Bishop Benfields’ Sermon from Ordination of Six Transitional Deacons

Diaconate Ordination Sermon

Larry R. Benfield
19 March 2016
Trinity Cathedral

Six people nervously awaiting ordination, waiting to have their calls to priesthood affirmed. I have not gone back to look at the history of ordinations in this diocese, but ordaining at least six transitional deacons at one liturgy is something that I have not seen in my 24 years in Arkansas, and I bet that I could go back several more years before finding such an event in the records. Having worked in the diocese of Texas where I was ordained with a host of others, I can rightfully call this event a Texas-sized liturgy. More seriously, in ways perhaps mysterious to us, God’s Spirit is moving in new and exciting ways in a diocese of only average size.

Six people awaiting ordination. For what has likely been the case for most of you, it means several years of discernment and preparation. Add to that number your own long-term hopes—and the hopes and dreams of the congregations from which you come—and it adds up to much cumulative time waiting, waiting to see what God and the church would finally do with you. Some people say that the process is too long and too complicated, and they may be right. You wait all this time to see if the church wants you, to get validation that you are indeed called, and in the last few months of the process, you had to wait to see exactly where you would be sent to exercise your ministry.

And it all comes down to this, the laying on of hands, the wearing of a clerical collar, the honorific “reverend” in front of your name, and lastly, the realization that we are going to tell you that you will have to wait at least six more months before you get to live out the ministry that you actually feel called to, that is, the priesthood. In some ways, that wait does not seem fair.

Now, for those of you who are not familiar with Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church, we follow an ancient church tradition of more than a thousand years, in which a person might be called to become a deacon or be called to become a priest, but we don’t have two separate ordination tracks. Anyone who is called to the priesthood must first be ordained as a deacon. It is a long and complicated history. Aside from the obvious reality that many soon-to-be priests take their diaconal ordination vows with their fingers crossed behind their backs, the entire system has unconsciously reinforced a hierarchical nature of ministry, that is, you serve your time as a lay person before getting the collar, and then you will serve your time as a deacon before going on to something more important called priesthood, and on occasion, if you weren’t good at being a priest, they’ve got to do something with you, so they ordain you as a bishop to get you out of a local parish.

I will let you who are being ordained in on a truth: we are not going to change the church’s tradition all by ourselves. The system is bigger than we are, and you will come up against that truth again and again in your ministry. But there is one thing that we can do, and that thing is to stop thinking chronologically. Thinking with our eyes always on the calendar appears to be part of the human condition; we are always waiting for something more important to come along, or sometimes regretting what did come along that we missed. We can each figure out in our own personal situations when we have had or perhaps are having those moments in our lives that we feel are not as important as what might one day happen. The results of such chronological thinking are frustration and disappointment and sometimes anger. Think of how many people turn down perfectly good partners in life because they are waiting for someone perfect, or how many of us dream about the next job that will certainly be better than the current one, or that surely the grass must be greener in some pasture that we have not yet seen. The same sort of problem has occurred with devastating results in the world at large, as, for example, when we white folk in this nation justified our cruel treatment of people of color by telling them that God would take care of them in heaven. Or when we have told people that trickle down economics will eventually take care of the poor. You know, it has been trickling for a long time, and the poor are still among us, but that is another sermon. Those are all examples of chronological thinking, the thinking of humans who are limited by time. To be a deacon who is now cooling his or her heels until becoming a priest is to buy into chronological thinking.

But scripture, particularly the gospels with all their talk about the kingdom of God, invites in to something different, invites us in to what we Christians call kairos time, a time, not of waiting for the clock to count down, but of the discovery that the alarm is already ringing for our attention right now.

In today’s gospel we get an inkling of this concept when we read of the parable of the servants who keep their lamps lit. Jesus does not tell us that the servants are blessed in waiting, which is the answer that has been used to keep subject people remaining as subjects throughout history, but rather Jesus says that the servants are blessed in being alert to see the master the moment he returns. Because scripture speaks to us just as surely as it spoke to Christians in the first century of the church’s life, Jesus is inviting us as well to experience the karios of time, the discovery of his presence, rather than the chronological waiting for the next month or the next year or the next ideal opportunity that is out there.

Being ordained a deacon is not a stepping-stone to something else for which you are waiting. It is instead a sign to the community that we who are ordained will start looking now for wherever it is that the risen Christ is present, at whatever door the Christ is knocking. You will be able soon enough to show the community of faith that is gathered around a holy table that Jesus is present in bread and wine. But right now you can show the community of faith something just as important: that Jesus is present in an untold number of ways in the lives of anyone who is on the margin. Jesus is present in the hard working mechanic and the alien and the bank teller and the drug addict and the young black person that so many of us white folk will go to the other side of the parking lot to avoid. And if there is ever a time in this country when it needs you and your collar and your eyes that are willing to be open to such truth, it is now. Go stand in shadowy doorways now, not in the future, not in the past, but now. These days, too many people are putting their hopes in nothing less than a reversal of chronological time, and that attempt is as evil as expecting that nothing good will be seen except in the future.

In a moment I will ask you to take your ordination vows as a deacon. Part of the calling as deacon is to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself, in effect, in light of today’s gospel, to be the servant who is there to open the door for the master who is coming in the room at any moment to join a feast. There is no need to cross your fingers when you take that vow. To be such a servant, to walk humbly, is the most important thing that any us—baptized laity, ordained as deacon, ordained as priest, or even ordained as bishop—ever does. All of us inside the church start looking for the risen Christ who even now, not six months from now, is standing just outside the doors. Anyone with a collar and an honorific in front of her or his name, hopefully becomes an example of how to have this sort of vision, becomes an example of what it is like to stop looking at the watch or the calendar in anticipation of what one day might be, and instead look in the face of Jesus in the here and now—and open the door as he arrives. Amen.

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