One year ago tonight, during the Celebration of a New Ministry, I signed the original parish register for Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, a rather imposing book that goes back to 1929, as its Sixth Rector. I did so in the presence of the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas, and family and friends and members of the congregation. I wrote about that experience in a post titled “Number 6 Signs In,” which is worth taking a moment to read if for no other reason than to watch the opening sequence from the 1960s British TV series called “The Prisoner.”
Our guest preacher for that occasion was the Rev. John Maxwell Kerr, who retired at the end of last year as the Episcopal Chaplain to the faculty, students, and staff at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Father Kerr viewed his ministry there as encompassing everyone, not just Episcopalians or students. For his service to that community and “loving spirit” toward those of faith and non-faith alike, Father Kerr received the Sullivan Award at the 2014 Commencement.
Born in Scotland, Father Kerr is a graduate of the Universities of Toronto, Leeds, and Nottingham. After graduation, he served a Short Service Commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Flying Officer. He has taught chemistry, physics, logic, and theology in various academic settings in the United Kingdom and the United States.
He was ordained Deacon and Priest in Oxford Diocese in the Church of England 38 years ago, serving his title as Curate to the Rector and Queen’s Chaplain in Windsor in Oxford Diocese. Father Kerr was one of the founders and second Warden of the Society of Ordained Scientists. He is an active member of the North American Province of the Society. He also has a great sense of humor as evidenced by this photograph at the Fabergé exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Here is what he had to say at my official institution as the parish’s Sixth Rector:
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend John Maxwell Kerr, BASc, MSc, PhD, DipTh
The Celebration of a New Ministry, September 30, 2014
Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” (John 15:16)
It is, it really is, the greatest possible privilege to have been invited here to preach this evening.
Palmer Memorial Church has called the wise and energetic Neil Willard to be your new Rector: how very astute of you!
The church called, and Neil accepted, and with very considerable joy. But thanks be to God, somewhat earlier in his life, our Lord Jesus Christ chose Neil and he responded. Our Lord appointed Neil that he should go, spatially, from North Carolina, to South Carolina, to Virginia, to Minneapolis, and now to what is called in these here parts, “the Great State of Texas.”
So what wisdom might we need to hear and take to heart this evening?
Christ will make you into the sort of priest that Christ is calling you to be.
Christ chooses us and, in anybody’s ministry new or old, Christ leads us and accompanies us every step of the way, thanks be to God, or nothing we might try to do could possibly abide or bear fruit.
Christ will make you into the sort of priest that Christ is calling you to be.
But how are we to know?
Ask. Question. Enquire. Scrutinize. Examine. Cross-examine. And then listen. Just Listen. To God. To the people. To children.
This was said to me just before my ordination in Oxford all those years ago, by a Brother of the Society of St John the Evangelist. It remains true for Bishop Doyle, and it is true for Neil. And it’s true for all the other diocesan clergy who are here. Christ will make you into the sort of priest, or deacon, Christ is calling you to be. Christ chooses us, not the other way ‘round, as we heard in St John’s Gospel, and then Christ tells us to go, to go to the place to which our Lord will call us and set us to work at being spiritually-fruitful ministers. But being called is not instant one-stop shopping, in fact it is rather more like becoming married.
Ministry is like becoming married. In marriage, there’s a celebration of a new relationship, an exchange of rings, a certificate (suitable for framing). But nobody just “gets married,” as if the wedding ceremony is the beginning and the end of it: many of us know better. It is a faithful life-long journey together and it starts long before that sacramental celebration of a new relationship in church. Our legacy drawn from the marriages of our parents and grandparents, is the inheritance we bring to marriage, before a couple has even met. But in marriage, God takes these years of preparation and makes something entirely new.
The same is true with New Ministry.
Neil has been in the wings preparing for fulfilling God’s call to serve Christ here for all his life. Not explicitly but nevertheless in the providence of God becoming the priest Christ is calling him to be here, in this place. After this ceremony in church, it will take time: there will follow the task of growing into the covenant of becoming the Church Christ is calling you to be together.
