Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

On this Second Sunday after Epiphany I am with the good people of  The Church of the Nativity in Northborough.  Last Sunday their long-time rector, the Rev. Len Cowan, announced that he will retire from parish ministry this summer. Helping shepherd congregations through seasons of transition is a big part of my work as Canon to the Ordinary in Western Massachusetts - and one of the parts I like best. 

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Today is the second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. That word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words: epi-phanos; literally, “to shine forth.” The Light of Christ has come into the world, not just so that we might let that light shine in our hearts or within the walls of this building, but out on the streets of Northborough and the surrounding towns from which you all come. These six weeks between the arrival of the magi and Ash Wednesday can be summarized succinctly in the popular hymn, “I Want To Walk as a Child of the Light.” That’s the Cliff Notes version of what this liturgical time is all about:  “we want to see the brightness of God… we want to follow Jesus…” Epi-phanos. Shine forth! Today’s opening collect reinforces this point in the language of The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I came to this diocese to serve as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden in February 1998, almost exactly seventeen years ago this week. At one of my earliest clergy gatherings in this diocese we prayed for the Rev. Bob Brandt, who was the rector here at Nativity at the time. We clergy all laid hands on him. I was new, but for those who’d been around a while, the death of Bishop Denig was still raw and even as a newcomer I could see it in their eyes. Bob’s illness and subsequent death surely had an impact here at Nativity, but it also was felt across this whole diocese, because when one part of the Body hurts we all hurt. A year or so later, Father Brandt joined the saints triumphant.

Recently I was perusing your website and under the heading “Heritage, history” there is a summary of what those next couple of years after Father Brandt’s death were like here. I’m not sure who wrote these words but they say it better than I ever could:

In the almost two-year interim, the parish grieved, struggled, but continued its mission and ministry under the guidance of its leaders, the diocese, and the Holy Spirit.

I encourage you to meditate on those words – as a “word of the Lord” rooted in your own experience as a parish. In the last clergy transition this parish faced, you grieved and struggled, yet you continued to focus on the Mission of God that is bigger than any rector. How? Under the guidance of your lay leaders, the diocese, and the Holy Spirit. While the circumstances are very different this time around, I submit that this is still and now again the work that God has given you to do.

I was not quite an old-timer by February 2001 when Father Len left Agawam to become your new rector. But by then I knew enough about him and enough about this parish to sense this was a good call for everyone. To say to you that he has been a good and faithful colleague to me as a neighboring priest for the next dozen years would be an understatement.

Now, as Len and Hallie prepare for retirement and the next chapter in their life together, this chapter in Nativity’s history which has brought about so much healing is coming to an end. A new chapter will be written, a chapter that will surely build on the good work that Len has done here. I stand before you today to let you know that the people of this parish are close to the heart of your bishop and me, and you will be in our prayers as this time of transition unfolds. I cannot tell you with certainty how long this interim time will last, but I encourage you to remember and to hope, to stay focused on the mission and to trust your leaders, the diocese and above all the Holy Spirit. Let the Light of Christ keep shining and all will be well.   

Clergy are invited into people’s lives and entrusted with a level of intimacy and care. And then that chapter comes to an end, one way or another. Sometimes those endings are really good, and sometimes they are really painful. Most are a mix. This transition will be different from the last one: retirement is obviously very different than a battle against cancer. Even so, some of the same emotions will be present this time around, especially for those of you who were here when Bob died. Along with other emotions, there will be grief and struggle as this transition unfolds, even if you feel genuinely happy for Len and Hallie. My job as a member of the bishop’s staff is to be honest about all that and to trust that if Nativity could do it before under much more difficult circumstances, that you are poised right now to do it again, and that this in-between time that lies ahead will be a period of spiritual growth and renewal – a time for the Holy Spirit to get busy.  I know that many of you are eager to talk about the technical aspects of all of this – the details of search committees and of finding an interim rector and I promise we’ll get there a little bit today after this liturgy and a lot more as the next few months unfold. For today I want to simply offer two words of advice which I hope are, for now, enough.  Say thank you to the Cowans, and pray without ceasing.

