Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2018
First Sunday as Rector, St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener
1 Samuel 1:4-20 * Psalm 16 * Hebrews 10:11-25 * Mark 13:1-8
First Sermon as Rector: The Adventure of the Christian Life
When I began reflecting a couple of weeks ago, on what I’d like to say this morning, my first Sunday as Rector, I figured I might just depart from the readings. A rector’s first Sunday is, after all, not something happens every Sunday! And there are some important things I would like to have the freedom to say, things that might be helpful for you to know, some of the things that really animate my understanding of my vocation as a priest—particularly some of my theological commitments and how they inform my sense of ministry, my sense of church, my sense of community.
But I was thrilled to read the lessons earlier this week, and to see that I won’t really need to preach the Gospel of Preston. Instead, the passage from Hebrews gives me some important things to work with; and already says much of what I would like to say.
So what is it I’d like to say? To start: your excitement and enthusiasm has been overwhelming—I don’t think I’ve ever been welcomed into a new position with so much excitement. So thank you. Thank you. It means a lot to me. But it hasn’t just been overwhelming. It’s been humbling. I hope, I hope, I have as much to offer as you hope I do.
A priest’s work in a congregation and a parish is important. During our interim, we’ve been served by some very talented and gifted priests—Paul and Ken, up here with me, numbered among them. So first, thank you Paul and Ken, not only for your faithfulness in the interim, but you’re real support of me, especially as we begin anew.
But even me, as a new priest to the congregation as an honourary, could sense that we really do need a Rector—someone who can put in the time, be around, day in and day out, visiting and conversing, meeting with others. Someone who can pay attention to all the details of the complex organism that is St. John’s, and not only see how all the pieces fit together, but also, in some cases, to imagine the ways all those pieces might fit together a little bit better. We’ve needed someone who can be the face of St. John’s, who’ll be recognised as such in the neighbourhood.
The ministry of the rector is a bit different than being an honourary priest of the parish, as I was just a few short days ago. The ministry of the Rector, or Parson if you will, is to be the representative person—someone who can embody St. John’s as a whole, representing the whole of the congregation to each part; and in prayer, to bring all of who we are to God.
So what does the Rector do? Besides visiting, drinking coffee, being attentive to all the details of a place like SJE, and putting a face on the place, praying for us? “Rector” comes from a latin verb meaning to rule, but this would be easy to misunderstand. Because, of course, my job is not to rule over you.
I’d rather think of myself as a guide. We might even think of a Rector as a wilderness guide: I might have some good knowledge of the terrain, and how to navigate stormy weather, consulting and conversing with others to be sure. A guide has a great deal of responsibility for the wellbeing of the fellow adventurers, much like a rector has a special responsibility to the congregation and to our neighbours in the parish.
But that responsibility is relational. That is, as I listen, as I pay close attention to our lives together, as I pay close attention to our community, as I pay close attention to our neighbours, as I pay close attention to the Scriptures and the long story of the church through history, I become responsible. I respond to you, I respond to our neighbours, respond to the gospel, I respond to the saints ho have gone before by listening, and then acting. By being responsible. And as such guiding a course of action for us to take together that doesn’t come from me exactly, but is a course of action informed by all those things and people to whom I’m listening, to whom I’m responsible.
But I’m probably getting ahead of Hebrews, because even the idea that someone might have some special responsibility is not quite where Hebrews starts, at least in reference to Christian life in community. There may be a guide with special responsibility, but there is no guide without fellow adventurers.
So Hebrews doesn’t speak of one person having responsibility for others, but of a community that is responsible, each to one another. “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,” we read, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
And so Hebrews imagines a community of people responsible to and for one another, provoking one another to love, to good deeds, a community of encouragement. Provoking one another in the adventure that is the Christian life. So even the priest is but one in a community of people asked to love, one among the adventurers, one of many doing good and encouraging others.
As I said at the interview according to my own conviction: I’m not worried about the future of St. John’s, because God has already equipped us for all those things we might face: God has equipped St. John’s with you. And my guess is that there are a number of you out there thinking, “I’m pretty sure I have something to contribute to our life together and for the sake of others. I’m ready for this adventure.”
Listen to that voice. Be attentive. That is the beginning of ministry, and a ministry that begins with desire, a desire that God may well have already planted in you.
This is one part of the adventure I love. Discovering your gifts, your hopes. God has given those gifts, those hopes to you. And God has given you to us, as part of this band of adventurers. And God has given us, this band of adventurers, the opportunity to welcome others into this life of adventure.
But even still I’m getting ahead of Hebrews. Because in Hebrews, as it describes the shape of Christian life together, and what this adventure looks like, it does not begin with the Christian life, as if there were some ideal we can reach through our own effort.
Hebrews starts in another place, with another person.
As much as we might be feeling some excitement now—an excitement that I hope lasts and continues!—we may feel some anxiety about our place in a changing Kitchener, our place in a world that doesn’t naturally look to the church for guidance. I think we know that we are traversing a strange land, that we are navigating choppy and sometimes hostile waters, and whatever maps we thought we had, we lost maybe half of them to the wind some time ago.
No—our life together does not rest on what we think we know, or what we’ve already done or accomplished. Hebrews puts it in the language of sacrifice, speaking of Christ himself as a sacrifice that liberates us from sin. Today isn’t the day to get too bogged down in theories of the atonement; some of the language of Hebrews, as important as it is on the question of just how God accomplishes our liberation, would distract us a bit from the point I’m hoping to make, and the point that Hebrews is making, at least in the big picture. That point is that our life together, as a community of forgiveness, of prayer, of offering, of love and encouragement, doesn’t begin with us but in what God in Christ has already accomplished for us.
We can forgive, because we have already been forgiven; we can reconcile, because all the world has already been reconciled to God in Christ; we can love, because God has first loved us.
Any anxiety we might feel now, or might feel in the future, as we navigate this strange land is misplaced. We have a way forward. A trail has already been blazed. Where we are headed has already been imprinted upon the very stars of the sky, if we were to take a look up into the darkness.
This is the first concern of Hebrews, and much of the New Testament besides: God, in Christ, has already traversed this terrain, has already suffered the wind and the seas of this life, and as such not only offers us an example, but opens up for us a whole new life, God’s life in the world, daring us to enter new territory and to explore a Christian life in Kitchener and Waterloo.
Christ has blazed the trail, a trail into the divine life, a life with him just ahead, with him just on the edge of the far horizon; leading us ever forward, to his future, God’s own future: the future that is reconciliation of us to one another, of us to God, and of the whole world to God.
He has already set our way forward, through an act and deed for us that can never be taken away, by offering to us his very life to share. And it’s this that makes us holy, that sanctifies us. The living God in Christ is the one that makes our life together possible: a life that orients us to God, us to one another, and us to the world: in life, and love, and adventure.