Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 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.
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
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.”
I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. . . 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. (2 Cor. 4:1-6)
In the very next sentence, St. Paul goes on to say:
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (7)
I speak to you, my friends in Christ–those soon-to–be deacons and all gathered to celebrate this day–as one clay pot to another.
Eugene Peterson, in his interpretive translation of this text, describes us this way:
We are messengers, errand runners from Jesus. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ.
He goes on:
If you only look at us you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing god’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance at that. (Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, 2002), 2 Corinthians 4:1-8)
Amazing, isn’t it? Audacious, really, to trust that the unadorned pots of our daily lives can carry the message of God’s light and love?
Not that there’s anything wrong with being an unadorned clay pot.
The Irish writer John O’Donohue describes us a bit more poetically, as the Irish always do, with a reminder of our relative place in the universe:
Humans are new here. Above us, the galaxies dance out toward infinity. Under our feet is ancient earth. We are beautifully molded from this clay. Yet the smallest stone is millions of years older than us. Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace….The human journey is a continuous act of transfiguration. (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara (London: Bantam Press, 1997), p.14-15)
We gather today for the ordination of these twelve marvelously unadorned clay pots. We testify that their lives are inspiring examples of the creative, turbulent journey of transfiguration.
We see in each one of you, even when you struggle to see it in yourself, the light of God shining in your hearts.
It’s the same light that shined fully and completely in Jesus on the mountain of his transfiguration. You remember the story: Jesus climbed a mountain with three of his disciples. There he was filled with a light that shone so brightly, it seemed to those who witnessed it to change his appearance. I don’t think it did change him. In my imagination, the light illuminating him came not from the outside, transforming Jesus into something he wasn’t, but from within, as a reflection of his inner being.
That same light shines in your hearts, in all our hearts. It seems to change us, and in some ways it does. As we feel the light of God within us, passing through us, how could we not be changed? Yet what is illumined, and illumined particularly in you twelve, is your true self, the person you were uniquely created by God to be, and equipped now to be a vessel of God’s love through the extraordinary ordinariness of your daily lives.
You, in your youness, as Robert Phillips, said yesterday, are called by God to this.
Thank you. Thank you saying yes, for taking the first step, and then the second, and the third, and all the steps that followed. Thank you for the courageous steps that are to come. Thank you for your tenacity and faithfulness. Thank you for your patience, generosity of spirit, and forgiveness for those of us building this formation process as you were going through it.
On behalf of these soon-to-be-deacons and all who will benefit from their leadership, I offer thanks to the congregation gathered and beyond, to families and friends, peers, teachers, and faith communities. The dream of a deacon in every church, which seemed impossible a few years ago, is easier to imagine now because of you twelve, joining the five ordained last year, and the ones coming after you, those deacons who, by the grace of God, have come to us from other dioceses. It could happen, in large measure because of you with the courage to go first.
Will you join me in a giving particular thanks to Archdeacon Sue von Rautenkranz, Canon Paula Clark, the Rev. Robert Phillips, the faculty of the Deacon’s School, and the Commission on Ministry for shepherding the deacons’ formation process?
One of the great privileges of my life is to receive four letters a year from everyone in the ordination process. And let me tell you, these aren’t postcards. I receive epistles, long letters offering a glimpse into the creative, turbulent sacrament of the human journey of transfiguration. These letters describe, over time, the growing confidence of call–what it feels like, on the inside, to hear and respond to a call from God, from life, and sometimes your rector who literally called by telephone to say, “I see a deacon in you.”
