Friday, October 25, 2013

At the Institution of a Rector

A Sermon in Two Voices
at the Institution of The Rev. John Edward Denaro
as Rector of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Parish, Brooklyn, New York
5 October 2013
The Rev. Peter Elvin (voice A) and Ms. Diana Elvin (voice B)

A: So what do you think about John stepping from Priest-in-Charge to Rector?
B: Out of the frying pan into the fire?

A: Priest-in-Charge sounds so powerful: does anyone ever say a Rector’s in
B: Not that I recall. Priest-in-Charge sounds hierarchical, almost militant.
“Rector” seems so well-behaved, vaguely academic, Trollopian…

A: The dictionary says its root is the past participle of the Latin “regere”, to rule..
B: Who knew? But don’t they call this a service of Institution? Is John
becoming an institution?

A: And is that supposed to sound powerful? Sounds more like something
powerful happens to him…
B: Let’s hope it’s not like when the White Witch in Narnia turns a creature
to stone…

A: Or even worse: makes him a Chief Executive Officer…
B: Is that what a Rector is? A CEO?

A: Are we sure that’s not Chief Entrepreneurial Officer?
B: That’s John. Or Chief Entertainment Organizer?

A: You heard about that Barn Dance? There won’t be many dull moments
around here…
B: Or Chief Ecumenical Operator? John’s sharp on interfaith dynamics.

A: How about Church Environment Overseer?
B: John certainly values the dynamics of group and community values. He’ll
model well.

Voice A

Because he leads by example. How long does it take a total stranger to discover that John enjoys people? Has a playful sense of humor? That he has bright, inspiring energy (the kind that makes us ask, ‘Where does he keep getting it?’)? And that he respects people, appreciates the privilege of the pastoral union, and gets the concepts of team building and leadership?

Ask John, and he’ll say that the teamwork enjoyed here manifests the energy of the laity (and, I’m sure he would add, the talents of his committed staff members). But the fact that we’re all here today says that your energy and John’s energy make good chemistry together. There’s so much to celebrate, that both you-the-people and he-the-priest (as well as he-the-bishop) feel so ready to upgrade this relationship and render it longterm. “People here are so good, so open-hearted and responsive,” John tells us. And, you know, that describes John, too. Like wise Solomon in our first reading, John listens to Lady Wisdom, learns without guile and imparts without grudging.

John’s aim is to see that you see your own strength as a community in Christ. Wisely, John knows that you and God already have a good thing going; that he is to deepen, strengthen, help God evolve and harvest that good. And speaking of strength, the spiritual organism of this parish has proven itself versatile in its many adaptations in its history, a real Comeback Kid, familiar with change and death and resurrection and amazing grace.

John speaks of downtown Brooklyn as the Crossroads to Everywhere. Even we in the Berkshires know that Brooklyn is more than a happening place: Everyone wants to live in Brooklyn, “The Coolest City on the Planet”! Consider the dynamism around you in this boomtown. Conversion, even if its common reference is housing, conversion is a ready-made concept for use here in Brooklyn! We hear that in the market for homes, there’s a keen appetite for homes with a past, places that exude history. St. Matthew’s language comes alive here in a real Brooklyn way: if training for the kingdom of heaven requires valuing what is old and what is new—this is a dynamic you know about. And here we are in a holy house redolent with history, situated to embrace and help play is role in the renewal of community all around you.

In the dynamic mix of old and new, the old is on display in our liturgy (and its setting), yet requires the new to connect us to the world. The old is treasured and taught in our “family values” of those Holy Habits your Bishop made the compass of his creative ministry in the Diocese of WMA, and I’m sure he’s teaching them here, too: Personal prayer, Bible reading, generous stewardship, weekly eucharist, sharing your faith, service in outreach—habits that help us engage with the living God who uses these very commitments to strengthen us in love that is new every morning.

John’s dream for this parish is that you connect effectively with your wider community, extending and expressing your mission beyond these walls. John cites your 10th anniversary 9/11 observance as a rich example of your outreach, and even though I’ll bet John was much engaged, he makes it clear that that was you caring for your neighbors. As commercial and residential expansion and gentrification sweep through your neighborhoods, what shapes will your caring for neighbors take?

