Sunday, October 31, 2021

Why Worship?


October 31, 2021 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:00.

If Jesus moved to Fayetteville, where would he want to worship? Here? Temple Shalom? Genesis Church? What a ridiculous question! It’s as ludicrous as asking what kind of car Jesus would drive, which football team he would cheer on, and what candidate he would vote for. The reason that asking “What would Jesus do?” is so problematic is that it assumes we can yank ancient, first-century Jesus out of his particular context and wield him like a spiritual weapon to support our own agenda. Jesus doesn’t work that way. It’s a question that never helps us grow in faith. Still, though, I wonder what he would think about what we do in his name each week.

What would Jesus think about our music—the choir, the organ? Would he like the stained-glass windows—especially the ones that portray images of him? What would he think about Communion? Would he recognize the ways in which we try to “do this in remembrance of him,” or would our brand of worship be so strange that he would give it a hard pass?

As far as we can tell, the Jesus of the New Testament wasn’t a big fan of organized religion. All four gospel writers recall that, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he went to the temple and turned over all the tables and chased the moneychangers out of the temple precincts. If someone walked in here and started pulling down candlesticks and throwing chalices on the floor, no matter who it was, we would call the police and have them arrested. Christians often look back and mistakenly associate that prophetic act with a rejection of second-temple Judaism, but a careful reading of the Gospel reveals a Jesus who wasn’t opposed to the faith he knew and loved but one who was deeply critical of some of its contemporary manifestations.

We usually think of Jesus as the victim against whom the religious leaders of his day plotted, but Jesus gave out as much pointed criticism of them as they shot back his way. For example, just before today’s gospel lesson, at the beginning of Mark 12, Jesus tells a parable that portrays the authorities as evil, murderous, greedy, and unfaithful. Who can blame them for returning the favor? In repeated attempts to undermine his legitimacy as a teacher of the faith, the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes all came to him with trick questions, designed to force him to take an unpopular position, but he deftly dismissed them all by appealing each time to deeper religious priorities than their questions presented. 

Impressed with what he heard, one of the scribes—a latecomer to the rhetorical party—asked a different sort of question—not one that was designed to trap Jesus but one that sought genuine insight and instruction. “Which commandment is the first of all?” he asked Jesus, posing an ancient interrogative that would help a potential disciple discern whether this was a rabbi worth following. “Of all the precepts and commandments of our faith, to which one would you give priority?” 

Jesus began his response in a familiar place: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The Shema, which affirms the singularity of God, is a prayer traditionally recited by observant Jews every morning and every night. It is the foundation of all that follows. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” By starting there, Jesus signaled that his approach to the faith of their ancestors—his authoritative teaching—was built on a traditional understanding of God. 

But Jesus didn’t stop there. “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Our modern translation (NRSV) leaves out a word that the King James Version and our Rite I liturgy convey: “And the second is like” or “is like unto it.” Without the word “like,” we might assume that Jesus had a hard time narrowing his choice down to just one commandment and that, despite the scribe’s request for the foremost precept, Jesus offered two. But the word “like,” which is in the biblical text, helps us know that Jesus wasn’t struggling to make up his mind but that he understood the two greatest commandments—loving God and loving neighbor—to be alike and, in fact, inseparable. 

Notice how Mark conveys this by depicting the exchange between Jesus and the scribe as one that flowed linguistically without a break. After Jesus finished his two-prong teaching, the scribe echoed Jesus’ response back to him, listing all the components without distinguishing one from another: “God is one, and besides him there is no other” and “to love God with all the heart, understanding, and strength” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” It’s as if we hear the scribe internalizing Jesus’ summary of the law as a whole, integral, indivisible expression of faithfulness. 

