Sermon: FESTIVAL SERVICE OF CHORAL EVENSONG - Celebrating 15 Years of Mutual Ministry

Lindsay McHugh

Scroll down to the bottom of this page for video of this sermon.

You may be wondering why Bernie asked me to give the sermon today ……. I have wondered that too!  But, as we celebrate 15 years with Bernie as our rector, I think having a member of the laity up here makes sense in the context of who we are as a parish today and our history. 

 I was the Senior Warden when Bernie was called to be our Rector in September 2002.  We were coming to the end of a nearly four-year interim period, a time when we were served by a succession of part-time interim rectors.  During those years, the lay leadership took on a variety of roles that we could not expect a part-time priest to handle.  We maintained parish membership and had an active new member ministry, parish life events flourished, we handled persistent property issues, addressed stewardship and budget concerns, kept up our outreach activities, and nurtured and educated our children and youth.  A strong group of lay leaders kept the parish ticking over successfully.  In fact, although people pulled together especially during that interim period, St. George’s has a long history of lay ministry serving both within the parish, in our community, and in the diocese as a whole. 

I co-chaired the Planning Committee for today’s Evensong, along with Cathy Jameson and John Ayer.  When we realized that this September marks the 15th anniversary of our Rector’s arrival at St. George’s, the whole committee became very enthusiastic and immediately came up with dozens of ideas on how we might honor Bernie and show our love and respect for him.  But Bernie had other ideas!  He made it clear that he views these fifteen years as a time of partnership between him and the parish. So, he didn’t want the celebration to be all about him.  This is to some extent attributable to his modesty, but it is also a reflection of his commitment to mutual ministry, a practice that has long existed in this parish and that he has embraced.  So, looking through that lens, I think he got it right.

St. George’s isn’t a “father knows best” culture: it’s an environment that invites and encourages each of us to contribute our thoughts, our actions and our gifts.  This means that we can’t leave it to the rector to do everything or be everything to everyone.  St. George’s history empowers us, as laypersons, to fully engage in the life of the parish and our community.  We build on the legacy of parishioners in our past who championed women’s ordination, fair housing laws, gay and lesbian rights, marriage equality and anti-racism initiatives.  In calling Bernie fifteen years ago, we were asking him to support us in our work as a community of faith. Leading us, inspiring us and empowering us.  We are so grateful that he said “yes”, and somehow, the fifteen years have flown by.

Our readings today are taken from the recommended texts for a service of new ministry.  In fact, we heard the same passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans at Bernie’s installation, 15 years ago.  In Paul’s letter, he describes a Christian community as the body of Christ.  Within this community, each has a part to play and no-one is higher than another.  This passage speaks to me because I see it holds true within our parish. Here, the work of the property committee that keeps our physical plant in good order is no less important than the members of the outreach committee who carry our message of love to the wider community through financial and volunteer support.  We need a space where we can come together as a community, learn from each other and discover new opportunities for service.  In fact, when temperatures reach the high 80’s in late September, we may specially bless the people who keep the air conditioning running! 

Each of us has a role to play within the St. George’s community.  Paul speaks of the gifts we each have and encourages us to discover what our gifts are and how we can use them to carry out God’s will.  I’d like to make a shameless plug here for our year of invitation, a time when we have been encouraging each other to follow Paul’s advice.  By listing some of the ministries at St. George’s on the banners around us, we are invited to see what role or roles we might play and where we fit best.    There are few barriers to entry to these ministries, and we don’t require some special test to select the chosen few. 

As an example, I’m a long-time altar guild member with a guilty secret.  Years ago, when I first joined the Altar Guild, there seemed to be an assumption that as an Englishwoman I would be good at flower arranging.  This was, no doubt, stereotyping based on the image of an elegant woman, artistically placing fresh cut blossoms in a vase in the Great Hall of Downton Abbey, perhaps with a faithful dog at her feet.  The truth is, this is not me!   I’m actually intimidated by flower arranging!  Luckily, I’m teamed with Lydia, who provides the creativity that I lack, so the parish doesn’t have to see scrawny bunches of randomly placed flowers on the altar on Sunday. We work together as partners, using the talents God gave each of us. 

