Sermon; All Saints' Sunday 2017; Year A
Today marks the one-year anniversary of my first Sunday at St. John's, of my first experience of this congregation at worship, and of your first experience of me as the incoming Rector of this parish. I say it this way intentionally because the role of rector is position-based, while the role of priest is relational-based. One year ago I did not arrive as your new priest, I arrived as your new rector. And I say it that way because any fool with a degree can be a rector, but it takes a special kind of fool to be a priest.
A rector is defined within the Constitution and Canons as a person elected to have full authority and responsibility for the conduct of worship and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish, subject to the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution and Canons of this Church, and the pastoral direction of the Bishop.
The Rector shall also at all times be entitled to the use and control of the Church and Parish buildings, together with all appurtenances (that means, “accessory;” I had to look it up) and furniture, and have access to all records and registers maintained by or on behalf of the congregation for the purposes of all functions and duties pertaining thereto.
In other words, it is a necessary position in this church so that we can function as a church. You don't necessarily need ME as much as you need the position.
A priest, though, is something different. A priest is one who is called to not only proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but is one who will love and serve the people among whom the priest works, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. A priest is to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God's blessing, to share in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, and to perform other ministrations entrusted to him or her.
During the course of 2015 and 2016 the parish and Search Team did their due diligence and decided that a guy from Oregon should be the 28th Rector of St. John's Parish. And I'm sure they hoped that I would become your next priest. Of course, they may not have known there was a difference; but maybe they did. That search ended with an offered and accepted call, a cross country move, arriving in the office on November 1, and our first worship experience together on All Saints' Sunday.
Over this past year I have officiated at several funerals, baptized three children, led one confirmation class, and officiated at one wedding. I have tweaked the Sunday liturgy and I have added daily Evening Prayer. Which reminds me, tonight is the annual solemn Evensong service at 5 and you are all welcome to come back and worship again in that ancient service. I have made uncounted hospital visits, dropped in at homes both announced and unannounced, called people on birthdays and anniversaries, Rambled 13 or 14 times, and generated 52-ish Wednesday Words. Some of this I got right, some of it I've gotten wrong, but I've always tried to give it my best shot.
There are other things that have happened over this past year that we have shared and which we may or may not remember, but the point to all of this is that being your priest is much more than being the Rector of St. John's. As I said, it takes a special kind of fool to be a priest; and Joelene, Cece, and I were probably more than a little foolish when we agreed to live on the other side of the country. But it has been good, there have been no regrets, and I will be happy to continue to be considered your fool.
I've touched on a few things about this past year, but it's important for you to know that the three of us have enjoyed getting to know the area, the people of this parish, and people in other walks of life. Cece found a job, has met some people, and made a few friends along the way. Joelene also found a job and is making friends in and around church. I, as you know, got hooked up with the local officiating group and have spent the fall working games with a good bunch of guys. And, most importantly, I'm getting to know you all better every day.
One way this “getting to know you” manifests itself is at the Communion rail. I realize that I can now call most of you by name without seeing your name tag (that doesn't mean you can stop wearing them). But I'm also learning more about you in deeper ways. As I move down the rail I know who has been sick and or hospitalized, who is having family difficulties, who has been hit with tragedy, who is experiencing good times, who has just received a blessing, who is happy, and who is sad. I carry all of these joys, sadnesses, trials, tribulations, celebrations, and sometimes more, with me every day. And on Sunday morning I see all of this played out at the Communion rail.
It can be a burden, yes, but it is also an honor and blessing to be let into your lives in such a way. This is the role of a priest. If you want a visible symbol of that role and of the office of priest, look at the stole. The stole is used to wrap the hands of newlyweds at the marriage blessing. The stole is used to cover the sins of the penitent. The stole is worn like a yoke. So when Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” the stole is the visible symbol of what he meant.
But it is not only personal, family, or spiritual issues that identify you to me; it is also what you offer to the life of St. John's. When I move down the Communion rail I also see fellow ministers who feed the hungry, visit the sick, show hospitality, sing out joyfully, help to maintain this beautiful house of worship, and so much more. We are, all of us, the ministers of St. John's Parish and the face of God in this place.
We are all in this together, you and I. We all stand with, support, and encourage one another. We are not only the face of God in this place, but we are also the physical representation of all the saints of the faith, of those who came before and of those who will come after. As the Collect says, “We have been knit together in one fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord.”
And today this brings up a question: Who are the saints of God? Well, you could look at our opening hymn – one was a doctor, one was a queen, one was a soldier, and one was slain by a fierce wild priest. You could also run down a list of them: Ambrose, Benedict, Cecilia, Francis, Hilda, Julian, Laurence, Perpetua, Polycarp, Peter, Andrew, James, John, and more. Great people of the faith who dedicated and sometimes lost their lives for the sake of Christ.
A friend of mine who is also a priest and a USAF chaplain had a quote up on his Facebook page in honor of All Saints' Day. It's a quote by Br. Robert L'Esperance, SSJE, and it gives one of the best definitions of a saint that I've seen:
Saints were men and women who understood the challenges of living the gospel in the context of their own places and times. They are remembered because they lived it with imagination and devotion. They used what they had been given to live their lives into the freedom of the kingdom.
Men and women who understood the challenges of living the gospel in the context of their own places and times. I would like to think that is us.
We have particular challenges facing us today in the living out of the gospel that weren't there 25, 50, 100, or even 10 years ago. Our challenges today will not be the challenges of our children. What are some of those challenges facing us today?
In the midst of the pledge drive, Fred would want me to mention finances. But that is always the case. What other challenges do we face?
Some challenges include: How do we effectively communicate with people who live within our sphere of influence? Do we know what God wants us to do? How are we spending our time? Do we have an adequate level of outreach? Do our neighbors know we are here? Do we offer deep, meaningful worship? Do we offer worship other than Sunday morning? What is not our Average Sunday Attendance, but what is our Average Weekly Impact?
These are some of the challenges facing us today. Are we up to the task? Are we ready to live as a saint of God in today's world? To co-opt and paraphrase a lyric from Sir Paul, “I look around me and I hope that it's really so.”
Over the past year we have come to know each other a little more deeply. Over the past year I hope I have come to be seen not just as the 28th Rector of St. John's Parish but as your priest. Over the past year I have hoped and prayed that this trend will continue for many more years.
This is a holy and good place that I'm proud to be a part of. This is a holy and good place that my family is happy to call home. This is a place that is learning to live life as a saint of God.
And really, that's what the celebration of All Saints' is all about: Remembering that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and remembering that we have been knit together in one fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord.
Today we celebrate All Saints' Day. We remember those who came before and those who are among us now. We are all saints of God. Let us face our challenges together, let us live with imagination and devotion, let us live our lives into the freedom of the kingdom, and let us never forget that we all bear the image of Christ on our souls and that we are God's representatives and messengers here and now.