13 June 2009

The ordination of deacons: the beginning of ministry

The anointing of David by Samuel in the 10th century Paris Psalter

Patrick Comerford

The Sunday after Trinity: I Samuel 15: 34 - 16: 13; Psalm 20; II Corinthians 5: 6-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4: 26-34.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I’m getting a bit old for them, but I still get a great sense of fun out of some those T-shirts you can buy on holidays. They often encapsulate some real grains of common sense with a touch of common humour

One of my all-time favourites is the one in saw in the Plaka in Athens with the slogan: “To be is to do – Plato; to do is to be – Socrates; Do be Do be Do – Frank Sinatra.”

Another favourite used to be one that said: “Three good reasons for being a teacher – June, July and August.”

I’m afraid that second one has turned out to challenge my sense of humour since I joined the staff here.

The exams here are over since the end of May, and you might think that – despite the building work that’s going on all around us – that June, July and August might be quiet months for the staff here, months in which we could catch up with reading in our own specialised fields, and quiet time to prepare lectures and seminars for the next academic year.

No way!

My two sons are already in holiday mode. One is planning what seems like a mammoth list of foreign places to travel to; his brother finished his Leaving Cert yesterday and thinks the holiday has just begun.

And they look at me, and wonder whether there are any holidays here.

Once the exams ended, we had marking. And then we had courts of examiners. And before that process had even runs its course, the ordinations for this year began.

Three new deacons were ordained on Monday night in Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford. A fourth deacon was ordained in Saint Saint Feithlimidh’s Cathedral, Kilmore, outside Cavan, on Thursday night. Then, tomorrow week, on Sunday 21 June, four deacons will be ordained in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, two in Hillsborough Parish for the Dioceses of Down and Dromore, and five more that day in the Diocese of Connor.

And there are 12 ordinations to come in the following week in Killala, Armagh, Cork, Derry and Killaloe.

As staff members, we find it impossible to get to all of these wonderful, joyous occasions. And if we’re disappointed about not getting to all of these ordinations, I’m sure the students are even more disappointed.

In Waterford on Monday night, and again in Kilmore on Thursday night, it was wonderful to see how many students had travelled the length and breadth of the country to be with their colleagues and friends at their ordination.

And, as you can imagine, the ordinands themselves are overwhelmed – sometimes even shocked – by the gravity of the challenge on those awesome occasions. And so too are their friends and colleagues when they hear what deacons are being ordained for.

For the past few months, they’ve been anxious about exam preparations, exam questions, exam results. Then, as they see their own friends and colleagues being ordained, they realise what all the preparation here has been all about.

It’s not about exam results – although that helps – it’s about service, ministry and mission.

In our Old Testament story this evening, which is one of three lectionary readings for tomorrow morning, the Sunday after Trinity, we are told how David had been chosen and called by God long before he was anointed by Samuel.

Like David, this year’s new deacons were chosen and called long before they are presented in public for ordination. As they kneel before the ordaining bishop, there are some who may even just have that tingle that they would prefer to have been left in the field and that God had called someone else, an older brother perhaps, for ordination and for his service.

But God calls a wonderful and diverse group of people to serve his Church and his world in the ordained ministry.

Like a sower scattering the seed, I sometimes like to think of God sowing the seeds in the minds of many people, that eventually grow into the full bloom of vocations. And the ordination season is the time when the Church gathers this harvest, gathers this harvest so that we can all be fed, in time, in Word and Sacrament.

No matter how tough or difficult or challenging they thought their time here as students may have been, they will soon find their confidence in God, a confidence they think is lacking these weeks, as they walk by faith, as they make it their aim to please God.

As they kneel before the bishop, the candidates for ordination as deacons are told that in the Church of God they serve in the name of Christ, and that they are a reminder to the whole Church that serving others is at the heart of all ministry.

They are told that deacons have a special responsibility to see that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility.

They are to strengthen the faithful, to seek out the careless and the indifferent, to minister to the sick, the needy and those in trouble, to help the oppressed, to promote unity, peace and love.

They are to baptise, preach and teach, to read the Gospel, to lead the people in prayer, to assist in the administration of the Holy Communion.

They are told to accept the discipline of the Church, to fashion their own lives and the lives of their families according to Christ’s way, to be diligent in prayer, in their Scripture reading, and in their studies.

Your studies begin here, but they do not end here. They should never end.

Your friends and families, when they (hopefully) come to your ordination as deacons, they will shake your hands, hug you and congratulate you. As if you had finished it all, as if you had achieved or reached your goal.

But it will only be beginning. Whatever Plato, Socrates or Frank Sinatra may say, or sing, about being and doing, a deacon is more about doing than about being. And you will realise it as you kneel before the bishop and the bishop – on behalf of the whole Church – places hands on your head and prays for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit so that you will be equipped for the office and work of deacon, that you will be filled with grace and power, that you will be faithful in serving, teaching and proclaiming.

But the bishop also prays that you will do all of this “with full assurance of faith, abounding in hope and rooted and grounded in love.”

I firmly believe that those prayers of the Church are fully answered, not just at the moment of ordination, but as we struggle on to faithfully serve God, the Church and the world as servants in ministry.

And I constantly experience the truth of the Apostle Paul’s encouraging words to the Corinthian Church leaders in our epistle reading this evening – that the love of Christ urges us on as he calls us to be signs of his new creation.

If you continue on this course, and eventually, hopefully, find yourself kneeling before a bishop, about to be ordained, you too may find it a frightening, daunting experience as you realise that “everything old has passed away … everything has become new!”

You will never be prepared adequately or fully for that task.

And yet, in the words of our psalm this evening, I and all of us here, whether as staff members or your colleagues on this course, will constantly come to give thanks, as David could eventually pray in our Psalm, that God answers all those prayers, and does indeed “grant you your heart’s desire and fulfil all your mind.”

Be humble like David, be constantly open to teaching, publicly and privately, like the Disciples in our Gospel reading, be confident of the ever-present love of God, and always keep service, the diaconal ministry, at the heart of your future ministry.

And now, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect of the Sunday after Trinity

the strength of all those who put their trust in you:
Mercifully accept our prayers
and, because through the weakness of our mortal nature
we can do no good thing without you, grant us the help of your grace,
that in the keeping of your commandments
we may please you, both in will and deed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer of the Sunday after Trinity

Eternal Father,
we thank you for nourishing us
with these heavenly gifts.
May our communion strengthen us in faith,
build us up in hope,
and make us grow in love;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached during the Foundation Course weekend at the Eucharist on Saturday 13 June 2009.

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