Bishop Mary speaks at the Ordination of Deacons:
My family and I took a trip to Israel about three years ago. We visited the usual Christian sites: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Church of the Holy Nativity, Galilee and, of course, all of Jerusalem. We visited the birthplace of John the Baptist at Ein Karem, which was a cave, but where now sits a beautiful church, built over the cave. As we walked up the road to see this special place, there were the usual sellers of trinkets, crosses, scarves, souvenirs. The salesperson would hold them out and note what was in their hands, as they do.
Among the sellers was a young man who had nothing in his hand and who looked me directly in the eye and said, “Come! Let me help you spend your money!” He raised his eyebrows, acknowledging his own cleverness – and that surely I thought so too – enough to buy something. We exchanged a look and a laugh, but no money.
Our brief encounter reminded me of the transactions of life; the way we conduct social, economic and culture exchanges. We expect to say and do certain things that result in a transaction of some sort – ‘you give me this, I give you that’. In my own context, we don’t barter in our economic transactions. It is possible to have little or no relational or emotional interaction, play or even manipulation. We don’t expect or desire a meaningful encounter. We are just doing our business.
Our days can be filled with such encounters; ones that never drop below the level of the transaction to which we are accustomed into something more meaningful, that might touch the spirit or something tender within. It is easier, since we, the busy and important people of the world, need to conduct our business and move on. We important people especially have no trouble convincing ourselves that the world’s movement depends on our productivity.
I was having a conversation a couple of weeks ago with my niece Holly and my daughter Katie. We were talking about the social transaction of chit-chat, or just short, casual conversation, with a stranger, say at a restaurant or while standing in line somewhere. We noted how it doesn’t necessarily go anywhere but serves the purpose of interaction – it is a social transaction where we set one another at ease, facilitating service, or a long wait in line. There is a sort of community building that can happen during those one-off social encounters. They serve a purpose; but they aren’t meant for emotional or spiritual depth necessarily.
We noted in our conversation that there are probably a lot of people in the western world, at least, that lack a context, a place, for meaningful conversation; an encounter below the economic, social or cultural transaction so common in our lives. Probably these people suffer great loneliness, isolation and a sense of not ever being heard on a deeper level – even in cities teeming with people. Sometimes they are the loneliest places. I think we suffer from this more in the west.
I was reading in a book about a 12 year old girl who was flying across the United States to visit her non-custodial parent. She was seated next to a middle-aged woman. They struck up a conversation. They talked for the entire flight. At the end of the flight, the little girl said, “that was the most meaningful conversation I have ever had….” The relationship between these two continued by email over the next several years.
Now, that a 12 year old could discern and state clearly that this encounter was more meaningful above all others, is a demonstration of clear insight. And it is sad that this chance encounter on an airplane was the most meaningful conversation she had ever had. But she speaks to the reality for many today in our world. Who is listening? Deeply listening? Who is willing to be vulnerable enough for deep conversation? Even just a short one amidst our important and busy lives.
In the gospel of Luke – and please forgive my mixing of gospels here – when Jesus goes to the Temple on the Sabbath, ‘as was his custom’, to “transact” the reading of scripture, from the prophet Isaiah – he reads good news. He recites, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It is sort of a mission statement of the savior. The scripture goes on to say that everyone stared at him. He had not said new words; they were the same words, the same transaction of the recitation of Isaiah’s words. And they stared at him. Something was different this time. He looked back at them, and said, “these words are fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was not transacting a doctrinal truth about his life, death and resurrection – that is how the institution of the church transacts such words. If we are not careful, we can turn these moments of intimacy between Jesus and his hearers into doctrinal transactions about the work of salvation, instead of conveying salvation itself. The experience of knowing you have been deeply heard by God, especially in the darkest places of one’s life, this is to know something of the mystery of salvation. Could it be that with his whole being Jesus affirmed that what they were experiencing in him, as he spoke the words, was real now and not something for later?
The conversation with my niece and daughter continued that day musing who in our consumer world delivered their product ‘beneath’ the transaction. Who gets below the ‘I’ll give you this product, if you give me your money’? Katie noted Apple, who gives you an intuitively easy box to open when they sell you a computer, cable or a plug. There is no thick plastic sealed around a tiny electronic piece that requires metal cutters to get through. And when you buy your computer, they program it in the store, so when you take it home and open the lid, it greets you by name. Such a simple thing, but which has the effect of hearing our basic human need to be called by name.
