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Sermon at the Ordination of the Transitional Deacons

The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

Ordination to the Diaconate of Christian Carroll, Alexei Khamin, Thom Murphy, Karen Rezach

      The first time I was asked to preach at an ordination I was fresh out of seminary and not yet ordained. One of my best friends from our graduating class invited me to preach at her ordination in a small United Church of Christ congregation in Iowa City, Iowa – where she had recently been called as pastor. I don’t recall the text of the day, but I do remember the theme of the sermon – which I had borrowed from Henri Nouwen, who had been teacher and mentor to both of us – and who easily had the most profound impact on our spiritual development of anyone whom we had met or read at that point in our young lives. And – it turns out, he has had a similar impact on the spiritual lives of literally millions of people who have read his books and absorbed his wisdom over the years, even after his death about ten years ago.

So – borrowing one of Henri’s favorite metaphors, which he used in his charge to those of us who were going to be newly ordained people in congregations across the denominational and geographic landscape, I preached about the merits of “being useless for the Lord’s sake”. Be useless for the Lord’s sake, Henri frequently reminded us, and which I sprinkled liberally through the sermon. Now I am not sure if I had fully thought and prayed through what that meant, but about three minutes into it, it became clear to me that no one in this gathering of Iowa Congregationalists had a clue of what I was talking about. After the service one woman very kindly asked, “don’t you mean be useable for the Lord’s sake?” and I said, well, yeah, but not really, and I tried to convince myself that all this just plays out differently in Iowa City than in New Haven – but as I flew back home I realized that I needed to ponder this metaphor some more.

And I have. For the better part of the last 28 years I have kept coming back to Henri Nouwen’s challenge of being useless for the Lord’s sake. In many ways it has served as a kind of koan throughout my ordained life – koan being a Zen problem that is confounding to the intellect, but by definition is a “truth happening place”. And as it is with koans – which includes the challenge given to Jeremiah – in the verses that were cut off from the first lesson -- to pluck up, tear down, overthrow, destroy so that you can build plant. Jesus had a bunch of Koans – the first shall be last the last shall be first; if you want to save your life you must lose it. The more you pray and meditate on the koan, the more truth emerges from it.

And some of the truth that has emerged for me over the years is what being useless for the Lord’s sake doesn’t mean. This is not about the ego – and those moments of inadequacy, or shame or hurt that can easily morph into feelings of uselessness. Feelings that each of you – Christian, Alexsei, Tom and Karen – may have had on this long and arduous journey has brought you to today. A journey which – for some of you, began two bishops ago. And a journey which – for each of you, began in another denomination. And since the beginning of the ordination journey, each of you has presented your mind, psyche and heart to a vocational guidance firm, a psychological evaluation, a parish discernement committee, a Vestry – or two; a rector – or two; a Commission on Ministry, a Standing Committee; a bishop – or two, the board of examining chaplains, a seminary faculty, a CPE supervisor and colleague chaplains, and God knows who else – and through that gauntlet you have been told yes, no, maybe, wait, not now – we need a bit more of this and a little less of that. And you have been told these things by good, faithful and caring people who have a deep love for Christ and his church – and who take this dimension of Christian stewardship very seriously. After all of that it is no surprise to anyone that you may have felt useless along the way.

But thank, you have kept at it. And we have kept at it. And God has kept at it; as your egos have been stretched and stroked, and turned inside out and upside down – and if it wasn’t the ordination process that did that to your ego, the push and pull of life certainly has. God has called you to be where you are today, and for that – and your persistence in following that call, we are incredibly grateful. It warrants a celebration bringing family, friends and colleagues from nooks and crannies all over the diocese and beyond.

