The Diaconate: A Sermon by The Rev. J. Carr Holland

The Diaconate: A Sermon by The Rev. J. Carr Holland jcarrholland@aol.com

Preached at Trinity and St. Phillip's Cathedral, Newark, June 7, 2003, on the occasion of the ordination of five deacons

It is a humbling thing to have accepted the invitation to preach this service today.  Humbling because I am to preach before my Bishop, (not to mention my clergy colleagues).  And not to mention 5 ordinands and your assembled friends!  Humbling because I didn't have to read any of the GOE's of these ordained, you are a bright lot.

Humbling because the Church is yet again in the throws of sorting out how to fully value the office of Deacon, whether to keep it, at least in part, as an essential step for those who feel called to the office above the Diaconate, or some would say, different from the Diaconate, or whether the integrity of this office is best secured by removing it as a step prior to the priesthood and/or the episcopate.

But then I reminded myself that humility is a good thing.

It has everything to do with seeing who one truly is in relationship to God and God's creatures.

So here I am, just as I am with but one plea.  Judge me kindly as we journey through this day together.

I should be honest with you from the get go.  I like the Diaconate and I am one of those not persuaded that it should be eliminated from the journey to the priesthood. I am very clear that the priesthood is the journey each of these 5 candidates is traveling toward. 

I hold this value for Diaconate not only because I am a high churchman and love getting out the dalmatics, and having the Gospel and the prayers of the people sung by a deacon; or because I like the symmetry of 3 abreast at the Altar, the Baptized, Deacon, Priest.  And not only because 27 years ago, when my seminary classmates where chomping at the bit to get through their diaconal period in 6 months, in my ordaining diocese I was required to spend a year in this order before I was allowed to be ordained a priest.  Bishop Weinhauer held that all things were to be done well and fully.

What most I value about this office is that it asks the ordinand to accept humility as a goal in his or her life and ministry.  It asks that we see ourselves as we truly are.

You will hear today, "At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people  that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself."

Why do I call this Humility?  Because this value has the power to strip us of pretense.  "There but for the Grace of God go I."  Because to accept this call is to recognize that the humanity of all of us is connected to our vulnerability, our need of not only God, but each other.

It is vital for the Church that there is an order which holds before our eyes that, while Jesus taught much wisdom, he also spent much time kneeling by the weak to hear their stories.  He answered the untimely call of the dying.  He held children in the kindest of regard.  He not only saw the hungry crowds, he engineered their feeding long before he gave them Eucharist.  He told those with religious power what the people deeply needed and he sought to provide it. 

In short he really owned up to the call to be fully human with those about him, not superior…but one with them and their hungers. "But I am among you as one who serves."  He was ever on the task of sorting out what next he would do to display the constant love of God as it moved through the human heart/mind and action.

Now you may say this is the call of every Christian and you are right.  We are given in our baptism, a ministry, we become participants in the Mystical Body of Christ.  We are thus participants in the ministry of Christ.  We make the mysterious visible in the world.

And this ministry is one of reconciliation; reconciling God's good with a broken world, of helping the essential goodness of life reassert its power in God's creation.  It is a ministry of allowing the love of God to so penetrate our lives, that not merely words, but deeds of that love spring forth from our being, yielding acts like unto Christ's actions.  These actions are not ends in themselves but are meant to point others to Christ who so loves us.  This ministry becomes ours at Baptism and we mature into it.

Let me tell you a little for instance.  On Thursday I was preparing for our evening Ascension Day Mass.  The doorbell rang and Elizabeth, our sexton answered it.  She came to my office and called me down.

"Father, there was a quite distressed Korean man at the door." He told me something about being at Immigration and his wallet being in the possession of the Federal Building next door.  It made no sense, but he wanted $5 to get home. 

Now I get asked for $5 in Newark more often then I get asked how I am.  It is a daily ritual to sort out how much I will give to whom or not.

