It’s an interesting time to be a member of St. James’s. Any time we get to stand in the middle of a transition, things start to happen. During the incumbency of a Rector there is a certain pattern to the life of the community which we come to know and expect. In transition the community, the household of God, becomes stirred up. People begin to talk about what they think St. James’s is or should be like and what they think the new rector should be like. It’s a shock to discover that there are all kinds of opinions, expectations, and dreams running around just beneath the surface. A transition time offers the opportunity for growth, for discerning direction, for dreaming. It makes us more conscious of our personal responsibility for looking out for the well being of the community as a whole and not just our own personal agenda.
The conversation is under way. Surveys are arriving in mailboxes and it is so tempting to begin to view our search for new leadership in the same way we would any other job.
First, identify what we want. Two, write a job description. Three search for, interview and hire the right man so we can get on. We begin to talk about marketing ourselves, making ourselves attractive to candidates, getting the best person for the position. But over the last few weeks I’ve seen people struggle a little with the language, as though there might be something missing from our conversation. We have veered between issues of administrative skills and pastoral needs (as though these are mutually exclusive!) We want this person to be dynamic but make no waves. We want this person to be mature in ministry and young. It would be just so easy to choose what we want and never to ask what we might need. For the new Rector to be for me and not for us all.
We have also spoken of making ourselves attractive. Of the advantage of being able to advertise ourselves as a church where the last Rector was elected bishop. (I think the implication here is “work here and you’ll get to be bishop, too!) In selling ourselves it would be easy for us to forget we are already sold. We are not for sale. We have already been bought–bought by love hanging on a cross, bought by a man called to give up his life that we might know the way of life. We are already bought by a man who chose to hang out with the people in this world who don’t count, who offended those who thought they did count. A man who enraged the equivalent of the church of his day, and who made waves wherever he went. His vision was a vision grounded in love– and he tried so hard to teach us that great love gifts us with faith and hope, challenges us by its unswerving lack of compromise, and produces mighty conflicts in the desire to give glory to God.
And we are here because of that man–our brother, Jesus. It is we who are already called. Called to follow Jesus. Called to hear what God is asking of us.
As we explore the direction to which God is calling us, it is as imperative to find language which can be the medium of discussion and growth. Language through which the Holy Spirit can enter our hearts and minds.
It so happens that the readings from the book of Samuel and the Gospel of John are both concerned with the issue of call. In the first, we hear of God reaching out to a young boy, Samuel. Samuel will grow up to be a great leader of his people, a man close to God, a man of courage and compassion. But just now he is a little boy. A confused little boy. Confused by the voice in the night. It is not Samuel who realizes what’s going on but the old and wise priest of the temple, Eli. Samuel, called by God, doesn’t get to figure it out on his own. Samuel, like us, is in community. Samuel discovers his vocation by being open to the word of those who surround him, by being pointed in the right direction by the voice of the other.
So it is with us. We are often confused or bewildered by the voice of God. But we are not islands separated from each other by great stretches of isolating water. Instead we are bound together by our death and resurrection in the water of baptism. Bound together to be the Body of Christ. Each of is essential to the health of the body and none of us can sustain our lives without the connections and experience of being in community with each other. We need the voice of the other to name what is happening as Eli named it for Samuel. This is not easy. We’re Episcopalian – there are as many ideas out there as there are hot dinners! But we hold fast to the insight that while we may disagree we have a common commitment to give glory to God through the love we bear for each other and for the world.
That is what it means to be Christ-centered or, as Paul expresses it, to be clothed in Christ. Every task of living (be that administration or helping someone in need) is an expression of the same love that Christ bears for us. The same love that brought Jesus to the suffering of the cross because the world couldn’t stand the sight of so much glory, so much love. To follow Jesus in each other’s company even is scary, even costly, which is why we follow him together.
In John’s Gospel the reading is focused on another call. The call of the man Jesus to follow him. Philip rushes to Nathaniel to tell of his call to follow Jesus. And Nathaniel’s first response is cynicism. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a poor little hovel of a town in the north of Israel. Who ever heard of anyone special from that place? It is so easy to decide where we think God is. It is so easy to hear the word of God and discount it because it doesn’t fit what we think is proper or right. To put people in boxes because we do know what is right.
But God doesn’t have any boxes like that. God’s world is a place where there are so many scenarios for each part of the human story that our heads spin if we start to think about it. Our God is the God of love and the God of eternal possibility. Who are we to try to box that?
In fact, when Jesus sets eyes on Nathaniel it is Jesus who names Nathaniel’s utter integrity as a human being. Jesus who sees through the shell of cynicism to Nathaniel’s core. The name Nathaniel means “Gift from God.” And gift he will be. “Stick around,” says Jesus, ” and you will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Stick around,” says Jesus, “and God’s glory will be seen upon the earth as it is seen in heaven.” God’s glory reflected in the love that Christ bears for each of without discrimination or dissent.
Last Friday I happened to be at VCU’s Anderson Gallery. There were quite a few St. Jamesers there. The exhibition was a twenty-five year retrospective of the work of the photographer Thomas Daniel. I was overwhelmed at the power of this man’s work. Thomas Daniel is not an easy man or a comfortable person to be around. Passionate and outrageous, particularly about his work, he has carved out an eclectic life from the ashes of three tours in Vietnam and much more. A man who lives to the beat of his own drum, he has devoted himself to a calling that leads him to photograph the suffering and forgotten people of the world. The photographs stretched from the fields of death and poverty in Vietnam, to the worlds of male and female prostitution, the life of circus people, Appalachian religion, Native American enclaves, Nazi veterans, daughters of the Confederacy. Thomas has dared to look into the souls of those people with whom Jesus chose to spend his time. In so doing, he challenges us to be drawn into the sorrow and agony of a world we hesitate to know.
You won’t find Thomas Daniel in a church, but I suspect that on that final day when he arrives at the gate of heaven God will be well pleased. For Thomas has responded to the call of God. Despite our confusion and cynicism he has looked with compassion upon souls. And they have dared to share their lives with him. Finally dared to reveal themselves—to be seen by the world through the eye of Thomas’ camera. Lifted from invisibility to power.
As we prepare to call a new Rector, pray hard. Pray hard that we hear God’s call to us. Pray hard that God will send and we will call a person of great faith who believes it is possible to go to the cross for love and that love wins in the end.