For most of us, conversion is slow and subtle. This is as much true for whole communities as it is for individuals. Maybe more so. One of my favorite ways of talking about conversion in our Anglican tradition is the distinction between pickles and pop tarts.1 More than a blinding flash of heat, light, or sweetness, we are converted and formed by swimming in holy brine, if you will, by showing up and engaging in weekly mass, daily office, and life shared in community over a long period of time. It is in this context that we might have glimpses of the reign of God, and discern our own calling as individual disciples and as a community.
Paul was converted for something. Jesus appoints him for a purpose: to serve and testify…to open the eyes of all people, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among the community of the faithful.
The gospel that we didn’t read on this third Sunday after Epiphany is worth hearing:
"The Lord…has anointed me—Jesus says, quoting Isaiah— to bring good news to the poor.
… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
In different language, both Paul and Jesus have been given the same marching orders.
How are we faithful to the mission that God gave to Jesus and to Paul?
Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that Paul’s philosophy can be summed up in the words “I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead.” This reminds me of Norman Lear, who said that the two words most important to his life and work were “over” and “next.”
One way to be faithful is to keep moving.
This past year we put words to a vision that builds up and strengthens our community of disciples, as Paul did, so that we can at the same time turn outward to share, as that community of disciples, in the healing of the world, to embody the Kingdom and proclaim God’s justice, as Jesus did. I like to think there’s a lot of brine for pickling in this vision. (You’ll have a printed copy of it available at the Annual Meeting.) As we set our faces to what lies ahead, what’s next, here are a few of the ways I have observed us living as disciples of Jesus and of Paul:
* We are a place that feels safe for troubled people, people hungry and thirsty for acceptance, and stability. These troubled people are all of us, at one time or another.
* We have not hoarded as private treasure our beautiful spaces, but opened them up, for feeding body and soul, and for shelter. We have done this in spite of challenges and risks that persist. God may be nudging us to do more of this, in the name of Jesus.
* Many of you do many things in this place: unveiling the beauty of God’s creation by raking leaves and pulling weeds; making it possible for us to set a table in the beauty of holiness with holy laundry and silver-polishing, tidying the pews, volunteering in the office, arranging flowers, setting up chairs, and simply showing up to pray, doing all of this in the name of the one who calls us to follow. I know it’s easy to feel such work is insignificant, or it’s a pain, or no one knows what you do, but each of you is shining the light of the gospel in this corner of the world. You know who you are. In keeping with the pickling metaphor, you are the spice.
* We have moved from a scary deficit, last January, to a small surplus, this January. We have taken risks. Some of us have felt in spots that we don’t see a clear path forward. Following Jesus and following Paul is like that. Sometimes not knowing what’s next is what’s next.
* We held our first-ever Saints’ Soiree…what began as a stop-gap fundraiser has captured imaginations for future mission and ministry. We’ve set ambitious goals for next year’s event because of a growing crowd of amazing people who are willing have another adventure.
* We are transitioning from a staff-driven Godly Play ministry to a community driven, community owned Godly Play ministry, centering children in our common life. For a parish of our size, this is a counter-cultural staffing model. It won’t be the first time St. Paul’s has swum upstream.
* For the first time since 2013, our average Sunday attendance for 2018 is higher, rather than lower, than the year before. But take note: Like the churches St. Paul founded and supported, such trends are part of a much bigger, longer story.
For years, the instruction to Paul to “Go into the city and there you will be told what to do” was on our letterhead, part of our stated identity as a parish. It is good to remember, though, that once Paul got to the city, he sat there, blind, for days, with no idea what awaited him. Paul’s conversion
includes waiting around for the Holy Spirit to reveal what’s next. It didn’t happen the moment he fell off his horse.
When people ask me—as they do—“How’s it going at St. Paul’s?” I often answer: “This is the longest transition in the history of the world.” People who know what they’re talking about say that it takes the successor to an extremely brilliant, beloved, charismatic, powerful, leader at least 3-4 years to become embedded in a community as its new leader, and to figure out what’s next. This long, slow transition reflects a faithful, strong, and patient community doing hard work and asking hard questions. It may be that my whole ministry with you all, however long God wants me here, is to live into the questions of who God is calling us to be, and how God is calling us to serve in this city. It is not my style to provide the answers to those questions, however much some of you might wish to be told what to do, right now. The capacity for deep formation and growth is in each one of you and all of you together. My deep longing is to be a companion and conversation partner as we tune our hearts to God’s work in our midst.
To be faithful and effective witnesses to the Kingdom of God does not rely on the talent, expertise, or drive of any one person, but on the collective love, courage, and longing of a whole community relying upon the leadership of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul had that in abundance, and we are blessed to have it in abundance as well. Make no mistake: I am looking for growth. for growth in our ability to share good news with our neighbors. I am looking for growth in discipleship, growth in love, growth in wisdom, generosity, and humility. As your rector I pray each day to grow in each of these ways myself, as well. I hope you’ll join me.
1 This metaphor came from Ellen Charry at a 2003 Affirming Catholicism conference.