The Rev. Deacon Ed JonesSo prepare yourselves, deacons-to-be, for the transformational work ahead: proclaimers of the Gospel, headwaiters at the table, interpreters of the world, agents in charge of “raising Cain.” Your transformative power will be directed at a world in which the very nature of community is being redefined.

The following is the homily preached by the Rev. Deacon Ed Jones at the Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate on June 6, 2015 at the Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church. [Click here for ordination photos]

 *    *    *

May our hearts and minds be open to God’s love. Amen.

It is an absolute joy to be in a space where, in a matter of minutes, I will be joined by eight new deacons. So Kimberly, Emily, Connor, Justin, Christopher, Daniel, Grace and Jamie, let me take a minute or two to confide in you, deacon to deacon. This is not something we need to spread around. No need to mention this to the Bishop. But the fact of the matter is that we deacons are often a misunderstood lot. Be prepared for that blank expression when you tell the third cousin who couldn’t make it today that “I’ve just become a deacon!” Indeed, when it comes to vocational or permanent deacons like Mary Beth and me, it can even be a bit lonely. After all, there are fewer than two dozen of us in the Diocese of Virginia.

What I’m saying is that many people, even church people, don’t seem to know what to make of deacons. During my formation process to become a deacon, I was asked by the vestry of my sponsoring parish to explain deacons. I took on that task with relish: Though we are all called as Christians to connect to the wider world, deacons are called to a distinctive, symbolically important ministry of interpreting the world to the Church, and of shining the light of God’s love into the world. We are the connectors; we are the bridge builders.

Nailed it, I thought. Captured every nuance. Now my vestry knows what deacons are.Listening to the Sermon

At that moment, a late-arriving member of the vestry took his seat and asked what was going on. Oh, said another vestry member, Ed was just telling us how deacons are like junior varsity priest.

Missed again!

At least that was better than my first introduction as the deacon at St. Mary’s, Colonial Beach, when the rector announced: I’d like for you to meet Deacon Jones. Half the congregation was expecting to see a 274-pound, 6-foot-5 former defensive end for the Washington Redskins – THE Deacon Jones. Needless to say, the sight of me, with this physique, was somewhat deflating.

But to my soon-to-be-fellow deacons, I say this: We are not about to be relegated to archival cubbyholes of the Church. We are not the “Rodney Dangerfields” of ministry, getting “no respect.”

After all, did you know that during the early centuries of the Church, it was more common for a deacon to become pope than it was for a priest? Of the 37 men elected pope between 432 and 684 A.D., only three are known to have been ordained to the priesthood before the election to the papacy. Those were the days!

So, yes, we may be lonely. We may be misunderstood.

But in the two-millennia history of our Church, it would be hard to find a time when deacons are needed more than they are right now. We, the community of faith, are facing enormous challenges from a culture that’s increasingly secular, with an attention span that seems to be growing shorter by the tweet. When it comes to interpreting the world to the Church, when it comes to shining the lamp of God’s light throughout the world, we are called to action as never before.

Maybe that’s why Lisa Kimball, a faculty member at Virginia Theological Seminary, told this spring’s Clergy and Lay Conference at Shrine Mont that, given the challenges of the day, we ALL need to be “good deacons.”

What do deacons do? Bishop Johnston was quite clear about that at an ordination service several years ago: They “raise Cain,” he proclaimed. (His actual call was for us to “raise Cain – but be smart about it.” It’s that second part I keep forgetting.)

We’re the ones who nudge the faithful out of their comfort zones, out of their “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. Deacons are the ones who remind us that, yes, as a community of faith, we are called to comfort the afflicted. But we are not called to be comfortable in our ministry. “Comforting” and “comfortable” are two very different things. The symbol for deacons is certainly not a hammock. It’s not even a piece of the stained glass from one of our beautiful churches. It’s a hand, lit by a lamp, extended out into the world.

Gospel Mary Beth EmersonBecause the Church doesn’t know what to do with you who are on your way to the priesthood, in our distinctive vernacular you will be called “transitional deacons.” But you are anything but transitional. You are transformational deacons – leaders and servants called to change the Church and change the world in ways that help connect God to those in search of the God within them. This is the role that will form you, not just for the next few months of your spiritual journey, but for the rest of your lives. Being a deacon will be in the core of your spiritual DNA.

Just reflect on today’s Gospel – ready for action, with lamps lit. Perhaps being ready has less to do about any actual time and place, and more to do with Jesus’ activity in the world when and where you least expect it. Waiting around just won’t do.

I was at an extraordinary meeting last week with representatives of four Dayspring congregations.

These are the communities of faith that are building their numbers and enriching their lives in church homes that had temporarily been taken away from them by breakaway congregations. This beautiful church we’re in today is one of those congregations. The Dayspring congregations lost their comfort zones — involuntarily and in a hurry. And, yet, what I clearly witnessed last week was that a blessing has come out of this difficult, trying road that they’ve traveled.

