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Tending Toward Growth

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue
Ordination Sermon for the 190th Convention of the Diocese of Georgia
Given February 11, 2011 at the Rainwater Conference Center in Valdosta, Georgia

 

Tending Toward Growth
Acts 6:2-7

Imagine with me. It is early on Sunday morning. Not just any Sunday, this is now the third day since Jesus’ unimaginably cruel death on a Roman cross. Jesus’ disciples had scattered on Thursday night, then came the fear of Friday, Saturday brought the shock of the reality that Jesus was truly dead. Now, in the barest hint of light on the horizon, the women who followed and cared for Jesus in life, seek to tend to him in death.

On that morning that marks the hinge in human history, John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb of her Rabbi, Jesus. Lost in grief, she travels to the place where her Lord had been laid to rest. Finding the stone removed from the entrance, Mary runs to Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The two go with Mary Magdalene to investigate the empty tomb. Seeing Jesus’ burial cloths lying on the ground and the face cloth neatly folded, the beloved disciple sees and believes.

The two disciples leave the empty tomb. Only Mary remains. She who will be so misunderstood through church history has nowhere else to go. Jesus was the ground of her very being. First he was put to death and now even his body has been taken from her. She is weeping inconsolably when angels ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” In her deep loss she finds the words, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Mary turns and sees a man standing there. He is Jesus, standing in front of her resurrected from the dead, never to die again. Yet, Mary feels no joy. She remains lost in her grief. She does not recognize her Lord. Mary supposes him to be the gardener.

Could Mary Magdalene have been more wrong? There are no stories of Jesus ever tending a garden. Once his ministry began, Jesus was never in one place long enough to till the soil and remain for the harvest. Jesus said in both Matthew and Luke, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but I, the Son of Man, have no home of my own, not even a place to lay my head.”

In the garden that Easter Sunday, Jesus quickly cleared up the short-lived confusion in calling Mary by name. She then recognizes Jesus for who he is and calls him Rabbouni, which means “my teacher.” Now this was fitting, for Jesus was a gifted teacher who used stories from everyday life to teach the people. 

This was a simple case of mistaken identity. She thought the man in the garden was a gardener. Given that she knew Jesus to be dead, it was an understandable error. But we do well to attend to the dramatic irony in this detail. Mary Magdalene thought this momentary lapse was worth retelling or we would not know of this story of mistaken identity. The author of the Gospel also knew that this was too important to leave out of the story. John’s Gospel starts with the words, “In the beginning” then as Jesus is crucified we get the detail, “The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before” (John 19:41). We know that John’s Gospel is well aware of how Jesus’ life and ministry connect back to the beginning.

Jesus’ whole life and ministry were part of a project undertaken by God to bring creation back to the Garden of Eden. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the final stages in his defeat of death itself. Now through faith in Jesus, all would be able to find forgiveness through repentance and the change of heart and mind that comes through faith in Christ. And now at the culmination of this long project, working its way through all human history, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus as the gardener. In this mistake, Mary sees most clearly. For Jesus was not a teacher who was mistaken for a gardener, but a gardener who was mistaken to be merely a teacher.

The diocesan convention in which we now meet is called Tending Toward Growth. We take this theme from the many scriptures in which tending takes place. We find woven into the fabric of scripture, images of gardeners and vine-growers tending their plants and shepherds tending their sheep.  Gardening comes up frequently, such as our Old Testament passage from Jeremiah which tells us, “Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns.”

The idea behind this theme is that we know that God expects faithfulness of us. That faithfulness is blessed with bearing fruit. So, if we tend to properly to being the church, then we will tend to grow. That growth will vary from one place to the next as the fruit of our labors depends on where we are. But we can expect that when we are faithful to be who Christ has called us to be in a given place, then God will be faithful and we will bear fruit.

We see this sort of use of the word tending in our readings from the Acts of the Apostles. There is a problem that has arisen in the early church. The Greek speaking Christians complain that while the Christian widows who are Hebrew receive bread in the daily distribution, the Greek widows are overlooked. Everyone agreed that the church needed to tend to this thorny problem, which was choking the growth of the early Christian community. The Sacred Order of Deacons, then, was created to tend to an issue in the church so that the apostles could focus on their particular ministry. This bore tremendous fruit for the Gospel. The apostles found a solution in which seven men of good standing were put forward for the laying on of hands to become the first deacons. The Acts of the Apostles records, “The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many priests became obedient to the faith.” The apostles tended to the problems in the church prayerfully and appropriately. Growth followed.

As The Episcopal Church has recaptured its understanding of the Sacred Order of Deacons as a full, separate order of ministry, we have seen once more how deacons help bear fruit for the Gospel. As today’s ordination service itself puts it deacons have a, “special ministry of servanthood directly under [their] bishop” in which “they are called to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”

Deacons have a two-fold role. First, they have an outward role in which they are “to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by…word and example.” This means carrying the loving concern of the church to its surrounding community.  Second, they “are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” This is the work of bringing the needs of the world into the church and holding them up. Everything else a deacon does in reading and preaching the Gospel, in bidding the congregation to prayer and in sending them back into in the world flows from that ongoing involvement in taking the church to the world and bringing the needs of the world into the church.

In this, Deacons are not so different from all Christians as each of us are to serve Christ. The ordination rite states this in saying to those about to be ordained, “your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.” Notice this is the third and perhaps most crucial role. Deacons are not to do all the work of servant ministry. Deacons are to serve as icons of servant ministry, examples to others. Where vocational deacons—real deacons—thrive, we find the fruit of that ministry is the laity in that congregation have been called to more fully living into their own baptismal vows. Deacons tend to the lost and the left out and then call others into that ministry as well. This is the work of the vocational deacon. This ministry is a vital part of tending toward growth in the sense our convention theme means it.