Your gradual acceptance and growing confidence in your call gives you, among other things, a finely-tuned intuition, honed by experience, to help the rest of us discern our call, the unique ways that God’s light shines in and through us, illuminating our true essence, and inviting us, in ways both large and small, to make our offering to the world. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the calls begins not with vows that we make, but the vows made for us, the bond unknown given to us, “that we should be, else sinning greatly, dedicated spirits.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Prelude, (1850) quoted by David Whyte in The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), p. 68)
Your confidence in call helps us all reject one of the most powerful, demeaning, and at times strangely appealing lies of this fallen world: that it’s possible, desirable, and, for far too many, inevitable to live what Walter Brueggemann describes as “an uncalled life,” one not referred to any purpose beyond oneself or beyond the forces of oppression and distraction that conspire to keep us in our place. In contrast, Brueggemann writes, “the called life is a life in process, under way, and at risk.”(Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, The Second Edition. (Augsburg Fortress, 2001)) With a call we are always sent out to the frontiers of our courage. Yet while risky, a called life, is also safe, in relationship to the One who calls, not out of anger, disappointment or judgement, but in love.
To be clear: every Christian, through our baptism, has been ordained into the Order of Clay Pots. We are all called to lives of extraordinary ordinariness through which the light of Christ shines.
You, beloved, have been called to the particular, delightfully peculiar subset of clay pots known as deacons. You have the wondrous, specific responsibility to encourage the rest of us to task seriously our own callings, whatever they might be. Specifically, you are to help us all go beyond the borders of our security, wherever they lie, to serve Christ in our neighbors. Your mandate is to help the Church discern God’s light shining in those, in Howard Thurman’s haunting phrase, “who stand, in our moment in history, with their backs against the wall,” This was for Thurman, in the early decades of the last century, a matter of real urgency and it remains so for us: “What do the teachings and mission of Jesus have to offer those who live every day with their backs against the wall?” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976, first published in 1946), p3) This is not a call of charity, offered the safety of our benevolence, but of solidarity.
As deacons, along with your roles in worship, in the life of Christian community, and the infamous other duties as assigned, you are to be a bridge between the church, however we define it, and those beyond, exhorting us to love as we have been loved, and to serve as Jesus served.
In closing today, I give you two words: one of gentle exhortation and the other of extravagant encouragement.
The gentle exhortation is to take up for yourself, if you haven’t already, the rule of life that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has set before the Episcopal Church, the Way of Love. It’s not a new rule, simply a restatement of an ancient one, a gathering up of essential practices for a Jesus-focused life. Since July, I have taken on the Way of Love for myself, and while it’s far too early to point to any real fruits of this practice, my inner experience has been quietly transformative. (For those of you aren’t familiar with the Way of Love, you can find ample materials on the diocesan website and that of the the Episcopal Church.) Before you teach them to others, live them for yourself and speak of them only from the bedrock of your experience.
Finally, I’d like to tell you a story to encourage you to embrace the extraordinary ordinariness of your lives and to trust that God’s light will shine through you.
Years ago, I heard a radio interview with Carol Pearson, an author of several books on heroism. The interviewer asked Pearson which of all the heroes she had studied did she like the best. Her rather surprising answer was Sissy Hankshaw, a contemporary protagonist in Tom Robbins novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Sissy was a remarkable young woman who was born with oversized thumbs. As a child she was subject to all the awkwardness and prejudice that a physical deformity entails. When she was a teenager, her family arranged for her to have plastic surgery on her thumbs, and she looked forward to that. But one day in her adolescence, she looked into the mirror and realized that she was quite lovely. She knew that if she had the surgery, she could have the normal life that others wanted for her, and that she herself wanted. But in that moment her thumbs started twitching, as if to invite her to live life on a deeper level if she dared. So instead of cutting off her thumbs, Sissy went on to become the greatest hitchhiker that ever lived.
In one scene Sissy’s psychologist describes to a colleague Sissy’s uncanny ability to hail cars from the other side of a four-lane highway. The other psychologist comments on Sissy’s obvious success in transcending her affliction. Sissy’s psychologist replies, “On no, she hasn’t transcended her affliction. That would suggest that there was something wrong with her that needed to be transcended. She transformed her life by affirming her thumbs.”
Living by God’s light shining in you is something like Sissy’s affirmation of her thumbs. It’s the freedom that comes when you honor who you are, to see in your bodies, your minds, your circumstances, and even our weaknesses, the wondrously unadorned clay pots through which God’s light shines.
You are called to this–thumbs and all. Blessed are we that you said yes.