Sermon for the Ordination of Nadia Stefko to the Diaconate

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.

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State of the Chaplaincy 2015

Here is this year’s State of the Chaplaincy Newsletter. It includes an essay from alum The Rev. Ben Varnum (AB 2006, MDiv 2010) and a reflection on sexuality and prayer from our chaplain, the Rev. Stacy Alan. Plus great photos from the year!

Late Night Labyrinth 2015

Late Night Labyrinth 2015

State of the Chaplaincy 2015 for web

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Nina (Meigs) Bennett: Sermon for Yom Kippur

This is what Brent House alum Nina (Meigs) Bennett preached on Yom Kippur at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California:

Thank you for being here. Yom Kippur is exhausting. We confront over and over again how fragile we are, how broken. It’s hard to face that. It really does help to know that we’re a whole room full of fragile, vulnerable people.

Especially because, I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten really good at coming up with ways to avoid thinking about the whole sin and atonement thing.

My month of Elul – when we’re supposed to be reflecting and asking for forgiveness– looks like this:

I procrastinate.

I sign up for, and then ignore, those daily inspirational Elul emails.

– let me know if any of this sounds familiar –

And then, finally, at the last minute, I “tackle” my “shortcomings” as if this were a job performance review. “Identify areas of unmet potential, and map out a strategic plan for future implementation.” AKA, I make lots of resolutions.

It’s easier to think about how awesome I’m going to be next year than it is to sit and look hard in the mirror. But resolutions are poor preparation for the intense vulnerability that we’re called to experience.

When I was in college, the quote from Isaiah that we read in our HafTorah was my favorite.

“Do you call that a fast,

a day when Adonai is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:

to unlock fetters of wickedness,

and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break every yoke.”

No joke, I had it (somewhat sanctimoniously) posted on my facebook profile. (This tells you when I went to college!).  I grew up a U.S. diplomat’s daughter in West Africa, and I had resolved that I was going to spend my life actually doing stuff, untieing the cords and all that. I could almost see myself turning up my nose at campus activists circulating petitions and volunteering.  Do you call that a fast? I’ve lived in Africa, I’ve seen real poverty, and I’m going back to do something about it.

You can guess where this is going. I got a grant to do independent research on an aid project in rural Mali. I walked in proud and eager to fulfill my “unmet potential,” … and left broken…lonely.

I wish I could say that I was as thoughtful as Menachem was about his recent trip to Ghana, and returned motivated to step up and pitch in.

I spent much of the trip alone, and isolated, with no instructions, no guidance, uncertain of what I was supposed to do.  Somewhere in that wandering, I met myself… and I wasn’t terribly impressed.  When I was put in an isolated place with no instructions, where my past accomplishments didn’t matter… I was just another young, useless, fragile, and overly self-impressed kid.

It was a really hard trip.

Yom Kippur is a whole day where we are asked to let ourselves be truly vulnerable. To look at who we are. To set aside all our safety blankets and our distractions and allow ourselves to feel small, and temporary. For most of us, this is unbelievably hard.

And since this isn’t Hollywood, there’s no promise that we’ll “live happily ever after” if we go through this process. Today’s Torah portion doesn’t pretend that we can undo last year’s mistakes. Aaron is able to purge the Shrine of the impurities of the Israelites using blood sacrifices, but deliberate sins are indestructible and can only be sent away in the hope that they may never return. The idea is that intentional acts of wrongdoing, once committed, can never really be undone. And before we can send our sins away to Azazel, like Aaron we must acknowledge them. “confess over the goat all the inequities and transgressions of the Israelites.” We can hope for closure, but only if we can face our shortcomings.

We’re asked to face ourselves, but mercifully our tradition understands how difficult this is and doesn’t demand that we do it alone.  The Torah gave the Israelites clear and detailed instructions, and our Machzor has translated those into a liturgy that supports us every step of the way.  The melodies are serious, helping us to feel the awe and solemnity.  The prayers are repeated over and over, confessions, pleading for forgiveness, giving us the words when we’re too overwhelmed to know what to say, and pulling us back to the task at hand even though we’re so easily distracted. These rituals demand – force us to stay in this awkward space for longer than is comfortable, because most of us will do anything to avoid the experience of feeling vulnerable.  Our job today is to be present and live with our vulnerability; but we don’t have to do it alone. The liturgy creates the space, gives us the words, keeps us focused, and gives us company.

