Tuesday, June 30, 2015

To Completion--A Sermon for Pentecost V

“It is best for you now to complete what a year ago you began not only to do but to desire, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have.”
  II Corinthians 8:10-11

As you would expect, there has been quite a bit of sorting going on in the Rectory these past few weeks.  We will move to our new and much smaller home in Virginia next week, and we’re using the situation to draw a clear line between the things we really need and those we can do without.  We’ve plumbed the depths of the cellar and the dusty corners of the attic, and pulled down all those boxes from the highest shelves of the closet.  And it’s amazing what you find in the process.

I’ve uncovered the relics of so many abandoned past projects.  There was a box of papers from my plan to write a proper scholarly history of my hometown, and cross-country skis and poles to go with those bindings I never bought.  There were bottles, tubes and corks from my summer as a home winemaker; Thackston’s Introduction to Syriac, and the list goes on and on.  I can hold these things in my hands and remember how excited I was to begin the project they represent: that crisp January day skiing around the golf course, picking and pressing all those fragrant mulberries, my hopes for new discoveries in early Christian liturgy.  But of course, over time, things became more difficult.  I gathered dozens of pages of notes for my history, but couldn’t find a unifying argument.  I produced wine from six different fruits, and it was uniformly undrinkable—no matter what color, it tasted exactly like musty Kool-Aid.  To my untrained eye, four of the letters of the Syriac alphabet looked identical, which makes getting through the sentences in the second lesson almost impossible. 

I set each project aside, assuring myself that I would come back to it later—I would just take a week or two off, wait until after this holiday or until I’d saved up enough for slightly better equipment.  I intended to get it right, to make this thing an enduring part of my life.  But you know how it goes: the project moves off your desk to the shelf behind your desk, into a box and then into a closet.  And there’s something new and better to try, and before you know it, you’re unpacking the thing and understanding that the time has passed.  It doesn’t snow enough in Virginia for cross-country skiing.  The tubes weren’t rinsed as carefully as they should have been eight years ago, and maybe somebody could use a bottle capper at the Christ Church Rummage Sale.  At least I kept the Syriac textbook—for me, at least when it comes to languages, hope springs eternal.

And in an important sense, I’m fine with all this.  It’s part of life that we try out new hobbies and aim to develop talents that seem to fit with the needs and opportunities of the moment.  But life moves on, and we can hold the thing for a moment, smile at the memories, and be thankful we won’t be wasting our time on that activity again.  After all, these were pretty peripheral projects.  I’m grateful that it wasn’t my prayer book in that musty corner of the attic, my wedding ring, or the games I should have played with my kids.  We stick with the things that really matter in our lives, the projects that make us into the people we need to be to fulfill God’s purpose.  Growing in wisdom means learning to distinguish between the essential and the expendable.

But sometimes, we do set aside the wrong projects.  Sometimes, we need to be reminded to try a little harder to finish because the activity is actually more important than we understand.  The collection that Saint Paul was gathering for the church in Jerusalem, the subject our Epistle lesson, was like that.  We know quite a good deal about this project, as he launches a bit of a fundraising appeal for it in several of his letters.  Palestine had suffered a severe famine, and the Christians there were poor and in need of help.  The Jerusalem Christians were also Jewish, and Saint Paul was hoping that gifts from his Gentile converts would help to create unity and deeper trust across the church at a time when not everyone was certain about whether the Christian faith was really for people of all nations. 

There had been a good response to the appeal at first across the churches of the Northern Mediterranean.  Specific amounts may have even been promised.  But the Corinthians, at least, had been slow to forward their share of the gift, and as theirs was a wealthy city, the gap seems to have been notable.  Maybe the Corinthians didn’t understand how symbolically important the project was, or maybe other needs had arisen closer to home.  Saint Paul tackles the missing pledge in an argument that spans nearly two chapters of his Epistle. 

And the text that has been read to you today focuses on the importance of seeing this good work through to the end.  Saint Paul notes that the Corinthians are already people of deep faith, and they have shown enthusiasm for many worthwhile projects in the past.  “As you excel in everything” he says, “in faith, in utterance, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us—see that you excel in this gracious work also.”  The Corinthians had clearly wanted to be involved in the collection at the beginning.  A year earlier they had desired it and also begun to send gifts.  So go on, he urges them, to completion.  Pour yourselves out for this worthy goal, so that the hungry may be fed from your abundance, and Christ’s love may be revealed more fully.

