A Ministering Community
The Rt. Rev. Frank S. Logue gave this sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Cochran, Georgia on May 20, 2023.
A Ministering Community
A sermon for the ordination of Shayna Warren Cranford to the Sacred Order of Deacons
2 Corinthians 4:1-6
“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In this verse from our reading from the 2nd Letter to the Christians in Corinth, the moment of creation as God called forth light in the darkness fuses with what the Holy Trinity does in baptism making all things new. If we continued reading the epistle it would make this plain in adding in the next chapter, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).
God is making all things new in Jesus and for those of us who are baptized Christians, we are each called to the ministry of reconciliation until all humanity is reconciled with God and one another. The grace, mercy, and love we have found in Jesus is for everyone. You have never met a single person who was not fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God. You have not known anyone who God does not know fully and love completely, even as God wants better for each of us than the mess we can make of our lives. This is great and glorious Good News. And yet, we can still find that our friends and neighbors find this hard to believe as what they have encountered in church is something far less than Amazing Grace.
Given Shayna’s first experiences of church, it is a wonder we have arrived at this day. Growing up in the community of Cary, church is never far away. For Shayna, it was in her backyard at Mount Calvary Church. Shayna wanted to go to church and yet there in Sunday School she met that wonderful and sacred mystery – the Body of Christ, that is the church –embodied in mean little boys jumping off the table and trying to kick her.
The teacher passed out envelopes of all the “Christian” things you had done that week, such as whether you read your Sunday School lesson, brought your Bible to church, and placed money in the envelope. She had nothing to check, but the boys who kicked her had checked every box, and were on the chart showing perfect attendance, and they knew the answers to every question about Bible stories.
I am not bashing the Baptists here. We all know people who show up to church each Sunday with Bible (or Book of Common Prayer) in hand whose lives don’t seem to shine with the light of the glory of God. There is a reason why in a world that so needs to experience the love of God, people around us are sure the one place they won’t find the answers to our broken and hurting world is in a Christian church.
There are more twists and turns to Shayna’s journey to this day but suffice to say they included moments when the church assured her of judgment, without sharing the same assuredness of forgiveness and mercy offered in Jesus. God’s will sounded cruel, heartless…as mean as boys kicking you in Sunday School.
After meeting Dave at college, falling in love and marrying, the two tried to find a church home only to discover that they were miserable sinners as they had their feet metaphorically dangled over the flames of hell. While raising kids, they took a break from church. That is when Shayna’s old softball coach’s pleas to go to church with him broke through. Dale Jones persistent invitation finally reached the point where she could not keep turning him down. Shayna says of coming into this beautiful church, “I remember that first visit so well. Yes, we were a little overwhelmed with keeping up with the prayer book, and the kneeling and standing. But, [she added] we felt the love, the genuine spirit of the people, the closeness of God. I truly felt the spirit of Jesus.”
Within weeks, their kids were acolytes and as I have heard Dave say it on multiple occasions, “We have been Episcopalian our entire life and didn’t know it.”
They had arrived not in any Episcopal Church, but here at Trinity. The recent history of this church offers an important context for today’s ordination. Shayna is being raised up from Trinity to be first a deacon and then a priest in the midst of this same community. That is not the usual path for priests in the Episcopal Church, but it began with a bold experiment by Bishop Henry Louttit, who served as the Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia from 1995-2010. Bishop Louttit was very much involved directly in the process of Liturgical Renewal that gave us the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with its strong emphasis on baptism. His convention addresses and his preaching focused on evangelism and church growth, as he lifted up “the ministry of all the baptized” and “mutual ministry”.
Mutual Ministry was an approach he learned from the Diocese of Northern Michigan. In this way of being church, the congregation is not seen as a community headed by a minister, but a ministering community that encourages all baptized Christians to use their gifts both in the church and in the community. The worship of the church certainly matters, but the main focus of ministry is seen as daily life. Every baptized person is empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve where they are deployed in their family, with their group of friends, and among their co-workers as Christ’s agent in the world.
