A Women in Ministry Thing

“Why don’t you leave the Church and get ordained in (insert other denomination here)? It’ll be easier.”
Those were the first words I heard from a priest after finally gutting up enough to go and talk to someone “official” in the Church several years ago about thinking I might be hearing God calling me to ordained ministry. The conversation got worse from there. I’ll spare you, and myself, a walk through that painful discernment experience. Opening your deepest spiritual wonderings to another person is never easy – doing it with someone who doesn’t honor the vulnerability of that act is traumatic. Suffice it to say by the end of the afternoon, I was curled up in the fetal position at home, sobbing like my dog had just died. Sorry I didn’t spare you that image, but there’s a reason why:
At home on the couch that evening, still crying, I said to me husband, “I can’t stop. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”
Being at times a redneck sage, he nailed it right on the head when he thought a moment and said, “You’re grieving your call.”
And I realized that he was right. That was exactly what was happening. The best way I know to explain it is that it felt like a part of my heart was dying.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women to the Episcopal priesthood. On this day, July 29, in 1974 in Philadelphia, a group of 11 women, known as the “Philadelphia 11,” stood, and then knelt, for ordination to the Sacred Order of Priest. The Church is celebrating this wonderful anniversary. Still, I can only imagine how many times before that July day that they must have felt like their hearts were dying.
Today is also the one month anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Woodville, Texas, where I serve bi-vocationally as vicar in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. It is because of those foremothers, and the people who supported them, and those who listened, finally, to their call, that I was finally able to answer mine at age 43. For all those who have supported me, and listened, I thank God for you.
My journey to ordination was a bumpy one, to say the least. Raised in and having left the Southern Baptist tradition after years of extensive involvement in children and youth ministries, I was deeply devoted to the Episcopal tradition I’d adopted in young adulthood. To have experienced a tersely closed door on my first attempt at approaching my own Church with an ordination discernment question was rough. But I am sure it was nothing compared to the huge splinters that were surely imbedded in the noses of those 11, who must have become well-versed at doors being slammed in their faces.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori with some of those involved with the Philadelphia 11 ordinations Photo Credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori with some of those involved with the Philadelphia 11 ordinations
Photo Credit: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

But I would also guess that they, like me, found a measure of strength that allowed them to keep moving forward by understanding that those were collective doors slamming – not a rejection of whether they personally were being called to ordination. The Church was struggling to free itself from the burden of holding all those doors closed, and those women were bearing the strain.
There is empowerment in realizing that a struggle is universal. In that, you feel less alone. But the good news is that if it is God calling you to serve, then God will make a way. Our work is in understanding that his time frame, and the grace and mercy he has to pour out on many along the way, will not be what we picture – it will be much more than that.
Obedient justice was one of the hardest disciplines I had to practice in my journey toward ordination. (I am sure God has much to teach me about it post-ordination, too.) Obedient justice means to work without fear or shame for what is right and good in the Church, while staying true to the form of Jesus Christ’s Church as we have received it. For me, that meant quietly taking another year of personal discernment, and truly honoring that, and all the other difficult tasks that first priest required of me, in order to follow my call. But it also meant reaching deep into that call for the boldness to ask for guidance from other leadership, and to continue to walk back up to that door – and knock. I remember having a dream during my discernment process about making my way around a huge castle wall filled with an endless row of doors.
The Church has a ways to go in accepting the ministry already being done by the women God is calling. Our sister priests in the Church of England have just this month been voted permission to put themselves forward for election to stand, and kneel, to join the Sacred Order of Bishops. My heart and prayers go out to those unknown women still standing silently behind a door. I encourage you to reach out and knock, and to keep knocking.

In the United States, our own Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, preached this week about the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia 11. On the pulpit beside her was a pair of red heels, as she reminded the congregation how women priests have experienced even being told what not to wear, including red high heels and dangling earrings.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during her sermon at Church of the Advocate uses a pair of red high heels to illustrate the expectations set upon ordained women. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service www.anglicannews.org

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during her sermon at Church of the Advocate uses a pair of red high heels to illustrate the expectations set upon ordained women. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Those shoes were particularly interesting to me –  I was part of a group of female students advised by a female priest a few years ago that we were NOT to wear red heels at our ordinations. Of course in my diocese, we’re likely to be wearing red cowboy boots! And I know a woman who gave away all her dangling earrings after a male priest told her she couldn’t serve with him at the altar if she was going to wear them. A long way to go yet.

