Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Valedictory Sermon

TEXT:                 1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-23

ONE SENTENCE:        The Holy Spirit moves through a wide variety of people, viewpoints and experiences; we would be wise to value each.

            Several years ago, I was on a national faculty team for clergy renewal.  The program was named CREDO, for Clergy, Renewal, Education and Development Opportunity.

            I began as a member of a team led by a very wise, gifted, senior priest named Ron Crocker, from the Diocese of Virginia.

            Our faculty team of eight would meet with some 30 participants at various diocesan retreat centers for eight days at a time. Faculty members, including myself, would make presentations aimed at provoking reflection and insight by the participants.  There was small group time, social time, and time for individual reflection.  There was also worship time, with services scheduled three times each day.

            As each retreat week ended, our leader, Ron, would offer his concluding meditation. It was always had the same theme: “Good-bye. I love you.”

            Ron was expressing his thanks to the participants who had prepared for and come to the conference, and shared deeply of themselves and their individual journeys.  He was thanking them for offering themselves to Christ’s ministry and for sharing so richly with the assembled group.

            And he was expressing his gratitude, affection, and even love for them.  It was a poignant way to say good-bye.

+ + +

            I understand more fully Ron’s sentiments as I stand here today – my last day as interim rector of St. Paul’, Magnolia Springs. In fact, my last day as an interim anywhere.

            When I came here last June, at the invitation of Maybelle Godwin, Chip Groner and Johnny Cooks, I was unsure of my pastoral and parochial sealegs.  I had just retired after sixteen years as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Mississippi.  But that was wholesale ministry, and not retail ministry.

            And there was more to it.  During my last year as the Bishop’s assistant, I helped guide an extremely painful and difficult clergy discipline case, and sought to resolve two highly-inflamed parish conflicts.  All of this was very intense and close to home. One of the parish conflicts was resolved very poorly and led to a very dear friend going to another diocese.

            I was like the old horse that had been rode hard and put up wet. I was done.

            It had been sixteen long years since I had served a parish – something I loved and was had been adequately prepared for.  But that had been a long time ago, and I had counted a lot of beans since that time.

            So here I came to this beautiful little chapel in South Alabama’s equivalent of Mayberry RFD.  There were some challenges, to be sure, but I was also mindful of the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”

            I may have told you that when I first became Rector of Church of the Resurrection in Starkville, Mississippi, my family and friends were greatly amused that this red and blue-to-the-core Ole Miss Rebel had been called to serve in the town where Mississippi State was located.

            I understood their amusement, but there was a more profound theological point to be made. And St. Paul makes it today in the second lesson:

“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

+ + +

You have been an easy lot to save.  It has been a joy to work side-by-side with you and witness the various ministries you have so freely undertaken and carried out on your own.  A guiding principle I have had is, stay out of the way.

            But there is an additional lesson I have learned.  I am told that an airplane is more gently guided by a light hand on the controls – that a tight grip can lead to a rough flight.  Perhaps Chip Groner can verify that metaphor.

            It is a metaphor, though, that I have learned with some value here.  These past eight months have been freeing – in the sense that St. Paul expressed in the passage today.  I have been free to be myself. 

I have learned what 55-gallon drums are filled with.  I have learned important lessons about inspecting pepper flakes.  I have had the opportunity to relate to you in your various places, to share your stories and experiences, to laugh and pray with you, because we are all freed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

            I guess that freedom that I felt reached its apex when I dressed as Lord Canterbury for the Madrigal Dinner. It was then that I knew I had thrown all caution to the wind. The picture of that outfit, posted by Nora, still gets humorous comments on my FaceBook page.

            And I mention Nora.  It is very important to me that my wife have a hospitable place to worship.  I frequently take my read of a congregation from her perceptions.  St. Paul’s has been warm and comfortable for her.  John has welcomed her into the choir.  For the first time in many years, we have felt at home.

            The warmth of this congregation is representative of a lesson that is much larger, and a lesson that I would commend to your new rector:  First, love the people.  You can do much more good with the people than working against them.

            A combined wish and direction I have for you in the days ahead:  Continue to be the people of God.  Do not resort to being a clique.  Continue welcoming strangers. Minister to those in the community.  Let your vision see beyond these four walls.  Continue to worship God, giving of your time, talent and treasure.

            Thank you ever so much.

            As my friend Ron Crocker would say: Good-bye. I love you.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Call of Duty

           There will be no sermon this week, since I will be traveling to New York City.  However, I offer this personal essay instead.

