Kaye Staggs and Susan Lyon, two participants in the Iona Arkansas program, were ordained deacons last Saturday, August 8, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock. Below is the sermon preached at the ordination by Bishop Benfield.
Larry R. Benfield
Diaconal Ordination of Lyon & Staggs
8 August 2015
The ordinal for deacons in The Book of Common Prayer states that a deacon is to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely. There is one role for the deacon that is just as important and that I am fairly certain the authors of the Prayer Book were somewhat afraid to include: that is, the deacon is to make the bishop nervous.
Bishops have long had a loving/fearful relationship with deacons. The love has probably centered on the fact that when there is work to be done among the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely, the bishop has someone to whom to hand off that duty, and the work has probably been done for free way too often. Having deacons is like having permanent interns to do sometimes messy jobs that the IRS would say ought to be paid work. The fear that bishops have has often come from the fact that the deacon is always standing there as a tangible sign to the bishop that there are indeed poor, weak, sick, and lonely people in the world, and the bishop had better not forget it. People dressed in purple with gold rings and amethyst-encrusted crosses need to be aware of that truth. It may be the real purpose behind the liturgical tradition of always having the deacon stand closer to the bishop in procession than anyone else. I will be the first to admit that it makes us bishops nervous.
Back when I was young, I read a book called The Diaconate by James Barnett. He believed that that the Golden Age of deacons was from about the year 100 AD until 600 AD. He even said that priests were often not ordained unless recommended by deacons, and were generally less thought of than deacons. Carrying the thought further, it makes me wonder if, by implication, bishops were thought of least of all.
One of the likely reasons that the first few hundred years of the church’s existence was a Golden Age for deacons is that the world was such a tumultuous place that was primarily non-Christian. Churches did not dominate the social and political scenes. In that vacuum, if there were to be any good news, someone had to be Jesus Christ to the people forgotten in the tumult of the day. People had to be fed and their illnesses cared for and their hearts mended. It was the Golden Age for deacons precisely because they constituted the tangible presence of Christ in the form of a servant in an institution without power. Jesus indeed says that about himself in today’s gospel. “I am among you as one who serves,” he says. And as I like to say, “How do we treat the risen Christ when we see him? With awe-filled honor.” To be so honored in one’s own humility would indeed have been a Golden Age for deacons.
Well, the western world turned Christian, bishops gained palaces, priests pushed deacons into the background, bureaucracy took over, and the Golden Age for deacons was no more. We ended up with an order in the church that almost died out except as a remnant we held on to simply because we forced priests to be ordained deacon before being ordained as priest. It is that very literal and sometimes debilitating way we look at our life in the church: always baptism before Communion, always Confirmation before leadership. And that leadership process itself so very linear: ordained deacon, then priest, and then for the unlucky few, bishop.
We could not quite kill off the order of deacon, no matter how hard we tried, no matter how much bishops might have wanted to forget the forgotten. I think that we were fortunate in not killing off the order because in the 21st century we just might be on the verge of another Golden Age for deacons. I find it fascinating that the diaconal order for its own sake is coming back just as our society is turning less overtly Christian, as society sees Christianity less and less as the default way to live, and as culture increasingly forgets the poor, the weak, the sick, and the needy. As institutional Christianity is no longer the focus of the West’s attention, it might become necessary to start seeing Jesus once again in the lives of those who are specifically called to be servants. The world is tumultuous, and there are so many forgotten people who need to see Jesus Christ. If deacons could have been Jesus in the distant past with all the mess that was happening then, well, deacons can be Jesus yet again in this tumultuous world. The honor in humility might be returning.
Susan and Kaye, some people might say that, given your chronological age, your golden years are approaching, but I say that your Golden Age is approaching, the age in which you get to be seen as Jesus among the people with whom you will work. What an unbelievable honor. As that old saying goes, you will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. You will give comfort to the forgotten outside the church, and, if you are doing your job well, give some affliction to those of us inside the church.
Remember what I said a few minutes ago about deacons being placed next to the bishop in procession? You need to make certain that such continues to be the case, not just in procession, but more importantly in making certain that others do not hide from me the hurt of the world. Bishops and lay people and priests need Jesus around to keep us honest and focused on the good news that exists not only for people like us, but for people so very unlike us. We need to feel nervous and fearful on occasion. We need you.
Never forget that you are the face of Jesus Christ to the people who will likely not darken the doors of a church. Help the poor see their wealth. Help the weak find their strength. Help the sick see the wholeness that is inside them. Help the lonely feel confident. After all, it is the call in the ordinal. And lastly, always stand beside me, not letting anyone get between us, not letting me or any of the rest of us forget the ministry to which we are all called of being the face of the risen Christ to the world. Amen.