Ordination Homily - September 18, 2005
The Rev. Fr. Will Smith

Isaiah 42: 1-9;  Hebrews 5: 1-10;  John 20: 19-23
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The readings we have just heard are most appropriate for what we do here today in the ordination of our brother in Christ, Wade Fahnstock, to the Sacred Order of Deacons.

When Isaiah wrote about the way God would act for the world, he saw God working through a servant figure. Several sections from his scroll are songs about this servant whom God would send, not just for Israel, but for all people and nations. When the early church reflected on these prophecies, they could see how Jesus was so incredibly like that suffering servant in Isaiah. In fact Jesus quoted passages from the Servant Songs to describe his ministry. Today's passage from Isaiah 42 is one of those songs. In describing the One who will serve God and people, the prophet uses some interesting images:

"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Or to paraphrase it: "He won't exploit the vulnerability of damaged people, or squeeze the last drops out of those who are running on empty."

That would make this savior figure quite unlike any leader, prophet, teacher or hero people would expect. He would not be like a charismatic politician making a big noise about himself and pushing himself forward for attention. He would not be like a revolutionary fighter prepared to trample people underfoot. But he would challenge our basic assumptions about success, happiness and greatness. Many would reject God's long-suffering Servant; but others, especially the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, the grieving, the blind, the prisoners, and all the other millions who get a rough deal in this world - they would trust and welcome this special Servant of God. They would see in him One who both shared their pain, and also sought their healing.

The image of the bruised reed may at first seem strange. But picture, if you can, Palestinian children playing by a river bank with the reeds growing in the shallow water. These reeds make great flutes, so the kids cut them down and hollow them out. But not all of these reeds are suitable. Many are less than perfect. If the kids come across one that is cracked or bruised, they simply break it in half and toss it away. After all, they need reeds of a certain quality in order to make a flute that plays well. Cracked or bruised reeds are worthless. They're thrown away and eventually ground into the mud. The metaphor of the lamp is easier to understand, even in our age of electricity. A lamp wick that no longer burns brightly is discarded - even though when trimmed it can continue being useful. Both these images refer to people who are bruised and discouraged - people who are considered expendable regardless of their needs, experience or past productivity.

These are the people who are pushed aside, pushed to the background, or simply ground down underfoot. All around us people are disposed of as soon as they cease to perform at their optimum level. Whether it's in business, the entertainment industry, or sports, yesterday's stars can overnight become expendable. There's no room for sentiment and no respect for past services. Should the light start to flicker or the reed become bruised, it's out with the old and in with the new. Our world seems to relish pointing out people's weaknesses, their bruises and faults, and relegating them to the scrap heap.

Jesus didn't measure people in this way. The bruised and burnt-out people were safe in his hands. They weren't disposable. Isaiah was right on the money in his anticipation of God's chosen Servant. Our wounds and bruises and fractures are safe in the hands of Christ. The one who stood in line with the commoners at the Jordan River to be baptized, was also the healer of hurts, the friend of outcasts, the hope of the handicapped, and the joy of the meek, the poor, the sad and the persecuted. God in Jesus takes us, and works precisely through our weakness and wounds: forgiving, restoring, guiding, empowering - his grace shows best in our weakness.

The church has an important ministry to offer the world: a respect for the significance of each individual - a significance not based on people's "productivity", but on their intrinsic value in the eyes of their Creator
and Redeemer. Jesus was in the business of healing and affirming those who were bruised, broken and burnt out. So are we.

There's a story about a collector of antique books having a conversation with a friend. This friend had apparently just thrown away a Bible that had been stored in the attic of his family home for generations. "I couldn't even read it," the friend explained. "Somebody named Guten-something had printed it." "Not Gutenberg!" the book collector exclaimed in horror. "That Bible was one of the first books ever printed. Why, it could have been worth millions!" His friend was unimpressed. "Mine wouldn't have brought a dollar. Somebody named Martin Luther had scribbled all over it in German." How many people are discarded, dismissed and swept aside, because we never take the time to see them for the treasure they really are? The very things that make them appear worthless to the uncaring, unseeing eye, can in fact turn out to be their greatest gift. Our ministry is to continue what Christ, the servant, began. It is a ministry of justice-making, compassion and healing of those who have been bruised and wounded by life.

