Sermon by Bishop Paul Marshall
Ordination of Deacons, 12/21/2012
John Davis, Foster Mays, Andrew Reinholz and Kimberly Rowles Reinholz
Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
I remember the first time I let my son take the car out by himself at night. I also remember the first time I drove by myself as a teen. One coin, two sides. The handing over of the keys, even temporarily, is a very intriguing thing to contemplate. The receiving of the keys is noteworthy as well.
As a young person, I remember my pride, satisfaction and sense of power when I first took that 1961 Oldsmobile wagon out of the driveway and headed into the setting sun. I never, of course, acknowledged that I was also a little leery of the whole thing. A little frightened, in fact, but about that I never said a word to my father.
As a parent I was proud of my son’s obviously good genes in the department of steering large amounts of metal through the impossible tangle of New Haven’s grid of one-way streets and back alleys. I was also worried about him, and didn’t go to sleep until I heard the 1985 Crown Victoria authoritatively rumble back into the driveway. I told him I was proud of him. I never told him I was scared.
You can see where this is going.
The celebration of diaconal ordination is more than one thing. It is a joyful acknowledgement of the vocation and accomplishments of four people who have worked very hard to get to this day. It is an affirmation of the Church’s life and mission. It is a reappropriation of the unique ministry of servanthood that guides and goads the church into action. It is, however, always the beginning of an inter-generational transmission of the Church’s tradition, and to be honest, a handing over of power within that tradition. “Receive this Bible as a sign of your authority…”
And so it is also possible for there to be a variety of feelings about the passing on of tradition, responsibility, and power to Andrew, John, Kim, and Foster.
Side one is simple. Ordinands are eager to go. It is not an easy road to get to this date, and they have accumulated knowledge, skills, and debt. They have tried out the theory and practice of ministry in a variety of more-or-less controlled experiments in what is mysteriously called “the field, ” rather than “the string.” They are ready, but who among them with an ounce of sense would not feel a little anxiety about taking on the responsibilities of ordained ministry? What they say and do “counts” now in a way that may not be fair or right, but is nonetheless real, public, and perceived in many, many ways. Like it or not, from this day on, they become huge projection screens, but that is another sermon.
On the other side of the coin, we who entrust ordained ministry to four ordinands tonight recognize that we are passing something on. Passing something on, even through prayer and the laying-on of hands, is also letting go, a surrender of the future in both hope and anxiety. A new generation is going to have new perspectives. Some refreshing, some perhaps unsettling.
Assuming any of this is true for them as it was for me when I was in their shoes, the first lesson tonight addresses the anxiety ordinands may feel by describing a cyclical pattern of growth that will carry them through the challenges and stresses of ordained ministry. It also explains the existence of the slightly notorious Bible content examination that we unapologetically administer in this diocese.
That first lesson from Ecclesiasticus describes a permanent pattern of engagement with tradition that supports, heals, and inspires.
As we see the devout described in the lesson, study of the scripture and wisdom of those who have gone before control the functioning of their minds. It is the non-optional, non-transcendable, mandatory content of our vocation. But important as it is, sitting with your Bible and other books isn’t enough in the words of this passage: going out among people and observing how humanity behaves, and taking that study and observation to prayer, give ordained ministry its solid core. Interestingly, this pattern of study, observation, and prayer is not described as the route to becoming an authority. No, the passage says that more you learn, the more you will be aware of your own limitations, and the first prayer that is suggested in the text jumps non-defensively into what makes real students; it shows them, as a result of their learning, praying for pardon. We live in that daily office tension between the psalm’s “my sin is ever before me” in the psalm and St Paul’s apprehension that “my grace is sufficient for you.” At that point, when learning, experience, and humility come together before God and in God, there come the gifts of wisdom and eloquence to which we dare to aspire.
Just as I believe that the more metal you have around you when you drive, the safer you usually are, I believe that the better you know scripture and tradition, the safer you are from heresy, schism, error—and badvestments.com. Thus to be of use to God as clergy, we enter a life that requires yet goes beyond our native intelligence. It requires yet goes beyond our savvy about the “real world” of human potential and pain. It requires yet goes beyond knowledge of the Bible and tradition. We hear in this lesson the call to blend knowledge and perceptions in a way that touches our hearts and makes us both earnest intercessors and deep contemplatives, permanent penitents yet eternally filled with hope. Then the Spirit can and does lead with the wisdom that is grounded in living tradition, a wisdom that also moves the tradition ahead.
That, I hope, begins to minister to the ordinands’ anxieties. But what about the anxiety we may feel in passing the torch, about letting go? I feel more at peace about this tonight than I sometimes do. I will tell you why, and I have permission to do this. On Wednesday of this week I opened Ember letters, those quarterly reports that ordinands make about their state of body, mind, and spirit. Such letters necessarily hover between confession and salesmanship. One of them will stay with me for a long time because of the tears of gratitude and hope it brought me.
Again, with permission: The writer reflects on traumas suffered personally, by the church, and finally by the nation in the tragedy at Newtown last week. The letter goes on:
“Paradoxically, these events, to some extent, have done wonders for the centering and focus of my prayer life, which has allowed me to shift from an inadequate clinical processing of events and circumstance to a surrendering of them before the paschal mystery of Christ and its transformational ability to provide perspective and healing. This processing through prayer allows me to tap into overlooked or otherwise un-recalled reservoirs when my own resources are inadequate. Significant in this is the reminder that prayer makes room for reasonableness and responsiveness amid stress, anxiety, grief, and doubt, each of which otherwise clouds or impairs my ability to be fully present.”
That would be enough to gladden the heart of any person concerned for the stability and future of the church. That a potential deacon can integrate the clinical, theological and personal dynamics of our religion with such wisdom and devotion says something is very right with our church, and is a reminder to us all of what we look like when we are putting the pieces together inside a pattern of study, observation, repentance and renewal. The center of it all is the dying yet risen Jesus and his call to his disciples to serve the world in his name.
It seems a shame to make a person who could write that take on the ordeal of ordination exams, but I have learned never to tinker with initiatory rites.
[ordinands stand] Sister and brothers: we know that the Church is being reborn in ways we are only beginning to see. Venerable types and shadows have their ending, much-loved bath water may need to gurgle down the drain, and familiar forms may well need to pass into footnotes. But cannot we sense new life, new hope, new ways of relating and worshiping lying low in this sometimes bleak mid-winter in order to sprout and bloom in the very near future? With you but also guided by you we wait, we work faithfully, and we walk on. For those who know Christ and stay immersed in the mystery of his passage from death to life, the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night do not pass away. The word of the Lord abides forever. Live in it. Take the keys. We trust you and we trust the God who has called you.