“Women in all orders of ministry – baptized, deacons, priests, and bishops – can walk proudly today, in whatever kind of shoes they want to wear, because of what happened here 40 years ago. We can walk proudly, even if not yet in full equality, knowing that the ranks of those who walk in solidarity are expanding,” the presiding bishop said. “Try to walk in the shoes of abused and trafficked women. Walk on to Zion carrying the children who are born and suffer in the midst of war. Gather up the girls married before they are grown, gather up the schoolgirls still missing in Nigeria, and gather up all those lives wasted in war and prison. March boldly, proclaiming good news to all who have been pushed aside, and call them to the table of God, to Wisdom’s feast.”
Thanks be to God for honoring his call in me, blessing me with a strongly supportive husband and children, wonderful friends, loving and praying church members, two amazing groups of classmates in the Iona School for Ministry bi-vocational training program, bishops who are not afraid to be wise and bold iconoclasts for the good of the Church, and many good deacons and priests here in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
“I’ve never seen anyone so excited about their own ordination before. I guess it’s a women in ministry thing?” said a supportive community clergy colleague at our first ministerial alliance meeting after my ordination last month. “I wish all pastors were so excited about being ordained,” another minister said.
There is really no way I can fully explain the daily joy I feel in being able to live this amazing ordained life, after nearly 10 years of doors and doorways. It’s a women in ministry thing. It’s an Episcopal thing. It’s a bi-vocational thing. It’s a God thing.

Vested for the first time as a priest on the night of my ordination, June 29, 2014, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Woodville. Beside me are two friends who are recently ordained transitional deacons, the Rev. Paulette Magnuson, left, and the Rev. Terry Pierce.

Vested for the first time as a priest on the night of my ordination, June 29, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville. Beside me are two friends who are recently ordained transitional deacons, the Rev. Paulette Magnuson, left, and the Rev. Terry Pierce.

The Letter N and the Growth of God/Sermon July 27, 2014

In 1933, the Nazis began a very public campaign to destroy the Jewish people – their livelihoods and their lives. As a hallmark of that systemic violence, they began to paint a yellow Star of David, the six-pointed star that had become a symbol of Judaism, onto the front of Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany and beyond. Over the next 10 years, the Nazis would target and brutalize various groups of people including the Jews, eventually forcing those living in towns and concentration camps to wear garments with that same Star of David.

"Jude", or "Jew" and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

“Jude”, or “Jew” and a Star of David were painted on Jewish businesses and homes beginning in 1933 in the Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.

By contrast, the Nazis used the symbol they adopted, a swastika, so much that it became synonymous with their particular brand of evil. Despite the Nazis best efforts to destroy the Jews by using their own marker of heritage against them, the Star of David is still very much in use by the Jews, while the swastika remains buried with the Nazis.
All of that happened 70 to 80 years ago. When so much time passes, when things become so far distant from what we are experiencing today, it’s hard to feel a connection to important events in the past, even if our shared experiences were once very fresh, and very sharp. It may have been difficult at times to find a way to feel connected to the parables of Jesus that we’ve been reading in Matthew over the last few weeks – parables that were spoken by Jesus 2,000 year ago. Wrapping up this section on parables we get five parables thrown at us in rapid succession. But they are connected to each other, and to the audience who would have been listening to Jesus speak, as they were facing very sharp and difficult times as the opposition to Jesus and his movement was growing.
These are parables about power and growth, about the precious value of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God it proclaims. This was a message of hope and worth to the people following Jesus who had given up everything in his name, and for others who were wondering if it would be worth for them to do the same.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed  the first parable in Matthew 13 begins … Being agricultural people, they would have been familiar with the size of a mustard seed. For most of us, me included, mustard is that stuff you get in the yellow French’s bottle on the grocery store shelf. But the people listening to Jesus would have been familiar with both the seed and its tree, and how how remarkable it is that such a tiny seed contains all the information, all the life necessary, to grow into a tree large enough for birds to nest in.

Seriously, how does is all that mustard tree-buildin' information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

Seriously, how is all that mustard tree-buildin’ information packed inside there? And why is it so delicious on a hotdog?

