What is a deacon?

What is a deacon?

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at the ordination to the transitional diaconate of Lainie Acridge Allen, Corrie Maddon Cabes, Leslie Joan Guinn, and Mary Madeleine Hill on Saturday, November 23, 2019, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Fort Worth.

Watch the sermon below or on YouTube.  Read the text of the sermon below the video.



Ordination to Diaconate FW                                                        November 23, 2019

We are gathered here today to celebrate the ordination of Lainie Allen,  Corrie Cabes,  Leslie Guinn,  and Maddie Hill to the Sacred Order of Deacons.  On behalf of the diocese and each one of these ordinands,  I would like to welcome all families and friends  who have traveled to show support and celebrate.

In particular, I would like to welcome back to Fort Worth my predecessor (twice), Wallis and Sheila Ohl. Wallis is a godparent to one of our ordination candidates – Corrie Cabes.   And while I’m at it, one of my other predecessors is in the pews today, my senior assisting bishop, Sam Hulsey.

Finally, I would like to express gratitude to Father Chris Jambor and the people of All Saints Episcopal Church for your hospitality today, as you host this diocesan-wide event.   Thank you for the reception following the service.  And what a beautiful altar!

So, what is a deacon?   Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us about the call of the first deacons of the Church to a particular ministry of servanthood – a specific ministry with its own integrity.

And yet, I am aware of confusion around the so-called “transitional diaconate,” those ordained to the diaconate on their way to the priesthood.  Well, frankly, we are all confused.  When we ordain future priests to the diaconate first – when we ordain people to something transitional (as a stepping stone) – it seems like we are communicating that a deacon is just “not quite a priest,” less than a priest, a priest in training,  someday a priest.  And that has the potential to devalue the integrity of the Order of Deacons.

Having said that, I don’t think we need to lose a lot of sleep over that confusion, for I would submit that what deacons are called to be and do is true for the whole Church – laity, priests, and bishops alike.  The deacon is our icon, our example, our leader in serving others, reminding us of our call as the Body of Christ to serve the poor, the weak, the sick,  the lonely,  the marginalized,  the outcasts.

Momentarily, Lainie, Corrie, Leslie, and Maddie will be addressed with these words:   “God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood. … In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor the weak, the sick, the lonely.”  “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” “Your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.”

The readings appointed for this occasion include the call of Jeremiah – “… before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” – and also, the call of Stephen, the first deacon, as well as Jesus’ words to the disciples – “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”

I turn our attention today to Stephen, and the story of his call as told in the Acts of the Apostles. As the story goes, the Church is in its infancy, growing rapidly, and it becomes apparent that in this rapid expansion hungry widows are being neglected by the world  and by the Church.  So, the twelve apostles call together the community of faith, and say, “that it’s not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”  So they needed servants, and they chose seven men – beginning with Stephen – and the apostles prayed and laid hands on them – a powerful liturgical act which continues today.

Stephen, then full of grace and power, did wonders and signs, and eventually spoke truth to power.  In other words, he did what our ordination liturgy says a deacon is supposed to do:   he interpreted TO the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.

He said (in essence), the Church’s job is out there in the world.  He said, God is out there, outside these temple walls.   He said, we exist for a purpose outside these temple walls, outside and beyond this community of faith, outside ourselves.  The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple,  is famous for having said,  “the Church is the only institution which exists for those who don’t belong.”  Stephen said it 2000 years earlier.

And then Stephen told the gathered congregation that they were “stiff-necked people … forever opposing the Holy Spirit.”  And the congregation, when they heard these things,  they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.  And the first deacon of the Church became the first martyr.

Now, Lainie,  Corrie,  Leslie,  and Maddie.  Just in case your respective seminaries do not have a class entitled, “What NOT to do after you are ordained,”  lesson number one is:   “Don’t call your parishioners ‘stiff-necked.’”  Your families hope you are called to be ordained,  not martyred.

Perhaps Stephen could have made his message more palatable, and perhaps not in his circumstances.  He was right, however, that we exist for those who don’t belong.

I’m mindful of a story told by a Roman Catholic cardinal, Blasé Cupich of Chicago – a story about the days leading up to the conclave to choose the current pope.  You might find it odd that I would choose a story about the Pope as we ordain four women to the diaconate.  I’ll let you be the judge of the story, but after this service we will take a number of photos of these four women vested in their red stoles.  I understand the Pope is considering ways for women to serve as deacons in his tradition;  we can send him a picture.  We don’t have to believe in it; we’ve seen it!  We can send some pictures around Fort Worth, too.

And in all seriousness – and for the record – a number of women bishops from our tradition have met with the Pope, and they found him to be accepting,  compassionate,  and delightful.  So, back to the story.

Cardinal Cupich tells us that in the days leading up to the conclave, it is their practice for the gathered cardinals to deliver addresses designed to help their brothers discern where the Spirit is calling the Church.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina took his turn and remarked that “in the Revelation to John, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks.”

“The idea, he continued, is that Jesus is knocking from outside the door. But Cardinal Bergoglio inverted the image … and asked his brother cardinals and indeed the whole church to consider ‘the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out.’   When the church keeps Christ to herself  and does not let him out, … it becomes ‘self-referential – and then gets sick.’  The church must go out of itself to the peripheries,   to minister to the needy.”

