"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Deacon at the Threshold: A Sermon for Harvey Roberts' Ordination

The Feast of St. Matthias

Ordination of Harvey Roberts to the Diaconate

Acts 1:15-26; Philippians 3:13-21; John 15:1, 6-16


          The well-known saying goes that the deacon is called to stand between the church and the world, with one foot in each, opening one to the other. When I hear this description, I automatically picture a towering figure with a stole flung rakishly across one shoulder. He is energetically straddling the church threshold, where the wide red doors are thrown back like Superman’s cape. This heroic figure blows the fresh air of change into the stuffy building, and with a long determined arm directs the gaze of parishioners out into a suffering world.
          The reality of the diaconate, however, seems much more nuanced, and certainly less visibly heroic than this figure. Did you know that the origin of the word, diakonos, or servant, comes from the Greek roots “through the dust, through the grit?”[1] Indeed, my non-Episcopal friends often wonder about this gritty vocation. “You mean, they don’t get paid for their time at all?” they exclaim. “Deacons really choose to give up their weekends or their precious Golden Years to work with the marginalized? They really might have to leave their parishes to go wherever the bishop sends them? And the training process takes how long?!” People gasp and shake their heads at such a countercultural undertaking.
In this sense, the feast day of the apostle Matthias is an apt choice for a diaconal ordination. Faithful Matthias, merely one of Jesus’ many early followers, is mentioned only this one time in scripture. There is no word of him before or after he is snatched out of obscurity by the prayerful casting of lots. Unlike Peter or James or John, he is the invisible apostle, acting only behind the scenes as Christ’s hands and feet. Rather than standing in prominence, he works to build Christian community only as part of a team—a team sent out into gritty, unknown corners of the earth to open pathways for God’s love.
How do we reconcile a humble call to trace love through the dust, to work quietly in community with others, with the image of the lone deacon standing boldly and publically in the doorway?
There’s no denying that the diaconate is by nature a public calling. In a few minutes, Bishop Terry will charge Harvey: “At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” To live as a public example sounds like a daunting thing. But listen to what Paul says in our lesson from Philippians. He doesn’t shy away from setting himself as an example. “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me” he enjoins them. “Observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Mold your lives according to the way that my followers and I do things, not the way of all those other ungodly folks.
That might sound more than a bit arrogant, except that right before these words, Paul has just written about his own suffering for the Gospel, about his own paradoxical transformation from living for gain, to living for loss. He writes how he yearns to become like Christ in his death, so that he might truly live. And before that, Paul recites the beautiful hymn of kenosis, of Almighty God emptying himself in the form of a slave, of God humbling himself unto a seemingly foolish death on the cross. Paul might exhort us to imitate him, but it is an imitation of extreme humility that he is calling for. Rowan Williams calls it mirroring God, “playing back,” in our own ways, God’s “self-sharing, self-losing care and compassion.”[2] The good news is that we are called not as perfect examples, but as broken examples, mirroring a broken world, mirroring a God whose broken love makes all brokenness whole.
Yes, when I think of you as a deacon in the doorway, Harvey, I think of that Kyrie that you used to sing every Lent, the one that everyone at St Thomas calls, “Harvey’s Kyrie.” I can see you at the church threshold in your alb and stole, except you are sitting down on a folding chair, with your guitar across your knees. A strange and urgent grittiness enters your usually melodic voice, as your words and tone mirror all of the world’s pain, and your own, returning again and again to that cry of Kyrie Eleison, Lord Have Mercy, that anguished and prayerful cry of compassion that summons us all to kneel together before our crucified Lord.
Diaconal service, however, is not just about pain. In our epistle reading, Paul’s witness is also strangely filled with joy. How can that be? Because Paul knows that he lives in the middle of the story—in the middle of a story that ends in divine victory and delight. He can be joyful, because he clings neither to the painful past nor to the painful present. He puts his energy into “what lies ahead.” “Hold fast,” “strain forward,” he advises. Paul sees the Christian as standing in a crucial time, in between the struggle that we know, and the glory that is coming.
We’ve been talking a lot about persistence these days in the public square, but we often forget to link it to joy. As we fight injustice and hold fast to what is right, our Easter hope can season our persistence, flavoring it with the joy that comes only from a life immersed in the story of God’s love in Christ. “Abide in his love,” writes John, “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
As I look at the work of the deacons in our diocese, at the places into which they lead us in service, I admire their hold on hope, their persistence for the good. In prisons, in protests, in hospitals, in hungry places, in desperate homes, and on forsaken streets, they are somehow able to hold fast to Easter hope, reflecting it around them in the form of Christian joy. They know how to look beyond outward appearance and to read the human soul. They draw the joy out of others, just as they know how to read and draw out their sorrow.
I saw that gift recently in a Presbyterian deacon, too, a young woman with Downs’ syndrome who stood up to speak at the funeral of her friend. At this funeral, as in all of her interactions, her “weakness” allowed her to identify and echo both the sorrow of the grieving, and the joy of life-giving love. Her simple words bubbled with strength, with joyful persistence, and with loving hope, pulling all of us along with her to the in-breaking presence of “what lies ahead.” Her congregation had appointed her deacon because of the strength of her gift, that gift that the world sees as deficiency. You, too, Harvey, have learned the hard lessons of persistence through suffering, and I have heard how you can sing Easter Alleluia’s. Remember to lead us in those Alleluia’s as you stand on the threshold.
Deacons are going to be busy in the years ahead, I believe, busy leading us into a compassionate love that the world so desperately needs. As struggling parishes turn inward, as fearful peoples reject the Other, as nations look toward self-protection, we need deacons on the threshold. We need deacons who can show us how to reach out to care for one another as individuals and to care for a whole world made up of equally beloved members of God’s family. We will need deacons who have the persistence and the vision and the joy to show us how to mirror God’s love for every human being, rejecting all of the exclusive tribalisms that threaten God’s creation.
Right before I was ordained to the transitional diaconate, I ran into one of my dearest college advisors, a wise Episcopal priest now in his nineties. I proudly announced to him that this little Presbyterian from my Sewanee days was finally about to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. I was expecting hearty congratulations. Instead, he took my hand and looked gravely into my eyes. “You are courageous,” he said quietly, “to throw your lot in with the Church in these difficult days…” adding quickly, “But you will be a blessing.” I was confused and clueless. I didn’t yet know the courage that would be required.
Tonight, Harvey, I say the same to you. We, your community of friends in Christ, have seen your courage and your persistent devotion to God’s love for all people. The threshold is a strange, privileged, and dangerous place to stand, but I know that we will be blessed by your presence there.
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[1] Martin Smith, Compass and Stars, p. TBA
[2] Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995) 150.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Freedom to Choose: A Sermon for a Rite 13 Celebration

