Ordination of Elizabeth Cummings

Sermon for Ordination of Elizabeth Cummings, Sunday, March 03 2019, 7:30 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto

There are many privileges which attach to being a parish priest, but perhaps one of the greatest is the opportunity to watch members of the community develop their identities and vocations, and to discover that there are people in the congregation with gifts much greater than one’s own, sometimes in areas which one did not anticipate. Seeing Elizabeth gradually discover her vocation to the office and work of a deacon in the church has been an experience I am very much honoured to have shared, and, I hope, to go on sharing for some time—she’s become such an essential partner in ministry here, and I know I’m not the only person whose reaction, any time she comes into the church, is “Oh, Elizabeth’s here! Everything will be better now.” Actually, a month or so ago one of our regular guests at the drop-in asked me who was on that night, and I said it was me, and his face sort of fell, and then he recovered himself and said, “I mean, no offense to you, it’s just that Elizabeth is my favourite.” I remember the tall, very shy, young woman, who turned up in the church about five years ago, and who had a hat covered with pop can tabs usually hiding her face, and my strong sense that there was some kind of significant potential there waiting to be uncovered—so I sort of tossed her up to the altar to see what would happen, and here we are, which I suppose should be a warning to you all.

It is a particularly striking thing, I think, to be ordained a deacon in a parish which is dedicated to the church’s first deacon, and a parish which has always had a special and distinguishing call to the work of service and justice which is the core of the diaconate. And some of this is going to be familiar to those of you who are regular members of the congregation; but if a parish can be said to have a theme, this is ours, and I guess it is no bad thing to come back to it regularly.

The word “deacon” comes from the Greek verb diakonein, which means “to serve”—the primary meaning is serving food at a table, but it encompasses a range of meaning, all more or less to do with domestic service, the tending and caring and maintaining work which so often goes unseen, and is traditionally given to people of low status, especially women and domestic servants. The verb diakonein occurs quite a few times in the Gospels, and it is applied invariably to women, with one exception. And that one exception, of course, is Jesus. He is the one male figure, the one figure with potential status, of whom this word is used, and who, in fact, actively claims that word as the very definition of his work—“the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” Jesus, the incarnate Word, who feeds crowds in the wilderness, who bends down to wash the feet of Peter and the other disciples, did not see diakonia as unworthy, did not scorn the work of slaves and women, but identified it as the fundamental work by which we should understand his whole earthly life. All of it—healing and teaching and feeding, walking with the poor and the outcast, going voluntarily into the hands of power, death on the cross and resurrection—_diakonia_. Service. The Bread of Life waits upon all our tables.

It is what the gospel reading demands—not just words, but work. Not only to hear, but to act, to bear fruit, to bring treasure from the striving heart. It may be my job to stand up here and go blah blah blah, but that is more or less pointless unless we get on with the deacon’s work, the actual doing, the feeding and the washing up, the building of the house in which all are welcome, and none are turned away, at the margins of the world where the pain is the greatest, in the time of the flood, in this time and this place.

It is a striking moment in the very early church, and a troubling one, when the apostles decide that they are too busy and important to be feeding poor widows, and create a separate order, the deacons—the first ordained order—to deal with all this table-serving business. It is one of those moments in Acts when the barely-forming church reveals itself to be a very human community, living out the new life in Christ to the best of its ability but always inclined to slide gently backwards into familiar old ways of understanding.

Ever since then, the church has been fairly consistently confused about the order of deacons, which has moved in and out of prominence through our history, and been used in some peculiar ways, including having been, for a while in the Anglican church, and perhaps to be in the Roman Catholic church, a sort of consolation prize for women who aren’t allowed to be ordained as priests. But it is still the first order, the first historically, and the first ontologically, for each one of us who is ordained; the strong foundation on which the structure rests, the order which defines and sustains the meaning of every other order. No one can be ordained to the sacramental ministry of the priesthood, or the bishop’s ministry of shepherding and oversight, without first being ordained to diakonia, to service, to the work which the world despises or disregards, the work in the broken places. The work which Christ himself most closely claims. Without diakonia, the other orders would have no substance.

