Sunday, September 20, 2015

Celebration of New Ministry - The Rev. Greg Lisby and All Saints Church, Worcester

What an honor to preach at Greg Lisby's Celebration of New Ministry this afternoon at All Saints Church in Worcester.

Did you happen to see the Facebook post that shows a pastoral search committee gathered around a table? The caption reads: “Basically we are looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision who will inspire our church to remain exactly the same.” Ask anyone who served on the profile or search or transition committees in this parish: they didn’t work as hard as they did so that things could remain exactly the same here.

Or how about this one, also from Facebook? There’s an envelope and the return address says “Paul.” The caption below the envelope says “How St. Paul’s Letters Were Really Addressed.” And where the address goes, it says, “To the stupid, foolish, idiotic, Galatians who probably won’t even read this because they never listen to me anyway.

Now that’s both funny and really sad for lots of reasons that I am not going to dwell on tonight. The point, as I hope you all understand, is that none of Paul’s letters actually do begin that way. In fact, all of Paul’s letters begin with him reminding them that they are all saints. 
      To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world...
      To the Church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – grace and peace, etc…I give thanks to my God always for you…

      To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons – grace to you and peace…I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…

Admittedly the greeting to the Galatians is more curt than these others. But the reminder is there, too – of who they are and whose they are and of the ministry they are called to share together. Paul is adamant in those letters that it’s not about him or Apollos or anyone else: it’s about the Jesus movement.

Now many of you in this parish know me and you know my roots and early formation is in the United Methodist Church and I remain a kind of Wesleyan Anglican in many ways. Among other things this means that it is highly unlikely that I am about to preach a short homily and sit down. So in case your mind drifts let me make sure that if you hear nothing else that I say tonight, I pray that your hearts will be strangely warmed in hearing this: while we have gathered here tonight in the context of this Evensong to celebrate Greg’s call as rector to this great, historic parish in the second largest city in New England, this night is not all about Greg and Tim and their family – as wonderful as they all are. It’s about the ministry all you saints share in Christ’s name and the new chapter you now embark on. It’s about the work that lies ahead, guided by the Holy Spirit. Greg didn’t come here so that everything could stay the same.

The work that lies ahead is too big for even a young energetic rector, however; and too important for anyone to be a passive bystander. The temptation to sit back and evaluate a new rector as if our calling were to be Olympic judges and hold up a scorecard after every sermon is real, but it must be resisted. What this congregation needs – what every congregation needs—are not fans or critics of the rector, but witnesses. Disciples. Followers of Jesus, who are working together on God’s Mission. 

As you begin to live more fully into God’s dream for the new All Saints that the Holy Spirit is blowing you toward, there will be resistance. Count on it. Some will prefer their memories of yesterday to God’s dream for tomorrow. So keep your eyes on the prize. And do not lose heart.

I told the Search and Transition Committees over the past year and a half but I will say it now that a new rector is in place and we are here tonight: the transition didn’t end once the moving truck pulled in from New Jersey, or when Leah and Miriam started school. It takes a while. We have a Prayerbook that got published thirty-six years ago that some people still insist on calling the new Prayerbook. Greg, you are going to be the new rector for a while. It’s just the way it is. And there will be some growing pains for all of you.

But trust me: the day will come when you’ll be the old rector. Don’t blink; it can happen fast. It happens in the same way that our kids grow up fast. Sometimes, along the way, there are challenges to get through and fights that must be had. That’s just part of the deal. Just try to fight fair when it happens, so that there is room for forgiveness and for new beginnings. And don’t take it too personally. If there is one magical power I could give you and every priest in this diocese it would be Teflon skin.

Again our old friend Paul is an enormous help here. All Saints: be patient and kind and gentle with each other and with your new rector and with your newly ordained associate rector too. Keep faith, hope and love at the core – but especially love. This is what Paul discovered time and again in his relationship with those first-century Christians in Corinth and Galatia and Rome and around the Mediterranean Sea. Love isn’t a synonym for being nice all the time. But be kind all the time out of love for one another, and to build up the Body of Christ. Love shows us a way that is very different from conflict averse or passive aggressive behaviors, two very popular options in too many congregations.

