Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at the deacons ordination at Washington National Cathedral on November 14, 2020.
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. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’
On behalf of the courageous and faithful nine presented for ordination as deacons today, I would like to acknowledge and thank all those who have been their guides, mentors and exhorters, encouragers and burden-bearers on their journey to this moment. They wouldn’t be here without you and they know it. You have been there for them in ways that take my breath away.
And on behalf of the extended community surrounding these nine–and I include myself in your company–we thank you, the courageous and faithful nine: Antonio, Ethan, Michael, Adrienne, Linda, Sally, Ebele, Mary and Sarah. We saw how hard you worked and persevered in the hardest times; we loved seeing how enthusiastically you embraced the learning process. We prayed as you reached beyond yourselves. We appreciated the efforts you made to hold this vocation in conversation with the rest of your life and with those you love. We’re in awe of those you have served already. If your journey ended today, your example would be an inspiration, and yet we know today also marks the beginning of a new season of ministry, and we thank God for that.
The nine of us and I (along with Archdeacon Sue and Canon Roberts) spent two hours together yesterday, taking in the magnitude of this moment and the context in which it’s happening. You looked back on where you’ve been and cast your imaginative gaze toward the people you will become in the days and years ahead. You named for yourselves some of what you bring to this call–the particular attributes, qualities, skills that are your gifts.
I loved hearing the clarity with which you spoke of your strength and vulnerability, and how, in the economy of grace, both are needed. Drawing inspiration from the prophet Jeremiah, together we pondered the fact that God, who has known you from the womb and knows everything you, has called you to this ministry. You named something that will hold you in good stead going forward, that you bring who you are wherever you go. You bring all your strengths and all your vulnerabilities. Like Jeremiah, you may feel at times as if you are not enough, “that you are only . . . .(fill in the blank),” but the fact remains that God called Jeremiah to his ministry and has called you to yours.
Years ago, I was at a conference with about 40 other people, lay and ordained. We had all been chosen as potential faculty for a national wellness program for clergy. This conference was intended for our benefit, but was also part of the evaluation process. We would find out at the end if we would receive an invitation to be part of the faculty.
So there was a bit of performance anxiety in all of us, certainly in me.
Three things happened to me at the conference that I’d like to share with you:
First, we were divided into small groups so that we might have in-depth conversations about our lives and to engage in greater depth the material present in plenary sessions. During one of our sessions I said something that offended another member of our group. I didn’t realize it right away, but it soon became apparent that this person was wounded and angry. I apologized, but the person I offended did not accept my apology. The others in our group were witness to this breach and tried to be helpful, but to no avail. The person I offended did not want to reconcile with me. She was quite clear that our relationship wasn’t important to her and she refused to acknowledge my presence.
I came to dread our small group time, which we had daily, as I kept trying in vain to seek reconciliation with someone who wanted nothing to do with me. Finally, one of the others in our group took me aside and said, “Mariann, you can let this go. There is nothing more that you can do right now. Focus on what you are here to learn and let the other person do the same.”
It was and remains one of the most freeing insights of my life, and I share it with you. Sometimes, after you’ve done everything you can think of to say or do in a painful situation to make it better without success, you can let it go and move on. Life is too short, and sometimes we hold ourselves back in guilt for what we cannot fix when the more faithful thing to do is surrender it to God and move on. Maybe not forever–life has a way of bringing people back into our lives. As it turned out, both of us were selected for the faculty. We never served on the same team, but we kept bumping into each other. After about three years, the dynamic between us softened. We never became friends, but the residue from that encounter eventually dissipated.
The second thing that happened at the conference was in my relationship with God. The conference structure included a long block of time for each of us to reflect and discern the next steps in life and vocation, after we had spent considerable time looking back on what beckoned us into ministry in the first place. I had been ordained for about ten years and had traveled some distance from my original sense of call, and I wasn’t at peace with that distance.
I came into ordained ministry convinced that my call was to a life of service on the margins of church and society. I had worked among homeless people and immigrants from Central America along the Arizona border. I had lived in Honduras at an Episcopal home for abandoned boys and had every intention of either going back or working in a similar setting here. Yet ten years after my ordination, I was the rector of a parish in the Midwest, married and the mother of two sons. We owned a house and two cars. I had a closet full of clothes. I wasn’t on the margins at all, but right in the center of this society.
What’s more, I wanted to be there. I was reasonably effective in my work, and I wanted our boys to have a stable, grounded childhood. Yet sitting in prayer with all that, looking back on who I was when I first answered the call and where I was then, I felt ashamed. If Jesus had said to me what he told the rich young man who asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, “Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor; then come and follow me.” I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I wanted to be the kind of person who could say without reservation “Lord, I’ll do anything you ask,” but inside I wondered.
As I sat in what became a moment of confession, what I experienced was God’s acceptance and love for me. I didn’t feel judged. I felt seen and understood. What’s more, I felt a new sense of call emerging, rooted in my particular strengths, vulnerabilities and place in life. Incredibly, I realized that God had taken into account all of who I was, everything, and was saying, “This is where I need you. Will you go?” And I said yes.
I am persuaded that God has called each one of you, as you are, for who you are, not to be someone you are not. Moreover, God will call upon your strengths, shine forth through your vulnerabilities, and teach you through your failures what you need to know.
The third thing that happened to me had to do with that emerging sense of call in my life. For I left the conference with the mistaken assumption that the new call would be realized within the next few years. I could not have been more wrong about the timing, as my life took one unexpected turn after another, some painful and very disappointing. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at the piece of paper where I had written the new vision down. Twenty years later what I wrote down at the conference began to make sense.
I share my experiences simply to underscore some of things that we talked about yesterday: That each of you has certain strengths and gifts that are important to name and that you will bring into diaconal ministry. That God knows everything about you. That you don’t have all the time in the world, so don’t try to do everything. Focus on your strengths and passions. Learn everything you can about what you are called to do and where you are called to do. Let go of the things that you cannot change, struggles that don’t belong to you. Finally, never forget what your journey to this day has taught you, that God’s time is not ours, and what we experience as setbacks or disappointments or failures may become part of wider tapestry in the making.
In the end, it’s not about us at all, but God. Our vocations are rooted in Jesus, who walked this earth as One who served, and who calls us all, and you, in the particular vocation of deacon, to serve in His Name, sustained by His grace and mercy. Thank you for saying yes.