New Ministry

This weekend, I preached at the Celebration of New Ministry for a friend and colleague instead of preaching at St. Mark’s. Here is the sermon I offered at the service on Saturday.

I’m so glad to be back at St. Ann’s worshiping with you today. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Adam Thomas. I’m the pastor of St. Mark’s Church in Mystic, and I was the priest-in-charge consultant here at St. Ann’s while you all were discerning the evolving nature of the parish’s relationship with the Rev. Anita Schell. That process began way back in pre-pandemic days of 2019 and continued doggedly through the scary and interminable months of the worst of the pandemic. And now here we are – four years on from Anita’s arrival – celebrating a new ministry.

If that sounds strange to you – celebrating a new ministry after the priest has been here longer than many priest-parish relationships last in the first place – if that sounds strange to you, then believe me, I’m right there with you. I had to puzzle out what I thought about it in order to write this sermon. And what I realized is that today we have the opportunity to celebrate two seemingly opposite realities, that, in the end, are both ways that we encounter God’s movement in this world. Our God is a both/and kind of God, and today we celebrate a both/and reality here at St. Ann’s.

The first reality is that this “new” relationship between priest and parish is actually four years old. The newness here is structural rather than relational. Anita went from being Priest-in-Charge to Rector. These two titles come with differing sets of ecclesiastical expectations, particularly in how the parish relates to the diocese. But on the ground, day to day, in the life of the parish, there really isn’t much difference between the two. Anita became the rector here officially about a year ago. And very little changed in the partnership between you and Anita at that time, sort of like how I turned 40 a few weeks ago, but I didn’t feel any different than being almost 40.

What does this say about the partnership you and your rector share? I think it shows us something about the sacramental nature of our lives as baptized followers of Jesus. Now, I know a celebration of new ministry is not an official Sacrament with a capital S, but it is a sacramental action, which is why I’m going to talk about sacraments for a minute. Let’s use baptism as our example. The sacrament of baptism is a window into the sacred reality of God that permeates creation. In baptism, we celebrate the identity of the person being baptized as one of God’s beloved children, and we welcome her into the particular piece of God’s family that we call the Church. But here’s the thing: the action of baptism does not make her a beloved child of God; she already is and always had been a beloved child of God. The baptism is the celebration of this reality of belovedness and a commitment to live into this foundational identity.

So, let’s extend this framework to our action today, which is also sacramental in nature because it reveals another window into the holy, the one today’s psalm proclaims:

Oh, how good and pleasant it is,

when brethren live together in unity! […]

For there the Lord has ordained the blessing:

life for evermore.

Like in a baptism, today we are celebrating an identity you already have, an identity as a particular piece of God’s beloved community. You have partnered with Anita these last four years to engage in God’s mission in so many ways, not the least of which has been walking together in love through the hardships of the pandemic.  Also like a baptism, our celebration today gives us the opportunity to affirm our commitment to this identity as God’s beloved community.

That’s the first reality – this church is striving, with God’s help, to be a window into God’s reality by living together as God’s beloved community. The second reality brings back the word “new” in “Celebration of New Ministry.” The truth is, while we are celebrating on this particular day at this particular time, our ministry together is always new because we follow a God who is making all things new through God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. 

St. Paul speaks to this mission in our reading today, saying, “For in [Christ Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.” Through Christ, God brings all of creation back into right relationship with God. And we are a part of this mission as we follow Christ down pathways that lead us to right relationships with one another, within our society, with creation, and with God. We work towards these right relationships by worshiping God instead of the many things that pretend to be God, by recognizing our complicity in the biggest sins in the world, by standing against injustice, by making conscious choices that protect our environment, and by taking care of the most vulnerable among us. God’s mission of healing and reconciliation always leads to newness because there is still so much brokenness left to repair.

I invite you today to embrace God’s call to newness, or better yet, to renewal, as a part of your parish’s identity. As we follow Jesus together down his loving, liberating, and lifegiving path (as Presiding Bishop Curry likes to say), there are only two sure things: Jesus will be with us always, and we will always be changed by our following. We will become new, and in our newness we will be midwives for God’s reconciled world.

So those are the two realities we celebrate today: you have been and will continue to be a piece of God’s beloved community, and you will also continue to grow into newness as God makes all things new.

I’d like to close today with a word about the saint for whom our readings were appointed. After her husband’s early death, Empress Theodora ruled the Byzantine Empire for thirteen years. During those years, she accomplished something basically unheard of at the time in Christian history – or really, any time in history unfortunately. There was a controversy over the use of icons in the Church. Many thought venerating them was idolatry (including Theodora’s husband), but Theodora believed that praying with icons was a way to open those windows to the holy I talked about earlier. Her viewpoint won the argument, but that’s not the astounding part. Against the wishes of the staunchest supporters of the “icons are good” camp, Theodora welcomed the other side back into the fold, recognizing their faith led them to a different view, but was still strong faith. And so Theodora presided over a theological controversy that ended in reconciliation rather than schism. She helped opponents embrace one another within the beloved community of the Church.

Theodora’s witness is our witness: our God is a God of healing and reconciliation, a God who is and always will be making all things new. As you embark on the next exciting phase of your journey together into the newness that is following Jesus, may you be windows into the sacred reality of God, and help God remake this world into something new.

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