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Sermon preached by The Rev. Peter Elvin, October 26, 2014

At A Celebration of New Ministry for The Rev. Dr. Janet Zimmerman

Holy One, fill the hollow of words and hearing.  By your Spirit, make fit both speaking and listening.  Fit us for your service, Creator, Redeemer, Guide.

Janet, just being asked to preach today is a deep honor.  When I told the Vestry where proposed to be today, they responded, “Congratulations!”   Which, I think, says that they too recognize the honor of being included in such a role and they want you to know they’re rejoicing with you, your family, your parish, and your wider community today.

This still doesn’t answer why I’ve been asked to preach.  That requires going back to  1999, when Patrick Zimmerman entered Williams College, and Janet and Sey became Sunday visitors at St. John’s from time to time; and not just parents’ weekends, for this is a close-knit family whose members have a good time together in life. 

Then in Patrick’s junior year Thomas came to Williams for his first year.  And the fall after Thomas graduated, Frank arrived.  That accounts for eleven years of seamless Zimmermans, and during that period (especially with Sey so active in the alumni association at Williams) Janet and Sey worshiped at St. John’s with greater frequency than some of our longtime members.  The blessing of that for me has been their consistently dependable skill in demonstrating encouragement and support, and I’m here to say to Grace Church:  You have chosen well, and you will learn and grow yet more in your own practice of encouragement and support through this new pastoral union.  To quote my Vestry, Congratulations all around!

I have more to say about the Zimmerman family.  They are a crucible of creativity.  First, there’s Janet:  after a distinguished career in higher education, she recognizes a long-simmering fire in her soul that prompts her to present herself for ordination, and in midlife puts on her backpack and enrolls at Virginia Theological Seminary, is ordained, serves as a curate at All Saints in Austin, Texas,  then as a school chaplain and parish associate in St. Patrick’s Parish in Washington, D.C., and from there  is called here to Grace.

Then there’s Sey, who has moved both workplace and household how many times now since Janet heard that call?   If Janet’s the shaker, Sey’s the mover.  Now retired from his law practice, he’s hatching his debut novel and gets to watch Williams football whenever he wants.

And there’s Patrick and Kate, about to give Luke and Beth a new live-in playmate any day now, and move to Albany where Patrick will practice emergency medicine at St. Peter’s Hospital.

And Thomas, freshly back from China where he has been persuading that government  to support peace-building in Afghanistan.

And Frank, pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning, with a passion for developing city centers that are accessible to pedestrians and mass transportation.

On the charge that this is a remarkably creative family, I rest my case.  It’s time to consider how this is a uniquely creative congregation.

I wonder if your calling may include developing a 12-step program for clergy and vestries addicted to their buildings.  Which isn’t to say that all congregations with historic old buildings should replicate your demanding journey from having one to not having one; but the paradigm shift is refreshing to consider.

And before I go on, I’ll just say:  Hi.  My name is Peter, and I suffer from edifice addiction.  I serve a congregation that knows itself blessed and burdened with a charming pile of glacial fieldstones arranged in the shape of an American Gothic Arts-and-Crafts village church—though those stones periodically need major transfusions of mortar, flashing, surgical intervention, funding, Vestry agenda time, and Properties Committee dedication.

By contrast, when my wife Diana and I arrived for worship here on a vacation Sunday a few weeks ago, Don Peet graciously welcomed us and, aware that this may have been our first visit to Grace Church, extolled the blessings of belonging to a church that has no properties committee.  That was before we even got to the door.  I will confess, I thought he was kind of rubbing it in.

But I will also confess that I have told the Grace Church story to a good friend and priest colleague in a metropolitan diocese, where he and his people are challenged by a landmark edifice that poses a mighty puzzle for them to solve.  I’ve suggested that he come here some day to hear your story in ways that only you can tell it, not because his parish should do what you have done, but because the paradigm shift is so refreshing to imagine, and learn from.

It’s no coincidence, is it, that the Bible, in both Hebrew and Christian testaments, rejects idolatry?  “Excessive devotion to, or veneration for, a person or thing,” says my dictionary.  A mistaking the nature of something, a mis-representing of its power and purpose,  an uncritical yielding to its claims and demands.

