Sunday, November 13, 2016

Remember. Consider. Hope.

My view of the 10 a.m congregation at St. John's
Today I was at St. John's in Williamstown, MA.  The readings for this 26th Sunday after Pentecost can be found here. Last Sunday, the rector who faithfully served St. John's for thirty years retired. While the national election from this week was no doubt on everyone's mind, including my own, I focused on the more local transition that lies ahead for St. John's than to say too much directly about national issues. 

My name is Rich Simpson. While I’ve known your former rector for almost two decades, and I’ve been getting to know your vestry and especially your wardens over the past six months or so, this is the first time I am meeting most of you. It’s an honor to be here.

I serve as one of two Canons to the Ordinary in our diocese. I am not going to quiz you all on this odd title, but whenever I do and I ask congregations who “the Ordinary” is, they think it’s them. But I always tell them that they are in fact rather extraordinary – the baptized, the beloved of God. And while I am here to serve you as you navigate this season of transition, and walk alongside you, I don’t work for you! I work for Bishop Fisher. He is the “Ordinary” – a word with a Latin root that means “overseer.” It shares the same root as words like ordination and ordinal. A canon is a person who hangs around a cathedral – in our case we have canons on the first floor and on the second floor of Christ Church Cathedral, where our diocesan offices are. So, as you all know Episcopalians love this sort of thing: we’d rather speak of the narthex than the lobby. But basically I am an Assistant to the Bishop, although that doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous. My primary area of responsibility is in helping congregations deal with transitions like the one you have now embarked on.

It’s been three decades since this parish faced a clergy transition, so you might be a little rusty. A lot has changed in the past thirty years. And maybe some of you are feeling a little scared, too. In fact, if you remember Elizabeth Kubler Ross and the stages of grief – the truth is that you are probably all navigating Peter’s departure at various speeds, and it’ll take a while to deal with some of those emotions.

St. John's, Williamstown, MA
This is why we need to catch our collective breath and enter into an intentional interim time with the Rev. Libby Wade before we go blazing full speed ahead. It’s not wasted time, or holding still time – but clarifying time. What does God have in mind next for St. John’s? We may all have our own ideas about that, but what we need to do together is enter a time of listening and of learning and of discovery. The better that goes, the deeper that goes, the easier it will be for me to identify strong candidates for this position who can lead you in the next chapter of the life of this congregation. So be patient, and kind, and gentle along the way.

But all that in due time. I’ll be glad to outline the process and answer any questions you may have after this liturgy. But we are here today in this holy place to do something that is more timeless, even as we recognize that time like an ever rolling stream is moving along, and that transition is an inevitable part of our life together in Jesus Christ. We gather here on this 26th Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost not to worship clergy, as much as we may adore them, but to worship the living God, as followers of Jesus. We look to Holy Scripture and the traditions of our faith, and reflect on our own experience – to remind us of who we are, and whose we are – and that there is work to be done.

We – the Church – are called to be light and yeast and salt in a broken world. Our work didn’t end with a national election this week; it continues as we double down on prayer - this work of binding up the broken-hearted and of working for justice and reconciliation, this work of listening to those who don’t have a voice or who are drowned out by the powerful or who voted differently from us.

Horton, in Springfield, MA
Behind my office at the Cathedral in Springfield is the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden. It’s hard to pick one favorite sculpture back there, but Horton (the one who hears a Who) is very near the top of my list. “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” It seems to me the work of the Church – of speaking up on behalf of the widow and orphan and the most vulnerable members of our society is a constant, even and especially in the midst of political transitions like the one we now embark on.

I have been scheduled to be here today for quite a while but when I finally looked at the readings and saw the text from Isaiah 65, I had to smile. The time when those words were written was a time of huge transition for God’s people. Let me see if I can remind you of the whole trajectory of the Old Testament – the book that Jesus simply called “the Bible” – in less than thirty seconds. Ready?

Creation. It’s good. Human beings. Very good. Broken, yes – imperfect to be sure, but still very good. Then there is the call of Abraham and Sarah to go to a new land. Trust me, says God, nor for the last time in the Bible. And then slavery in Egypt and a God who sees and hears their cries and then sends Moses to tell old Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Trust me, God says. King David – a good but flawed and all too human leader. The fall of Israel and the destruction of the temple, followed by the Babylonian exile. By the waters of Babylon God’s people lay up their harps and weep because it seemed like the end.

And it was the end. Yet in every ending, God is already working on a new beginning that God’s people are called to attend to, and embrace, and nurture. Even at the grave we are a people who make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, because we are a people who trust that life is changed, not ended. Transition.

Early morning in Williamstown
That brings us to Isaiah – the one the scholars call third Isaiah because it’s written over a long period of time and the first part is before the Exile and the second part is in the midst of it, and the last part – the part we read from today – is on the brink of heading home and rebuilding the Temple and the city and peoples’ lives. “Don’t get stuck in the past,” God says. “I’m about to do a new thing,

Are you still with me, St. John’s? As I read the Biblical narrative, related to time – there is an overarching connective theme that is caught up in the Paschal mystery:

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We say it so often, but notice those verb tenses. Past tense. Present tense. Future tense. We remember. We remember that even in the wilderness, even in exile, even in the valley of the shadow of death, even when we grieve or hurt, that God was with us. So we remember.

