1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
My original thought was to retire at the end of this calendar year, or in November when I reach the mandatory retirement age in the Episcopal Church. It was my wife Anne who suggested that the Day of Pentecost, next Sunday, would be a better time. It’s the end of the church school year, she pointed out, and it would be smoother to have the interim before the next priest comes take place over the summer, when things are relatively quiet.
What neither of us thought of was how deeply the readings and liturgies of these weeks would speak to transition – transition in your lives and in ours. Liturgically, Jesus has “gone away,” ascended into heaven. We are waiting for what comes next: the “sending of the Holy Spirit.” It is not that I have been Jesus, or Anne and I – or you have been Jesus to us (though of course in a sense we are all Christ to each other, aren’t we?). Jesus remains Jesus. It is rather that departures, loss, transitions, interims are powerful times, full of God as well as of the devil. We are entering into such a time, and these weeks of the Church Year have much to say to us about such times. So, this morning, let us listen.
In the gospel passage, Jesus is speaking to his little group of followers on the night we call Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper, the night he was handed over to be put to death. He is praying out loud, as it were, so that they – and we – might listen in. What Jesus prays for is that those he leaves behind might be kept together; kept safe in the words he has spoken to them over the years they’ve been together; kept safe in the “name” of the Father – “name” meaning identity, intimate relationship or unity. “Protect them in your name that you have given me,” Jesus prays, “so that they may be one, as we are one.” This is his prayer, and it is surely his prayer at this time for you, for Holy Cross, and in another way for Anne and me.
Transition times, loss times, are dangerous times. I spent a few days on retreat last week, down at the retreat house of the Society of St. John the Evangelist on the banks of the Merrimack River outside Newburyport. One afternoon I had an hour of conversation with Brother Curtis Almquist, who retired as Superior of the order a year ago. After his retirement Brother Curtis went off on a nine month sabbatical, a time of renewal for him and a time for the community to engage with their new Superior. Curtis told me that he had all these wonderful plans for the books he would read and the new types of prayer he would try. But then every morning for weeks he would simply wake up and sit on the edge of his bed and cry.
And what brought him round, settled him down at last so he could move forward? Simply praying the Daily Office, going to Mass, observing the routines of a monk’s life, knowing that back home his community would be doing the same. “Oh, now you and Anne won’t have to go to church every Sunday,” someone said to me. No, no! Going to church every Sunday, continuing my routine of daily prayer, will be especially essential as we go through the transitions ahead for us.
The first reading, from Acts, is especially helpful here. The disciples are told by the “two men in white robes” – presumably angels – that they are not to stand around gazing up into the sky where Jesus has disappeared. They are not to remain fixed on their loss, on wondering when Jesus and finally do all the things they’d expected him to do. No, they’re to go back to Jerusalem, to the upstairs room where they’d been staying. They’re to remain together – and Acts carefully lists all of them by name – and they’re to wait and pray.
Just so for all of you: the coming months will not be ones for staying away from church because I’m not here or because church feels different or strange or because you don’t know who God is going to send to take my place. No, it will be especially important for you to come together week by week, pray together, support and encourage one another, wait together in hopeful expectation for what the Holy Spirit will bring.
It is not that the transition will all be easy – though in Arthur Walmsley and Darrell Huddleston you have two wonderful people whom you can trust and rely on. It is not that everything is guaranteed to be great with your new vicar either, when he or she comes. (Indeed, you can be sure that it won’t be.) For Anne and me, it’s not that we’re going to find a congregation as comfortable for us as this one has been. (We won’t.)
Here it is the second reading, from First Peter, that is helpful. It speaks about suffering, which is a stronger word than we might choose for church transitions, but an important word nonetheless. It reminds us that times of suffering are also, for us Christians, times full of spiritual growth, of toughening and maturing. In anxiety we are to cast all our worries on God, resisting the evil one who would prey on our fear. We are to remember all the others around the world who are suffering, and also that our sufferings are a sharing in the suffering of Christ. We are to wait upon the “God of all grace” to deliver us.
So you see what wonderful readings thee are! I’m going to take them home and stick them in the Prayer Book I use for my Daily Office, so they’ll be there for me in the coming months to remind me of how to meet the challenges of transition. I suggest you do the same; come back to them from time to time, pray with them, let them pray with you.
All this is so different from the way the world handles loss and transition: heightening our fears, encouraging us to withdraw, scattering us and urging us to go it on our own. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? We are not of this world. We belong to a better kingdom. We are one with God in Jesus, through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And, always, we are one with each other, heirs of eternal life.