Two months after I came back from Africa, I walked into my very first yom kippur service. I was accompanying the man who would become my husband.  I remember being so moved that he – who is not practicing – would pushed himself out of his comfort zone and show up, along with everyone else, every year. That on the day of atonement, every Jew is welcome – every Jew is needed. No matter who we are, or how we spend the other 364 days in the year, we’re all vulnerable, we’re all going to die, and we all need help facing that.

Years passed after that first Yom Kippur. We graduated and left the bubble of campus life. We moved. As well-intentioned but clueless young things, we crashed some well-buttoned shul’s Yom Kippur services, not realizing you needed tickets.

They were gracious and let us in.

We moved again. Another year, some well-intentioned but also clueless new friends graciously invited us to a Yom Kippur  Break Fast… that was accidentally scheduled for right after Kol Nidre services.

We were trying. They were trying. In our awkward, stumbling, inappropriate ways, we were trying to be present and in community on that day.

After Isaiah tells us that our fasts and our attempts at reconciliation aren’t good enough, the HafTorah promises that “when you call, Adonai will answer; when you cry, He will say: Here I am.Here I am is the translation of the word Hineni. My understanding the word conveys attentiveness, alertness, and readiness to respond to instructions. Think of it this way, Hineni is what Abraham said when God called to him and was about to instruct him to sacrifice his son; and hineni is what Abrahram said again when the angel called to him to stop. Hineni is what Moses said when God called to him out of the burning bush. This spot in Isaiah is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where God says Hineni.

Today, if we’re able to be present and vulnerable,

if we’re able to let go of all that makes us feel safe,

and we cry out because we encounter things about ourselves we’d rather not see,

if we can let ourselves be here,

then God says, Here I am. I’m here and ready for whatever you need.

My wish for you is that you are able to be present today. That you can let go of all your masks… let go of all the mental tricks that we use to feel safe even when we’re uncomfortable…and just experience what it feels like to be fragile.

If we can do that today, then maybe, just maybe, tomorrow we will be able to be more gentle with ourselves and those around us.

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Sermon by Jay Stanton: “Constructing and Dismantling the Binary of Curse and Blessing”

This sermon was preached by friend of the House, Jay Stanton, at KAM Isaiah here in Hyde Park:

R’eh 5772

Jay Stanton

Constructing and Dismantling the Binary of Curse and Blessing

This week’s parashah opens by challenging us to visualize an amazing scene.  Commanding us to see, the portion starts with the word r’eh:

“See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.  When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal – both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.” (New JPS translation)

This passage seems to present us with a binary between blessing and curse:  two mountains separated by a valley full of Israelites.  On one, we recite all the blessings of life, and on the other, all the curses.  Up one slope, we place everything good: prosperity, abundance, compassion; up the opposite slope, we place everything evil: hatred, violence, famine.  So we choose blessing, reject curse, and only good things happen to us for the rest of time.  Easy enough, right?

Our experiences of doing good deeds and following mitzvot have not banished evil from our midst.  Recent shooting sprees and climate scorching show that to us on a global level, and we all have personal examples of good deeds leading to bad consequences.  At face value, our world doesn’t reflect our Torah.

We constructed the binary we see between blessing and curse. This passage tells the story of its construction.  My mentor Kate Bornstein teaches that all binaries are false, and I have yet to be confronted with a counterexample.  Binaries invite us to consider their fallacy; we usually gain something from their simplification while we lose something else.  Generalizations help us build a coherent picture of our surroundings, but that picture is a lot more complicated than a mountain of curses and a mountain of blessings. When we look at the text closely, this seeming binary gets more complex.

