Luke 22:27

I am among you as one who serves. Luke 22: 27

To Be of Use by Marge Percy

The people I love the best
jump into work headfirst
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight…

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident…
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

We are here to celebrate the ordination of three among us, called, as we all are called, to work that is real. The Book of Common Prayer describes the vocational deaconate a special ministry of servanthood, an incarnation of Christ’s love by word and example, a living bridge between people worlds apart.

The vocational deaconate is a work of usefulness, which is such a relief. Lord knows how tiresome parlor generals, back seat drivers and detached advice givers can be. But when you’re in the presence of people like Ty, Terri, and Susan, you don’t have to worry that you’ll be left at the end of the night to wash all the dishes or put the tables back by yourself. A deacon never lets another person be the last one out the door, or thrown under the bus when tensions rise, or left to navigate the dangers of the night or the social perplexities of coffee hour alone.

In my early conversations with leaders of the diocese, I was often asked how I felt about the vocational deaconate. I was obviously entering a conversation that had been going on for some time, and many legitimately questioned whether introducing a new order of ministry was necessary. For while the deaconate is the most ancient order of ministry in Christianity, well documented in the New Testament, it largely disappeared after the 4th century as a life-long vocation, and instead was relegated as a temporary phase on the journey toward priesthood.

The vocational deaconate—that is to say, a ministry in its own right, with its own integrity and charism—was only rediscovered and reintroduced within the Roman Catholic Church as part of the great liturgical renewal movement of the 1960s and 70s. We in the Episcopal Church caught that same wave of spiritual energy in the liturgical renewal culminating with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Around the same time, the Lambeth Conference also commended the restoration of the diaconate throughout the Anglican Communion. Slowly, then, in some places and more rapidly in others, the vocational diaconate has been revived, as an icon of the servant ministry of Christ. Many of this diocese, including my predecessor, Bishop Chane, worked hard for years to bring the vocational diaconate here.

In preparing my response to the question—would I, as bishop, support the vocational deaconate— I remember thinking that I could understand why there might be some reservation in ordaining another group of people to an order of ministry that is a mystery to most Episcopalians, not to mention the culture at large. Do we really need more ordained people to do the useful work all Christians are called to do? Do we really need more people with collars when so many Episcopal priests are looking for work? And what would a deacon do exactly?

Yet saying that I would enthusiastically support the ordination of vocational deacons could not have been easier, because of the amazing deacons I have known—one of whom has just come into the Diocese of Washington and is sitting among the clergy today. I can’t image the Church without them. I remember saying to my bishop years ago, as the deacon’s training program was being redesigned in the Diocese of Minnesota, that I wondered if best strategy would be to try and catch up with those already living the deacon’s life and ordain them on the spot. I recognize that’s not a long range plan for ministry development, but in the case of people like Ty, Susan, and Terri, it’s not far off the mark.

The four of us were talking yesterday about how each came to inner certainty that this was their call, and while the journey was different for each and the ways they anticipate living out their vocation utterly unique, there was a common experience of self-recognition, that this wasn’t simply an interesting thing to do. No, this call to be a conduit, as Susan described it; or a bridge between the Church and the world, as is often said; or an icon, a living expression of Christ’s servant ministry; and encourager for all in the Church to discover our gifts and vocations, simply describes who they are.

And they are eager, each one, to continue to be of use, to jump in head first and harness themselves to the yoke of the gospel. Those of you who love Ty, Terri, and Susan know that this is true, and how blessed we are by their spirited efforts.

But there is a shadow side to servanthood, a predictable temptation to which all servant leaders are vulnerable, and we talked about this yesterday as well. It is the temptation to respond to every request. It’s an understandable impulse, to say yes when asked to help, for isn’t that what servanthood means? Of course it does, and we need more people willing to roll up their sleeves and take on the mantle of work.

But if you say yes to everything asked of you, you risk losing sight of the great pearl of your vocation, what it is that you are uniquely able to offer, that if you do not, no one else can. That pearl of vocation, the deeper why of your call is not always easily recognized, even in a discernment process. Or perhaps we recognize very well, but rarely give ourselves the time and space to develop it, because to do so would take us away from all the other good, important work to be done. And sometimes, we must all confess, it’s easier to do the work that it’s in front of us than to set ourselves apart to consider that work which requires thought, preparation and training, the work that waits for us after we’ve said no to several good things we could do in order to take up that which is ours alone.

So it is that I ask you, as your bishop and as a friend in Christ, to cherish your gift, to ponder in prayer and reflection the deeper call, the greatest offering of your lives, that gift that if you do not give will not be received, the proclamation and embodiment of the gospel that is uniquely yours. What might be lost if you serve outside needs only and do not heed the call of our own potential? The clearer you are—the clearer any of us are—about what it is we are here to do and to offer, the easier it is, although it is never easy, to discern between countless good works and our true work.

Jesus lived in the tension between serving others and being true to himself far more than we realize. He made difficult choices all the time, sometimes in service to the immediate needs around him, other times in fierce loyalty to his own sense of vocation that no one around him understood.

Remember: The more you are able to find your path and live it, the better you will help the rest of us do the same.

For your commitment to us, to live your vocation linked to ours, we are so very grateful. Thank you.

It is my privilege as your new bishop, and our privilege as the Church, to witness your ordination to this sacred path, your true work.