Sermon preached on occasion of Henry Penner Ordination to the Vocational Diaconate at the 30th convention of the Episcopal Diocese of For Worth on November 2, 2012
by the Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl
Today is traditionally called “All Souls Day”, a day when we celebrate the lives of all those unknown Christians whose lives were lived in faith but whose deeds did not bring them to the forefront of Christian history to be celebrated either with their own feast day in the Church Universal, as with Simon Peter, or even in a region of the Church as we in The Episcopal Church remember St. David Pendleton, also called Okerhater, a Cheyenne warrior from Oklahoma.
All Souls gives us the opportunity to recall all those “saints” who have drawn us into the life of Christ and given us the guidance, strength, and motivation to “know Christ and make him known,” whose names and deeds will soon be forgotten in human history but forever celebrated in the Church Triumphant in eternity.
Our gathering in Annual Convention celebrates 30 years of life as a Diocese of The Episcopal Church. Not so many months ago, some might have doubted if we would ever reach this milestone. Just four years ago plus a few days, Convention voted to depart from the Episcopal Church, a resolution and vote that truly was out of order. Many who are gathered here today were willing to step forward following that vote and put their lives on the line, to devote much of their energy, time, talent, and yes even treasure to rebuilding The Episcopal Church in the continuing Diocese of Fort Worth. I do not know a single one of those heroes who would stand up and proclaim themselves “saints” on their own merit, but we who follow in their footsteps quite readily see the holiness of their mission to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to respect the dignity of EVERY human being, to offer the radical hospitality that our Lord Jesus demands. In a century, those names will be long forgotten except by historians and archivists, but their faithfulness will be celebrated both here and in heaven.
This evening we are also about the celebration of Henry’s offering of himself to be for us a servant leader who will challenge everyone, from the youngest child at St. Martin’s to the bishop of this diocese, to become more focused on serving than being served.
About 30 years ago, I was introduced to the concept of ordained ministers as icons. Now in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons are pictures of saints, or in the case of Rubalev, the Trinity, that call the viewer to enter into the life of the saint through meditation and prayer. Orthodox icons are similar to Western Christendom’s stained glass images, in that the light passing through brings them to life and helps illuminate our lives.
A former bishop of mine used to call deacons “Icons of servanthood.” What he meant was that the ministry of the deacon is to call all of us in the community of faith to understand the way we live our lives in Christ as being servants to all those in need. The deacon’s work is to stand with one foot firmly planted in the world outside the safety of the church community in order to be able to hold on to the needs of the outcast, the poor, the lonely, the sick. The other foot is to be planted firmly in the Church community in order to bring those needs to the community and to muster the resources of the community to address the needs of the world. Each liturgical action of the deacon is meant to mirror the iconic diaconal actions: proclaiming the gospel; leading prayers for all people; inviting us to confess our sins; at the table standing as servant not presider; calling us all out into the world to be servants. But a Deacon is not to do all of the so-called outreach work by himself or herself. As servant leader the Deacon calls every Christian to become immersed in servant ministry where they find themselves.
Deacons are a separate order from priests. For several centuries, deacons were seen simply as “junior priests” or “priests in waiting”. Within the past 50 years, we in the Episcopal Church have begun to reclaim the order of Deacons as a distinctive and separate order. Yes it is true that those seeking priesthood must still spend some time as a Deacon, but there are among us individuals who have been called by God to be deacons now and always. When we have completed the laying on of hands this afternoon, Henry will be complete as a deacon, not lacking anything to exercise the ministry to which he has been called.
The ministry of priests is “in-house” ministry. The priest is the one who calls together the community for Word and Sacrament and proclaims God’s blessing. The priest tells the story of God’s salvation whether in the confines of a church building, a hospital room, or in the parking lot or produce counter at the grocery store. Our tradition is not so very different from the healers of the Navajo who recount parts of the creation story—the Dine Bahanah—to bring one who has lost his way back into a place of walking in beauty. When a priest prays the prayer of consecration of the bread and wine in a Eucharistic celebration, the story is told again. “On the night before he was betrayed Jesus took bread….”
The ministry of the deacon, on the other hand, is “outhouse” ministry. When the deacon visits the sick and homebound, those in prison or the night shelter, or where ever God calls, her focus is not just to address those needs herself but also to be able to bring the needs of those she meets back to the Christian community where she challenges us to find ways to alleviate the pain and sorrow that permeates the world around us. Often the deacon is the lone prophetic voice of God calling us out of the comfort and safety of our pews to see the hurting world that surrounds us but also to get our hands and hearts—and our checkbooks—involved in finding solutions that will proclaim Christ’s presence.
Drawing on over 30 years of experience with Commissions on Ministry, Standing Committees, and as a bishop, of one thing I am absolutely certain. When a candidate for ordination kneels before the bishop for the laying on of hands for ordination as a deacon, a diaconal character must already be present because a minute or so of “scalp massage” will not make it so. Simply putting on a clerical collar, wearing a stole across one’s left shoulder, adding “the Reverend” before one’s name, and making promises and vows will be insufficient for the transformation required to live out those vows. Over these years my examination for diaconal character comes long before a person is made a postulant. How is this person involved in being a servant leader in the parish? Can this person speak with enthusiasm and fervor about both reaching out and drawing others in reaching out in specific ways?
This diocese is blessed with five remarkable Deacons. Deacons Janet Nocher, Sharla Marks, Traci Middleton, Dana Wilson, and Linda Southerland are serving their parishes and this diocese in incredible ways. Each has a unique calling, but each is fervent in seeking and serving Christ in “the least of these.”
I want to assure you, that Henry Penner who has been presented today is one in whom I have no doubt of calling to this ministry. You have given your assent to his ordination, and by the way, you have promised to uphold him in ministry. That means that when Henry gently twists your arm to become involved or to assist in a project, you had better listen carefully. God may well be using Henry’s voice to speak a word directly to you.
Henry, I ask you to stand. It is at this point that the preacher gets to say a word to the ordinand directly.
Some years ago in a Bible study of Exodus, I discovered that the Hebrew word that we usually translate as “ordain” means “to fill the hands.” If you haven’t discovered it yet, you will soon learn that your hands will be so full that you cannot possibly hold everything anyone wants to give you. The first object to fill your hands will be a Bible which I will give you with the admonition to proclaim God’s Word and assist in the sacramental life. Your hands are already filled with a wonderful family that you must remember to hold on to at all times. God has not called you into a ministry that ignores these precious gifts from God. You also have responsibilities in your work life which must not be ignored. Yet that aspect has already given you both insight and opportunity to minister as a servant. St. Martin in the Field parish is well aware of your gifts and already takes advantage of all that you have to offer; but beware of taking on too much more in the parish arena. The last thing this diocese needs is a crispy-fried, burned-out Deacon named Henry—or one who is confined to a sickbed because we overused your gifts and willingness to serve.
Finally, do not fear speaking God’s Word to all of us. We need your insight and perspective, and we need to hear how God is calling us to be involved with the least, the lost, and the lonely. Take your place with Janet, Sharla, Traci, Dana and Linda and be for us a servant leader.