When thought of separately, there was nothing new about either of these two commandments, but, by combining them as if they were one to begin with, Jesus offered a new insight into what it means to be faithful. He taught that there can be no difference between loving God and loving neighbor. So remarkable was this teaching that the scribe, whose identity was enmeshed with the religious institutions of his day, responded with an uncharacteristic dismissal of temple worship: “This is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

So why bother with all those offerings and sacrifices? Why bother building a church and spending all that money on windows and pews, on the organ and the altar, on the clergy and the musicians? If loving God means loving our neighbor, why come to church at all? Why not turn over all the tables and throw down all the candlesticks? Why not spend all that money feeding the hungry and providing shelter to those in need? Because our love of God and our love of neighbor flow into each other in ways that strengthen both commitments and shape us for a life of faithfulness.

Left to our own devices, without God’s help, our love of neighbor would quickly become an exercise in self-interest. We would help those in need because it makes us feel good. We would give money away because we want to be held in high regard by others. Our pretense of loving of others would mask a deeper love of self. Eventually, we would define what it means to care for others in ways that reflect our own sense of what is most important and of who is most valuable. And the circles we draw around who deserves our love and who doesn’t always ends up reflecting our own priorities and not God’s. 

But, when we worship God—when we acknowledge that the Lord our God is one and that we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—our devotion begins to shape us. In worship, we encounter God, and that encounter with the divine changes us. It changes what we think is important and who we think is valuable in ways that conform us to the image and understanding of God. If God loves the world completely and unconditionally, our worship of God helps us love the world in that same way. It helps us leave behind our own definitions and cling only to God’s. And, if our worship does not accomplish that, then it has not helped us meet God at all. Worship that does not change us into the likeness of God is merely an exercise in idolatrous futility.

What did you walk through those doors expecting to meet today? If it was anything less than a transformative encounter with Almighty God, you came for the wrong reasons. And, if you leave without experiencing that encounter, then we have not only let you down but God as well. How will you know whether we got it right? How can you tell that our worship is good and holy and faithful? If you bring to God your whole heart and soul and mind and strength, God will shape you into one who loves the world simply for the world’s sake. May that always be our focus in this place.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Learning From Bartimaeus


October 24, 2021 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:45. 

We have been on quite a journey. For six weeks now, we have walked with Jesus and the disciples from their home base up in Bethsaida down south through Galilee, past Samaria, and on into Judea. Each Sunday, we have heard a gospel story from another stage of the journey, and each week we have moved a little closer to Jerusalem and a little closer to understanding what will happen there. Three different times along the way, Jesus has predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection, and each time the disciples have responded with disbelief and confusion, which, in turn, has led Jesus to offer another clarifying teaching about discipleship.

Today we have reached the last stop before we get to the holy city. Jericho is about 15 miles away from Jerusalem—a full day’s walk—and the road that leads to the capital makes its way steadily uphill, gaining over 3200 feet in elevation. For a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem, Jericho was the last chance to spend the night and stock up on supplies before the taxing trek ahead. And, for us and the disciples, it our last chance to learn from Jesus before his triumphal entry into the city where he will be killed.

On the way out of town, which is to say after Jesus and the disciples had embarked on this final leg of their journey, a blind beggar, sitting on the side of the road, cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Like any beggar well skilled at his craft, Bartimaeus had set up shop on a busy thoroughfare, and, when he heard that a prominent religious figure was passing by, he seized on the opportunity to force that rabbi’s hand by inviting him to spare some change while the crowd looked on. At least that’s what the crowd thought when they heard Bartimaeus’ cry. “Be quiet!” they hissed at the annoying beggar. “Save your flattering appeals for someone else.”

The disciples and the crowd tried to protect Jesus, not unlike when they had tried to prevent parents from bringing their little children to the busy teacher, but Bartimaeus would not be deterred. He cried out, squawking like a raven, all the more loudly, all the more disruptively, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped. And the crowd stopped with him. “Call him here,” the rabbi said.

