October 16, 2011

  ON SEARCHING FOR THE WILL OF GOD

 Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 16 October 2011

 

   Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 45: 1-7

Reading from the Gospel:           Matthew 22: 15-22

 

This afternoon the Search Committee has been scheduled to resume its meetings after a well-deserved mid-year break.  Perhaps there are some in the Parish, although I am not one of them, who would argue that we should have a new rector already.  However, I believe that the Search Committee has been absolutely correct in taking time over what is one of the most important duties a group of Episcopalian laypeople are ever asked to do.

So far, the members of the Search Committee have conducted a survey of the Parish, one that has gone into much greater depth than has been the case whenever and wherever I have served a parish as its priest during an interregnum.  The Committee has analysed the responses to the questions in the Survey and has reported those findings to the Vestry.  How refreshing it is to see a Search Committee and a Vestry working together in this way over such an important matter!  From the reactions of members of the Vestry some of the information revealed through the Survey was surprising.  It was a reminder that it is unwise to assume that we know the answers before we have asked the questions.

The next phase of the work of the Search Committee will be to draw up a Parish Profile, and I am sure individual members of the Committee have been giving thought to this during their well-earned break. Let me say, as a recipient of many parish profiles over the years, that generally speaking they range from the mediocre to the downright awful, from the hardly accurate to the downright misleading.  I have two copies of the Parish Profile of Holy Faith produced during the last Search process, one in my library at home and one in my office here on campus.  Had I been considering the position of Rector here, which I was not, am not and cannot, I would have found that Profile unhelpful and, therefore, discouraging.

A good Parish Profile will let an otherwise uninformed reader know who we are, how we got to be who we are, and who, under the guidance of God, we hope to become in the next five years, ten years and beyond.  It will describe the place of the Parish in the local community, the local Christian community and in the Diocesan community.  It will give an unvarnished account of the city and county in which we are located, and it will describe the input of the Parish in the life of the community, whether as a Parish or by individual members of the Parish.  It will give an unvarnished account of the activities of the Parish, how some succeed while others barely survive and why.  And it will contain lots of good photographs, in colour, for a picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying has it.  And we shall need to find some good photographers from among our membership to take those pictures.

Above all else, the Parish Profile needs to be absolutely and openly honest.  You might think that that should go without saying, but I know far too many priests who have been misled by the profiles that they have received, only to find things are very different when they have arrived in the Parish.

The production of the Parish Profile is the next important step, and after that has been presented and accepted by the Vestry and submitted to the Diocesan Deployment Office (however that function is titled these days) then it will be time to think about the what and the who of the ordained ministry at Holy Faith.

I fear that there are some of you who have quite distinct ideas as to the sort of priest the Parish should be seeking.  Let me caution everyone, at this stage only God knows the answer to the question as to how Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, is to be served in the future.  I was in a conversation the other day on this topic, and as the discussion progressed it became clear that there are probably at least half a dozen ways in which ordained ministry might be carried out here.  As a congregation we need to pray about this, and we need to pray for our Search Committee that its members will truly be open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  Some people might think that the answer is obvious.  I am not one of those people.  In fact, the readings for today from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel show us quite clearly that God’s answers may well not be conventional, at least insofar as we determine what is conventional.

Our reading from Isaiah contains some startling thoughts.  The people of Judah had been in exile in Babylon for about half a century.  Very few of them had ever seen Jerusalem since they had been born in captivity.  Yet there was a hankering to return to Judah and to re-establish Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.  But how could that be done?  They no doubt prayed about this and they hoped that the Lord God would raise up someone from among their number who would lead them forth as Moses and Joshua had led their ancestors forth from slavery in Egypt nearly a millennium earlier.  Surely the Lord God would choose some man from among his people to fulfil just such a mission.  Yet it just was not happening.

Then an unnamed prophet of the Lord, we call him Isaiah of Babylon since his words are found in the scroll that we call “Isaiah”, proclaimed a most unlikely message in the Name of the Lord.  Isaiah of Babylon starts his announcement, as we heard just now, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have clasped … “  We might skim over those words and not notice what is being said. Yet what Isaiah of Babylon was declaring was that the Lord God of Israel had gone outside the line of David, even outside the descendants of Jacob and his Twelve Sons, and had called a complete foreigner, a complete stranger, to be the one to set his people free.  He had chosen Cyrus – today we would call him an Iranian.  Imagine an Iranian being called by God to help the Jewish people!  Not only that, Isaiah of Babylon declares that the Lord has anointed Cyrus.  In the Hebrew words that the prophet would have spoken, Cyrus was the Lord’s Messiah!  And the prophet goes on to say that Cyrus has become the Lord’s right-hand man: whose right hand I have grasped.  The Jews were expecting a Jew, but the Lord chose an Iranian.  The Lord went outside the conventional thinking of his people.

When we turn to the reading from the Gospel, we become aware of something else that would have seemed unusual at the time the events described took place.  As the evangelist described it, the Pharisees and Herodians got together in a plot to entrap Jesus.  (If you want a modern parallel, imagine Sarah Palin and Barney Franks working together on social issues!)  But no matter what their differences, and there were many, the Pharisees and the Herodians were prepared to work together to thwart the activities of Jesus, because they saw his as a threat.  Here was a man who was coming out of nowhere, from a remote village in Galilee, speaking with a Galilean accent, daring to claim to be doing the will of God and proclaiming the message of God.  Jesus was saying things and doing things that were completely unacceptable to those who held to the conventional wisdom of the age, to those who were set in their ways, to those who knew that they knew the answers.  Well, they were wrong, and even though they caused the execution of Jesus, his resurrection proved them to be wrong, no matter how religious they were, no matter how steeped they were in the traditions of their people.

Again and again, from Noah onwards, the Lord God has shown that things are to be done in an unconventional manner.  And so we need to wait upon the Lord, we need to ask all the questions over and over again until we as a Parish, the members of the Search Committee, and the members of the Vestry are in a position to discern the will of the Lord God for Holy Faith, Port St Lucie.

Until we all begin to pray and listen to what the Lord is saying, we shall not know what the future of the ordained ministry is to be here at Holy Faith.  It is my prayer that we will all prayerfully support the members of the Search Committee in their endeavours, and in particular the person chairing that Committee, Terry Mullins, and that when the Committee reports back to the Vestry on its various endeavours, that the members of the Vestry will receive the same prayerful support from the Parish.  The search process involves all of you – but not me – and none of us should be slow to pray or be fast to come up with an answer, because the answer we are all meant to be seeking is God’s answer.  How does the old prayer go?  Thy will be done.