The Ordination of Deacons
June 9, 2012, Holy Comforter, Richmond
The Rev. Susan E. Goff, Bishop Suffragan Elect
Jeremiah 1:4-9; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Luke 22:24-27
“I am among you as one who serves,” Jesus said. “We do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake,” St. Paul wrote. Our readings and hymns and liturgy today are full of the language of servanthood and slavery. That is as it should be, because this is a service of ordination of deacons, servant ministers. This is a service of empowering these four who have been called to be servants of Christ in a world full of need. And yet, some of us are troubled, if we think about it seriously, distressed if we take the language of servanthood and slavery as literally as Jesus did. Because if we really think about it, most of us don’t want to be servants and slaves.
We are Americans, after all, and we treasure our culture of freedom – freedom to be who we want to be, to do what we want to do. We enjoy the freedom to make our own choices – and we live in a culture that offers us a myriad of choices – not just one kind of milk, for example, but non-fat, 1 percent fat, 2 percent, whole milk, lactose free, chocolate milk, vitamin enhanced milk, soy milk, almond milk and many others - all in a wide variety of brands and sizes. Same with bread and tea and coffee and laundry detergent and every other product. There are aisles full of multiple varieties of the same merchandise. We are encouraged by advertisers to express our individuality by choosing and buying items that reflect our uniqueness, just like everybody else. Our typical American store is overwhelming to people who visit from other cultures. The sheer number of choices is mind-numbing. But we like our choices, we like the sense of freedom that comes with choices. So the idea of being a servant or a slave with limited choices is distinctly distasteful.
But there is even more that makes the language of servanthood and slavery difficult. We gather today to take part in the ordination of deacons in Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of the confederacy – and we do it in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The word “slavery” weighs heavily in this time and this place. It drips with images of children torn from their mothers’ breasts, human beings sold as chattel, men and women stripped of their dignity as well as their freedom. The word “servant” weighs heavily, too, as it evokes images of women in drab uniforms, entrusted with raising the children of their wealthy employers, yet required to use the toilet in the dark corner of the basement. So many houses in Richmond still have those basement toilets and countless other reminders of the indignities of servanthood.
An African American friend said recently, “Can’t we find another word? Isn’t there another way to translate the Greek ‘diakonos?’ I just can’t deal with the words slave and servant when my own ancestors were forced to be slaves and domestics.”
And it is not only those whose people have suffered racial injustice who find the words difficult. Injustice doesn’t happen only across racial lines, but even among people of the same race, as some of my own family history taught me. My grandmother, Agnes Kelly, came to this country in 1917 after having lost 12 of her 14 brothers to the battlefields of Europe during the so-called “War to End All Wars.” She came as a 20th-century indentured servant who worked as a chambermaid in a hotel in New York City until her debt was paid. Like most servants, she suffered abuses and grave injustices, and had no recourse but to endure. As a child, I thought it exciting and romantic that she travelled alone from the west coast of Scotland, where she grew up as a coalminer’s daughter, to the streets of New York. I believed her passage across Ellis Island was a testament to freedom in the land of the free. Only after her death did I recognize how the pain, the burden, the indignities of forced servanthood shaped her life.
So why do we continue to use the words servant and slave in diaconal ordination services? Why do we hold on to this language that elicits such pain for those whose lives are still shrouded by the legacy of slavery and forced servanthood?
We hold on to this language, in fact we use it boldly even in the face of our experiences because Jesus chose to be a servant. Jesus chose to be a servant. He didn’t have to do it. He could have used the power at his fingertips to become ridiculously wealthy. He could have chosen to use the charisma, wit and quick thinking with which he was blessed to gather to himself men and women who would serve him and cater to his every whim. He could have manipulated circumstances to rule cities, even nations. Jesus faced down and said no to each of those options when he was tempted in the wilderness, but each one was a temptation for him because each one was an actual possibility. But Jesus chose to be a servant. He chose a life of service to others. And he demonstrated that life of service again and again – when he changed water into wine, when he touched and healed those who were sick, when he engaged in a battle of wits with the Syrophonecian woman and healed her daughter. He showed his followers how to be servants to one another when he washed their feet and when he walked the way of the cross, all the way to death, rather than serve himself and his own needs. “I am among you as one who serves,” Jesus said – and he lived that truth in action.
By choosing to be a servant, a slave, to others, Jesus chose solidarity with servants and slaves. He chose to be one with the despised and rejected, with those who suffered grave injustice and indignity, with those who had little capacity to make choices for themselves. By choosing to be a servant, Jesus identified himself fully with the poor, the hungry and the oppressed. And when God raised him from death, God redeemed that solidarity, redeemed a life of chosen servanthood and showed how it can be holy.
Just as Jesus chose solidarity with the least of the least in this world, so we who are called by Christ’s name and who desire to walk in Christ’s way are called to identify with the needy. Deacons in particular are called and ordained as servant ministers who are empowered by the Holy Spirit for lives of solidarity with servants and slaves; with the poor, the sick, the lonely, the weak, the unloved.
Megan, Rob, Amy and Andrew, you are called to be deacons, to be servants and slaves for the sake of others in Christ’s name. It’s a curious thing, though. Each of you has come to this time by going through a process with the Committee on Priesthood, not the Committee on the Diaconate. As we celebrate with you today, we are aware that there will be another ordination in December when you will, God willing, be made priests. And the bulletin cover today says that this is a service of ordination to the transitional diaconate. All this could be construed as a way out for you. If being a slave and a servant is just too countercultural, too hard, too uncomfortable, well, no worries, it will all be over in six months. This servanthood thing, you could conclude, is just a phase, just a transition to what God has really called you to be. Should you be tempted to think this way, here’s the bad news – and the good news: the word transition doesn’t appear anywhere in the service – it’s not prayer book language. When Bishop Shannon lays hands on you and prays, he will invoke the Holy Spirit to make you a deacon - not a deacon for six months, but a deacon for life. Once you become a priest, you will still be a deacon. Should you become a bishop, you will still be a deacon. Servanthood will remain the foundation of your ordained life. Countercultural and uncomfortable though it may be, servanthood will continue to be at the core of your identity.
As servants, you will not only minister directly, in hands-on ways to the needs of others, you will also be icons of service to other Christians who, through their baptism, have promised to live for the sake of others as well. As Bishop Shannon will say in the examination, “At all times your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” The Church needs you to be servants as deacons throughout your ministry in order to show God’s people how to choose lives of service as well.
Living this life of chosen servanthood, this countercultural life of denying your own freedom and comfort for the sake of another, is beyond your capability. You have been chosen by the Church because the Church believes you have been chosen by God for this ministry. You have chosen to say yes to that choice. But you cannot do it on your own. So we all join in prayer that the Holy Spirit will descend this day and make you humble, strong and constant. We all join in prayer for you that the choice that has brought you here today, the choice to be servants to the world for Christ’s sake, will be a blessing to you, to the church, and above all, to those you have been called to serve.
Bluegrass Bash Returns at St. Stephen's, Richmond
Ohmer Called to Serve as Rector of the Falls Church Episcopal