This is the December 2, 2022, ordination sermon by the Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Brown
Dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
So writes T.S. Eliot. Like our five ordinands this morning, Eliot was a convert to Anglicanism. He attended All Saints, Margaret Street, a well-known Anglo-Catholic parish in London; he would have been totally at home in this service. At Eliot’s conversion, his unflinching gaze at the dispirited modernism of post-World War I Europe gave way to immersion in the eloquent Christ-centered devotion of the English Divines of the 17th century. From then on, his embrace of Christianity lay behind everything he did. And not the least, his final work, a series of four poems, entitled “The Four Quartets.” The fragment you just heard comes from the fourth of these poems, “Little Gidding.”
Each of the quartets focuses on one of the four classical elements, Earth, Air, Water and Fire. In “Little Gidding,” Elliot invokes fire, a “flame of incandescent terror.” It was 1942. German bombs had rained down fire upon England, rendering its urban neighborhoods a smoking ruble. Fire is a biblical image of judgement – as when Isaiah speaks of the place of divine wrath “where worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched.” (Isaiah 66:24)
But fire is also an image of the cleansing power and presence of the Holy Spirit – as when tongues of fire rested on the disciples at Pentecost. So Eliot says “Dove descending breaks the air,” invoking the Spirit descending at the baptism of Jesus. In “Little Gidding,” Eliot speaks of both aspects of fire at the same time – the incandescent terror of judgement and the descending dove of the spirit, “The only hope, or else despair, lies in the choice of pyre or pyre - to be redeemed from fire by fire.” We choose between judgment or the outpouring of God’s Spirit, that in the end we are to be redeemed from one by the other, delivered from the fire of judgement by the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit.
We are here today, as this liturgy of ordination, to witness as the “dove descending breaks the air, with a flame of incandescent terror.” (Terror because every genuine encounter with the raw power and presence of God in the Spirit is a thing of terror as well as joy and rapture.) This takes place as the bishop lays his hands on the heads of each of our ordinands and calls the Holy Spirit upon them to equip them for ministry in God’s Church.
We are here to witness – to give our assent (we are not mere passive spectators) – to what Paul speaks of when he urges Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)
For God to call us into his service in this way is no small thing. This morning, the Lord says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Jeremiah seems a bit undone by all this. For him, the call be God’s prophet is a “flame of incandescent terror” – it is more than he can manage. “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (v.6)
We all have our stories. Thirty-six years and sixth months ago, almost to the day, on June 1, 1985, Bishop John Coburn ordained fourteen of us as deacons at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, just down the hill from the golden dome of the Massachusetts Statehouse. As the bishop took his hands off my head and I received my Bible and took my place with the other ordinands, I burst into tears – and I am not a crying sort of person. Quite involuntarily a voice in my head said, “how could God do this? me of all people?” I still feel that way sometimes – I will glance at myself in the mirror and see this guy in a black suit and white collar and thinning rumpled hair, and I think, “is that really me?” There is something slightly absurd about God’s call of any of us. But the thing that I have come to learn is what Paul says in the Epistle this morning, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)
And so Jeremiah says, “the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” (Jeremiah 1:7) What has carried me these thirty-six years – and I know the same is true of Bishop Sumner, and Canon Victor Austin (who was in my seminary class) and many other priests of our generation, is the Word that God has put in our mouths. It is not about us, so much as the one to whom we witness - as absurd as our own calling still may seem. The same will be true for the five white-robed young (and medium-young) men in the front row.
To go back to T.S. Eliot: each of his four quartets is named after particular place. Little Gidding is a spot in the English countryside. There is an aging stone manor, on the grounds of which is a small medieval church dedicated to St. John. In 1620, a man name Nicholas Ferrar bought the property. He and his relatives had invested in the Virginia Company, which ultimately collapsed and cost them the family fortune. The Ferrars seem to have been shaken by the futility and precariousness of the pursuit of wealth and power, and they retired to Little Gidding to devote themselves to the life of prayer. In 1626 Nicholas was ordained as a deacon by Bishop William Laud (not yet Archbishop of Canterbury). He never was called to go on to be ordained to the priesthood. Under his leadership, the family transformed the old rambling property into a religious community centered on regular recitation of the psalms and the prayer book services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Puritan detractors called the Little Gidding community a “Protestant Nunnery,” but it wasn’t a monastery or religious order. It was a residential fellowship centered on an ordered pattern of prayer. Ever since, Little Gidding has been an icon of the Anglican spiritual life in practice. And at least for us, Nicholas Ferrar, whose feast day we observe today, was the most significant deacon in the history of the Church between Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century and today.
Today we ordain Dave, Cody, Matt, Michael and Daniel – as “dove descending breaks the air, with a flame of incandescent terror” and makes them deacons within the three-fold apostolic order of ministry. Only Dave – like Nicholas Ferrar – will remain a deacon. Six months from now, Bishop Sumner will ordain the others to the priesthood. But that does not make this ordination any less important for them than for Dave.
The other day, a priest in the diocese told me that all too many priests she has known look on their intervening time as deacons as a sort of ecclesiastical purgatory. This, I agreed, is unfortunate. More and more, I have become convinced how crucial it is that every priest begin as a deacon, and retain their diaconal identity even after ordination to the priesthood.
In the Gospel this morning, the disciples get into a discussion about which of them is the greatest. You can imagine how exasperated Jesus must be to witness this display of ego and unfettered careerism. He says, “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.” (Luke 22:25-26) In the original Greek, the phrase “one who serves” – is “ho diakonon.” A deaconos, that is a “deacon,” is a servant, and the verb diakoneo, means “to serve.”
Jesus goes on to say “I am with you as one who serves” – o diakonos. It would have been helpful if Jesus explained what that service was supposed to look like, since he is the model that they – and we –are to follow. But we can take our cue from the context. It is the Last Supper; the next day Jesus will offer himself up for the sins of the world – an act which is, in Eliot’s phrase, the “one discharge from sin and error.” The other Gospels place our story (or perhaps one like it) earlier on the road to Jerusalem. After Jesus has said “the greatest among you must be your servant,” he goes on, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Again, not only is Jesus the servant; what that looks like is his death on the cross, by which, as Eliot says, we are “redeemed from fire by fire” – from the fire of judgement, and by the cleansing fire of the Spirit.
God calls us to imitate the humility and self-offering of Jesus. Without the continuing servanthood of a deacon, the exercise of spiritual authority – of a priest over a parish, or bishop over a diocese – degenerates into the unpleasant spectacle of the disciples arguing over who was the greatest. Unless we remain deacons, or servants, we end up “lording it over others, like the Kings of the gentles,” and discredit the Gospel before God and the world. To strive not to be served but serve is not just to become kind, considerate, compassionate and just; in our service, our diakonia, we become living sermons in space and time. Our service is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his saving death as a ransom for many – through which all are “redeemed from fire by fire.”