Never Stop Waiting Tables

A sermon preached at the ordination of Billy Adams, Ken Casey, and Pete Womack to the Sacred Order of Deacons.

       Unless you were some super cool lifeguard at Kentucky Kingdom, I think most people believe that their earliest jobs are some of the hardest on earth.  That’s why so many “entry level” jobs have dictums associated with them.  Retail workers are quick to suggest that everyone should work retail one December, just to see what it is like.  I’m sure that everyone who has ever worked as a counselor at All Saints’ thinks it is a job everyone else in the world should do at least once.  I am a firm believer that every human being should have to wait tables for six months before they are allowed to go to college or start a career.

I was about twenty when I got my first job waiting tables.  It was at Garfield’s, a hotel restaurant inside the Eden Resort back in Lancaster, PA.  Garfield’s is a quirky place.  Back around the turn of the century, Garfield’s was known for three things: crab cakes, made with lump crab meat hand-picked by a man named Carlos; $4.99 chicken pot pie Monday – a favorite among young Mennonite couples; and the totally random Pizza Hut lunch buffet right in the middle of the restaurant.  At the time, the owner of the Eden Resort was such a huge fan of Pizza Hut pizza that he bought himself a franchise so that he could eat it whenever he wanted, and to help pay for it, he used Pizza Hut pizza to stock a buffet for his hotel.  Being a hotel restaurant, Garfield’s was open 365 days a year.  We served Thanksgiving dinner from 11am until 9pm.  Christmas Day was a set menu all day long.  Even now, the most money I’ve ever made in a single day was Christmas Day 2001 when I worked a double shift, noon until 8pm, and brought home more than a thousand dollars.

The money in waiting tables isn’t bad, but it is hard earned.  It is a physically demanding job with lots of walking and lifting. It is mentally taxing to always be thinking six steps ahead when that table is going to order, they will need drink refills, and over there will want their check.  When the kitchen falls behind or messes something up, it costs you real money.  And when paying for a meal, people tend to be very particular about their food.  I think it is safe to say that I learned more about the human condition in my three years waiting tables than I have in my almost fifteen years of ordained ministry.  Everyone should have to wait tables once in their life.  It’ll make you a better tipper, and, I believe, a better person. 

It strikes me as odd then, that our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles begins with the twelve apostles calling the community together to tender their collective resignation from serving.  Some context offers a little explanation, but not much.  Our lesson starts with chapter six, verse two, but if we go back just one more verse, we hear that a disagreement has bubbled up in the church.  I’m sure you are all shocked to learn there is ever disagreement in the church.  Certainly, this is the only one that’s been about a church supper.  It seems the Greek speaking Christians thought that the largely Aramaic speaking Apostles were purposefully showing favoritism toward the Aramaic speaking widows in their daily food distribution.  The Apostles, that is the eleven who had followed Jesus the closest, plus Tier 1A Matthias who had been selected to replace Judas, quickly decided that the growth of the fledgling Church had to be their priority, and so they crafted a memo that was a poorly written as it was misguided.

“It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” was clearly written by a Church that didn’t yet have deacons.  Kellie Mysinger, a deacon who serves at Christ Church, Bowling Green, wouldn’t have let this through, I can assure you.  The Greek word translated as “waiting tables” is diakonia, it is elsewhere translated as service or ministry.  Diakonia, we will see in a moment, is at the heart of the calling of all Christians: laity, bishops, priests, and those whose very title means “to serve,” deacons.  Before we go any further then, let’s add one more dictum to our ongoing list.  Unless you actually handed out bread and fish to the 5,000, you never get to stop waiting tables in the Kingdom of God (and even then, it’s debatable).