A church’s edifice complex may be one example of unintended idolatry, especially if it is at the expense of the church’s mission in the world.  Other examples of idolatry come to mind.  Uncritical literal interpretation of the Bible may make an idol of words that are meant to call, challenge, engage, guide, and transform.  And should it be said on an occasion like this, that sometimes Episcopalians commit unintended idolatry by placing their priest on a pedestal?   And that sometimes clergy commit a reverse idolatry by pedestaling influential parishioners and programs?

Given these sly temptations, it may be that verbs are more trustworthy tools than nouns are, in shaping Christian faith and mission.  St. Paul, writing to the Christians at Rome, urges the Church to act in true worship of the living God, in a procession of verbs that he strings like pearls in a necklace.  The whole necklace in Romans is love, grace, just as it is in John’s Gospel that we heard this morning—unmerited undeserved love, grace, not of our choosing but of God’s choosing.  And these New Testament readings chosen for today invite us to finger these verbal pearls of apostolic action:

Present your bodies… be transformed… use gifts… show honor…be ardent… serve the Lord…rejoice in hope… persevere in prayer… contribute to the saints… extend hospitality… weep with the weepers… live in harmony… take thought for what is noble… live peaceably… abide in Christ’s love… bear fruit.

It’s the catechesis of verbs that holds us to the heart of the Gospel.  Verbs are not what’s left when the nouns fall away: verbs lead and shape, utilize and hallow, free the nouns (the buildings, the liturgies, the people, the clergy, the meetings, the agendas) to pay attention to life, to the whole shimmering mantle of earthy life and what is needed of us—what is given to us—to serve creatively, to give all creation access to the joy that Jesus plants in his people so it will flow into the world.

From the days when a stone wall threatened to fall down and upend many nouns in your parochial status quo, consider what has flowed into the world through your discerning, your growing, and your working:  Instead of one gathering-place, you now utilize three, as you worship here, support and strategize from your Main Street office, and cultivate Gideon’s Garden.  You’ve moved from a model that expects people to find you in one place, to a model of overflowing into, infiltrating, greater Great Barrington, embodying grace which not only names you but also draws you into missional partnership with community agencies and neighboring parishes who are here today to help you celebrate this new pastoral union you’ve entered with Janet Zimmerman.

It’s a custom at a celebration like this for the preacher to issue a charge to the new Priest-in-charge.  Janet, you have been called to serve here not so much because of the nouns in your stellar curriculum vitae, as because the verbs of your personal bearing, your capacities and passions and skills and engaging spirit become evident to all who know you.  Be wary of the nouns that may get placed in your capable hands as Priest-in-charge.  Handle and finger each one to be sure you sense whose this should be.  You are an excellent navigator, you read maps well and know how to take your bearings from true north.  You know how to work with the present moment, the people present, the opportunity that presents itself.  You are talented at inviting people to imagine and listen.  Guard your freedom to choose, so you don’t become so busy with nouns that you are tempted to be distracted from the genius of verbs.

Now I want to extend a charge to the people of Grace Church.  Would you stand? 

More than most congregations, you understand the importance of load-bearing walls.  Janet Zimmerman is a strong load-bearer, her foundations are secure.  But do not take for granted her load-bearing.  It’s not a coincidence that we heard that story from the Book of Numbers today.  Congregational  life had gotten intense during a long discernment phase of Israel’s seasons in the wilderness:  Moses was working overtime fielding complaints and disputes, and he’s just about at the edge of endurance when he cries to God, “Did I conceive all this people?  Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child?’”

Then comes God’s response, as we heard today.  “Gather for me seventy of the elders… have them take their place with you… they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” 

This celebration is as much about you and the dynamics of your part in the equation of leadership, as it is about Janet.  This new pastoral union calls you to present yourselves as bearers of encouragement and support, bearers of grace, as you keep recognizing where and how God is active in this world, as you keep growing what you’re doing, as you keep shaping a circle ever wider, workers at work in fields of grace.

Now to the One who calls and equips us for service belong all praise and gratitude, this day and evermore,  Amen.

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