When I was a kid, I used to read this magazine called Zillions. I don’t know if anyone else remembers it. It was Consumer Reports for kids, but way more fun than Consumer Reports, because they tested things like candy and toys and backpacks and bikes. They used real-life kid testers to rate the different products – a job I wanted badly for several years. Their slogan was, Zillions of kids can’t be wrong!
By the same logic, 34 million, 500 thousand should be a pretty convincing number. That’s how many hits you get if you google ‘temptation.’ And if you tried to learn about temptation by reading those pages, you’d come out with a pretty strong sense that temptation is mostly about sex, which you should avoid whenever possible, and secondarily about body lotion, beer, chocolate, and ice cream. Either that, or Motown.
I think most of us probably grew up with an idea of temptation that’s pretty similar to this. Temptation is whatever’s exciting or enticing to us – what sounds fun or tasty or new. It’s in contrast to the right or good thing, which is inevitably also the boring thing. Sometimes it works that way, but it seems to me our lives would be a lot simpler and quieter if that’s all temptation meant – picking the obviously right thing over the obviously wrong thing – or just “do the opposite of what you want.” But even setting aside the horrific theological issues of assuming that what we want is automatically wrong, most times it’s just more complicated than that. 34 million, 500 thousand people’s opinions notwithstanding, sometimes temptation is just doing what’s easy as opposed to doing what we know is right. Sometimes, even, temptation is doing what’s there or what’s obvious instead of doing the work to figure out what’s right.
In that vein, it’s tempting for me to stay here at Reconciler instead of to move on. I love this congregation. It would be easy for me to stay and hang out with you all, to go through the liturgical motions of serving as a deacon and let everything else slide. Most transitional deacons, the ones that will eventually be priests, do. Either people get ordained at Christmas of their senior year of seminary, and spend the next six months serving in the deacon’s role liturgically at their field ed parish but otherwise just training to be a priest, or they get ordained right before they take their first jobs, and spend the next six months trying to do the priestly and pastoral work they were hired to do while limited in their liturgical function. The transitional diaconate is usually time spent looking at our watches, waiting for the required amount of time to pass before we can ordain people priests. It’s tempting to take the path of least resistance and stay here and do that among people I like and respect.
Leaving Reconciler, as it turns out, isn’t nearly so tempting, initially. Leaving means asking new questions – examining why this experiment here ended as soon as it did. Exploring where I go from here with only a few months left in seminary. Leaving means putting an end date of February on my resume instead of the expected end date of May or June. Leaving means being honest with myself about how much I can afford to give to a congregation, and, for good or ill, what that says about where my priorities are this year. Leaving means trying to figure out how to integrate my diaconal ministry when my liturgical roles are all at Seabury and my ministry of service in the world is primarily in other places.
In fact, leaving Reconciler may well mean that I am setting my face toward the cross instead of toward comfort. It may be hard to explain this choice to a diocesan committee when I go before them to interview for my priestly ordination. It may make rectors or search committees suspicious when I am interviewing for jobs in the next few months. It may mean more hard questions and even some unpleasant consequences.
But I also know that that’s where God has called me to go now. I made vows last June when I was ordained. I promised God and the church and myself that my diaconate would be about more than just wearing my stole sideways. As I considered whether or not to leave here, I thought about those diaconal vows. I figured I had the promise to study the Scriptures and proclaim the gospel pretty well in hand through my schoolwork and my preaching in various places. But the thing that makes the diaconate unique among the other orders of the church is not those things, but when the bishop says “You are to interpret to the church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” This is made practical earlier in the bishop’s examination of the candidate when he or she says, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”
This church doesn’t need a deacon to interpret to you the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You all bring the needs and concerns to the pastoral team already. You are far more connected to those needs than I am. If this church is to be served by a deacon, you need a deacon who can take you the next step – who is with you among the poor and oppressed and can help you connect the dots between your work for justice outside this place and your worship inside it– and I do not have the kind of time and energy it would take to be that deacon for you. If I am to serve a community as a deacon right now, I need to serve in a place that can use my hands to work a few hours at a time. That is all the diaconate I can offer the church right now, as I finish my studies, and I owe it to the whole church to do so with integrity, not to spend these next months watching you all do the work of the church.
The choice to leave Reconciler, though it was made in consultation with many others, was ultimately mine. But of course, this kind of dilemma is not mine alone. We all face these kinds of decisions in our lives. As we begin Lent, I invite you to contemplate where you too might be called to turn your faces toward the cross. Are there choices where you too find it tempting to follow the smoother, easier path, where God might be calling you to risk doing something even more right? When I leave Reconciler tonight, our ways will part, even though I will come around to say hello. But perhaps by turning our faces in the same direction, we can journey together toward the cross to the new life Easter promises us on the other side. Will you join me?