Sermon for the Ordination of Nadia Stefko to the Diaconate
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Grace Episcopal Church, Oak Park, IL
The Rev. Stacy Alan
A theologian who spoke at Brent House once said this: “You can’t speak about the Trinity without committing heresy. You just have to decide which heresies you can live with and what is not negotiable.” I feel like preaching at an ordination to the transition diaconate is similar: Nadia and the Church have discerned that she is called to the priesthood, and yet, as happens with all priests in our tradition, we ordain her first to the diaconate, which raises all kinds of questions—will she still be a deacon when she is priested? Are all priests also called to the diaconate, and if so, what does that say about those who are called to what we unofficially call the vocational diaconate? I can’t win.
So let me start by offering my own understanding of the orders of ministry of the church. I have found that the metaphors of vision and seeing are a great frame on which to hang this on.
All Christians are called to see in a special way: we are called to see Christ in each other, in our neighbor, in our enemy, and in ourselves. We are called to see the Spirit of God working in the very longing of creation, to see the wisdom of God working where the world sees foolishness.
When we ordain brothers and sisters as deacons, priests, and bishops, one could say that we are setting them aside to focus on and pay attention to a certain kind of vision. A bishop’s view is the big picture: attending to the past, looking for the Spirit of God working in the church through history, peering toward the future, discerning how God would have us work “for the reconciliation of the world,” and broadly looking at the overall wellbeing and mission of the Church as lived out in his or her diocese in the present.
A priest’s vision is generally focused, if you will, on the ground, or more immediate surroundings: on the life of a particular community, the care of its members, its growth in faith and service, the day to day administration of the sacraments. There’s some glancing to the past, too, since priests are supposed to pass on the tradition of the Church, and some looking to the future as God’s call is discerned locally.
What’s a deacon’s special vision, then? I think it’s a kind of peripheral vision. This is the vision that sees what’s on the edges, what we have chosen not to focus on, the places we don’t want to look, the things that call us to repentance and action. The work of the deacon is, in words we will hear shortly, “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
This is all very nice. It’s lovely set of metaphors, clear and organized, an exercise in the theoretical. But this past Wednesday nine people were killed when a gunman, after sitting with them for an hour as they studied Scripture and prayed, opened fire. They were black; he is white. The church where the attack happened is the oldest Black congregation south of Baltimore, and for almost 200 years has been part of the struggle of African Americans for freedom. Some of our national leaders have so far been unable to say, clearly and outright, that the shooting was racially motivated. Even fewer are pointing out that we white folks are all complicit in the systems and habits of racism, born in the justification of slavery, reinforced by law and through fear and in the comfort of those whom it has benefited, and whitewashed in the lifting up of token successes even as black people are shot and imprisoned and marginalized.
The comedian Jon Stewart, in his show on Thursday night, expressed his sadness “that we have to peer once again into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other, at the nexus of a . . . gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” A bit later he said, “I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that, and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do [jack shit].”
What does that mean, in my nice, neat categories of Christian vision and orders of ministry? There it is: the abyss—or, rather, one of the abysses that are the consequence of a fallen world—right in front of us, so obvious, I hope, that we don’t need a deacon’s peripheral vision to see it. There’s the history—both of our culture and of our church—of not doing squat about it.
What does it mean as we prepare for the bishop to lay hands on Nadia and make her a deacon? What did it mean as we prayed just now to be delivered from discouragement, ignorance, apathy, and complacency? What will it mean as we share in the Eucharist, remembering, yes, God’s invitation to the wedding feast, but also the sacrifice of one who was executed as a threat to the established order?
Nadia and the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have discerned that she is called to the priesthood. Why, then, are we ordaining her (as we do with all priests) to the diaconate?
Being a priest can be hard. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world. But someone else will be preaching on that, I assume, when you’re ordained to the priesthood, Nadia. The trick is that the priesthood has a certain crutch to it. Priests are the conservative order in the church. We are charged with bearing the tradition, holding it in trust, and sharing it with our communities and, by extension, the world. We have the authority to bless and to celebrate the sacraments. We are called to denounce injustice and actively to work for righting of wrongs, as are all Christians, but we do that from the center, from positions of conferred (and earned) sacramental authority—which isn’t a bad thing, but the institution provides a certain shield, a tether than tends to keep us from getting too close to the edge.
The deacon, though also ordained by the Church and bearing its authority, is meant to stand at the edges: the edges of the church, the edges of society, the edges of the abysses of human evil. Without the shield of sacramental authority, bearing the naked moral authority that Jesus wielded, deacons call us to look to the edges, to look deep into the abysses of racism and sexism and homophobia and classism and nationalism and, you know, the endless list of the creativity of human evil, and they call us to reflect, and repent, and respond.
And as my husband John also pointed out, the deacons don’t simply stand and point at what we’d rather not see, like merciless scolds. They stand with us as we look into the abyss, arm around our shoulders so we don’t fall in.
I think one could argue that by ordaining future priests first to the diaconate, we give them some practice in that exposed and vulnerable place of being, not the only ones to call out injustice, but certainly designated ones. Whether Nadia’s time as a deacon is simply an extension of her baptismal ministry, whether it is permanent or will be replaced by her priesthood, as of today she is called to stand with other deacons at the edges of what we fear and avoid and willingly ignore. She is called to look fearlessly into them, trusting that the God of Jeremiah will also give her the words to speak and will send her where she needs to go to speak them. She is called to prod and encourage us to repentance and action.
Which brings me to one last thing: our first reading was from Jeremiah. For all that the diaconate is a prophetic order, Nadia is about as unlike Jeremiah as anyone I know. Jeremiah was an awkward, difficult man, who said provocative, disturbing things, and who made people really uncomfortable and got thrown into a well.
What might Nadia’s particular prophetic ministry look like? It is, perhaps, the most fundamental prophetic charge of all: as she said in her nomination essay, “mine is a ministry of proclaiming in word and deed the legacy of the incarnation—of asserting that it matters that the God we worship is one who took on human flesh and died as one of us; who walked upon and was sustained by this good earth; and who lived and died as one of us.” From this, Nadia can look into any of our abysses, proclaiming that the dignity of every human being includes the dignity of their bodies, and that the goodness of all creation means being appropriate and farsighted stewards thereof. As of today, she will stand at the edge, fingers grubby from working the earth, a heart shaped by love, and eyes already practiced at looking to the edges and into the abysses. And as of today, we will have another person to invite us to do that same.