Remarks on a Celebration of Ministry

Blessed be the Name of God

Looking out the window, she said, “What day is it?”  Her husband said, “It’s Tuesday. Why?” 

“Well, there’s something going on at the Episcopal Church over there. If it was Wednesday and they were Baptists or Methodists, I’d know what was going on but Episcopalians meeting on a Tuesday evening? Who ever heard of that?!”

Well, believe it or not, here we are, Episcopalians on a Tuesday night and, Lord have mercy, the Bishop is here and look at the crowd! Something special is going on, something special is happening right here and you and I are in the midst of it. And we are glad.

By the time we are off to bed this evening, Bp. Rickel will have confirmed two people, received four people and gathered into our household our new rector. “A Celebration of Ministry” we have called it, and so it is.

And, in addition to accomplishing those wonderful things, we will also mark perhaps an extraordinary moment in the life of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. After a near-death experience some years ago—and with the powerful aid of the Holy Spirit, our priest in charge Rilla Barrett, Deacon Dennis Taylor, many of you, and Bishop Rickel—we have been raised to the burgeoning life we witness this evening. We gather, then, this evening in health, increasing strength with a palpable call to service, in the ministry of Jesus.

The readings we have heard from Scripture set out the evening very well. The first reading, from Isaiah 61, is the one Jesus identified as a rehearsal of what he was called to do:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has appointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus reads these lines from this prophetic chapter and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” [Luke 4.21] Jesus’ work, as he understood it, had to do with the oppressed and the brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. And what he had to offer was, as Isaiah says, “good news.”

If by our baptisms we have taken on the ministry of Jesus, this is the first thing we learn. In our hearts and minds, with our feet and hands, we are to be bearers of good news to those on the margins, on the boundaries, the edges. Clear enough!

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians—let’s call him the writer—Paul, tells us about the way this work is to be accomplished, how the work is to be distributed. We are to be Christ’s body, “joined and knit together by every ligament with which we are equipped.” [4.16]. The gifts are rightly spread throughout—“some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry.”[4.11-12a] We could add that some would be members of vestries, some would dig in the earth for the community garden, some would repair roofs, some would make coffee and vacuum Miller Hall, some would carry food to those in need, some would set our parish spending such that we gave away at least a tenth of what we have, some would teach our children, some would serve at the altar/table, some would pray without ceasing. The work of ministry everywhere and also here at St. Stephen’s.

Over the past some number of weeks, Amy Donohue and I have been reading and talking with the six people who will be confirmed or received this evening. We have been their catechists. More than once, we have talked about ministry and recently, the mission of the Church. We were persuaded that the mission of the Church is the continuation of the ministry of Jesus. Using Isaiah, Jesus has told us what that is. And in his life, he showed us—seeking change, that is, repentance; bringing welcome and healing; standing with those so clearly identified by Isaiah, the outsiders, the “others,” setting them and us free.

Isaiah provides us with the content of our ministry and Paul shows us clearly that it is distributed throughout the Body. We learn yet something more from the Gospel of John.

Here we are told what our prayerful, though likely fitful, ministry is supposed to do, what we are supposed to accomplish. John the Evangelist reports Jesus himself telling us, indeed commanding us, to love one another as he has loved us. Then he says, “…go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” [15.16] Loving one another, we are told to go. Jesus commands us to love, and commissions us to go.

I’m mindful of the way the typical Sunday liturgy ends. The deacon, if there is one, says “Alleluia. Alleluia. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” To which we say, “Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Alleluia.” In this regular dismissal, we ought to hear Jesus's admonition to go, “go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” That is, it’s not so much here in this fine place that our ministry is to be enacted, but there, wherever “there” is. Here we receive food for the journey, encouragement for the work, companionable support for whatever is coming. That being so, we are to go. And so we do.

Later this evening, there will be a moment when we will assemble and give thanks for the symbols of ministry that we share here. We will gather bread and wine, water and oil, Scripture and Prayer Book. We will gather them here in our midst. But it would also be fitting for us to include other symbols so as to make an ever greater testimony. We could add music of all sorts; we could add our checkbook; we could add the tools we use to fix this place; we could add the Radio Flyer that sits in the gathering space, typically filled with food that we give away; we could add a coffee cup. We could see ourselves in all of these and so much more, and be thankful.
We are St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Harbor, Washington, and we are about the ministry of Jesus, aspiring to “bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

The charge: Val and Andrew, Cheryl, Suzanne, Stephanie, and Tim, will you please stand? You have chosen to take this important step this evening, with us, your parish household and Bishop Rickel. Amy and I are so grateful that we could spend these Sunday mornings with you and to explore our common life together. We know that what you bring to the ministry of this parish will contribute in beautiful ways to our ongoing calling as faithful people. Thank you for sharing your faith and life with us. We bid God’s continued blessing on each of you, as we undertake with all the more vigor to “bear fruit that will last.” We have given you copies of Mary Oliver’s Devotions to mark the occasion.

Peter, will you come round, please? The 19th day of next month will mark the 25th anniversary of your ordination as a transitional deacon. It was the Church of Our Savior, San Gabriel, California, and I was so blessed to be the preacher on that occasion, a Sunday morning. I recently re-read the sermon. What a joy!

In the charge I gave you that morning, I said, “Peter you are my dear and good friend…We, you and I, have cycled many miles together, straightened many chapel chairs, sung the church’s music with joy and tears [and even occasionally laughter], made bread together more than once, learned from one another something about God. I could wish for myself [I said 25 years ago] nothing better than to be in your pastoral care… And, I love you very much.

We, you and I, don’t cycle so much any more and the moving of the chairs in Christ Chapel at the Seminary of the Southwest has long since been in the hands of others, one of whom, ironically, is our bishop, who followed you in the chapel chair-moving department at the Seminary by two years. Happily, we have continued to make bread and with your Christen and my Amy, we have enjoyed the sociality of food and drink more and more. And clearly, still to now, I love you very much.

In the Providence of God and with the contrivance of the Search Committee of this parish, you have come to join and extend the ministry of Jesus as it lives here. Amy and I thank God and the Committee every day.

In the spring of 2001, when our Bishop was installed as the rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in east Austin, Texas, a historically black congregation, I was asked to preach. Amy and I were members of that remarkable and welcoming congregation.

In that sermon, I used an image I want to use again, this time for you. There is a French word that we all know, the word is concierge. We know it mostly as the name of the person in a hotel who books tickets for the bus tour or who might reserve us a table at a restaurant. Clearly, that is not how I want to use the word.

The word literally means “with a candle”: concierge. It intends to name someone who provides a light for a path, someone to lead the way from darkness to light, someone who might stand at the door and signal a safe place or guide our steps upon leaving. Concierge.
When you were ordained a deacon, I gave you a towel to serve as an added aspect of your diaconal vesture. When you did the liturgical work of the deacon that Sunday morning, you carried that towel over your arm, just as a serving person ought.

This evening, to mark your formal beginning as our rector, I want to give you another something to serve as that towel did, 25 years ago. If you are to serve us as a proper concierge, then you will need a candle [Amy brings candle and it is lighted by the server], a candle very like this one. For as long as it has life, I ask you, please light our way, best you can, God being your helper. Light our way in welcome and farewell, in our coming and our going. Full of grace, help us to bear good fruit, fruit that will last.

Please now, all the members of St. Stephen’s, please stand and join Peter, Suzanne, Cheryl, Stephanie, Tim, Val and Andrew. You are all ministers of Jesus. Bless you each and all.

Blessed be the Name of God