Good evening to all of you. It is such a pleasure and an honor to be here with you today, to celebrate this joyous occasion, and to meet the people that my dear friend Alison has been telling me about so excitedly since she first met you. I have to confess that although I have been a priest for twelve years and an Episcopalian for thirty-three, this is only the third institution service I have been to, and, as a lowly Associate Rector, have never had one of my own. But I love the service – I love how it celebrates newness and continuity at the same time – the new ministry, the new relationships, the new thing that God is doing; using ancient words and symbols, some of which predate the church itself , to remind us of the enduring walk of our God with us, which transcends the comings and goings of any of us. Despite change our God and our communities endure. In that endurance there is always something new.
This celebration is, then, an act of hope. Not hope as in “I hope this is going to work out,” or “I hope that she’ll do something about the hymns” – those kinds of hopes, although often widespread at times like this, are really just wishes. The kind of hope I’m talking about is the hope that Peter talks about when he says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” Every time we celebrate a new ministry, we stand in defiance of the fear and dismay that is rumbling through the church these days. Every time we call a new minister or welcome a new member or baptize a new Christian, we give flesh to our hope in Jesus that, despite all, the reign of God is very near indeed. Ministers come and go, congregations merge and divide, members are born, grow up, arrive and depart, and yet our hope lies in the faith that amid all the coming and going of our transitory lives, the God who is the center of our faith does not come and go, but, as we heard in the reading from Joshua, is with us wherever we go. Today we get to both experience and express that hope.
As I said, I love this service, and I wish we would celebrate it more often. Not because I wish the tenure of Rectors to be short, but because I think it would be a fine thing if we celebrated all of the new ministries in our communities with the same pomp and splendor. It might be hard to imagine going to this much effort every time someone has their letter transferred from another parish, or joins the choir or the altar guild, or volunteers to keep the church lawn mowed, but we profess that all of those ministries have equal dignity, even if we don’t always act as if we believe it. If we were to celebrate all of those ministries, we might discover that we have more to celebrate than we knew.
“I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus offers this simple statement as a model, not just for clergy, but for all his followers. Mutual ministry is our goal, and don’t forget that the word ‘minister’ itself is synonymous with ‘servant.’ Congregations and clergy get in trouble when they forget that, no matter who does the forgetting. If clergy mistake themselves for masters of their congregations, or congregations forget to serve as well as be served by their pastors, things quickly go wrong. Even worse, the prominence of clergy in the congregation can make us forget that we are called to mutual servanthood with all of our brothers and sisters in the congregation, not just the pastor, and are called to a servanthood that may not be at all mutual in the world beyond our doors.
Now I realize from the stories that Alison has told me about this congregation that I am preaching to the converted here. This place, I have been told, is rich in mutual affection and care, and determined to minister to the needy in this community and in the larger world. But it’s still a good thing to remember. And, as your bishop, as any bishop, could no doubt attest, it’s a message that is very hard to get across to the congregations and clergy that most need to hear it. So there is an urgent need for healthy congregations, congregations that understand this call to mutual service – that live in this hope – to evangelize by example. Where words fail, deeds may persuade, after all, and it is my hope that by your mighty acts of servanthood and hope, you may inspire others.
It is, I understand, customary on these occasions, for the preacher to give some kind of charge to the new Rector and to the congregation. But the scripture readings have already offered charges enough: “be strong and courageous;” “do not be frightened or dismayed;” “the greatest among you must become like the youngest;” “lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord;” “speak the truth in love.”
Let’s let that last one stand as the charge for today: “speak the truth in love.” Paul tells us that by so doing we grow up into Christ, and build up the whole body in love. And those five words contain the two great charges Jesus makes to his followers: to love one another as he has loved us, and to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. But I would remind you that this is a charge that has a challenge at the heart of it, for whatever cannot be said in love is not the truth. Whatever cannot be said in love is not the truth. Remember this when challenges arise, when anger or mistrust or differences of vision or goal make mutual ministry or even mutual conversation difficult. In such times, and no congregation is free from them, it is all too easy to use facts as weapons or as snares, and to try to make our opinions and feelings into truths for the whole community. But if those facts and feelings and opinions that consume us cannot be spoken in love, they are not, in the end, the truth. And our God demands of us that we find a loving way to speak what is on our hearts if we are to say it at all. And if we learn to speak only in love to our own community, we will then be able to speak only in love to our divided church, to our hurting neighbors, and to the world. And that will make all the difference.