In nearly six years as your rector, it has been a blessing to share in the beginning of many new projects.  Many of the best ones were actually begun long before I arrived here, because they are at the heart of why the Church exists.  But you’ve been quite patient about experiments of all kinds, and many of the things we have begun or adapted in a new direction have borne fruit, with God’s help.

The time that will begin with my departure this week is for you, a bit like what’s going on over at the Rectory.  Over the next year or so, before your next rector arrives, you will bring out all of those projects we have tried together.  Some of them are already a bit dusty.  And you will ask for God’s guidance, and make some decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what needs to be directed in new ways.  I expect I’ll come back to see you in a few years, and I would be sorely disappointed if everything were exactly the same.  Because God is at work, and change is perhaps the best sign of life.  You have many new projects to begin as well, and some of them will require a leader who can do what I cannot.

But there are some projects that have been at the center of our life together that I beg you, like Saint Paul, to complete.  These have been six years of reaching out and sharing the faith in all kinds of ways.  Four years ago, we developed a Parish Vision that was focused how we can use our talents and advantages to connect with people in our community who don’t know Christ.  And we have to tried do this in dozens of ways: discussion groups at the pub, tours of the church, new brochures, information booths, movie nights, services in public places, and so on. For six years, when we have made decisions about planning events and spending money, sharing the faith has been at the top of the agenda. And even more importantly, you have invited your friends to sit beside you at worship.  You have offered to pray for them in their difficult times.  And dozens and dozens of new families have come to us.  Sunday attendance has increased dramatically.  The word on the street about what God is doing here is excellent.  Continue in that good work.

This has also been, for so many of you, a season of growth in discipleship.  Like our focus on evangelism, this was not a new project here.  There was a strong tradition of Bible study groups long before me.  There was also a little line in your parish profile that said you wanted “a learned priest,” someone who knew the Scriptures and the Christian life well enough to be able to teach them capably to you.  I’ve read lots of parish profiles since then, and nobody else asks for that.  But it has been my greatest joy to share the little bit that I have learned and to see how God uses it to change your lives.  I have heard so many first confessions in this parish.  I’ve seen so many of you begin reading the Bible for the first time, or develop a regular habit of prayer.  I know how many of you have begun giving sacrificially, fasting on a regular basis, seeking reconciliation in your families, really discerning about how to use your time and gifts to be a blessing to others.  Your devotion to Christ and your desire to bear fruit are deeply inspiring.  Continue in that good work.

You have also been deeply gracious to me and my family.  You have been sheep who have loved and heeded your shepherd.  I was only thirty years old when you called me to be your rector.  I had been a priest for just two years.  When I walked in my first vestry meeting, I think I lowered the average age in the room by a generation.  I was worried about whether you would really trust me and respect the authority I needed to exercise to do God’s work here.  I knew I would make mistakes: after all, I was doing most everything for the first time.   I wasn’t sure if you would forgive me and allow for second chances.

 I continue to be amazed by the way you have trusted me, by your willingness to open your hearts, to try new things and to take risks together.  I am so grateful for the thousands of ways that you have loved us: praying for us every day, filling our table with your good food and beautiful flowers.  And so many kind words, so much encouragement.  When a day was particularly frustrating and I began to doubt if I was really meant to do this thing, to serve God as a priest, every time there was “a word in season” from one of you, the truth spoken in love, an assurance that I was doing His will.

I know that you will continue to be gracious with me in allowing me to depart from you in peace.  These past few weeks, so many of you have come to me to assure me of your understanding and support of me as I accept this new call from God.  I know that you will receive the new rector that God is calling to serve you with the same love and respect you have extended to me. 

I believe that God will continue to do great things at Christ Church, Cooperstown.  He is strong and faithful, and He will give you the grace to persevere.  You will not lack anything from to complete the good work He has set before you.  

1 comment:

  1. Wishing you God's grace and blessings ahead in your new move to VA, Mark!