The ordinands today are transitional deacons who will likely serve barely more than six months in this order of ministry. All who are called to serve as a priest must first be ordained to this servant ministry. This is a right, good and joyful thing as all who feel called by God are to first, and foremost follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He is the Lord who came not to be served, but to serve. Today’s ordination is a challenge to these five ordinands to find ways during this transitional period to fully live into being a deacon in action and not in title only.

But as they make this move from being active lay persons living into their baptismal identity to being ordained deacons, it is an occasion in which we can see how this Tending Toward Growth theme works in the real world.

Each of the five ordinands stands here this day not simply because they heard the still, small voice of God speaking to them by the power of the Holy Spirit. The ordinands have been brought to this day by the many people who have assisted them in breaking up the soil within their souls, planting the seeds of the Gospel there and nourishing that growth. While God provided the growth, many others planted and watered the seeds of Good News of Jesus.

This certainly did not all happen within The Episcopal Church, as, for example, Al Crumpton attended Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia when he was in his early 20s. That congregation is well known for one of its regular Sunday school teachers who was also this country’s 39th president. But even more important in planting seeds of faith and tending to their growth was his maternal grandfather, a barber who took Al with him when he gave free haircuts to shut ins on his day off, and his maternal grandmother whose unceasing prayer and loving influence helped Al to understand the love of Christ in his life. Later The Reverend Reginald Gunn and the congregation of Calvary, Americus nurtured that same faith, planted before he planted his roots within this corner of the Kingdom.

Abi White Moon also started her journey of faith in a different denomination. An Army brat, she was raised a mix of Lutheran and Protestant Chaplain services. She found her way into The Episcopal Church as an undergraduate at Sewanee. There in All Saints Chapel she began to be nurtured by compline and started serving as an acolyte. She took part in the catechumante at Sewanee. Her family came to be with her through that full Holy Week on the mountain and Abi renewed her baptismal covenant on her 21st birthday, which fell on Easter that year. This was followed by living into her faith while living solo while working for the Peace Corps in Guinea West Africa without electricity, phones or running water in her whole town as well as in her house. There is no test of faith quite like discovering that you are sharing a latrine with a deadly mamba snake. Her later work at St. Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero in the wake of September 11 or working with youth in the church perhaps gains new perspective after facing death in the latrine. It was as a staff member at Good Shepherd Augusta that Abi responded to Christ’s call to the priesthood.

Walter Hobgood is a lifelong Episcopalian whose nurturing in the faith started with his baptism as an infant at St. Stephens’ Church in Innis, Louisiana. Walter’s faith has been tended to in many places since that initiation into Christ’ Body, the church. Of the ordinands, Walter has easily had his name listed on the rolls of more churches than the others. Work moved him to Houston and St. Louis, then Singapore where he found a Christian community in the midst of Islam and Buddhism. Next it was on to Australia and New Zealand and later lots of travel to Europe and Brazil and then a move to Hawaii. In every place, Walter put down roots in a local church community. But with the move to Valdosta came the connection to Christ Church and there he found a more spiritual connection with his faith. He has known the challenges of living into his Christian faith in many contexts and from his childhood recalls the excitement of a vibrant, loving small parish church.

Two of the ordinands today, Julia Sierra Wilkinson and Remington Slone were nourished not only in their congregations of All Saints’ Tybee Island and St. Paul’s Jesup. Their growth in their faith was tended by the Diocese of Georgia’s Youth Programs and the Happening community.

For Rem, the close spiritual advisors have included The Rev. Charlie Denton of the Diocese of Mississippi and also The Rev. Sonia Sullivan, now of the Diocese of Central Florida. Rem had to deal with what it means to leave the nurturing environment of the Happening community to go off as a student at Young Harris College, needing to find new spiritual friends who could help him tend to spiritual growth while in college. Along the way, Rem has found ways to create deeper tap roots so that he could be more consistent in his walk of faith, instead of going from high to low to high.

While I have known all the ordinands for at least their time of discernment and seminary, I met Sierra Wilkinson nearly 11 years ago when I still had what she referred to later as “that new deacon’s smell.” I was newly ordained when we met at Honey Creek for Summer Camp and I have enjoyed watching what God has done in her heart and mind. But, I am a priest and this may miss the point of our theology of Body of Christ if I only speak of priests as tending to our spiritual growth. You could say that Sierra was tended to in an important way by the dining hall staff at Honey Creek, Linda, Christine, Lavonia, Robin, Sylvia and Fretta, whose love and care has been an important constant in her life.

In this image of dining hall staff as tending to not just food, but the nurture of a fellow child of God, we are getting very close to heart of a community living into their various gifts. For the Gospel involves all Christians in tilling the soil, planting seeds and nourishing the plants.

Whatever else we are doing this day, we are not setting aside five deacons to be about ministry so the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the work of some new professional Christians. We would do better to ask God to strike each of us dead before we get to the ordinations if we intend to ask God to make these five deacons so they will do the work of ministry so we don’t have to.

We are here acknowledging the call has placed on Abi, Walter, Sierra, Remington and Al sure in the knowledge that there ordinations will assist them in finding ways to empower the whole Body of Christ to further faithfulness. And that is going to bear tremendous fruit over the next few decades.

Ordinands, please stand:
I charge you this day to as fully live into the ministry of a deacon as possible during this transitional period. Yes, God has ultimately called you each to the priesthood, but now Christ and his church call you to servant ministry. Tend to your own spiritual growth and from that deep place of connection to God, reach out to the lost and the left out and challenge those around you to do the same. If you are faithful to this, God will cause this transitional time to bear fruit worthy of a deacon.

Amen.

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