When a new rector arrives
I preached this sermon at the Parish of St Clements prior to the arrival of their new rector. Although set within a particular context, the message is broadly applicable to the arrival of a new rector, pastor, or senior minister.
Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s, once claimed that Adam had turned to Eve, as they left the Garden of Eden, and said, “Darling, we live in an age of change.”
St Clements is in a season of change. Liz Zivanov retired as rector at the end of 2015 and Canon Kate began her ministry as interim rector in March 2016. Next Sunday is her last; the Rev. Heather Hill begins her ministry as St Clements’ new rector on October 1.
Despite its inevitability, change, or even the prospect of change, can easily evoke feelings of uncertainty or anxiety
Biblical scholars and church historians believe that the Greek word ecclesia, translated as church, did not enter the Christian vocabulary until decades after Jesus’ death. Furthermore, no evidence exists to show that Jesus formally organized his followers. Hence, the conversation between Jesus and Peter in this morning’s gospel reading post-dates Jesus’ crucifixion.
The conversation reveals Jesus’ disciples’ anxiety about their new community. Dissent, motivated at least partially by the fear of change, appeared as Jesus’ followers developed differing opinions about what being a disciple meant. Being human, Jesus’ followers also said and did things that other of Jesus’ followers rightly or wrongly perceived as harmful or sinful. And so the question arose, how many times should one forgive a sinful brother or sister? The answer was not seven times, but seventy-seven times, i.e., more than one could conveniently track, meaning forgiveness without limits.
Difficulties in coping with changes in their journey as becoming Christians troubled not only Jerusalem’s Jewish-Christian community but also the recipients of Paul’s epistles. His epistles include lots of advice on how nascent Christian communities should deal with conflict and change. In particular, today’s epistle lesson offers four specifics helpful to St Clements as it lives into the next chapter of its life as a gathered community of Christ’s body.
First, welcome persons of little or no faith. Paul actually instructs the Romans to welcome those of “weak faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling.” In this post-religious age, in contrast to Paul’s era of pervasive religious belief, we rightly interpret “weak faith” metaphorically and envision St Clements as a home for spiritual seekers. In some ways, this is already true. St Clements supports twelve step groups, participates in ecumenical and interfaith ventures, and tries to be a warm and accepting community
However, no community ever perfectly embodies the spirit of aloha. Welcoming Heather, Doug, and their twins affords us an opportunity to practice aloha intentionally and then to try to maintain that practice so that nobody ever feels like a stranger in our midst.
Second, non-judgmentally celebrate one another’s faith journeys. Paul’s example of this is anachronistic. None of the meat sold on Oahu is sacrificed to an idol during the slaughtering process. However, individual passions about particular ministries, missions, and parish structures vary. Thankfully, God calls each of us to a unique faith journey. Illustratively, some persons deepen their faith through the four-year Education for Ministry program. Others find a deeper faith by attending Sunday adult forums or Bible workshops. Similarly, some persons find preparing feeding the homeless, working with children and youth, aiding Family Promise of Hawaii, or supporting another mission integral to their faith journey. Together, our separate efforts, like the parts of a body, comprise a whole.
In London about 200 years ago, when the umbrella first appeared on streets, religious groups were irate. They tried to have the new contraption banned. Their argument was simple: "Man is interfering with heavenly design by not getting wet." Living for two years in London taught me the value of a good umbrella.
Jesus never prescribed certain ministries, missions, or structures. Over time, the need for, interest in, and support of various ministries, missions, and structures changes. A new rector’s arrival, with her unique personality, gifts, and priorities, is a good time to assess existing efforts and programs, pruning those whose sale by date has expired and adding new ones to rejuvenate and energize our faith.
Third, embrace liturgical changes and maybe gain a fresh appreciation for our worship. Paul wrote about Christians who worship on different days, either the Jewish Sabbath or the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. A new priest inevitably brings her or his own liturgical emphases and style.
A tourist visited the home of a world-renowned Rabbi. The visitor expected to see an impressive home filled with valuable treasures. Instead, the visitor saw a humble, almost empty home. The shocked tourist asked, “Where are your possessions?” The Rabbi responded, “Where are yours?” “What kind of question is that?” the tourist said. “I’m a visitor here.” “So am I,” the Rabbi replied.
When we possess the liturgy, the liturgy becomes an idol. Instead, regard inevitable if still unknown liturgical changes and spiritual emphases as an opportunity for the liturgy to possess you and for the Spirit to move in your life in new and unexpected ways. As industrialist and inventor Charles Kettering said, "The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress."
Fourth and finally, agree to disagree and forgive real or perceived slights. Paul exhorted the Romans to not pass judgment on one another. The gospel emphasizes our duty to forgive one another without limit. St Clements’ new rector, with your help and God’s, will continue to build on the foundation and achievements of St Clements under the leadership of Kate, Liz, and prior rectors.
When Navy CDR Alan Shepherd, the first American to enter space, was getting for his first space flight, a reporter asked him, "What are you depending on in this flight?" He replied, "I'm depending on the fact that God's laws will not change."
Be assured that God is and will remain at the heart of St Clements. God will continue to feed and sustain you through the sacrament of Holy Communion; God’s spirit will give you the strength, courage, wisdom, and love to move into the next chapter of St Clements’ existence, drawing you and your new rector, Heather, the parish of St Clements, and those to whom you minister ever deeper into God’s love and the abundant life that is ours in Christ.