Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, September 17, 2017
September 17, 2017
Stephen H. Applegate
+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen
I’m pretty sure that many of us in this room have been involved in meetings that were guided by Roberts Rules of Order – or maybe I should say that many of us have been in a meeting where we have been subjected to Roberts Rules. Roberts Rules are the most widely-used manual of parliamentary procedure in the United States. They are named after Henry Martyn Robert who was a US Army officer and who published his first manual in 1876. He was trying to adapt the rules and practices of United States Congress to organizations.
Article III of Roberts Rules is about what are called “privileged motions” – those motions that are granted precedence over ordinary business because they concern matters of great importance or urgency. Such motions are not debatable, which comes in handy for my purposes this morning, because I’m going to “raise a question of privilege” – to deal with something that affects the comfort of a single member of this assembly – me! (Remember. . . this is not debatable!)
Today is the last Sunday that I will stand in this pulpit as the rector of St. Luke’s Church. It’s been two months to the day since a letter was sent from the parish office letting you know that I was resigning my position here to accept a call to serve as Interim at St. Christopher’s Church in Carmel, Indiana. And before I go any further let me say “thank you” to the Wardens, Michelann Scheetz & Shelly Morehead, to the members of the Vestry, to the chairs and leaders of the parish’s committees and organizations, and to the staff, for taking the time and care to address the transition matters that come with such a change in clergy leadership. St. Luke’s is lucky and blessed to have such strong leadership, and these leaders deserve your support and prayers in the weeks and months ahead. As several of them have said to me, they didn’t sign on to serve during this transition, and I hope you keep in mind that, with the exception of the paid staff, every other leader is offering their gifts and talents as a ministry to St. Luke’s Church out of love for Jesus. So, please be patient and charitable, and love your neighbor as yourself. Because if they weren’t in the places where they find themselves, you could very well have found yourselves in their shoes . . . and you may yet before the person God has already called as your next rector arrives!
In preparing for what I might say, I researched famous farewell address. I began where any American might, with the farewell address of the Father of our Country, George Washington. He had quite a bit to say in his farewell address, as you may know. One line in particular caught my attention. It’s this one: “. . . in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.” But I don’t need to preach on that. It will be dealt with when we get to the Confession of Sin.
I considered Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech. After all, I was born as he was beginning his presidency. I will admit that it was hard to resist the most famous line of his good- bye oration, the one about how “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence [in the affairs of our government], whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. . .” There’s something contemporary about his concern “about internal threats posed by vested interests to the democratic process.” Not to mention external threats evidently. But I rejected it as too political for a last sermon.
And then, because I am a graduate of the college that bears his name, I looked at Alexander Hamilton’s final letter to his wife, Eliza, written on the night before his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. The letter was made famous by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his musical. “This letter will not be delivered to you,” Hamilton wrote to his wife, “unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career’ … And then he says, ‘With my last idea, I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.” Here, however, is the line that people remember from the play: “Adieu, best of wives and best of women, embrace all my darling children for me.” But it seemed overwrought to talk about our meeting again “in a better world,” and it didn’t seem right, somehow, for me to amend Hamilton’s line to his wife to something like “Adieu, best of parishes and best of Episcopalians.” Besides, I’m not dying. . . I’m taking another job. An important distinction . . . at least for me. So, let’s turn where we should turn – to Holy Scripture!
Even though I know that we are in the middle of The Big Read in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, and that I should be preaching on the lesson from the Book of Exodus, I just can’t bring myself to preach about The Exodus on the day when I am making my own exodus. So, I have chosen an alternative scripture text, something I have done only very rarely during the fourteen years I have been here. I will preach on what I’ve chosen, instead of the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. I don’t want anyone leaving church today to think I have, in any way, felt enslaved as your rector, nor that I have prayed that God would deliver me from you!
The text I have chosen is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter three, beginning at the fifth verse. And I don’t expect any of you to be surprised when I say that I’ve chosen the translation of the original Greek done by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
Who do you think Paul is, anyway? Or Apollos, for that matter? Servants, both of us – servants who waited on you as you gradually learned to entrust your lives to our mutual Master. We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving. You happen to be God’s field in which we are working. Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation! Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 3:5-11
In the first chapter of this letter, Paul had begun talking about how the Corinthians were arguing over their allegiances to various apostles. The Corinthians, unlike the members of this church, were a fractious bunch, arguing all the time about lots of different things – things like whether the gifts God had given to some people were better than the gifts God had given to other people, or about who held membership in what clique. Whenever I’ve read 1 Corinthians – and I’ve read it many, many times – I’ve wondered what it must have been like for someone to visit the church for the first time, watching all the bickering and fighting, observing one-upmanship and competition among the members. I doubt that I would have stayed unless I was doing a case study on how church communities fall apart.
