Bishop Frank Logue preached this sermon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Thomasville, Georgia on June 26, 2021.
Grace for all the feral cats
A sermon for the ordination of Susan Gage to the Sacred Order of Deacons
“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”
I will say these words to Susan during The Examination in just a few minutes. The words I want to stay instead are, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the feral cats that need to find their true home.”
I use this term advisedly and knowingly as I am one who has been tamed by an actual feral cat who found her way into my home. That was real. No metaphor yet. And then I spoke to Susan about how she found her way to this day. Susan affectionately told me of how the Rev. Lee Shafer referred to her as the feral cat that came into the church.
This is not to say that Susan was a stranger to church. Not by a long shot. She was baptized at Christ Episcopal Church in Exeter, New Hampshire about two months after her birth. She stood up for her place in the church at an early age too when the Rector did not understand her wanting to be a shepherd instead of an angel as boys were shepherds and girls were angels. But she was a budding thespian and Susan knew Shepherds get to play fear, which is a way better role. She did prevail and soon after began to acolyte and in a few years was confirmed.
Yet the 18 months that followed Susan’s confirmation were a very difficult time with the tragic deaths of two friends and an aunt and her discovering her sexuality in a time and place where it was not okay. Susan continued to attend church in college and afterward moved to Tallahassee, where she was attracted to St. John’s Episcopal Church and loved a lot about it, but no one spoke to her, invited her to coffee hour, or tried to find out who she was. She did not keep attending. During those years, her work for Florida Public Radio took a turn when she served as a media witness to an execution and she covered capital punishment for years after. And in those years that followed St. John’s Church rejected the LGBTQ community in a quite public way with the clergy walking out of the church during a major principal service. The church of her childhood had come to offer her judgment, not love.
By the time years later, Susan made her way back to St. John’s, much had changed in the church and in Susan. The Rev. Lee Shafer, who served at St. John’s at that time, tells the story this way saying that she,
“was asked to visit the husband of a parishioner who was in a nursing facility with a debilitating and terminal illness. He could barely speak and his body was contorted in an awkward position but he was cognizant and able to communicate, mostly through his family members. The parishioner had told [Lee] of her daughter who had left the church angrily several years before.”
Then one day she walked into the parishioner’s room and found the angry daughter, Susan, and her partner, Isabelle, with him. Lee said,
“I drew in a deep breath expecting to be met with challenge and hostility, but was determined to be open and to not allow myself to become flustered no matter what. The daughter was pleasant but cool and I did my best to be open and welcoming, hoping to be a good representative of the church she so mistrusted.”
That meeting was good. What followed was a surprise to Mama Lee as things progressed more quickly than one might expect. This so often happens as w do not see how the Holy Spirit is already working in someone’s life. Lee told me,
“Several weeks later I saw the daughter in Church. I tried to remain cool, not to have too many expectations.” Lee likened this to building trust with a feral cat, which she had done successfully two times in the past- slowly, quietly, “let her take the lead, let her make the first move, then encourage, affirm, assure.”
She did not know that in the meantime, Susan felt herself not gently nudged to go to St. John’s Episcopal, but all but shoved by what felt like a booming voice in her head saying, “Show up!”
Susan listened to God telling her to go to church. She showed up only to find as she would later say, “I hard every single prayer, reading, and hymn, and the entire package was an unmistakable message: “You are loved. You always have been loved. And I will always love you.”
Here was the clarion call of the God who made her and who loved her just as she was and wanted better for her. “You are loved. You always have been loved. And I will always love you.” A call she has since extended to many others letting persons who not known this before in on the not so secret that God has always loved them.
This fits so well with the prayer for the consecration of a deacon which says in part, “Make her, O Lord, modest and humble, strong and constant, to observe the discipline of Christ. Let her life and teaching so reflect your commandments, that through her many may come to know you and love you. As your Son came not to be served but to serve, may this deacon share in Christ’s service…”
There are so many others who have been wounded by the church and yet wonder about Jesus. They have heard that God loves them, that God is love, and even that as our Presiding Bishop has put it, “If it is not about love, then it’s not about God.” And yet all they have experienced from the Body of Christ that is the church is judgment and shame.
