I am about to begin something I’ve never done before. In fact, I’m about to begin several things I’ve never done before. And so are you.
In just five days – or, actually, in 102 hours – I will walk out of my office, close the door, and not walk back in for nearly four months. I have to tell you, that is a strange feeling. Like everybody else, I’ve left jobs before. I’ve gone through the process of wrapping things up, handing things off, writing instructions to capture everything the person who’ll come after you needs to know. But I’ve never left a job knowing that I’ll pick it back up again four months later. That’s a new thing for me.
A sabbatical is not as new a thing for you, for St. Andrew’s. Rectors here have taken sabbaticals before. But things haven’t always been so rosy on the rector’s return. As I’ve heard the stories, sometimes priests have come back fairly different after sabbatical time away. Now, I can’t see into the future, but I think the odds are pretty low that I’m going to return as someone you don’t recognize. Still, every sabbatical is a time of some uncertainty for the congregation precisely because we can’t see into the future. So this will be a new thing for you.
It’s also a new thing for the staff. Now, our staff is an extremely talented group of people; and I have every confidence that Mtr. Anne and Peggy Wright, our business manager, will oversee the work just fine. Still, it will be a new thing for them to have me gone.
It’s also a new thing for Ann and me and the kids. Kathryn will be going back to school at Truman State in a couple of weeks; Dan will be heading off to K-State the week after. Ann and I will be empty nesters. And not only will it be “just us”; it will be just us with me not going off to work every morning. Instead, after vacation time, we’ll be traveling for the better part of two and a half months, working together on my sabbatical project. This will be a very new thing for us.
So let me just say this out loud. When there are so many new things in the air at once, here’s what happens: We get anxious. Maybe even a little afraid.
So let me just say this out loud, too. Here’s what I know: We have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear. And why is that? Because you, and I, are stepping into a kingdom moment.
And what’s a kingdom moment? We heard about them in our Gospel reading this morning. In fact, we’ve been hearing about God’s kingdom for the past several weeks as we read through Matthew’s gospel. Today, Jesus is taking images of the kingdom of heaven and tossing them at us like a sower scattering seeds, hoping that some, at least, might land in our hearts and take root.
· The kingdom of heaven is like planting a tiny mustard seed, a seemingly insignificant act but one that produces a bush 10 feet tall, safe habitat for those needing the shade and sanctuary of God’s embrace. Not bad.
· The kingdom of heaven is like a woman adding a tiny bit of yeast to 50 pounds of flour – a small act with a small agent that turns lifeless flour into rising dough and feeds more than a hundred people. Not bad.
· The kingdom of heaven is like treasure – maybe treasure you’ve been seeking all your life or maybe treasure you never knew you needed ‘til you found it, but treasure that makes you give everything you’ve got to make it yours. Not bad at all.
We find ourselves in moments when the kingdom of heaven claims us and grabs us and turns us around, helping us see ourselves and our world in a new light – in God’s divine light. As Fr. Marcus said last Sunday, we are not simply people who belong to a church but people called to let their lights “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). When we do that, those are kingdom moments.
You and I are stepping into a kingdom moment now. So let me share what that might look like, for me and for you.
For me, I’m stepping into rest. I need that. This good and holy and wonderful work will kill you if you let it. I need sleep; I need boundaries; and I need to remember that God actually is the one in charge of whether my work accomplishes anything. So for the first few weeks, I will be observing Sabbath, a time of holy rest and relaxation. I will not be checking church e-mail, not during vacation or sabbatical, so please don’t be disappointed when I don’t reply. I will not be answering texts or phone calls (unless it’s one of the clergy or wardens with the secret code that means the building’s on fire). I will be stepping into a kingdom moment of rest, and I am incredibly grateful for it.
Then, in early September, Ann and I will step into a journey, a journey of learning and sharing – a journey that I pray will give us some glimpses of what God’s future might look like, for this congregation and for others like ours. We’re visiting nine Episcopal and Church of England congregations – six in the U.S. and three in Britain. We’ll be in Boston, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Richmond, and St. Mary’s County in rural Maryland; and in England, we’ll visit Tewkesbury, Manchester, and London. These parishes are all different, of course; but they share a kingdom-related trajectory: traditional congregations steeped in history, liturgy, organ music, and red doors; but also hearing God’s call to raise up something new alongside the strength of that tradition. It’s the “both/and” approach that appeals to me, and it’s what we’re striving to incarnate here, too. These congregations, as Jesus said, are like “the master of a household” throwing a grand party – the banquet of the kingdom of heaven – and bringing “out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). I’ve been learning their stories over the past several months, and now Ann and I will get to experience them – meet the people, interview their leaders, worship with them, eat with them, drink with them, learn from them. And in the process, God willing, I’ll bring back things both to benefit us and to share with others in a book.
So that’s the kingdom moment Ann and I are stepping into, beginning 101 hours and 51 minutes from now. But you’re stepping into a kingdom moment, too. It’s a step along a path we’ve been marking out for three years, so you know the way to the place Jesus is leading you.
And as you step along this path over the next four months, you’ll be doing the same thing I’ll be doing, just in a different way and in a different context. You’ll also be bringing out of your treasure what is old and what is new. Mtr. Anne will continue to love you with all her heart, as only she can. And she’ll take on new work, overseeing our spiritual affairs and guiding the staff for this season. Fr. Marcus will continue to nurture our young people and families, and he’ll begin new gatherings down at The Well to draw people from the community into this beloved community – I especially wish I could be there for the new series called “Heaven and Ale.” Steve Rock and Mary Heausler will continue to lead our temporal affairs, along with next year’s incoming senior warden, Greg Bentz. They’ll raise up the next class of Vestry nominees, and set budget priorities, and lead you in the annual pledge campaign – processes we know how to do well. But they’ll also oversee new kingdom work in these next four months: Along with Sean and Sarah Murray, and Blake and Megan Hodges, and the clergy, they’ll lead the Vestry in naming the specific ministries to which we’re committing ourselves with the Gather & Grow Campaign, how God’s call to connect St. Andrew’s with our community takes flesh through our hands and hearts.
We will not spend these next four months resting on our laurels and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. Honestly, we have done a pretty good job over the past three years of building a culture of collaboration and respect and mutual ministry. Well, that work is precisely what allows us not to spend these four months holding still. I have known rectors who’ve spent their sabbaticals licking their wounds and praying for guidance about where to serve next. I won’t be doing that. I will rest – and I’ll be figuring out how to keep at this work without either getting divorced or driving myself into an early grave. But I won’t be holding still; Ann and I will be stepping from one kingdom moment to the next in this study project. And the same truth holds for you. You will not be holding still; you’ll be loving each other, and serving each other, and beginning St. Andrew’s next 100 years of ministry, with each other and the world beyond these walls. Four months from now, when I’m back up here on St. Andrew’s Sunday, things will not be the same as when I left. That’s OK. In fact, it’s good. In fact, it’s very good. In fact, that’s what it means to be disciples of a living Lord who calls us to bring the kingdom of heaven to life in everything we do. As we pray at each ordination liturgy, and as you’ll pray, God willing, when Bruce Bower is ordained this November: “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made…” (BCP 540).
We have nothing to fear. How could we? What “will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35). Fear of the unknown? Worry about the future? The anxiety of separation? No way. We have nothing to fear. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)