"Build real bridges": Sermon for June 5-6, 2020, Ordination of Deacons by Bishop Alan M. Gates

“A clinical researcher, a philanthropic strategist, a music teacher, a marketing manager, a monk, a clinical social worker, a registered nurse, a faith-based community organizer, and a public safety officer walk into a bar.”  

It has become my tradition to begin diaconal ordinations with this opening line, tailored to the particular group, followed by some newly devised diaconal punch line.  I guess it’s how a bishop amuses himself.  This year there is no punch line, because this year, the bars are closed!  Those nine candidates never even get in the door.

There is very little that is typical about this year’s ordination.  Not the places we are gathered.  Not the way we are gathered.  Not the pomp (or lack thereof), not the commemorating photos, not the hugs and luncheons and sheer, unadulterated celebration with which we usually mark the day.  But make no mistake:  the Holy Spirit is with us this evening; the Holy Spirit will be manifest tomorrow at our cathedral; our God is honored by the sacrifice and offering of self which these nine candidates make; and our joy and pride and gratitude are every bit as real as ever they have been.

In the summer of 1995 my family made the trip to Prince Edward Island for a vacation.  In those days that island province of Canada was accessible only by ferry.  As we made the 90-minute crossing from Cape Tormentine we were startled to see, off to the north of the ferry, a huge segment of concrete bridge spanning from the shore of New Brunswick into the middle of the Northumberland Strait, where it simply ended.  In the middle of the air.  In the middle of the water.  Within two years it was completed as the Confederation Bridge, spanning eight miles from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island.  But on that day in 1995 it appeared for all the world to be a Bridge to Nowhere.

Bridge to Nowhere.  The phrase has been used to describe an actual bridge in southwest California, abandoned in 1938 when the road to it was flooded right off the side of the San Gabriel Mountains.  In other places, “bridge to nowhere” has described plans for unwarranted projects and boondoggles.  A project in Alaska gained such notoriety. “Bridge to Nowhere” has become a figure of speech for something never completed, pointless, or obsolete.  I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Last Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost.  As many of you know, I had videotaped a Pentecost sermon to be shared in virtual worship services around the diocese.  Because the video was needed in advance for pre-recorded services, that Pentecost sermon was written and taped about nine days before the Feast.  What that meant, to my chagrin, was that when the sermon was aired last Sunday it recognized in no way the national anguish and tumult which had broken out in response to the killing of George Floyd.  It has been said that sermons should be prepared with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  That was glaringly not the case with last Sunday’s sermon.  So now I want to connect the dots.

My Pentecost message was this.  On that fateful day the apostles were blown by the fiery winds of the Holy Spirit out of the building where they were once again huddled in uncertainty.  By the Spirit they were blown out into the world to preach, and to serve, and to love, in the name of Christ.  This is our reason for being.  For this the Holy Spirit anointed the heads and warmed the hearts of the Apostles on that first Pentecost Day.  For this the Spirit gave them courage.  For this the Spirit equipped them to cherish the old and embrace the new.   

If that was true and needful on the first Pentecost 2,000 years ago, it is every bit as true and needful now – finding ourselves as we do stricken by a pandemic; finding ourselves as we do convulsed yet again by our national sin of racism.  The apostles were transformed that Pentecost Day from anxious to confident, from traumatized to energized, from dispirited to “Spirited.”  Blown by the Spirit, out of the house and into the world. 

Which is where deacons come in.  Four of those who are before us today have been called to be deacons.  Five more have been called ultimately to the priesthood, but will serve an important period in the transitional diaconate.  So the ministry of the deacon is our focus tonight.  Deacons are called, above all else, to connect the church to the world – with the Spirit to blow us “out of the house.”  In the Examination tomorrow the Bishop says to the ordinand:

You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship.  You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.  [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 543]

The Iona Report – a document of the Anglican Church of Canada which has been studied by our deacons in formation – puts this well.  It describes deacons as:  

agents of mercy, healing, and justice in the world, especially among those living at the margins of systems and society, restoring the image of Christ who came ‘to bring good news to the poor.’ (i)

The symbolic imagery of the deacon’s stole is located at the waist.  Wrapped at the waist, the deacon’s stole is akin to the servant’s towel, and calls to mind our Lord at the Last Supper, washing the feet of his astonished disciples.  “I am among you as one who serves,” Jesus said.

But if the diaconate is focused as a servant ministry, let us not make the mistake of equating that with a catering service.  It is not the deacon’s role to carry out the servant ministry of the church on our behalf, so the rest of us don’t have to.  We may not, we must not, delegate to our deacons Christ’s ministry in the world.  No, we are to be led by them, called and challenged by them, informed and inspired and equipped by them, for the ministries of healing and justice which are the duty of every one of us.

It is commonplace to talk about the priesthood of all believers – every Christian called to priestly ministries of intercession, forgiveness, and sacrifice.  But it should be equally important to speak of the diaconate of all believers.  Again from the Iona Report:

All Christians at baptism are called to diakonia, to bring the light of Christ where there is darkness, to recognize and respond to situations of injustice and need, to organize and distribute resources for their remedy, to bring the brokenness and hunger of the world to the attention of the faithful for prayer and nurture and healing. (ii)

This is the responsibility and call of every Christian.  It is the special role of the deacon to act as an icon, an embodiment of that ministry – and equip us all to share in it.  

In other words, the deacon builds a bridge between church and world.  

Which brings me back, finally, to the Northumberland Strait and those other bridges to nowhere.  A "bridge to nowhere,” we said, is something never completed, pointless, or obsolete.  The church in every age must interrogate the ways in which we are – or are not – fulfilling our baptismal vows: to resist evil, to seek and serve all persons, to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being.  If we do not constantly and prayerfully take stock and heed this call, then you and I, my friends, are at risk of building bridges to nowhere.  The deacon’s role is to save the church from building bridges to nowhere.

Let’s not do that.  Let’s build real bridges.  And let us support our deacons in challenging us, and equipping us, to do that! 

What does that look like?  Here in the Diocese of Massachusetts, these ordinands will join a distinguished cohort of deacons:  a deacon who has written a curriculum for end-of-life issues; a deacon who nurtures partnerships for global missions; a deacon who develops supportive and spiritual groups among Latina women; a deacon who directs youth ministries; a deacon who coordinates pastoral care at a retirement community; a deacon who ministers to elders with memory loss; a deacon who ministers to chronically homeless men and women; a deacon who ministers in prison; and more, and more. 

Every one of these represents a bridge between church and world, bridges onto which we are all invited and led.  And these deacons before us will build others.

Larry, Marilee, Valerie, Luke, Melissa, Lauren, Tammy, James and Natalie:  Help the church build bridges to somewhere.  Bridges to places that matter.  Inspire us.  Mobilize us.  Challenge us.  Equip us.  Help us build bridges across the reservoir of pandemic anxiety and manifest inequities.  Help us build bridges across the roiling ocean of injustice and hopelessness fueled by our sin of racism.

Build these bridges not by your own strength, but by God’s grace and with our collective partnership, in service to Christ and for the sake of the world.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

--The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates

[i] The Iona Report: The Diaconate in the Anglican Church of Canada (2016: General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada), p. 19.

[ii] Ibid., p. 17-18.