Mother Lee remembers what follows as Susan sending her daily emails (or so it seems in her memory) and these were filled with questions that were running through Susan’s head rapid-fire. She added, “I know she thinks that was burdensome but it was actually one of the most pleasant times in my ministry. It was so nice to spend time talking with someone who was seriously thinking about their faith and questioning aspects of the Church that had not really taken up a lot of space in her life for a while… Susan moved from being a feral cat that I wanted to coax back to the church to a becoming much trusted friend. I know she will be a gift to the Church and will sometimes challenge us to stretch ourselves to become the folks Jesus wants us to be.”
The truth is it would not all be so smooth. Susan’s renewed and unwavering faith in Jesus has puzzled some of her friends as Susan now goes into places that are very wary of Christians.
As Susan told me as we talked about today, she sees the needs of those who are lost and left out as so large, so immense, which is why she selected our reading from Acts today. This passage comes in the midst of a fight in the early days of the Jesus Movement. Some of the Greek speaking members of the church were upset at those who had grown up Jewish. The Acts of the Apostles puts it like this:
“Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”
Everyone agreed that the church needed to tend to this thorny problem, which was choking the growth of the early Christian community. The Sacred Order of Deacons, then, was created to tend to an issue in the church so that the apostles could focus on their particular ministry of sharing the Good News of God’s love in preaching and teaching. This bore tremendous fruit for the Gospel.
The apostles found a solution in which seven members of that early Christian community were put forward for the laying on of hands to become the first deacons. The Acts of the Apostles records, “The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many priests became obedient to the faith.” The apostles tended to the problems in the church prayerfully and appropriately. Growth followed. The early Christians discovered the need for people whose focus is taking care of those in need.
Deacons are not to do all the work of servant ministry. Deacons are to serve as icons of servant ministry, examples to others. Where deacons thrive, we find the fruit of that ministry is that many parishioners in that congregation are called to more fully living into their own baptismal vows in caring for others as deacons both tend to the lost and the left out and call others into that ministry as well.
Susan is what we sometimes call a transitional deacon as she will likely serve barely more than six months in this order of ministry. This ordination is a challenge to Susan to find ways during this transitional period to fully live into being a deacon in word and deed and not in title only. This fits well with Susan’s own call as she has experienced the Holy Spirit not nudging her, but all but shoving her to “just go and be with the people who are in pain and in need.”
As we come to know Jesus in the Gospels, he is much more interested in those wounded by religious leaders than in those who are all holier than thou. Jesus clearly wanted to connect with those who were hurt and yet still longed to know God and to be known by God. The man living among the tombs plagued by a legion of demons, the Samaritan woman who went to the well in the middle of the day and so many others who knew too well the judgment of religion, but had yet to experience love and grace, these were the ones Jesus ministered to the most. Like feral cats who want to find a home, but fear what they have seen of humans, those injured by the church long for Jesus, but fear what they may face from his followers and those who lead them.
And this is where we should be delighted to discover the joy of sharing God’s love is not something reserved for deacons, priests, and bishops. No, the Body of Christ as a whole, all of us, are supposed to share that same love with others, loving everyone and letting God sort out the rest.
We are not ordaining Susan to share the love of God so we don’t have to do so. We are ordaining her for a role in the church that will have her serving those most in need and calling the rest of us to join her in the effort.
We all know the love of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one that is lost. In our own families, in our workplaces, and among our friends, you and I are already deployed where God needs us to be there for people we already know to play the role that Mother Lee Shafer played in Susan’s life of being the sounding board for that feral cat stage of trying to trust God and God’s church. And in this effort, the real work is that of the Holy Spirit. I see this in how the Spirit was acting in Susan’s life to draw her back in to the Body of Christ. I have experienced this in my own life. And I have seen it in others who God has put in my path, where the Holy Spirit is already with them. We just have to be a part of affirming that message is real: You are loved. You always have been loved. And God will always love you.
It is the Good News that so many people need to hear. So let us not delay any longer, but affirm our faith together and then pray for God to make Susan a deacon, knowing that the Spirit will use her and us to reach those who need that grace, mercy, and love.