Our brother Wade is being ordained as a transitional Deacon, which means he is in training to become a priest in the Church of God. And I might add that he has a wise and able mentor in my dear friend Father Rick. In our reading from Hebrews, we learn what a priest really is. Perhaps you think of a priest as a man wearing black with his collar turned backwards, but that has nothing to do with priesthood. Perhaps you think the purpose of a priest is to baptize, marry, and bury, or, as someone has put it, "to hatch, match, and dispatch." But that is not the task of a priest. The qualifications for a priest are right there in the 5th chapter of Hebrews:

A priest is to be taken from among the people, in order to represent the people. To this end the Lord Jesus laid aside his glory as God, and humbled himself and became a man. He entered the human race as a baby.

Second, a priest must offer sacrifices, that is, he must deal with the problem that separates man from God. He must come to grips with the awful universal problem of guilt, for this is the cloud over our lives that haunts us, stays with us, dogs our footsteps, and brings us into bondage every way we turn. We all suffer in one way or another from a sense of guilt. The answer to guilt is life sacrificed and a priest must therefore offer sacrifice. Jesus fulfilled this on the cross when he himself became not only the priest but the Victim. He offered himself as a sacrifice for us.

The third qualification of a priest is that he must himself be beset with weakness and sin in order that he might understand the problems of others. This is the area the devil seizes upon to dislodge our faith when we come into times of intense pressure and trial. We must turn to God for strength during times of weakness and temptation.

The fourth qualification of a priest is that he must be appointed by God. No man can ordain priests, only God can. The purpose of a priest, then, is to cleanse and strengthen, to make us fit for life.

And finally, our Gospel reading takes us to the locked room where the disciples were hiding in fear. But they rejoiced when our Lord appeared among them and said “Peace be with you.” They were startled by this sudden appearance of Jesus, because the doors were closed and locked. We may have envisioned Jesus somehow passing through these doors. But I wonder if Jesus was not there all along from the moment of the resurrection and that suddenly he made himself visible to them. This would surely be in line with what he had promised when he said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there will I be in the midst of them" This is true today. We have that assurance that Jesus is present here with us this evening.

"Peace be with you." What a wonderful greeting! Peace, inner calmness, is our inheritance. I sometimes wonder if that is not the most desirable trait possible in this hurly-burly, restless age in which we live. It is very hard these days to find someone who has the gift of inner calm. Yet I believe with all my heart that this is the right of every believer. You have the right to claim this inner peace which our Lord speaks of here. That is his resurrection gift to us.
And then he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Just as the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism by John marked the beginning of his ministry, so this breathing of the Spirit marks the beginning of the ministry of these disciples. What is this ministry? Jesus tells us in these words, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." What a beautiful phrase that is! Just as he drew his very life from the Father, so we are to draw our life from the Son. Just as he was sent into a lost world to touch the broken lives of people -- to heal, to open blind eyes and to set captives free -- so are we to go with the word of the gospel, doing the same work that Jesus was sent to do. Jesus himself is the model of our ministry. Just as he went, so are we to go. Just as he was empowered by the Spirit, so are we empowered by the Spirit. Just as he reached out to the broken lives around him, so are we to do this.

And now I want to speak directly to soon to be Deacon Wade.

This is a very special day for you. We are all baptized and sent out to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. In a special way, our deacons are sent out into the world to be in the service of others. And it is in this world that we find two basic attitudes that are a challenge for all Christians, and a great challenge for deacons. The first is that we live in a society, especially in this country, that is so heavily success-oriented. We live in a culture and society in which the search for power and success is so much a part of what we are all about. And second, we live in a culture and society in which there is brokenness. There is an enormous amount of suffering and pain, of loneliness and isolation. And yet Jesus sends us, and sends you, into the church and into the world, with the friendship of Christ and the sense of committed service to stand in contrast to success and power, and brokenness. That is your call. And we celebrate that call today, but it is not an easy call. In spite of the attitude that people must attain success at any cost, disciples of Jesus must be humble.

Pray for a humble and serving heart my friend. We go into the world with no focus on ourselves. We go into the world with our focus on others, to see in each person the face of Jesus. To be rejected, to be neglected, that we might help others achieve their potential. As a deacon, you must become a reconciler in a broken world. You must always be there for the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, to bring hope to the hopeless.

So go with God, my brother. And pray for me, a sinner.

Amen

The Rev. Fr. Will Smith is Vicar of St. Jude's Old Catholic Mission in Houston, TX