I eyed him, saw his distress, trusted his story, excused myself to get the money and a card with my name, which he had asked for.  He broke into tears, thanked me, and then said, "Father I asked so many people to help me  and they would not even look at me.  I am an honest man."

I said, "I know.  You must not take it personally.  People get asked for money all the time in Newark and they just stop seeing each other in time.  They are afraid to see.  It was not you they looked past.  It was their fear."  I paused and went on, "Would you like to use the phone to call your family?"  " No." He bowed politely and left.

Now I suspect there was a baptized person among those he asked to assist him.  I suspect they forgot this was their ministry, to love this stranger at so cheep a rate.  I suspect what I said about people choosing not to see was the truth.

But I was ordained a Deacon, before I was ordained a priest. Every time I am asked for help, my actions have to remember that I hold  this ministry of service for the Church and for Christ himself.  You might say the ordained are called to a fuller expression of the Baptismal ministry, not better, not superior, but fuller.

The Deacon is a guardian of the baptismal ministry of service and has been from New Testament times.  Stephen and his companions where given authority to secure that the Baptismal ministry of care was fulfilled, that the Widows were not overlooked in their daily need.  You might ask. " Well where was their family?  Where were their friends, their neighbors?"  I suspect they were  afraid, afraid 'there was not enough', that great human fear.

To the Deacon is entrusted this daily task of holding before the Baptized the fullness of our call…to be serviceable to each other and to God.  As a deacon you are to value this service, perform it, and hold it before the Church.

Peter, Elizabeth, Melissa, Anne and John, the integrity with which you hold this ministry will shape who you will later become as a priest in this church.  It will shape your pasturing, it will effect your preaching, it will influence your prayer, it will change your politics as well as your being.  Christ will work on you, and others through this ministry and your integrity.

I must tell you that one of the great gifts of being in a parish with a curate is they tend to arrive as deacons and their freshness reminds me of the great usefulness of pure service love.  They remind me of where it is tarnished in my life.  For whatever wisdom I am able to impart, they repeatedly wash me clean by this renewing Love.  And I don't always like it, but I need it.

In today's Gospel we overheard the disciples idly discussing who would be the greatest, the most important I suppose; which one of them was Bishop material I might guess.  Jesus over heard them as well.  And so he taught them a simple principle, which would differentiate them from the world as it lay un-reconciled to God,  "…the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves."

Jesus was shaping their character.  The ways of the world, which were previously their daily bread was too thin, too little in its demand on them.  They were to learn a new way, which was Christ's way. They were to look at the little and the lost not only as the ones in need of God but the very ones who would help them know God.

These they would serve.

Ordained ministry is at its heart about the formation of character: i.e. whatever function and prerogative is laid upon us must rest side by side with spirit and heart, a way of seeing, a way of being, which we bear for the whole community of the Baptized.  Ordination, like baptism, is about the formation of the person, the building up of a distinctive pattern of personal being, shaped by certain dominant interests,--our love of Christ Jesus and His for us.

The author of 1st Timothy tried to paint a portrait of what that might look like for Deacons and their life partners, …here thought to be women.  You and your intimate other are to take seriously your call, to be truthful, moderate in drink and worldly security, faithful to God's Word. 

Peter, Elizabeth, Melissa, Anne and John: Your vows today are a further refinement: 

You are to nourish yourself with the study of scripture, to allow its wisdoms to shape your behaviors.  You are to embody Christ's loving actions into daily life for the sake of Christ's Church. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.

It is your care in these matters that give integrity to your place at the Altar, both as a deacon and one day a deacon who is also a priest.

I don't know.  May be this is too little, too simple, to live a fully baptized life.  Maybe it is only a beginning…a beginning of wisdom worthy of life's journey and Christ's presence.

Our perennial hope is that Christ will be discerned in our company.  May your deeds refresh us in the way.  May we be washed anew with the clarifying waters of Christ's love.  May you, your life, and Christ's ministry, hold before us our Baptismal call to be of good service.


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