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“Being With” rather than “Doing To”: An Ordination Sermon

A sermon delivered at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, for the ordination of Hana Scorrar and Cheryl Highmore. (St. Andrew’s folks will recognize a couple bits that originally came from the recent sermon on the anointing at Bethany.)

May 1, 2019: The Feast of St. Philip and St. James:
Isaiah 30:18-21
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
John 14:6-14

May only truth be spoken, only truth received,
and may the Lord uphold us in the service to which we have been called. Amen.

I recall a number of years ago hearing about an interview with Julian Lennon, elder son of the Beatle John Lennon (I used to run a record store, some will recall.). “Dad was a hypocrite,” he said: “He could talk about peace and love to the world but he could never show it to his wife and son.” A couple years later he added: “That peace and love never came home to me.” Fitting, perhaps, to begin with this mention of Julian Lennon, who always felt like the ‘lesser son’ of his famous father John. On this, the feast day of two apostles about whom we don’t know much: St. James the Less, and St. Philip.

St. James, son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve Apostles is probably best known for being… the son of Alphaeus, and for being one of the Twelve Apostles. Let’s call him the patron saint of the Jan Bradys of the world, and middle siblings everywhere. “Those whom we have forgotten, do thou, O Lord — and St. James the Lesser — remember.”

St. Philip gets a bit more ink in scripture. He’s part of the miraculous feeding (and we could make a diaconal connection there), and according to the Fourth Gospel, he’s the first to whom Jesus says: “Follow me.” And Philip, it seems, is courageous, or confident, or blunt enough to pipe up with the request: “Lord show us the Father.” Jesus explains that those who’ve seen and followed him have had God revealed to them. But if that proximity and relationship haven’t brought about this realization, then, he says, there remain the works themselves, that point to, and reveal God in their midst.

We will hear echoes of this when our Bishop addresses Hana and Cheryl, reminding them and us that deacons, through their works, are to “serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”

But this is not about the service, the works in themselves. Remember that Jesus points to these for Philip only after first speaking of himself, as the one who reveals and reflects the Father. Likewise, Bishop Linda will exhort Hana and Cheryl to “make Christ and his redemptive love known, by word and example, to those among whom [they] live and work and worship.” In other words, not just to do; to do things, even good, just things to people. But, first of all, to be. To be present to people. To be in loving relationship with those among whom they live and work and worship. In loving relationship with God. In loving relationship with oneself (sometimes hardest of all).

As deacons, whether vocational or transitional, Hana and Cheryl, you are being called to an office of service. And in our time and place, with an increasing disconnection between the Church and the wider culture, that ministry of service can serve as a bridge to those beyond the walls of our church buildings. Service and compassion and justice are intelligible to, and respected by most, even those to whom the gospel seems veiled.

BUT… as deacons, you may well remain something of an enigma to the world, as St. Philip and St. James remain somewhat mysterious to us. Because your ordination to this ministry of servanthood and service isn’t just modelled on charity and volunteerism, but instead, rooted in your baptismal ministry and identity. Your ministry will grow out of your following of Jesus — Emmanuel: “God with us.” Your service to those with whom you live and work and worship will be, therefore, not transactional, anything but bureaucratic, and rarely neat and tidy and predictable. Your service will sometimes be ‘to’ or ‘for,’ but it is first of all a calling to ‘be with,’ and ‘to be in relationship with;’ as Jesus came to be with us, in our mess. It is often more difficult, I think, to be ‘with’ someone, than to do something ‘for’ them; harder for the Church to be “poor among the poor,” than to “fix the poor.”

And so as deacons in the Church of God, by studying the holy scriptures, and seeking nourishment from them, and modelling your life upon them, you will proclaim the way of peace and love to the world, as John Lennon did. But you will also model it in a way that his first son needed.

And you will advocate and strive for justice in a world that is caught up in, and hostage to systems that are anything but just. But as your passion, and hard work, and maybe even saintliness attract respect and attention (and perhaps a significant social media following), and hopefully instigate change, remember that it is not our saintliness that brought us to baptism or to ordained ministry, but, as St. Paul wrote, “God’s mercy.” It is “not ourselves that we are proclaiming, but Christ Jesus as the Lord.” And in losing yourself in Christ, you will find your true self, and more readily point beyond yourself, to God; to people and to a world that in some way are asking: “show us the Father.”

In A Nazareth Manifesto, a book referenced by Archbishop Rowan Williams here in London, just a few weeks ago, Sam Wells describes that kind of ministry in this way: “A truer understanding of ‘with’ [rather than ‘to’ or ‘for’] moves beyond the roles of giver and receiver. Here there is something all parties share: …in the case of being ‘with’ it is a more abiding sense of finding limitless depth in and through the company of the other, a depth that discloses joy and abundance in ways that anticipate eternal life.”

I think what he’s describing is the joy and abundance and surprise that occurs when we recognize the paradox that we may attempt to follow and reveal Christ in our service of others. But, as it happens, we end up finding Christ in the other. And, when relationships form, Christ is found to be present in that sacred space between you and ‘the other.’ Where the differences between ‘giver’ and ‘recipient’ dissolve, and instead, community is realized and built up.

So: Hana, and Cheryl… if your experience of your ordination is like mine was, you will find that many of the details can become a blur… a very nervous blur. But know and rest in the confidence that your ordination takes place in the context of a community. A community praying for you both, and is committed to upholding you in your ministry. And know that I’m honoured to be given the opportunity to share these words for two people who have helped to reveal God to me at important times in my own life.

Hana, as I began to more earnestly explore theological education some time ago, I remember meeting a warm and down-to-earth community that included yourself and [presenters] Ros, Brad, and Matt. (My eventual decision to study at a different institution was, I can assure you, completed unrelated!) And we have both been blessed by having had the privilege of growing and serving in the context of the loving community and beautiful setting of the Parish of the Bruce Peninsula.

And Cheryl: for over two years we have shared in a ministry at the federal prison for women in Kitchener, where the impact of the liturgy is often felt with an immediacy that is not always so apparent on Sunday mornings in the ordinary parish setting. Where our assumptions have been challenged and transformed. Where what started as something ‘good’ and ‘charitable’ for us to do ‘for’ the women there has simply become ‘church.’ Where community is being cultivated as we seek and find Christ in the scriptures, in the sacrament, and in each other.

Dorothy Day, the great 20th century model of justice and servanthood is known to have said this: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.” I pray and I trust that as our Bishop prays over each of you, that your hearts will be filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. That your loving service in the Church and in the world would flow from this conversion and revolution of the heart, and your experience of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And may you be empowered to faithfully follow him. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter