I have never been asked to be a ballerina. I have never been asked to attend time trials as a hopeful for the Olympic rowing team. No one has ever asked me to consider whether I might appear on one of those quiz shows which are reserved for the extremely intelligent. No one has ever asked me why I am not a boxer, or a chef or an accountant.
Those of you who know me would know that a disaster would not be far off if I sought to undertake any of those activities. It would not just be me who ended up in a mess, but all those who relied on me to undertake those tasks on their behalf.
But there have been a few things over the years which people HAVE asked me to do. And they have asked me to do those things because they believed that I not only had either the skills to do them or the potential to learn how to do them, but because they also thought that I would enjoy doing them as well. In fact there are some things which I have been asked to do, which as I look back now, I know that I would never have become the person that I am (a more complete version of me) if I had not done them. So I am deeply grateful for all those who have helped me in the past to see what I should be doing next.
I hope that many of us have had that kind of experience: of being prompted by others to take on a new avenue in our careers, or to be brave enough to enter into a new relationship, or to do something which we have simply never done before. I hope too, that many of us have had the experience of being able to prompt others to embark on a new chapter in their lives as well.
This morning we recognise that the steps of faith which have been taken by Wendy and Peter and Barbara, as we welcome them back to us as Deacons in the Church of God.
I want to say five things about deacons, and I have touched on two of them already.
Firstly, deacons are gifted. (It is the opposite of me trying to be a ballerina!) Deacons are gifted by God with skills, and talents and passions, and energy. Our three deacons in this Parish have been set apart for ministry because they have been recognised as people who have special gifts and talents.
And as we see God working through their gifts, they will be powerful reminders to us, that God has gifted each one of us as well. Because the source of our giftedness for ministry is not ordination (which is just limited to a few people) – no – the source of our giftedness is our baptism, which we all share together, across different denominations, and different understandings within the Church, and different generations. Peter and Wendy and Barbara have been ordained as deacons because of their great giftedness for mission and ministry in this place, and they remind us that we are all gifted to be a part of that mission and ministry as well. That is the first thing that I want to say to us this morning, about deacons.
Secondly, deacons are people who are called. They do not choose to be deacons, they do not campaign to be deacons – they are called. And Wendy and Barbara and Peter have indeed been called. That process began here in this parish when the Parish Council called them to consider the path of ordination. When they responded to that initial call, they opened a flood gate of processes which have included psychological assessment and medicals, and interviews and group exercises, in order that the Church as a whole (and not just the Parish Council here) might be able to also confirm that calling.
Deacons are called, and Barbara and Peter and Wendy have been called by God, through this Parish, and the wider Diocese, and our bishop, to the ministries which they now begin amongst us this morning. And they have recognised individually (themselves) that call in their own life, which has given them the strength to respond.
Our first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles re-told for us the story of the calling of the first deacon Stephen and his companions. Stephen went on to be stoned to death as the first martyr of the Church, and we pray that that will not be the inevitable outcome for our deacons here!
Last Sunday I was visiting our brothers and sisters in the parish of Denman, and the mother church of that parish is under the patronage and protection of St Matthias. St Matthias was the disciple who was chosen to replace Judas, before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. St Matthias was chosen by casting lots – he was chosen essentially by chance! But after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost the Church was filled with a new understanding, and wisdom about how leaders should be chosen.
The first example of this new method (which replaced the casting of lots) is the calling of Stephen – the first Deacon. Stephen was called by God, through the Church, because he was a man of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Our Deacons have been called to, through a process which has confirmed their faithfulness and giftedness for this ministry.
Firstly, deacons are gifted, secondly, deacons are called; and thirdly deacons are representatives.
People who are set apart for ordination are (in a special way) representatives of the Church, and indeed representatives of the God of the Church. They are reminders, not just for us, but for all the people of Murrurundi, of the presence of God in this community. They represent God to us in the way that they live their lives, and they represent us to God in their prayers. This is a way of being that Barbara and Peter and Wendy will grow into slowly. The laying on of hands at ordination is not magic. It will take some time now, for them to adjust to this representative role which has been placed upon them. Because the hardest thing about being a representative in this way, is that you are never off duty. Peter will not be able to stop being a representative of the Church when he is in the office, nor will Barbara when she is in the retirement village.
Our deacons will be representatives of God when they think that they are on duty and when they think that they are not. Sometimes they will remind us of this representative role by wearing clerical clothes which set them apart as people who are ordained, but even when they do not wear those clothes, they will continue to be representative people. They are reminders to us, as representatives of God, that we share some of that responsibility as well. When people know that we are committed to Christ, they watch us (and not just the deacons and priests of the Church) to see what we do when we think that no-one else is watching. As Peter and Wendy and Barbara grow into this representative role I hope that we will also be encouraged to grow with them, as ambassadors for Christ as well. We must pray for them in this challenging transition, and care for them, as they learn to care for us.
Deacons are gifted, Deacons are called, through their ordination Deacons are representatives; and fourthly, deacons are servants.
The Gospel reading which Peter read to us from Matthew’s Gospel is clear about that. Leaders in the Church are not like leaders in other institutions. Because the head of the Church, Christ himself, is not like the Chief Executive of any other institution. The throne of Christ is made of the bare wood of the cross, and not the privilege and perks of authority. Our Deacons are called to lead, but they are called to lead as servants (following the example of the servant king himself).
The metaphors for their ministry, are the care of lepers, and the washing of dirty feet – and in this task they will challenge all of us in Murrurundi (inside and outside of the Church) to see the world how it really is… through God’s eyes, and not through the eyes of the rich and the powerful.
Wendy, and Barbara and Peter will help us to be a church which begins in hospitality and ends in costly service for the sake of those around us. I hope that they will regularly read the exhortation in the Prayer Book, which was read to them before they were ordained, and which calls them to this ministry of servanthood and service.
Deacons are gifted, Deacons are called, Deacons are representatives and Deacons are servants. These realities will be foundational for our deacons here in Murrurundi.
There is one further thing as well, which underpins all of those qualities and attributes, and which is at the heart of our vision in the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle: Deacons will not minister alone. Peter and Wendy and Barbara have not been called and ordained to minister in separation from each other, or in separation from the rest of the congregation, or in separation from the rest of the Diocese. They will model here, as other deacons are doing around the diocese, what it means to minister as the body of Christ. As a team which operates as one body, and not as a series of “lone rangers.” They will need the support and collegiality of each other, and of the whole congregation, and of their colleagues in other parts of the diocese; to sustain them in the times ahead. The Church needs them to act as a team, to help us all to see a vision of what the Church can become.
These are exciting times for the Diocese of Newcastle, and for the Parish of Murrurundi. We welcome our new deacons home to us, and we commit ourselves to praying for them and supporting them in the ministry which is ahead for us all.