It Is No Accident We Are Here!

It Is No Accident We Are Here!

by The Rev. Phillip Dana Wilson


To the people of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chatham, I ask you, "Do you know what you have gotten yourself into by calling Elizabeth Kaeton as your new rector?" Forgive me if I answer my own question, "Of course not!"

In calling Elizabeth you did not call the safe candidate. You took the risk of entering into a relationship with a woman who is going to challenge you in ways both you and she cannot even imagine at this time. I know this is true because I know how she continually challenges herself. It is no accident that you have called Elizabeth as your pastor. In so doing you have opened yourself up to the work of the Holy Spirit. And, when you are in league with the Holy Spirit, you give up control of your future.

It is no accident that on Elizabeth's arrival, people who want to divide the world up into categories of "good enough" and "not good enough" should spread large tire piercing nails across your driveway. Why? The reason is simple: because you stand for something; because you have committed yourself to welcoming your Jewish sisters and brothers into your home. Be aware, every time you take a stand to pull down barriers that separate people, you will be noticed, and some people will rise up to oppose you. Isn't this the very essence of the Jesus story we tell Sunday after Sunday? It is no accident that an issue of justice should inaugurate Elizabeth's ministry with you. Maybe it is the Holy Spirit's way of giving you a hint into what this woman is about.

This sermon is directed more, to the people of St. Paul's than it is to Elizabeth. Today, we celebrate your new ministry as much as we do hers.

I would begin by asking the people of St. Paul's, "What is the authority on which you will build this new ministry?" If your authority is the Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, let me remind you that neither God nor Jesus is an Episcopalian. If your authority is historic Christianity, remember neither God nor Jesus is a Christian. Let me suggest that the authority that will give life and power to the new adventure you are about to undertake is found within the experience of God within your lives, both individually and corporately. What do I mean by your experience of God?

To name an experience of God look at the times you have been broken and in that broken place have claimed new life. This is nothing less than the stuff of death and resurrection. To name an experience of God look at the risks you have taken, the dreams you have dreamt, the tears you have cried and the pain of another you have felt so intensely that nothing would give you relief save joining that person to fight the cause of the pain. To name an experience of God think of the time you have been forgiven and the times you have forgiven another. Think of the times someone has pushed through your isolation and your messages of "keep away" to be with you, sit with you and just to listen. To name an experience of God think of the time you have claimed your place in the world and, in so doing, have found new courage to challenge ignorance, disrespect or raw evil that lives within your world. To name an experience of God think of the times that you have operated on a vision of what was possible within yourself, within a relationship, within your parish or within the community, and is so doing, have seen that vision become a reality. These are just some of the places where you will name God in your lives. The stories you tell of these experiences will be the source of your strength and commitment. You need to get in touch with these stories in your lives. Share them with each other. Let them touch you and the entire parish. This is the authority on which you and Elizabeth will begin your new ministry together.

And, what is that new ministry? It is nothing less than to bring the Kingdom of God into the middle of Chatham, New Jersey. I am absolutely serious when I say this. Being Christians you look through the life of Jesus of Nazareth in order to find clues for what you are to be about, for what you are to be doing. Jesus was a dreamer, a visionary, a creator of pictures of life as it was possible when people lived into their heritage as daughters and sons of God. He called his vision the Kingdom of God and then began to operate as if it were a reality. By his actions he gave us a preview of what the Kingdom would look like. He touched the untouchable. He welcomed the powerless into his inner circle. He interrupted the self-righteous. He challenged systems of oppression and continually called people into the fullness of whom God created them to be. That is your job in Chatham, just as it is the job of my community, the Church of the Redeemer, in Morristown.

So, you have some dreaming to do. With Elizabeth you have joined forces with one of the biggest dreamers I have ever met. So, what would the Kingdom of God look like not only within St. Paul's Church, but also within all of Chatham?

Who are the untouchables that you need to touch? Remember, we are much more subtle in defining our untouchables today. We all know how to be politically correct.

How is power distributed throughout this community, within this parish: economic power, social power, white power, male power, straight power? And, what are you doing with the power you possess?

Who are the powerless that you need to welcome into your inner circle?

