Last Sunday was a special experience for me at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. It was the day of my first Annual Parish Meeting as the Rector, which was held in the parish hall immediately after a combined worship service in the church. Following all of that, there was a festive lunch with fried chicken and all the fixings, plus a tower of 250 cupcakes. It was a lot of fun. Seriously.
Events with an annual meeting at the heart of them are not something that most people look forward to. The Rev. Tim Schenck , an Episcopal priest in Hingham, Massachusetts, explains this well in his blog post “Annual Meeting Haiku,” which concludes with a poetic description of this yearly ritual that the canons require:
Budget blah, blah, blah
Something about Jesus Christ
Please up your pledges.
So I was inspired to write a haiku about my remarks last weekend at Palmer:
I compared the church
to Parks and Recreation.
Love, in the end, wins.
That’s the short version. The long version is the Rector’s Report:
THE RECTOR’S REPORT
DELIVERED AS THE SERMON ON JANUARY 25, 2015
Today’s sermon is actually my report as the Rector of Palmer Memorial on the day of our Annual Parish Meeting. Needless to say, these are exciting times in our life together. I’m still able to call myself the new Rector, and we still have a chance to dream and pray together about the future.
Because we believe that future is in God’s hands, moments like today are important as we seek out the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to know where we’re headed, even when storms arise on our journey, as they inevitably do. So we bring our little boat into the safety of the harbor on this day in order to mend our nets like James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Now is a good time for us to reflect on the future of the fishing profession.
As most of you know, last fall a series of cottage meetings were held with parishioners so that folks could meet me and hear some of my thoughts about this wonderful church, which is, of course, a particular place but, more importantly, a particular people. It is, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams describes the church, a solidarity not of our own choosing.
In other words — and you can probably guess where I’m headed with this — it’s like finding yourself inside an episode of the television series Parks and Recreation. A lot of you, I know, are fans of that show, whose quirky characters range from Leslie Knope, “the good-government liberal,” to the infamous Ron Swanson, “the skeptical-of-government libertarian.” They work together, ironically, in small town government. And although they don’t always see eye to eye, they really do care about one another. They might not admit it, but it’s true nonetheless.
As Linda Holmes, the editor of NPR’s entertainment and pop-culture blog wrote this past week about a recent episode of Parks and Recreation:
When Ron wouldn’t talk and Leslie was ready [to talk], she employed an escalating series of discomforts to force his hand. He withstood a fan blowing on his ear, being covered in Post-its and having water dripped on his mustache, but when Leslie blasted “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and made up her own lyrics . . . he broke. . . . So they talked.
“This is not,” Holmes assures us,
. . . the obvious kind of “love conquers all,” but it is a love story nonetheless — earnest and unpredictable and built on the same series of advances and retreats as any love story in fiction. And it was a story with higher emotional stakes than the great majority of romances that television and film will ever come up with, to be honest. Rather than futz around with the ridiculous question of whether men and women can be friends (spoiler alert: yes), Parks has devoted itself to the specifics of this relationship, these people, this office and this town, and the fact that they matter to each other.
I love that series, and it does remind me — in all its glorious humor — of life in the church. Here at Palmer, in a solidarity not of our own choosing, we matter to each other. We gather in this place to attend to the specifics of those relationships in this small corner of God’s kingdom between Fannin and Main, in the institutions of the neighborhood that surround us, and in this amazingly and increasingly diverse urban environment, the fourth largest city in the United States.
But the reason we matter to each other over the long haul, from one generation to the next, is that we matter, first and foremost, to God. The welcome of this congregation, to the people like Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson who sit beside us in the pews and to the stranger who crosses our threshold in a desperate search for hope, should be as wide as the outstretched arms of the Crucified One.
In order to do that, as I said in the cottage meetings last fall, I believe it’s necessary for Palmer to make a major recommitment to children and families. Now that’s not at all meant to take away from those who don’t have children in their households. The reality is that we haven’t devoted much in terms of human resources to those ministries and most of our losses in membership over the last several years have been among families.
