It’s a real joy and privilege to be here with you this morning, as it is to have journeyed over the past five days with these 12 wonderful people about to be deacons. In many ways, they are very ordinary people but the journeys that God has led them on to this point are extraordinary. Each of them has an amazing story to tell. For some, the journey has been a long one since the first inkling they had of a call to ordination. For all of them, there’ll have been times of challenge and struggle as well as joy and excitement as that sense of call has been tested in conversations, interviews, training and formation. But God has gently and persistently led and guided them along the way and now they are here, ready and waiting for the moment they’ve been preparing for so long,
The sheer variety of people that God calls to serve as ordained ministers never ceases to amaze me. Here, in these 12 prospective deacons, is an amazing wealth and diversity of experience. God doesn’t call one kind of person but a vast array of women and men drawn from different walks of life, each called out of different contexts to serve the church and the world in different ministries across the diocese.
I’ve journeyed with them for only four or five days. Many of you gathered here today will have known the person you’ve come to support much longer. Whether as family, friends, work colleagues or church communities, you’ll have been journeying with them for months and sometimes years, and you may well have been part of their discernment process.
Thank you for your support and encouragement along the way. None of us called to ordination make the journey alone. Each of us are indebted to those who know us best and love us most for travelling with us and affirming for us that emerging sense of call. You’ll no doubt have watched the person you’ve come to support today change and grow as they’ve undergone their training and formation. You may even have felt a sense of loss on some way, as the person you love and care for has gone down a road that you don’t understand or perhaps even find difficult. The journey to ordination can be costly, sometimes very costly, and that’s not just for the ordinands themselves but for their families and friends. So thank you again for staying with them, continuing to support them and being here for them.
The experience of Isaiah that we heard about in our first reading a moment ago mirrors the experience of all who respond to God’s call on our lives, lay and ordained alike. We capture a glimpse of God – awesome, overwhelming, all encompassing – which both captivates us and draws us. And yet, in our growing awareness of God’s presence, we come to recognise just how small and transient and imperfect we are. We feel, as did Isaiah, the shame of our weakness and failings – “people of unclean lips”, as he describes it. But God reaches out to meet us, to cleanse us and to take away our guilt and sin. It’s then that we’re in a position to respond to God’s invitation to work with him and for him in the neighbourhoods and communities he has placed us. That’s the wonderful and life-giving experience that all of us who’ve said ‘yes’ to God’s call on our lives know within ourselves.
But for the 12 people sitting here at the front of this cathedral today represents another ‘yes’ to God’s call. That is, a call which invites them to exercise a public ministry on behalf of and in the name of the church. It’s a ‘yes’ that they said months and years ago as they first heard God’s invitation to giver themselves to ordained ministry. And they’ve continued to say ‘yes’ through the ups and downs of the selection, training and formation process. This morning in the context of this service, surrounded and held in the love and prayers of family, friends and the people of God, they’ll say a very public ‘yes’ as they make their vows and promises to be faithful in the ministry of a deacon to which God calls them.
The church is also saying ‘yes’ to them. Having discerned and tested the call these peoples have sensed, the church affirms that call and gives them the authority to exercise the formal ministry of a deacon. Perhaps the most moving moment comes when the Bishop lays his hands on their heads and prays for the anointing of the Holy Spirit to equip tem for the work entrusted to them. It’s a precious and sacred ministry that Deacons are given and one that can only be done in and by the grace of God.
So what will they be doing?
Well, on one level they don’t know. When Isaiah hears God’s call, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and he responds with the words “Here am I. Send me”, he’s no idea what that will mean. He doesn’t know to where or to what or to whom God is sending him. But he’s ready and willing, nonetheless to be sent and to go.
It’s the same for our prospective deacons here. On one level, of course, they have quite a good idea of what they’ll be doing. Much of it is laid out clearly in this service, as the work of a deacon is described. But none of them know what lies ahead, or what particular challenges they’ll face or what situations God will lead them in to. All they know is that they’re called to serve others, to point them to the love and grace and mercy of God at all times and in all places, and to live lives of self-giving after the pattern of Christ.
It’s this pattern of service and humility that’s encapsulated in the passage from John’s gospel that we’re in the middle of. It tells of the moment on the night before he was killed when Jesus knelt in front of his disciples and washed their feet. In a few moments the Bishops will do likewise, kneeling in front of these ordinands and washing their feet as a sign and symbol of the ministry being entrusted to them.
In Jesus’ day, any good host would provide for the feet of his guests to be washed on arrival so that the dirt and grime of the journey could be washed away and the guests feel refreshed. It was a sign of good hospitality. But it was a dirty and humble job and not one for the host to lower himself to do. This was a servant’s job. Hence, the power in Jesus’s willingness to humble himself before his followers, and Peter’s protestations that this wasn’t something that Jesus should be doing.
It’s this ministry of humble and lowly service that these deacons are called to emulate: putting others before themselves, doing what few others are willing to do an giving their time and energy in being alongside the little people – the poor, the forgotten, the ignored and the unloveable. And through it all, speaking of the extraordinary love of God for each and every person, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done and whatever their circumstances.
It’s a wonderful privilege to be called to such a ministry and I know from my own conversations with these ordinands that they’re excited about the ordination and eager to get on with their ministries as deacons. But it’s a costly ministry and they’ll continue to need in the future, all the love and prayers, encouragement and support that they’ve received in abundance from you so far. Do keep on encouraging and supporting them as they take up their ministry. Above all, continue to pray for them – that God will bless them in the ministries to which he’s called them and that through them God will touch and bless the lives of others.