Anyway, the various cliques seem to have been about who was baptized by which of the apostles. It was like that scene in the first Harry Potter movie when the Sorting Hat is brought out and placed on each new student’s head, whereupon the hat sorts each child into the residential house where they will live for the next four years. Paul describes the situation in Corinth this way when he writes this to them: “I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends. . . . I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. . . I bring this up because some from Chloe’s family brought a most disturbing report to my attention – that you’re fighting among yourselves! I’ll tell you exactly what I was told: You’re all picking sides, going around saying, ‘I’m on Paul’s side,’ or ‘I’m for Apollos,’ or ‘Peter is my man,’ or ‘I’m in the Messiah group.’ I ask you, ‘Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own? Was Paul crucified for you? Was a single one of you baptized in Paul’s name?’ I was not involved with any of your baptisms – except for Crispus and Gaius – and on getting this report, I’m sure glad I wasn’t.”
Now, I am not preaching this sermon to a church that is divided. That’s not to say that you all agree about everything. That’s never been true of this parish, and it never will be true. But I am serving a church where, in about eight hours, I will be the former rector. Not long after I announced my resignation, John Gustafson, the immediate past Senior Warden sent me a meme – one of those funny images that makes its way around the internet. It was a portrait of an Anglican Bishop around whose image were the following words, “For Protestants, the ultimate authority in the church is the Bible; for Catholics, it’s the Pope; but for Episcopalians it is the former rector.” I am not making this up.
This, of course, is not true. And it is in preparing you to welcome your next rector . . . and any other member of the clergy who will serve you between now and then, whether that person is a Canon of the Diocese, or a Sunday supply priest, or an interim, listen to these words from Holy Scripture (which I have slightly amended): “Who do you think Stephen is, anyway? Or John Johanssen or John Kauffman, for that matter? [Or Jack Koepke, or Tom Breidenthal, or Michael Curry?} Servants, all of us . . . We each carry out our servant assignment. Bishop Philander Chase, first bishop of Ohio, planted the seed. Lucius Mower, and Sherlock Mower, and William Richards, and Anthony Prichard, and Ahab Jinks and all those priests and bishops whose portraits now hanging in the rogue’s gallery in the stairwell, and all the lay people watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving.”
Or if the agrarian metaphor doesn’t particularly resonate with you, maybe when Paul turns to the metaphor of a building to try to express what he’s getting at, it rings truer for you. And after these last fourteen years, we all know quite a bit about what Paul is talking about when writes about architects and builders and blueprints and carpenters and foundations. Boy, do we ever know!
No matter what metaphor Paul uses, what he is trying to express is the same – it is never about a particular priest, or rector, or bishop. . . or about who baptized who . . . or about how the former rector did things. It is about God, and God’s Mission in the world, and how each of us can be faithful to that mission.
So, the most important work you have to do going forward is the work of discernment – of trying to figure out who you are apart from Stephen Applegate – of divining what God is up to here in Granville, and in Newark, and in whatever is St. Luke’s “neighborhood,” of trying to understand what God is calling this parish to do and to be, and of considering prayerfully what kind of priest you need to keep you faithful to God’s plan.
I will be the first to say that discernment is a messy business, or if you prefer, an inexact science. In the church, it has never been the work or responsibility of one person. It is the work of the whole body – the hands and feet, and eyes and ears, and heart and mind. And frequently, different parts of the body will have different points of view about what is most important, or what takes priority, or which direction to go in first. I promise that St. Luke’s Church will make mistakes along the way. God knows, this place has made mistakes during the time I have been rector. But I think we can claim that we have tried to be faithful to where God is leading us – whether that has been in welcoming every person who crosses the threshold as if that person was Christ – regardless of whether they were straight or gay, male or female, young or old, Democrat or Republican, Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, or spiritual but not religious. We have tried to be faithful as we have made the connection between the food we receive from the Eucharistic table and the food that hungry people need. And we have tried to be faithful in caring for each other, binding up each other’s wounds, and addressing the loneliness that is one of the greatest problems of modern life in our affluent western society.
And when we have failed, we have forgiven one another, extended Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, and moved ahead.
It has been my deep privilege and great joy to be your rector. You have extended many kindnesses to our family. Thank you. Now I must make a confession to you. All these years, I have had a favorite parishioner. I know that I should not have had favorites. But I have. My favorite parishioner has been Terry, my wife.
It is very hard to leave, but I am trying to be faithful to God’s call, too. So I go as Christ’s servant, a much better priest than when I came, thanks to all of you.
Remember what St. Paul said, “It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes them worth doing is the God we are serving.”