It shouldn’t surprise us that the twelve would react the way they did.  They’d been doing it for years, even while Jesus walked the earth alongside them.  This morning’s Gospel story is one of their several adventures in missing the point.  It was Thursday evening and Jesus and his disciples had just wrapped up sharing the most important meal ever.  No sooner had Jesus finished instructing them to eat in remembrance of his body, broken for them and for the whole world, and to drink in remembrance of his blood, poured out for the remission of the sins of all, when the well-worn argument over which one of them was the greatest broke out, yet again.  Since he knew what was looming in the coming hours, I believe that what Jesus says here can be read as the most important thing he wanted his disciples to remember.  In a few short sentences, he lays out for the Apostles and all who would follow them, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (diakonia).For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves (diakonia)? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (diakonia).”  Three times in those two sentences, Jesus uses the word, diakonia, once as a description of himself.

Diakonia is the heart of the Christian life.  It is a core tenant of the Baptismal Covenant – to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  Servant ministry is at the heart of the Examination at the ordination of both priests and bishops.  And a double portion of diakonia is the calling into which Billy, Ken, and Pete will be ordained today.  For Pete, this is the fullest expression of his calling, and while Ken and Billy will, God willing, later be ordained as priests, none of the three of you, not the bishop, not the canons, not me, nor any person, clergy or lay, in this Cathedral or online will ever have the luxury of saying, “I don’t think I’m going to wait tables anymore.”  Diakonia is the calling which we all share for it was none other than Jesus of Nazareth who came to us as one who serves.  Never forget that the example you are called to follow is that of Jesus Christ, who though he was God, humbled himself to a life of loving service to the poor, the outcast, the hungry, the oppressed, the powerful, the rich, the smug, the priests, the opinionated, the widows, the orphans, the lame, the Samaritan, the Hebrew, and the Greek.

Unlike my experience waiting tables at Garfield’s, the money in diakonia is terrible, but thankfully the work isn’t easy either.  Diakonia requires lots of walking, lots of heavy lifting, lots of caring, heartbreak, and frustration, but it isn’t something we do alone.  In a few minutes, Bishop White will invite the Holy Spirit to be present among us with power and might.  He’ll lay hands on the three of you and pray, on behalf of us all, that the Spirit would strengthen you to share in Christ’s diakonia.  It’s hard work, diakonia, but it is the work we share with one another and the help of the Holy Spirit.  Never forget your calling to diakonia, to servant ministry, and please for the love of all that is holy, never stop waiting tables.  Amen.

Free of Charge?

0010700807220_cf_default_default_large

It being the last day of the month, payday has arrived for the employees of Christ Episcopal Church.  I enjoy payday.  I suppose most people do.  There is, if only for a moment, infinite hope on payday.  “Imagine what I can do with this money,” I think to myself, before I sit down and pay the bills.  “Wow, that went fast,” is usually my next thought.

There is a certain irony in being a clergy person reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 on payday.  As the lesson opens up, Paul talks about his motivation for preaching the Gospel.  His story is about as profound as any.  It is clear that the man who was once a persecutor of the Gospel would have never decided on his own to follow Jesus.  No, for Paul, as for all of us, it is a calling.  The prodding of the Holy Spirit, a deep relationship with Jesus, and a yearning for the Kingdom of God have brought him to the place where he is willing to travel the known world and risk his life to proclaim the Good News.

His reward for faithfully following the call of God?  Well, I’ll let Paul tell us, “that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

Free of charge…

I am well paid.  Some days, I think I am too well paid, though my bank account does not reflect that thought, and if you tell my Vestry, I’ll say you are lying.  In more than a decade of being paid while working as a minister of the Gospel, I, like many of my sisters and brothers, have had to work out an understanding of what that means, and how it jives with these words from Paul to the Corinthians.  Others have worked out other understandings, and many pastors out there still follow Paul’s mode and work as 21st century tent makers.  What I have found helpful is the careful use of language.  If you are skeptical of organized religion, you might call it semantics, which I also understand.

