The past couple of days, Friday evening and most of the day on Saturday, the vestry and I were on our annual retreat. Our retreat leader was the Rev. Percy Grant, who is on the diocesan staff as the bishop’s canon for ministry. Percy’s been on the diocesan staff for about ten years in basically the same job, but she’s had three job titles.
Initially she was the “deployment officer.” Deployment is a word the church used to use to describe the process of placing clergy in congregations and our deployment officers assisted our bishops in that process. But we realized a few years ago that there was a lot more to the process that simply placing clergy. Congregations had to prepared to go through it. Parish had to be coached in how to end one relationship and prepare for and begin another; pastoral care, liturgy, and parish administration are on-going and have to be overseen after one priest leaves but before another comes. And after the new priest is in position, both she or he and the congregation need support and assistance. The entire process came to be seen as a time of transition, and so our deployment officers became “transitions officers.”
What we found, though, was that during that time of transition, many ministries done in and through a parish could be (and should be) done by gifted lay people identified, trained, and licensed by the bishop. Lay persons can, of course, be worship leaders, preachers, and administrators of Communion, as well as lay pastors and parish administrators. All of these ministries have come under the purview of the transitions officers and so in this diocese the job title has changed once again. Percy is now the “canon for ministry” and takes charge of many ministries, lay and ordained, in our diocese.
I tell you all of that to illustrate that Percy’s expertise is in the area of handling change, instigating it or reacting to it when it is instigated by another, managing it, not merely surviving it but thriving in and through change. Because the truth is that change is a constant and we know there are many changes through which this parish will be going in the not-too-distant future. The constancy of change and the way not to handle it is demonstrated often in Scripture, today’s lessons being cases in point.
The lesson from the Book of Genesis this morning is part of the story of Abraham and, once again, I am puzzled by the way lectionary editors have chosen the verses to include in a Sunday reading. Our lesson is a familiar one. It’s God and Abram talking about the promise made to Abram that he and Sarai, who are respectively 99 and 90 years of age, would have children and descendants; their names are even changed in light of that promise. Our lesson ends with God saying, “I will bless [Sarah], and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” But there’s a punchline; the very next verse tells us Abraham’s response to God’s statement: “Abraham fell on his face and laughed.”
Have you ever had someone tell you something so outrageous you just couldn’t believe it that you responded, “Shut! Up!”
That’s Abraham’s reply to God that our lesson leaves out: “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” You can hear the laughter; you can hear Abraham saying, “Shut! Up!”
This conversation takes place after Abram and Sarai have left Ur of the Chaldees and Haran, the places where they were settled, where Abram and Sarai and their extended family were apparently fairly well off merchants. When they are on their way through what Percy Grant in our vestry retreat might have called the “Neutral Zone.” Percy didn’t use the Abraham story, however; the bible story that framed our discussions was the story of the Exodus.
Percy had a piece of newsprint – we used several pieces of newsprint; it’s a vestry retreat rule that you have to use a lot of newsprint! Anyway – Percy had this big sheet of newsprint and in this lower corner down here she wrote the words, “The Ending,” and there was a squiggly line separating those words from the rest of the sheet. Then in the upper corner opposite she wrote the words, “The New Beginning,” and separated them from the rest of the sheet with another squiggly line. In between the two squiggly lines lay most of the newsprint sheet; on that, she wrote the words, “The Neutral Zone.”
The biblical text which framed our discussions of change, and which this newsprint page represented, was not the story of Abram and Sarai leaving Ur of the Chaldees and the city of Haran and striking out for the Promised Land. Instead, Percy chose for us to consider the Exodus story at vestry retreat, particularly the story of the crossing of the Red Sea.
You remember that . . . how Moses struck the sea with his staff and God parted the waters so that there was a wall of water to the right and another to the left, and the escaping Hebrews crossed (says the Scripture) on dry land. But, when the Egyptians (Pharaoh had changed his mind about letting them go and sent the army after them) tried to follow, their chariot wheels were clogged with mud; weighed down by this and by their armor, the Egyptians were drowned when the waters of the sea returned. The Hebrews, says the Book of Exodus, saw the Egyptians dead on the shore. It was an “Ending”. And what did they do?
