He did ask one thing of me, however. I did not have to go back to seminary, but he wanted me in an Episcopal parish where I could learn something practical about my new denomination. He wanted me to be, as we said in the old days, a "curate." Now this sounds easy enough except that I liked being a campus minister. And I was nervous about parish ministry. Nevertheless, in the late summer of 1993 - nearly twenty years ago - I arrived at Christ and Holy Trinity, Westport as "a baby priest."
I didn't really know that term but when I met Pete Powell he made sure I knew that I was in fact a "baby priest." He took me under his wing. He was not the rector, but a priest running the homeless shelter and a great teacher, and the rector asked him to help me out. Early on, I asked him something about when we were "robing" for worship and he looked at me and tilted his head and said: "Methodists may robe, Rich...but Episcopalians vest!"
He scared me a little. (Alright, he scared me a lot!) But he also taught me a lot: not just about vesting and liturgy but about preaching, and teaching and taking people seriously in parish ministry. And before long we had became good friends. Among other things we shared a deep love for the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament. But we also shared a certain kind of vision for what the Church could be. And so fifteen years ago when I left Westport to become the rector of St. Francis, it took me all of about ten minutes to decide on who the preacher should be at my "Celebration of New Ministry."
I came to Holden in February 1998. Pete and I have, ever since, continued to meet for lunch two or three times a year in Hartford - about halfway between Holden and Westport. Yesterday as we shared a meal and conversation together I asked him if he still had a copy of the sermon he preached at my institution. Of course he did. It was, as I had remembered, a great sermon; but as is his style the first half was a bit academic - setting the table as it were. The sermon built on that and finished strong, and with his permission I share the second part of it here. As I celebrate fifteen years as rector of St. Francis, I am mindful of the many ways that we have been "fleshing this out" along the way, and for that I am deeply grateful. These words, then, from the Rev. Dr. Peter Powell.
Now I leap to today. Pluralism is a reality in American culture. We frequently hear parents say that for instance: They would like their children to be in church and have a religious education, but the swim team, soccer team, hockey team, baseball team can only get the pool, field, or rink at this time, and sports are so good for kids after all.
Or we hear parents say that for instance: I would like for my child to be more active in church, but kids are so tightly scheduled today that she or he just doesn’t have the time to be there as much as you’re expecting. After all dance lessons, French lessons, SAT preparation classes, piano lessons, and on and on demand so much time. Church just has to fit in.
Or we hear parents say that for instance: I would like for my children to be regular in Sunday School and learn about their faith, but Sunday morning is the only morning my husband and I have together with the kids and some days we just can’t rush and get to church.
Or we hear parents say that for instance: Joey would come to the youth group if it were just more fun. Last time only 3 other kids came and none of them were Joey’s pals. And they played stupid games and talked about not drinking, or safe sex and he felt awkward. When I was a kid youth groups were fun. We ate pizza and went skiing. Why can’t they be like they were when I was a kid?
Or we hear couples say that I don’t want to impose my tradition on my child. S/he will choose their own church, if any, when they’re old enough. Until then we don’t want to choose for them.
Or we hear each other saying: I used to go to church a lot, but I commute, I work hard, and I just don’t want to be made to feel guilty about my lifestyle, so I don’t go so much any more.
Or we hear each other saying: I’m a good person, better than most, I go to church from time-to-time but I can’t take it too seriously. I just try to live by the golden rule, do onto others before they do onto you? No that’s not it, do onto others as you would have them do unto you.
Pluralism is the reigning philosophy in our day to day lives and the cost of pluralism is that we lose sight of what’s important. Because we live as if it is OK for anyone to believe anything we don’t know how to have integrity believing who we are.When we argue against pluralism we all too often come down on antiquarianism, or authoritarianism and do as Archie commanded Edith, we stifle ourselves.