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast – or leaven – all it took was a little bit of fermented material mixed in to change the entire makeup of a huge amount of dough. For most of us, bread is that stuff wrapped in plastic we pick up off the shelf at the grocery store, like the mustard. But for the people listening to Jesus, they would have been very familiar with the process of baking bread, and that three measures here meant enough to feed an entire banquet.
We can take a couple of things from these two parables: The Gospel is powerful. It is the Living Word of God contained within a simple message – but this simple story holds within it the information, the power that can change the world. The second thing we learn from these parables is that once God sets the growth of his Kingdom in motion, there is nothing anyone can do stop it. Nothing. The power of God is evident in his ability to choose something seemingly small and weak and to grow it into something massive by his own will. There are those who will try to grow their own kingdoms on this earth, but they will all eventually fail. God is the only true Creator, with the only real ability to resurrect, and his Kingdom is everlasting.
The mustard seed parable and God growing it into a tree that nests birds touches on a prophecy the prophet tells as recorded in Ezekiel 31. God had allowed the nation of Assyria to grow like a huge tree that the birds nested in, more glorious than any other trees, but it had become proud of itself and forgotten God, and so he cut it down, and sent it to its death. And in a great expression of his power tinged with humor, God points out that now his birds are standing on the once mighty tree’s fallen trunk, and his creatures are crawling around on its fallen branches. Nothing can grow so great that it outgrows the Creator – and God will even make use of the failure of the proud. The sound of this tree’s fall terrified the nations. And God goes on to tell Ezekiel that this same fate will happen to the Pharaoh of Egypt, who has been acting out evil against God’s people.
The memory of those events nearly 80 years ago in WWII have come rushing forward over the last few weeks as an extremist group taking hold in Syria and Iraq has begun a campaign to persecute Christians. And in an eerily familiar experience, they have started painting a symbol on the walls of Christian homes in the northeastern Iraq capital of Mosul in order to mark them for persecution – they are painting the Arabic letter “N”, the first letter of their term for Christians, “Nasrani,” taken from the word Nazarene, for those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Nasrani. The Jesus Followers. Churches have been desecrated and shrines sacred to both Christians AND Muslims both have been blown up. Everyone living in the city of Mosul has been terrorized, and Christians have been robbed of all they have, and have been told to leave or convert, or they will be put to the sword. Read more about this here.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term "Nasrani," from Jesus the Nazarene - Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq marked by violent extremists with the letter N, for the term “Nasrani,” from Jesus the Nazarene – Followers of Jesus. Christians were forced to leave the their homes under threat of death.

The Arabic letter "N," the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

The Arabic letter “N,” the symbol being adopted around the world and on the Internet to support persecuted Christians. Many Muslims have adopted this symbol in their protests as a mark of support for Christians in their neighborhoods around the world.

It might seem like all is lost, for those Christians in Mosul. But God has them in his special care – as Jesus is quoted in several places in Scripture, “those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”
We are half a world away, and that kind of test of faith seems very foreign – thankfully – to us here in America. Yet we are connected to these Christians because as fellow followers of Jesus, we are their brothers and sisters. They are our family. At the end of our reading in Matthew, after he’s finished telling the parables, Jesus talks to the disciples and asks them, “Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. And his response is to give them one more parable. “The scribes trained for the Kingdom of heaven are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Jesus is telling the disciples that every person who is has heard and understands his message, all those who are trained to spread the Gospel, everyone who is taught to tell the Jesus story, is standing on the rich foundation of the long history of the people of God, in partnership with the new Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what gave the disciples hope in a time of rising conflict, when they were facing persecution, and even death. The same God who guided and lived in covenant with his people from the beginning, and in Jesus’ time, is continuing to work out his Kingdom among us here today.
Woe to any person or any movement who believes that they and their symbols can grow bigger than God. And the same to any of us Jesus Followers who don’t understand how much strength there is in the Gospel message we have been given, or if we think that there is anything – ANYTHING – that can stop the power of God to grow his kingdom.

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God's Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on...

Mosul Christians praying. For the first time in 1,600 years of history, there is currently no official Christian Masses being said in Mosul. But God’s Kingdom cannot be devoured. Scroll on…

In one of many such gathers documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice their religion in Mosul.

In one of many such gatherings documented, Muslims gather with Christians to support their freedom to practice Christianity in Mosul.

Nothing can stop the growth of God's Kingdom, lived out by the people of the "N."

Nothing can stop the growth of God’s Kingdom, lived out by the people of the “N.”

The Bad Seed (Spoiler: God Wins)

Sermon on July 20, 2014 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, Texas:

In the late 1950s the “Bad Seed” was one of the most famous scary movies of its time, and it has become a classic. Based on a book and play about a child who seemed to be a sweet little girl with pigtails and ribbons who was from a nice family, but in reality she was a serial killer from a scary family. That phrase, the “bad seed” entered popular culture as an expression to describe someone who was trouble, an evil person mixed in and growing the-bad-seed-posteralong with the good seeds, but who wasn’t going to produce anything you would ever want. One of the creepiest things about that movie was during the ending credits, a voice came on and could be heard asking moviegoers as they left not to reveal the surprise ending to folks who hadn’t see the movie yet.
We’re still making our way through the rows of planting parables. Last week we heard about the Parable of the Sower and the different kinds of ground where Jesus was planting the Gospel seed. Today we have the Parable of the Weeds growing among the wheat. Jesus gives us another example to help us understand his kingdom and how it works: The Kingdom is like a landowner who plants good seed for wheat, but weeds are discovered growing with the wheat revealing that an enemy has sneaked in and mixed bad seed in with the good seed. The master’s servants wanted to go pull the weeds out, but the master won’t let him. He points out that the act of pulling the invasive plants will damage the good crop. The weed Jesus uses as an example is a grass that grew all over Israel, called darnell. Darnell would tangle its roots around the roots of the good plants, making it impossible to remove without damaging the wheat. And it was hard to separate them because darnell mimicked wheat – when they first start growing together, it was really difficult to tell them apart in the field. Darnell starts out wheattares1looking just like wheat, until it comes to harvest time, when the darnell puts out a lightweight seed head that stands straight up. Harvest time is when you can really tell the difference between the darnell and the wheat, because the wheat produces a much more robust and ripened seed head full of grain that is noticeably heavier and bent over with the weight of its fruit.
The second reason the landowner wouldn’t let his servants pull out the darnell was because it wasn’t their job. That was the work reserved for the reapers, the professional harvesters who would know how to collect and separate the darnell and the wheat properly for a good harvest.
Two more planting parables go by before Jesus’ disciples who are trying to absorb all this come to him and ask, Ok, what the heck’s up with this Parable of the Weeds? Jesus quite plainly describes it for them: he is the sower, the field is the world. In the world there is good and evil, and evil is caused by the devil; the harvest is the end of this world as we experience it now, when Jesus will send his angels to do the job he had given to them – weeding out all the sin and those who are evil, and casting them out, leaving the good and righteous resurrected in God’s perfected Creation – which will be so glorious to see that the people in it are described by Jesus as “shining like the sun.”
Our nice agricultural series seems to have taken a turn to the dark side, suddenly, we’re in a biblical version of The Bad Seed. Things that are sweetness and light, the children of God and God’s work, are all mixed around and tangled up with evil brought about by the devil’s work. We get a somewhat frightening vision of the end times, of angels going about the grim side of angelic work – sorting out the evil from the good, and shucking out the evil to be consumed in God’s fire.