In the retelling of this story, Mark wants us to be sure to recognize the role that the crowd played in the episode. Those who had tried their hardest to silence the blind beggar now became his greatest cheerleaders. “Take heart,” they said. “Get up; he is calling you!” The same energy and enthusiasm with which they had denounced the helpless man now fuel their invitation to him. Their desire for decorum and efficiency now became a commitment to charity and inclusion. Bartimaeus, therefore, was not the only blind man to be given back his sight. 

As is true with many of Jesus’ miracles, when we read this story, we discover that the healing itself is only a small part of what is being conveyed to us. That the man regained his sight, while an essential element, is delivered to us almost as a passing thought right at the end. Instead of focusing on the miraculous event, Mark gives us a dramatic story about the conversion of the heart and the transformation of our minds. Once the healing is accomplished, Bartimaeus, who only moments earlier had been ridiculed by the crowd as being unworthy, joins them in following Jesus on the way. He is, in fact, the only person to receive a miraculous healing and then become a disciple of Jesus. That we know his name at all—Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus—is a testament to his subsequent faithfulness as a follower of Jesus. 

As we leave Jericho and make our way toward Jerusalem, what must we learn from Bartimaeus in order to make sense of what awaits us up the road? Surely the disciples couldn’t help but compare this blind beggar with the man who, a few days earlier, had knelt at Jesus’ feet and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. This beggar man had nothing to offer—nothing to bring into their fellowship—yet he had been included, while the rich man, whose life overflowed with treasure and influence, had been sent away discouraged. The disciples had had a hard time making sense of that decision. The rich man was the kind of disciple whom any rabbi—any rector—would love to have as a patron. But the way of Jesus—the path that leads to the cross—has no use for those who would rather cling to their wealth than follow Jesus with their whole heart.

There isn’t much time left for us to figure out who Jesus really is and what it means for us to follow him before he makes his celebrated entry into Jerusalem. On the very next page, in the very next verse, it will be time for the disciples to go and find a colt and bring it back so that Jesus can ride it into the city. Soon, it will be time for the crowd, who will throw their cloaks and palm branches on the ground, to separate into two distinct camps—those who want to crown Jesus and those who want to crucify him. Our getting it right depends upon our ability to recognize what sort of messiah and savior Jesus is. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the defining moments not only of our faith but of our entire lives, and our ability to make sense of them depends on our willingness to learn from Bartimaeus.

Jesus calls out to each of us, beckoning us to follow him. The call that is issued to every disciple is an invitation to a life of poverty and powerlessness in order that the true power of God might transform us and renew the whole earth. Jesus does not call us to bring our wealth and influence into the community of faith so that the body of Christ might become a symbol of earthly power. He calls us to give it all away in order that we might belong to the one whose resurrection power is changing the world into the reign of God. That power to renew the world begins within us when we answer the call to follow him. As long as we are looking for God and expecting God’s salvation to come into this world through the channels of wealth and power, we are more blind even than Bartimaeus. But those who are willing to follow Jesus on the path that leads through suffering and death into the glory of the resurrected life are given new eyes to see God’s saving work in the world. Take heart; get up: Jesus is calling you.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

What's Keeping You Out Of God's Kingdom?


October 10, 2021 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:00.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the man who knelt before Jesus. “You lack one thing,” Jesus said lovingly in reply. Just one thing. And so do you. And so do I. We all do. We all lack just one thing. If Jesus told you what that one thing is, where would you find the strength and courage to pursue it?

What is that one thing that is keeping you out of God’s kingdom—preventing you from entering fully into God’s reign? Over the last several weeks, Jesus has pointed out a number of possibilities. Are we willing to take up our cross and follow him even if it costs us our life? Are we willing to be last of all and servant of all even if it means giving up our status in society? Are we willing to cut off our hand or our foot or pluck out our eye if they are causing us to sin? Are we willing to cling to God’s kingdom in the way that the story of creation asks us to cling to marriage—wholeheartedly and without compromise? And today, in his encounter with the rich man, Jesus asks us, are we willing to sell everything we have and give it away to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven?

