What follows is a portion of my sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, preached at St. Francis Church in Holden on May 12, 2013. The full manuscript and audio of the sermon can be found here.
When I was young naïve rector, I thought I’d figure it out - this congregation I mean; kind of like a rubic’s cube. Remember those? It would take some effort on my part but I thought I’d get everything all nicely lined up by colors, all my ducks in a row as it were. All of the sheep moving along together with a nice pleasant baaing.
I have learned over and over again that congregations just don’t work that way. First, of all even ducks and sheep have a mind of their own - not to mention human beings. Very few people come to St. Francis thinking “I can hardly wait until the rector gives us our marching orders and tells us what to do next.”
Now as it turns out this is a very good thing and I’m not complaining one bit. In fact it’s worth celebrating the fact of being part of a community where the ministers are all the people. But it does mean that the work of being a rector isn’t ultimately about implementing some strategic plan and telling people what to do. In a congregation like this one, it is quite likely that if the rector says, “why don’t we all line up here in order from shortest to tallest?” that someone is bound to say, “we always go from short to tall…do you have something against tall people?” And someone else will say “who said we have to do this by height at all? I think we should line up by age, or alphabetically. And someone else may chime in, “why do we always have to be so confined in these ways? Who needs stinkin’ lines anyway?”
So if you are like me (and a little bit OCD) then you have to learn again and again to let it go—that you can’t “organize” a congregation of God’s people as if they were a rubic’s cube. The system keeps changing and shifting because it is organic; because it is a living Body. People die and move away and others are born and move in. Life in Christ is more like a river that you cannot step in twice, and the only real constant is change. As that great old hymn puts it, time itself is an ever-rolling stream.
Yet it’s hard to get an “amen” on this, even when we know it’s true, because transitions can be difficult. Some part of us wants the Church to stay the same in an ever-changing world. That is neither possible nor desirable, however. At some level this Sunday after Ascension takes us deep into the heart of this truth.
Because a Church that is waiting on the Holy Spirit is a Church that is learning to pray, and to trust God, and to know with Dame Julian of Norwich that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
Leaders come and go, but God’s people are sustained and find their identity in times of transition as they learn anew the power and centrality of prayer and that the God who was our help in ages past will be our hope for years to come.
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one… the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
I like the way that a contemporary Irish theologian has put it: “we’re one, but we’re not the same; we get to carry each other, carry each other.” In times of transition, we get an opportunity to discover and to rediscover this truth again and again, and to remember that our unity does not come from our being organized by a bishop or a rector or a warden. “Organized religion” is kind of an oxymoron, anyway; like jumbo shrimp. Nor do we keep our unity by standing in place and circling the wagons. We are members of a Body, and anything that is alive is growing and changing.
We are one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other. In doing that work, over time and by God’s grace, we discover again and again that we really are God’s beloved. As we make our way through the wilderness we begin to see that it is an adventure, and that the Lord really does provide us with daily bread. And so many other surprising gifts along the way.