After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
Speaking on behalf all who are here to celebrate and pray with Tim and the people of St. Andrew’s, let me say how happy we are to share this moment with you. You have already committed yourselves to one another and you life together is well underway. But today we gather in public sacrament, as is our tradition, not only to celebrate, but also to create a holy space for God’s grace and power to reveal itself, so that you may go forward from this day with even greater confidence and joy.
The beginning of the relationship between spiritual leader and community is a wondrous time. It can also be emotional and a bit anxious, understandably so, because you all have such hopes and expectations. You’ve taken a big risk with each other, without fully knowing what you’ve gotten yourselves into. There are bound to be a few bumps in the road in the early days, as you adjust and settle in together.
But there is such blessing and important learnings in this first season of ministry, as you hold hands and jump. You know this already. I am here to encourage you in the good work that is yours, as you wholeheartedly craft and offer worship of God each week, commit to growing in faith and in your walk with Christ together; as you raise children and seek to be a place of faith exploration for the young adults at the university and all who work in that great public institution; as you share the joys and pains of life’s passages together, strive to be good neighbors, offer Christian hospitality, service, and advocacy, and share the good news of Jesus.
As you are about all these things, which is the work of the church, in this new season I urge you to pay attention, and open yourselves as widely as you can to the loving presence of Christ in and among you. For no matter how long or how short you have been a part of this faith community, no matter how long or short you have been a Christian, this season will give you new eyes with which to see and new ears with which to hear.
Certainly Tim comes with new eyes and ears. Don’t be afraid of what he hears and sees. And the people of St. Andrew’s will experience you, Tim, in new ways. They will call forth from you gifts and insights that you didn’t know you had, and they will challenge you to grow. This, in part, is what makes a new season in ministry so important. You’re all off kilter a bit; you’re all rookies. Things are stirred up, in a good way, and God is in the mix, inviting you to a deeper faith, a more vibrant expression of Christian community and compelling witness to the Gospel.
So I invite you to engage this time, this moment, this season of ministry with a spirit of joy and adventure. Have fun together. Allow the love of Jesus in, by creating space for new possibilities.
Here’s one possibility: At Diocesan Convention next week, all your delegates and clergy present will receive a deck of cards. Each card has a question to encourage us to share a bit of our lives of faith. For example: Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Share the story of a time in your life when that was especially challenging. How did you respond? Or, How has your experience of the Episcopal liturgy brought you closer to God? Or, Do you think that faith is the absence of doubt? Share a story about a time you were confused about your faith.
What if you were to begin each meeting at St. Andrew’s with a faith sharing conversation with the person sitting next to you? What might you learn about each other and about God’s presence in your lives? Or consider hosting a series of faith sharing meals in your homes. I’ve done this with people across the diocese at our dinner table, and the conversations are always uplifting and inspiring.
St. Andrew’s, you are blessed to have in your new spiritual leader a man with a passion for this kind of faith exploration and intentional spiritual growth. Allow his gifts and passion to take you closer to Christ in your own lives and to discern with him how Christ is calling you into love and service for others.
This new season affords all of you the opportunity to commit, or recommit to a practice of daily prayer: a few minutes each day in quiet, offering God intentional time and space to reach you in the silence or meditative Scripture reading. If this is new to you, or you’ve been away from personal prayer for a long time, don’t worry. You can do this, and it’s worth it. If you’d like to join with Episcopalians from around the country in this practice, consider taking part in an church-wide initiative this Lent to read, along with the Presiding Bishop, the Gospel of Luke, and then to continue with the Book of Acts during Easter. This initiative is called The Good Book Club. If we all did this together, imagine how God might speak to us.
The early season on ministry is also an opportunity for gentle, courageous evaluation, which is not something we, as Episcopalians, are particularly good at. We seem to have an deeply embedded preference for keeping things as they are. That’s not a bad thing when what we are doing is bearing fruit. But without disciplines of evaluation, we often spend a lot of energy and resources on what is no longer fruitful.
One way to practice evaluation in this early season is to cultivate a kind of dual vision, where you’re paying attention as best you can to what’s happening, and cultivating a larger sense of purpose and calling at the same time. One author on leadership defines this kind of vision as distinguishing what you see when you’re dancing on a dance floor from what you see from the balcony looking down at all the dancers, one of whom is you. The dance floor is his image for jumping right in together for the work at hand; the balcony for the kind of vision you see only from a distance, when you step back, even in part of your mind, as you’re still out there dancing. We need both perspectives, he says. In the first year or two of a new ministry, it’s especially important to both actively engage and save a little bit of time and energy for reflection and evaluation. (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002))
A Methodist minister in Herndon, VA, Tom Berlin, suggests a simple method for cultivating this kind of dual-vision, and that is to invoke what he calls the two most powerful words for leadership: So that. Those who learn to use these two words, he says, will discover a way to clarify the intended, fruitful outcome of every ministry endeavor. (Lovett H. Weems, Jr. and Tom Berlin, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2010))
Let me give you a practical example from one pastor’s experience with a congregation that had for many years hosted a Vacation Bible School. He asked all those gathered to organize the upcoming summer’s VBS to complete the following sentence: Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that…
At first very few people wrote anything at all, struggling to come up with the purpose of the Vacation Bible School. At last one person shared what she wrote: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that the children of our church will experience a vacation bible school.” “Are there other possibilities?” the pastor asked. Another chimed in: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will experience church as fun.” The pastor’s thought was, “I’m not sure we need a curriculum for that.” After some time and deeper reflection the group came up with this: “Next summer our church will have a vacation bible school so that our children will come to know and love God more and that we will reach children in the community with God’s love whom we have not reached before.”(Story told in Bearing Fruit)
That was a purpose they could get inspired to work to accomplish and invite others to join them. It was also one that could afterwards be evaluated on the basis of fruitfulness: did the children of our church have an experience of love? Were we able to reach children in the neighborhood? If not ,why not? What might we do better next time? For the purpose was no longer to have a vacation bible school. That was a means to an end. If the means no longer served that end, they were free to consider something else. So that helps shift our focus from the activities of our church toward their intended outcome, one that can be measured in terms of fruitfulness.
One final thought for this season of new ministry, taking inspiration from that young boy who stepped forward at an opportune to offer Jesus what he had. In other versions of the same story, Jesus’ disciples are the ones who have only a few loaves of bread and some fish with which to feed a hungry multitude, but the point is the same. When we offer what we have, even if it is insufficient to meet the needs before us, Jesus, in the power of grace, can make the miracles happen. I’ve seen it happen time again. Nothing sustains me in faith more than the experience of seeing what can happen when we step up, step forward with what we know to be insufficient on its own, and trusting that God will act in the space between our offering and what is needed. Those experiences give me hope. They encourage me to be brave. I want the same for you.
So be brave, people of St. Andrew’s. Be brave,Tim. Offer to Jesus who you are and what you have in this moment, in this season, and dare to believe that you are part of something far bigger than you will ever realize. Go deep with one another. Be faithful in prayer. Take time to reflect, evaluate ministry in a spirit of fruitfulness. And have fun! The one who has called you is faithful. Remember that you are not alone. We are all in this holy work together, so that the Episcopal Church we love may take its humble, fruitful place in God’s mission of reconciling, healing love.