THE PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD — February 2, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The past few weeks we have had some wonderful lessons about being called into servant ministry. We have seen and heard Jesus in his encounters with Andrew and Simon Peter, and with James and John. I would have liked to speak about those calls, but we needed to look back to 2019 to remember where we have been and to assess how much growth and healing we have experienced together. Our Wardens and Treasurer spoke profoundly about the life of and in this parish and all the ways we have been blessed by the Holy Spirit. It was a good celebration topped off by a tasty lunch. I don’t play the violin, yet this image came to me this week: serving among you is like playing a Stradivarius, and I rejoice greatly in that and in you.
Today I want to look forward with you as continue moving the search for a new rector for Trinity. We have done the Portfolio which describes us, and now the Vestry and the Search Committee have to look ahead at what we are being called to by the Holy Spirit, those things that we definitely must continue because they are part of the essence of who we are, and those new ministries that may be on the horizon, especially those for which a new rector may have the skills to lead us.
I am especially mindful of this right now because this past weekend the Diocese of Minnesota elected its next bishop—#10. I am #8. I did not read much about the candidates before the election, because I did not want to have an opinion when friends from the diocese contacted me.
I remember years ago saying to a priest who was retiring and trying to hand pick his successor: “if you were getting a divorce, would you try to choose your wife’s next husband for her?” He took some offense at that. I took offense at his actions; because in my role it was always important to prevent an end run around the Holy Spirit. The reason dioceses are generally pretty firm in setting the guidelines for the search process is because that way the Holy Spirit has a chance and no individual or small group can hijack or manipulate the process. A bishop does not try to control the outcome—that choice is between the congregation and the Holy Spirit.
There are two types of call. One is what we term vocation, when someone is called to be a deacon or a priest or a lawyer or a baker or a plumber or just about anything. When one discovers his or her true vocation life can be tremendously fulfilling and meaningful. Some people may be tremendously gifted at something, but it does not feel like a vocation to them, yet they may be wise enough to find a hobby that serves as their vocation. One definition for this type of vocation is when the spirit of the work and the spirit of the person come together. That meeting is usually the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s what happened to Andrew and Peter and James and John and so many others in scripture and ever since.
Sometimes a vocation is so strong that others see it. When someone sees this in a child as Simeon and Anna do with Jesus, we consider them prescient, which is a way of knowing something that is only beginning to emerge. Simeon has been told that he will not die before he sees the Lord’s Messiah, and when he takes Jesus into his arms, he is overwhelmed, and utters the words that we now call the Nunc Dimittis, “Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, as you promised, for my eyes have seen your salvation, your light, your revelation and your glory.” It is a holy moment for him.
It is also a holy moment for Anna who tells everyone this child is the one who will redeem Jerusalem. We see this happen again at Jesus’ baptism when the dove descends on him and a voice sounds out from heaven, and again at his transfiguration when he is turned dazzlingly bright and has a vision of Moses and Elijah that is so real and so powerful that Peter, James and John see it, too. And they, too, hear God speaking to them: “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
The other type of call is to a particular ministry in a particular place. There were some very fine candidates for bishop in Minnesota, but what became evident in the walkabout when they spoke in front of different groups all over that huge state, was that one of them was being moved by the land and the history of the Episcopalians there. People saw and heard that happening to him, just as Simeon and Anna saw the Spirit in Jesus. He was elected. In a diocese that has been in ministry with Native Americans since before it was incorporated, we were all sensitive to the land we lived on, because the Native Americans taught us how to love it. Minnesota has for years had the finest Department of Natural Resources in the country; I believe it is because of that heritage. We were also made aware that the rest of us are all descended from immigrants, so the diocese continues to broaden its cultural heritage. During the 17 years I was there we added Hispanic ministry, ministry with and among Liberians, with Somalis, with the Karen people from northern Thailand, and in 2006 we confirmed and received 275 people into The Episcopal Church who came originally from Viet Nam. They have become the first Hmong congregation in the Anglican Communion. It was a powerful Spirit-led experience for so many in the diocese, because so many contributed their money and their prayers, and over 800 people were in the cathedral for that confirmation liturgy.
The month before the first group of Hmong knocked on one of our church doors, I had said to the Diocesan Council that we could not start any more special ministries or missions because they were already fifty per cent of our budget, more, I think, than any other diocese in TEC. Well, the next month I went back to the Council and said, “Do you remember what I said last month? Well, forget it. What do we do when the Holy Spirit dangles a mission opportunity like this right in front of us? We have to say ‘yes.’” And we did.
That is true for us at Trinity. I think it was the Holy Spirit that dangled the opportunity to partner with Newport Community School and Seaman’s Institute. What else do we need to be open to right now? Clearly, we need to do something among ourselves to be more open to and inclusive of children, and we have to start from the bottom up, with the children we have, and then add on the grades above as our children grow up. What we discern about missions and ministry during the next four months will greatly shape the picture of the skills we need in the next rector. Clearly, we need someone who can work collaboratively and openly with others, who enjoys being with and teaching children and teaching others how to teach children, and who has a heart for evangelism—and the ability to help all of you incorporate new members into this church community. That’s a start; I am sure there will be more.
I describe this second type of vocation/call as a meeting of the spirit of the community and the spirit of a priest, and we might add, the spirit of the place. Trinity Church is definitely a place. Its walls have been prayed up many times over during these 294 years. Trinity has the aura of sanctity from the faith of those who have gone before and are undergirding us in our faith and at the same time encouraging and calling us from beyond. Never doubt that the Holy Spirit has been and is here.
May I go in a slightly different direction to look at what goes on inside a person who is considering another ministry? Many years ago, after serving in a very large parish in Memphis, I thought it was time to be open to a call to another ministry. Our rector, the best mentor I ever had, shared with me an old adage about seeking and listening to a “call.” The adage goes like this:
“If the rewards are clear and the call is vague, watch out! The devil is lurking.”
Conversely, “If the rewards are vague and the call is clear, watch out! The Spirit is stalking.”
My friends, this has served me wonderfully well over the past fifty years, and with good spiritual directors to keep me true and honest, I can say that I believe I was truly called to serve where I have been. I have a few gifts, so I knew people might want me to serve among them, but I was always trying to listen to why God might want me to serve among them. I found early on that one learns more clearly that a call is from the Holy Spirit when one is able to do difficult things in a given ministry. We clergy want a congregation that is easy to love, just as you want that in a priest. Yet congregations need someone they can deeply trust to be there for their greatest good. That takes a lot of prayer and introspection in the life of a priest, the ability to say “I’m sorry,” the ability to forgive—not just at the Absolution, but in the daily-ness of our relationships, and the ability to bless, not just with the words of the Benediction, but in the way the priest affirms individuals and brings them together in spiritual bonds.
I urge you to step up your prayers on behalf of the Search Committee and the Vestry, that they may grow in their ability to see the Spirit in people. And I urge you to pray for those people yet unknown to us who are considering us as a flock whom they might serve among. And remember, no priest is perfect, so we are looking not for the perfect shepherd, but for a good shepherd. Amen.
+James L. Jelinek, Interim Rector Trinity Church, Newport