God gives us both blessing and curse.  Moreover, both blessing and curse are present in the Promised Land.  If God wanted us to be completely free from curse, it would have been left on the other side of the Jordan, in somebody else’s land, apart, at least temporarily, from the holy people.  The Deuteronomist invites us to consider the relationship between holy people and holy space.  Yet we are required to proclaim curses within the land of Israel, the spatial realm of holiness.  Cursing is holy even when we don’t start a stream of curses with the word.  The power to curse is divine.  Made in the divine image, we share that power.

Understanding curse as a gift from God is not easy.  The predominant culture in America views God as only good, a Force repelling evil which can help you do likewise if you profess belief.  Furthermore, when religious leaders try to explain evil in the world, they often reject the notion that evil comes from God.  Instead, they blame individuals or categories of people, often ones that include me.  So, in this post-Holocaust, post-9/11 world where genocide, terrorism, and generational poverty still afflict us on a mass scale, and joblessness, grief, and illness afflict us on a personal level, we want to divorce ourselves from any discussion of reward and punishment as God-given.  Or we take God as Rewarder-and-Punisher as a fact we must believe about the divine in order to accept its existence and reject God altogether.  This perception of unfairness on God’s part is not merely an image of an unexamined popular psyche; it permeates academia as well.  We call the inconsistency “the problem of theodicy.”

What if theodicy is not a problem?  We live in a complex global society, where whether we remember to turn the lights off when we leave a room in Hyde Park affects people in Mongolia.  Hardly any action we take or choice that we make has consequences only impacting ourselves.  Bad things happen to people who are doing good things.  If God causes everything, then God is the cause of evil as well as good.  By presuming that God works on a merit system, we have trouble explaining suffering in the world.  I recently finished the book The Jew in the Lotus, in which Rodger Kamenetz describes his experience as a witness to interfaith dialogue between Jews and Tibetan Buddhists including the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  Kamenetz relates a conversation about suffering between a Jew who spent time as a Buddhist and a Buddhist who was raised as a Jew.  Buddhists try to explain why suffering occurs and how we can eliminate it.  Jews acknowledge its existence and strive to live with it on a daily basis.  We don’t try to explain away our suffering; we ask what we can do to alleviate pain.

God invites us to recognize curse and blessing as extremes.  We in the valley, or the Midwest, can’t actually live on Mount Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, either in fact or metaphorically.  Unlike the sages of Monty Python, we can’t always look on the bright side of life.  Curse and blessing surround us, and they are often not separable on distinct mountains.  A friend dies, and we realize how deeply we were impacted by her presence.  We move to a new place to pursue new opportunities, and we leave our home behind.  We use the extremes of blessing and curse to make sense of our own lives.  Most of the time, we experience both simultaneously.  Yet we navigate our world using the landmarks of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.

Often, we take this navigation system as a law.  We are overeager to call one thing a blessing and something else a curse, using our own value system to place more situations at one extreme or another than actually belong there.  We forget that both blessing and curse are gifts, and we forget that the power of each stems from its relationship to the other and their mutual juxtaposition.  They help us choose to live rightly.  They help us do tikkun olam.  The presence of both blessing and curse gives us the opportunity to bring blessing to the parts of society or our lives that we view as cursed.  When we feel we are only blessed and not cursed, the presence of both curse and blessing argues against complacency.  God gave us blessing and curse in distinction to each other so we can be agents of change in our own lives and in our world.

The rabbinic tradition suggests that we say one hundred blessings throughout the day.  Forty is a big number in Judaism, and one hundred is two-and-a-half times bigger; the task seems overwhelming.  However, we are encouraged to say blessings over the small things in life.  We say blessings over drinking a glass of water, eating, seeing a great scholar – all daily activities in Hyde Park. We pepper our day with blessings to remind us that they are present to us in the midst of the curses and that we can invoke a blessing whenever necessary.