But if we mean to not get stuck there, if we mean to avoid nostalgia for the past, then we need to consider. That’s the word Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the word he uses when he says “consider the lilies of the field and consider the birds of the air.” When we consider we are trying to be fully present to the sacredness of this moment which will never come our way again – to all that we think and feel in this singular moment in time. The present is where God meets us – here and now on this fall day in this town, in this place.  Only too often we miss it because we are stuck in some past moment or worried about some future moment that may or may not happen. Quite literally perhaps some of you are still thinking about Peter’s last Sunday or when this sermon will finally end or when this process will end and a new rector will be called here. But we are here today, NOW, in a time and place where the risen Lord deigns to be our guest. Christ is risen! Consider!

And Christ will come again. The future is in God’s hands and that, I hope, is a great comfort not only as we reflect on what the next year or so will bring to this parish but also to this nation. The testimony of Scripture is that love wins, that we need not be anxious about tomorrow. The new thing, the new creation, may feel far away at this moment. But it’s what gives us hope to let our light shine today and to be present to this moment.  Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is not passive; it’s active, even proactive.

Now here is what I think: if I had one sermon to preach, it is this sermon about the Paschal mystery as it takes hold in a particular time and place. It’s that God isn’t finished with us yet and that we are called to share the work with God by remembering, and considering, and hoping. And here is what I’ve learned as Canon to the Ordinary in all this work on clergy transitions over the past three and a half years: this transition time is potentially a time for incredible spiritual growth. It is a time for us to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

And yet it is also a time when fear can get the better of us. Do you know that every time an angel shows up in the Bible they begin the same way? They are one-hit wonders, these angels! They say, “do not be afraid.” They say it day after day – someone has counted and said that it comes up 365 times in the Bible – one for every day. Do not be afraid…do not be afraid…do not be afraid.

Fear can paralyze us, and it can blind us and it can make us deaf to what God is up to in our lives, in our world, in this congregation. So we need to counter fear with laughter, and light, and joy, and hope, and faith, and love. And prayer. And when we do, transition becomes a rich season of possibility.

Williams College, Center for Development Economics
And so today I made a very bold decision for a visitor. Please don’t think I have anything against St. Paul. You have the insert so you can go home and read the text from Thessalonians. But Paul is always writing to congregations: to the Church in Thessalonica, or Galatia, or Corinth, or Rome. And I wanted to offer a word to the Church in Williamstown today – a parable that may not be in the Bible but that I think is quite Biblical in its orientation. This parable of the trapeze makes the claim that transitions are filled with possibility. That they let us be really real. That this time between the trapezes is a time when we are called to not be afraid, a time when St. John’s might learn to fly.

I don’t say this lightly, nor do I pretend it will be easy. Following Jesus is most definitely not the easy path. Libby isn’t Peter and whoever comes as your next rector won’t be either one. Each will be their own person and they will preach and act and even sound differently from Peter as I no doubt do today as well.

Some of you may know that I followed our previous bishop in Holden, at St. Francis Church. He’d been there for fifteen years before he was elected bishop of this diocese. They went through what I can only say to you was a terrible interim period. They survived it, but the person serving there was no Libby Wade. It was a hard fifteen or sixteen months and then I arrived and I was just thirty-four years old. On the one hand I was what every parish says they want: a young guy with a lovely church-going wife and two boys in tow who were seven and three at the time.

But on the other hand, I was a rookie, following a guy with a gray beard who was now our bishop. I made some rookie mistakes. When Gordon arrived in Holden he was in his thirties too, but they’d forgotten that. Some of you may remember Gordon has a slow cadence. People told me I talked too fast. (They had not yet heard Doug Fisher talk!)

Here’s what I think: because they missed some opportunities for learning in during the interim, my first two or three years became the interim. It took a while for things to settle down. But fast forward: when I left that parish myself – fifteen years and four months later – they had a wonderful interim and I think that in part has made it much easier for my successor to come in and pick up with that wonderful parish.

I pray that your experience this time around will be more like what St. Francis has gone through this time around rather than what they went through before I arrived. But I’m going to be honest: there are no guarantees. I trust and adore Libby. But the work will be challenging. Three decades have passed since Peter himself arrived here with a different-colored beard. I’ve seen the pictures!

A good interim period is characterized by lots of questions. Channel your inner Colombo; remember him? Don’t blame. Don’t point fingers. Ask questions. Notice when things get interesting, even as some balls will drop and you discover, “well, Peter did that, I guess!” It’s what comes next that really matters. Blame and shame are temptations to resist. Instead say, “What did we just learn? Where are we being called? What needs to die? Do we need that ball anymore? What is yearning to be born here?” 

Remember the living God who still says:

…I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
but be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…

Remember, and consider, and hope. I invite you to roll up your sleeves and join in. Christian faith is not a spectator sport. Don’t stand on the sidelines and cheer on or critique the interim and the wardens and the vestry. Pray for them all daily. And enter in more deeply to the new thing God is doing here. Listen for a Word of the Lord to encourage you to step up, and lean in. Remember, consider, and hope. In the name of the living God. 

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