Last week included the “Celebration of a New Ministry” and my institution as the Sixth Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas, presided over that liturgy on Tuesday night, and the church was filled with members and friends of the congregation, together with visiting clergy from the community. It was a wonderful sight to behold.
Christ the King Lutheran Church, located on the other side of the campus of Rice University, prayed for me and for my congregation last Sunday morning “that together we may bear witness to [God’s] love in Jesus Christ in our common service in his name. Amen.” Pastor Robert Moore and his clergy colleagues from Christ the King also attended the service of institution. I was so grateful to see them.
Our guest preacher that evening was the Rev. John Maxwell Kerr, who serves as the Episcopal Chaplain to the faculty, students, and staff of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He’s also a scientist and, in fact, was one of the founders of the Society of Ordained Scientists.
He’s a dear friend to my family.
After meeting him at the airport, we got stuck in rush hour traffic on Highway 59 but finally made our way to the church so that he could see it on the eve of the big celebration. While there, I noticed a large book that was sitting on a small table in front of the communion rail. It was the original parish register for the congregation that goes back to 1929.
The sections that record communicants, baptisms, confirmations, and burials have long ago filled up and spilled out into other, newer books. But this book was opened to a different section, one that starts on the first page and lists the rectors of the congregation. What struck me and filled me with more than a little humility was the fact that it was mostly blank, containing the signatures of only five rectors and one interim rector.
This is what it looked like:
That was the “before” photograph. Near the beginning of the service, Bishop Doyle read to me in the presence of the congregation the Letter of Institution before inviting me to “sign the book.” So I wrote the number 6 and signed my name with the date that I officially began earlier this year. Here’s the “after” photograph:
So there it is. Number 6, reporting for duty — which, of course, reminds me of a 1960s British TV series called “The Prisoner.” As a young person, I absolutely loved to watch reruns of that spy/allegorical/science fiction series. It starred Patrick McGoohan as a British agent who, after he was kidnapped, was referred to as Number 6. Don’t worry, it’s not a description of my life in the church. But it does explore human nature and psychological realities that touch on the gospel.
McGoohan’s Number 6 stays in an isolated village, against his will, for a very long time. He has no idea where he is in relation to the rest of the world, although he desperately wants to know the truth about his situation. It’s stressful, and he can never manage to escape from the village. Hmm, sounds like a lot of people I know.
The rectors of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church have stayed here for a very long time, too, but not against their will. I am free to stay, as it were, in the service of Christ and Christ’s Church. This is where those of us who are like lost balls in high weeds — which is to say all of us — come week in and week out to be raised to heaven, peering over the tall grass and reorienting ourselves in this broken world with the love of Christ. As it says in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me 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.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”