I was honored to be asked to preach yesterday at the ordination of Marie, Lauren, and Fred as deacons yesterday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, New York. Here follows my offering. I will not provide the scriptural citations as they are quoted within the sermon.
May the ministry of these three in Jesus’ name be long, happy, and graced!
Bishop Provenzano, deacons, priests, holy people of God:
I remember lying on the floor on the day I was ordained a deacon as the voices of the people gathered prayed. I remember the strange feeling of lying face-down there, the sound of prayer above and surrounding. I remember the old carpet on which we lay was dusty. It had been swept in a vain attempt to clean it up by brooms made of great lengths of straw, some of which had come out of the brooms and remained on the carpet, and now they jabbed and stabbed us as we lay there in the middle of that community of prayer. We were stretched out, one with the community and very much alone, apparently at rest but vigilant, every bone and muscle tensed as the prayer continued and the stubble from the brooms poked us.
The same ancient word of God to young Jeremiah that we have heard this morning was read that day as well. To the prophet’s protestation that he was not ready to prophesy, the God of Israel responded, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you and shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
The same hope we prayed moments ago in Psalm 84 beat in our hearts that day too: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose hearts are the highways to Zion, Who going through the barren valley find there a spring, and the early rains will clothe it with blessing. They will go from strength to strength . . . .”
We took, as Lauren, Marie, and Fred do today, Saint Paul’s description of the ministry as our own: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”
Like you this morning, we pledged anew that day, in a quite particular way, to follow Jesus the Christ. Our hearts were filled with the desire to learn from him, and with him and through him and like him, to be within the community of disciples “as one who serves.”
With my fellow ordinands I lay on that dusty rug that morning with openness of heart and sincerity of mind. We hardly knew it then, but we had no idea to whom we would be sent, what we would be commanded to say, and just what it was that we were being told we need not ever fear. We did not know how barren some of the valleys we’d pass through would be; how long we would feel the wait for the blessing of God’s rain, nor how going from strength to strength would sometimes feel like the acrobat waiting for the next trapeze to appear after she’d let go of the last and hung in mid-air, foolishly faithful and faithfully foolish. We hardly knew then how the temptation to proclaim ourselves rather than Christ Jesus would be real, because we knew more – or so we thought – about ourselves than about him, and because our commitment to know him more deeply would wax and wane through the years.
We knew little then, really, about what it means to serve in the church or even what kind of servants the church would need. And if I am entirely honest, I don’t know that much more today than I did then. Like you, I got up off the floor and wiped myself off. I took a first step, and life happened. Ministry happened. Service and preaching and sacraments and connecting to people on the streets happened. Hour followed hour. Day followed day, and year followed year. Joy came, and so did tragedy. Clarity came, and so did profound confusion. Sin came and forgiveness followed. Hunger came and Eucharist nourished. The world turned and the church changed. The proclamation of the Word went on, and amazingly, that Word has had something to say to every place, to every person, to every parish and ministry, to every situation, to every Sunday everywhere since then. And it still does.
That Word has been living and active all along simply and marvelously because the One who spoke it remains living and active. God spoke the day my class was ordained. God speaks today. We believed, as I know you do, that we meant everything we said that day, that our words were true. But that mattered infinitely less than the fact that what God spoke that day, and this, and what God will speak tomorrow is true. True and transformative and saving.
The beautiful prayers of this liturgy, in the words of the Bishop and in your responding affirmations, offer you the church’s guidance in the ministry of deacon which you take up today. “A special ministry of servanthood,” with service especially to “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.” For them and for us all you make the love of Christ known. You make certain that the church remains attentive to the needs of the world. You as deacons, in the words of the second century martyr, Justin, whom the church recalls today, bring the body and blood of Christ ‘to those who are unable to be present at the Eucharist.’ You remind the church, constantly in your very being, that the church’s vocation is to be servant in the name of Christ. Servant to every need known and every pain shared.
As vans belonging to one communication company constantly remind us along our streets and, it seems, at every stop light: “This is huge.” This is tremendous. This is a tender, personal, demanding, sustaining, communal, huge calling: to be ‘a slave for Jesus’s sake.’ Neither you nor I nor anyone could do it at all unless we belong entirely and lean daily on the One who is first among us as One who serves. But belonging there and leaning there, you will do it every day for the rest of your lives.
There is a wonderful moment early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. Three generations of preachers, each named John Ames, are gathered in one place – at the grave of the senior Ames, somewhere in Kansas. The older man’s son and grandson have sought out that resting place. They found it in an unkempt and lonely place. They set about cleaning up the grave of their loved one and the whole graveyard. As they finish the work, the middle generation Reverend Ames closes his eyes in prayer. His 12-year old son with him there, his own calling and ordination still in the future, finds his father’s prayer much too long. He opens his eyes, and we read this:
At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where the east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the son was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, “Look at the moon.” And he did. We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon.
My father said, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.”
This calling of yours will stretch you, not only today on a cathedral floor, but it will stretch you in every way all your days, asking you to reveal more of what you can be, and to allow grace to unwrap its unexpected gifts in you for the sake of the others. Jesus, who lay stretched in a manger and later on a cross in generous love, who gave everything for you, will not ask you for less than everything.
This can be frightening. Although we are told to never fear, I know it has been frightening to me.
But my friends, know that we stand together exactly where the three generations of the Ames family stood that evening. We stand as custodians of the past, of what has been handed on to us. We stand on the foundation of the past. We tend its monument and honor it. We stand in the present, in prayer and focused on what surrounds us, with our attention fixed on the future. But most importantly, we stand together, and though day end and night come, we are never in darkness. We are always together, and together in the marvelous eternal living light that is the face and the voice and the gentle hand of the God who bids you today and tomorrow and the day after, to serve.
John P. McGinty
June 1, 2013