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Today is VST Sunday, when we are called to lift up in prayer the scholars, staff, students and alumni of the Vancouver School of Theology. That, of course, includes our VST student kevîn, whose wine and cheese prayer evenings have brought a different energy to our collective prayer life.

Case in point: our St. Clement’s stewardship campaign, during which members are encouraged to make a financial pledge towards next year’s parish budget, wrapped up at the end of November. Helen was speaking to the congregation that Sunday morning, and on the spur of the moment she called on kevîn to suggest what we might want to pray for in regard to our pledge total. From his pew, kevîn called out for us to pray for a 15 per cent increase in our giving. Well, fast forward six weeks, and Parish Council has learned that our pledged offerings for 2024 have gone up by - you guessed it - 15 per cent!

So thank you, kevîn, for joining us from VST and encouraging us to pray boldly. And thank you, all, for believing in and supporting the mission and ministry of St. Clement’s. Thank you for your confidence that we will continue to be a place of worship, welcome, healing and hope.

As is fitting for VST Sunday, the readings today are rich with comment on learning and teachers and authority and community. And they remind us that sometimes we don't use our knowledge in a way that puts God first. An online commenter said the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinithians put him in mind of the word sophomore. The word comes from the Greek sophos, meaning wise, and moros, meaning foolish.  A sophomore, then, is someone who, as the expression goes, knows just enough to be dangerous. Someone, perhaps, like a second-year student in a college or university program, whose learning hasn’t yet been forged into wisdom. But any of us can be an overconfident sophomore, at any stage of our life.

In the first reading, from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are in the midst of asking Moses how they can know the will of God with any certainty. Unlike other nations, they are not permitted to use sooth-sayers or mediums. So who can they trust to speak on behalf the Divine? Moses tells them that the Lord their God will raise up a prophet from among them, a prophet who will speak to them everything the Lord has commanded. But it’s easy to be a sophomore prophet, or a sophomore preacher — a wise fool. Easy to hear just enough of God’s voice, know just enough of God’s love, to find one’s self comfortable to the point of tuning out a little and saying (even if unconsciously) "Don’t worry, God - I’ve got it from here."

From there prophets and preachers alike can go off track - either a little or a lot. The reading today says that if a prophet speaks words that God has not commanded, well, that prophet shall die. (Fortunately, it doesn’t say anything about preachers!)

So being a prophet is not an always an enviable task. Throughout the Bible, prophets and other leaders are called up by God from among the people. They are often reluctant.  They are often humble. They don’t push themselves forward. Sometimes what they say is unpopular, and the truth of their words only becomes clear in the fullness of time.

Being called to spiritual leadership was, and remains, a communal act. People may sense God calling them to ordination; often, though, it begins with a seed planted in their mind by someone who has seen a leader already in the making. The candidate’s growing sense of their vocation must be affirmed, both through their own prayerful attentiveness to God’s voice, and through the discernment of others both inside and outside their parish.

Our Diocese seeks to ordain people who demonstrate six specific qualities: people who are community builders; who have a Christ-centred, Anglican spiritual practice; who are emotionally and relationally mature; who work well within a network of authority; who love to learn; and who are good stewards of their mind, body, and spirit. Often a mirror held up by others is necessary to see more clearly where these qualities are - or aren’t — at work in one’s life. The Diocese has a rich and robust discernment process that guides candidates through thoughtful, faith-filled conversations and activities that over a period of months and years help adjudicate whether that candidate’s vocation lies in ordained life or in lay ministry.

I am telling you all this because I am delighted to announce today that a member of St. Clement’s has just embarked on a journey in which she and others will be testing her call to serve the church as an ordained deacon. Jenn Ashton is known well to some of you, and may be unfamiliar to others. Jenn joined us four years ago, during the pandemic, and has been with us online almost every Sunday morning in that period. Jenn does not attend in person due to a chronic neuromuscular condition called dystonia, and she has learned how she needs to structure her life to ensure she stays as mobile and pain-free as possible. Having learned that, Jenn is incredibly fruitful from her home base; as an author and artist, she is constantly creating and in much demand as a speaker online; as a scholar, she spent last year at Oxford and is now in a University of Edinburgh degree program; as a woman with Indigenous heritage she is deeply shaped by her roots and committed to learning and sharing stories of her history and culture, for example as writer in residence for British Columbia History magazine.

At St. Clement’s, Jenn has regularly found ways to contribute her time and talents, such as making decorations for last year’s Christmas tree in the Village, donating art to our auction, writing pieces for our website, or taking screenshots from our online services and turning them into fun and educational colouring books for our Sunday school. She has now embarked on creating invitational and engaging posts for our new Instagram account.

Jenn has been acting as a shepherd of our online congregation, welcoming people to our Facebook livestream, sharing the peace and doing her best to help people feel seen even when they aren’t here in person. This has come to include a priest from the Anglican Church of Kenya, Criswel, who joins us regularly and who can always be counted on for a friendly greeting. I see how Jenn uses her life online to encourage, strengthen, and uplift people, just as she did in her previous roles in hospital chaplaincy, prison ministry, HR, and in the public guardian and trustee’s office.

Hey, that’s really great, you may be thinking, but doesn’t a deacon have to be IN church on a Sunday morning?

