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.
DOCTOR: Because it will change your life.
OFFICER: Five. (points) One, two, three, four, five.
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
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.