I find that we celebrate a new ministry in the same spirit of apprehension and hope and joy as we do a new marriage. But there is this: Neil, we are assured that Christ is calling you to enter this covenant with your people in your new ministry in this place. And Christ says, keep on going!
Well, suppose you are not a minister, new or old, not married. What then? What’s this got to do with you? Exactly the same principle holds for the Vestry of Palmer Memorial Church. And it holds for this congregation: we all are called to become, over time, in a covenant of faith and love, the people of God Christ is calling us to be.
We are celebrating a new ministry for Neil among you tonight. It will be a new and renewed ministry tomorrow morning, and new every day after that. God says,
Behold, I make all things new.
And God, being Church of England, says it just like that.
CALL. COMMUNITY. TIME.
Now comes the interesting bit. We priests may, up to a point, choose the place where we may exercise our ministry: we may choose a parish or be chosen by a parish, and move about in space from diocese to diocese, from church to church, but what we are not free to choose is the unique time in which we are called to serve our Lord. Our God is the creator of time and space: the historical epoch with its unique challenges and threats and yes, moral issues in which we are born and live and have our being, is not ours to choose. Cometh the hour, cometh the man (or woman), we trust. We cannot choose that hour: time is God’s independent variable and time is the fire in which we all burn.
Out there on Highway 59, we are free to choose to speed up (except in rush hour), or slow down, or to overtake another car, or to slip off onto an exit ramp.
We move into God’s future at one second per second. Never faster than anyone else, never slower: we may never stop. We move into God’s future at exactly one second per second.
Christ calls us to become his people in holy covenant, a church community. That’s what Christ is creating here, this evening. But our common growth into fruition takes time. Isn’t that a breath-taking thought? The fresh, exciting wind from God’s future is already blowing in our faces, full of strange and wonderful fragrances. God’s future: that’s where we are all going. All must go: there is no turning back. It’s probably best not to walk into God’s future looking backwards into the dusty past.
Now it’s time to go forward and get down to work! New Ministry, like Old Ministry, is worth celebrating tonight. It will still be worth celebrating, together, in the weeks and months and years to come, even as it lurches and swoops and soars and goes into a spin and is, at times, frankly all a bit much. We are all in it for the long haul. Christ tells us, calls us, appoints us to go wherever we go in space: but Christ calls us to go where we must in time: forward.
Although Neil’s name is on the Order of Service, this celebration is for a shared ministry in the Spirit. Therefore, there is one more matter to address.
CALL. COMMUNITY. TIME. And now, ETERNITY.
Neil’s call to this ministry has been affirmed by Bishop Doyle and by the Vestry. But just before Neil saddles up and gallops off in all directions at once, as you might like him to do, we need to pause.
Terribly difficult, this galloping off in all directions at once, by the way. Tried it myself once. Complete disaster.
That’s why I would just like to pass along a piece of the best advice I have ever been given.
By an Anglican nun: a Mother Superior in fact, the formidable Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford.
I was a frantically-busy new priest but also trying to make a success of a new academic appointment as a Professor. So, I showed up at the Convent exhausted, and asked MMC to help me with prayer.
So what did Mother Mary Clare have to offer? What wise words did she say? What might everybody here need to hear her say before life gets too busy in all this new ministry?
She looked at me and smiled, as Mothers Superior do, and said,
You know what you need to do, Kerr? You need just to go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God.
What holy wisdom. Christ is calling us to sabbath rest too: no sabbath rest, no bearing fruit that will abide. When it all becomes too much, remember Mother Mary Clare, and go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God.
Christ will make you, Neil, into the priest Christ is calling you to be and is now and always will be doing so. Any time you need to remember what that should feel like, go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God. You’ll find Christ waiting for you there. Such is the blessing of Eternity.
CALL. COMMUNITY. TIME. ETERNITY.
God bless us all.