How can we create space so that even our conflicts—large and small, real and imagined—become occasions for grace to be made manifest and for all of us to remember who we are and whose we are? Notice that was in the form of a question by the way. I don’t have an easy answer for you on that one. I can only suggest that finding ways to do so is the path to fuller and more abundant life and to healthier, more mission-focused congregations.  

All Saints: you didn’t call Greg all the way from New Jersey to drive a parked car. The stakes are too high. I read your profile very carefully, as I know Greg did. There is a mission, a job, a shared calling that will continue to emerge that is rooted in your rich heritage, but not limited by it. As you move into the streets to love your neighbors in this great city, that work that God has given you to do will continue to beckon. Where will you meet Christ? Not just here in this holy place when two or three gather together and there is great music, and the bread is broken – but out in the neighborhood where the face of Jesus is seen in the poor, and the sick, and those in prison.

Now I’m about halfway through; are you still with me? When I do finally sit down, one of the prayers that will be offered will go like this:

Everliving God, strengthen and sustain Greg, that with patience and understanding he may love and care for your people; and grant that together they may follow Jesus Christ, offering to you their gifts and talents; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The Rev. Greg Lisby being presented to the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher
Do you believe that? If you believe what you say with your lips tonight then I want to challenge you to something much harder: to live it in vestry meetings and staff meetings and in worship and in mission to this great city. Embody these words: we ask God to strengthen and sustain Greg, but God’s people can help answer that prayer by being agents of that strength, and people who help sustain your new rector – rather than working to weaken him or drain his energy.

Greg: may God give you patience and understanding and love and care for this people, God’s people. Your people, some days a people after God’s own heart and some days a little stiff-necked.

All of you: may you be followers of Jesus Christ, all saints, all ready to serve, all ready to offer your time and talent and treasure for the work that God has given you to do.

This is not some radical new idea that we thought up in the Bishop’s office last Tuesday. Which brings me to our Old Testament reading for this night: Greg, try this on – I think your job is to try to be something like Joshua, the son of Nun. Now I realize it will be tempting for you and maybe for some of us to want you to be Moses. It’s a cool gig, taking on Pharaoh, and parting the waters, and meeting with God up on Sinai amid all the thunder and lightning. But I urge you to resist the temptation to be Moses. First of all, you probably don’t have forty years.

Second: you aren’t the founding pastor here. You come here in the middle of something – following a whole bunch of other rectors. And by God’s grace you will be followed by a whole bunch more. Decisions you make today may well be graces your successor will one day thank you for, or messes that she will have to clean up. No pressure, though. So you don’t have to be Moses and in fact I advise against it.

But try to be something like Joshua, the son of Nun – whom I am certain had to listen at coffee hour from time to time to people saying, “We knew Moses. Moses was a friend of ours. You’re no Moses, Joshua.”

Three times in nine verses, God says to Joshua: be strong and courageous. Be strong and courageous. No, really – be strong and courageous. Our reading tonight included only two of those three imperatives but trust me, if you go back and look it up you’ll see that in the verse immediately before tonight’s reading it’s there as well.

I wonder if ministry might require of us that we be strong and courageous? Do not to be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord our God will be with you wherever you go. This is what we get, so far as I can tell, from this God of the Bible, this living God who refuses to be our pet. Sometimes we want God to be like our Google Map App and say “turn left” or “turn right” or “re-routing.” But from the first pages of Genesis to the end of the Revelation of John on Patmos – the God we get says, “I’ve seen the pain and suffering of this world, I’ve heard the cries of my people – and now I send you. Be strong and courageous.” The creative, redemptive and sanctifying Holy Trinity just says things like “Go, and remember I’ll be with you wherever you go, to the end of the age.

