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Seeing the Face of Jesus – an ordination sermon

The Rev Canon Frank Logue preached the following sermon at
St. Paul the Apostle Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia on May 27, 2017

Seeing the Face of Jesus
An Ordination Sermon for Thomas Barron and Leslie Dellenbarger
II Corinthians 4:1-6

Brown should be the color of a deacon’s robes. Deacons are in the name of Jesus Christ, “to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”

The Bishop will also pray for God to make them, “Modest and humble.” Serving the lost and the left out while remaining modest and humble. Brown should be the color of a deacon’s robes.

Our reading from II Corinthians reminds us, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Letting the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shine through our hearts, reflecting the light of the face of Jesus to others is the work of all Christians. The order of deacons is a separate and distinct order of ministry alongside bishops, priests, and lay persons. The deacon is “to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example” especially in serving those most in need. In this work of bringing the needs of the world to the church and taking the church out into the world. In the words of the ordination rite, “At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.”

Serving others as if serving Christ. The Rule of St. Benedict is the great pattern for monks and nuns in the west. And in this rule, Benedict set out the centrality of hospitality declaring (Rule 53), “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25:35).”

I don’t know about you. I find it easier to find Christ in other people than I do to find Christ in myself. But Jesus did not say merely, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets, everything he came to teach through his life and ministry were, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” We also have to find a way to see ourselves as loved by God. Not that we deserve, or earn God’s love. That is beyond our abilities. No, we are to see our faults and to know that God loves us as we are and wants something more and better for us. God wants to redeem the tragedies of our lives through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Thomas Barron did not get involved in the church until he was in his twenties; he was raised in the wild spiritually speaking. His teen years were spent in desperate attempts to fill the void in his heart with anything that might make him feel substantial. This included endless nights of partying, which he says, “slowly corrupted my soul and almost destroyed my life.” Entering grade school shy and with a speech impediment, he had been an outsider. But Thomas came to a place in high school where everyone wanted to be his friend. Behind a façade, he was lying to his parents and stealing money from his dad to support his drug habit. This life spinning out of control came to a head during a night of heavy partying. Thomas crashed his car into a motorcyclist, who was thrown clear of the wreck. Thomas landed in jail wondering, “Who am I? What am I living for?”

For Leslie Dellenbarger, her childhood was very different. Church was a constant. She grew up regularly attending the Methodist church and its Sunday school. Her family prayed at mealtime and she prayed at bedtime. At around the age of six, she received her first Bible, which she still has and uses today. She lived out serving others as she grew old enough to volunteer as a Candy Striper at the hospital. By the time Leslie attended Georgia Southern, her brother mustered out of the Navy, and began exhibiting symptoms of what would come to be diagnosed as Schizophrenia. After a time in a psychiatric hospital, he came back home to Statesboro, where Leslie’s desire to serve was already taking a turn. She was studying Psychology. Her brother would go on to earn his masters and doctorate and Leslie found inspiration in his courage to “engage in his life in a goal directed and purposeful fashion.”

It was in her studies for a master’s degree that Leslie became more accepting and open to her sexual orientation. Leslie would stay too long in what she could see in hindsight as an abusive relationship. That experience made her appreciate all the more the love she found in Alta.

The Japanese have a form of art in which broken objects are restored with a lacquer that is mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. Artists stitch broke pieces together so that the cracks become the most beautiful part of the design. This is interwoven with the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which means “to find the beauty in broken things.” Long before this centuries old Japanese tradition took hold, God was already finding beauty in the broken places; the Holy Spirit was already making all things new, knitting together the hurts so that in our wounds we might find the grace to offer this same love of God to others.