Evidently, Cardinal Bergoglio spoke the words the church needed to hear, for he was called.  We know him now as Pope Francis.

Cardinal Cupich writes that “it was precisely in this moment that he foreshadowed his program for the Catholic Church as a ‘field hospital’ for the wounded, a profound and stunning image. … By calling the church a ‘field hospital,’ Pope Francis calls us to radically rethink ecclesial life.  He is challenging us to give priority to the wounded.  This means placing the needs of others before our own.” He says that image of the “field hospital church … triggers the imagination, forcing us to rethink our identity, mission, and our life together as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

For, “medics are useless if the wounded cannot reach them.  Those who have the bandages go to those with the wounds.  They do not sit back in their offices waiting for the needy to come to them.  The field hospital marshals all its institutional resources in order to serve those who most need help now.”

And then Cardinal Cupich goes from preaching to meddling, and says,  “When the church becomes a field hospital,  it can radically change the way we view our community life.  Instead of being defined as a group of people that live in the same neighborhood, have a common ethnic heritage or social status,  regularly go to Mass or are the registered parishioners,  we understand ourselves as those who take up the work of healing  by sharing in the suffering of others. … to go out, to travel to the peripheries where the oppressed reside.  … to be with the wounded on the field of battle.   It is radical.  Mercy always is.”

I would suggest we are seeing this growing new self-understanding right here in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.  We know that Jesus is knocking to get into our hearts, and minds,  and souls,  and bodies.  Perhaps, it’s just as true that Jesus is knocking on the door to get out,  and lead us  as a community of faith out.  For Jesus is always knocking.  And sometimes we let him in.  And sometimes he leads us out.

And on our clear days, when we see someone who is alienated or isolated – someone overlooked,  someone on the margins (the peripheries),  the poor, the weak,  the sick,  the lonely,  the outcast – we are moved to proclaim and embody the healing,  saving,  liberating,  reconciling love of God  which we have experienced,  and which the world is desperate to know.

It is customary at ordination services for the preacher to give a charge to the ordinands at the conclusion of the sermon.   That’s how everyone knows it’s nearly over.  The “charge to the ordinand” actually occurs momentarily in the Examination. But I would like to make a couple of remarks to Lainie, Corrie, Leslie, and Maddie. The rest of you are along for the ride.

You are a remarkable group of talented and faithful ordination candidates.  Already, you have served sacrificially and with distinction within and beyond this diocese.  Your future is bright.  Your respective journeys will be interesting to watch.  And from a personal standpoint, it is a privilege to be a part of your lives.  The Church has chosen well.

You know this, but interpreting the hopes, needs, and concerns of the world  to the Church  can get you into some hot water.  Sometime next week after your families and friends have gone home,  and the dust has settled,  take a moment to read what St Stephen actually said  that upset the authorities – and take note of two things.

First, when the authorities pushed back against Stephen and his appeal to look beyond the walls of the temple – when they accused him of blasphemy, and for “saying things against this holy place and the law” – he simply referred them to their own story.  Everything Stephen said was from the Bible.  In other words, he didn’t reference a slogan on his blue bumper sticker or his red gimme cap.  The Bible will get you into enough trouble.

Second.  St Stephen broke one of the rules of good preaching, according to the wonderful preacher Barbara Brown Taylor.  Barbara Brown Taylor says that great preachers let their congregation “finish the sentence.”  Effective preachers tell the story, and then trust their congregation to finish the sentence.  Those with ears will hear.  It’s not necessary to say “stiff-necked.”  Some of us know it already, anyway.

It’s true that deacons are called to serve.  Actually, everyone here is, too.  That’s what Jesus says in today’s Gospel.  It’s notable that this passage takes place during the Last Supper.   Jesus has taken the bread and the wine, and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  And for 2000 years we’ve done it, whether in a beautiful cathedral (like the temple) or under a tree.  And in so doing, we become what we receive:  the Body of Christ called to serve.

And as the story goes (and I know, this is from John and I’m mixing gospel stories), after supper Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself.  He pours water into a basin, and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.

You know the story.  Simon Peter declares to Jesus, “you will never wash my feet,” as if to say, “I’m the servant here.  Lord, I’m here to serve you.”  Peter is willing to serve, but to BE served is to admit vulnerability and dependence.   I think more than anything, Peter wants to deserve what he receives.

I suspect right now with this big crowd and all these beautiful vestments and the reception to follow – all these outward visible signs of affection for you – you might be thinking, “I don’t deserve all this,” or “I’m not worthy of this.”  Well, I’ll quote my old boss, Wallis OH, and say: “You’re right.”

You don’t deserve it, but that’s actually the Gospel, the Good News that we cannot earn or deserve God’s grace.  It’s a gift.  And for that matter, ordination itself is not a position earned or deserved.  Your Master of Divinity is earned, but ordination is a gift – like all sacraments, outward visible signs of grace.  You have been called.

And I speak for everyone here when I say, we are grateful you have been called, and grateful you said yes to the call to serve God in and through God’s Church in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being.  Amen.

+J Scott Mayer

* Cupich story is from “America: The Jesuit Review,” January 8, 2018