More importantly, however, all of us promise at the baptism of every young child to do all in our power to support that child in his or her life in Christ. My wife Carrie and I make that promise for teenagers, even though we don’t have teenagers in our household. And many of you make that promise for young children, even though you don’t have young children in your household. Together we promise to nurture in them the love of Christ.
To that end, as I wrote in a letter to the parish last month, I have called to join our church staff this summer, in a newly created full-time position, one of the best non-ordained ministers for children and families in the Episcopal Church. I can’t share that person’s name with you just yet, but I can share with you my hope that you’ll have a chance to meet this person face to face before Easter Day. I can also share with you my conviction that this person will plan events that will enhance our parish life across the board and build relationships between all of us. One of those future events will be a parish retreat at Camp Allen, our diocesan camp and conference center. I know that a lot of you are already looking forward to that idea becoming a reality, hopefully this year.
In the meantime, our search for a third full-time priest continues. I’m in conversation with Kai Ryan, Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Texas, about a few upcoming interviews. The person called to this position will be in charge of our extensive pastoral care ministries and oversee, together with lay leaders, what we call the “serve vessel,” which includes not only pastoral care but also the various outreach ministries that are shepherded by our deacon, Linda Shelton. But I will not fill this position until there is the right fit. Acting in haste, out of anxiety, doesn’t usually produce a satisfactory result.
So have patience and pray for me, pray with me. Better yet, get to know me in the months ahead through some of things that I wrote about in a letter to the parish last week. If you didn’t receive that letter, copies of it will be available at the doors of the church and in the parish hall at our Annual Parish Meeting. Those things include an ongoing series called “On the Road with the Rector” and two Lenten series, one of which will be “Conversations with the Rector” on Sunday mornings in Lent and the other of which will be Wednesday evening classes during Lent, beginning with a discussion of the movie Selma on Wednesday, February 25.
You can even organize an outing to watch that movie with friends, as the Palmer Young Adults are doing. However you get there, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that, in the end, love wins, even when the facts on the ground testify otherwise? Then, on February 25, we’ll talk about the movie versus the march. In the following weeks we’ll look at the lives of three martyrs of the twentieth century who believed that the answer to that question is, “Yes, love conquers all,” not sentimentally as we often see on TV, but sacrificially as we always see on the cross.
This morning I also want you to know that I’ll be creating three task forces, each led by a lay person in our congregation, to help me — to help us — think about three important areas of our life together that flow from our mission to know and to share the love of Jesus Christ. Some of you will be asked to be a member of one of these task forces, and all of you will receive a pastoral letter from me at a later date with the names of those members, including the head of each task force. At the conclusion of their work, each task force will make various recommendations either to me, as the Rector, or to the Vestry, as our governing board, depending on the nature of that task force’s charge.
The first task force will work with our new staff member for children and families, long before that person begins employment here next summer, to think about our various options for building a new leadership team for our youth ministries. In the meantime, we are so blessed that Courtney Daniell-Knapp and others have stepped up to the plate to provide interim leadership for our youth groups and activities.
The path forward to new leadership for our youth ministries will include not only conversations with our new staff member for children and families, someone who has the right professional background to be able to supervise a new leadership team, but also feedback and input from our youth and their parents. That will be part of a larger assessment of our needs in terms of youth ministries which will take advantage of the resources offered through the Diocese of Texas. Quite frankly, Palmer hasn’t always used those resources in the past, but we will going forward because we’re part of the larger church.
The second task force will consider the document “Unity in Mission” that was published in 2012 and written by the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, in cooperation with many others, including former Secretary of State James Baker III, who wrote the preface to that document. I actually read this impressive monograph long before I had ever heard of Palmer Memorial. It contains, among other things, guidelines from Bishop Doyle for congregations that are considering the blessing of same-gender relationships. As I said at the cottage meetings last fall, I believe it’s time for us to have that conversation at Palmer.