Epiphany 6A

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

One of my favorite college professors made an observation that I understand much better now than I did when he said it. Back then, it scared me.
“Your lives are brimming with possibilities,” he declared. “Right now, as young adults, you have before you a much wider range of possibilities than you will have at any other time in your lives. Each choice that you make from now on, each decision, will take you down one road, and carry you away from other roads. Throughout our adult lives, the paths narrow, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to force them back open again. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the way that it is. So decide wisely and carefully,” he advised, “and rejoice in the full range of choices now before you.”
His joy-filled words of possibility filled my young heart with worry, rather than with gratitude. I didn’t like the idea of my choices ever diminishing. I could imagine choosing the wrong path at some point, and watching doors slam around me to trap me in my mistake. I could imagine myself on the stage of one of those game shows. Hidden behind Door Number One was fame and fortune. Behind Door Number Two was grief and failure. And behind Door Number Three was boredom and failed potential.  But I didn’t know what was behind those doors, and I had to choose! I only had one choice, one choice that I had better get right. The clock was ticking. The annoying music was playing. The buzzer was going to sound. What if I made the wrong decision!?
In our attempts to prod children and ourselves into making good choices, we often promote such fear and paralysis. Like Moses, we often warn, “If you follow God’s commands, then you will be blessed. If you disobey, then you will be punished.” That kind of language can make us think that God only loves good people. And it makes us wonder what’s up with God when the good people end up suffering and the bad guys seem to get away with everything.
Molly, Gage, and Charlotte, I’m here today to talk about a special kind of freedom that Jesus offers us—a kind of freedom that leaves no room for bribes and threats, a kind of freedom that can calm our fear of life's choices. How I wish that I could package that freedom up for you today and hand it over to you like a well-wrapped present. But it is a difficult freedom that Jesus offers us—one that we have to learn at great personal cost. Indeed, today’s Gospel lesson sounds like it might be full of the same kind of scary talk that your worst nightmare of a coach or teacher would use. It sounds like Jesus is telling us that if we don’t do a bunch of totally impossible things, then we “will be liable to the hell of fire.” This Jesus doesn’t sound like a warm and fuzzy freedom-bearer. He sounds more like a totally desperate parent, so upset with us that he blows his top and grounds us “until we’re 35?!” What is going on? Does Jesus really threaten us with punishment if we do human things like “lust in our hearts,” or remarry after divorce, or go back on our word, or get angry? How crazy is that?
Often, we Christians like to focus on how mean Jesus sounds because it excuses us from having to think about doing the hard things that he asks of us. If your coach asks you to do a hard drill, isn’t it easier to blow him off as crazy rather than to put your heart and soul into doing the tough work required by the drill?
Don't blow him off just yet. All of Jesus’ tough punishment-talk is meant to get our attention. It sure gets mine! Just like he does in the parables, Jesus is trying to break our “if you do this, then God will do that” logic by totally exaggerating it. He makes the rules so difficult to follow that, no matter how hard we try to turn his words into a clear choice between the right way and the wrong way, Jesus’ words burst open all of our definitions of right and wrong, giving reign to life-giving ambiguity.
 Jesus isn’t saying that God’s laws don’t matter. He is saying that what is at the heart of the laws matters more than their outward form. He’s saying that the goal isn’t to make sure that you make the one right decision—because there’s not really just one right decision. He wants all of our safe foundations, all of our logic about what is fair, to crumble before God’s crazy, abundant love for all of creation. What Jesus offers us at the heart of all rules is a love so great that it envelopes all of our choices and transforms them. We might think that we have figured out what God wants of us, and especially what our neighbor should be doing. But what God wants, what Jesus wants, is for us to put our brother and sister first and to let love for one another transform us from head to toe. This is actually much harder than following a clear-cut list of rules.
