I want to speak this evening about the joys and sorrows of serial monogamy. Ahh! Now I see I have your attention. So, hold that thought and follow along with me while I digress for a moment.
Tonight, in the lections chosen we commemorate Francis – a most remarkable man of God. The legends surrounding him make him the most popular culture saint of our time. Casting my eye over the age range here tonight I am quite confident that many of us became enamored with Francis after experiencing Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon – a depiction of Francis’ story steeped in 1970’s warm romantic hue.
Each generation it seems finds in Francis new inspiration – including the present Pope, of all people. So, I do not intend to say more about Francis other than to note the genius of his ego-uncluttered openness to God made manifest in the grandeur and beauty of the creation. His creation-centered spirituality certainly makes him the saint of this moment as we struggle to embrace the implications of looming ecological disaster.
We have also heard this evening some powerful and disturbing words from the book of Job. Words that remind us of the partial nature of our knowledge and the narrowness of our vision. Unlike Francis – our vision is clouded with self-preoccupation and protests of self-importance – cutting us off from the divine energy for renewal. So much of our vision – both individually and in community is hedged-in by our need for reassurance. We strain to hear a false note of security – a grasping for knowledge as a defense against the uncertainties of the future – always in the process of becoming known.
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfil,
and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
and are delivered of their young?
God’s responds to Job in rhetorical metaphors that expose the human dilemma. We cannot know what we feel we need to know – and so we take cover behind a protective wall of hubris.
Last year, Bishop Nicholas encouraged the clergy to read Susan Beaumont’s inciteful book How to lead when you don’t know where you are going. I was so captivated by the title I kept ordering the book before discovering I already had 2 copies on my shelf. Sometimes it pays to read the books that adorn one’s shelves.
Beaumont’s thesis is how do you lead an organization stuck between an ending and a new beginning—when the old way of doing things no longer works but a way forward is not yet clear? She calls such in-between times liminal seasons—threshold times when the continuity of tradition disintegrates and uncertainty about the future fuels doubt and chaos. In a liminal season it simply is not helpful to pretend we understand what needs to happen next. Prophetic words for us in this moment of history.
I’m certain that every priest sitting in this church tonight, every member of a RI congregation – while not necessarily agreeing with me that the combination of traditional worship combined with a radical – socially-relevant – theological messaging is the way to go – at least will recognize the dilemma we face. As clergy, we are all watching the stalwart generation of faithful members pass on to the next great adventure and wonder who is coming up behind them – to take their place? Our fear that we are on a trajectory of decline fills some of us with despair while provokes in others manic attempts to delay what we all fear is inevitable. We cast our minds into the future to imagine a destination few of us ever want to reach. Employing the metaphor of the ostrich, God reminds Job of the paradox of his quest for omniscience -to know the entirety of things:
‘The ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
though its pinions lack plumage. *
For it leaves its eggs to the earth,
and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them,
and that a wild animal may trample them.
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom,
and given it no share in understanding.
When it spreads its plumes aloft, *
it laughs at the horse and its rider.
These words lead me to pose a question to us tonight. Can we become more Francis-like in the use of our imaginations? We cannot know the entirety of things. We cannot know the future except in outline – glimpsed through a glass darkly. Instead of being preoccupied with our own construction of a future of either doom and gloom or of false and brittle certainties – can we let our imaginations become tools through which God’s dreaming for the world can flow freely? Our future lies in the mind of God and always has done. If we learn anything from the serious practice of a spiritual life, God’s surprises are so much more exciting and fulfilling than anything – when left to the impoverishment of our own imaginations -we could predict or plan for ourselves.
Now I know you’ve been waiting with growing impatience for me to get back to my serial monogamy teaser.
This evening we are here to formally acknowledge the arrival of a new rector in this historic church where Anglican Christians have been worshipping since 1698. This present building dates from 1726 and is a testament to a New England vision of a church as community meeting house before the ravages of the Oxford movement so changed our conception of what a church should look like. Over these centuries – how many serial monogamies has this church either enjoyed or suffered through? As you are beginning to guess by serial monogamy, I am referring to the marriage between parish and rector.
I first knew Tim and later Tania when one Sunday looking out over the congregation of Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, – it too has a very high pulpit – I wondered to myself – who is that imposing young man I’ve not seen before? Over succeeding months, I came to know Tim and then Tania – both as curious and eager young people – well young to me – yearning to hear the burning questions of their lives reset within the context of an ancient – time tested faith that did not do violence to the reality of the values underpinning the lives they were actually living.
Tim was like a man parched – finding in the Episcopal church a Balm in Gilead to soothe his world-sick soul. Together, Tim and Tania threw themselves into our community life and before long it became clear to me that Tim wanted to share with me something he thought only he knew.
Tim, your call to priesthood came as no secret to me and I was delighted to have the privilege of accompanying you through the tortures of discernment. Watching from afar, I was even more delighted when during your time at VTS you had the opportunity to spend a season at Ripon College, my very own theological alma mater situated in the medieval village of Cuddesdon just outside Oxford. It’s a very particular privilege to have been invited to speak on this the occasion of your installation and induction as rector of Trinity Church.
Members of Trinity, you’ve chosen well in your new marriage partner. Tim is a man of stature and intellect. I believe him to be honest and true – but also gentle in his proclamation and considerate in his conversation. A man in love with the beauty of Anglican tradition and the long experience of English Christianity that gave it birth. Yet, he’s someone who also understands that the tectonic plates of culture and religion are shifting beneath us even as we sit here tonight in pews – gazing up into a pulpit – both better designed for an age long ago passed.
Tim is a priest who fully understands that the only way our tradition of Christianity can survive is to do what it has always had the genius to do – adapt and change. He understands that it’s not change for change’s sake – but change – contemplated and carefully measured and tested against the biblical witness and the wisdom of the Tradition – both scrutinized by the higher values of reason.
Trinity folk – you are the product of a long line of serial monogamies. Some marriages have been wonderful, some not so – but as in life for those of us who have been married more than once – the real question remains how are we contemplating the new marriage? Do we enter the new relationship mindful of the experience of what has been learned through the successes – but maybe more importantly, the failures of passed relationships?
The genius of our Episcopal tradition is a form of governance that brings priest and people together in the mutuality of a marriage of equals. You are the community in this hallowed church. You were here before Tim arrived and will remain long after he has gone. However, with Tim, you have now contracted another in a your long series of monogamies – each a relationship in which you’ve partnered with a spiritual leader whom you have called to lead you together into the challenges and opportunities of God’s dream for Trinity Church.
For the moment and for foreseeable moments Tim is your rector. Know your responsibility to love and nurture him in his ministry by remaining vigilant over your power to harm and hurt him.
From my own 36 years of experience in priestly leadership I’ve discovered a two-fold litmus test for a successful rector-parish monogamy. The first part of the test I address to the community. Are you able to be intuitively curious about – rather than instinctively resistant to the changes catalyzed by Tim’s spiritual leadership among you? Let this question be the word on your lips as you rise in the morning and the last thought at night before the repose of sleep.
The second part of the test is for you Tim. Are you able to allow yourself to be molded and changed by the demands of your spiritual leadership within the unique dynamics of this community? May this question remain always at the heart of your prayer before God and in your daily encounters with those given over to your care.
God bless you my friend and God bless this parish community as you continue to stumble your way forward into the realization of God’s dream of your becoming more fit for the purpose God has for you.