Doorkeepers in the House of God

A sermon for the of ordination of Andrew Scott and Caleb Roberts
to the Sacred Order of Deacons

By Stewart Clem

“For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.” — St. Luke 22:27

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In 1971, Johnny Cash penned these words to his famous protest song, “Man in Black”:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ’a be a Man In Black.

I’d like to think Johnny Cash’s reasons for wearing black are not too far off from the reasons that priests and deacons wear black. Johnny Cash wanted to make a statement by what he wore, in one sense, but in another sense, it was an anti-statement. It was his way of recognizing that the world is a broken place and that we need to help those who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Yet, at the same time, his wearing black was a display of mourning, or sadness, in his own recognition that he was too weak and powerless to solve the world’s problems.

Johnny Cash considered himself to be a “C-minus” Christian, but it seems he at least understood something that even the disciples did not. Anyone who has read the Gospels knows that the disciples are not exactly portrayed as “A-plus” Christians. On the contrary, they often serve as case studies in missing the point. In the Gospel passage we just heard, we’re told that a dispute arose among the disciples about which of them should be accounted the greatest (Luke 22:24). Overhearing this discussion, our Lord gently rebukes the disciples by pointing out that even he himself has come to them as a servant.

Now, it would be easy to read this brief Gospel narrative and reduce it down to some boilerplate moralisms: “Be humble.” “Don’t think too highly of yourself.” “Remember to serve others.” Obviously it’s good to be humble, and not to think too highly of oneself, and to serve others. But if we stop there, then we’re missing out on something far more profound.

For one thing, this simplistic reading ignores the context of the passage. When we consider the setting in which this story takes place, it makes the disciples look even worse. They’re sitting in the upper room, celebrating the Passover, and (probably unbeknownst to them) Jesus has just instituted the Eucharist for the first time and offered them his own body and blood.

Then, to heighten the drama even more, our Lord states that one of them is going to betray him: “Behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table” (22:21). This startles them, of course, and they begin to murmur about which one of them it might be. And somehow, this bafflingly evolves into a conversation about which one of them is the greatest! They would have done well to recall in that moment the words of the Psalmist: “For I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10).

The point here is not simply that the disciples were getting a little carried away and ought to have been a little humbler. Rather, this episode should serve as a stark reminder of our sinfulness and tendency to forget Christ and what he has done for us. It is a reminder that, even in our best moments, we are prone to lose sight of what God has done for us and to fall short of what God has called us to be.

It just so happens that the primary responsibility of the Church’s ordained ministers is to point us to Christ. That’s it. Everything else they do can be boiled down to this one thing: to point others to Christ, and not to themselves.

And we are gathered here this morning to celebrate the fact that God has called two new ministers into the fold: Andrew Scott and Caleb Roberts. Andrew and Caleb are being ordained this morning as “transitional deacons.” This means that, God willing, they will be ordained as priests sometime in the not too distant future. It would be tempting to think of this brief interim period as a sort of trial run or basic training — in other words, a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. But this would be a mistake.

Being a priest and being a deacon are not mutually exclusive categories. It’s true that there are certain duties that Andrew and Caleb are not yet allowed to perform — for example, presiding at the altar, or administering priestly blessings and absolutions. But, when that day comes, they will not cease to be deacons. The Church declares that from this morning onward, Andrew and Caleb will never cease to be deacons for the rest of their lives. In other words, becoming a deacon is not like applying for any ordinary job. I hope this comes as no surprise to you, Andrew and Caleb, but once the Bishop lays hands on you, you will not be able to change the fact that you are now ordained as a servant in Christ’s Church any more than you can change the fact that you were born. This is an all or nothing moment.

I suppose things didn’t have to be this way, but we can see the wisdom of the Church in its requirement that those who aspire to the Sacred Order of Priests should first be ordained as deacons. By postponing those duties that are reserved for priests, the Church is reminding us that duties of a deacon are absolutely non-negotiable. Deacons are called to proclaim the gospel in preaching, to explain and defend the faith through teaching, to minister to sick, to visit those in prison, and to take up the cause of the poor and needy.

But none of this will change when you become priests. Instead, you will have begun to nourish those gifts from the very moment you were set apart for ordained ministry. That’s how important these things are, and you have been entrusted with them as stewards who will one day carry them into your priestly ministries. As St. Paul writes in his epistle to St. Timothy, “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:13).

As you proceed from here in your ministries, remember that scene with the disciples in the upper room. Remember the words of our Lord, “I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27). I doubt that either of you will ever be so foolish, like the disciples, to argue with others about “who is the greatest among you.” But there are more subtle ways of overestimating your abilities or your worthiness to serve in this ministry.

When you find yourself exhausted from ministry (and you will), this is the time to stop and evaluate things. Ask yourself, “What are the sources of this exhaustion?” It’s true that the people you’re serving are going to have more needs than you will be ever to meet. But you must ask yourself if you are perhaps adding to your exhaustion by slipping into the mindset that it is ultimately up to you to make things better. This is one of the greatest temptations that clergy can face, and those who succumb to it are no better than those bickering disciples who were so certain of their worthiness.

There is a kind of “holy exhaustion” that comes with being ordained. You’ll know it when it comes. But this exhaustion is tempered when we remember that to be a deacon is simply to be a doorkeeper in God’s house. As doorkeepers, our job is to get out the way and point others to Christ. And, like doorkeepers, this means that you will often find yourselves occupied with very miniscule matters. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, once told a group of young ordinands:

“It is to a ministry like that of our Lord himself that you are called. The Gospel you preach affects the salvation of the world, and you may help your people to influence the world’s problems. But you will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child. His authority will be given to you as you do this, and his joy will be yours as well” (see The Christian Priest Today [SPCK, 1972], 42).

Andrew and Caleb, in a few moments, you will be given the deacon’s stole to wear for the very first time. In many ways, this moment represents the culmination of many years of discernment, study, and preparation — involving not only you, but your spouses, your family and friends, and your church communities. You and your family members who are here to celebrate with you this morning have every reason to be proud of the work you have done to get to this point.

I hope I’m not going to burst anyone’s bubble by what I’m about to say next, however. When you are given these stoles, it is not meant to be a prize for your accomplishments. This is not the Church’s equivalent of a medal for bravery or a trophy for an athletic competition. When you come forward to have these stoles placed over your shoulders, it’s really not about you at all. Nor is the purpose of all these vestments — contrary to popular perception — to make a fashion statement. The purpose is rather to cover up our individual personalities and remind us that we are doorkeepers in the house of God. The way we serve others is not by drawing attention to ourselves, but by directing them to the master of the house: our Lord, Jesus Christ.

With that, I think that my job here is done. You’re moments away from being ordained, and your experiences as ordained clergy will provide you with far more than anything else I could tell you from this pulpit. I know that it’s been a long and winding journey that has brought you to this point. But really, the journey has just begun. Andrew and Caleb, we celebrate with you on this joyful morning. We thank God that he has given us doorkeepers in his house. And now, we ask you: please point us to Christ.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley–O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

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