This is the point that I'm hiding behind my popcorn.

I’m 43, and this is pretty much what I still look like when watching scary parts of movies. Everyone knows you’re safer behind the popcorn.

This would be right about the time in the movie that I’d be hiding behind my popcorn, because I’ve discovered over that years that during a scary movie, you’re much safer if you watch the bad scenes from between your fingers.
But this is not a movie. This is Jesus using a story to tell his disciples, and us, that for those who choose to follow him, and who practice Christianity as his Church, will not have it easy. This parable is an acknowledgement that as we go about our work for God in this world, we will encounter evil. One of the hardest questions we may struggle with, and certainly unbelievers ask and use as an excuse to reject God – is, why would a loving God allow bad things to happen?
This is not heaven, this world is not yet the full and perfected Creation. Jesus in his incarnation and resurrection began the work of the Kingdom of God, and is continuing that work in us every day until he comes back to complete it. Until that time, until our resurrection, we are transformed souls that belong to God, yet we live in bodies that age, in a world where things go wrong, in a place where sin exists, and evil happens. Until Jesus returns to separate out evil from God’s creation, we will continue to be mixed up, the good seed and the bad. We struggled with that reality again this week as the world witnessed the tragedy of nearly 300 violent deaths on a Malaysian airliner, and the war and conflict that continues to surround that tragedy, may they rest in peace. As Jesus told his disciples then, and as we hear his words today, we co-exist with evil, and it will continue to be with us until the end of the age. This is why his Gospel of love and reconciliation is So. Desperately. Needed.

This is also a warning not to overstep our bounds as Christians. We are to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to work for righteousness and justice, and to be godly in our life and work, holding each other accountable in love to those standards.But following in the steps of Jesus can become a slippery slope if we give in to evil preying on our sinful, prideful nature, when we forget ourselves and our mission, and slip across the line from justice into judgment – and we must be careful because judgment is God’s territory, not ours. Jesus is very clear in describing his parable to the disciples – he will decide what is righteous and unrighteous, and he will assign the work of pulling the weeds to his angels, not to the children of God.
When you think about it, there is a lot of mercy in that. Primarily because God relieves us of the burden of deciding who are his children and who have turned away from him, and he gives us freedom by assigning us a mission to love everybody equally in his Name, and to let him worry about the rest. There is also mercy here because while we Christians belong to God, we remain a part of this sinful world, and while we may be quick to judge others, we are not God, we do not know the mind of God, and we might get it wrong. And unfortunately, we all have plenty of experience adding to the “causes of sin” that Jesus describes the angels removing like weeds, in addition to those evil-doers. While we know we are children of God sanctified to him through the sacrifice of Jesus – we have not yet become fully who God originally created us to be. We still look forward to that great Day when Jesus will fully reveal his kingdom.
Until that time, we still live in a broken world, and we will continue to wrestle with our own sin. Scripture describes that battle within us in several places, Matthew included – in Chapter 18 Jesus warns us that there will be temptations growing within us, bad seed that we will have to identify and cut out like the darnell weed, because at times we are at risk through our own behavior of becoming a stumbling block to the Gospel work of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In Matthew 18 even one of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter,

Everyone knows you're safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands.