And in the process of it all you have been re-introduced to the soul – and I know that to be the case because each of you, in your own way, has said that to me. You have moved – either by choice but probably more by circumstance, beyond the needs of the ego – which is concerned with safety and order and self-image – and which avoids pain and is averse to risk; to the soul – which is the place in us where we discover God’s abundance and love and freedom, and where we are given the gift of imagination. When we can get beyond the confining nature of the ego and can live in a free and open relationship with the soul, then we are being useless for the Lord’s sake. When Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians that we do not preach ourselves, he means we are to somehow get beyond the ego’s needs to put ourselves first, so that we can preach Jesus Christ as Lord, which is preaching that is released from the soul. And all of us – lay and ordained, are called to engage in the Christ centered witness – whether it is from the pulpit or across the kitchen table, but it is those who are ordained deacon who have a unique charism – or gift, to remind us of this call to live from the soul.

As each of you knows, the ministry of deacon is a special ministry of servanthood. Deacons assist the bishop and other priests. Your servanthood encompasses all people, but particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely – and those others who have been identified in some quarters as useless. You are to be their advocates and their pastors, which means becoming useless for their sake and God’s. It is a remarkably inefficient process – at least as the culture measures it. But in God’s time – which is Kairos time, having the opportunity to minister one soul at a time is an enormous gift and a powerful witness of stewardship.

This role of servanthood will follow you into priesthood, because as a priest you will still be a deacon. There will be times when your egos will weigh in and you may feel useless from a frunctional point of view. If you are like any of the rest of us who have been transitional deacons, the fact that as a deacon you can’t offer a blessing, issue the peace, celebrate the Eucharist or perform marriages – privileges which will be conferred on you in your ordination to the priesthood, is going to feel old, probably sooner rather than later. All I can say to that is – let that frustration be another invitation to journey to the soul.

Frustrations will forever hector you – and they will come in all sorts and conditions of situations and people – not to mention the frustration of how to work out the tension between your ordained life and the rest of your life. You will find balance and clarity if you continue to make the journey past the ego to the soul.

Frustrations will abound, but they are outweighed by the vocational benefits – one of which makes all others pale by comparison. The church expects you to pray. The church gives you time to pray. The church expects you to pray – and be connected to your soul and preach and teach about love and abundance and freedom – which flow from your soul. And unlike the commission on ministry or the board of examining chaplains or the vocational and psychiatric gatekeepers, they are not going to wonder if your call to pray is legitimate or misguided or some sort of reaction formation; or if you are praying in the right way or if you pray in accord with the disciplines of the Anglican tradition. Well, they may wonder, but chances are they are not going to be in your face about it. They just want you to pray – which provides a level of freedom and gift that I still haven’t fully absorbed even after 28 years.

And then there are the vocational hazards. The church expects you to pray. And if the ego kicks in at all – which it will, it will try and convince you that you are a praying professional and therefore you pray better than everyone else, or that since you know so much about ecclesiastical myseteries, you don’t need to pray that much. If you take on the mantle of Jeremiah and say that your role is to pluck up, tear down, overthrow, destroy in order to build and plant; if you say that to inflate or repair your ego, you will be in trouble and so will the church, because it will be hubris instead of prophecy. The church expects you to pray, but it also expects you to teach and visit the sick and lead stewardship programs and be great with kids and the elderly – and know their birthdays, tend the boiler (which technically isn’t your job but at 7:30 on a Sunday morning it rarely is anyone else’s) and be a presence n the community and know about web sites and budgets and God knows what all. And again, you’ll need to work hard at finding some balance. The church expects you to pray, and even though your ego may be in the right place -- there will be stretches when you won’t seem to be able to draw anything but dry ashes from your soul. And you will wonder what’s the point.

And so you pray. Your hearts will be broken – again and again, and your soul will be opened up – again and again; and you will be rendered useless again and again. And through all that, the presence and abundance of God will emerge in yet a new way. And you will be asked to witness to God’s presence – for yourself and for your community. It is a stunning honor to be called – to be invited, to be given this opportunity. We are grateful for the blessing you have given us by freely participating with God in the opening of your souls so that the glory of God’s gifts – and yours, can become ours.