They threw a party. Moses sang. Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, danced and sang; the other women played tambourines and drums, and also danced. They were celebrating arriving at a “New Beginning”. But that new beginning became another ending as they struck out from there and continued the journey; they were back in the “Neutral Zone.” And no sooner were they there than what happened? They started complaining. In practically the very next verse they arrived, hot and thirsty, at a place called “Marah” where there was a well, but the water was bad; it was bitter. So God showed Moses how to make it sweet and potable so that the Hebrews could drink it and be refreshed. Another new beginning . . . which became an ending as soon as they set out again and . . . guess what? . . . back in the “Neutral Zone” they soon started complaining. They were hungry; they remembered the fleshpots of Egypt (“fleshpots” are just stew kettles; growing up in Nevada, I always thought that verse was about something else . . . but it’s just about stew kettles) where they had meat and onions and garlics.
Our story from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning is the same. It was the same for Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah. Their way was no easy straight shot down from Mesapotamia to the Holy Land; they followed a meandering course, getting into battles, meeting priests and kings and having troubles. The “Neutral Zone” was as fraught with uncertainties for them as it would be for the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt. And I’ll bet there were plenty of times in the Sinai during those forty years that the Hebrews spent there – spent there not because they were lost but because they annoyed God so much that God decreed that it would only be next generation that could enter the Promised Land – I’ll bet there were plenty of times when those “Shut! Up!” sorts of conversations took place. There must have been because again and again “the whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” And again and again “Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people?” On both sides, people were saying to one another “Shut! Up!”
And it was the same for Peter with Jesus in our lesson from the Gospel from Mark’s Gospel. Remember where and when we are in this story. This happens after Peter and James and John witnessed Jesus’ conversation with Elijah and Moses on the Mount of the Transfiguration, when Jesus’ face shone and his clothing was made whiter than any bleach could make it. This happens after they have come down from that experience, after they found the man with the epileptic son at the foot of the mountain, after Jesus had healed that boy. Now they are on the road to Jerusalem and Jesus is trying to make them understand what is about to happen, that he will be arrested and tried and executed. And Peter doesn’t want to hear it!
Peter is just like Abram; he refuses to believe what he is being told. And just like Abram, his response is “Shut! Up!” He doesn’t say it in laughter as Abram did, but in reprimand. He “rebukes” Jesus is what our English translation says, but the Greek verb is an emphatic one – epitimao – and it literally means to tell someone to shut up! It is used in the New Testament, in the Gospels only here and in one other context, when Jesus tells demons not to speak, not to tell people who he is, when he says to them “Shut! Up!”
And Jesus turns around and gives it right back to Peter; the verb is the same – epitimao – “Shut! Up!”
Poor Peter; he just wanted things to stay the same! He’d tried to hold things back at the Mount of the Transfiguration. You remember, he’d wanted to build “booths”, residences, for Jesus and Elijah and Moses, to concretize the experience to make it permanent and unchangeable. Jesus wouldn’t allow it. Now he wants to hold Jesus back from going to Jerusalem, and Jesus won’t allow it. Jesus tells him that his trying to do so is satanic! “Get behind me, Satan!” Epitimao! “Shut! Up!”
Abram may have laughed at the notion, but he couldn’t avoid or stop the change of becoming a father. The escaping Hebrews may have found the “Neutral Zone” of the desert uncomfortable, but they couldn’t avoid or stop the change of moving from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Peter may have wanted to stay on the mountain, or at least to not go to Jerusalem, but he couldn’t avoid or stop the changes that were coming.
And there are many changes ahead for St. Paul’s Parish. That is why I asked Percy to lead our vestry retreat and give us some tools through which to not merely live through change, but to instigate it in a healthy way, to manage it properly (whether instigated by us or thrust upon us from outside), to not just survive it but to thrive in it.
We explored changes we know are coming.