Holly works for Starbucks. Along with Apple, Starbucks has figured out that people need a human touch in the morning as much as they need coffee. They need the transaction – and what is below it.
Starbucks mission statement is: ‘nurturing the human spirit one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.’ As a Christian, I think, “that is my line!” But in fact, when you are at Starbucks a couple of times a week, as I am, you are part of the employees living out that mission statement and receiving the gift of it. They learn your name, they want to make sure your coffee is just as you want it. And they want that not just for the business, but to convey that they hear your human need to be known.
My husband was hit and killed last summer while he was riding his bicycle near our home. It was, of course, devastating and shocking, and was on the local tv news and in newspapers around California. Several weeks after Michael died, something of daily routine began to emerge for me, as it must. I resumed some work. My diocese is 265 miles long. I drive a lot. Starbucks is, therefore, an important part of my day.
I went into my usual store for the first time after Michael’s death, and unexpectedly, was aware that everyone on the staff knew what had happened. As I got my coffee, they expressed condolences in word and in gesture. For the next couple of months, they showed genuine concern in ways they could; gave me free coffee, made sure I was ok for the brief time I was in the store. They were tender and a little quiet, as one is with those grieving after a death. I have made friends with a Nazarene pastor that hangs out at my Starbucks. He left me a gift card at the register one day with a prayer on it. When I saw him next, I said, “Hey the pastoral care at Starbucks is pretty darn good! Between you and the baristas, I begin my day feeling heard and cared for. Thank you!”
The corporate sometimes gets it right as it goes below the transaction and cares.
My family and I are blessed. We have a lot of people with whom we have significant conversations and who pray for us; including you. I thank you for taking us to heart, into your being as you have loved us even from a great geographical distance.
We are the body of Christ. Our orientation in this world is to be hearers as God as hears; to listen below the transactions of daily life. May our bodies be a living sacrifice. May we gesture God’s listening with our whole self; our ears, our eyes, our hearts, our minds, our souls. Our technology, our coffee, our airplane rides; every bit of us attentive to the deeper needs of another. May our hearing – and our speaking – let others know, ‘God is listening. God is responding in Jesus.’
In our business of church, we can easily function at the level of transaction. We have all been there. And some people like it that way. It is not uncommon, for example, to have baptisms, say that are really liturgical transactions. We have all performed or attended them; when there are family pressures to have the baby ‘done’. We know there are people who want only to stay at the transactional level of Christianity, avoiding the deep encounter with God that happens in the active Christian life. We must respect that desire for distance, and at the same time, by grace, discover even the small ways we might at least acknowledge that there might be another conversation underneath the transaction at hand. What are the family pressures? What are the concerns about raising a child in faith, with values? What do you really believe?
What a gift we can offer; that the central reality of baptism is not a liturgical transaction, but entry into a sustained spiritual practice of dying and living in Christ, over and over and again – dying and living, dying and living – even as life challenges us with painful reality – as it does for us all. What a gift to say, ‘you have died in Christ, you are born in Christ, even in the darkest hours, you can live in Christ. God hears you.’
May we be baptized with the baptism with which Jesus is baptized. May we drink the cup that Jesus drinks. Bring it on. May we be a living sacrifice.
The brothers in today’s story, James and John, sons of Zebedee offer Jesus a transaction opportunity. ‘Will you grant us a request Jesus?’ A ridiculous, inappropriate and self-centered request? Jesus is quite kind in his reply. The other disciples are not amused. One wonders about life behind this story. Who are these sons of Zebedee? Are they the first and second sons? Are they the ninth and tenth? It would make a difference in their family inheritance. Maybe they want the one Jesus promises because they are not going to get something of their father’s inheritance. Perhaps they feel entitled to this special place in the kingdom since they were among the first to be called to follow Jesus, the first to say ‘yes’ to walking in his way – even though they don’t seem to know what it is all about (do we ever….). What is the relationship between all the disciples, these brothers in Christ? Might there be some sibling rivalry among them? Is there sibling rivalry in the church? Of course. We are all quick to rationalize our distinctiveness.