We live in a world in which money must be offered in exchange for goods and services.  Over the years, clergy have been paid in various ways from currency to eggs, bread, meat, and wine, but now-a-days, we have to be paid in what former NFL wide receiver, Randy Moss calls “straight cash homie.”  Despite Paul’s own tendency to go without pay, he acknowledges the fact that even church leaders should be paid in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.  Where the challenge lies, I think, is divorcing pay from work done or tasks accomplished.  This is why I prefer to call the money paid to ordained clergy a stipend rather than a salary.

I am not paid by Christ Church to preach a good sermon or to visit someone in the hospital or to plan a decent liturgy.  I am paid by Christ Church so that I don’t have to work somewhere else while trying to follow God’s call to make disciples, preach the Gospel, and care for souls.  The difference is nuanced, and I get that, but I think it is important.  In line with Paul, I believe that clergy are not paid as a reward for preaching the Gospel.  Instead, we are paid in order to have the freedom to fulfill our obligation to preach the Gospel.  Either way, I’m glad its payday.

Answering the Call

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

DSCN2227

Father Thomas and me at my ordination

This post is nearly a decade in the making.  Truth be told, it is probably better suited on January 24th, when I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, but given the bookends of today, it seems appropriate to move things up a week.  As I noted in Monday’s post, today two Colleges of Presbyters will gather.  First, in Mobile, Alabama, the clergy of the Central Gulf Coast will gather at the altar of All Saints’ Church to give thanks to God for the life and ministry of the Rev. Cn. Maurice Branscomb. Then, this evening, priests from around the church will join with those of us in the Diocese of Kentucky to lay hands on the Rev. Becca Kello as she is ordained to the sacred order of the priesthood.  All of that, coupled with the Collect for Epiphany 3 and my 10th on the horizon, I guess I can’t help but be a little nostalgic today.

Today, I have in mind all of those bishops, priests, and deacons who have had an impact on my ministry.  I’m reminded of Bishops like Creighton, Duncan, Kendrick, White, and Brewer; Priests like Bill, Cindy, Albert, and Keith; and Deacons like Patrick and Kellie.  My prayers are especially drawn to those who have entered into the joy of their master: Bishop Mark, Father Thomas (pictured above), Deacon John, Father B, Norm, and Mark come immediately to mind, but there are others.  I continue to hold in prayer those who are discerning calls to ordained ministry: John, Billy, and Ken.  As I think back on a decade of ordained ministry, I can’t help but recall how intense an experience it is to follow that call; how the Tempter always seems to be around the next corner, how the process is infuriating and deeply powerful, and how, in the end, it all makes sense.  I often still hear the voices of my lay discernment committee at St. Thomas, internship committee at St. John’s, and my field ed committee at St. James’, and I give thanks, daily, for the opportunity to develop an understanding of what call really feels like deep in my bones.

It would be easy to get lost in the idea of call exclusively as it pertains to ordained ministry, but that would betray the meaning of the Collect, and the reality that the ministers of Christ’s Church are, first and foremost, the laity.  Sure, we talk about call most often when it comes to ordination, but that is our failure, not God’s.  The truth of the matter is that every follower of Jesus is called.  Called to proclaim the Good News. Called to share in the restoration of all relationships.  Called to vocation.  You see, call isn’t just about the servanthood of a deacon or being pastor, priest, and teacher or, for a few poor souls, being made one with the apostles, but it is about being a bearer of the Kingdom of God no matter where one lives and moves and has their being.  Call is about being a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ as a doctor, lawyer, grocery store clerk, small business owner, student, stay at home parent, or retiree.  Call is about sharing the love of God within one’s unique sphere of influence.  Call is about allowing the light of Christ to shine through us, so that the God’s good dream for creation can be seen.  Call is about each of us taking our part in the making Jesus Christ known.  If you are feeling a call, be it to ordination or to a deeper lay ministry, talk to someone.  You local clergy, having some experience with call, would love to walk that road with you.  In the meantime, here is one more prayer for all of us who are called to the service of our Lord, lay and ordained, alike.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in the vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Sir, give us this bread always

