Deacons Driving Deftly – Bishop Paul

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 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.





Memories are made of this

Sermon, All Saints Day, 2011
Ordination of Frances Hlavacek and Charles Warwick to the Sacred Order of Deacons.
The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall, Bishop of Bethlehem

Dean Leander Keck used to say that a sermon is biblical if it has the same function of the text. How, then, might we duplicate what St. John saw in his vision for our new deacons?

Let’s try this. When you visit Rome today, on its rush to St Peter’s Basilica, the tour bus passes a much smaller church with a disproportionately large dome. If you make your way back to it, you find yourself in a former Roman temple, the Pantheon, the building once dedicated to all the gods.

When Christians took over the Pantheon they re-dedicated it to St. Mary and all the martyrs. What had been the temple of all the gods had become the shrine of Christ’s holy ones.

The Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and the dome makes the building. The dome is constructed with molded coffers, indentations, and the rays of the sun play with them as it moves through the sky. But when the light entering from the top is just right, the dome shimmers. The statues of the gods must have seemed alive and present to visitors at such moments, a bit of heaven. Out of all the recycled temples, this is the room Christians took over to remember their heroes of faith, bathed in heavenly light and still with them, holy ones always praying for them as they worked to be faithful disciples.

Since I first saw it, I have often imagined what it was like to live in a world before electricity and to go into the Pantheon, to be stopped still in one’s tracks by the light, aware of the holiness that is always all around us and now concentrated so that we can see it better. The builder’s intent was that you would be transfixed, and it works. I also wonder what it was like to enter that space a little tired, a little discouraged perhaps, and just stand there. Stand there letting the light do the evangelizing as it changed the room and bathed the images of the saints in the light. On such an occasion the unspoken words might be “you are not in this alone; many have walked the path; many garments have been cleansed in the blood of the lamb; they dwell in light—and they pray for you, they cheer you on. How God is glorified in them!”

All Saints Day has fallen onto hard times of late, and currently exists for many people as a kind of memorial day for remembering everyone they ever knew and loved. It seems that the skinny cow of All Souls Day has swallowed up the fat cow of All Saints Day. I cannot do anything about that latest victory of sentimentality except regret it. Let me nonetheless remind our ordinands that for most of our history, this day was a celebration for those martyrs and other believers who struggled very intentionally to make Jesus Christ real in this world at considerable cost to themselves. The Church gratefully cherishes their memory and humbly invokes their prayers.

Of course they of the skinny cows are right when they remind us that everybody has her or his own little pantheon of more contemporary people who have touched them, and those memories are vital to the shape of their own souls. I have my list of people who shaped me, and am profoundly grateful for them as I pray for them on All Souls Day. All Saints day is about corporate memory, however, a concept it took about four centuries for the Church to develop under a number of influences. The result is that on All Saints Day we remember those lives in which Christ’s people together have seen God at work, mightily, subtly, beautifully and for the sake of Jesus. At all times, and in all places, nations, languages and people. Sentimentality and individualism are only overcome by great common stories, myth in the best sense. Myth provides the common story into which individuals grow. A people without a common mythology fragments into solipsism and hedonism, and this is a point any newspaper illustrates every day. It is why there will always be a price to pay for the Reformation’s necessary emphasis on the individual. People with a common story have common will and are very effective. That is why we tell the stories of the saints as our story, not my story. The saints show us how the wheel came to be invented, so that task need not delay us.

Fran and Charlie, this great feast day speaks to the occasion of your ordination.

Memory is a pretty flexible thing, if I recall, so let that fact work for you and install a memory with me now. Whenever our common ministry seems challenging or heavy, “remember” how you and I stood together in Rome under the shimmering dome of the Pantheon on that bright summer day not too long ago. Especially remember the light. We are always walking in and toward the light, doing our best to assist God’s people on that very same journey to the central flame of the Light of Christ. Remember the light.