Your priests have been called to care for everyone in this community of faith in the name of Christ, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. So together we need to reflect on our call to be one in Christ, in spite of our many differences, and what it means to be, in the words of Isaiah, “a house prayer for all people.”
Bishop Doyle has articulated well in “Unity in Mission” the reason why brothers and sisters in Christ who are considering the blessing of same-gender relationships should be willing to take a moment to have these kinds of important conversations with one another. “I am requiring this preparation,” he writes,
. . . out of my pastoral concern for individuals seeking the Church’s blessing and who deserve when blessed within the Church to have the community stand and support their commitment to God and to one another. The promise of the congregation in the liturgy to support the new couple is an important one and a promise that the community cannot make without having discerned its meaning.
So the work of this task force is an invitation to help all of us have an honest discussion about this. It’s really a conversation about this simple question: How then shall we live together as God’s people? Praying for one another, especially for those with whom we are in disagreement, is always a good place to start. It’s also a healthy spiritual practice to prepare ourselves to come to the Lord’s Table, where all of God’s children are welcome. This I believe.
The third task force will shift our attention from looking inward to looking outward. This group will be charged with dreaming about opportunities for outreach and mission, broadly defined, in addition to the Way Station, our feeding ministry to the homeless, and Archway Academy, a high school for teenagers in recovery that’s located on our church campus. Those ministries ensure that our church buildings are not empty between worship services, and that is a wonderful thing that many churches would envy. But how are we — or, more precisely, how can we — reach beyond these walls and connect to the surrounding neighborhood.
As most of you know, Jesus was once famously asked in the Gospel of Luke, “And who is my neighbor?” So perhaps this task force might begin by asking Jesus a similar question: “And what, exactly, is our neighborhood?”
Surely it includes the Texas Medical Center, Rice University, the Museum District, and Hermann Park. But do we really know what’s found in each of those directions and where God is already at work in them, circulating in the neighborhood and inviting us to join God’s mission? That’s something we should really pause to consider on a periodic basis, even if we end up simply recommitting to or perhaps expanding the scope of what we’re already doing.
Or maybe something will surprise us. After all, the Bible assures us that Christians worship a God of surprises. How do I know that? I know that because long ago two fishermen, the sons of Zebedee, were in their boat mending their nets along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walked by them and called them away, just as he had called another set of brothers, Simon and Andrew, to leave behind their nets and come with him.
I sometimes wonder if they got along like the quirky characters on Parks and Recreation. I’d like to think so.
We are, surprisingly, their companions in this solidarity not of our own choosing. We are companions of the people sitting around us today. And we are companions of those who will join us over the coming year after hearing the call of Jesus, who says to each and every one of us, “Follow me.” That’s why we’re here.
2 BACK TO POST Rowan Williams has expressed this idea in numerous writings, including the John Coventry Memorial Address, which he gave on March 20, 2010. In that address, he said, “Our baptismal solidarity with Jesus Christ means that we are in solidarity with all the fellow Christians we never chose to be in fellowship with (always one of the most difficult bits of Christian identity) . . .”
3 BACK TO POST Linda Holmes, “Parks and Recreation Shows the Beating Heart of Its Great Love Story,” Monkey See: Pop-Culture News and Analysis from NPR, January 21, 2015.
4 BACK TO POST Linda Holmes, “Parks and Recreation Shows the Beating Heart of Its Great Love Story,” Monkey See: Pop-Culture News and Analysis from NPR, January 21, 2015.
5 BACK TO POST Linda Holmes, “Parks and Recreation Shows the Beating Heart of Its Great Love Story,” Monkey See: Pop-Culture News and Analysis from NPR, January 21, 2015.
6 BACK TO POST Isaiah 56:7.
7 BACK TO POST C. Andrew Doyle, Unity in Mission: A Paper on Common Mission and the Challenge Posed by Division, Episcopal Diocese of Texas, April 16, 2012.
8 BACK TO POST Luke 10:29.