the good that is done does not simply benefit the recipient. To the contrary, it is equally and often more beneficial to the benefactor. It is, after all, more blessed to give than to receive. Jesus does not compromise on this. The arc of his life points to God, and the arc of servanthood bends toward the heart of Jesus. Three times he told Simon Peter, “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” Time and again, he adjured his followers to heal the sick, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit those in prison, clothe the naked, lift up the downhearted, welcome the stranger, care for widows and orphans, heal the brokenhearted, protect the marginalized and vulnerable, work for justice and peace. You know them all. And they translate into all the social issues that paralyze our society today, just as they did in Jesus’ day.
These are not talking points for debate or topics for discussion, they are practical expectations of justice and kindness to be done for the benefit of all. They are actions that change all
of us, the servants and the served, benefactors and beneficiaries, and in so doing, change the world. This is what God expects
Where do deacons fit into all this? First of all, they are not the designated servants. We do not ordain them so that we don’t have to do the serving ourselves. Rather, it is precisely the opposite. We ordain deacons not just for their
servanthood, but for of our own
. We ordain deacons to lead us into our own vocation as servant leaders. We ordain deacons to inform, inspire, and encourage us to be the hands and heart of God, reaching out with actions, not just words, to heal a hurting and hurtful world.
We are living in an unstable and contentious time, when truth seems increasingly imperiled and trust undermined by self-interest and fear. The tragic and horrific mass shootings in Virginia Beach yesterday represent one in a long list of symptoms of national and global division being met with political, economic, environmental, social, and physical violence. This is not the first time humanity has faced such challenges, but each time we do, the potential consequences seem greater. Our vitriol climbs higher and our capacity for civil discourse drops lower. We all know this. We hear it in conversations with colleagues, family, and friends; we know it as well from the conversations we carefully avoid. The power of evil uses our passion and conviction to separate us from one another, and we struggle to find common ground, the ground that is made holy when we make room on it for the one who seems our enemy. Each of us, no matter what our politics or theology, is vulnerable to the illusion that we are on the side of the angels, that we are right, the εὐεργέτης, the ones that do the good. In all of this, there is an increasing feeling of helplessness that people express to me, and I suspect to you, on an almost daily basis, a helplessness I experience myself, which undermines the hope that kindles creativity and goodwill.
No matter how great our helplessness may be, God is bigger than all of it, and God is in the business of hope. St. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the church in Corinth that, come what may, hope remains, along with faith and love.
And hope comes most often not as the product of words, but when sleeves are rolled up and the children of God serve and are served. The diaconate brings hope, neither with chastening declarations nor with comforting platitudes, but by replacing helplessness with action on behalf of others, action that provides them with the companionship of Jesus and makes us bigger people, more humble, more whole, and more holy.
Following our savior Christ, we get to the table of salvation by serving, because in serving others, we surrender our self
-interest to God’s interest in them. That is hard for us, and that is why we need deacons. We need deacons to hold us accountable, not by arguing a point, but by helping us to roll up our sleeves and give ourselves to the needs of others, as calisthenics for giving ourselves to God. We need deacons to inspire and encourage us to draw closer to Jesus by sacrificial acts of charity, compassion, and justice. As Bishop Persell will remind the ordinands in the Examination, “At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” That is the ministry of the diaconate, to show Christ's people, by word and action, that in serving the helpless we are serving Christ himself. While it continues in all three ordained ministries, it begins in its most focused and distinct incarnation here.
Stephen, Brian, Rachel, Daniel, Marie, Anna, and Barbara: I hope it will come as a relief to you when I tell you that, while you may be the apple of God’s eye, you are not the hope of the world, nor are you even the hope of the church. None of us is, because, of course, Jesus is the hope of the world. But in giving yourselves to God as clay in the potter’s hands, you will continue to be formed as vessels of that hope, and by your surrender, your prayer that “thy
will be done” will be answered more and more fully. As deacons, you will be agents of divine hope every time you assist God’s beloved in replacing helplessness with generous and sacrificial service. And every time you encourage and inspire those with whom you work or play or live or worship to stand with and stand up for the one in need, the common ground they share will be holy ground.
My sisters and brothers, on this feast day of Justin, who gave himself fully to God, even unto death, we ordain you today to give your
selves over to God, like clay to the potter, and model for us the surrender of Jesus, in the liberating hope that we might all become what God wills for us to be, the very body of Christ. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio
June 1, 2019
Acts 4:9, I Timothy 6:2