The Ordination of Br. Aidan to the Sacred Order of Deacons
Preached at Holy Cross Monastery, November 14, 2017; Luke 12:35-38
Whoo boy! This day has been a long time coming. Nearly ten years ago—it’s weird saying that out loud—I got an e-mail from a Yale undergrad asking about my year in the Episcopal Service Corps program I was then finishing. He had just been accepted into the same program, and had some questions… actually, a list of exactly 12 questions. He said that although he had always been academically-focused, he felt that God was pushing him out into the world to find other seekers… and he mentioned his calling to the priesthood.
Br. Aidan… then Will… accepted the intern position, and we actually ended up working together for about 6 months, before I went off to India, and then on to seminary. And over the next several years we would occasionally bump into each other or catch up by e-mail.
By 2011, Will was a seminarian at Union in New York, but he was no longer pursuing the priesthood. An e-mail note from that year stated how amazing James Cone was as a professor, and ended with “I’m not planning on entering the discernment process, though I guess that could always change.”
Way to leave room for the Holy Spirit! And the next I heard, discernment was on again—begun with St. Luke in the Fields. And then off again—or, at least, graciously paused by Bishop Andy—because monastic discernment had begun. At long last, monastic vows were entered, the Bishop pressed unpause, GOEs came and went, and ten years from the first e-mail, here we are today. Family, friends, brothers—people from so many different communities that have shaped Aidan and made him who he is this morning.
And because for all of these years the discernment question has centered on priesthood, it’s very easy to see today as just a bump in the road along the way to the goal. Ordination to the transitional diaconate! Often approached as, eh, just a necessary hoop to jump through.
Shortly after I was ordained to the priesthood, I was present at a program about diaconal ministry. And the vocational deacon leading the event asked for all the deacons in the room to stand up. Well I, I was now a priest, so I kept my seat. And the deacon looked at me, and I said, “Oh no, I’m a priest now.” And she said, “Oh no—once you are ordained a deacon, you are always a deacon.” And I learned my lesson and got to my feet. You are not stripped of your ordination to the diaconate when you become a presbyter, regardless of what the word transitional may imply. The vows you will make today endure. And diaconal ministry will be enfolded into your priestly vocation and, thank God, it will never leave you.
Now admittedly, when Aidan invited me to preach, my mind went right to “What a good priest he’ll be.” And I started thinking about the books on priesthood I was going to quote from. And I had to slow down and say, Wait, the work we’re gathered to do today, the work of the Holy Spirit we’re gathered to witness, is the ordination of a deacon. And it is not a bump in the road to the priesthood or a hoop to be jumped through. It is a sacred and sacramental and lifelong charge.
During the Examination, our good bishop will name the work of a deacon. He will tell us that Aidan is “to make Christ and his redemptive love known… to those among whom you live and work and worship”; that he is “to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” And he will say—and this is where I want to dwell this morning—the bishop will say, “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
That’s big. You are to interpret to the Church, the world. Not interpret the Church to the world—that’s a very different thing—but interpret the world to the Church. You are to be a voice for the whole messy, broken, beautiful, becoming, hurting, longing world. You, Aidan, as a deacon, are to place your ear against the breast of the world and listen for the heartbeat of God, for the longings of God, and then come back and say “Church, Church, let me tell you what God is doing in the world, what God needs in the world, what the Spirit is up to outside our walls, let me interpret the world to you.”
Because too often we, the Church, get too worried about our buildings and our budgets and our theological minutiae—as important as those things all can be. And too often we have thought our job is simply to interpret the Church to the world. And we need diaconal witnesses who can remind us that Christ came not to be served but to serve, not simply to be heard but to listen, to listen with our ear against the breast of the world, which is the breast of Christ himself.
I’ve heard Bishop Dietsche say that of our three Holy Orders, the closest to the actual servant ministry of Jesus is the Sacred Order of Deacons. Jesus may be our Great High Priest after the Order of Melchizedek, but he did not busy himself offering sacrifices for the institutional Temple complex. No, he was out with his ear against the breast of the world.
Now the question may come to your mind, How is a deacon to keep his ear to the heart of the world tucked away in a monastery? Well first of all, this monastery is no escape from the world; life lived in intimate community is life lived in the heart of the world. And the world courses through this place as every year thousands upon thousands of hungry souls, of spiritual seekers, pour through these doors, these halls, this chapel. People who would not step foot into a parish church come here to find God, people from so many walks of life come here to find quiet and healing, come here to speak their needs, concerns, and hopes. That diaconal longing expressed in an e-mail 10 years ago to be in the world with other seekers is still being lived out right here and now.
And so Aidan, this is the perfect place to live the diaconal dimension of your vocation—which is not simply to help set the Table or liturgically proclaim the Gospel—which we already know all of the brothers here get to do anyway; no it’s to take the pulse of the world as it flows through this place, and then to interpret, to speak a word from that encounter, to the Church. I have heard your voice, and I know that the Church needs it.
But it would be woefully short-sighted to think that the world Aidan is charged with interpreting is simply made up of human beings. As a deacon, you need to listen to the honey bees in that field, and to this sacred Hudson River, and to that 300 year old oak tree in the cloister, and to the birds and the deer on this land, and interpret their needs and their hopes to the Church as well. You are to interpret to the Church the world, the whole world, because the Church has been far too near-sighted far too often.
And so this deaconing work, it is first and foremost contemplative work. To interpret, and interpret well, you must listen, you must be present, you must be free of agenda. Because if you are not, you end up only interpreting yourself, your ego, and not the world. Aidan will be, and is, an excellent interpreter. More than once you have interpreted to me what God is speaking in and through the world.
In our Gospel reading Jesus says, “…be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” A deacon has discovered that the Master is knocking in every moment, in every inch of creation, that the world itself is the wedding banquet. “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert…” Present. Lovingly attentive. Ever-ready to interpret. Deaconing.
I used to be on the bandwagon that says, “The transitional diaconate is a confusion of orders. If someone feels called to the priesthood, they feel called to the priesthood, and not the diaconate.” I still think that’s probably true. And all the more reason that priests should be ordained first as deacons!
Each of our holy orders is like a sacramental mirror, reflecting back to all of us a fundamental facet of our own humanity—in the setting of the table, reflecting back the universal call to servanthood; in the breaking of the bread, reflecting back the priesthood of all believers; in the office of the bishop, reflecting back the unity of the people of God.
Shortly, Aidan, the Church will lift you up as such a mirror, and then set you down among the people to show them who they really are. Wearing a habit, he already knows something about this mirror work. Remember that like your monastic vocation—and like all Christian living—diaconal work is first of all contemplative work—that to interpret God’s world, you must be empty, and humble, and fully human. Because it is only out of the awareness of our transforming union with God in the humanity of Christ that everything else flows. Daily you will have to polish the rust from the surface of the sacramental mirror of your life. And I’m sure your brothers will gladly help with the necessary abrasion.
And when in six months or so you, God willing, are made a priest, don’t forget this, your first ordination, not replaced by but enfolded into the next. As a priest, you will be called to interpret the Church to the world, but never forget to interpret the world to the Church. And so, my dear brother Aidan, rest you ear against the breast of creation, which is the breast of Christ himself, and listen for the heartbeat of God… and then come back and say Church, Church, let me tell you, let me tell you…!
And so we pray, Come Holy Spirit, come Holy Spirit, come Holy Spirit… Amen.