Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2018 Numbers 21:4-9

Good morning! I’m Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and I’m here to celebrate with you – your time in-between is just about over.
Next week you will welcome your new rector as he begins your ministry among you. I’d like to reflect on how this time of transition has been for you all, and where God has been in the midst of it…because God is always in the midst of it.
Let’s consider the Old Testament reading. We are with the people of Israel as they are guided toward the Promised Land by God. Here’s the thrust of what’s going on here. They don’t really remember how bad things were when they were enslaved in Egypt, and how God used Moses to get them out from under the thumb of pharaoh. They don’t really remember how hungry they were and how God provided them with miraculous food, fresh every single day, in the form of manna and quail. You know, you go to a high-end restaurant downtown and you get served roasted quail, you know it’s going to cost you $30 for that entrée, but God’s delivering it for free. But the people forget, and complain. They don’t really remember the provision for their care by God and they respond with something that feels like “Yeah, well, what have you done for us lately?”

And now as they continue to proceed through the desert, they’ve got a problem – they keep getting bitten by snakes. Not a surprise – it’s the desert, after all, and any creatures that can survive there are going to be tough and nasty. Snakes. And God once again provides, when he guides Moses to create of a talisman of sorts, a bronze snake that encircles his walking stick, and whenever someone gets bitten by a snake, if they look upon that talisman, they survive the snakebite. Great stuff! God keeps on providing even though these people of his are whiny complainers who seem to forget what has already been provided for their journey about fourteen seconds after they’ve received it. Before they get to the Promised Land, there will be a lot more of this, and they will keep complaining. But God continues to walk with them, because that’s what God does. God so desires to be in relationship with God’s people that God doesn’t step away, doesn’t refuse their cries for help, doesn’t abandon them, even when they abandon God.
I raised five teenagers. Five. Now those of you who have survived raising teens knows that when you are in relationship with someone you have created, made in your genetic image, they don’t always appreciate what you’re trying to do for them, and they sometimes treat you less than lovingly, but you still love them, and you still do not turn your back on them, even though they may have frayed your last nerve, because you love them, and these teens are going through their own journey to maturity, and it’s hard and there are poisonous snakes out there that threaten them at every turn. You love them through it all, even the most difficult moments. I wonder if God feels that sometimes, too, with us human beings.
This parish’s journey to get to this day has been a complicated one, marked by pain but also marked by grace. You wondered if you could survive the departure of a beloved rector who was, for some of you, the only priest you ever knew. How would you be spiritually fed? Who would comfort you? Who would inspire you to follow Christ?
God provided. You had two wonderful associate priests who remained. Thank you, God, for V. Thank you, God, for M.  You had  professional staff and lay leadership who were asked to take a larger leadership role, more in line with the way we now know that churches function best, in collaboration with the clergy. Thank you, God for the professional staff and the Vestries! Remember that, because it will be important in the future.
In addition, you had a gifted interim who came and did the difficult work of helping you to imagine how you might be church in a fresh way. It is a fact of life that there is always a need to examine the way a church functions, administratively, pastorally, spiritually, when there is a transition. Implementing best practices as they are now conceived, helping staff work together effectively, making the hard calls when change needs to occur: all of these are the work of the interim. Those priests who do this work know that they will probably step on some toes and skewer sacred cows – they do not do this work to win your hearts, they do it to prepare this fertile soil for the seeds of a new relationship with the next rector. And it is true that some of you didn’t much care for some of L’s decisions. But he did precisely what he was supposed to do – to reorient, to open hearts, to shift the manner of conversation between ordained leadership and lay leadership, to till the soil of this wonderful parish.
It did not always go smoothly, and here I’m going to name some hard truths that might make you a little uncomfortable.