Some of the things—the vices, the sins—that Jesus points out as barriers to God’s promise of eternal life require a bit of cultural translation. Wrestling concepts of divorce and marriage, personhood and gender, away from their ancient contexts and bringing them forward into contemporary life in order to make sense of Jesus’ words is hard but important work. But, when it comes to wealth—riches, possessions—we don’t need any help understanding what Jesus meant. In fact, our experience of wealth—both collectively and individually—is so enormous that, if anything, Jesus’s words aren’t sharp enough.

The man who knelt before Jesus is described by Mark as having many possessions, but what does that mean? Is that rich like Jeff Bezos or rich like you and me? The words translated for us as “many possessions” can imply that the man owned a lot of property or land, but it can also simply mean “a lot of stuff.” Know anybody who has too much stuff? We get a sense of how broad Jesus’s target audience is when, after the man had gone away, he explained to his disciples that the call to radical dispossession applied not only to that particular man but to all who have wealth and to anyone who is rich. But those words that are translated as “wealth” and “rich” don’t imply the piles of money into which Scrooge McDuck might dive headfirst but merely the stuff we use and having enough of it to meet our needs. The biblical model for being rich is one of being fully resourced—of having everything we need.

It is to those of us who have our needs met that Jesus says, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” So radical, so painful, so challenging are those words that even before the disciples can object and ask Jesus to clarify what he means, Jesus tells them that it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for people who have all their needs met to enter the kingdom of God. This might be hyperbole, and, as R. T. France puts it, “The nature and degree of renunciation of wealth which the gospel requires may be something which will be worked out differently in different times and circumstances, but, if we lose sight of the principle that affluence is a barrier to the kingdom of God, we are parting company with Jesus at a point which seems to have been fundamental to his teaching as all three synoptic writers understood it.” 

As someone who meets both the biblical and contemporary worldwide definitions for what it means to be rich, I know that my possessions get in the way of my place in God’s great and glorious reign. That’s because I cannot own anything without feeling in some measure the pull away from complete devotion and dependence on God and toward confidence in my own self and wealth. In that way, the problem of riches parallels the problem of idolatry. The biblical prohibition against graven images is absolute. The ancients understood that any painting or statue or image that depicts God will inevitably become itself an object of worship, replacing the unseen deity with the image right in front of us. In very much the same way, whenever I have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and money in my bank account, I will always begin to believe that those things are my own doing—the sustenance and safety net of my own creation—instead of the gifts from God that they always are.

All of our possessions—no matter how magnificent or modest—are obstacles to our entrance into the kingdom of God. Anyone who owns anything is in trouble. If you don’t go to bed hungry tonight, sleeping out under the stars, you have the kind of wealth that prevents you from being a full participant in God’s reign. “Then who can be saved?” we rightly ask along with Peter and the other disciples. Our hope is found in Jesus’ reply: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Our hope—our only hope—is clinging to the mercies of the God who loves us more than we can imagine. That is our hope no matter how rich or poor we are. But it’s a lot easier to cling to God and God’s goodness when your fists aren’t full of dollar bills and your arms aren’t wrapped around your retirement fund and your focus isn’t on making sure that you have enough money to take care of yourself. How will we ever learn to depend on God when we have so much other stuff to depend on?

This is a spiritual problem with practical implications. Although we cannot sell enough of what we own to buy ourselves a place in heaven, we can adopt financial practices that teach us how to put our trust in God instead of in our wealth. If our possessions are what lure us away from trusting in God completely, we need to find ways to let go of them. If God’s grace and mercy are what bring us into eternal life, we need to pursue whatever habits have the power to multiply those precious things in our lives. We need more of God and less of us, and getting that balance right begins with giving away more and keeping less for ourselves. 

When the man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminded him of the commandments. When the man responded that he had kept all these since his youth, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Literally, he “agape-ed” him. “You only lack one thing,” Jesus said. Only one thing stands between you and the kingdom of God. Only one thing is getting in the way of your complete and total participation in God’s rule in your life. And that thing is you. 

