This post is a bit out of sequence. It is the sermon I preached on my last Sunday (October 26, 2014) at St. John the Evangelist, Hingham, MA, before I left to take up my new call as Rector of St. Paul’s, Salem, Oregon. I’ve had a few requests for it so here it is.
We have come to the end.
I don’t mean the end of my time at St. John’s—although it is also that. I mean we have reached the end of the Torah, the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the reading from Deuteronomy, we hear of the end of the life of Moses—liberator, prophet and friend of God. In the Reform Jewish tradition, almost as soon as the end of the final book is read in worship, the first book is begun. That first book is Genesis. In that liminal moment, before beginning the text again, before beginning the never-ending cycle of sacred text, the congregation chants together:
Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazeik! Which means: Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
Because, you feel vulnerable when you reach the end of something, before you begin the next thing. Because at the death of the great life, you feel bereft.
I’ve been saying these words to myself this week: Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazeik! I need some strengthening. These years with you have been a wonderful time in my life, and it is hard to say goodbye. I’ve been reflecting on my ministry here, and thinking about all of the things that we have talked about. One question I have heard over the years is something I’d like to answer now. You may have wondered this yourself, and not wanted to ask.
The question is: what does a priest do all week?
You see what I do on Sunday morning. You know that there must be some preparation for a sermon, so that accounts for a few hours. What else? I lead other liturgies: Wednesday, Saturday, and monthly at Allerton house. Most people guess that I visit people who are sick at home and in the hospital. I do that. I also have administrative responsibilities: overseeing church school, enlisting volunteers, looking ahead to see what can be done that would be better, and more engaging. Adult formation. Prayer Bead Workshops. Listing all the meetings, diocesan events, pastoral conversations…that just starts to sound whiny and defensive; most of you would probably have trouble describing what you do all week, too. Every day, week and liturgical season is different. So, how to summarize the life of a priest?
It was last Wednesday night, during that terrible storm, when I got a clear sense of how to answer the question about what I do.
That evening I was out, visiting a parishioner, when Steve called. “Don’t come home,” he said. “The power is out in the whole downtown area. I’m going across town to see a movie.” I didn’t think much about it, because the power is hardly ever off for very long. I went home about an hour later, and found that the power was still out. I held on to the car door so the wind wouldn’t blow it back against me as I got out. I gripped my coat, and purse tightly against me and was half-soaked when I got into the house. I turned on my cellphone flashlight app so I could find matches, and light half a dozen candles. Then I sat down and stared at them. I pondered the fact that when the house was built, sometime around 1850, it would have been lit by candles or oil lamps. I was experiencing the house the way the original tenants had; it was not so fascinating.
I was bored. I tried reading on my cell phone, but gave up when I started to run out of battery power. After an hour or so, I saw a bright, flashing light coming from outside. I picked up a candle and walked to the window facing the street, and saw a massive utility truck driving very slowly down Water Street. The light was revolving on top of the cab. As I stood there, clutching the candlestick, I noticed a figure out in the storm. Someone was walking ahead of the truck with a powerful flashlight. He (it looked like a man) was covered in waterproof clothing, and boots. The wind was whipping the branches against each other, terrible and noisy. The rain was flying sideways. He swept the light across the pavement, then up at the power lines, then across the front of the dark houses. I stood there thinking, “I’m glad I don’t have that job!” And it came to me with the force of revelation; that is exactly the job I have!
Most of the time a utility worker does daily tasks that are necessary, but may not seem important. Then a storm comes, and somebody has to go out and see what is wrong. They need to walk, and look. They see who needs help. They do this work for the community, and to restore life to normal for everyone. The man walking in the storm is a generalist. If a tree is down, he’ll call someone with a chainsaw. If a wire is broken, he’ll call a repair team. He’s the watcher. He is doing triage for the community.
That’s what I do as a priest; I am here when darkness falls and an overwhelming storm comes into your life. I have a light with me, and it leads the way. Is there a tree blocking the road? Is there a dangerous wire down? Is someone in trouble behind closed doors? Does a bright light need to shine on something? That’s my job. I am a utility worker who goes out into the storm. I am also a generalist. I know my limits, and I call in specialists when they are needed. I am here for you individually, and I am here to protect the community in ways you will probably never know about. That’s what I do with the light I carry.
You may think I am trivializing my ministry, that I am being overly humble calling myself a utility worker. I don’t think so. I do this work for my parish, and for God. I work for Trinity Power and Light: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It has been my great joy and privilege to do this work at St. John’s.
Finally, before I go, I would like to speak to you the words that we have from St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonika—when I looked at the texts for today I was stunned by how perfect they are for this precise moment:
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain.[…] We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
You have become very dear to me. As I leave to accept my call as Rector of St. Paul’s, I can’t say good-bye to you. In many ways, you are coming with me. You have shaped me into the priest I am. You have prepared me for the work I am called to do in my new parish. I have had an excellent mentor, colleague and friend in Father Tim. My time in this parish has been everything I hoped it would be, and more than I could have dreamed. Steve and I are blessed to have been here with you.
May God bless you. May God’s peace be with you.
Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazeik. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.