Homily for a Celebration of New Ministry (St. John’s Episcopal Church, Broad Creek and the Rev. Sarah Odderstol)

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It will not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Jeremiah 17: 7-8

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of St. John’s and for your leaders who have faithfully guided the congregation through a season of transition. You have waited a long time for this moment, and it hasn’t been as easy path. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing Sarah into discernment with St. John’s, and all that resulted in her call to join you ministry. I give thanks for family and friends, and those who surround her on every side.

It’s my happy task to call you to faithful and fruitful ministry, as you draw closer to the One who invites you to come to him as beloved children, experience the power of his reconciling, healing love and calls you to be like trees planted by water that does not cease to bear fruit.

The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation. There is so much for Sarah to learn and to do, so many tasks that are part of St. John’s everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations; challenges and opportunities some you may anticipated and others that will surprise you. Yet it’s also a time for discernment, as you clarify together your core purpose as a faith community and the particular part of God’s mission you are being invited to join.

There is, God willing, a long life of ministry ahead of you, and not everything that needs to be addressed can be addressed at once.  In this sermon, I offer for your consideration four essential tasks of this early season of ministry together.

Relationships
The first task is relational and organic. It takes time for one who has been selected as a spiritual leader to become that leader. There is no shortcut for the kind of relationship building that is the foundation of every healthy church.  St. Paul, using an image from the natural world, writes of being grafted into the life of a community much like a seedling is grafted into a stronger plant. You need time to get to know each other–you as a congregation becoming accustomed to Sarah’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. Sarah, in turn,  needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.

Gentle, courageous evaluation
If only we could do nothing else but get to know each other! Yet you are not a community on hiatus. There are decisions to make, plans to put into action, budgets to manage. How can you do the necessary work well and also save enough energy for the second important task of this season: gentle, courageous evaluation?

It’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision: where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening and to a larger sense of purpose at the same time. One author on leadership defines this as what you see from the dance floor and what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002).)

A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: so that. Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Tom Berlin and Lovitt H. Weems, Jr, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2001))

There is a lot of biblical inspiration for this kind of thinking. Once you start looking for them, you see the words so that throughout the Bible:

  • “Let your light shine before others” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)
  • “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Let me give you a practical  example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. He asked all those gathered to plan for the coming year to complete the following sentence:

Next summer our church will have a vacation church school so that….

At first very few people wrote anything at all,  struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School.  At last one person spoke up: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.”  “Are there any other possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another said: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that children will experience church as fun.”  The pastor responded, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.”

After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.”

That was a purpose they could be inspired by, get excited working toward and inviting others to join in. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated by standards of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love; were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time?

The purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to a greater purpose. If the vacation bible school no longer fulfilled that purpose they were free to consider something else. The focus became less about the  activity but the outcome.

Weathering a storm
The third task is hard and yet extremely important: weathering a storm together. I don’t know what the storm will be, and unless you’ve already experienced one, neither do you. But I know that one is coming, because they always do. There may well be more than one.

Remember this: how we handle ourselves in a storm has a greater lasting impact than the storm itself. while you’re going through it. There’s no choice, when the storm comes, but to go through it, however if you can all remember that’s what you’re doing, it can help create enough distance for prayer and reflection. It will also encourage, when the storm passes (for it will pass) a post-storm evaluation. What did we learn about each other? About ourselves? What mistakes did we make? How did Christ reveal himself to us in the storm? How might we plan for the future so to avoid the conditions for that kind of storm to resurface?

Drawing closer to Christ
I’ve saved the most important task of this early season for last.

In this season, I urge you, as your bishop and friend, to deepen your relationship with Christ. Create at least one new avenue exclusively devoted to that endeavor in your common life, and think as broadly as you can about that, so that as many people at St. John’s grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ as are able. I’m not talking about another evening class or mid-week service for your 10 most faithful attendees, but a whole church, multi-generational effort.

I have all sorts of ideas about that, and there are others who can be of help in this. No doubt the Holy Spirit has already planted this yearning in your hearts, and ideas and possibilities are bubbling up within and among you. Pay attention to them. Give time and energy to them, so that you might draw closer to Christ, hear his unique call for each one of you and as a community, and have something of spiritual value to invite others to share.

I am persuaded that the future of St. John’s, and all our congregations, depends on that kind of spiritual renewal and deeper experience of God’s love in Christ. Without it, we are running on our own energies, and our energies aren’t enough. Without it, we create a church in our image, according to our preferences, rather than open ourselves to the call of Christ to join in his redeeming work. But know that you needn’t do this alone. We are all in this holy work together. Now is our time, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.

Let’s pray together: Loving God we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of St. John’s, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We also give thanks for Sarah, for her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. And we thank you for her family. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Sarah and the people of St. John’s to a place of deep trust and affection; help them to live into these first months and years with open and discerning hearts; be with them through whatever storms they might face, and through it all, in worship, study, retreat, service, times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.

 

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