A sermon to celebrate the ordination of Sally Goodall to the Sacred Order of Deac
Luke 22:24-27; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6
It is a privilege to be invited to preach as Sally is ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons. Although we each grew up on a small island, in small villages next door to one another, it was only here in Ohio that we met, and only through our several calls to ordained ministry within the Episcopal Church that we came to talk in the real and true ways that Jesus opens up for us; and I am grateful.
You sent me your choices of readings and let me into some of the workings of why you were drawn to this, of all gospels, and that, of all epistles, and Jeremiah’s, of all call stories. You sent, too, a commentary from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist on servant ministry, that which is commended and commanded and demonstrated by Jesus in the gospel. Br Jim Woodrum wrote, “He entered into our condition, grew up and lived among us to show that the Way of God was not one of brute force and might, but one of gentle servitude.” “I am among you as one who serves,” Jesus confirms.
And here is the paradox of diaconal ordination: our model for service, while humble, is also glorious. It is not passive, but powerful. It comes in heavy with the threat of crucifixion, and sings with the truth of Resurrection. We aim to serve, yet all the time it is Christ who is still serving us.
To provoke this comment of Jesus about coming to serve, the disciples have been debating who is the greatest. In the Gospel according to Mark, this conversation happens out in the open, on the way down the mountain from the great Transfiguring experience in which the glory of Christ is revealed to Peter, James, and John; and the other disciples become jealous, and angry, as they jostle for position at the right hand of Jesus.
In Luke’s Gospel, as we hear it tonight, it gets worse. The disciples are sitting at the table of the Last Supper when this dispute arises. They are at the table in the upper room, where Jesus has just this minute passed around a cup of wine, telling them to drink it themselves, since he will not drink of it again until the kingdom of God is fulfilled. He has broken bread, divided it among them as though it were his body, his very life, which is about to be betrayed and handed over to those who oppose that kingdom’s fulfillment.
They begin to whisper and gossip amongst themselves, about who the traitor might be, and from there it is but a quick flip to debating which of them is, in fact, the least likely to betray Christ’s mission, who is most loyal, the best disciple. They fight over who is, in fact, the greatest, while Jesus is sitting there right in the midst of them, still holding the cup of wine!
We often think that we are living in the most divided, rude, uncivil, uncompromising times in history. Perhaps there is something reassuring about knowing that Jesus witnessed the same defensive, boastful, and clueless conversations that we now enjoy.
Whether it was on the way down from the mountain, as the implications of Jesus’ unusual messiahship, the intimations of his passion, began to sink in; or here at the table, already breaking into the bread of his body, sharing out the cup; the problem that Jesus’ disciples had was to submit themselves, their egos, their self-image to his mission, his passion, his kingdom, at the expense of their own ambition.
Submission, now as then, is whispered as a dirty word. We prefer to project strength. But in the context of the gospel, the idea of submitting to God, literally to place ourselves under God’s sending authority, under God’s mission; there is nothing more dignified, nothing more humble, nothing more empowering than that.
To place ourselves at the mercy of God (as though there were any other hope for us, and still); to do so with intention, integrity, and a degree of honesty – that might be the pinnacle of human achievement.
By the way, if you choose to read on from our gospel, you will discover that in the next paragraph, ironically, Jesus promises the disciples twelve thrones, twelve kingdoms, sublet from the kingdom of God. Never mind that Jesus has just included Judas, with his hand on the door on his way out to betray him, a throne next to the other eleven in the kingdom of God. Never mind for a moment that astonishing act of forgiveness; back up to the fact that Jesus has in one breath told his disciples to stop seeking power and glory, and in the very next breath, crowned them with it all.
Each of us is promised the challenge and the resolution that Jesus offers his disciples, those gathered around the table with him. We are challenged to submit our agendas, our fears, our defenses, our ambitions to the service of his mission, his love for the world, his undying faithfulness. When we do, we find ourselves anointed and appointed as Christ’s ambassadors for the gospel, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to discover for ourselves and for one another the healing power of love, and the deep rewards of God’s justice working among us, the crowning glories of God’s mercy and grace.
For the bishop, or the priest, or the deacon, the challenge, and the promise, become quite particular. In a few moments, Sally will submit to the Examination prescribed by the prayerbook for those seeking ordination as deacons, “a special ministry of servanthood … to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, … the lonely … the helpless.”
It is in serving the most vulnerable, the most easily overlooked, ignored, or exploited people that we learn the most about the love of Christ; because it is by the need to listen deeply, by setting aside our own agendas and letting ourselves be led by the pain of others that we find our way to the foot of the cross. It is in the most intractable problems of the world and its children that we find ourselves unable to proclaim our own greatness, nor believe in our own glory. It is here, at the end of hope, that we find ourselves gathered once more with Jesus at the table, with the people whom he most loves, the ones who are broken like bread, scattered like crumbs, poured out like spilt wine.
I think that’s why all of us, priests, bishops, archbishops and all, begin our ordained ministry as deacons, called to stand witness to Christ’s gradual, often painful transformation of the world’s leftovers into God’s feast of life, of fierce resurrection, fit not for kings but for saints.
And so, God tells Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” We are engaged to this ministry by God’s mercy; therefore we do not lose heart, Paul writes. William Temple translated the promise,
“We have this ministry” … There is the fact. Why God called us we do not know; but He did, and here we are. Let us not doubt the reality of our vocation. … The source of our confidence is not our characters, our ability, our eloquence, or anything which is really ours; the source of our confidence is that … God still trusts us. *
Still, Christ serves us, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In the call to discipleship, Jesus serves us, and we can do no other than to fall at his feet and give thanks, and then be sent, not on our way, but on his.
May this way be to you a source of deep and abiding joy, knowing that “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry;” that God called you into this, and while God will not necessarily get you out of it, She will remain with you, serving you, and serving through you, your gifts, your prayers, your promise, sending you out under Christ’s banner – submittere – to do the glorious work of love.<
* William Temple, “Social Witness and Evangelism,” in Religious Experience and other Essays and Addresses (The Lutterworth Press, 1958)