A confession, to start: I cringe when I hear clergy who take leave of their congregations by reciting long lists of accomplishments. You know what I mean. “I did this and that” or “when I arrived we had this many people, and now we have this many more” or “because of our work in this area we are now known throughout the diocese as the church who…”—it’s the same list no matter the words, and it’s usually about the clergyperson, not the congregation. I hope that neither this my last pastoral article for The Three Crowns, nor Sunday’s sermon falls within such lines.
Nonetheless, there are memories, especially particular moments over these ten years that I shall always remember and cherish. I remember as if it were yesterday what it was like to anticipate joining you, those summer days in 2009 between the time when the vestry called me and Rally Day, the first Sunday I preached. What I remember most is feeling terribly excited and immeasurably scared.
In late August of that year, Tom and I had moved into the rectory on Lakeview Road, and then we scooted north to the Saint Lawrence River to play and to get ready for Rally Day. I remember the insomnia in those days; I would lie awake throughout the night wondering how I could possibly be the Rector of the Parish of the Epiphany. After all, they all went to Harvard and Wellesley. Epiphany is really big, and I don’t know anything about big churches. They don’t have a parking lot.
I was genuinely scared, and I also felt deeply called to join you. Both. At a party one evening, standing in the kitchen of a neighbor’s cottage, I met a woman whose grandmother grew up at the Parish of the Epiphany. It was one of those small world connections all of us experience from time to time. She herself was a teacher at a prestigious boarding school; she was leaving The River in the morning to start her 22nd year of teaching. When I wasn’t prattling on about feeling intimidated about coming to the Parish of the Epiphany, I peppered her with questions about her grandmother. She listened. Then, after a little while, she asked, “wanna know what I think they’ll most want from you?” She continued, “just be curious, and listen. The rest will follow.”
The curiosity part came naturally; the listening part not so much. And, that my dear friends, is what you have given me: a greater capacity to listen. I’ll never be the greatest listener, but I’m far more centered than I was in 2009, and that’s because of your patient, and sometimes impatient, method of forming me as a spiritual leader. I can feel—just as surely as I felt intimidation ten years ago—the truth that I am more interested to learn through listening than to teach by leading and speaking. Thank you.
I suppose the next most grating characteristic of clergy leave-taking, after the recitation of accomplishments, is the clergy person who punctuates her or his tenure by giving advice. Guilty, as charged, but my advice isn’t a long list, it’s just one thing, and it’s not about you, and it’s not about me, and it’s not about the church—its budget or its ministry.
Barbara Brown Taylor, the great preacher of the Episcopal Church, sometimes begins her sermons by saying, “Come Holy Ghost, for if you are with us nothing else matters, and if you are not with us, nothing else matters.” Here’s a take on that provocative statement: make the love of Jesus Christ your central focus. Everything else will follow. If what you do and who you are is about Jesus and his gospel of freedom, grace, and mercy, the Parish of the Epiphany will continue to reflect the kingdom. For if it’s about Jesus nothing else matters, and if it’s not about Jesus, nothing else matters.
Jesus once said, “peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you…do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Whatever peace I leave with you, or take with me to Maine, it is not mine, and it is not yours. It comes from our Lord, who desires to give us this gift always, and to lead us boldly into something new.
My love for you remains, that’s for sure. So too will my thanks for all that you’ve taught me, all the ways you’ve shaped me. Unlike 2009, when I felt intimidated and excited, I leave you now feeling immensely joyous, and immeasurably thankful.
Peace be with you.