Sunday, October 23, 2022

St. Paul's Holyoke - Celebration of New Ministry

This afternoon, it was my privilege to preach the sermon at a Celebration of New Ministry for the Rev. Joel Martinez, who is the new rector at St. Paul's in Holyoke. He is such an amazingly talented priest. I admit I was a bit nervous about this sermon and didn't want to be the skunk at the picnic - everyone is so energized and excited, including me. But I followed the text for the day - and my experience. 

Today was a great day. But there will surely also be challenging days. If Joel and St. Paul's can "lean in" on the hard days and not resort to denial or passive aggressive behaviors, then today is truly the beginning of a beautiful relationship that will thrive over time. May it be so...

Good afternoon, Bishop Fisher, Joel and Francesca, St. Paul’s and others gathered here to celebrate this new beginning. It is a great joy to be with you today. This past spring, as details of this call were being sorted out, I was with Joel and others from across our diocese in the Holy Land. (Some of those folks are here today!) I got to see him let down his hair there and take in that pilgrimage with all of his heart. You have chosen well – on all sides and you are off to a very exciting start together. Things are happening and will continue to happen as the Jesus Movement rolls on. Thanks be to God.

I don’t want to bring things down. But I do want to follow the lead of these readings for the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem, so I ask that you bear with me for a bit.  I want to talk about conflict with you today because that is what is happening in that reading from the Acts of the Apostles: a case study almost.

We don’t usually do conflict very well in the church. We ignore it and it festers, or we get passive-aggressive. Those are, sadly, our two “normal” strategies in church life. But the Way of Jesus insists that we see conflict as an opportunity for spiritual growth and as an invitation toward deeper and more authentic community that frees us to focus on purpose. Just as in a marriage or deep friendship, there can be no intimacy without conflict. In figuring out where each person begins and ends we find our way to respect the dignity of everyone and that opens the door to actually do the work God has given us to do.

Acts 15 is a turning point, not just in the unfolding drama of Acts itself, but in the unfolding of the Jesus Movement that began on Pentecost in Jerusalem. For me to tell that story, I need to back up to the first eleven verses of that fifteenth chapter.

Certain individuals came down from Judea, and they were teaching that in order to be saved, you must be circumcised. That’s shorthand for saying, in order to become a Christian you first need to become a Jew. And then these words, perhaps the greatest understatement in all of the Bible: Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them. In other words, all hell broke loose at that next vestry meeting.

For Paul, this is more than a friendly theological disagreement. Either Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile or has not. Either Christ has broken down the dividing wall between male and female, slave and free – or not. For Paul, it can’t then also be true that you need to get circumcised for your Baptism to mean what it means. Either we are all one and in Christ there is no east or west – or we are just many with our own agendas and stories.

But as that wise Irish theologian has noted, we are One, but we are not the same. We are one, but we’re not the same. And we get to carry each other.

No small dissension and debate ensued. In other words, they forgot that they were One – they were dividing into factions and conversations had moved to the parking lot. In whispered tones people were talking about each other and not to each other.

The question is this: what do you do next? Find a new parish or denomination? We heard what that early Christian community in Jerusalem dared to do:

·       they kept silence;

·       they listened;

·       James spoke out of his experience;

·       they reached a compromise – a consensus – discernment about a way forward.

It’s simple really. And so very difficult. It’s easier to revert to old patterns. It’s hard to lean in. But it’s what we are called to. I wonder what might happen if vestries across our diocese chose to “dwell on this word” for a year or so as we find our way into new ways of being church after the collective international trauma we’ve been through? To keep silent, and listen, before speaking our truths from our own experience – in order to discern together where God is at work.

Paul and Barnabas needed to be heard or we wouldn’t be here today. For the Jesus’ Movement to move forward, they needed to listen to each other and hear the experience of those who had been working first-hand with the Gentiles. It’s so simple and so difficult, every single time the Church comes up against something new: ordaining women, fully including LGBTQI folks, confronting racism in this country, and classism. Spanish and English language differences is the easy part: you can improve on language skills. Harder than that is sharing one another’s stories, food, and culture. That requires taking a breath, being silent, listening to each other, and then a commitment to share our experiences.

It has never been easy to be the Church. In recent history St. Paul’s has faced some challenges even before the pandemic. And the whole Church, across denominational lines, has been shaking at the foundations. But the question that lies before us all today is this: what comes next? Not what used to be in the glory days, not what could have been done differently during the pandemic – but simply, clearly, where is God leading next? To answer that question requires some silence, and listening, and reflecting on experience, and discernment. You are all in my prayers as that unfolds.

Moving forward, guided by the Holy Spirit, will mean changing and change always brings some amount of conflict. There is no avoiding that. Conflict itself is not bad; it’s what we do when it arises that allows us to continue to move forward with a new sense of resolve and courage and purpose and hope. So fight fair when you need to fight. Be still and know God is God. Listen to one another. Share your stories with “I statements.” Pray together without ceasing. Call me if you need to phone a friend.

In my nearly thirty years as an Episcopal priest and in the past decade serving on Bishop Fisher’s staff, I’ve realized with a heavy heart how often the important work we are called to share in the name of Christ gets derailed by conflicts that are not addressed. The trick is not to avoid it or hide from it or get passive- aggressive. The trick is to see it as an invitation and work through it, with God’s help, to a place of more authentic community.

You are off to a great start. The next six months to a year are critical as you get to know and trust each other. Joel is clearly such a gifted priest but he also comes here as a brand new rector. He will make some rookie mistakes. And St. Paul’s, you are an historic parish in a changing city; you will make some mistakes, too, if you are serious about doing the work that God has given you. The goal isn’t to be perfect or to grade each other. The goal is to love one another and work together.

When things get difficult, be patient and kind and gentle with each other. Focus on what you are learning together, by God’s grace, not whose fault it was. Love is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. A parish that takes it’s name from the guy who wrote those words surely knows this. Be prepared to also play the role of St. James when that opportunity comes your way: to speak the truth in love, out of your own experience, in a way that finds a path forward rather than pouring salt on the wounds.

Toward this end, I want to close by sharing with you a prayer from John O’Donahue, for leaders, with this reminder: Joel is not the only leader here. He shares this work with wardens and vestry – with committee chairs and heads of ministry. So this prayer is for all of you, in the work that lies ahead:

May you have the grace and wisdom
To act kindly, learning
To distinguish between what is
Personal and what is not.
May you be hospitable to criticism.
May you never put yourself at the center of things.
May you act not from arrogance but out of service.
May you work on yourself,
Building up and refining the ways of your mind.
May those who work for you know
You see and respect them.
May you learn to cultivate the art of presence
In order to engage with those who meet you.
When someone fails or disappoints you,
May the graciousness with which you engage
Be their stairway to renewal and refinement.
May you treasure the gifts of the mind
Through reading and creative thinking
So that you continue as a servant of the frontier
Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old,
And may you never become a functionary.

May you know the wisdom of deep listening,
The healing of wholesome words,
The encouragement of the appreciative gaze,
The decorum of held dignity,
The springtime edge of the bleak question.
May you have a mind that loves frontiers
So that you can evoke the bright fields
That lie beyond the view of the regular eye.
May you have good friends
To mirror your blind spots.
May leadership be for you
A true adventure of growth.

May this next chapter in the life you will share together be, indeed, a true adventure of growth. United in Christ, may you find new and exciting ways to do the work that God has given you to do – in this time, and from this place.