Sermon for the Installation of Canons and Archdeacon

by | Dec 3, 2020

Bishop Mariann preached this sermon at Washington National Cathedral on December 3, 2020.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  
Matthew 28:16-20 

Installation services typically occur at the beginning of a person’s call to a new position. In fact, the most common usage of the word “installation,” is to describe what we do to a piece of equipment, and it doesn’t work until it’s properly installed. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with the three before us. “Installation” has a secondary meaning, to describe what we’re doing tonight: placing someone in a new position of authority, with ceremony. Tonight is our ceremony, but you have already earned your authority. 

Andrew you’re the newest of the three, having begun nearly a year ago as Canon for Collaboration and Administration. You jumped in with such warmth and competence that we all keep forgetting how relatively short a time it’s been. Your years as rector at Grace Church, Silver Spring and your leadership in the diocese certainly helped in the transition. But it’s who you are and, as they say, “how you roll,” that makes this role seem so natural. 

I remember how you reached out to me when Paul Cooney announced he was leaving his position, to assure me of your prayer and to express interest, when the time was right, in exploring the possibility of serving on diocesan staff. I felt such relief. While it would take awhile for things to fall into place, here you are. 

Robert, you began as Interim, then as Senior Associate, now as Canon for Leadership Development and Congregational Care. You insisted that “Congregational Care” be added to your position and thank God for that. Your willingness to walk with congregations and their leaders through the most tender seasons and bring them to a place of healing is awe-inspiring. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me, “We are so grateful for Canon Phillips.” 

Your care of rising leaders, new clergy in the diocese, and frankly, all of us in need of an uplifting prayer, word of hope, or gentle exhortation, is evidence of your life’s call to a ministry of healing and spiritual growth.

Sue, to be honest, I don’t remember when you formally joined the diocesan staff, because from the moment you arrived as the Director of Christian Formation at St. Dunstan’s, you stepped in to help. From the beginning you were determined to teach us how important deacons are, and what it takes to have a thriving deacon’s formation and ministry program. As the deacon’s ministry developed, so did your willingness to serve. Yours was a position that others in the diocese insisted that we create, and there was no one else in mind to fill it. You were like George Washington as our first president–the only imaginable person to serve as the first archdeacon. 

As an aside, I’ve known Sue the longest of the three. When I first became rector of St. John’s, Minneapolis back in 1993, I was charged with starting a youth program, for which the vestry allotted a whopping $1000.00. I had no idea where where to begin. Someone recommended I speak to a deacon named Sue. She took pity upon me when I told her of the vestry’s charge. I don’t remember what you said, Sue, only how willing you were to drop everything in order to help me. That’s you, to this today: a servant leader to the core.

All this, friends, to state the obvious: this installation isn’t a beginning of ministry for you, but our acknowledgment of your ministry. This is our opportunity to thank you for stepping in and stepping up.

We are also here, in the context of worship (our ceremony) to sacramentally acknowledge the authority entrusted to you. If this were the beginning of your ministry, the authority would be largely symbolic, for true authority is never bestowed. You’ve already earned the authority of your position. Our ceremony is catching up to you.   

Most importantly, this is our church’s way of creating space for the Holy Spirit to speak to you tonight, perhaps with a word to you about the entirety of your life; perhaps about this particular call; perhaps an assurance that what Jesus said to his disciples so long ago he says to you: “Yes, I am sending you out. But I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

My first word to you–as in exhortation–is a variation of what I say to clergy coming into the diocese or stepping into a new position of leadership: Consider where you are in the overall arc of your ministry. The four of us are close enough in age and I can safely say that we all have more years of life on this earth behind us than ahead.  We have more years of ministry behind us than ahead. As the Benedictine author Joan Chittister writes, “We all have to ask ourselves what time it is in our own lives.” It makes a difference. We don’t have all the time in the world to make the offering we’re here to make. Nor do we need to do everything in a day, or a year. Given our age, watching out for those who are coming up behind us is as important as any work we might do. 

My second word is a variation of what we have been asking about diocesan ministry during the pandemic. In the midst of all that’s happened, all that has changed and is changing, what is so essential to your sense of call that you will carry it forward, no matter what? In other words, if everything external was taken from you, what would remain? And of your past ways of being, or of the things you’ve always done, what can you let go, or must you let go, because you don’t have time for them anymore? And what new ways of being you are needed now? 

In case you’re wondering, I don’t have an agenda in raising these questions. I don’t presume to know the answers for you. What I know for myself is how helpful, and challenging, it is to ask the questions. I’m surprised by what I’m learning in this season. Some things matter more to me than I realized, and other things that I thought were essential actually aren’t. Letting go is hard, but also it’s a relief. I’m learning new skills all the time, but I still struggle with some tasks that children can accomplish with ease. Richard Rohr has said that he prays for God to send one humiliation a day, and it’s the one prayer request that God seems pleased to grant. I can relate.  

Which brings me to the last word for you tonight, and that is a reminder that when God calls any of us to anything, God calls all of who we are–our strengths and vulnerabilities, our gifts and our foibles That’s not to excuse us from needing to change the things we can, but as the Serenity prayer says, to accept the things we cannot change, including those things in ourselves that we wish we could. In ways we will never fully understand, what we like least about ourselves or that we struggle with most are also part of our call.

Almost 20 years ago now, in a season of disorientation and grief, I began to experience chronic physical pain. It started as tendonitis in one of my ankles and eventually migrated to my back. When the pain first began, it was acute and debilitating. I remember one vacation when Paul and I and our sons were on a camping trip. Whenever we were in the car for any length of time, tears would stream down my face, while Paul helplessly looked on. I saw specialists of all persuasions and underwent all manner of tests. Not being able to exercise the way I was accustomed to, I learned how much I depended on exercise to maintain my mental health, and I sank into a frightening depression. I took up yoga, something I never thought I would have the patience for. I saw three different chiropractors in a year, a couple of massage therapists, a physical therapist, and then a rolfer, who after 10 sessions that cost me $3000 told me that there was nothing physically wrong with my back. Great, I said, but why does it hurt all the time?  

Eventually, I found ways to modulate and even control the pain through a combination of certain exercises, which remain a non-negotiable part of every day, periodic chiropractic treatment, posture improvement, and–believe it or not–relaxation. But before any of that helped, I had to come to terms with pain as part of my life. The last chiropractor I saw in Minneapolis showed me an X-ray of my spine. He pointed out a few irregularities in its curvature and the slight jutting out of my chin, probably caused, he said, by some injury I can’t remember. Then he looked me in the eye and said  “We’ve probably done as much as we can to correct that.” My heart sank. “Will it ever improve?” I asked him. “Probably not,” he said, “but you know, this may be one of those conditions that paradoxically will keep you healthy. For (and this is the point of telling you this story) if you befriend and tend to the weaknesses in your back, and surround those weaknesses with strength, you will live a long and healthy life.” That has become a mantra for my life and ministry. 

There is so much–about ourselves and other people; about the Episcopal Church; about this pandemic and our country that we would change if we could. What we can change, we must. But surely part of our ministry is to accept and befriend our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and to believe, as the poet Marianne Moore once wrote, that our thorns are the best part of us. We are not called to be perfect. It may be that God is asking us to tend to our weaknesses, care for them, surround them with strength, and allow the grace of God to flow through them for the love of the world. 

Sue, Robert, and Andrew, God has certainly called you, in the fullness of who you are,  to your ministry. On behalf of all of us, let me say again how grateful we are that you said yes. Remember that the One who has called you will be with you always, until the end of the age.