Well, that’s going to be part of our discernment as a church and as a diocese. Our Anglican church is incarnational; God is made incarnate in Jesus, who is known to us in the tangible sharing of bread and wine around the altar. From the time of the early church, the role of the deacon was to carry the bread and the word out to those who were not able to be in church. But what if the deacon themself can’t be in church?

Of course, what it means to be "in" church has changed dramatically since the pandemic. Speakers from outside the building can be streamed in to address the congregation, while the liturgy inside the building can be streamed out to bless with word and prayer and song people in every corner of the world.

Deacons used to take the bread out to the sick and elderly in their immediate community. That was the world they served. Today, the world we serve is not just the hungry outside our door, it is people who live in an online world, hungry for something to feed them. The latest research from 2023 states that the average Canadian spends roughly two hours on social media each day - on platforms like Facebook, Tik Tok, Reddit, Messenger, and the like. For one in three people, it’s the first thing they look at in the day and the last thing they look at before sleep. Studies continue to point to the link between social media use and increased rates of anxiety and depression, particularly in youth and young adults, and we know it offers a terrifying platform for bullying, shaming, and exploitation. This online world needs a deacon just as much as the world outside our door. A deacon who may not be physically able to be present in the church building on a Sunday, but who can participate in a livestreamed service and then take God’s light and joy into the online world with wisdom and grace. Being a positive presence on social media is only one of the many ways a digital deacon can connect with the world. Pastoral connections and conversations on Zoom, writing articles, hosting courses or writing faith-filled curricula are others.

Now, don’t get me wrong - I am not trying to put the cart before the horse. Jenn’s discernment process may or may not ultimately lead to Jenn being ordained as a deacon. Jenn already has a ministry that is being exercised in the world and the process will explore whether that would be enhanced by ordination, or if her gifts would shine more freely or brightly in continued lay ministry. I always emphasize that the discernment process isn’t a pass or fail exercise; "achieving" ordination isn’t the goal and candidates should not feel they have let themselves or others down if they, or the community around them, discern that they are ultimately not called to ordained leadership.

But this particular candidate is asking the church to do its own discernment. We - both the parish and the diocese - need to discern if we are willing to make the necessary accommodations that will enable the ordination of a person whose physical limitations call her into a non-traditional form of clerical leadership. I have met with the Bishop about this and he has lent his support to seeing where this could lead. Regardless of the outcome, I know that many of the approaches and activities we will be experimenting with - things like bringing people to church or Coffee Hour on a rolling tablet stand - will serve to make St. Clement’s more inclusive and accessible to many other people besides Jenn.

The church, of course, is not alone in exploring what it could look like to become more welcoming to people with various forms of disability. Last week the CBC published a story about a McMaster University research team that studied the systemic barriers faced by disabled students wishing to apply to medical schools. Requiring applicants to have borne a full-time course load in their undergraduate years, for example, may immediately disqualify some students for whom this is impossible. It’s a policy that excludes students who, given the chance, may well have proven excellent physicians. Doctors whose physical challenges have given them added strengths, enhanced understanding, and alternate perspectives can benefit their patients by bringing these gifts to their work.

The research paper calls on medical schools to become more accommodating and creative when seeking out the physicians of tomorrow. "Medical school has long been structured around the notion that to be any type of physician, you must be capable of being every type of physician," the paper says. "In this way, generic technical standards deny students entry into fields in which they may excel."

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the church community in Corinth, also speaks of applying rules and regulations in a way that is flexible and responsive to the needs of the community. The Christian Corinthians are trying to figure out if it is OK to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Some of that meat is consumed in temples around Rome, and some of it is sold in the meat markets. They know the idols aren’t gods, and that the meat is just meat. But if other people see Christians eating the meat, would they think the Christians were engaged in idol worship? And would this be a stumbling block to people just beginning to explore Christianity?

Paul says that "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." He says that anyone who claims to have knowledge, does not yet actually have the necessary knowledge. That they are, in essence, sophomores, whose know-how might be getting in the way of them seeing the bigger picture. The gist of his advice is that the church members in Corinth must be guided first by God, and by love - yes, they may be sophisticated Christians who know that the meat is just meat, but if their consumption of meat proves a stumbling block to someone else’s fledgling faith, they should abstain from it.

So, too, Jenn’s discernment for ordination is asking us, not to throw our church’s institutional knowledge and our way of doing things out of the window, but to step back and look at the big picture. How might we apply our knowledge in a way that does not prove a stumbling block to people who seek to grow in faith? How might we expand our welcome instead of closing a door?

In the months to come, Jenn will be exploring her vocation with the support of clergy and her parish discernment group. I ask your prayers for Jenn, and for those in her group: Sally Hinnell, Lynne Graham, Lynley Lewis, and Terry Aleck, an Indigenous Elder who is contributing his support and perspective. I know from my own experience that they will have a rich and rewarding time in their sessions together.

Whether or not we are engaged in a formal course of study at this time, may we all continue to seek that gift we pray for at our baptism. May God give us "an inquiring and discerning heart…a spirit to know and to love [God] and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works." May God lead us to that place where our deep gladness meet the needs of the world, and may we share our gifts there with generosity and grace. Amen.