Cathedrals are wonderful places and for those being ordained, St Pauls will remain for them a special place. Before I was a Bishop I was the Canon Treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral, which to those that knew me was a surprise. In Cathedrals you need to walk in straight lines and in the right place and with wonderful square corners, you have to sing the liturgy and to put all the words in the right order – this was not my background.
Early on I remember having got through a service as the Deacon. I felt very positive, I felt we had drawn people into worship, I had sung when required and I had got all the words in the right order and my square corners were wonderful.
So in the vestry I said so to the Canon Precentor – his response came “If you are a deacon you should look like one” pointing to my stole which had been priest-wise all the way through the service. My response was “once a deacon, always a deacon on the inside.” He responded back, “then look like one on the outside”. I love Tom dearly but you can imagine my response, however he does have a point.
Today we will hear “Deacons are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible”.
Now if you are here today and you don’t know the love of God ask one of these people being ordained about it – having spent time with them I know they know of the love of God as seen in Christ Jesus.
And what of that love?
One of the challenges the early disciples had was that they expected Jesus to restore the fortunes of Israel to overthrow the Roman occupiers to restore them to their positions of power.
Jesus has in contrast began to teach about the lessons of the lilies of the field which neither toil or spin and calls them to seek the treasures in heaven and not on earth. He calls them to be salt and light in the world and to look after their enemy as they lie in the gutter, seeing them as their neighbour.
What the disciples and we so often miss was that the Kingdom that Jesus speaks about is not about his property or wealth or power. It is about love and it is about making God known and is love. It was and is about service.
And now in our gospel reading we are called to be ready dressed for action with our lamps burning – and how should we be dressed as ones who serve – as deacons.
Jesus says this about himself: “For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life/soul a ransom for the cause of many.”
Our epistle reading tells us that in our relationships with one another, to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
We have been called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps – footsteps of service.
Today you are to be ordained as deacons you are going to have great fun in your parishes but ministry is not grand. Being a Christian, a disciple, is not grand, being a deacon is not grand you are to reach ‘into the forgotten corners of the world that the love of God may be made visible’. That is what ministry is about.
Reaching into the desolation of Grenfell tower, or the despair of prisons, or to reach into the darkness and loneliness of sickness, depression, unemployment and broken relationships. Reaching into the places and towards the people who fear that God is not for them, that forgiveness is not for them, that grace is too far away to reach.
To sit with the stranger, to touch the outcast, to welcome the refugee or to eat with the alien and risk being counted one of them. That is at the heart of the role of deacon and in doing this we follow the pattern of Jesus Christ. The model that Jesus gives us involves getting one’s own hands dirty and the risk of becoming a bit bruised.
It is traditional in some ordination services for the Bishop to take off their outer vestments, turn their stole deacon-wise put a towel around their waist and wash the ordinands’ feet. For a bishop doesn’t cease being a deacon either. When Jesus took up the towel and water it was at the moment of his greatest powerlessness; it was on the night on which he was betrayed that he washed the disciples’ feet – including those of Judas Iscariot. Jesus kneels before the feet of his betrayer and gently, tenderly washes them.
Christian service, the service into which these women and men are being ordained, should always follow this pattern, the pattern of the incarnation, the pattern of humility and vulnerability. Too often service from a position of strength and security becomes an exercise of power.
Pope Francis has said this about his vision for the Church – for the Roman Catholic Church, but it will do for us too: ‘I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. ’ (from Guadium Evangilii – The Joy of the Gospel)
It is easy to feed and to welcome and to sit with those who are like us but we are also called to sit and feed and to welcome those who we find it hard to love even our enemies.
Thomas Merton became a Cistercian monk because he wanted to escape from a world filled with wicked people. But after a few years of religious life, he went to the local town one day to have something printed, and the scales fell from his eyes. He wrote in his diary,
“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts… the core of their being, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more greed.”
We know that you can’t bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God and with the cloud of witness which has gone before and with those gathered here this afternoon.
So pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of scripture Enlighted. Do pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit so that by the renewing of your minds you will discern what is the will of God to seek out the forgotten corners of the world and you will have the courage to echo the words of Isaiah and say, “Here I am send me”.
Today you will be ordained as deacons. Remember in the years that are to come that ‘once a Deacon, always a Deacon’ – not just on the inside but also the outside.
Sermon Preached on the 30th June 2018
St Paul’s Cathedral for the ordination of Deacons
Isaiah 6: 1-8
Philippians 2: 5-11
Luke 12: 35-45