Spiritual Tasks of a New Season - Celebration of New Ministry at Christ, Church, Rockville
June 22, 2019
So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
Numbers 11:16-17; 24-25a
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
Let me begin with a word of thanks to God for the people of Christ Church and for your leaders who have guided you through a long season of transition. I also give thanks to the Holy Spirit for bringing the Rev. Lisa Zaina into discernment with Christ Church and all that resulted in her call to join you in ministry. Lisa, as you know, was sponsored for ordination by the Diocese of Washington, and many of us have been praying for the call that would bring her back to us.
Lisa, I am one of your greatest admirers, and I am so glad that you accepted the call to be the spiritual leader of Christ Church, Rockville and serve alongside God’s people here.
The beginning of a new season in ministry is a unique moment in the life of a congregation and its new priest. There is so much for Lisa to learn and to do, so many tasks that are part of Christ Church’s everyday life. There are assumptions and expectations all around; challenges and opportunities, some you may have anticipated and others that will surprise you. It’s also a time for discernment, as you clarify together your core purpose as a faith community now 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.
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 Lisa’s voice in the pulpit, her way of leading. Lisa, in turn, needs to come to know and love you enough to determine how best to lead.
Whenever a congregation calls a new spiritual leader, its leaders are looking for someone whose spiritual gifts and pastoral presence will serve as a mantle for the community, to be its spiritual touchstone, the one who helps, over time, to establish a spiritual tone for all who worship here.
This service provides the members of Christ Church with important insights into Lisa’s core philosophy of leadership, for she was the one who chose the scripture passages we’ve just heard, and she did so with great intention. So, let’s mine them for a few clues.
In the passage from the Book of Numbers, Moses has just finished telling God that the job to which God had called him was far too big for him to accomplish alone. In response, God took a part of the leadership spirit entrusted to Moses and shared it among 70 elders, so that no one person--not even Moses--held leadership in isolation.
I can tell you from experience that leaders who gravitate to this story are not lone rangers, those for whom the very thought of sharing their responsibilities and stature is inconceivable. Rather Lisa is among those committed to a collaborative view of leadership. She wants to share authority with those who demonstrate the gifts and passion for leadership.
It also means that Lisa knows who your Lord and Savior is, and it isn’t Lisa. Nor is it any of you.
That brings us to the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its gentle reminder that a relationship with the living God is meant to change us all for the better. Our particular church, the Episcopal Church, likes to say--and we mean it--that wherever people are on their spiritual journey, they are welcome among us.
Lisa has as welcoming and inclusive a heart as you will ever know. But her understanding of what it means to be on a journey of faith is that it is, in fact, a journey that leads to a destination. Our destination is to become more like Jesus--loving as he loves, forgiving as he forgives. We don’t drift toward becoming Christ-like. It requires real intention on our part, and a commitment to one another in community.
Here, in Christian community, we learn how to grow into the stature of Christ, in large measure because we have to work at loving one another--holding fast to what is good, outdoing one another in showing honor, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints.
Finally, with the gospel text from John, Lisa is telling you how she experiences Jesus, as one who comes to her and all of us in friendship and sacrificial love. To follow him means to grow in love--to know ourselves as beloved by God in Christ and increase our capacity to love ourselves and others.
I’ve known Lisa long enough to know that these qualities and aspirations are her heart and soul. And I’ve known Christ Church long enough to know that your leaders were drawn to them for reasons that resonate deep within them and all of you. Now is the time, in this first season together, to bond together, get to know one another over time and in a variety of ways, building trust and shared experiences that will lay the foundation for many years of fruitful ministry together.
Gentle, Courageous Evaluation
If only you could do nothing else but get to know each other in this first season! Yet you’re not a community on hiatus. There are decisions to make, plans to put into action, budgets to manage. Thus you must do the necessary work well and also save enough energy for the second important task of this season: gentle, courageous evaluation.
In the first season, it’s helpful to cultivate a kind of dual vision that allows you to pay attention both to what is before you now and at the same time to a larger sense of purpose. A Methodist minister in Herndon, Virginia, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision is 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 Tom Berlin’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 Tom asked. Another said: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that children will experience church as fun.” Tom 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 a standard 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 wasn’t to have a vacation bible school. Vacation Bible School was a means to a greater purpose. If it 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 both important and inevitable: 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
The most important task of this first season is one that Lisa’s choice of scripture passages holds before you with real clarity: to deepen your love relationship with Christ.
I urge you, in this season, to 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 Christ Church have the opportunity to grow deeper in a loving relationship with Christ for themselves. I’m not talking about simply an evening class or mid-week service for your 10 most faithful attendees, but an initiative that involves the whole church in a multi-generational effort.
I have all sorts of ideas about this: It could be a preaching series on a spiritual topic, augmented by a parish-wide book study, with small group gatherings in people’s homes and nearby coffee shops. It could be a proposed spiritual practice, such as the Presiding Bishop’s Way of Love, that all members of the congregation are encouraged to adopt and reflect upon together. The possibilities are endless, and perhaps the Holy Spirit has already planted ideas and possibilities 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 Christ Church, 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.
Will you pray with me?
Loving God, we are so grateful to be here, at this moment in the life of Christ Church, and we pause to give thanks to all those whose faithfulness and love sustained this community over the years of its life. We thank you for Lisa, for her love for you and the gifts you have endowed her with for leadership. Bless this moment, Lord. Guide Lisa and the people of Christ Church 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, service, and times of quiet prayer, may they draw closer to you and serve your mission of love for others. In your name, Amen.