Thomas paid off his court fees and waited through his suspended license and then started putting his life back together. Back at Mercer University, he made the Dean’s List one semester after another as he studied English Literature and minored in Photography. In his studies, he read through the Bible and found his own life mirrored in the Confessions of St. Augustine. Thomas went on to serve two years in Americorps where he discovered a talent for working with kids. He started attending a storefront church that was all African American except for Thomas and his girlfriend. Church became home. After getting married, Thomas would then go on to seminary at Regent University where he studied practical theology, discovering a love of preaching and even a love for ancient Greek and Hebrew. He worked first as a youth director and associate pastor at the Lord’s Vineyard on Virginia Beach. Then he started Poema Community Church. Poema is Greek for “masterpiece” or “masterwork” as Paul told the Christians in Ephesus, “You are God’s masterpiece” (Ephesians 2:10). While planting that church, Thomas also taught undergraduates at Regent University. He served at Poema for four years, baptizing more than 50 people. The church continues today. But health concerns for his wife, led her to return to her parents’ house. As Thomas sought a next move away from Poema, his marriage came to an end. Yet, as he lived with his parents on St. Simons Island, Thomas connected to the Episcopal Church, first through the Rev. Alan Akridge and then through the amazing ministry he has built alongside the Rev. Ted Clarkson and Deacon Karulynn Koelliker working with otherwise disadvantaged kids in McIntosh County in serving at St. Andrew’s and St. Cyprian’s Churches.

Meanwhile, Leslie was finding how her faith in Jesus could sustain her in work as a therapist. The more she focused on her own spiritual life, the more she found the strength and courage to be present with others in difficult circumstances. Leslie leaned on the presence of Jesus so she could shine that light of Christ to difficult youth, victims of abuse, and others who had experienced trauma. Seeing Christ in the other person was not so easy when Leslie was called increasingly to work effectively with persons whose crimes seemed unbelievable and shocking. She found the only way to offer any hope was if God was present in their midst. She began to pray for her clients and her fellow staff members, including a supervisor who could be vicious with the staff. Leslie found that, “God has the power to altar my perspective and to intervene in their lives as well.”

Leslie felt an increasing pull toward ordained ministry. The call became almost physically painful when despite feeling the Holy Spirit urging her on, the church informed her that because of her sexual orientation, she could not take steps toward ordination. She said that the church had become such a part of her life, that even though she did not agree with this portion of the church’s doctrine, she would neither leave the church nor “throw in the towel.” So she stayed, served God in the ways she could, and worked with a spiritual director who assisted her in gaining a greater awareness of how God was working through her life.

Thomas and Leslie arrive her today to be ordained what the church often refers to as transitional deacons. This means they will serve for a time in this order of ministry. Many persons are called to serve as deacons, and live out the remainder of their lives in servant ministry. We sometimes refer to these as vocational deacons, for they are real deacons who remain icons of service. For those called to the priesthood, the church expects them to first serve others through the ministry of a deacon. This is a natural fit for both Leslie and Thomas as they have been serving others for years. Like each of us, they have experienced pain and loss and they have also experienced God mending the broken places so that those hurts become a source of understanding they can use to better pass along God’s grace and love.

I want to return to the Ordination rite itself as I conclude. As I noted earlier, a deacon’s “life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” Notice that this is not the exclusive vocation of a deacon. The deacon is to show Christ’s people that when we serve the helpless we are serving Christ. The role of a deacon is not to serve in the place of others. Deacons are to be icons of service.

Icon. This is a better way of seeing the role of a deacon. The Greek word “Icon” means “image” or “likeness.” It is the word given to works of art, primarily in the Orthodox tradition, like the icons present here at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. For Orthodox Christians, an icon is a window into heaven.

As our Epistle reading states, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That same light of the knowledge of the glory of God is to shine in the lives of all baptized Christians as we proclaim the Gospel in our words and actions. It is not our glory or our gifts, but the glory of God shining through us.

In the western tradition, we tend toward stained glass rather than icons. With stained glass, an image is revealed when the light shines through the colored glass. In the same way, the image of the invisible God can shine through our hearts when we show the love of God as found in Christ Jesus. As imperfect as we are, people can see the face of Christ in our faces, and with spiritual eyes, we can see the face of Christ in them too.

So I got it wrong, again. If the deacons wore distinctive brown robes, then they would draw attention to the deacon in a look-how-humble-I-am sort of way. The work of a deacon is about the face one presents to the world. And the face deacons are to show is not their own, but the face of Christ shining through them. Deacons are to be more like a work of stained glass where the light shines through to reveal the image in the colors of the glass. Being a deacon is not about the robes one wears any more than it is about a clerical collar. Being a deacon means becoming an icon of Christ’s call to serve the least. In serving others deacons are not any color, so much as they are the light of Christ shining through. In this, a deacon is to be translucent.

Amen.

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