In the verses, just before the passage we heard from Numbers, the Israelites have been complaining about the conditions in the desert.  They yearn for the abundant food they used to eat back in Egypt and they’re not particularly thrilled with the manna God sends them.    Moses is feeling weighed down by all their complaints.  He tells God that he can’t carry the burden of all these people alone.  God solves the problem by empowering seventy elders and inspiring them with some of Moses’ spirit.  Here we see a clear demonstration of shared ministry.  What strikes me most about this passage is the part about Eldad and Medad, who didn’t go out to the tent to be with Moses, but stayed in the camp.  Nevertheless, they too received God’s gift of the spirit.  This reminds me that God’s love is open to all of us and we are each called to witness to it.

St. Georgians aspire to demonstrate the characteristics of a true Christian, living in harmony, humility and mutual love.  We describe ourselves as a people of “questioning minds and open hearts”. As Bernie has said, “we welcome and value you for who you are and invite you into a deeper faith and witness”.  We come from a wide variety of faith traditions and very few of us are cradle Episcopalians.  During Bernie’s ministry at St. George’s, he has offered Inquirer’s classes for those new to the Episcopal faith.  But, in a way, at St. George’s we are all Seekers.  We are periodically treated to his “Episcopal Church 101” sermon, that outlines the history from the formation of the early church, through the Reformation, the establishment of the Church of England and today’s Episcopal Church.  Equally important, in his weekly sermons, Bernie engages us with the day’s readings, wrestles with the difficult texts, and sometimes admits he just isn’t sure what to make of a particular passage.  What a concept!  He even welcomes the times when we express doubts about our faith as an opportunity for conversation and going deeper.

As someone who grew up in the Church of England, the idea that the rector might reveal some uncertainty is a breath of fresh air.  Growing up in England, we were taught to revere our parish priest, but to see him as someone set apart from us.  Here at St. George’s, we appreciate the times when Bernie asks us to engage with him to work through a troubling text.  We feel close to him and recognize ourselves when he admits his own past mistakes, his doubts and his foolishness.  He is not apart from us, but one of us, and we love him for it. 

Over the past fifteen years, Bernie has come to know us and we have come to know him more and more deeply.  We find that we fit together rather well.  We appreciate his unwavering faith in the love of God, his sacramental grace, authenticity, and humour.  As our spiritual leader, we know him as someone who deepens his faith through reading, prayer and meditation.  And he also shows us how to put faith into action through the many activities and organizations he gives his time to. 

We have a long tradition of outreach ministry here, dating back to the formation of Apostles’ House and IHN, and continuing to this day, with our food barrel ministry and sustaining support of North Porch Women & Infants’ Centers.  For the past two years, as Bernie has noted, we have been involved in the First Friends program that works with detained immigrants and asylum seekers, providing volunteer visitation, resettlement assistance and advocacy.  We became aware of this program through Deacon Ken, who joined the board and invited us to support their mission.  Here too, Bernie has lead by example by visiting the incarcerated, and opening his home to a succession of short and long stay recent immigrants.  This past May, Bernie was awarded the Beacon of Hope award by First Friends, and we have been inspired by his example.  Every so often we hear stories during the sermon of his new-found relationships with recent detainees - Funny and poignant stories that remind us of how fortunate we are and how much we take for granted.

St. George’s has a history as a teaching parish and Bernie has carried on that tradition.  We have been privileged to see priests and deacons launched from among our parishioners, we have benefitted from the placement of seminarians in our midst, and we have watched as they grew in confidence under Bernie’s tutelage. In the past fifteen years, many people have served as seminarians or postulants at St. George’s.  I’m happy to say that some of them are here today.

As we look back at the past fifteen years, we have many accomplishments to be proud of.  In your bulletin, there is an insert, listing some highlight events, and I hope you will take some time to look them over.  Some are practical, like handicap accessibility initiatives, the new heating and ventilation system, and renovated parish hall.  Some speak to our passion for social justice and our advocacy for important social causes and the needs of those less fortunate.  Others have nourished our spiritual lives.  We now offer weekly healing prayers during Sunday Services, hold regular meditation services, periodic quiet days, and embark on pilgrimages.  We have long standing covenant groups, lay-lead bible study, and are about to re-launch a women’s group.  We have a monthly family service tailored to young families and we recently reconfigured our youth program to return it to parental lay leadership.  We are truly blessed. 

St. George’s can be a haven when the world seems to be going crazy and it can be a spur to give us the courage to act.  Whatever the future holds, we know we can face the challenges together.  There is more to be done, but we are fortified by encouraging each other.  Strengthened by our community, we look to the future with faith, standing side by side, in partnership with Bernie.