A few years ago, a friend shared a story with me that I think will make Jesus’ difficult message to us clearer. Once upon a time, there was an eight-year-old boy who liked to go down the street to his friend’s house and play in the afternoons after school. Every afternoon, his mom would tell him to come home no later than 6:00 for supper. But he would be having fun with his friend, and he would often forget. When he would come home late, his mom would fuss at him because the dinner would get cold. Sometimes his mom would even send him to his room for a time-out. The little boy didn’t like that. He hated to get in trouble.
One day the boy and his friend were cleaning up their toy trucks so that the little boy could get home on time. All of a sudden, his friend noticed that his very favorite truck, the one that his grandparents had just given him for his birthday, had cracked, and the back wheels had fallen off. His friend started to cry, and the little boy stayed with him.
Arriving home late that evening, the boy saw his mom and dad waiting impatiently in the kitchen.
“You’ve broken the rules again! What am I going to do with you?!” cried his mom.
“I know,” stammered the boy, “but my friend’s favorite truck was broken.”
“Did you stay to help him fix it?” offered the dad, moved that his son was at least being helpful.
“No, I didn’t know how. I just stayed to help him be sad.”
As the dinner got cold on the table, the mom and the dad took their errant and compassionate son in their arms and gave him a loving hug.
I share this story not to give out free ideas on how to break your curfew, but as a simple example of a difficult choice in which the freedom to choose love, wins the day.
There’s no denying that life in Christ is made up of hard and messy choices, but the other part of the good news is that these choices are made and lived out in loving community. Molly, Gage, and Charlotte, the adults at St. Andrew’s have made you a wonderful book full of wisdom that is the fruit of their years of good and not-so-good choices. They offer it to you with their love. It would be easy to toss it under your bed, or to roll your eyes at their bad jokes. Instead, I urge you to read their offerings not as “if you do this, then this will happen” kind of advice. But take their words, the serious ones and the fun ones, as a map of experience, a map meant to show you a way to the places in which life, and God, can be found. One of the blessings of community is that you are not alone in your decision-making. You can learn from the mistakes and the difficult decisions of those who have gone before, and those who walk the way with you now. When you were baptized, the priest made a cross of oil on your forehead and pronounced that you were “marked as Christ’s own forever.” What that means is that all of the choices that life puts before you—small choices and big decisions--will be made “in Christ,” as Paul reminds us today. As part of the body of Christ, you are no longer alone. 
Here is where I’d like to add to my college professor’s advice. While our range of choices do narrow as we grow up as individuals in the world, our identity within the body of Christ can be renewed time after time. No matter what decisions we made yesterday, Jesus offers us a clean slate today. Jesus opens up possibility, over and over again.
Molly, Gage, and Charlotte, I charge you and me and each one of us here today to help one another to choose the hard thing. To choose life. Choose the Christ-Life that even death could not ultimately destroy. Choose the Life that corrupt power cannot hold down. Choose the Life that prejudice and hatred cannot silence. Choose the Life that lifts up those who have been cast down. Choose the Life that builds community. And rejoice with one another at growth and transformation. Being an adult in community is oh-so-messy, but it is indeed the one true path to Life.

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