The task in the exile, in a see of pluralism, was to carve out a way of being clear enough about what it means to be a person of faith, indeed of faith in Yahweh, or for us in God as revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ to stand serene in pluralistic ocean which surrounds us. The exilic community sought to do this by emphasizing religious worship, especially distinctive religious worship and stressing how God had helped the community in the past. The refrain that occurs throughout the Torah is “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
If we as Episcopalians awash in a sea of pluralism are to stand as a people of faith, we have to be unafraid to claim for ourselves the faith that is ours and define ourselves by it. This will mean choices between the church and sports, extra-curricular activities, weekend trips, quiet Sunday morning with coffee and the newspaper. The people of Numbers said that they had made the choice and that God had constantly let them down. They were hungry for bread, meat and water. They wanted to go back to Egypt, but Moses leads them on. Faithless people lean on faithful Moses.
Now I could say that you have called into your midst Rich, who will be Moses to you and lead you to the promised land. Except that would be very disappointing because if Rich is Moses then none of you are going to make it to the promised land, you’ll just wander for a long time.
So Moses is perhaps not the model for a rector, and that should be a relief. Let us look elsewhere in Numbers for a model. Unfortunately Aaron and Miriam don’t work out well either. We only read of the 70 this one time, likewise of Eldad and Medad. We are better I think looking to Joshua and Caleb for a model.
It seems to me that a role for a rector in a pluralistic age is to be the one who proclaims to a people that the promised land lies before us and that we must have faith. It seems to me that a role for a rector in a pluralistic age is to be the one who brings back from that land some of the gifts of the land, to show that it is a blessed place flowing with mild and honey. It seems to me that a role for a rector in a pluralistic age is to speak the truth, even when it is painful.It seems to me that a role for a rector in a pluralistic age is to lead his people toward a dream. I don’t know what your dream is. But I do know that in the years ahead you will at times find God very fickle, and you will wish that God had given you Moses to stand in faith for you. But instead you have either Caleb or Joshua, who have some measure of Moses’ authority, but cannot speak to God face to face.
If Joshua then from time-to-time your rector will have to stand before you as Joshua did a Shechem and point to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim and say to you choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my household we will serve Yahweh.
You have called as rector someone who must stand with one foot in the present and another foot in the promise. He must always know that the promise is not yet and the present is not all that there is.
When you come to him and you say to him, Rich it is not fair I’m a good person and I have cancer, or my spouse has cancer or my child has cancer he must stand with you in the present and in the promise and show you that the present is not all that there is and that the promise is not yet.
When you come to him and you say to him, Rich it is not fair, I’m a good person and my spouse is divorcing me, or my children have rejected me, or I have been fired, or any other trouble he must stand with you in the present and in the promise and show you that the present is not all that there is and that the promise is not yet.
When you come to him and you say to him, Rich, life could not be better, I have all that I need, he must stand with you in the present and in the promise and show you that the promise is not yet and that the present is not all that there is.
When you come to him and say to him, Rich I have lost my faith and I cannot pray, he must stand with you in the present and in the promise and pray for you and with you and show you that the promise is not yet and that the present is not all that there is.
And when Rich comes to you and says to you, I am exhausted you must stand with him and say to him Rich, you are not Moses let us stand with you in the present and in the promise and show you that the present is not all that there is and that the promise is not yet.
And when Rich comes to you and says to you, I am exhilarated, you must stand with him and say to him Rich, you are not Moses. Let us stand with you in the present and in the promise and show you that the present is not all that there is and that the promise is not yet.
Ultimately the promise is gained only proleptically, that is we have in the present what is promised in the future. The promise is that even in a sea of pluralism there is identity for us, as there was for the exiles and as there was in the Exodus, if we can be people of faith. It will not be easy, it will not be clear, it will not be quick. Moses did not reach the promised land, but he saw it, the 70 elders did not reach the promised land, but they sought it. Their children reached the promise land because their parents kept the promise alive. Together you, your bishop and your community have the opportunity in the absence of stalwart Moses to be a fickle people with a fickle God, and journey to a promised land.
May God’s face shine upon us.