“Service to God with a will to work for men”

“Service to God with a will to work for men”

This is the sermon the Rev. Ted H. Clarkson, rector, St. Andrew’s/St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Churches, Darien, GA, gave at the ordination of his son, Ted Clarkson, to the diaconate, December 18, 2020.


 I am always amazed at the aspect of the human condition that allows us to make the same potentially foolish choices over and over again.  Ted is a bright young man: well educated (at Allison and my expense) at Southern Methodist University, yet he made the foolish decision to allow me to preach at his wedding to Mikey.  To give your father the opportunity to speak about you in a forum filled with your friends and with no way to rebut what he says, is a risky endeavor.  As he found out!  You would have thought he had learned his lesson.  But now, even with the benefit of the finest education that Sewanee offers (this time at his expense), he gives me another opportunity to speak when he is about to make the other commitment of a lifetime, the commitment to the ordained ministry.

Ted, what an unusual, unprecedented time to enter the ordained ministry.

“Modern life is intricate and complicated, and its problems often seem incapable of permanent solution.  We live in a tangle of mixed motives and a maelstrom of human frictions.  Aside from the burdens of the individual life, there are the vast burdens of our economic life in which our whole system seems to be undergoing some sort of transformation and no man is able to determine where it will end.  There are the gigantic burdens of our sociological life in which race is set against race in prejudice and hatred, and class against class. The burden of our international life is so acute that the world is on the verge of nervous hysteria day by day.  The rise of new and strange philosophies of government are leading nations closer and closer to the brink of war, and nowhere does there seem any solution.  It is a distraught picture of our brethren that we see in the world today. The burden of demoralization which we see on every hand has perhaps many contributing causes, but the fundamental one is lack of high moral leadership.  There is a terrific struggle going on between God and the devil for the possession of the soul of the American people.  At no time in the world’s history has there been a greater need for consecrated moral and spiritual leadership than today.  Where shall this leadership be found if it is not in the Christian Church?”

Those words may sound a little stilted, and they definitely fail the inclusive language test, yet I have a defense.  These words are not my own, but the words of Albert Stewart, later to become the 6th Bishop of Georgia (and your cousin), on June 16th, 1939, when he preached the ordination of your grandfather.  The reference to “the brink of war” is perhaps a little off, but the rest of the words are just as applicable to today as they were 81 years ago.  In truth, they are applicable to all times in one way or another.  And they are important to what we are about today, the role you are vowing to undertake as a deacon in God’s church.

Bishop Stewart saw the role of the deacon in our troubled world as, and I quote, “service to God with a will to work for men,” harkening to the inscription over the doorway at the then VTS chapel.  (As an aside, Bishop Steward sadly went to VTS, but your grandfather was a proud graduate of St. Luke’s.)  Today, based on the words of the Examination in the Ordinal, we often speak of the role of a deacon as bringing Christ to the world and interpreting the world back to the Church.  I like both expressions, but I would like to focus today on Bishop Stewart’s description: service to God with a will to work for men (or humanity if you like), and particularly I want to focus on the words “service” and “will.”

A deacon is one who serves.  The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for servant diakonox. All clergy in Holy Orders are first and foremost servants.  Even our bishops with us today are still deacons.  Those of us in Holy Orders must never forget we are servants.  Jesus himself said that “I am among you as one who serves.” At another point, he declares “I have come not to be served but to serve.” The world that Bishop Stewart was describing in 1939 and the world today is a world where the powers of the world seek to be served rather than to serve.  We followers of Jesus, especially those who are ordained, are to do the opposite.  We are called to serve!  St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians even described himself as a slave to the people for Jesus’ sake.  Jesus himself says “blessed are the slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes.”  We don’t like that word “slave” today, but we need to hear it because that is the level of service to which we are called.  And the service to which we are called is to work for the humanity for which Jesus gave himself on the cross. If Jesus, God incarnate, gave his life for humanity, how can we be called to anything less.

Service, however, requires a will: a will to serve. A “will” is the marriage of a “desire” and a “commitment.”  A will to work for humanity requires a desire for humanity’s good and a commitment to doing what it takes.  And that is not easy.  We humans are a troubled bunch.  Seeing Christ in the other person, as the Ordinal requires, sounds easy enough, especially up here on the mountain, but it is not so easy out in the world, especially out in the world beyond the walls of our beautiful Episcopal churches.  Yet that is the world of the deacon. The ordinal says that the deacon is to serve “all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.” To put it more starkly, the deacon is to love those whom society deems unlovable.  The deacon is to serve those whom the world deems unworthy of service.  The deacon is to bring Christ and especially the knowledge of the love of Christ that passes all understanding to those who know no love.  A deacon has to desire this with all his or her heart, to want to do this more than anything else in all the world, if the deacon is to be the servant that he or she is called to be.  Kermit the Frog sang “it is not easy being green.” Well, it is not easy being a deacon.  It is not easy to see Jesus in the addict that comes to your door month after month seeking $20 with ever changing stories.  It is not easy to deal with the unemployed mother who wants to tell of her woes when you are pressed for time to prepare your sermon.  It is not easy to listen sympathetically to the requests of a mentally challenged homeless person who is homeless due to his own choices.  At first, it seems a privilege to be with these persons.  But doing so week after week, month after month, year after year is another story.  It requires a commitment of every fiber of your being.  How do we see Jesus in these human headaches? How do we set aside our own burdens, our own biases and see Jesus in these faces? The truth is that none of us who wear the collar have what it takes on our own.  We need help.  Ted, you will need help.

Personally, I have found that help in a gift that I received from someone dear to many of us here,  Dr. Richard Smith, who used to teach Greek and Pastoral Theology in the School of Theology.  Unfortunately, Richard is no longer with us in body, but he is in spirit.  I often spoke with Richard in his office; I was one of his teaching assistants.  One day I asked him about a picture on his wall.  It was a work of a calligrapher.  Richard told me it was Martin Luther’s Sacristy Prayer, and that he prayed that prayer every day when he woke up.  He then recited to me the modern language version.  While in many ways more appropriate to the presbyterate, this prayer is applicable to all in Holy Orders, and it bears directly on our need for help to fulfill our ordination vows.

Almighty God you have appointed me a pastor in your church, yet you see how unsuited I am to meet such a great and difficult task.  If I had lacked your help, I would have ruined everything long ago.  Therefore, I call on you.  I wish to devote my mouth and my heart to you.  I will teach the people.  I will read and ponder diligently upon you word.  Use me as your instrument but do not forsake me.  For if ever I am on my own, I will surely wreck it all.

I cannot say that I have prayed this prayer every single day, but I have come close, and I give thanks to Richard regularly for this gift.  Our God is the only source of the desire and the commitment to serve Him, our only source of what it takes to truly maintain a will to work for humanity.  Ted, you will need God’s help.  That is the purpose of the grace given in the sacrament of Ordination and the reason you will be making the vows you are about to make, particularly “the vow to be faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures.”  For it is in prayer and in the Scriptures that you will encounter over and over again the love of God:  God’s love of you and God’s love of every human being on this planet!  It is only the power of God’s love and God’s grace that will enable you to be the deacon you are called to be.

Upon my graduation from the School of Theology, Richard gave me a copy of that picture of Luther’s Sacristy Prayer.  I have a copy for you, but I will give it to you later because it is packed up right now.  Fortunately, God’s grace is never confined to a cardboard box.  It is available to you if you only ask, and it will empower you to bring Christ to the world and the world to the Church; to serve God with a will to work for men.  Yes, we live in a troubled world, a world in desperate need of deacons to bring God’s love to it.  I am so thankful (and proud) that you are joining their number.