Rarely is this work glamorous. It can be beautiful, but it’s not glamorous to sit at the bedside of a longtime parishioner who is dying. Vestry meetings are rarely glamorous either, but sometimes they can be beautiful. This summer I traveled with a group of pilgrims from Episcopal Divinity School that included our bishop and his wife and some others from our diocese. One of the people I sat with at lunch one day served on the vestry at St. Paul’s Church in Selma over fifty years ago – he’s now in his nineties – at the time when that parish was voting to integrate racially. Well, it came to a vote because he forced the issue. It was tedious and contentious and he lost some friends in the process and the vote the first time around was 2-13. But he and his sole partner at that point didn’t let up. They didn’t lose hope. They were strong and courageous, until four votes later they got to an 8-7 vote for, and Jonathan Daniels came into church with a little black girl and sat in the very back. And then the biggest pledger promptly left the congregation and took his pledge with him.  (You can’t make this stuff up!)

The God we get is Emmanuel. Whatever comes your way as a congregation this is the promise that goes to the very heart of our faith: God is with us. So do not be afraid – all saints, you beloved of God. Be strong and be courageous.

This is not an easy time to be the Church. But you know what? I don’t think there has ever been an easy time to be the Church. One of Greg’s predecessors was born in Lowell and educated at Harvard. He served here during and after the Civil War. Now we may in fact live in a nation divided between red and blue states, a nation that is still trying to deal with the sin of racism, a nation tired of war and yearning for peace. But is there anyone here tonight who thinks that the 1860s were the good old days and an easier time to be the Church?  

William Reed Huntington
During William Reed Huntington’s tenure here (from 1861-1882) it may surprise you to know that with all that stuff going on in the world, the Episcopal Church was busy fighting about the liturgy. High church, low church, you know, the usual. Fr. Huntington tried, in the midst of all of that, to identify the essentials. In so doing he found it necessary to try to figure out what Anglicanism was really all about at its core. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, he was asking, what is “Mere Anglicanism?”  And this is what he said about that: 
The word [Anglicanism] brings up before the eyes of some a flutter of surplices, a vision of village spires and cathedral towers, a somewhat stiff and stately company of deans, prebendaries, and choristers…  But we greatly mistake if we imagine that the Anglican principle has no substantial existence apart from these accessories.
The fruit of Father Huntington’s labors can be found on page 876 of The Book of Common Prayer. Don’t look it up now; I’m almost finished and you can check it out later. Read it sometime when you are in the hall named to honor him, where we will gather for some refreshments after this liturgy. But here in short order is what he discovered: the essence of Anglicanism is about four things: (1) a commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God; (2) a commitment to the Creeds as the rule of faith; (3) the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, and there is a fourth one. What is it again? Oh yeah (4) bishops, the keystone of our governmental unity.

Now William Reed Huntington is no longer the rector of this parish. Gregory Charles Lisby – you are. And just as Joshua didn’t have to try to be Moses, you don’t have to be Huntington or Vinton or Davies or Cox or Beckwith or Bean or anybody else. Just be yourself. But it may be good counsel to stick with the essentials and not get too bogged down in the small stuff. And a lot of it, in the greater scheme of things, is small stuff. Don’t get stuck on the flutter of surplices and other modern equivalents. Keep first things first so that when you do fight you fight about the big stuff, the stuff that matters. 

All Saints: you don’t need to be a nineteenth-century church or a twentieth-century church. You need to living members of a living Body in this time and place, loving God and loving your neighbors – many of whom seem to speak Spanish, by the way. Be strong and be courageous.

You were looking for an innovative pastor with a fresh vision to inspire your church, not to remain exactly the same but to do this work with you. And you got him. Double down on your commitment to be all saints for this generation, this chapter in the life of this great congregation. Greatness for a people who worship a man who took a towel on the last night of his life to wash his disciples feet will not come by power or a larger endowment, but in the call to all the saints in this city by doing the work that God has given you to do. Be strong and courageous, and all will be well. God will continue to do great things through you.

Enjoy the ride. 


  1. WOW!!! Thanks for sharing this sermon with us!
    Prayers for you and your new congregation Greg!!! Love and many blessings!!!!

  2. I think that your sermon was excellent and on point. Things always change and hopefully we can control some of it and be open for the rest of it. Thank you Cannon Simpson for your words and support. Congratulations and God Bless you Greg as you start a new chapter with us at All Saints Church.