Over the weekend, I had the honor of serving as one of the Eucharistic Ministers for the Episcopal Ordination of J. Russell Kendrick, IV Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast.  I was partnered with a new priest in our diocese, who thankfully has a sense of humor similar to mine.  When faced with the question of who would distribute the bread and who would have the cup we used the only reasonable means to settle the issue: rock, paper, scissors.  I won, and chose to distribute the bread.  Being on sabbatical means that this was the first time I’ve distributed bread since the end of May.  I was a chalice bearer a couple of times while at Sewanee and once while at General Convention, but for the first time in my seven and a half years as a priest, I’ve gone more than three weeks without having the pleasure of sharing the broken body of our Lord with my fellow hungry souls.

Photo by Robbie Runderson

The logistics weren’t perfect, which meant there were several distractions (running out of bread not least among them), but there was, as always, a deep sense of connection and call as I took part in communing part of the crowd of nearly 1,500 who had come to celebrate, to offer thanks and praise, and to be fed by Word and Sacrament.  Together, we joined with generation after generation of disciples who have come to ask of Jesus, “give us this bread always.”

As we will hear repeatedly over the next several weeks, Jesus is the bread of life.  Those who are hungry for righteousness, justice, compassion, healing, and love will find their fill in the Eucharistic Feast.  The Bread of Life is broken and shared that the whole world might receive their fill now and always.  I miss my table ministry, and am excited to return to share the family meal with the good people at Saint Paul’s and our new bishop on August 9th.  I’m grateful for the chance to share the feast with so many on Sunday, and I look forward to many years of taking my part in sharing the bread of life with a hungry world.

Why I don’t like the word prophetic

It started in seminary, this dislike of the word “prophetic,” but it has lasted a lot longer than I expected.  I went through the discernment process in the shadow of two world altering events: 9/11 and the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  Both events had their impact on my call as strong external forces.  For what now feels like a fleeting moment, in the days following 9/11 America stood united.  We were in some ways united in two directions.  We were united inwardly as we sought to heal a tear in the very fabric of our culture, the assumption that we were safe from foreign foes was lost forever.  We were also united outwardly as we came to realize that adherents to an extremist form of Islam were to blame for the tragedy.  Over time, however, we began to keep back toward division as our nation’s leaders tried to figure out how to respond.  Some argued that in the interest of national security, we had to find the leadership network of Al Qaeda and crush it.  Others argued that we had to follow the example of Jesus and turn the other cheek.  It was the classic just war vs. pacifist debate played out in real life.  Both sides had compelling reasons, and both were claiming that God was on their side.  I first heard the call to ordained ministry on late February 2002, five months after 9/11.  Certainly the way the world had changed in those five months were a part of my realizing this call.

On June 7, 2003, V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire, was elected Bishop Coadjutor.  His election was ratified at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis, MN.  Convention ended on August 10th that year, and I recall my meeting with the Vestry of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church being scheduled for that night.  What was once a meeting to discuss the validity of my call to ordained ministry was now the special meeting of the vestry in response to the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  The divisions were easily seen.  One side argued a prophetic calling toward justice.  The other, a prophetic calling toward restraint.  Both sides were certain that God was with them.

I grew to hate the word prophetic during this time because two prophets saying the opposite thing is no fun.  We tend to run to that word, prophetic, when we want to win an argument, but the thing is, we don’t get to say who speaks for God, only God gets to do that.  To paraphrase what Moses told the people of Israel in Sunday’s Deuteronomy lesson, “you best be careful with that word.”

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak– that prophet shall die”

I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to justice and peace.  I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to holiness of life.  I do think we need to be careful about claiming a prophetic voice every time we do it.  Prophet is not a title that I desire.  Being a prophet is really difficult and is only possible with God’s constant support.  Speaking a prophetic word is a sacred and powerful thing, which I’m afraid we take too lightly these days.  So let’s listen for the voice of God, let’s speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, but let’s let God call the prophets.