Blessings themselves aren’t necessarily all good, either.  A Midrash teaches us that two angels are sent to follow us on Shabbat.  One is evil, and one is good. When we keep Shabbat, the good one shares the blessing, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.”  When we break Shabbat, the evil one says, “May your next Shabbat be exactly like this one.”  Tonight, I want to offer a different blessing.
In the Jewish calendar, we are in a period of reflection and self-examination.  Tomorrow night we begin the month Elul.  We take the month to start our process of t’shuvah, repentance, to get ready for the High Holidays.  We are involved in a process of reconciliation with God, moving from the pain of Tisha B’av – which commemorates the destruction of the Temple and other national tragedies – to the joy of Simjat Torah.  So my blessing for us tonight is this: may we be different next week than we are this week, and may we be different next year than we are this year.  In the coming year, may we navigate our lives juxtaposing blessing and curse.  May we use our awareness of God’s gifts of curse and blessing to shine light in dark places.  And that way, may we bring more peace and wholeness – sh’leimut – to the world.

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Sermon at the Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate of Ben Varnum

Stacy Alan
Sermon at the Ordination to the Transitional Diaconate of Ben Varnum
Feast of All Saints
St. Chrysostom’s Church, Chicago

Two things I have to get off my chest before I get to the sermon:

1.  Being asked to preach at the ordination of a transitional deacon is like being asked to preach at a confirmation.  We do it because we’ve always done it, but we struggle to explain why.  I suspect this invitation wass not so much an honor as a trap.  So I’m not going offer an apologetic for the transitional diaconate:  as of today, Ben will be a deacon.  ‘Nuff said.

2.  For anyone who knows Ben, it seemed logical that a sermon at his deaconing should including some reference to Star Trek, but when I inquired about episodes relevant to the diaconate, he replied, “if I wanted a Star Trek sermon, I would’ve just asked Kyle Rader to do it! (Kyle is Brent House’s Anglican-sympathizing Methodist.) So, no Star Trek – or Stargate Atlantis or Firefly or Battlestar Galactica.

However, in the first episode of the fifth season of the new Dr. Who, we learn that an escaped alien convict known as Prisoner Zero has been hiding for 12 years in the house of one Amelia Pond, unbeknownst to her.  The Doctor (who, for the uninitiated, is a sort of time-traveling, reincarnating trickster-hero, and kind of Jesus-like) has just realized this and they have the following dialogue:

DOCTOR:  How many rooms?

OFFICER:  I’m sorry, what?

DOCTOR:  On this floor. How many rooms on this floor? Count them for me now.

OFFICER:  Why?

DOCTOR:  Because it will change your life.

OFFICER:  Five. (points) One, two, three, four, five.

DOCTOR:  Six.

OFFICER:  Six?

DOCTOR:  Look.

OFFICER:  Look where?

DOCTOR:  Exactly where you don’t want to look. Where you never want to look, the corner of your eye.

And, indeed, there is a sixth room, untouched and abandoned for 12 years, where the shape-shifting multiform monster has been waiting, biding her time.

This whole episode is full of the theme of seeing and not-seeing, perceiving beneath and beyond the surface, and it occurred to me that the metaphors of vision and seeing are a great frame on which to hang our understanding of orders of ministry.

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 great cloud of witnesses that we celebrate today, to see the presence of the faithful, past and present (and even future), around us, not only in this space, but out in the world, supporting us, cheering us on, depending on us, waiting, with the rest of creation, . . . for the revealing of the children of God.  (They’re here even now . . .)  It is a complete vision, a deep vision, a metaphysical vision.

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, it seems to me, is the big picture:  one eye aimed on the past, to “the faith 
of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of 
every generation who have looked to God in hope,” and one on the future, discerning how God would have us work “for the reconciliation of the world.”  There’s a third eye, if you will allow the anatomical inaccuracy, looking at the overall wellbeing and mission of the Church as lived out in his or her diocese.

A priest’s vision is generally focused, if you will, on the ground, or on 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 that vision the Doctor talks about in his conversation with Amy Pond:  peripheral vision.  This is the vision that sees what’s on the edges, what we have chosen not to focus on, the places, as the Doctor says, where we don’t want to look.  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.”

Our call as Christians is always to proclaim God’s love and be Christ’s reconciling presence in the world.  But the reality is, as happened very early in the life of the church, we can get so focused on some parts of that work—on the preaching, and the sacraments, and the programs, and the spiritual formation, etc., etc.—that we miss what’s right on the edge of our sight, just in the corner of our eyes.  So we have deacons to bring those things back into focus.