Everyone knows you’re also safer in a scary movie if you hide behind your hands. Photo: SparkLife

becomes a stumbling block to him, and Jesus calls out the evil in him, saying “get behind me Satan!” That makes me want to hide behind my hands again, worrying about what God thinks of me when I mess up. But what gives us courage and hope is that Jesus did not condemn Peter for that slip of faith – in fact, he went on to use Peter and the other disciples to found and grow his Church. So we can be confident as Christians not to be too quick to judge others, or ourselves. God is our judge, and in his mercy, he continues to love us, forgive us and reconcile us to himself – Jesus said in John 10 that he has given us eternal life and no one will snatch us out of his hand. In our theology we believe salvation is not just one single event in time, but it is an ongoing process – beginning when we become a Christian at our Baptism, continuing throughout our life until we stand before Jesus in our resurrected bodies.


No surprise plot twist at the end - Jesus wins.

No surprise plot twist at the end – Jesus wins.

That is why no matter what evil we encounter in the world, even within ourselves, no matter how thick the weeds get, we don’t have to hide our eyes or even to be scared, because there is no surprise ending – we know how this all ends – God wins. God wins! And that’s why we can say with confidence, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. Amen.


No Other Reason to Be An Episcopalian

An important facet of building a good and healthy relationship between the bi-vocational clergy and congregation is for clergy to spend time in reflection. Not just the kind where we priests look at ourselves and think about who we are and what the heck we’re doing. The kind of reflecting I’m talking about is when we hold a mirror up to our congregation, showing them who they are. Perhaps that’s the work of any clergy, paid or non-stipendiary, but in the volunteer, bi-vocational arena where I serve, it is good for a priest to take time early in the relationship with the congregation to say, “Hey, listen to this: This is what I see.” And if all – or even most – of life in your congregation is going well, then by all means, get cracking on telling the congregation about it. They need to hear it.

When you see your congregation doing some great Kingdom work and it touches your heart, tell them. When a visitor says something really great about their experience with your people, find a way to share that feedback. Our job as clergy, and especially as bi-vocational clergy, is not only to provide the Sacraments, to make hospital visits and to preside at Bishop’s Committee meetings. Our calling is to build up the Body of Christ, through invitation and evangelism, certainly, through the rough waters of accountability and being a non-anxious presence in crisis, but also through encouragement of healthy growth behavior, and tending to the hunger in each person to know that the Church supports and believes in them.

It’s a delicate catwalk along which to trace our steps, but clergy must walk that thin line between representing a Church that is independent of the control of individual authorities, while still having the strength and confidence to inhabit the Church’s vulnerable spaces needing people’s gifts. These are God’s people, those whom God’s priests serve, and on behalf of whom we make sacrifices – before God, and from our lives and families. The people need us as much as we need them. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you see.

What follows is my sermon delivered July 13, 2014 to my small congregation of 35 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Woodville, on the Parable of the Sower, and what a recent harvest looked like from the priest’s point of view:

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, then these people would be the reason to be one.”

That was one of the more memorable things I heard someone say yesterday in the Parish Hall at Bob’s 90th birthday party – besides all the Bob and Betty quotes that Woodie told, of course.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, then these people would be the reason to be one.” That was an interesting thing for a visitor to say to the priest – at first, a part of me wanted to protest – Obviously, we hadn’t planted enough seed here with this person for our Episcopal awesomeness to take root and grow! I was thinking, wait a minute, there are a LOT of really fantastic reasons to be an Episcopalian, and I just can’t let this person leave until they know all about those wonderful things. But when I thought it over, I realized – What they said really does say something wonderful about our church, doesn’t it? “If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be the reason to be one.”

Today’s Gospel parable in Matthew starts out a little unexpectedly compared to some parables. It doesn’t start, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a guy who got some seeds….” It just starts, with “Listen!” And then, we dive right into the story of the Sower. This is the story of a guy who’s seemingly haphazardly planting – throwing seeds all over: on a walking path, on some rocky ground, right in the middle of some weeds, and finally he manages to get some to land on the good ground. This is a story about a guy who’s planting seeds, but it’s also Jesus telling the story of his ministry, and how it’s been going in getting the Gospel message out there. This is also our story – the story about our work to share the Gospel with the world, and the challenges we face both in planting a good Gospel crop in ourselves, and in people out there. This is the story of the Word of the Kingdom of God. The story follows where word goes, and what happens to it in those different places, how the Word is treated, how it is received and what it looks like when it’s enacted.

We call the Bible the Word of God. It’s not just words sitting on a page. When the Gospel is read out loud into the context of the Body of Christ gathered to worship the Father, this Word becomes the living breath of God, delivered into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Through it, across 2,000 years of human history lived inside the Christian story, Jesus calls to us, “Listen! Listen with the ear of your heart. Hear my Word, and understand. Get excited, yes! But be patient and be diligent.” Jesus asks us to walk along beside him, the Sower, and with the Holy Spirit as it is planted deep into our heart, where it will take root and grow, and where it yields a harvest known and recognized in the physical presence of the Gospel, when the Word becomes flesh and walks around in us. Like the Sower and his seed, Jesus scatters his love everywhere. His Word is all about hope, and no matter our emotional or spiritual condition, he has hope that we will love and serve him, and that his Word will stay with us, and grow, and feed others.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be a reason to be one.”