We get in the way. All we need is to trust in God, but our instinctive need to trust in ourselves—our wealth, our status, our ego, our wisdom, our happiness—prevents us from giving our lives over to the reign of God. How does that change? Where do we find the strength and courage to let go of our attachment to this life and cling instead to the mercies of God? That strength comes from not from us but from God. In Jesus Christ, God has loved us so fully, so completely, so perfectly that we have been set free from the need for self-sufficiency. Because God’s love for us has no limits, we can afford to depend on God alone. 

Being loved like that gives us the courage to give more of ourselves away, and the more of ourselves we give away the more we come to know and depend on God’s love. It is a virtuous cycle, and, by loving us from the beginning, God has taken the first step. How will you respond to that love? By holding on to what you have or by trusting God and letting it go?

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Children Know


October 3, 2021 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 24:30.

Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does that mean? What does it mean to receive God’s kingdom like a little child? I want to be a part of God’s reign. I want to live in the kingdom of God. Don’t you? Don’t all of us? Today, Jesus challenges those of us who want to be a part of God’s great and glorious reign to receive it as if we were little children. Today, we ask what little children can teach us about belonging to God and God’s kingdom.

How does a child receive the kingdom of God? Eagerly. Whole-heartedly. With clarity. Without compromise. A child knows instinctively what is of God and what is not. A child knows that you cannot come to church and promise to love your neighbor as yourself and then get in your car and yell obscenities at the driver who cuts you off on the way home. A child knows that you cannot boast of putting a big check in the alms basin and then grumble about the blight that “street people” have become on this town. A child knows that you cannot promise to love your spouse for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until you are parted by death and then wake up one morning and decide you don’t love them anymore. 

Preachers like me are rightly cautioned not to oversimplify Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus, for one, never knew what it meant to balance the demands of work, children, and marriage. And surely the church can do better than to shame couples who are trapped in lifeless unions or, worse, yoked to abusive partners. There is nothing holy or godly about clinging to a relationship in which your safety or dignity is threatened. But, by appealing to the perspective of children, Jesus applies a standard for marriage as an image of God’s love for the world that is remarkably simple and effective. A child knows the difference between a marriage that unravels because their parents just don’t want to try anymore and one that was over and gone long before anyone said a word to them. And part of what it means for us to receive the kingdom of God is to recognize the difference for ourselves.

This gospel passage isn’t actually about divorce. This isn’t Jesus’s way of defining under what circumstances a marriage is justifiably terminated, which, if it were, is basically never. Instead, this is yet another piece of Jesus’s teaching about the nature of God’s kingdom, and, in this case, Jesus appeals to the institution of marriage as a way to explain what it means to prioritize our place in the reign of God. In short, Jesus shows us that getting our hearts right about marriage helps us understand what it means to get our hearts right about God.

Admittedly, this isn’t a straightforward theological argument that Jesus makes. He uses an unusual approach that takes some careful consideration. Before we break it down, though, it may help to remember what he did back in Mark 7, when he was refuting the religious authorities, who questioned why he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands. Do you remember how that argument went? The Pharisees asked why Jesus ignored all the traditions about handwashing and the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles, and he turned their accusation back upon them, quoting not the relevant passages from Leviticus but the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Instead of appealing to a direct discussion of the legal texts, Jesus proposed a sideways move, effectively dismissing the norms for ritual purity by prioritizing the content of one’s heart over the content of one’s actions.