When John looks at these impressive but demanding buildings, he knows they have a mission, that they are alive with possibility, and sees what he calls “a community commons”, a place for all, a venue for considering what world it is you occupy, and how you and your neighbors thrive—or do not thrive—in that world. “Connecting to need” is his mantra. You’re doing it, through your monthly outreach mitzvah projects, and your Sunday sandwich program.

There is a fire in John’s belly, and there is a fire in yours. Watch out, Brooklyn, for we are here today to celebrate countless ways, some known and many more not yet, in which you will honor that flame of love, let it shine, let it draw people to you, let it warm hearts and wills.

Voice B

Joel, as Peter and I considered your participation in this day, we realized that the words John chose from Psalm 37 are a good guide for both of you: “Take delight in the LORD, and he shall give you your heart’s desire. Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.”

This day formally celebrates a new relationship between John and this congregation, but we all need to remember that John is John because you are you. If you are like most of the other life partners of clergy I know, you will be happy to cruise just under the radar, breaking the surface every so often in your own unique way, but your role is not to be diminished: your role is not to be diminished, and you are not to be diminished.

Clergy households have to balance on a tightrope: you will probably know much more than you will ever be able to do anything about directly, because you won’t be involved directly. You will witness what’s going on in the parish, and you will live with John’s professional challenges and opportunities but, as the saying goes about the traditional mother-of-the-groom, you may have to “smile, wear beige, and keep your mouth shut” more often than not. From time to time, you may feel like a man without a parish, or perhaps I should say, a man without this parish. That’s OK. It’s still worth it.

You are a person of integrity. You are intelligent and kind. Your moral compass points True North. You welcome and enjoy people of all kinds. You know how to play and how to play into the human condition.

I don’t think you’ll have any trouble doing what the Psalmist instructs and trusting this parish and trusting God. And in doing so, you will be a grounded and steady refuge for John. Your heart’s desire in safeguarding the happiness and security of your personal relationship will also safeguard the happiness and security of this parish.

But just in case you need reminding, I have a couple of “symbols of institution” for you, too:

• You already have the magic wand I gave to you when John was called to be interim priest. Don’t forget that contains unlimited wishes. Be careful what you wish for…
• Next, a roll of duct tape (when you just want to let it rip but know you shouldn’t). Place over mouth and breathe through nose until calm.
• Next, a stick of insect repellent, to try to ward off the occasional sting or bite from people who may slide down the evolutionary scale to release their inner arthropod, from time to time.
• And finally, anytime you want it, an infusion of joy (or at least perspective) from me to you that will remind you over and over how fortunate you are to be in this whackadoodle, exhausting, privileged position along with John.

Voice A

John, am I divulging classified information if I say that some of your very best sermons are written in Williamstown, at your branch office, Tunnel City Coffee? If we were just a little smarter, maybe we’d figure out a way to do sermon sharing…

My point is that for years now, John and Joel have been part of the community of St. John’s, Williamstown. When John asked the two of us to preach, he suggested that even though our two parishes have very different contexts for ministry, there are some patterns of outreach at St. John ‘s that he wouldn’t mind importing to Brooklyn.

But first, our setting at St. John’s. Our 1895 stone building is perhaps one-quarter the size of yours here, and decidedly rustic by comparison. We’re situated at the heart of the campus of Williams College, in a town of 8,000 and a whole lot of gorgeous bucolic greenspace.

It’s our great fortune at St. John’s that we enjoy all the generations, in part because of where we’re set, in part because our parish (spearheaded by members who are faculty, staff, or alums) has a passionate appetite for welcoming students both to worship and to lay ministry.

We employ a halftime youth minister, we experiment (a lot) in worship (both the parish eucharist and alternative services for families and kids) and are committed to breaking the sound barrier. I mean the one that either keeps families with preschoolers from feeling at home, or ensures that they will feel welcome.

For 35 years, we’ve taken 10% of our pledged income and aimed it outwards in support of many mission partners (local, national, global). This voluntary commitment beyond our assessment has helped save us from our more anxious selves, kept our eyes on the prize, and made its impact on parish culture.

All but one of the past 12 summers, an intergenerational medical mission trip to Latin America has staffed and supported surgical and dental clinics in under-served places, gotten missioners doing things they never imagined doing, and spawned a few careers in medicine and public health, and—the other side of the blessing-- acts like leaven in the parish.