In Jewish thought, sibling rivalry is the original sin. It is not disobedience, transmitted through conception, as our western Christian understanding has loaded onto Adam and Eve. It begins with Cain and Abel. It is the stealing of birth rights, killing brothers in fields, dropping them down deep holes in the ground – all to do with competition for parental attention and the sought after earthly inheritance and blessing. Taking something that isn’t yours, competing to win, allowing something other than the holiness of life to govern one’s actions. This grieves God because it undermines God’s powerful grace in our lives. That grace which both comforts us in times of insecurity and need, and challenges us to live with a radical, egalitarian understanding of God’s love and inclusion that has nothing to do with rank, order, class – or any criteria of this world – just God’s amazing grace.
Sometimes Jesus tells us that we are heard, by not giving us what we ask for and instead redirecting us to the deeper truth of life. Sometimes the deepening of our understanding of grace comes through not receiving the blessing to which we think we are entitled; instead humbling ourselves to the blessing God desires for us and will undoubtedly give.
In our story, Jesus replies kindly, “It is not mine to give”. I am not your father who doles out inheritance based on earthly things. I am your brother with whom you serve.” Will you be baptized with my baptism? Will you drink my cup? Will you be a living sacrifice?
The book of Leviticus, ‘relating to the Levites’ as we know it in our culture, translates from the Hebrew, Vayikra, meaning ‘God called’. It is a book of the Bible about living as the holy people of God. It is a perfectly crafted book on sacrifice, lifestyle, boundaries, taboos, and ritual. We don’t understand it very well in our context. We don’t like it. We avoid reading it. We think it is purely transactional, but really it is a book of precise order. Did you know that the high structural point of the book of Leviticus is the great commandment to ‘love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself’? It is the pinnacle in the text to which all the words about sacrifice, ritual and the ordering of daily life flow – and from which they all flow. There are no shortcuts or superficial transactions in the book of Leviticus, God calling, but an ordering for life; no matter if the circumstances in which we find ourselves are easy or deadly. And the ordering of life found there is intended to bring people into community, to dwell with God, to be the holy people of God.
For Christians, baptism has this same purpose as we are ordered for life in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Everything flows to it and from it. In Christ is where we die and live and die and live again, finding our salvation through the way of Jesus.
Diaconate flows from baptism. We have placed it into our holy orders of ministry in the Church. And it is not so one group designated by the church can take care of the people no one else wants to hear or take care of – those with no birthright, those who are last, or who have been thrown away altogether – but so that we are reminded that it is God’s call of all the baptized to serve with our brother Jesus – as he serves – as he lived, as he died, as he was risen. Sometimes we find even ourselves last, among the thrown away or the one no one is willing to hear.
Institutions like the church easily forget the people and the work that doesn’t fit into an easily administered order. Do not think for a minute that because we claim a certain set of values as the church, that we don’t trade them in for the day-to-day transactions that keep us from going deep. Our earthly ordering has a way of taking over our thinking. Administration. Filling out paperwork. The next meeting. Baptism, weddings, funerals. Our bread and butter.
The purpose of the diaconate is not to make you a better priest – although it will – the purpose of the diaconate is to remind the church of what really matters to Jesus, and to help us take courage to live the radically different nature of the kingdom of God.
You will become priests. I have deacons in my diocese who are not going to ever be priests. They don’t want to be priests. I get nervous when I see them coming! They hold me accountable as a bishop – a role that can fill one’s life with paperwork, administration and meetings! As deacons, you have a special relationship with your bishop. In our diocese, they have permission to nag me about the depth I might find easier to ignore. When my deacons wander in and around the business of the church, I remember where they spend most of their time: prisons, hospitals, tending the dying, food pantries, homeless shelters, working with at-risk youth, learning Spanish to be better hearers of the undocumented – to name a few places. I remember that whatever paper I am pushing better have that same higher purpose. And God help me when I cannot take time to listen for the depths of someone’s longing to be heard, named, or loved. God help me.
This year is not an obligation to get you through to priesthood. This year is the spiritual practice of being baptized with the baptism of Jesus, of drinking his cup, no matter what your ministry will be. It is the spiritual practice of the life to you which you committed in baptism, and to which today you commit in ordination. This year is to indelibly mark in your being the concerns of Jesus, to ordain you into the service of the radically inclusive and counter-intuitive kingdom of God.
Live most of your time below the day to day transactions. Listen deeply as God listens. Speak words of salvation amidst the dying and the living and the dying and the living again of this world. Be a living sacrifice for the sake of Jesus our brother, with whom we serve.
And now to God be the glory. Amen.