+ + + 

            Peter Morgan, creator and screenwriter for the Netflix series, The Crown, was interviewed recently on Fresh Air by Dave Davies.  The interview was a fascinating look inside a program which has captured a sizeable following in its first two seasons.

            Actress Claire Foy plays the young Queen Elizabeth. Her life takes a sudden turn when she, as Princess Elizabeth, learns of her father’s death and her ascension to the throne.  The series, thus far, has plotted the early years of her reign – basically, 1952 through 1964.

            The series is, of course, “informed speculation” of what transpires in the royal family, since no member of that family would speak to outsiders of the dynamics within the palace.  Morgan, the creator, has a team of researchers which seeks all the bits of information they can find, from historical records, royal archives, and people who were close to the events themselves.

            Many of the episodes focus on the dilemmas which the young queen faces as her reign moves through personal and public trials.  Royal decorum and precedent restrict what the sovereign can do and say in specific circumstances.  So, we see, in the program, the internal and external turmoil which weighs heavy on the Queen (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” William Shakespeare, King Henry the Fourth).

            Davies, Morgan’s interviewer, posed a question which assumed that Elizabeth would have preferred a quiet, country life, outside of public life.  The question acknowledged that Elizabeth’s life would have been much more simple and uncomplicated if she had not been Queen.

            Morgan responded by saying that his opinion is that life would have been more simple for Elizabeth, who he describes as shy and modest and not desiring the limelight.  He added to that sentence: “But that says nothing about her sense of duty… In a sense, you never hear people talk about duty.”

            Duty.  It is a potent word – and an important one in the life of Elizabeth II.  I recall the Bishop under whom I served as Canon to the Ordinary for 14 years mentioning duty repeatedly during a series of presentations he offered around the Diocese of Mississippi in 2001 and 2002.  Duncan Gray III spoke of his father’s generation as being strongly motivated by a sense of duty.  Thus, we had their responses and historic actions during World War II, along with their Herculean efforts to build a strong, prosperous, just, and safe institutions. Hence, the Greatest Generation.

            My father taught me those same lessons.  Late in his life, I thanked him for inculcating in me a strong sense of personal ethics.  He was typical of his generation in response: modesty. Much later, after reflecting on the Morgan interview, I realized what he had actually bequeathed to me was a strong sense of duty.

            I will readily admit:  I have frequently fallen short of doing my duty.  That is clearly obvious to me “looking back in the rearview mirror.”  But the call of duty – genetically and culturally implanted within me – explains both my discomfort and comfort over the years.

            I am able to see how my previous vocation – as a lobbyist – was so unsatisfying to me (except for my earliest position, which involved what I called a white hat organization).  Later, my sense of discomfort would rise as my job required me to articulate positions which were not resonant with my spirit. I did not like a large, faceless entity telling me what to be or do, regardless of conflicting personal values or principles.

            It becomes clear to me – again, in hindsight – that it was a sense of duty, as much as anything, which drew me toward seminary and the ordained ministry. As I articulated to the Commission on Ministry in January 1984, I wanted to relate to people on a different level – one that was less ambitious and manipulative and more fully genuine, human, and humane.

            Let me be clear:  I am not equating myself with the Queen of England.  But I can sympathize with the difficulties that she has faced in confronting some dilemmas. Her sense of duty has caused her to do some things and take come actions which were enormously painful (at least according to The Crown).  A point that Peter Morgan made in his interview was this: The public has assumed that she took certain steps out of preference instead of out of duty, when the actual process may have reflected precisely the opposite.

            That dilemma confronts many of us. It is hard to follow the call of duty in those circumstances, when people’s emotions or vocations are at-stake and the personal price is high.  The easy thing, the most expeditious thing, is frequently contrary to what should be done, based on duty.

            I can look back at my vocation – both before and after ordination – and see when those conflicting values have clashed.  There have been times when I have responded to the call of duty and done things that might have been very painful or difficult for me (and perhaps painful and difficult for others), but they were ultimately the right things.  As the series The Queen has insinuated, there is occasionally a personal price for doing the right thing.

            At the same moment, I can reflect and see other, different decisions.  There have been times when I have pulled punches or not said what I knew to be the full truth out of concern of how those words would be received or interpreted, or the price I would pay for my honesty.  In those moments, I have betrayed my inheritance and my personal integrity.  Likewise, when I have failed to be completely frank in certain situations, I have denied the person to whom I was speaking the chance to hear the truth and to make changes which might be helpful.

            In those moments of less-than-honesty, I probably convinced myself that I was doing the right thing.  However, such evasive decisions were a chimera of duty, and not the real deal.

            The call of duty is a high calling, and requires one to be unflinching in its service.