The Ministry of Deacons

by | Sep 30, 2017

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
Jeremiah 1:4-9

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
Luke 21: 24-27

The first words God has placed on my heart to say to you this morning–to you, Harvey, Cindy, David, Mary, and Julie–are thank you. We are  grateful for your courage, vulnerability, faithfulness, and sacrifice. You have given your all to this process of discernment, study, and formation. Heartfelt thanks as well to your loved ones, mentors, congregations, and leaders of the Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee, and Deacon’s Formation Team for all you poured into these remarkable men and women, and those coming up behind them. The Diocese of Washington has invested mightily in the diaconate, and you have responded in kind with the first fruits of your lives. Thank you.

One of the great privileges of being bishop is to receive quarterly letters from all those in the ordination process, giving me a glimpse into what it’s like on the inside for those dedicating themselves to a season of study, prayer, practical learning, and reflection. The five soon-to-be deacons have given me permission to share portions of their most recent letters. One wrote:

Years ago when I was moved to deepen my relationship to God, it made all the difference that I found myself in the right church in the right season. . . . I want to encourage and support other people of faith (or not-yet faith) whose lives can be blessed as we discover together what it means to live as people of God. I feel prepared to help build a parish environment that nurtures spiritual growth and stirs a compassionate community response to the brokenness that wounds God’s creation. I believe my gifts can contribute to the work of a parish team in forming God’s people for ministry.

The pathway to ordination for me has been long and challenging yet full of growth and discovery in each successive transitional role: nominee/discerner, postulant, candidate and now as ordinand. I have endeavored to live into these roles with diligence and openness and I appreciate the teaching and mentoring which has been offered so generously by those who support this ministry. Now as I face entry into the next role, Deacon, I pray that I will be able to continue to live up to the expectations of the program and serve with a glad heart.

I have four things now to say to you, my dear friends in Christ and now colleagues in ministry. I believe them to be at the heart of your call, and at the heart of what God needs, and what we need, from you as deacons.

The first flows from your life in Christ and with Christ. Each one of you writes and speaks freely of the profound experiences of love and grace that are the foundation of your spiritual lies.  

One of you wrote:

From the beginning of my discernment until today and now looking ahead, I have come to feel the close presence of our Lord God – a closeness that now I believe can never be shaken loose.

Another of your wrote of your love for Christ this way:

The best, and perhaps the most important, result is the enrichment and strengthening of prayer life. Regular worship (both serving and attending), instruction, reading material and examples have made prayer a framework for my life. Love of Jesus Christ is the bedrock of that framework. It’s one I would like to share in ministry.

My first charge to you is to do precisely that: share the love you have received from Christ and have for Christ. More than that: guide us, your fellow Episcopalians, into the kind of love relationship with Jesus that  is the bedrock of your life and faith. Don’t assume we know that love for ourselves, because, sadly, many of us don’t. One of the great tragedies of our church is that those who speak freely and confidently of a life-changing experience of God’s love stand out so dramatically from the rest of us that we assume such an experience is a call to ordination, rather than the bedrock spiritual experience available to all. It’s not that we don’t have faith, for we do, but it’s rather tepid, frankly. We are among what some have called “practical atheists,” believing in God but imagining that everything depends on us and our efforts. Our experiences of the Holy Spirit are anemic–truth be told, we don’t expect to be touched by a love so deep, so wide, so broad that we can rest in it, assured of God’s unfailing, unconditional, compassionate love. Teach us about that love. Show it to us. Help create environments and experiences in which we might open our hearts to receive it.

 My second charge to you flows from your unique vocation as a bridge between local congregations and their surrounding communities, or as we sometimes say, as a bridge between the church and the world. Please, please, please do nothing of service to those outside of the church as a deacon on your own. Always bring one of us with you. Don’t be the servant; teach us as a church to serve. I can’t stress this enough. Your vocation is embedded in our universal call to be Christ’s heart, hands and feet in this world. If you do it for us, you will get very, very tired, and we will take satisfaction in your ministry as if it were, in fact yours, and not ours to share.

One of you first introduced me to the work and writings of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and tireless advocate for criminal justice reform and abolishment of the death penalty. One of Stevenson’s key insights is that in order to solve the world’s greatest problems we must get close to them, and close to the people most adversely affected by them. If we want to address criminal justice reform, we need to take Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 seriously and visit those in prison, get to know them. If we want to address climate change, best spend time where people lives are on the line because of changing climate and erratic weather patterns. If we want to address racial injustice, we need to forge real relationships across race and class. Help us do that as a church, for we are really good at charity–giving at arm’s length, on our terms—and less adept at the kind of relationships that heal and transform and fuel the hard slog toward justice. Don’t do this work for us. Help us to do this work.

My third charge is related to the second: as you begin imagining how your ministry will unfold in a given context, with a particular congregation, identify the other Episcopal churches and faith partners in proximity and explore collaborative possibilities. I am persuaded that the future vitality of this diocese depends upon all of us establishing new bonds among us, new pathways and partnerships. The work is too big; frankly, we simply don’t have scale on our own and never will. And if we don’t learn to work together, only a few of our congregations are going to make it to the promised and preferred future God has for us as a robust, strong, compelling 21st witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. The future of the Jesus Movement is not in question; the future of our part in it, as the Episcopal Church, still hangs in the balance. Please help us.

My final word to you, dear friends and colleagues in Christ is this: trust your call. Trust that God has called you, knowing full well your strengths and vulnerabilities, your gifts and your struggles. Whenever you fall prey to that voice inside, or voices on the outside, that would have you question God’s call, think back on this moment, this place, my word to you now. You are not called to be someone you are not; you are not expected to be perfect; God has called you.

One of your wrote to me this week:

I  have been reading and re-reading the ordination vows…at times, the words feel overwhelming. Being a “wholesome example to all people” is a tall order! I don’t feel up to such a standard…but then I remember, “I am only a boy” from Jeremiah and I calm down. In the past, I used to question who did I think I was thinking I was called. I tell myself now – who do I think I am not to respond to this persistent call that will not go away? I am looking forward to living out my call in the future and I pray that I will keep listening for guidance and confidence. I will keep listening for God.

Can I? Will I? These words seem to me to symbolize where I was when the process of Deacons School began…“I do.” “I will.” Simple words – but they signify a powerful commitment. It’s one I’m eager, and prepared, to make on September 30, God willing and the people consenting.

When I first put my name in to be considered as bishop for this diocese, the thought ran through me head: who did I think I was? It was such a leap from the congregation I served in Minneapolis to here.

But as I read the profile of what was by all accounts a Very Important Diocese, I kept coming back to a humble statement almost buried somewhere in the middle. “Half of our congregations are in decline, and we need a bishop focused on congregational growth and renewal.” And among the qualities this diocese was looking for in its bishop was someone willing to grow into the job, to grow in the work alongside the people here.  

And I thought to myself: I can do that. I can grow with them. We could learn together how to be church together.

As you begin your work, hear the call to grow with us and learn with us. Help us fall in love with Jesus, and know–deep in our bones–his love for us. Help us to be open to kind of transformation of life such love makes possible. Take our hands and show us how to be proximate to pain and suffering, seeking the presence of Christ there and serving as his heart, hands, and feet. Help us renew bonds of collaboration and affection between our congregations.

Dare to believe that God has called you, as you are, not in spite of your imperfections, but because of them. It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus. You are never alone.  Thank you for saying yes.