Jesus is known as the Word – the Logos of God. Jesus as the Word is the Incarnation of God who enacts his mercy and is the embodiment of God’s creative force in the Universe. In John 1:1 and 14 Jesus is described as co-eternal with God. The Incarnation of the Creator. “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things came into being through him … and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have SEEN his glory.”

The people living contemporary to Jesus, the crowd gathered around him that day, and his Disciples, they had encountered the Word walking around with them. It was a different encounter than re-telling the stories being passed around about who Jesus was, and what he was doing; different than listening to Prophecies being heard read in the Synagogues – Jesus has moved beyond the story and the page and is God, walking among them. In Jesus, the Word, the Logos, was so powerful with the creative energy of the God that it was no longer just a story or a written word – that the Word was now an experience. The Word was something to be encountered. In Jesus, the content of the Gospel message and the visceral, physical-emotional-spiritual encounter of experiencing him had become inseparable. The Word had become flesh, and was living among them.

As followers of Jesus, as his Church of people who are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, that same story lives right here among us. We have an encounter with the living Word of God in Holy Scripture, and in Holy Communion. And each week, right here, we are refreshed and renewed and sent out again as Jesus says, “Listen! Listen to my Word, and understand, and GO and bear fruit.” As we go out from here and into the world each week, when what we allow people to encounter in us becomes inseparable, indistinguishable from the Jesus story they have heard or read about, in that same encounter, WE ARE the Word. In the encounter, they meet Jesus in us. We are their experience of Christianity, and that’s when we teach them what being an Episcopalian means. That’s when his message is our life, and our life is his message.

“If there were no other reason to be an Episcopalian, than these people would be a reason to be one.”

The visitor who said that to me wasn’t insulting the Episcopal Church’s theology, or our great intellectual balance of belief and reason. They weren’t knocking our beautiful liturgy or our love of old-age, time-honored traditional spiritual practices. This was a visitor who didn’t know much about what being Episcopal is, or what that’s supposed to mean as far as how we worship, or the depths of our theology. This was a visitor who came to an event at St. Paul’s and experienced an encounter with Jesus.

This is a person who spent time around you, and who had an encounter with the Word that is in YOU. This visitor stepped into the Jesus story as it is lived by this congregation. Our theology, our liturgy, our beautiful hymnody and spiritual practices – those are precious gifts from God to his Church. Believe me, I love them, dearly. But the FIRST gift we are called to share is Jesus – to be the encounter of the Word for every person we meet. And then, as members of God’s Church, I hope you will go on to say, “I’m from St. Paul’s and if you’ll come be a part of us, I would consider that the best reason to be an Episcopalian!” Amen.

The Bi-Vocational Vision: Beginning Congregational Development and a New Priest’s First Sermon

When you’re a bi-vocational priest serving a small congregation, beginning to write a vision for congregational development takes a different approach then that of a stipendiary rector in a fully-funded large parish. In a bi-vocational deployment, there’s a high likelihood you’ll be partnered with a congregation that doesn’t have the advantage of historically consistent clergy leadership to build on. Some small churches go years without any regular clergy of their own. An absence of clergy leadership contributes to a lack of clear mission vision. Combined with the threat – real or imagined – of economic instability looming like wolves at the door, it is understandable why a small church’s energy gets funneled out of mission mode and into survival mode.

The sudden arrival of a bi-vocational clergy person can rock the already drifting boat. For the first several months, it can be a bit of a wild ride at times, as everyone – clergy included – comes to terms with a leadership shift which likely includes a redistribution of duties, worship changes and newly defined community relationships. The wise new clergy never makes too many changes at the beginning, least the boat rock so hard it turns over. But as an even wiser clergy friend of mine said, “Even if you don’t change anything, YOU ARE change.” Point well-taken.

This past Sunday, June 29, I was priested by Bishop Jeff Fisher as I knelt on the floor at the center of the worship space in my small East Texas congregation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, surrounded by a heartfelt group of fellow priests, all laying their hands on me, invoking the Holy Spirit and blessing my new priestly ministry. I was off to a great start, and I have to say that I have the good bi-vocational fortune to be leading a group of people who both enjoy serving the Lord and who are willing to try some new things with me, and that is primary to bi-vocational success. My congregation is blessed with dedicated members who have gifts for leadership grounded in a depth of experience that is the special charism of a congregation made up of mostly retirees. They are aware of their need for growth, and that is the secondary piece to a bi-vocational congregation’s success. The other pieces we’re going to discover along the way.

