(A sermon I preached for Deven's installation)
A hot air balloonist set off one fine May day from just outside London. He expected a calm trip but a sudden storm blew in off the English Channel that took him north for over an hour. When his balloon was deflated, he found himself suspended in a tree beside a small Anglican Church. Looking down from his precarious perch, he saw the Vicar leaving the church and heading for the Vicarage.
“Father, Father,” the balloonist called out, ready to dial his cell phone and tell his friends where to pick him up, “Father, can you tell me where I am?”
The priest looked up and smiled, “Yes, my son,” he said, “you’re stuck in a tree.”
“Just like a priest,” the man muttered to himself, “what they say is often TRUE but it is seldom helpful….”
It is my hope that this sermon will be more “True” than “helpful”. And it is my sincere and devout prayer that Deven’s ministry in your midst will be like that as well—more TRUE than HELPFUL.
A group of wealthy Americans are on a safari in Africa. Things are going well except that the natives who are carrying much of the equipment stop every hour or so and sit quietly on the ground for 15 minutes.
Finally, one of the Americans goes to the head guide and says, “look, we’re paying you a great deal for this safari, yet your workers stop too often and rest too long. What do they think they are doing?”
The head guide, being as polite as possible, tells the impatient American this: “Our tribe believes that if you move too quickly you will outrun your soul. So we must sit on a regular basis and let our souls catch up.”
Well, the rich American is outraged. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says.
The head guide nods, “Of course you think that, having long ago left your soul far, far behind. But our souls hover near and we will wait for them to join us again.”
It is humbling to be with you this morning. I thank you for your hospitality. I thank Bishop McKelvy for allowing me to preach in his diocese. There will be some heresy spoken today, Bishop, but not so much or not of any ilk that you will have to report back to Bishop Smith in Connecticut. That is my hope.
Mostly, I thank Deven, your new Rector, for the privilege and honor of “coming north” to celebrate with her and with all of you about this new ministry you have begun. I’ve known Deven longer than either of us wants to admit. She has been an important part of my life and my ministry. And it is with unspeakable joy and not a little trepidation, that I bring to all of you, this morning, the “good news” about this relationship between a Rector and a Parish.
I’ve been a parish priest since 1975. I have served three of the most remarkable congregations in this church—the present one, St. John’s on the Green in Waterbury for 16 years. So, I’m not just a guy you met at a bar when it comes to parish priesthood. I do know what I’m talking about. I only pray that God will give me the grace and the words to speak to your hearts and your souls about this “love affair” you and Deven have begun.
Two things, I hope, she will bring to you as precious gifts and you will accept them in that spirit are these:
I hope she will give you Truth rather than Helpfulness. And, I hope she will make you stop in the midst of your shared ministry and shared lives—as often as necessary…and it may be very often indeed—to let your souls catch up with you.
You see—from one who’s not a guy at a bar—the parish church exists for this and this only: TO FIND AND BE FOUND BY GOD.
That’s all you are here for, that’s all your common life is about. Finding and being found by God is the only reason this church exists. Everything else you do emerges from seeking and being sought by God. So, lean into Truth and make sure you don’t outrun your souls.
A third story, this one told by John Mortimer in his memoir.
It goes like this:
A man with a bristling grey beard came and sat next to me at lunch. He had very pale blue eyes and an aggressive way of speaking.
He began, at once and without any preliminary introductions, to talk about yachting in the North Sea.
“But isn’t it very dangerous, your sport of yachting?” I asked.
“Not dangerous at all, provided you don’t learn to swim. I made up my mind when I bought my first boat, never to learn to swim.”
“Why was that?” I asked.
He told me, “when you’re in a spot of trouble, if you can swim you strike out for the shore. Invariably you drown swimming for safety. As I can’t swim, I cling to the wreckage and they send a helicopter out for me. That’s my tip, if you ever find yourself in trouble, cling to the wreckage.”
I want to suggest to you that there are many worse metaphors for the parish ministry of your Rector and for the parish life of this congregation than “clinging to the wreckage”.
I want to suggest to Deven that her most vital and important role in your midst, as your priest, is to be about her own “soul work”. And “soul work” it seems to me at least, has a lot to do with clinging to the wreckage of life until it becomes, literally, a “life preserver.” It is the wreckage that will save your soul.
And I want—just like a suggestion—to suggest to you, to this parish community, that “clinging to the wreckage” is an apt paradigm for your life together as the Body of Christ. The wreckage of your individual lives will lead you to new life and the wreckage of your common life together will sustain you and support you and give you, in the end, a wholeness and salvation you could not imagine.
Finally, here at the end, I want to turn to scripture.
In John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus says to his friends, “abide in my love.”
Back where I grew up, in the mountains of Southern West Virginia, people actually used the word “abide”. They didn’t pronounce it that way, but if you were walking down the street in front of their house and they were on the front porch in rocking chairs and a swing, they would say to you, “Come on up and bide a spell.”
“Biding a spell” meant simply this: just sit here and “be” with us.
“Abiding” is a passive verb—it implies nothing more and nothing less that simply “being there”.
What I want to suggest to you—to Deven, of course, but to all of you as well and as passionately—is that you have entered into a “love affair” with each other and what you need to do…most need to do…always need to do is this and this only: “Abide” in each other’s love.
There is much to “do” and many “tasks” and lots of “committees” and a multitude of “works”. All that will take care of itself if you simply “abide” in your love of each other and God’s unbridled love for you.
Some advice for the journey:
Long more for Truth than helpfulness,
Stop often and wait for your souls to catch up;
Cling to the wreckage together;
Abide in love; and
Seek always to find and be found by God.
There is nothing else. That is all there is. May your life together in ministry be filled chocked full of Truth and Waiting and Clinging and Abiding and Seeking.That is enough. That is more than enough