The functions of the deacon in the liturgy are several, and might also tell us something about how to understand this order. The duty of setting the table has a fairly obvious symbolic connection to the work of care and feeding. The deacon often leads the congregation in prayer, bringing into the church the needs of the world, opening all of our eyes and minds to things of which she is necessarily particularly aware. The deacon dismisses, sending all of us out into the world to carry out our various missions. The deacon has a particular eucharistic role, tending to the chalice. It is, normatively, the deacon who adds water to the wine at the altar, an action traditionally accompanied by a prayer which asks that, “by the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”—the mystery of kenosis, self-emptying, which leads to our theosis, our sharing in the divine nature, an extraordinarily dense and powerful short prayer. And the deacon elevates this mystery and shares it with the congregation, this chalice of humility and grace.

Another regular duty of a deacon is to proclaim the Gospel—not so much to interpret the words, though some deacons may preach, and some do so often—but to read the words, to tell the story. To report to us the incarnation of the Word in human flesh, the words and actions of the Word’s ministry among us, the story of death and resurrection. And this is, finally, no less linked to the concrete work, for if there is any way that the presence of God in the world of meat and mud can be made known, it is through that work. If there is any sign of resurrection in the world, it is in the daily work of love—for love, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom said in a homily at another diaconal ordination, is the deacon’s primary task.

But it is also the work of the whole church, of everyone who has been baptized into Christ and put on Christ; it is necessarily the vocation of every one of us, and I would say that this parish has always, instinctively, understood that, and lived out the calling of the deacon to whom we are dedicated, and even more, of the deacon who washed the feet of his friends on the last night of his life, the one to whom not only this church but all Christians belong. And Elizabeth’s diaconal covenant includes a section promising that the lay people of this parish will continue, as they have done, sometimes to perform the deacon’s liturgical tasks, and always to accompany her in the work of practical love, doing the work they have done here for generations.

If that is the case, then, what, in particular, does it mean to be ordained a deacon? Why will Elizabeth be, after today, both more herself than she has ever been, and something additional and different?

One way of thinking about it, perhaps, is that she is herself to become the outward and visible sign of the parish’s inward and spiritual grace. She is, in her person, our sacrament of service. She is our healing oil. She is to show forth that inward grace to the world, to recall us to ourselves when we forget, to embody the servant Christ among the people; and within the church, to embody the world’s longing for justice, for a society in which the little ones are valued, and the earth is cherished, in which the mighty are cast down and the humble lifted up. To tell the story, simply, plainly, as it needs to be told for those among whom she finds herself. All that, and taking the recycling out to the bin too.

It is a great and terrible vocation, and Elizabeth has chosen this great and terrible thing—stepping up when the voice calls, when the world’s need compels. Here I am. Send me. Burned by the living coal from the altar, named by the Holy Spirit, sent forth to serve, and to show us all, over and over, the shape and face of diakonia. Not because of some arbitrary decision by the parish or the diocese or indeed Elizabeth herself, but because it is who she is, who she was created to be.

We are all, of course, called—bishops, priests, deacons, lay people—in all our variety and diversity; we are all burned and summoned and sent, and an ordination is, among other things, a chance for all of us to reflect on our own particular callings—each of which is unique, for no deacon is called to precisely the same work as any other, each priest is called to discover what it means for this particular peculiar person to stand in that place, each lay person goes out into the world in a different way, to show forth Christ through one irreplacable body and brain and soul, to speak into the needs which call out to each of us individually. And over time Elizabeth will continue to discover what it means, not just to be a deacon, but to be this deacon, in this time and this place, in this odd lovely parish and this difficult time in history, with the specific strengths and weaknesses which are hers alone, her own narrative, her own failings and her own glories. This story is hers, and no one else can live it, though we can share it in our greater or lesser degrees. But we in our intersecting stories can only do the same—to be in our place and in our time, the variously hurting, variously called, small beings that we are, and say, as we can and as we must, “Here I am. Send me.”