Again, the Pharisees come to test Jesus, this time asking whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. That they would ask about divorce reveals to us that this was as challenging a topic in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. As before, Jesus chooses not to engage in a straight exploration of the relevant text, which would be Deuteronomy 24—a passage about divorce—but instead he appeals to Genesis 2—a passage that conveys not the limitations of marriage but its unfathomable power: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

What happens when we start not with the circumstances under which a marriage can be dissolved but with the beautiful, unbreakable bond that exists between two persons who have committed themselves to a holy, lifelong, monogamous union? For starters, it challenges gender stereotypes, even back in Jesus’s day. When Jesus explained to his disciples that a man who remarries after divorcing his wife commits adultery against her, he was again challenging the theological assumptions of his time. Back then, rabbinical teaching held that men couldn’t commit adultery against women. Instead, only a man, whose honor and claim upon his wife were besmirched by infidelity, could be the victim. Because a man was allowed to divorce his wife for practically any reason, including disappointment in their love life, it made no sense to hold a man responsible for his actions as long as his indiscretion did not threaten another man’s marriage. But that isn’t true if we understand that marriage isn’t simply a contractual arrangement between two people but a mutual, mystical, spiritual union as fundamental to our identity as our personhood. 

Jesus wants people to remember that marriage, as an institution that embodies the power of unconditional, indissoluble love, is such an overwhelming and important good that human beings cannot approach it as something that can be unraveled or dismissed but as something that must be embraced even in the face of adversity—just like the kingdom of God. When we commit to love like that, even and especially when staying committed is hard, we give ourselves over to something that has the power to change us—even to soften the hardheartedness within us that otherwise might pull us apart. When we are immersed in unconditional love, we are set free from all the insecurities that cause us to tighten up and close down and shut ourselves off. 

But love like that isn’t easy. It draws out and quells our self-interestedness. In order to take hold within us, it exposes our vulnerabilities and anxieties so that they might be healed. Sometimes the process of dying to self is too much for us to bear. Sometimes the change we face is so painful that we would rather fold up and quit. But those who want to enter the kingdom of God must receive it like a little child. And the little child within us knows that having something that good is worth giving up everything else we have. 

Lots of marriages have been under incredible strain because of the pandemic. Although the last nineteen months have made being together especially difficult, the pandemic has brought to the surface the reasons why marriage is always hard. It is hard to give up ourselves for the sake of another. It is hard to let go of our own needs and wants in order to be a part of something bigger. It is hard to be vulnerable especially when it scares us to death. But the life-giving power of marriage isn’t realized when everything is going well but when love rescues us even when things are falling apart. Isn’t that also what it means to belong to the kingdom of God?

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Authority of the Servant Christ

September 29, 2021 – The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels
The Ordination of a Deacon

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:45.

It took a hard-fought fight to get us here. God wants us to be here. God has gathered us here together. And, anytime God’s people gather together in God’s name, there is power among them—a holy force of righteousness that radiates throughout the assembly and out into the world. The forces of evil that seek to undermine God’s goodness in the world are always fighting to keep us apart, and God’s angels are fighting back in order to give us safe passage—in order to allow us to come together and receive those edifying, life-giving experiences of God’s grace that we need so very much.

In a plane of existence beyond what we can see—absolutely real yet surprisingly close to us—a spiritual battle is taking place. Angels are protecting God’s people from the demons who want to deceive them, cause them to stumble, and lead them astray. For most of human history, those battles took place up in heaven, where archangels would lead companies of angelic principalities and rulers into war against the forces of darkness. According to the angelology of post-exilic Judaism, upon which the Christian faith is built, whatever happened up in the heavenly realm became manifest here on the earth. If God’s celestial armies beat back the armies of God’s enemies up there, then down here the terrestrial soldiers who fought for God’s people would win their fight against the Assyrians or Egyptians or whomever they were locked in battle against. The affairs of individuals, tribes, and even entire nations were understood to be a reflection of a great unseen spiritual war taking place beyond our sight.

But, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, everything changed. As we read in Revelation 12, when Jesus won the ultimate victory over evil and death, there was no place left for the ancient serpent and his angels in heaven. The great dragon who had been defeated was thrown down, sent to the earth where he could unleash his wrath. We often think that the Book of Revelation is written about future events that will take place at the end of the world, but most of the strange insights it offers are about life here and now, in that time in between Christ’s victory and the consummation of God’s reign at the end of time. We, the saints of God who live in that in-between time, are beset on all sides by the forces of wickedness, but thanks be to God that St. Michael and all the angels are fighting for us.

