Ordination of Deacons Sermon
Ordination of Deacons
A sermon preached by The Ven Rosemary Lain-Priestley, Bishop’s Adviser for the Bishop of London.
Sunday 03 July 2022.
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
6 Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ 7But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’
13 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
It’s a great joy and privilege to be here with you today as we celebrate and affirm God’s calling of these twelve women and men to be deacons in the church. But it isn’t just about them! This is also an occasion for each one of you to reflect on what it means to be named, known and loved by God, and what it means to be called to particular tasks in the nurture and the healing of God’s world.
There may be those of you who wouldn’t naturally chose the language of vocation or calling to describe how you spend your days and might not be fully signed up to this whole ‘God thing’ anyway. But you will, because you are human, wrestle with questions about the meaning and purpose of your life, about how to spend your time and where to focus your love. At the most fundamental level that’s what we’re talking about here.
4 Now the word of the Lord came to (Jeremiah) saying,
5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you.’
6 Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’
If any of you twelve are feeling in the least bit intimidated by what you are taking on, you are in very good company. The scriptures are full of stories about God calling people who felt inadequate to the challenge – or people who had some great moments but also some more tricky ones and even messed up occasionally. I don’t have time to list them all, but for starters there’s:
Moses, ultimately not getting to see the Promised Land, apparently because he couldn’t follow instructions to the letter; David who in many ways was such a gifted leader, but got into a little bit of trouble in his personal life; Gideon, who asks God ‘How can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.’ Peter, who is sure he will never let Jesus down, but letting him down spectacularly.
I did try to think of some stories of biblical women who felt inadequate for the job or were famously flawed, but perhaps the upside of being marginalised in the scriptures is that if your heroic moments aren’t centre stage then neither are your moments of crashing failure.
So, from the beginning, let us hear that when we are called by God to a task or a process or a way of life, this is not a God who sets the bar too high, demands nit-picking perfectionism, expects us to fix everything, catch every ball, or spin every plate. This is the God who with fondness reassures us ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you’. This is the God who asks simply that we be willing to show up and lean into the task without making excuses.
And what is the task? Well, the task is set before us in that beautiful reading from John’s Gospel when Jesus, the night before he died – the night before he died, when surely there were so many other ways he could have spent his time – decided to wash his disciples’ feet. With a gentle and careful intimacy he shows them what really matters. And surely he must have made the connection with the evening he’d very recently spent at the house of his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha, when Mary had done that shocking thing of taking a bottle of pure nard, a costly perfume, and anointing his feet and wiping them with her hair.
Mary anointed Jesus’s feet, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and we are called to do the same. There is something about this tender, intimate act which resonates powerfully down the centuries like the lingering fragrance of the perfume of nard. Something in those two acts of gentle and extravagant care which encourages our attentiveness to the needs of one another and the needs of the world today.
To wash feet will mean different things to each of you depending on the opportunities you are given in the very different contexts in which you will be ministering. And I find myself marvelling about the many ways in which you will do that. The many ways in which you will, in the words of today’s liturgy, ‘reach into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible’.
As you lean into this task – as you kneel to this task – some of the things you used to worry about may well begin to ebb away.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, talking about how we are gradually transformed by our relationship with Christ, says that over time we become deeply attentive to the needs of those around us, ‘unfussed about our own status’ and ‘liberated from the longing to save and solve everything by our own wisdom and heroism’.
‘Unfussed about our own status’. It’s the only way to minister with any degree of authenticity, if our model is the Creator who stoops to wash our feet.
The Franciscan priest, John-Francis Friendship, tells a story about an American bishop who was invited to a church to preside at the Eucharist. In the vestry he came across a young priest getting ready for the service. The bishop said to him ‘where’s your maniple?’ – which is a bit of priestly kit that some clergy wear over their arm. And the young priest replied ‘We don’t wear it because it gets in the way at the altar’. The bishop asked him if he knew that the maniple represented the servanthood of the deacon, and the young man said ‘Yes’. ‘Then if you’re gonna wear those fancy duds,’ said the bishop, wear them all and always let the deaconate ‘get in the way’ of your priesthood’.
What happens here today sets the pattern for the whole of your ministry – you will always be foot-washers. Which is why your bishops will be washing your feet in a few minutes’ time, metaphorically wearing their maniples so that their diaconate gets in the way of their episcopacy.
So, it’s a lifetime’s calling – and you really need to learn to love feet. I don’t say that lightly, feet are not my favourite part of the human body. I think you have to really love someone to wash theirs. But, deacons, what can I say? You need to cultivate a loving mind towards feet – and the people attached to them. It’s a bit of a ‘go big or go home’ thing.
Finally, we mustn’t forget that little cameo between Jesus and Peter, right in the middle of our Gospel reading.
Peter said to Jesus, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9Then Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Good old Peter. He could always be relied on to go big or go home.
The priest and poet, Malcolm Guite, reflecting on this Gospel story in a poem for Maundy Thursday writes:
‘And here he shows the full extent of love
To those whose love is always incomplete,
In vain we search the heavens high above,
The God of love is kneeling at our feet.’
Always, all of us, in our ministries and callings, wherever they take us, are invited to come to Christ, and we will be cared for, tenderly, attentively and beautifully, by the creator of the world who stoops to dry between our toes.
Doing what you’re meant to do in the place you’re meant to be among the people you are meant to love. Reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that God’s love will be made visible.
My prayer for you is that you will never make the mistake of thinking, with Jeremiah, ‘I am only’. Nobody is only. And from spending just a few days with you, I know that you are so many wonderful things.
Before he formed you in the womb he knew you. And before you were born he consecrated you.
So do not be afraid.
Creator God you kneel to wash our feet and we place into your hands our lives, our hearts, our minds, our bodies, our souls, in the service of your Kingdom and the forgotten corners of the world. Amen.
 Rowan Williams, Candles in the Dark: Faith, hope and love in a time of pandemic SPCK, 2020, p45
 John-Francis Friendship, Enfolded in Christ: The Inner Life of the Priest