Voice B

John has expressed admiration for our Williamstown parish’s emphasis on ministry through the arts. It is a ministry of art, music, and performance that features talented parishioners as well as invited guests to use our physical spaces to enhance the spirit through outreach to the community and deepening relationships within the parish family. I know that John looks at the talent in this place and has similar hopes for St. Anne’s and Holy Trinity.

In thinking of how to describe the exponential benefits of the concept, I am reminded of the Chinese artist Xu Bing whose “Phoenix” exhibition has been on display at our local Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Xu Bing has constructed two enormous phoenixes, one male and one female, that hang 20 feet in the air in a football-field sized gallery. Each one weighs 12 tons and is about 100 feet long from nose to tail feathers. They are constructed out of debris from politically controversial construction sites in Beijing: shovels, gates, hoses, motor housings, hard hats, steel beams, canisters, rusted saws, twisted pieces of metal, concrete slabs, whirly-gigs, and so on. The art is partly a political statement about the demolition of historic hutong neighborhoods that left hundreds of people homeless. Left alone on the ground, the debris and broken bits are nothing but junk. But Xu Bing’s phoenixes rise from rubble into a cohesive whole, outlined in hundreds of tiny LED lights, each piece informing, supporting, and complementing all the other pieces into a whole that is overwhelmingly larger than life—just what a parish is called to do for itself and for the world. Just what this parish has the capacity to do. Consider the passage from Matthew that we heard today:
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Xu Bing’s phoenixes are scheduled to move from Mass MoCA to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine here in New York, if engineers can figure out how to suspend 24 tons from the rafters. I hope every one of you can experience the impact of that art in a sacred space. It will inspire you.

At our parish, we have a special events coordinator on the staff, himself a composer and instrumentalist. Jimmy coordinates and oversees art shows that can be hung in the church itself or in two parlors newly renovated to accommodate gallery space. For several years now, lining the interior windows of the church nave, we have installed unique and contemporary Stations of the Cross created for Lenten meditations—each year artists interpret the stations, accommodating a different centralizing theme, kicking off each opening with a Mardi Gras celebration on Shrove Tuesday, complete with King’s cake, New Orleans-style muffuletta, and a lot of bead swinging.

Many guest artists augment both worship and community outreach by sharing their talent, world view, and works of art. It takes time, creative thinking, and thoughtfulness to keep the stream of artistic expression alive, but we are committed to keeping at it. You, too, are in a neighborhood rich with possibility.

Voice A

John, here is my (and I dare say our) charge to you, as you become Rector of this historic and changing parish.

Keep paying attention to your long-standing passion for people at the borders, migrants at our nation’s borders, neighbors at the margins of society here in Brooklyn, parishioners at the periphery of parish life. Keep reaching out, creatively and boldly, to people at the borders.

As you pursue your vision of this parish’s connecting to its wider world, continue building alliances that will encourage and inspire and feed you and build partnerships that will strengthen your people.

Keep letting the Holy Spirit overshadow you as you read God’s Word and preach to God’s people, so that Christ the living Word may reach the minds and hearts of many who will come here seeking inspiration in an age of disillusionment.

Recognize each of your daily tasks, especially the pesky ones, as opportunities to honor the Incarnation of God in human flesh; but keep sharp your skill at discerning whether it is your hand needed on the plow, or someone else’s.

As you institute what is new, help your people clarify what already constitutes the genius of this parish, so that both new and old are treasured and supported and fulfilled.

Voice B

I invite everyone, including John’s family and friends, to stand.

Installing a new rector is not a spectator sport; it is a team commitment. John has promised to be a faithful leader, working hard to guide you, challenge you, steward your resources, create informed and compelling liturgy, and hold your feet to the spiritual fire of the Gospel. He can do that, but not alone. He needs a legion of lay ministry backing him up.

Give him what he needs to do what you have charged him to do. Give him yourselves—your service, your commitment, your time, talent, and treasure. Be honest. Be respectful. Bravely and simply pay attention to your neighbors’ needs and relate to everyone as if they have already reached their best potential. In other words, set an intention and a precedent for becoming a mature, open, and compassionate community. Keep celebrating strength and resources among yourselves and allow yourselves to become what God has so graciously given you. Think from the perspective of abundance instead of scarcity, and you will astonish yourselves, believe me.