Holy God, bless our mouths to speak your word.
Bless our ears to hear your word.
Bless our hearts to know your word.
Bless our lives to be your word.
What an amazing, glorious, wonderful day this is, a long-awaited day that is filled with the Spirit of God. Twelve men and women are about to be made deacons in the Church. All of us here are deeply privileged to be witnesses and pledge our support as they take on the servanthood and the authority that come with the collar.
A whole lot of what I know about servanthood and authority I learned from Star Trek.
Not from Captain Kirk and his fly by the seat of your pants, make it up as you go along style, but from the mature, measured leadership of Jean Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise in (cue music) Star Trek, the Next Generation.
Whenever a problem arose in that series, as it did in nearly every episode, Captain Picard would gather a team. It would include his senior officers – plus any member of the crew who might have insight or experience, no matter what their rank. When all were assembled, the captain would carefully name the problem. Then Picard would simply say, “Options,” and the group would bat around ideas, some quite outrageous, most offered in the technical jargon of Trek-speak. Finally, after carefully listening to his team, the captain would determine the course of action. And, in the moment that inspired me the most, he’d say, “Make it so.” He’d empower others to use their best gifts to carry out the plan. Of course, all of that happened in an impossibility short time so that the crisis could be resolved in a 47 minute episode, but the pattern exemplifies a healthy embrace of servanthood and authority.
In Star Trek, as in military and many business hierarchies, authority is conferred. One has it and people are compelled to accept it because one is the captain or the CEO. It used to be that way in the Church. Some of us remember those days when people put clergy on a pedestal and believed that the ordained are a different kind of human being from the rest.
These days, though, clergy are not automatically given authority. Congregations don’t begin a relationship with ordained leaders by conferring authority unquestioningly. And in our wider society, most people don’t even recognize what a clerical collar is! Though I must say that our Presiding Bishop is changing that as he rides the media wave and proclaims God’s love so compellingly. Michael Curry is making clergy cool again. And he’s making the Gospel accessible.
But even with his larger than life influence, clergy must earn authority in a world that does’t confer it. Clergy have to earn respect. And they do it through the joyful servant work of being with people where they are, day in and day out, week in and week out. They do it by being authentic. They do it by building relationships – and that can’t happen in a 47 minute episode. It takes time.
Leaders in the Church today have to earn authority the old fashioned, slow way, through authentic relationships. And when they do, it isn’t really theirs. It isn’t ever theirs. Because all authority in the Church belongs to Jesus, and only to Jesus. Whatever authority we have in the Church comes not because we are in authority, or because we are authorities, but because we are under the authority of a loving savior.
And here’s the cool thing about our Savior’s authority; he loves us so much and trusts us so much that he shares his authority with us. One time, when he lived in the flesh on this earth, Jesus summoned the twelve and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to cure every sickness. Later, before he ascended into heaven, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Make it so, Jesus was saying. Take my authority, which I now give to you, and do my work in the world.
All authority belongs to Jesus, and any that we have as ordained or lay ministers in the Church is ours only because Jesus gave it to us. What a remarkable and risky gift! We honor that gift richly when we do exactly what Jesus did – when we give authority to others. A delight of all ministers, particularly bishops, priests and deacons, should be to give authority away, the way Captain Picard did in every episode, the way Jesus does still. Our privilege is to give authority to vestries and church committees, to say “Make it so” to a parishioner who has an idea for a new ministry, to recognize the spiritual gifts of a person who doesn’t believe she has any and to commission her to use those gifts.
Because authority is not limited. There is not a finite quantity in the world, so giving it away doesn’t exhaust or deplete or divide it. Giving authority away multiplies it – a thousand times over. The only thing that limits authority in any system is one person clutching it too tightly. The only thing that smothers authority is holding it too close. The only thing that depletes authority is NOT giving it away.
Jesus spoke of that in the Gospel reading today. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors,” he said. They exercise an authority that is not authentic as they inflict it on others. “But not so with you,” Jesus said. “Rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”
The authority that Jesus gives is not a lording over. It is not an authority that is inflicted top down, but an authority that wells up from below, that becomes a firm foundation that undergirds the members of the Church in their life and ministry. That kind of authority, as it wells up from below, always points above. It points to Jesus himself. “For who is greater,” Jesus asked, “the one who is at the table or the one who serves: Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
Anna, Charles, Gail, Marlene, Emily, Joseph, Grant, Darren, Jeffrey, Seldon, Matthew, Dina, you have been called and will soon be ordained to a ministry of service. Not a ministry of service for the next six months until you are ordained priest, but a ministry of service for the rest of your lives.
As deacons you won’t have very much power, but as you live a servant ministry conscientiously and authentically, you will have authority. Accept the authority that Jesus shares with you. Earn authority among those you have been called to serve by being with them in the messes and the wonders of daily living. Multiply authority by giving it away. And as Jesus’ own authority wells up in you from the depths of his grace, always use it to point above, right back to him.
Through it all, do not be afraid. Never fear, like Jeremiah, that you are too young – or too old – to exercise authentic authority in Christ’s name. Never fear that you are too white or too black, too gay or too straight, too rich or too poor, too smart or too dumb to be all that God is empowering you to be. Simply “proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and proclaim yourselves as slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Then, to paraphrase the most famous Star Trek phrase, boldly go where Jesus himself has gone before.