Emmanuel, Champaign—John 1:19-28
It’s a true joy, as always, to be at Emmanuel, and especially at this time of year, when everything is done up so beautifully. But it is particularly energizing to be present at an event like an ordination—a liminal time, a pivotal moment, a chronological hinge in the life of Cameron Nations, and also, although perhaps not quite so visibly, a real moment of transition in the life of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church scattered throughout the world. So it’s a time of excitement and joy and, I would imagine, some measure of relief—though I would be remiss to completely omit any mention of the specter of the General Ordination Exams that lurks outside in the parking lot somewhere, not quite welcome here in the church!
But it would also be remiss of me to completely omit any mention of the fact that there’s a certain, shall we say, structural ambiguity about exactly what we’re doing tonight. The program says that we’re ordaining a deacon, and we are, in fact, using the liturgy prescribed by the Episcopal Church for the ordination of deacons. And, precisely because that’s what we’re doing, we are, at one level, about to make a liar out of Cameron, because we’re going to ask him if he believes himself called to the life and work of a deacon, and he’s going to going to try not to cross his fingers as he responds that he indeed does believe himself to be so called. And there will be something incoherent about that because, in about six months, the plan is that we’ll make him a priest. Now, I’m not going to get into the whole arcane theological debate about whether deacons who become priests are still deacons, because, however you settle that argument, the “life and work of a deacon” is pretty distinct from the “life and work of a priest,” and Cameron has spent that last two-and-half-years being formed for the latter, not the former.
Now, I should probably add at this point that I am not among those in our church who advocate simply eliminating the so-called transitional diaconate and just ordaining those who are discerned to be called to the priesthood directly to the priesthood. The practice of making such individuals deacons first is way too ancient and way too universal for a relatively obscure body like General Convention to take upon itself making a change. Sometimes “because we’ve always done it that way” is, in fact, the correct answer. No, I would suggest that we are called to something rather more challenging, rather messier, than merely plastering over incoherence with what appears to be rationality and consistency. It’s better that we embrace the incoherence, make friends with the ambiguity, and find out what it might teach us.
The fact is, much about our lives is incoherent. The wealth that we enjoy in the developed world does not cohere with the poverty so widely suffered everywhere else. It is wildly incoherent that those whom we treat the worst are often the ones whom we love the most. We constantly do things we know we shouldn’t do and wish we wouldn’t do; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, and the burden of them truly intolerable. We live in a society that is not only politically divided but dangerously polarized to the point where terminal dysfunction sometimes seems like a plausible threat.
Much about our faith that we profess and try to practice is incoherent as well. God is transcendent, we say, and utterly beyond our comprehension. Yet, we also affirm that God is immanent, and gloriously infuses every blade of grass and every subatomic particle. Every time we recite the Nicene Creed, we affirm that Jesus is truly divine, “of one being with [God the] Father, and then, about four seconds later, something quite the opposite, that Jesus is completely human. We routinely confess that God is simultaneously one and three, something that mathematicians would tell you is impossible. We believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, something that biologists would tell you is impossible. We announce to the world, following the command of our Lord, that the Kingdom of God is among us, and yet have to deal with the ongoing reality of plague, pestilence, famine, genocide, street crime, bad hair days, and all sorts of things that are incompatible with the Kingdom being truly among us. We admit that we are sinners, yet also take assurance in our scriptures and in our liturgies that we are forgiven, reconciled, and justified in God’s sight. The list could go on, but I think I’ve covered the highlights.
Into this scene of incoherence trending toward chaos steps John the Baptist. John, of course, is not a likely candidate for imposing order, as he was certainly outside the ordered boundaries of the society with which he interacted—I can’t really say “the society of which he was a member” because, from what we know, he was never actually a participating member of it. But John certainly did channel the prophet Isaiah, who did call for order: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” John’s job, and Isaiah’s, was to announce what God is up to, and what God is up to is to bring healing and redeeming order out of crippling and debilitating chaos, and to do so by means of union with his incarnate, crucified, and risen Son Jesus, the Christ, and so at or near the top of John’s agenda is inviting people to get themselves into a receptive position relative to God’s action.
The mission of the Church, the mission of the community of the baptized people of God, the disciples of Jesus, is to, among other things, continue John’s ministry, a ministry later taken over by Jesus, a ministry of annunciation—a ministry of tirelessly saying to any who will listen, “See what God is doing!” So, the Church’s job is to make this announcement, and then model in her own interior life what that will all look like when it is brought to fruition, as if to say to the world, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, look at us.”
For such a mission, I suspect we need to be organized, and, to be organized, what we need, of course, is order. We need a framework of boundaries, an infrastructure of actions and words that are capable of bearing profound meaning and great expectations. So what we’re doing tonight is renewing our participation in the order that enables us to accomplish our mission. The ordination certificate that presently sits in the sacristy and which Cameron will take with him later tonight speaks in rather florid language of Daniel, who is by Divine Providence, no less, Bishop of Springfield, and in Emmanuel Church in Champaign for the express purpose of “conferring holy orders.” Let us not fail to see what we’re doing here tonight in the larger grand context of God’s project of redeeming creation from the thrall of sin and death, a project of which the Church is a harbinger and exemplar.
So, yes, we’re making Cameron a deacon, but perhaps more importantly, we are configuring his life now permanently into that sacred framework of holy order. That’s what we mean by ordaining. Cameron’s reception of holy order identifies and authorizes him as a leader among the community of those who announce and model the coming Kingdom of God.
Cameron, from now on, certainly in his doing, but especially in his being, is, for us, a living sacrament of order—of God’s ordered kingdom seen in the Church amidst a chaotic culture, of God’s clarity glimpsed amid the incoherence of a world still under the spell of the powers of sin and death. Cameron will never in this life have all the answers to all his own questions, let alone all of ours, but he will in his person be a sign that the are answers, that it all means something, that God is both sovereign and providential.
Now, when I began to prepare this sermon, I did not realize that Bishop Alexander, the dean of the seminary where Cameron has been being formed, would be here tonight. Most of you will not be aware that there is such a thing as the College for Bishops, which is sort of a finishing school for newly elected and consecrated bishops, and that Bishop Alexander is on the faculty of that school, and that his area of expertise covers all things liturgical … and that he emphatically counsels new bishops not to give a “charge” at the conclusion of an ordination sermon. So I just want everyone, but particularly Bishop Alexander, to know that when I ask Cameron to stand presently and receive a charge, I’m not acting out of mere ignorance, but with willful and culpable intent!
Cameron, my brother—on your feet. One of the things it will be your joyful privilege to do as one who bears the mark of holy order—though more so beginning about six months from now than between now and then—will be to baptize. I hope you will find, as I have found, that it is one of the most gratifying duties of ordained ministry. In fact, there is a real sense in which the activity of baptizing can be said to encapsulate the entirety of your ministry. As you baptize, be the one who always points to Jesus. Point the people entrusted to your care to the one who “comes after” you. Lead them in announcing the coming Kingdom of God, and lead them in modeling that Kingdom in their communal life. But most of all, point away from yourself and toward Jesus in all you say and do. That way, you and they together will be a sacrament of holy order in a broken and disordered world.