In the year 1883, on the 14th day of October, the Episcopal Church ordained Henry Winter Syle to the priesthood. Mr. Syle was born in China, the son of missionary parents, and became deaf at an early age after contracting scarlet fever. He went on to be educated at Trinity College in Hartford – the same institution from which Dick Mahaffy received his undergraduate education – and at Yale University.Syle was a student and a parishioner of Thomas Gallaudet and through Gallaudet’s influence, he became more and more involved in Christian ministry with Deaf people. Henry Winter Syle was the first Deaf man to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, and the first to be ordained in the United States. He went on to become the founder of All Souls’ Church of the Deaf in Philadelphia.
Today we are gathered for the ordination of Richard Mahaffy, who in a few moments will become the 49th Deaf person to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Dick, you are joining a long succession of Deaf people who have given their lives to God and to the Church in ordained ministry, a line that stretches all the way back to the ordination of Henry Winter Syle in 1883. You should be proud of that. Remember the men and women who have gone before you, and who are now praying for you and cheering you on from their place in the heavenly kingdom.
But you are also joining today a much longer line, one that stretches all the way back to the apostles, who were sent out on mission by Jesus himself. Just as Jesus chose them and sent them out to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom, so they chose and sent others after them to do this same work. And so it has gone on, generation after generation. Each generation has handed the tradition on to the generation which followed it, down through the ages and to this present day. We call this process of handing on the tradition from one generation to another “apostolic succession” and we say in our creeds that we are an “apostolic” Church.
What does it mean to be an “apostolic” Church?The catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer gives this answer:
The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people. (BCP, p. 854)
The Church to which we belong was founded by the apostles, who were the original companions and disciples of Jesus, and whose teachings and practices have been passed down, generation after generation, to us.
If we are an “apostolic” Church, we must try to understand what it means to be an “apostle.” The word “apostle” comes from a Greek word which literally means “one who is sent.” Apostles are witnesses who are sent into the world to proclaim their message to others.
Notice that I said that an apostle is a “witness” – he or she has to have seen something or experienced something. If a witness stands up in a court room and says, “Well, I wasn’t there but my friend told me what happened,” they would be dismissed immediately. A witness will only be believed if they themselves have actually seen or heard something.
When the disciples were choosing someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot to restore the number of the apostles to twelve, they insisted that the person had to have been with them and with Jesus. He had to have had first-hand experience of Jesus to qualify. St. Paul argued that he had the authority of an apostle because, even though he had never met Jesus in person, he had encountered him on the road to Damascus. So he claimed that he was an apostle, too, because he had ‘seen’ the Lord.
Dick, you are part of this long line of “apostolic succession,” which means that you have a responsibility to hand on to others the rich Christian tradition that has been handed to you. But you also have a responsibility to witness first-hand to what God has done for you through Jesus Christ. People want to know how YOU have encountered Jesus. They want to know what difference knowing Jesus has made in YOUR life. They don’t just want to know what you learned in seminary; they want to know what YOU know and love about Jesus. You are to be a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ – not only as the Christian tradition teaches it, but as YOU yourself have experienced it!
An apostle is a witness who is SENT into the world to proclaim Good News. And now you are being sent – sent by God, by the Episcopal Church, by the parish of St John in Northampton, and by this congregation – to bring Good News to those who are weary and broken, those who are lost or forgotten, those who are marginalized or oppressed. You are to be a channel of God’s love and compassion to them, an instrument of God’s healing and saving grace in their lives.
And you are ESPECIALLY being sent to those who are Deaf. As St Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:13-15a)
It is obvious that you are uniquely qualified to bring Good News to Deaf people because you yourself are Deaf. You understand Deaf culture and language. You know what it is to grow up in a world without sound. You understand the ways that Deaf people are often oppressed and marginalized in society. You know their frustrations and the obstacles they face, and you also know their gifts and their God-given potential. You believe in them.
God has chosen you for this task. God is sending you into the world to spread God’s love to Deaf people – but not to Deaf people only. You are also called to be a minister of reconciliation between hearing and Deaf people, to bring people together and to help them to understand each other. You are called to help them love and value one another, and learn to live and work and pray together as the ONE Body of Christ that they are.
This is such a great responsibility that you will be unable to meet it. And that is why you will have to rely on GOD – every hour of every day. It is GOD’s ministry, not ours. It is GOD’s work, not ours. We simply offer ourselves. We make ourselves available to be used by God to further the mission of God in the world. We are like Jesus, who came not to do his own will, but to do the will of the One who sent him.
When I was in college, I had a job working with children with disabilities in a residential school. I remember one evening watching one of the boys trying to cut a piece of meat on his plate. He struggled and struggled, but his hands and arms were too weak. Finally, he gave up and looked to one of the staff members for help. I remember how the staff person came up behind him. She wrapped her arms around him and put her hands on his hands, and together they cut the meat. His strength was joined to her greater strength, and together they accomplished a task that he could not have accomplished on his own.
In the same way, you will have to look to God, whose strength is much greater than yours, to come alongside you and to work in you and through you. Give your strength to God, and let God’s strength be joined with your strength to accomplish God’s work in the world. Ask for God’s help every day. Look to God always, and put all your hope and trust in God. “Apart from me,” Jesus said to his disciples, “you can do nothing.”
Today, you will become the 49th Deaf person to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, joining a long line of men and women stretching back to Henry Winter Syle. Today you will join an even longer line of men and women stretching back over 2,000 years who have been called by God to serve the Church and the world as ordained ministers of the Gospel of Christ. Today you will be set apart as a witness to Jesus Christ, and you will be sent into the world that God loves so much, to carry God’s love and forgiveness and hope to those who need it most.
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