You have five months to say thank you and goodbye to a rector who has served you well. Thirteen years is a long chapter in the history of any congregation and this particular fourteen years has not been the easiest. Not only is it always challenging to follow a rector who has died while serving, but the past decade or so has been an unsettling time in our world and in the Church. Through it all, you have been led by a faithful pastor. This is worth celebrating.

But you will not ever bond with Len’s successor until you let Len go. This is sometimes a difficult thing to understand. It’s tempting to see the diocese as rigid or legalistic, but the truth is that it’s about how pastoral relationships work. I followed a beloved pastor in Holden. If he had not kept strong boundaries, who would ever have asked me to officiate at their wedding, when it was he who had seen them grow up? Or baptize their child, when it was he who had been there when the parents exchanged vows. Or asked me to preside at a funeral, when it was he who had visited them when they were sick? You get the point… pastoral ministry is about relationships. But while friendships last forever, pastoral relationships have a beginning and an end. I’m now at the other end of that myself – as former parishioners near and dear to me begin to bond with their new rector. Clergy are stewards of God’s amazing grace and privileged to be invited into a congregation’s life for a season. But for everything under the sun, there is a time and a season…

I recently had a doctor retire on me. My first reaction was anger. Really. I’m not proud of that, but it’s honest. I loved her and she knew me and not me alone; she’d been with me and with my two sons as we have struggled with Crohn’s Disease over many years now. And now I have to bond with a new GI doc? How could she do this to me? I’ve mostly gotten over it, but it took some time. I thanked her because she was a great doctor and because deep down I knew she deserved to retire and that’s it’s not all about me. I’ve since found a new doc who is a great guy and young, because I am not going through this again! But I’m still in the process of bonding with him. He doesn’t know me yet and thankfully my health has been good so I’ve not yet needed him.  That will take time.

Are you still with me?  Let those with ears to hear, listen! Your immediate work in these next five months or so is to find ways to say healthy goodbyes as a community and not just individuals. Include your young people. Celebrate. Shed a few tears, too. Give thanks for what has been and for what is, in order to open your hearts to what will be in the next chapter in the life of this congregation, a chapter that you will help to write.

I said I had two words of advice. The second is to pray without ceasing, starting right now. For this one I want to return to today’s first reading, to the familiar call of Samuel. Samuel is just a boy at a time, we are told, “when the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.”  I wonder if we live in such a time ourselves? The eyesight of the old priest, Eli, has grown dim. He’s getting old, and his chapter is coming to an end; he’s way past ready for retirement. (Now listen – do not tell Father Len I came here and compared him to old Eli! This is not my point!) But here is my point: today’s Old Testament reading is a story of transition – and while the details may be different, I think it will be interesting for all of you to pay attention to these kinds of stories from Scripture in the months ahead. There are lots of them. And the point is always the same: God is with us in times of transition, calling us not back to the leeks and melons of the past but forward, to a new day, toward the promised land. God apparently likes doing new things, even when they push us out of our comfort zones.

Notice in this story that it takes Samuel some time to get it right. The word of the Lord was rare, after all, and visions were not widespread. He hears his name but he isn’t sure what to do or what it means. It’s almost comical, his waking up in the middle of the night and not knowing what is happening; except for anyone who has ever been awake in the middle of the night and wondering what God would have them do. It’s not so amusing when it’s you.

Pray – by which I mean not just asking God to do stuff for you but by listening for that voice of God that calls your name in the middle of the night. We’ll get to the new rector stuff, but for now get used to listening for the Holy Spirit. Remember that history from your webpage:  in the midst of all pastoral transitions, the work is to stay focused on mission and ministry, under the guidance of your leaders, the diocese, and the Holy Spirit. Let your light shine forth! Come, Holy Spirit!

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