In ways we cannot see and cannot know, it took a hard-fought spiritual battle to bring us together tonight. And the victory we claim is nothing less than “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God.” But, because that is our victory, because, as the loud heavenly voice proclaims, we have conquered Satan “by the blood of the Lamb,” the nature of the fight to which we pledge ourselves requires of us something of inestimable cost. If we are to conqueror with Christ, then we must die with Christ. Our testimony, given with our lips and with our lives, must reveal the cruciform nature of Christ’s victory. If the Lamb has defeated the great Satan by the shedding of his blood, we who follow the Lamb must give our lives as well. That is the only way real victory can be won—by the giving up of ourselves for Christ’s sake. And one of the principal ways that we see that other-worldly, counterintuitive victory-through-death manifest in our lives is in the ministry of deacons. No wonder I don’t like deacons very much.

One of the first things I said to Kathy when I arrived in Fayetteville more than three years ago was how much I don’t like deacons. I said that not to dissuade her from continuing her formation as one called to this sacred ministry but to let her know how hard it would be to see this journey to its end and embrace the strange and challenging ministry that awaited her. People in positions of authority, especially those in the church, whose power reflects the powers of the world—things like wealth, position, access, and voice—are always challenged by deacons. When deacons carry out their “special ministry of servanthood,” serving particularly “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” they inevitably confront those whose power and privilege have widened the gap between the church and the needs of the world. They expose the hypocrisy of Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are not quite willing to follow him as far as he would lead. They remind us that we can only stand victorious with Jesus and all the angels if we, too, lay down our life.

Appropriately, therefore, deacons serve in the church with almost no real authority. They go and work wherever the bishop tells them to. They are not paid for their ministry. While bishops are told to guard the faith and priests are told to take their share in the councils of the church, deacons are told to assist the other clergy. In the liturgy, their most visible roles are to read the gospel and set the table, which the congregation tends to interpret as servant’s work. But that service, as Christ himself has shown us, is impregnated with incredible power. The one whose duty it is to serve is given the responsibility of revealing to us the nature of Christ in our midst. By their words and actions—both within the liturgy and beyond the walls of the church—deacons teach the rest of us that we can only serve Christ when we serve the helpless among us. They say without compunction to those whose ministry begins at the altar that the church is too focused on itself and not enough on the world. And that is a challenging word that all of us need to hear.

All Christians, the ordinal reminds us, are called to follow Jesus by serving God through the power of the Spirit. Deacons remind us that we serve God by serving the least among us in Christ’s name. “Who is greater,” Jesus asks us, “the one at the table or the one who serves?” Of course it is the one at the table, he admits. We all know where the one in charge is to be found. But Christ did not come into the world to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The life he gives to us and the victory over sin and death that he wins for us are not attained through force or through the securing of or protection of power. Christ’s victory for us is won through the cross—through the total and complete emptying of himself for the sake of the world. If we are going to be a part of that victory, we, too, must be emptied, and those who accept the call to serve as deacons help us know how.

Kathy, for many years, you have embraced the holy work of caring for the least among us—those whose needs are overlooked and whose voices are usually ignored. Now, you are accepting the call to bring that work into the very heart of the Christian community not only to invite the church to join in that work but also to challenge us to be shaped by it until we are conformed to the image of the servant Christ. As you may have noticed throughout this arduous process, the church tends to resist that. At diaconal ordinations, we often say that the work of the new deacon is largely a continuation of what has come before, but that is only halfway right. The other half—the ministry of bringing the authority of the servant Christ back into the church—is much more difficult but no less important. And that is why we seek the Holy Spirit and pray that it will come upon you with grace and power to equip you for this work. For when you carry out your ministry, it is not you who will do it but Christ working through you. And, when you help us see that, when you help us recognize how Christ is truly at work among us, you help us follow Jesus.