Anxiety and anger have been replaced by optimism, creativity and exhilaration. Without the safety net so many of us crave, they have been busily creating new links to the wider world and new ways to build their communities – from a “Friendship Café” to break bread with community members to a hypothermia shelter to a burgeoning partnership with a Korean Baptist congregation. Here at the Falls Church, one of the budget items that was overspent last year was the money set aside for baptisms. I love that. As overages go, that was a sweet one.Oblation Bearers

These congregations are doing things to connect to the wider world they may never have done if they had been allowed to live comfortably in their church homes these past few years. They were pushed out of their comfort zones and, because they were, their witness to the world has been transformed…. and they themselves have been transformed. Out of their loss and discomfort, they have learned how to be “good deacons” – how to connect the community of faith in creative ways to the wider world.

This is the exhilarating part of our faith. This is when we dig down and realize that, with God at our sails, nothing can stop us.

Before becoming a deacon, and before taking on the position of secretary and chief of staff of the Diocese, I spent – ohhh … a half-century or so in the newspaper business. Let’s not quibble over how many decades. By the time I retired, they were ready to wheel up to the Smithsonian and declare me an official artifact.

I can remember those heady days of the 1980s when newspapers were such a part of the community fabric that our advertising director had to go up to the front door of the building, hold up his hands and tell would-be advertisers: Please, no more money! We’ve got too much already!

Well, newspapers aren’t saying that anymore. The culture has changed. And though newspapers are flimsier than they used to be – a spring breeze can send your paper wafting down to your neighbor’s front stoop – in some fundamental ways the journalism is better.

Rehashing the City Council meeting on Page 1 doesn’t cut it anymore when news consumers have a myriad of other information outlets. Investigative stories, articles that explain how the news of the day connects to people’s lives – that’s what’s needed to be successful in the media business these days.

You can see the same phenomenon in our church life. Sunday at 11 a.m. no longer automatically means the opening hymn in the neighborhood church. It may mean the start of a youth soccer tournament or the gathering of the neighborhood donut club at the coffee shop.

Procession CrossIn a world like this, business as usual won’t work. Churches are no longer woven into the fabric of the culture the way they once were. We need to push beyond our comfort zones to find ways to reach people – in the coffee shop, on the sports fields, in the homeless shelters, all over. That’s what deacons can help model for us. When you’re out of your comfort zone, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.

So prepare yourselves, deacons-to-be, for the transformational work ahead: proclaimers of the Gospel, headwaiters at the table, interpreters of the world, agents in charge of “raising Cain.” Your transformative power will be directed at a world in which the very nature of community is being redefined.

Rachel Held Evans, an eloquent blogger and a proud millennial, recently wrote a section-front piece for The Washington Post that attempted to lay out some of the goals millennials and, I suspect, many others are looking for in their spiritual lives.

To cut to the chase, people are looking for three things: Authenticity, inclusivity and a spiritual experience they can’t find anywhere else in the world. In other words, they are looking for us.

As Rachel put it, they want to be asked to participate in the life of an “ancient/future community” – a community rooted in tradition and yet relevant to the issues of their lives. Now, if that doesn’t sound Anglican, I don’t know what does.Bishop Shannon Johnston ordination

They want us to be authentic by following Jesus in our lives, not just marketing him. They want us to be inclusive, by opening our doors with joyous welcome to all. And they want a worship experience that can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the culture – as Rachel suggests, complete with ashes smudged on our foreheads, and shared meals that bring us into the very presence of God.

The community they seek needs to speak, not just to the religious and the privileged, but to the poor, the marginalized, the lonely, the left out.

Where has the journey of Rachel from evangelical fundamentalism taken her? It has taken her here – to the Episcopal Church, to the inclusive, authentic community you serve.

It has been quite a few years since the deacon known as Laurence climbed the hills of Rome – almost 2,000 years, in fact. As legend has it, Laurence was one of the seven deacons of Rome in the year 258, and was kept alive after his bishop and the other six deacons were hauled off for execution.

The theory of the Romans was that Laurence, as the keeper of the alms for the poor, knew where the money was.

So, before his own execution, Laurence gathered together the poor, the lame and the blind for whom he had cared, showed them to the city prefect, and said: “These are the treasures of the Church.” They still are.

Laurence lived authentically into his faith. He practiced a ministry of inclusion to those left behind. His faith was countercultural to the greed of the times. In Deacon Laurence, we see the face of God – the face that seekers are still looking for in the 21st century, the face we see in you.

So congratulations, my soon-to-be fellow deacons. You’re about to be set apart in a way that’s not a steppingstone, not a will o’ the wisp entry on your spiritual resumes, not a moment along the way, but a core of your spiritual DNA. May God bless you on this transformational day. Amen. [Click here for ordination photos]

Posted by The Diocese

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s