This is a wonderful occasion, as ordinations typically are, with family gathered around these ten ordinands, and members of the churches that sent them on their journey, seminary friends, and folks from the churches that have called you to serve them. It’s an honor to preach at these happy events, and I’ve always thought that the task of the preacher at an ordination was to stay out of the way. It’s almost like a wedding, and when I was a parish priest the thing I learned pretty quickly about those events was to stay out of the way, because nothing about those late-spring Saturdays was about me.
But that little lesson from parish weddings perhaps might be a bigger lesson for today, as the ten of you offer yourselves to God for service to the Church. While this is a happy and deeply meaningful day for the ten of you and those who love you, and an important day for the Church, if there is one thing I hope I can leave you with today it is this: It is not about you.
Now, I know very well what you have gone through just to get to this day. Part of my job is to oversee that process, and I will tell you that 32 years ago if I had gone through the same process I might still be selling sewage treatment equipment to small towns in L.A. (That’s Lower Alabama.) Here in the Diocese of Virginia we have high standards, we take discernment extremely seriously, we have bishops who rightly want well-educated and well-formed clergy, and every one of you have come through our process beautifully, if not without some struggle at times. But as well as you have done, and as much as we have required of you, from this day forward the leather-bound Bible/Prayer Book combination you carry, the collar you wear, the needlepoint above your bedpost, should remind you daily of this fact: It is not about me.
So, if it’s not about you, who is it about? Well, partly it’s about that woman who comes to church each week looking, perhaps desperately, for a glimpse of God in her life. It’s about the man in the hospital bed having a minor procedure, needing to experience God’s presence embodied in you because there’s been a little bump in his journey that makes him understand his mortality. It’s about people whose lives are in disarray—from job loss, or children with problems, or elderly parents, or financial issues. It’s about people who, more than anything, need to know they are part of a community who loves them and who will travel with them along on the journey to discover the reality of God in their lives. It’s about the wider community of people who need the church’s care—the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned. And it’s about that mother of the bride who is so uptight not just because the flowers are wrong but because her little girl is venturing out into the world and mama doesn’t know if she’s ready for it. It’s not about you, it’s about them. And yet it’s about more than them as well.
A number of years ago I attended an event that was meant to celebrate the church but really was about celebrating a person who’d given a lot of money to help the church in a very noble and important way. A description of this organization was part of the event, and I noticed that the person’s name was used six times in three paragraphs, God was mentioned once, and Jesus not at all. I went home and told my wife that my humility-deficiency detection meter was going crazy at that event. Our Presiding Bishop is fond of saying that, “If it’s not about Love, it’s not about God.” That’s one of the great phrases we need to carry in our ministry toolbox. But here’s another: If it’s not about humility, it may not be about ministry.
“For what we preach is not ourselves,” St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, “but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
Today you will be ordained to the transitional diaconate. It’s an odd little six months or so the church puts you in. Because while you are ordained clergy, you are not those who have been called to the vocational or “permanent” diaconate, but you are also not yet a priest, which is where all of you intend to end up. I am not sure that this six months or so of limbo that we put you all in is a great idea from a practical point of view (that’s a personal opinion) people who are smarter than I am can expound about the theological strengths and weaknesses of the transitional diaconate. But if nothing else, it is a great reminder that no matter what lofty heights you may rise to in the church – rector of a cardinal parish, bishop, whatever – you will always be a deacon. It will always be part of your portfolio to care for the least of these, to be with those in pain, to connect the Church to the needs of the world, to lead by serving.
“Who is greater,” Jesus said, “The one who sits at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
It’s not about you.
And yet there is an irony in saying that it’s not about you, that it’s not about us. And that irony is this: In your private life it is so much about you. In order to do the emotional labor of ministry, in order to be the presence of God for people in pain, in order to lead others into difficult places, in order to serve those who are at the worst points in their lives and to do the reconciling ministry of Christ, you have to be present to your family and friends, you have to take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually, physically, financially, and you have to nurture your own relationship and journey with God. You have to know yourself, your weak spots, your vulnerable places, the places where only God can heal you. Do you know how hard that is? Do you know what you are getting yourselves into? Listen, the bishop hasn’t put his hands on your heads yet. You can still run!
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God says, “and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
See, that is what is so difficult about this wonderful day—we are celebrating a deep and holy and, perhaps, eternal call to you to live a life of humility, servanthood, and entering into the pain of the world. In order for you to thrive, you have to be able to parse out the difference between caring for yourself and caring for others. And sometimes it is a very difficult discernment.
I was at a church recently and someone introduced me as “the canon to the ordinary, better known as the bishop’s bouncer.” And we all laughed, of course. But the reality of my work in this diocese is that I often do go into hard situations in churches where there is conflict, and comparing some of those situations to a bar fight is pretty accurate. All too often, I get to see up close and personal the things that have caused dissension and pain, the things that have distracted people and clergy from the mission of the Church.
These are often complicated situations, and when working with colleagues trying to bring peace and reconciliation in these churches, we often find ourselves saying to one another something along the lines of, “What they are saying it’s about is not what it is really about.” And what we find is that often the clergy in those conflicts become lightning rods for pain that has nothing to do with them. Sometimes they become casualties of that deep systemic pain. “It’s not about you,” I tell them, “it’s not about you.” It is in those painful, awful, difficult times that the daily work you will do of bringing Christ to others, living with them in humility, building bridges instead of staking out positions, will be the key to reconciliation, in whatever form it takes. And figuring out how to walk along that blurry line between your own life and the life of the community of God’s people will be a key as well.
One of the most prevalent themes in early Christian writing has to do with the humility of Christ. We’re familiar with Philippians 2, where St. Paul writes that although Jesus had the very nature of God, he humbled himself and took on the nature of humanity. And in the Arian controversies of the fourth century St. Athanasius pushed back against the idea that Jesus was anything other than fully God and fully human. He wrote this about the fragile and fallen world that God had to contemplate:
“What then was God to do? What else but to renew his image in humanity, so that by that image humans might once more be able to know him? But how could this happen, but by the coming of the very Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ?”
The Church needs ordained leaders who bring the image of Christ with them into all those fragile and fallen places. To do so requires humility and sacrifice, and it requires a certain self-confidence in knowing that it is not about you, because it is about Jesus. It’s about seeing Jesus Christ in the daily human encounters with others; it is about proclaiming Jesus Christ in your preaching; it is about bringing Jesus Christ into conflict, even when you are one of the wounded; it is about finding Jesus Christ in your personal life. The Good News is that it is not about you, but it is about Jesus. We, all of us, need ordained leaders that show us this reality.
Leonard Cohen wrote:
Ring the bells that still will ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
You offer your imperfect self today to God, to God’s people, to God’s Church. You are called to the brokenness of the world, the cracked places. It is not ourselves we proclaim, but Jesus. Forget your need to be the perfect deacon, the perfect priest. Leave here today determined to take him into the cracked places, to a world that desperately needs him.
The Rev. Canon Pat Wingo is the canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Virginia. As canon to the ordinary, Pat is responsible for assisting and supporting the bishop in areas of episcopal ministry, including disciplinary matters, congregational development, and the discernment and ordination process.
Pat graduated from the University of Alabama in 1982 and from the Seminary of the Southwest in 1992. Before entering seminary, he worked in banking, equipment sales and construction. Pat served as rector of parishes in Gadsden and Birmingham, Alabama before joining the bishop’s staff in the Diocese of Alabama. He and his wife, the Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, live in Richmond, Va. They have three daughters.