Bishop Louttit could immediately see how this could benefit Episcopalians in South Georgia. 27 years ago, he asked a delegation to travel to The UP – the Upper Penisula of Michigan, to learn more firsthand. That group of four included two Episcopal priests together with Joy Fisher, then a lay member of the diocesan Standing Committee, and Dr. John Pasto who were both from here at Trinity.
At the next diocesan convention, held in 1997, Bishop Louttit invited Bishop Thomas Ray of Northern Michigan to address the clergy and delegates to share this concept of a community of ministers. In his bishop’s address that year, Bishop Louttit said, “In many, if not all places, we have got to learn that the parish ministry cannot be done by paid staff.
We have to use the gifts of all our members, in both the nurturing and priestly ministry to the members of the congregation, and in the diaconal service of the congregation in Christ’s name to those in desperate need in our counties.”
The next year, he told the convention that Trinity in Cochran was ready to take the next step. In time, Joy Fisher, George Porter, and Vernon Wiggins would discern calls to the priesthood and be formed locally and ordained together. During their time of formation, Bishop Louttit told the 2001 convention, “Trinity Church, Cochran has shown amazing imagination, commitment, and a willingness to risk and try new ways of being the church in order for the church that is so valuable in their own lives to be healthy in their community.”
This church would still later raise up Shayna’s old softball coach, Dale Jones, for ordination during Bishop Scott Benhase’s episcopacy. Shayna arrives here on this day of her ordination to the Sacred Order of Deacons having come to know the Episcopal Church very well, but she has only been a member in a church where every priest she has known was lifted up by Trinity to serve this church. She is called to be a minister in this community of ministers.
What Shayna brings to her ministry is a deep knowledge of Bleckley County and a longing to share the love of God as found in Jesus. In her heart of hearts, she longs to feed the members of this church in word and sacrament so that each one can serve Christ through serving others with the gifts God has given them. She is called to be a priest in this place, rooted in the soil of this corner of the Vineyard that she knows so well. So, why then did I ask you earlier if it is your will that Shayna be ordained as a deacon, and you all said, “It is!” as if you don’t really want her to be ordained a priest, right now?
That is because serving as a deacon is the essential next step in her becoming a priest and we want that next step for her. This time of being a deacon in preparation for the priesthood is no less than six months. My intention, with the endorsement of the Commission on Ministry and the consent of the Standing Committee will be to ordain Shayna a priest in December.
We ordain her a deacon as the Church, in its wisdom, doesn’t trust anyone to be a priest who has not spent time living into serving others, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely. That is why centuries of practice among the many millions of Christians in not just our Anglican Communion, but also the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran and other churches ordain a priest in training as a deacon first. We don’t intend this to diminish the Sacred Order of Deacons, but to show how vitally important servant ministry is to every follower of Jesus in any Christian community.
The work of real deacons is the work of a lifetime. Shayna will serve as a deacon during this time of further preparation for the priesthood. This is not just in line with church tradition, but also with the example of our Lord. Our Gospel reading for this day recounts a dispute arising among Jesus’ disciples as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. Jesus reminded them that they are not to look to the example of the world. He said, “Rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Then he brought this home in saying, “I am among you as one who serves.”
Yet here at Trinity with its history of Mutual Ministry, we all know in our bones that Shayna is not to serve others on behalf of or instead of us. Trinity is a ministering community encouraging all baptized Christians to use their gifts both here in the church and as importantly in the community. Every one of us is to care for all in need and that need is vast. Shayna has a particular role, but everyone shares the call to the ministry of reconciliation.
There are still kids growing up right here on the buckle of the Bible Belt hearing plenty of judgment who need to know that God knows them fully and loves them completely. There are plenty of adults beat up by the fear of God who need to rediscover the grace of God. For God is still bringing forth light in the darkness and calling us to speak love to hate. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” When the baptized each make this ministry their own, nothing can stop God’s love.