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Send Me – an ordination sermon

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave this sermon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
in Augusta, Georgia on May 13, 2017

Send Me
An Ordination Sermon for Terri Degenhardt and Larry Jesion
Isaiah 6:1-8

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the Temple,” the Prophet Isaiah describes his call to serve as a prophet. Six winged angels, called Seraphs sing “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is filled with his glory.”

Smoke fills the Temple, which shakes to its foundation. Isaiah too is shaken to find himself in the very presence of God and he knows he is not worthy. The prophet cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

This dramatic recounting of Isaiah’s call comes not at the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, but at the start of the sixth chapter. Isaiah has for five chapters pronounced the Word of the Lord to the people of Jerusalem and all Judea during the reign of King Uzziah. Now the king is dead. Our Old Testament reading then describes a second call coming to Isaiah. The prophet was already serving God and then God says, “But wait, there’s more.”

How appropriate to encounter this passage of a second call as we gather to ordain Deacons Terri Degenhardt and Larry Jesion to the Sacred Order of Priests. Each of them experienced a renewed call. While not so dramatic as Isaiah in the Temple that year that King Uzziah died, they still experienced a powerful call to serve God as a priest.

Years ago, each of our ordinands experienced that typical call of a deacon in being tapped on the shoulder by a priest who asked them to consider serving as a deacon. I say this is typical, as deacons are servant ministers. The work of a deacon is to take the church out to the people and to bring the needs of the people in to the church. What we the church seek are people who are already doing that work. Often the person is already being a deacon and others recognize this before they do.

Terri was already taking the love of Christ into the classroom at Augusta Technical College. Even if she didn’t see it yet, Terri had been ministering for years as she taught students, especially women, who lacked confidence and self esteem to see the potential within themselves. She saw her students as God sees them and reflected back that grace and love. This is good, holy work she was immersed in long before her Rector, Steve Rice, spoke to her about a possible call to serve as a deacon.

Larry too was already drawn to caring for those outside the church. In fact, for Larry that care began before he was back in the church. After his wife, Pam, began working for Hope Hospice, Larry started volunteering. He even spent the first weekend of their married life together as a chaperone at a grief camp for children. So it was only natural after his relationship with Jesus sparked in a new and powerful way that his faith would enliven the work he had already been doing. It was only natural that his pastor, Cindy Taylor, would see this and point out what others could see, that Larry was being the icon of servant ministry. He was already living out the ministry we expect to find in deacons.

Now the church has affirmed a call to the ministry of the priesthood as we have seen priestly gifts operating within them. This is not something different we are asking them to do as if we are adding tasks or changing their job description. Even as they served as vocational or “real deacons,” we began to see that a priest is who they are called to be. We had already seen them being priests and pastors. This is rare. Most deacons will serve many years in ministry continuing to connect the church to the lost and hurting people around us. This is sacred work which the church values and serving as a deacon usually occupies the rest of one’s life.

And yet, the Church in its wisdom has for centuries ordained persons called to the priesthood to first serve as deacons, taking the church into the world and bringing the needs of the world to the church. We refer to this as serving as a transitional deacon. One called to the priesthood is typically ordained a deacon for 6-12 months before ordination to the priesthood. In the case of Terri, ordained a deacon in 2009, and Larry, ordained a deacon in 2013, they served much longer as deacons, and so are that much better prepared for the priesthood.

When we move to the Examination the bishop will conduct prior to the ordination, Bishop Benhase will begin by addressing the ordinands. He will name their task to “proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion [their lives] in accordance with its precepts.” This is something we have already seen in these two deacons. Not that they are perfect. Far from it. But that they are willing to be vessels for God’s grace. The bishop will go on to call these two new priests to something that also gets at the heart of serving as a deacon saying, “You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”

This is very Christ-like. But loving all alike does not come completely natural to us as humans. Any one of us can fall into seeing strong and weak differently even as we might be tempted to treat well the rich and to see the poor judgmentally. This is where the years of being a deacon helps.

