On Saturday, March 7, with friends, family, clergy, and the community of Trinity, Lincoln present, Bishop Martins ordained Christopher Ben Simpson to the Holy Order of Deacons.
The Rev Canon Mark Evans, currently rector at Trinity, preached on the occasion. Bishop Martins found his sermon to be a helpful analogy about the ordination process. The text for Fr Evans’ sermon follows the slideshow below.
Readings: Jer 1:4-9; Psalm 84; 2Cor 4:1-6; Luke 22:24-27
The ordination process in the Episcopal Church is an upside-down version of Red Light-Green Light. If you don’t recall the game from your youth it goes like this. One person, the caller, yells out Red Light or Green Light. When they yell Green Light, all of the other players move around, usually in silly ways like exaggerated jumping, walking with a weird posture or something like that. When the caller yells Red Light, everyone freezes in whatever position they were when the call was made. However, in the Episcopal ordination process, there is only one player and lots of callers. The callers are the Bishop, the Commission on Ministry, the Standing Committee, the parish discernment group and others. If any of those callers yell Red Light, the lone player has to freeze where they are.
Some would say this process is overly restrictive, that good people get bounced out of the process that ought to have continued on to ordination. I cannot disagree that sometimes that is the case.
But, it seems to work most of the time so we go on using it with tweaks here and there. Why do we do it that way, what is the goal or purpose of the process? Well, I think the readings chosen for today touch on some of what the Church tries to do in this discernment for ordination. They are: is the call from God; what is the one called supposed to do and how are they to comport themselves.
The number one question to be answered in the discernment process is has God called this person to holy orders. All Christians are called to some sort of ministry but not all are called to be ordained. Although the one called must sign on and be willing to be ordained, it is not a decision that they may make on their own, it must be vetted by the whole Church through the above-mentioned entities. The perceived call must be examined dispassionately by people from all parts of the Church to discern if it is true.
Jeremiah’s experience tells us that God calls a person from the very beginning, but it takes time for us to understand or discern the call to be real.
Now, sometimes the call may be truly from God, but the wider Church determines that now is not the time. Perhaps some more training needed or there needs some sign of spiritual growth. This is not to hinder the call that God has placed on a person but to prepare that person for the ministry he has deigned for them. This is where the two other readings come into play.
St. Paul spells out some standards for deacons, priests and bishops. First is to not lose heart. Sometimes ministry is fulfilling and exciting like today but often it feels like slogging through mud. No matter what we say or do, someone can find fault. New initiatives fall flat, attendance slumps, volunteers cannot be found. The list can go on, but ministry is hard work and if you let it get to you it will grind to a halt. Keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what. God will sustain you, but you must keep moving forward, especially when it difficult to do.
Second, we have to clean up our act. I cannot tell the same jokes in the parish hall that I did when I was a Wall Street type. Friday nights are more subdued than they were in those days too. Now my life is an open book and I must be aware of the lifestyle I project. I am not called to be perfect, but I am called to be a wholesome example of a Christian life.
Third, we must preach and teach the gospel as it is; not to make ourselves appear erudite or clever, but to build up disciples of Jesus Christ. We must preach and teach to unveil the Good News so that those who are blind may see. Paul says a minster points to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. That takes some creativity and we make use our personal attributes and abilities to make the message heard. But we must keep ever mindful that we are like John the Baptist who said that he must decrease so Jesus can increase.
Fourth, Paul says it’s about God, not about us. Ordained persons are servants, Paul uses the word slave. The Bishop may be the ecclesiastical authority for the southern two-thirds of Illinois, but he is really a servant to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And if that’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us too. Ordained people do not have a right to anything, we are merely entrusted to be good stewards of the authority and teaching that God has given us. We who lead congregations are merely one person in a long line of leaders. We build on what has been bequeathed to us and then we hand that off to the next person. We need to care for what we are given but we cannot hold onto it as our own, it is only a gift from God.
Which segues nicely into the story from Luke. The disciples hoped a new political regime would be instituted with Jesus as the new king of Israel and they would have positions of power due to their close relationship with the king. In our baser moments, we might view the Church as a type of kingdom with greater and lesser positions. That large parish in the upper-class neighborhood seems worth striving for instead of the small struggling parish on the other side of the tracks. With an episcopal election on the horizon we can expect to see all manner of jockeying for position. Jesus tells us that positions of authority are important and even necessary but that we are to be satisfied with being servants, no matter our position. He is the Son of God yet by his own example he is also a servant.
Of course, these are not the only criteria for discerning whether someone is called to ordination. Experience in plumbing and electrical systems can also be useful. But what I have described here are some of the more important points to consider.
Chris has played the Episcopal version of Red Light-Green Light. I have known Chris as a member of this parish for a few years now and I believe he is truly called by God from the beginning to be ordained; that he can fulfill the requirements that St. Paul has listed as the earmarks of a minister and that he will comport himself as a servant to those to who have been entrusted to his care.
As we witness his vows may we also keep our own vow to support him in this ministry, doing all that we can to help him serve the One who has called him to this most difficult yet important work.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.