What is the arrogance and self-righteousness within your parish and community that you need to interrupt? If you are anything like many Episcopalians I know, the issue is often one of how welcome in your parish is a person with bad taste and who does not know which fork to use? The cardinal Episcopal sin is CLASSISM!

What systems of oppression do you need to challenge? Blatant anti-Semitism has hit you in the face. How about the more subtle forms of racism and sexism? And, what about the 10% of gay and lesbian young people in Chatham; for that is the percentage of gay people in any given population. How safe is it for them to be themselves, to love themselves and eventually love another person, in Chatham, in St. Paul's? It is no accident that there is such a high rate of suicide among gay teenagers.

What is the fullness into which God is calling you, individually and as a parish? What might the Kingdom of God look like in this place? You have some dreaming to do. Part of Elizabeth's job, while she is with you as pastor, is to help you dream and then turn your dreams into a vision that will guide you, challenge you and hold you accountable.

The Gospel for today talks about pastors and offers us the picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I'm not so sure Jesus knew a thing about sheep, but what we have here is a picture of a relationship between him and his community. The Gospel offers some thoughts about Elizabeth and her relationship with you as pastor. It is not the job of the shepherd to make sure that all of the needs of the sheep are being taken care of. It is not the job of the shepherd to feed the sheep. Likewise it is not the job of the rector just to be the house chaplain. I can assure you that Elizabeth is one of the most sensitive and responsive people I know in a pastoral situation. I know the degree to which she takes this seriously. But, as much as it is her job to be pastor, it is also her job to create a community of pastors that will respond to the needs of the people here, visiting the sick, listening to each other, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.

The role of the shepherd is not to feed the sheep but to lead them into new pastures where there is fresh grass, richer food and new life. The job of the shepherd is to keep the sheep from getting too comfortable in a grazing area that no longer nourishes. The role of the Good Shepherd, the role of a pastor is to be a leader. And, you at St Paul's, I assure you, are on a journey with a leader. As I asked, when I began, "Do you know what you have gotten yourself into?" You never do when you open yourself to the Holy Spirit.

You have chosen a leader who is in touch with the experience of God in her life; hence she is in touch with her authority. It is no accident that the Hebrew Scripture speaks of Judith, a strong woman in a world of dominant men, a woman who acts on her authority and changes the course of history. You have chosen a leader who will build on the strengths of St. Paul's, on your widely known and valued commitment to environmental justice. She will show you the interconnectedness of this with every other issue of justice.

You have chosen a leader who is smart and tactically brilliant. Think big and start small; think globally and act locally. Look at how she led the community of Chatham to respond to blatant anti-Semitism: by planting a diversity garden. It is a diversity garden today and it will be a town wide diversity festival tomorrow.

You have chosen a leader who takes her Christianity seriously. She is respectful of its traditions, even as she is always looking for new ways to release the life within those traditions.

You have chosen a leader who loves to laugh and make other people laugh. Her laughter is contagious. She is an irreverent reverent.

You have chosen a leader who takes her family seriously: her partner, Barbara and their children. Elizabeth is aware of the need for self-care. She knows that when the shepherd is not getting fed, the shepherd starts to eat the sheep. Fortunately for you, lamb is not Elizabeth's favorite meal.

You have chosen a leader whose name is known throughout the nation, and even in other countries. Yet, Elizabeth will make her focus St. Paul's in Chatham, and will lead and love you well.

You have chosen a leader that will help you define your vision and help you tell the entire community what you are about, what you stand for and what you are willing to take the heat for. People will be attracted to that clarity and seek you out. But also be aware, that this clarity will force people here to make some choices. Some people will leave because they will choose not to make this new vision theirs. It is no accident we are here doing what we are doing today. It is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Do you know what you have gotten yourself into by calling Elizabeth Kaeton as your new rector? Of course not! You never do when you are in league with the Holy Spirit.

I, and the people of Redeemer in Morristown, salute you as a search committee, as a vestry and as a parish in your courage in calling Elizabeth to be your rector. She was not the safe candidate. Jesus never put the highest priority on safety.

You and your new rector have much to learn from each other. I tell you, a little of "Chatham" might be good thing for this Portuguese girl who grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. And, Chatham, with Elizabeth Kaeton, will not be the same.

It is no accident we are here! Thanks be to God. Amen


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