Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Celebrating a Dear Colleague in Ministry

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7) includes Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

I must confess: never would I have chosen those readings for the celebration of Barbara Kourajian’s graceful career. And yet…

There is exactly the right message on the lips of the angel of God: “Do not be afraid; for God has heard your voice, just where you are.” That’s surely the right message to Barbara, as she draws whole the circle of her ministry here. And it’s precisely the right message for us who wonder, “Whatever shall we do now?”

And from Paul’s letter to the Romans, his potent reminder that when we are baptized, we are made one with Jesus Christ in his death so that we are made one with him in his resurrection. That is the central mystery of our faith, and on a day like this we must lean fully into the promise that in Christ God transforms our dyings into new life, our endings into commencements, and our retirements into… well, who knows?

And then there’s Matthew’s seminar with his disciples. He records Jesus extending to the twelve both his hands at once: with one, he excluded grandiose self-importance (“A disciple is not above the teacher… it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…”) and with the other he includes everyone in the esteeming grace of God (“Even the hairs of your head are all counted… so do not be afraid; you are of more value than you know.”) How like a rabbi, to embrace all by asserting “on the one hand” while insisting “and on the other hand”… in full sympathy with the human tendency of a community to contain both those who think highly of themselves and those who knock themselves down. To all who are on this familiar spectrum, Jesus declares good news of pervasive love that casts out fear.

There are themes in Matthew today that help me express how grateful I am to have enjoyed eighteen years of often serendipitous (and always fascinating) liturgical partnership with Barbara Kourajian. Every Tuesday in the school year, Barbara and I would bring our hymnals and lectionaries for an hour or more of considering closely the crucible created by each Sunday’s readings, listening to how various texts and songs and prayers might resonate together. I will miss those Tuesdays, and here’s why.

Barbara has the gift of teaching without losing the openness of remaining a disciple, a student, a fellow learner fully ready to give, but adept also at receiving. I wonder if you know that throughout her eighteen years here, she has studied organ with Ed Lawrence—studied this organ, where her lessons were held, exploring how best to draw the best out of this humble and limited instrument. Wouldn’t you have thought that she might have stopped those lessons years ago—how much better could she get than what she has given us?—but what has made her such a fine organist and choir director is her commitment to finding out how deep the well of excellence is.

Some musicians have a similar commitment to excellence, but lack the love and the laughter that draw people to the well—a musicians’ quest for excellence can send folks running the other way. Having invested herself in excellence, Barbara has invited us to excel, as a singing congregation, and most surely as a choir. And I wonder if anything brings out a more sparkling smile on Barbara’s face than when an anthem has gone really well, or, as I noticed at Vespers last Wednesday, when voices blended in an a cappella duet that was a pure taste of heaven. You should have seen Barbara’s face.

Her choir members know they are valued. The hairs of their heads are all counted. In our mobile society, each Sunday a different ensemble of voices is heard, meaning that Barbara has kept careful track of who’s coming and who isn’t. She has made sure that singers aren’t afraid to offer their questions and suggestions, from the most confident singer to the newest voice on the block. She has cared for each singer as a pastor cares, as a shepherd cares.

Diana and I have known Barbara for twenty-five years, first as our son Andrew’s piano teacher. In 1992, we heard there was a house for sale on Lindley Terrace. I believe the sign hadn’t yet been hung, but Andrew insisted, “I just know it’s Ms. Kourajian’s house,” and sure enough, it was. At the closing Barbara and Bud brought Andrea to the bank for the signing; I remember her snuggled in her carrier, on the big table where all the documents were being passed from one party to the other.

Now this place of worship won’t be Ms. Kourajian’s house in quite the same way as it has, these eighteen years—though we’re delighted to hear her say she’ll worship with us when she wants to in this coming year before the move to Maine. And I guess on the table now is the infancy of Barbara’s retirement. My friend, may this new life provide you with freedom, strong health, and fortunate new opportunities to be bold.

(At this point, Peter introduced composer Alice Parker, long a friend of St. John’s and a source of inspiration to Barbara, who had come to church this morning secretively to rehearse thirty singers to lead a new hymn commissioned by the parish to celebrate Barbara’s ministry on her retirement. Alice introduced the hymn “Inheritance”, based on her reworking of two or three of Thomas Traherne’s meditations. Traherne (1637-1674) was a pastor on the Welsh border, and a metaphysical poet whose “Centuries of Meditations” was not discovered until 1964, in a manuscript version that was on its way to the trash bin. Richard H. Schmidt in “Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality”, published by Eerdmans in 2002, writes, “For Traherne, the world was not, as for the Puritans, a wilderness fraught with dangers and temptations, but ‘the beautiful frontispiece of eternity,’ a theater manifesting the wonders of God, a school offering lessons in joy and delight.” )