Remember how many saints we saw there that day. As deacons you will interpret the needs of the world to the Church. This is why corporate memory and corporate awareness are so important. You will indeed spend much of your ministries attending to the needs of individuals. That is necessary and saintly, but even more is asked of you. Because you deacons are on the front lines, so to speak, you are in the very best position to reflect on what you see and hear, and get us to see and hear it too. When you have a reverence for who we are together, your ability to speak gracefully and in proportion can only grow in effectiveness. When you are aware of the great company in which you stand, you have so much more to offer to people whose defining quality may be crushing aloneness. Invite those lonely or hurting souls to meet the family.

The saints of the undivided church are the heroes of the Bible, the apostolic era, and the centuries following. Martyrs, teachers, servants, they are none of them perfect—even Jesus’ mother had to be corrected by him on at least three occasions. They were, however, all willing to use the particular gifts God gave them in service to the kingdom. It is vital that you internalize this truth. Our heroes did not get everything right, and it is a tragedy when those invested in the work of the church grow despondent over their own imperfections. There are certain basic competencies ordinands must have, and you two have demonstrated them in order to be here tonight. Beyond that, God and the Church ask that you use the gifts you actually have, to hone the skills that are uniquely yours. Leave it to others to perfect cold fusion.

There are shadows in the Pantheon; that is how the building works. In tonight’s gospel Jesus promises all of his followers that if they follow him intentionally they may expect to be reviled and they may expect to be persecuted. The Barnabas Fund says that 160,000 people were murdered by Muslims in 2010 just for being Christian. The grand total of Christian deaths for the year is over half a million by their count. Let’s say the Barnabas Fund is exaggerating, and it is only a quarter of a million slaughtered. I understand that it is not this or any other administration’s state interest to make these deaths a cause, but why are Christians so silent in the west? Where are the deacons?

Persecution in our own culture is usually more polite, if not benign, unless you start meddling, and meddling is, alas, the deacon’s duty, so be ready. Historically, quite a few people on our calendar of saints died at the hands of fellow Christians, and we who preach remember our patron John Chrysostom in just that regard.

So it happens, it can happen to you. Along with the reminder to stand up for all victims of persecution, Jesus says do not be discouraged or even particularly surprised if your devotion to serving him in the person of the poor, the troubled, or the dishonored gets you into difficulty. Do not be surprised if even conventionally religious people push back when you speak for the voiceless.

Science tells us that being immensely powerful and hugely successful does indeed create a chemical rush that changes brain functioning. That rush does not excuse, but does explain how family values politicians can also be molesters and not think it odd. In our vocabulary, it is one of the expected consequences of superbia, malignant pride. The lesson for deacons is that it is hard to speak truth to power because power doesn’t think you have anything to say because it is too busy being drenched in serotonin. I do not say this to aggravate your defiance circuits, but as a reminder. I want to evoke that part of you that is wiser than a serpent—and deacons must be very wise. What are the means of persuasion left to you when shouting does not work? Well, for just one example, Jesus exposed evil by naming it, submitting to it, showing it up for what it is. He is the one whom God vindicated, and in him we all are vindicated as we strive to be faithful.

When the push-back comes in big or little ways, Jesus asks you to remember that you are in good company. One of the marks of being a prophet is being persecuted. But how will you remember that if you haven’t been studying their stories?

When the push-back comes, remember how you and I visited the Pantheon that summer day and marveled at how many, more than anyone could count, had come through all manner of tribulation and now praise God eternally.  Remember how our hearts were brave again and how our arms grew strong—and back to the work we will go, remembering, aware of the light that is and remains around us.

May God bless many through your ministry as deacons.

Blue Grass Mass at St. James', Dundaff

[From Deacon Lou Divis]

On a still Saturday evening, people gathered at St. James, Dundaff, for a toe-tapping, hand-clapping, leg-slapping deacon’s Mass with blue grass style hymns.  The people sang “Shall We Gather at the River”, “Amazing Grace”, “In Canaan’s Land”, “I’ll Fly Away”.  The musicians, John and Dave, led the group with great fervor.  The congregation included folks from 5 parishes across 4 counties (Montrose, Susquehanna, Forest City, Clarks Summit, Tunkhannock, Carbondale, Dallas).

