The Measure of Our Ministry
As we come together in worship today, this is the first time I’m speaking to you from the pulpit since I announced that I am leaving St. Francis In-The-Fields and my associate position here.
And I think we should talk about it.
It’s not so much about me and the fact that I’m leaving—I’m only one of a long line of priests who have served this congregation, and you will have many more capable priests serving you in the future.
No, what matters is that we take time to acknowledge that we’re experiencing a season of change in our common life.
We need to mark and signify the reality of what we have meant to each other as associate and congregation, and seek wisdom from our scriptures to help us make sense of what our common call to ministry has been in these last three years.
What have we done together with the time that God has given us as partners in ministry?
How have we enriched one another’s spiritual growth?
And how do we give thanks for our time together, grieve our parting, and take the influence we’ve had on each other into a new season of ministry with new people?
If I had to pinpoint what I feel has been the heart of my call in this congregation, it would be Christian Formation.
In every area of leadership that this community has afforded me, God has opened doors for us to together be ever more deeply formed in the pillars of our faith: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
In everything from Adult Forum to liturgy to Vestry to CFLC, from Bible Study to parish retreat to Senior VBS and women’s retreat, the Holy Spirit has constantly encouraged and empowered us to be partners in spiritual growth in this community.
While we all know this, I feel it’s important to say it specifically: it hasn’t been me doing the Christian Formation. It’s been God doing the work in and as and through us as the gathered Body of Christ.
I have been formed by this work with you every bit as much as any of you have.
And the richness of our common call to go deeper in faith makes our parting all the harder, at least for me.
I really can’t over-exaggerate what this congregation has meant to me, and how overwhelmingly generous you have been in opening your minds and hearts to my wild and crazy ideas for fun programs and new teaching.
There are two things I love the most about this parish. Number one, you are spiritually hungry. And number two, you are game to try just about anything once.
Every time I’ve said to one of you, or, a member of our staff, Father Davies, Meghan, or Robert (and believe me, they have to hear this much more often than you do), “You know what would be super fun?”
Everyone says, “What?” And they mean it sincerely.
You, the clergy, staff, and people of St. Francis, don’t just humor me. You have willingly come along with me on these journeys into exploring the mysteries of God and discipleship.
More than that—you’ve supported and empowered me in this work, even to the point that the evangelism curriculum that started right here at St. Francis has been taught all over our diocese and even been presented to the leaders of our national church.
That’s because of you.
That’s because when I said, “You know, I have this crazy idea for a new program, I think it would be super fun,” you have all said, “Let’s do it.”
That is a gift of immeasurable worth, and I want you to know that you have my promise to make sure that in all the churches I serve going forward, I am faithful to that spirit of experimentation that you have lived so generously.
But the hardest part about ministry goodbyes is wondering if the work we did together matters.
We don’t have a monument on a lawn or a book on a shelf or even a viral video on YouTube to say that these three years of ministry happened.
Do they matter? Does it all just go away when we’re no longer serving together in the same parish?
Well, Paul is anything but encouraging to us at first glance in our lesson from 1 Corinthians. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”
I don’t want our ministry to die. That makes me really sad.
But I know that Paul is right. Death is the only path to resurrection.
He goes on to say, “And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed.”
Does it matter that God brought us together for three years?
The truth is that the commitment we all took on when we chose to become ministers—and remember, every single person in this room is a minister, lay or ordained, by virtue of your baptism—was to by and large, never see the harvest of our work.
We said yes to planting seed after seed after seed, but leaving it to others to gather the bounty.
We have gathered the harvest of the people who planted seeds in this community long years before we arrived.
And the seeds we’ve planted in Boone County, in Zionsville, in one another, and most of all in our children and young people, will come to fruition some time in the future.
If we can be brave enough to say yes to the painful process of planting seeds and knowing they have to die, one day the beautiful harvest will strengthen the next generation of planters and nurturers of God’s love in this place.
And the amazing thing about this ministry partnership is that it’s not just between us human ministers. God is our partner in this as well.
And that’s a very good thing, because if were up to us, we wouldn’t get very far. We have been blessed by three joyful years together, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t made mistakes.
For the times I have hurt you, I ask your forgiveness.
For any heresy I may have taught, I ask God’s forgiveness.
Paul describes for us the work of God’s grace in our ministry, how God takes the seeds that we sow in ignorance and brings them to fullness of life.
“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
What we poor, flawed human beings built together here is redeemed and animated by the power of God, so that the fruit of resurrection lives in us.
And no distance can ever take that away from us. Whether I’m in St. Louis or on Mars, we can know that God showed us resurrection and life because God gave us the courage to love one another.
If we really want to know whether our common ministry has borne fruit, we look to Jesus, for he tells us exactly what the life of a faithful disciple looks like.
He says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”
Well, call me a sinner, but I do love you, very much.
But I take the point Jesus is making. It’s not our love for one another in this room that marks the depth of our ministry here.
It is our love for the outsider, the people who don’t look, act, and think like us, that determines the worth of our work.
We will know we have made the most of the time God has given us together if we see the fruits of generosity and courage and love blooming in our lives.
“I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
It’s that simple, and that hard.
I know I am such a long way from living up to that lofty vision.
But I also know that I am beloved in every faltering effort to say yes to it, just as you are.
In fact, we have already said yes to God’s high calling to us by loving one another and growing in discipleship together over these last three years.
“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back,” Jesus says.
You, the people of St. Francis In-The-Fields, have been my good measure in my time here, and truly my cup has run over with joy and gratitude because of the chance to live with you beautiful spirits.
A.A. Milne has a quote, words he put in the mouth of Winnie the Pooh, that speak my feelings so truly: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
It’s very traditional for outgoing clergy to give advice to the congregation they’re leaving. Do this, don’t do that, etc.
I don’t really feel up to that, nor do I feel like I’m the conduit for wisdom in this room.
We as a Body, gathered in faith and hope, are the means for God’s holy and life-giving work in the world.
The only advice I would ever give is in the words of our psalm today, because I believe them profoundly: “Take delight in the Lord, and he shall give you your heart’s desire.”
That has certainly been true for me at St. Francis, and I pray it is always true for you.
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