What follows is my first sermon as a priest, given Sunday, July 6, 2014, after spending nearly a year getting to know them as a deacon and their head of congregation. It is my first attempt at congregational development, and addresses an identity concern particular to the needs of bi-vocational congregations:

Well, what a week huh? Today I want to share some things that are on my heart, and begin to cast a vision for our new ministry together as priest and congregation. It’s said that when you are ordained, you go through an ontological change – a change in who you are, your whole being becomes something different. I kept running into situations this last week where I had to remind myself that I wasn’t the same any more – at one point I found myself sitting in the church office with my home Communion box trying to figure out the logistics of finding a priest to consecrate the elements for me. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah – I’m a priest!” That wasn’t just me making a mental adjustment – This kind of change required a whole lot more than merely adjusting, than just making a little room in my thinking. This ontological change meant me doing the work of accepting way down deep inside me who I now am – and beginning to live into who I have become. This is who I am – I’m a priest.

This is the first time I’ve stood at the St. Paul’s pulpit wearing a priest’s stole. Up until now, I’ve worn a deacon’s stole. The deacon’s calling is to represent Christ as Servant, represented by their stoles being tied to the side. The priest’s stole is worn with both sides in place and represents the priest taking on the yoke of Christ, serving like Jesus as Shepherd of the flock. A priest’s role in the church community is to gather and guide and protect the Body of Christ and to provide the Sacraments of his Church. But there’s a saying among priests that one is always also a deacon, because you were first made a deacon. By that reasoning, I am, and most of us here today are, first and foremost the Baptized. Before your confirmation, before any of us were married or ordained, or entered into any other sacramental covenant, you were baptized – you experienced the ontological change that happens at baptism, when something about your whole being changed. You were filled with the Holy Spirit and made one with God through his Savior, Jesus. And because that happened, you wear the symbol of the cross of Jesus Christ, the yoke that can never be removed – at your baptism you were marked as Christ’s own forever. Whether you were baptized into the Episcopal Church, or you were, like me, baptized into another Christian denomination, it is the same – we are at the moment of our Baptism filled with the Holy Spirit and made members in this Body, forever gifted to receive the yoke of the ministry of the Gospel. Forever called to love the Lord our God with everything we are, and to love everyone around us like they are us.

This symbolism of the yoke is powerful – a yoke is what binds one animal to another so that they both can pull together to get something done. Throughout biblical history yokes have also represented slavery, or a burden to be escaped. But here in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus provides another image of the yoke. When you yoke two animals together, the wise farmer will partner a more experienced animal with the one who is new to the yoke, so the older one can teach the younger, and guide them in the work they share. Jesus evokes this when he says “learn from me – you who are weary, and heavy-laden, take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What comfort God offers us here! That when we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, Jesus comes alongside us, gently and humbly, and invites us into relationship with him, teaching us to experience the world in a whole new way through him.

If you have not been baptized, you are invited to be. You are welcome, and you are loved, and we want you to be a part of this amazing family we call the Body of Christ. We want you to be a part of this portion of God’s Kingdom that we have been given to care for known as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. This is the Gospel message to take to your neighbor. This is the Good News to take to the person you run into when the Holy Spirit deep down inside you won’t leave you alone, but keeps calling to you to do something for them, or to say some words of God’s grace to them.

Looking back over the last week, I think there was a tie for the most popular question folks asked me leading up to and including the ordination. It was a pretty even heat between, “Are you nervous?” and “How you holdin’ up?” But I noticed something, whenever that happened, when one of you asked those questions, you would always follow the question up with something else, like humor, or reassurance. I don’t think any of you asked me those questions because you didn’t care, or because you were just morbidly curious how I was doing. I believe you asked me those questions because you knew it was a challenging and stressful time, and you were ready to offer me real and practical comfort and real encouragement. I didn’t hear anything impractical or fake like, “It’s going to be perfect.” Or “Nothing will ever go wrong.” I heard you saying things like, “It’s ok, we’ve going to take care of you,” and “This is going to be so wonderful – we are so excited!” There were so many of you who despite doing your own hard work and preparation, took the time to stop and really care for me, and my family. And it wasn’t just me – you cared for each other. I saw it happening, several times. It may have seemed for a little bit like the world was threatening to rotate around this one event, but the truth is that life and ministry and the mission field was still going on all around us, and I know that several of you were right in the middle of that holy work. You loved on John and Betty Sisson, you visited Kay, encouraged Jim and Glenda, and BW and Wayne, you loved on Leon, you sent Keith letters at Camp, you supported each other in countless ways, and you invited the community to be a part of our mission and our worship.

Over and over, you wore the yoke of Christ in private and in public. There may have been times when it felt like that yoke weighed more than you could bear – You may have thought, Lord, do I HAVE to be Jesus to that person today? Because I don’t think I have the strength to do it. But Jesus tells us not to worry about it – because he’s got this. His burden is easy, and his yoke is light. When we take on the new life in Jesus Christ, when we wear the yoke of God, we don’t pull the weight ourselves. We first have to show up – to offer ourselves in his name, and in that beautiful paradox of the Gospel, our freedom happens when we give ourselves up to serving God. It’s not about making an adjustment to our former life – wearing the yoke of Jesus is about accepting that something deep down inside you has changed – you’re not adjusting, you have a new identity, and you are beginning to live into that new identity. You are a Christian.