Terri began the ministry of a deacon perhaps unlike any other person so ordained. She had studied for Holy Orders together with Jim McDonald, a fellow parishioner at St. Michael’s, Waynesboro. As they prepared for ordination, Jim learned he had cancer, and that his cancer had already spread through his body. Jim’s outer nature was wasting away with cancer, even as he was inwardly renewed. His living to be able to be ordained alongside Terri was a miracle. Jim did not survive his first week as a deacon. Terri’s first liturgy after her ordination was her fellow deacon’s funeral. She went on to work with One Harvest Food Ministry and to assist with Heaping Hands Saturday morning breakfast at St. Michael’s, to volunteer with United Hospice and to otherwise take the church out into the community. But most importantly, this work caused Terri’s faith to shift into a real relationship with Jesus. She had, like many of us, been raised in the Bible-belt South, hearing the name of Jesus used more as a threat of punishment rather than the one through whom we find forgiveness and love. As a deacon, Terri opened herself to the one on whose behalf she served and found that relationship with Jesus changed her life. This relationship emboldened Terri to take those conversations with students to a deeper level. She wanted her students to see themselves as capable, and she found voice when appropriate to help them see they are beloved of God as she talked of faith and prayer.

Meanwhile, Larry was going through growth of his own. As bishops are want to do, Bishop Benhase moved Larry from the Holy Comfort of his home church to serve at Christ Church in the historic mill village of Harrisburg, between us here at St. Paul’s Church in the downtown and being on the Hill in the Summerville neighborhood. Christ Church is a perfect location for a new deacon as the congregation has more than 100 years of experience in serving its community. Working from that outward-focused congregation, Larry learned that he had a greater capacity to love others than he ever thought he would. He saw that the needs of the world far exceeded his ability to address. And, Larry learned to preach the Gospel without saying a word. And through Clinical Pastoral Education in a hospital, Larry discovered more about himself. Through his own particular story he found the universal human story. All of us need to feel loved and accepted and to find forgiveness and redemption that we receive in Jesus Christ.

Isaiah knew that day in the Temple as the foundation shook and smoke filled the air that he was not worthy. Neither is Terri and neither is Larry. None of us serve God through the church because of our worthiness. But as the seraph took a coal of fire to touch to Isaiah’s lips purifying him for the task before him, so we trust the Holy Spirit to come today in power, giving these deacons the gifts they need to be priests.

But then the reading from Isaiah can lead us astray if we are not careful. For we next read, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I, send me.’”

If we are not careful in how we listen to that text on a day like this one, we could easily misunderstand. Because the temptation is to recount the call that Terri has experienced or the particular tug toward the priesthood Larry felt and we could hear the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and then we can answer a clear an unequivocal, “Hear am I, send her” or “Hear am I, send him.”

But we are not ordaining professional Christians who will serve so the rest of the Body of Christ doesn’t have to do so. Every baptized Christian has gifts for ministry and is to use those gifts, even if it means being a teacher, or real estate agent, or attorney to the Glory of God. Just like Terri first experienced a call to see her student as God’s sees them, so do each of us share a common call. And while Larry was unashamed to offer the hope of the Gospel to customers in a La-Z-Boy store, we will find ourselves in conversation not with strangers, but with close friends and family who need to hear about the hope that is within us. All Christians are called to this work of sharing the love of God revealed most fully in Jesus.

Bishops, priests, and deacons do have specific calls to which they are ordained. But when the Body of Christ is healthy and whole, those in ordained ministry do not do the work of the Gospel instead of others or for others. The Bishop has the ministry of oversight as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese, contributing to the health and well being of the Body of Christ and showing the way through her or his life and ministry. Priests then equip the people for ministry through administering the sacraments, blessing, declaring pardon in the name of God, and encouraging the congregation by word and deed. The deacons then function as icons of the servant ministry we all share as Christians. Deacons function best as irritants who prod the church to action by showing us the needs and calling others to join in being Christ for our community. But the main way the Body of Christ ministers is through the lay persons deployed through the community in their work and families, sharing the light of Christ with the gifts they have been given.

When this is working, there is no limit to what Christ’s Body the church can do. So that when God nudges us, none of us can say “Here am I, send her” or “Here am I, send him.”

God wants to use you to reach our lost and hurting world in need of Jesus. So when we feel the Holy Spirit inspiring us to be Christ for another person, we are each to respond as our ordinands have in saying, “Here am I. Send me.”

Amen.

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