The Beauty of Transfiguration – a homily

Today’s sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

            I had the privilege of seeing two people transfigured on Saturday.  Like the disciples who were weighed down with sleep, however, I almost missed it.  Saturday was the Service of Ordination for Mary Alice Mathison to the priesthood.  There were no children in our house on Friday evening, but for some unknown reason, my brain went into hyperdrive at 5:45am.  What should have been a nice leisurely morning turned into a rush when I realized that despite waking up way too early, I had wasted two and a half hours watching Sportscenter and drinking coffee.  I took everything I had to get into the shower at 8:30, when I all wanted to do was continue being a waste of space on the couch, but I did it, and I arrived in Daphne in plenty of time for the service.

            As ordinations go, it was a good one: filled with beautiful music and a quality sermon.  This particular service was made special at two particular moments.  The first was during the holy huddle.  You may or may not know this, but at the ordination of a priest, as a symbol of the collegiality of the priesthood, all the presbyters in attendance are invited to join with the bishop in the laying on of hands at the consecration of the new priest.  All of us who were vested made our way forward at the appointed time, and we were joined by one of our brothers who was not wearing the funny dress.  Sitting in the back row at Saint Paul’s in Daphne was the Rev. Canon Maurice Branscomb.  Thack Dyson had sought him out and made sure he had a spot right next to Mary Alice during the prayer of consecration.  I had the joy of standing next to Father B., and got to see his face as he thanked Thack for bringing him forward.  He was transfigured: radiating joy like beams of sunlight.

            The second moment came during the distribution of communion.  Saint Paul’s Daphne is set up sort of in the round, with pews on three sides of the sanctuary.  The clergy were seated on the south side of the altar and I had managed a front row seat.  After some confusion, we were finally communed and I made my way back to my seat to watch the ballet that is communing a church full of people that don’t necessarily know the customs of the parish.  While distracted by watching people dance around each other while trying to find a place at the altar, I felt a nudge from the elbow of Thomas Heard who was sitting beside me.  “Look at that face,” he said.  I looked up and saw Mary Alice, dressed in the red festal robes of ordination and she was transfigured: radiating joy like beams of sunlight as she shared the body of Christ with friends, family, and the occasional stranger.

            Transfiguration is a beautiful sight.  It is so beautiful that you really never want to see it end.  Peter didn’t, he wanted to build tabernacles and just stay there on that mountain top forever.  I would have been content to spend all day watching Father B and Mary Alice beam with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, we don’t get to just sit and bask in the glory of God all the time.  Life goes on.  Jesus had a job to do, he had been told so by Elijah and Moses.  It was time to begin a new exodus, this time to rescue the whole world from enslavement to sin and death. Just as quickly as the moment came, it was over.  From the dazzling white of Jesus’ clothing to the terrifying darkness of the cloud that overshadowed them, Peter, James and John had seen the face of God, heard the voice of God, and now went down the mountain to join with the Messiah in doing the work of God.

            In those moments when life got tough: when they couldn’t find a place to sleep; when there wasn’t enough food to eat; when the Pharisees were breathing down their necks; when it seemed like all hope was lost – the three chosen disciples could recall the beauty of the Transfiguration, and remember the words of God, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Amen.

Eldad and Medad

I’m nearly, almost, sort of, thinking about getting ready for another summer session in the Advanced Degree Program at The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South.  This year, I’ll be taking classes from two visiting professors: The Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner from Duke will be co-teaching a class on preaching the feast days with The Rev. Dr. William Brosend and The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, retired from Church Divinity School of the Pacific who will be teaching a liturgics class on ordination and the Eucharist.