One of the dearest things I remember hearing in this precious time around my ordination has been from Bob Payne. Bob and Betty are quiet folks, but they love and serve the Lord and his Church with everything they are. They don’t just make adjustments. That’s who they are. They are faithful.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with Bob in the Parish Hall on what was my last Sunday before coming back here for ordination. He said, “Bye, I’ll see you next Sunday,” and I said, “No, I won’t be there for the next couple of weeks. I’ll see you on Ordination Sunday.” Without missing a beat, he said, “We’ll be here waiting for you, and we’ll welcome you with open arms.”

That crystallized for me what the heart of this church is. It’s said that every congregation has a personality, has a general character that is made up of the combined charism of its people. A church’s personality is brought to life by weaving together for a shared purpose the different gifts and spirituality of its members. Since the first moment I found out I would be assigned to St. Paul’s, and would one day become your priest, I have looked forward to finding out what your character is.
You’ve weathered a lot of changes over the years, and a fair amount of upheaval, and as a congregation, you have endured and come through together strong. You’ve endured a lot of time without being in regular relationship with a priest you could call your own. In fact, St. Paul’s has spent so much time in that place of managing inconsistency, that you started calling yourselves, tongue-in-cheek, the Church of the Holy Adjustment.

I don’t believe that is your real character. I don’t believe that is who you really are. That may have been who this church used to be – that may have been who you had to be at times to survive. But I don’t believe this is now who you are. And I know it’s not what you are called by God to be. Since last October, my knowing of you is that you are the people who love others fiercely for Jesus, the people who come together and give everything you can to help someone in a crisis. You dig deep, emotionally, spiritually, and materially, into who you really are as Christians. Over these last several months, and in these last weeks especially, you have shown me that you can get some serious Kingdom work done! With God’s help, you make and execute plans, you face challenges head on, you work with everyone in this community, and you have a lot of fun along the way. There’s a LOT of joy here. You are the people of the Jesus Welcome – you are St. Paul’s!

Our patron saint is St. Paul, and last Sunday was the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. Paul is really unique, because he has two feast days. We are named after a man who gave his life believing that we are the saints of God by God’s own calling, and by the blood of Jesus we are gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve our Creator with a CLEAR and STEADY vision. We are called to respond with the faith of those who know that whatever comes, whatever we face – we have the cross of Christ to guide us and we have the gifts of the Spirit to use in every kind of work – every situation, every tragedy, every victory, every opportunity to live our congregation’s mission to be a light of Christ to the world. Paul knew he couldn’t be defined by what was going wrong, nor defined by whether he himself had any ability to make it all come out ok. Paul knew that from an outside perspective, heck even from an inside the church perspective, he knew that things were going to wrong. God didn’t send me because I’m clever in how I talk, he said. But to those who are called, Christ is our power, he is our wisdom. In him, everything is made ok, whether the worlds sees it that way or not.
My friends, no matter what we do, not matter how hard we try, there will always be a need to make adjustments. That is not unique to us. That is life in every Christian community. And like Matthew tells us today in our reading that even when we do things right, there are those who will accuse us, and who will misunderstand our intentions. But it is the work of our prayers, and the work of our testimony and the work of our hands that will teach people what the Jesus Welcome is. So when things don’t go like we planned them, don’t worry – we are St. Paul’s. God’s got this.

The Gospel of Christ wasn’t given to us because we understand it all, or because we have it all together and we know exactly what we are doing – it was given to us because God loves us, he cherishes us, and wants us to live in his grace, and to offer that grace to everyone.

The next feast day for St. Paul’s is on January 25, right around the time we will be having our next annual meeting when we look back at where we’ve been, and talk about where we are going. That day celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – when the man who was Saul experiences an epiphany from God, and understands his new calling to serve God in a very active and vibrant ministry to those that used to know him in an entirely different way. Paul discovered his true character formed in picking up and wearing the yoke of God through a really dramatic conversion experience. Some of us come to God in a dramatic moment – for some of us, it’s a quieter experience. Both are ontological changes – both redefine who we are.

This is not the Church of the Holy Adjustment. That is not who we are. St. Paul’s is a church built on the solid foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We may not have a deacon any longer at St. Paul’s, but I’m always going to have that deacon side of me, and together we are always going to be called to meet Jesus in those places in this community where the world would rather not look – the darkness where the Light of Jesus that is in us is really needed. And when things happen that we don’t expect, we’re not going to adjust – we’re going to trust. Because God’s got this.

My brothers and sisters, we are who God has made us to be – every morning that you wake up, before you even get out of bed, pick up the yoke of Christ and put firmly around your shoulders, then go out into the world and love everyone, and welcome them with open arms. We are Christians. We are Episcopalians. This is our character. This is who we are. We are St. Paul’s.