After the service, many people stayed to hear the musicians continue to play outside and all enjoyed coffee and cookies and talking together.

This service was possible with great thanks for funding from a Congregational Development Grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem.

The Coal Town Rounders will lead the congregation at St. James', Dundaff in singing blue grass hymns on Saturday, August 6 at 6.30 pm. Other Blue grass services will be offered on September 3 at 6.30 pm.  The entire collection will be donated to the local Habitat for Humanity endeavors.

Regular Sunday morning services are at 10.00 am.  Call Rev. Divis 570-878-4670, or Bob S. 570-222-2366 for more information.  Please give us a try.  We are located on Route 247 near Crystal Lake, on the way to Forest City.  We would like to meet you!

Check us out at

The Ordination of Eddie Lopez to the Diaconate

Sermon by Daniel Gunn
Rector, St. Stephen's Pro-cathedrl

On the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June) 2011
St. Stephen’s Pro-cathedral, WB, PA

May we seek Truth together in humility.  Amen.

Eddie, I have a question for you.  This is the last exam you will have to take in this LOOOOOONG process.  Are you ready?  (That was not the question.)  Here it is: Do you hear voices?  Think carefully before you answer.  This is not a trick question.  You’ve already passed your psychologicals, so you don’t have to lie.  Do you hear voices?  If you answer “no” then I withdraw all my support, because I believe that you do hear voices, and to this point I have known very few people who have heard and heeded that voice more than you.

I’d like to help you fine-tune that voice this evening.  First by offering some suggestions from Isaiah, and then by offering you some advice I receive from an elder priest some years ago.  Let’s look at Isaiah.  Today is the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist.  Since that is a mouth-full, let’s dispense with that, and just talk about John the Baptist, or in this case Isaiah.  Today you are being ordained to the Sacred order of Deacons.  This in some sense means that you belong to the people.  As I understand it, you exceed me, or any other presbyter, because you are directly under the bishop, and as such you have a responsibility to him (or her) to be among the people.  First there were Apostles, THEN deacons, and only thereafter, priests.  You, my friend, have a six-month tour of duty with the general.  But you need not fear.  You already have the field manual from Isaiah, and he gives you the instructions.

Ordinarily when we hear this lesson from Isaiah we are in a season of preparation and anticipation—Advent.  God spoke to Isaiah instructing him to comfort God’s people.  You’re an old hand at doing this.  In fact, you’re engaged in a system that comforts people already (that’s if being a chaplain at a concierge hospital counts).  (That reminds me: how do you pay for rich people when they have splinters removed?  I’m joking, of course.)

In all seriousness, you are called to comfort people who feel as though they are in the wilderness.  You are called to enter the wilderness and be with them.  You are called to prepare a place for God in the wilderness of people’s lives.  But how can you comfort people?  People are like grass and flowers that flourish one moment and the next they wither and fade.  Ah, but Isaiah reminds us that you have an especially comforting tool: you have the word of our God.  As you know, deacons have a special calling to proclaim the Word of God—the Good News—among the people.  So Eddie, comfort God’s people with the word; remind them that God will come to them.  Remind them that God will feed them, and when necessary, carry them.

Now let me transition to some advice I received from an elder clergy person, and one from Bishop Paul.  I am going to give you these 11 nuggets, trying not to elaborate.  I keep these on the inside of my office door as a reminder.

This first one comes from Bishop Paul: “You can’t refute a sneer.”

Start daily with devotionals.

Empowerment is good for spiritual, emotional, physical, etc. health.

Keep office door open.

Answer own phone and keep own calendar.

If Rosanna (your significant other) does not like an idea – pay attention.

Can’t build efficient staff with a committee.

Clergy get paid for being Christians – laity don’t – respect them for their commitment.

It does not matter how effective or efficient you are as a priest if I flunk as friend and husband.

People are always more important than ideas.

The work of Holy Spirit is most discernable in interruptions.

My friend, you and I have been on this journey for some time; Now GO, comfort God’s people!

In these thoughts may we find truth.  Amen.