In my reading last night, came the topic of what is absolutely required for a valid ordination with further discussion on the whole Apostolic Succession dealio.  Over and over again in these readings, it is suggested that for ordination, the laying on of hands with prayer is the sole requirement of a proper ordination.  As one who fought against the ritual of anointing my hands at my priestly ordination (while ultimately finding it very moving), this makes sense to me.  Before the clericalization of the Middle Ages and the direct associate of the priesthood with the Eucharist, it was the practice of the Church that the laying of hands was “a sign of the Spirit invoked in blessing, dedication, or absolution” (Sthulman, p. 23).

This is all well and good, or as an Anglophile might say “meet and right,” until we reach further back on the Day of Pentecost and hear the story of God setting apart the 70 elders to assist Moses with the leadership of the Hebrews in the wilderness.  The way the story reads, it can be assumed that as the Lord took some of the spirit away from Moses, something like hands were laid upon the 68 who came out to the tent of meeting, but then there is the curious case of Eldad and Medad, two elders who stayed behind.  It seems as though the spirit just sort of plopped down upon them out of thin air.  I’m sure the liturgical scholars of Moses’ day were pulling their beards out trying to come up with an appropriate response, but it is Moses that gets the best and final word.

“Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets!”

Hands laid or not, the Spirit blows where she will and rests upon any with whom God has found favor.  Sometimes, it is neat and tidy and fits in the Diocesan discernment process.  Sometimes, it is like a mighty rushing wind and fits nobody’s time table whatsoever.  I love the story of Eldad and Medad because I love that God works how God works whether the liturgical scholars agree or not.

Go.

The Bible is ripe with commandment to “Go.” Jesus was especially fond of inviting people to go. “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel,” is my particular favorite, but there are others. The idea didn’t start with Jesus, however, God has been calling people to go for thousands of years.

This Sunday’s Old Testament lesson is a prime example. God calls Abram and Lot to “go!” Go, be blessed to be a blessing. That really is the ongoing call of the spiritual life: Go, be blessed to be a blessing. But the first step of that call is to go.

As I sit on the front porch of Cumming Lodge, enjoying the company of my fellow priests, reflecting on the nature of our lives as members of the clergy, I’m keenly aware that of the six of us here, only one is from this area, and he hasn’t stayed in this diocese forever. Inherent in our call is the call to “go, be blessed to be a blessing.” It is a particular call for us, and our going perhaps moves us further than the average person in the pews, but the call to every disciple of Jesus is to “go.”

Call Stories

The more I read and think about Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the more I think that it shouldn’t be preached by a member of the clergy.  Here’s why.  The ordination process is riddled with opportunities to tell one’s faith story.  I mean, ad nauseum.  Whether you were born and raised in The Episcopal Church or picked up out the gutter by a Bishop on her way to a visitation, the details of how you ended up felling called to ordained ministry are read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by Rectors, Vestries, Discernment Committees, Bishop’s Commissions on Ministry, Standing Committees, Seminary Admissions Officers, Classmates, family, friends, and at some point, even the family pet.  As a result of the at process (that can last upwards of 5 years or more), clergy are programmed to hear the phrase “call story” and immediately think, “ordination.”

Which is, of course, a load of crap.

The truth of the matter is that each of us has been called to be a disciple in our own unique way.  In Matthew’s Gospel, while speaking to fishermen-come-apostles, Jesus calls them to be “fishers of men” (sorry for the gender specificity, it just sounds better in this case).  In speaking to lawyers-come-disciples, Jesus calls them to be lawyers for the Kingdom.  The same is true for doctors, teachers, candlestick makers, home economists, letter carriers, engineers, entertainers, small business owners, retirees, students – you name it.  Which is why, I think that this lesson shouldn’t be preached by clergy.  It should be preached by lay leaders who have figured out how their call to be a disciple impacts their everyday lives: at home, work, school, or play.

At the very least, I hope that the ordained preachers out there can figure out a way to open this story up to the widest possible interpretation, rather than taking the chance to, once again, rehearse their own call story on yet another set of ears.