But, as Doctor Who will show, there’s a danger to this vision.  Amy decides to go alone into that newly-discovered room, and the Doctor tells her not to look at Prisoner Zero, only to track it with her peripheral vision, “Don’t try to see it, he says. “If it knows you’ve seen it, it will kill you.”  But Amy simply won’t allow the monster to stay in the corner of her eye.  She turns and looks it directly.  (At which point it does try to kill her, but that’s beside the point.)  Later on, it is exactly that face-to-face encounter with the Prisoner, the memory of what it looks like undisguised, that allows the monster to be defeated and saves the world.

The things that deacons are called to bring to our attention—poverty, disease, abuse, neglect—are unpleasant, painful, embarrassing, troublesome.  We might even feel that to look at those things head-on will kill us.  And we might even be right.  To acknowledge a need in the world and to acknowledge that God might want us to do something about it might mean that we have to change, even to die.  But that’s exactly what the Christian life is about.  The deacon looks the need straight-on and encourages us to do the same, reminding us that this is where Christ is encountered and assuring us that even if we do face death, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—no, not even scary escaped alien convicts—will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is the kind of vision that Jesus is using in the Gospel we heard this evening.  The poor, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake don’t look particularly blessed when looked at straight on and they are those who oftentimes we’d rather not look at at all.  Not only do they tell us of what is wrong and painful about the world, but they also remind us that we could easily take their place.  Jesus calls us (and deacons remind us) to turn our heads and look at those in our peripheral vision and, with the vision that all Christians are called to exercise, see the blessing.

There’s a third scene in this episode that is particularly diaconal.  It turns out that there is yet another group of aliens, the Atraxi, who are hunting the escaped Prisoner Zero.  They put a force field around the earth, causing the sun to dim.  At this point every single person on the village green, dozens of them, does what one might expect:  they pull out their phones and begin to take pictures.  (The Doctor responds in exasperation:  “Oh, and here they come, the human race. The end comes, as it was always going to—down a video phone!”)

But the Doctor notices something odd.  Amid all of these people focused on the obvious, there is one man whose camera phone is focused on something completely different:  a man and a dog, who we already know is Prisoner Zero in disguise.  This is Rory, who has been paying attention to his own peripheral vision.  He knows something is terribly wrong but can’t get anyone to listen.  The Doctor asks Rory, “Man and dog.  Why?”  And as Rory explains, the Doctor chimes in, knowing exactly what the problem is.  Rory’s vision has been affirmed and confirmed.

This, too, I think, is a deacon’s work:  to notice other folks’ peripheral visions, to help them understand what they’re seeing, to encourage them to look at the needs of the world straight on, to listen together for God’s call, and to guide or mentor or nudge or network or whatever is appropriate to invite the church to respond.  Deacons are not the only ones who are responsible to attending to the world’s need (just as priests are not to proclaim the gospel or celebrate the sacraments alone, nor are bishops called to guard the faith, administer, or discern alone).  Their special charism is to keep the peripheral vision, as it were, in focus for the Church as a whole.

So, Ben, you’ve been baptized and confirmed.  Now it’s time for the next ontological change.  As happens with these things, you are taking a step away from the freedom of the normal Christian.  Today we set you aside and ask you to keep a special eye on our peripheral vision, to be alert for monsters and the meek, aliens and the merciful, shadows and those who hunger and thirst for anything, including righteousness.  It means that you will have to look those things hard in the face and remember what they look like so that you can point them out to the rest of us.  It’s a strangely myopic vocation, not unlike that of the prophets, who also tended to focus on the things people didn’t want to see.  It takes tenacity and grace, patience and humility, and knowing and loving your community.  You might—and probably will—blink and get it wrong sometimes:  you might see monsters where there are none, or miss injustice looming just there to the left.  This is why, unlike the prophets, you don’t do this work alone.

And you won’t begin alone.  Today you are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses—and by this local cloud of witnesses, who have already promised to uphold you in your ministry, just as you will promise to hold them accountable to theirs, showing Christ’s people “at all times . . . that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.”

And one more thing:  diagonal stoles are cool.

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