What follows is a sermon preached by Jamie Howison on February 2, 2012, on the occasion of the ordination of Vincent Solomon as a deacon of the Anglican Church. Vince is someone with significant roots in saint benedict’s table, though for the past couple of years his ministry training has taken him into other church communities. He is currently serving as a deacon at the Parish Church of St Saviour.
First of all, I have to tell you how pleased I am to have been invited to preach this evening. Vincent and I have some shared mileage, dating back some fifteen years to his days as a theological student at St John’s College. Vince, I am delighted that the Spirit has been so persistent in calling you to this ministry.
Of course as many of you will know, all things being equal sometime in the coming year we’ll again gather to celebrate his ordination; in that case to the priesthood. Not that his ordination as a deacon should be thought of as being somehow partial or probationary—you know, “so long as you don’t mess this up, Vince…” No, the claim being placed on him tonight is very real, and will be carried forward wherever the Spirit of God calls him.
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There is something particularly appropriate about celebrating an ordination on this day, the Feast of the Presentation. We’ve just heard read aloud a passage from the Gospel according to Luke, in which Luke actually conflates two separate ritual ceremonies into one.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [the infant Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ (Luke 2:22-24)
It actually wouldn’t have been their purification, but rather Mary’s ritual cleansing, in keeping with the traditions set out in Leviticus 12. It was this that required the offering of the two birds.
The second ritual ceremony performed was the “presentation” of Jesus, in accordance with the requirements set out in Exodus 13. In this case, and in a kind of re-enactment of the Passover story, the first male offspring—whether human or animal—was considered to be God’s property. In the case of animals, that first-born was offered for sacrifice. A human child, on the other hand, was to be redeemed through an offering of five shekels. It is a bit of a classic bait-and-switch, in which the child was brought to the priest, but rather than leaving him at the temple a manageable offering was made, and the parents happily returned home with their new baby safely in his mother’s arms. Years later when the child asks about the meaning of this ritual, the parents are to answer, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery,” and then retell the story of the Exodus.
It is while Mary and Joseph are at the temple with their baby that they encounter two elders of the community; the prophet Anna and the priest Simeon. Luke gives a fair bit of space to the words of Simeon, but he does not give us the content of what Anna had to say. (It is sometimes observed that a male writer in that time and context would have been less interested in recording what a woman had to say… but that is another whole sermon!) What is pretty clear is that the first response of these two elders is exuberant and celebratory: light to the Gentiles, glory for Israel, “the redemption of Jerusalem,” and salvation for the world. Finally, here in our midst, it is happening.
But Simeon doesn’t stop at celebration, for after he blesses the family he looks directly into Mary’s eyes and says to her,
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.
In short, the redemption and salvation that this child will bring is not going to be an easy thing. Not for him, and not for those he meets, whose “inner thoughts” will be exposed. And Mary, his life is going to break your heart. How quickly Simeon moves from celebration to what Bonhoeffer famously called “costly grace.” But really, if we read the gospels, why would we expect anything else? We are not merely a resurrection faith, but a death/resurrection people.
Well, Vincent, your story is connected to this biblical story. Like all Christians you are called to have “the mind of Christ” and to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son,” which means that grace is wrapped up both in celebration (this life is a gift!) and in the sometimes daunting and costly work of a lived discipleship. And now in a very few minutes on this night of the Feast of the Presentation, you too are going to be “presented.” It won’t be your parents acting as your “presenters,” and unlike a newborn baby you’ve had some pretty clear say in getting yourself here. While some might want to say that there are times when being in ordained ministry does feel a bit like being a sacrificial lamb, the only visible blood here tonight will be under the sign of the sacramental wine of the Eucharist. And yet unless somebody happens to have brought along five shekels to slip to the bishop, the offering of self made here tonight is real. When in a couple of hours you and your family drive home, you will have been “ordered” differently. You will be a deacon of this church, entrusted with a particular set of responsibilities and called into a kind of accountability that, quite frankly, changes things. Changes you.
Simeon’s words, then, call you to hold this night in a kind of open tension. Much of what we are doing is cloaked in decidedly celebratory garb, with a colourful procession in and out of the church (everybody loves a parade), a broadly smiling bishop and an equally broadly smiling ordinand, and a celebratory Eucharist, all followed by a reception in which we’ll have dainties and coffee, and everyone will line up to offer you their warmest congratulations. Not that this is a bad thing, for there is something very real to celebrate with you. But to stop there would be a deep problem. For just a few minutes, forget all that surrounds this ordination rite. Think instead on the words.
These are strong words that we use, including a declaration that the candidate believes “the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God,” containing “all things necessary to salvation;” a call to “a special ministry of servanthood”—“directly under the authority of your bishop” no less. “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” and “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” Not, mind you as a social worker or political activist, but rather as a deacon. And a deacon is called to bring those needs, concerns and hopes—the oftentimes-tough realities of this world of ours—into the work of biblical interpretation and discourse. That is why a Bible will be give to you, “as the sign of your [diaconal] authority to proclaim God’s word.” A deacon is called to read things through the lens of the biblical landscape; to understand the world in light of the scriptures, but also to challenge the church to pay attention to what the hopes and hungers and longings of the world should awaken in us, as we seek to be shaped by the scriptures. It is your job to stand as the hinge in that conversation, and to not let one side or the other get lost or forgotten.
There is, too, that moment when you will be asked the following:
And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?
Any sane person would surely pause at such a question, and I suspect that for some of the people here who were shaped in other church traditions—Mennonite or broadly evangelical and Protestant—it sounds as if Vincent is basically promising to behave and to do what he’s told. But I trust, Vince, that you have given some thought to the meaning of that word “authority.” Many a bishop—and many a priest and many a lay leader—has fallen into the trap of trying to use power not grounded in any canonical or truly God-given authority; your assent to the authority of your bishop has absolutely nothing to do with the arbitrary power of human-made roles and structures. Absolutely nothing. In other words, if Bishop Don phones you and tells you that he’d like you to wash his car and pick up his dry cleaning, you will need to say no. You’ll need to say no, because such requests on the part of a bishop would be about the wielding of power and control, not about the exercise of a biblically grounded authority. And you know, a big part of what you are being entrusted with is the responsibility to help the church—including the bishops of the church—to grasp that difference. As a deacon you are called to read things through the lens of the scriptures, and to summon the courage to say something about what is really going on.
So, hear all of that in these words of the ordination rite, and if it makes your knees go weak, so be it. Ultimately this work is not yours to complete, but Christ’s; and it is only in Christ that this ministry makes any sense at all. And it is in Christ and through Christ that tonight can also be a festal celebration. So we shouldn’t reject the dainties and the coffee and the congratulatory handshakes, but rather know that they stand as a rather small and insignificant sign of our deeper hopes and prayers for you: May you meet the living Christ in this ministry of yours—in the faces of those with whom you minister; in the words of the scripture which you are to study and proclaim; in the worship life of this community of St Saviour; in the joys and challenges of family and work; and in the midst even of the darkest and hardest of days. May Christ be with you.