The tension over the dismissal of an employee was not surprising – termination of employment in faith communities is never easy, but this was truly necessary. But I would point out one important thing to attend to: if your former rector had done the firing, there would have been no push-back, because he was R and you trusted his professional judgment. But it wasn’t R who did this, it was L. And you had not had the time to build up the trust relationship that would have allowed you to give permission to L to do what he was ordained and called to do. So there was tension. Remember that, because it’s important when we talk about what’s coming next.  But thank you, God, for L!
What happened in this time of change wasn’t forty years in the wilderness, and L would be the first to say that he isn’t Moses, but here’s the next thing I want you to remember: J isn’t Jesus.
For those who are happy that the interim is gone, and who think that J is the magic priest who will make all sorts of magical things happen, remember that. J is a priest who serves Jesus and Jesus’s people. He is not Jesus. He cannot do the work alone. If you have discovered anything during this journey, you have discovered that you are strong, capable, resilient people of faith who can imagine and plan and implement the next chapter of the story in this place and this time. You don’t get to forget that when J arrives. You don’t get to say “the priest is here now, I can go back to just sitting in the pew and listening.” You are the church. Each and every one of you, beloved children of God, created in God’s image, gifted, capable, loving…you are the church and you are all workers in the vineyard.
Here’s the secret you’ve discovered as a result of this time: priests come and priests go – we are all temporary companions on your journey – but the church is still the church, and you are this church. Priests have a particular role in the church, sacramentally, pastorally, as educators, as vision casters, but the church is the people, each and every one of you, which means you all have your roles as well. Thank God for each of you!
So what does this mean for you on the eve of the arrival of your new rector?
First of all, what joy and blessing to have reached this point! Your Discernment Committee did brilliant, prayerful, spirit-led work that matched the deep discernment work that J did, and that evolved into continued discernment between J and your wonderful Vestry.
…and I remind you that this was and continues to be a process of MUTUAL DISCERNMENT. If you’re still thinking of this as hiring an executive, let that notion go. The relationship between priest and parish is covenantal. This is someone who will walk with you on your most joyful journeys and in your darkest hours. This is someone who will be a part of a team who will be available in emergencies 24/7/365. This is someone who will be the keeper of your secret pain and the guide to your joy in Jesus Christ. You can’t write an employment contract that delineates that kind of relationship…
…which leads me to my second point: mutual expectations. In some ways, the relationship between priest and parish is closer to a marriage than employment. My husband is a therapist who does a lot of work with couples, and he often reflects on the fact that if one partner doesn’t tell the other what their expectations, their hopes, their dreams, their worries are, it’s a recipe for problems. If I don’t know what you think I’m going to deliver, I may offend you without even knowing that I’ve done so. And if you punish me for that offense, especially if you say something like “you should KNOW what you did wrong,” it’s not going to get better.
So what might the mutual expectations look like? I’d like to suggest that a way of approaching expectations runs something like this:
We love God and God loves us. We look for God in each other, and we treat each other with dignity and respect.
We share our hopes and dreams and listen for others’ hopes and dreams. Every voice has value and should be heard, but not every dream can be fulfilled.
It’s about God and God’s will for this place.
Priests are human. They occasionally make mistakes. Parishioners are human. They occasionally make mistakes. We show each other grace, offer forgiveness, and try to repair breaches.
We do not assume why things happen or are done in a particular way, and we do not ascribe motives to actions. We simply ask each other respectfully,”can you explain that to me?”
There is only one judge, and that’s Jesus Christ.
When it’s about winning, it’s not about God. We strive to fulfill God’s will, not win an argument.
Do think about what kind of covenant of mutual expectations you and J might share it’s a recipe for living as God wants us to live.
One last thought: God has sent you J. He has gifts, skills, experience. He is unique. If you start your time together looking backward to compare him with your prior rector, you deny yourself the possibility of looking forward to what God has in mind for you. You might miss what God is planning…and I have no doubt that God has great plans for you, and that with J as your spiritual leader, you can fulfill those plans.
The time-in-between is over. Put on a fresh pair of walking shoes, because the next part of the journey, the beginning of your work together, awaits. God bless this parish, God bless you for what has gone before and what will come to pass, and God bless your new rector!

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