Your rector’s retirement: it’s not coming soon. I am not announcing my retirement today, but I know and you know that it’s on the horizon. I’ve been here for 15 years – or will have been come June 1 this year – that’s a lot longer than the average pastorate in the Episcopal Church these days. I’ll be 66 in September; I’m already on Medicare! My Church Retirement Fund pension is fully vested; I can get full Social Security by the end of this year. I live with a woman who is a grandmother whose grandchildren are 900 miles away, and I feel the same way about that that she does. Skype and Facetime are great, but they’re not the same as being with your grandkids. All you folk who have local grandchildren . . . every time you tell us about something you’ve done with them . . . that’s just a poke and prod pushing us closer to that horizon. And whether or not I want to retire, it’s only six years until the Church’s canon law is going to tell me I have to retire.
Building improvements and repairs: Mandatory retirement is not the only change that will be forced upon us. We’re sitting in a building with a 140-year-old slate roof; Ray S____ has been worried about that replacement and all that will go along with it for ten years. He’s been telling us to get ready for all the things we need to do – identify contractors, solicit their bids, select the replacement slate, find the money – there will be many decisions to make in that “Neutral Zone”! And then there’s boiler replacement! Our boilers are almost 50 years old and they are wearing out. The repair technician told me just this week that the manufacturer is no longer making replacement parts; when existing inventories are gone . . . that’s it. And that’s coming soon!
Removing the Pews: We talked about everything that will need to be done to take out the old pews and put in more comfortable and more flexible seating, like chairs . . . Don’t get upset! It was just a hypothetical! (I can hear you all saying “Shut! Up!” . . . .)
When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Fantasia, that Disney film in which pieces of classical music are illustrated with animations. Looking back, I love the way in animating Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain the film makers portrayed the devil as a mountain; it seems really good theology to have done so in light of Jesus’ condemnation of Peter’s attempt to hold back change as satanic. The devil hates change; the devil (like the mountain in the film) is stuck in one place, in one time, and wants us to be stuck there, too.
Saturday evening when I got home from our vestry retreat, my wife had one of the cable news networks playing on the television. Some pundit was holding forth about the witness of the teenagers from Stoneman Douglas High School and the effort they are spearheading for common sense gun regulation. He used a phrase that I first heard during the discussions of same-sex marriage; he asked if the kids were “on the right side of history.” It occurred to me that none of us are on any side of history; there are no sides to history. History just is.
On Percy’s sheet of newsprint, history is down here in the corner labeled “Ending.” History is done; it’s over with. We can view in different ways, but it can’t be changed. We can’t be on one side or the other of history. Where we can be, where we always are is at the juncture of history. We are standing at the intersection where decisions are made. There is no “right side”: we are all in the Neutral Zone at the juncture of history. We always are because every “New Beginning” quickly becomes an “Ending” and, once again, we are off across the “Neutral Zone” on our way to a Promised Land.
Down here in this corner labeled “Ending”, where history never changes, that’s where the devil wants us to be; it’s where Satan wants us to try to go back to, even though we can’t. It’s where the fleshpots are; it’s where the roof never needs repairing; it’s where the rector never ages and never retires; it’s where the pews stay forever; it’s where Sarai never gets pregnant with all that that entails.
We can do many things in the “Neutral Zone”, but the one thing we can’t do is return to the past, go back to the “Ending”. If anyone tries to turn us back, we must say to them as Jesus said to Peter, as Moses probably said to the complaining Hebrews, and as I think God probably answered Abram: “Shut! Up! We are on our way to the Promised Land.”
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector. This sermon was preached extemporaneously and later reproduced for publication here.
(The lessons for the service are Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; and St. Mark 8:31-38. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
 Genesis 17:1-7,15-16 (Return to text)
 Genesis 17:16 (Return to text)
 Genesis 17:17 (Return to text)
 Genesis 17:18 (Return to text)
 Exodus 14:19-15:21 (Return to text)
 Exodus 15:22-27 (Return to text)
 Exodus 16:3 (Return to text)
 Exodus 16:2 (Return to text)
 Exodus 17:4 (Return to text)
 Mark 8:31-38 (Return to text)