What a fabulous night! So happy we could all gather together despite the weather. There is so much to celebrate! I know that you are all thrilled to have Samantha as your new rector, and I know how thrilled she is to be here, rector of a vibrant church steeped in history, beauty and prayer.
Samantha is a dear friend, but I’m also a huge fan and admirer. What’s not to admire? Princeton; track record with young adults; lead delegate for General Convention and chair of the Commission on Ministry. And impeccable fashion sense. I never wear heels this skinny, but I did tonight for Samantha. (I also asked her if we could please process fast because knew I would wobble if we walked too deliberately and reverently.)
Over the past few months you’ve probably noticed that your new rector is innovative. For tonight’s service, she picked a different Old Testament reading than the usual Celebration of New Ministry fare: Nehemiah. I know some of you—including the clergy— are thinking, Ne-who? We hardly ever hear from Nehemiah in our Sunday cycle of readings.
The book of Nehemiah takes place shortly after the Babylonian Exile. Nehemiah was the cup bearer for King Artaxerxes, and his life was comfortable. Cup-bearer was a position of great honor. But, Nehemiah learned the exile survivors who had recently returned to Judah were in sad shape. The once imposing wall of Jerusalem that was burned by the Babylonians decades earlier was still rubble, and the city gates were simply cinders.
Nehemiah prayed, and received permission from the king to go rebuild those walls. Once he received permission, he went to Jerusalem and after he was there for three days, he inspected the walls by night. Then he went to the local officials with his report, which wasn’t very good. The place was a wreck. But come on, Nehemiah said, let’s rebuild. And they rolled up their sleeves and started their work.
And then, in the section we read tonight, a neighboring ruler saw the walls being rebuilt and mocked them. What are these feeble Jews doing?
Feeble Jews. Once proud, but now mocked. They’d returned from the exile full of hope, but could hardly recognize the land they came back to after more than a generation away. Many of them had grown up hearing about the lost land; what a disillusion it must have been, to return full of hope to heaps of rubble.
And then, after this leader left his cushy job to help them rebuild the wall, they were mocked. But in this reading, and in the book of Nehemiah, they persevered together, Nehemiah and the exile survivors. “So we rebuilt the wall…for the people had a mind to work.”
A mind to work.
Can you relate to that at all?
I know that St. John’s has literally rebuilt before. The church was burned along with all of downtown in 1861. And there have been other periods of perseverance, of rebuilding, in your rich history of fightin’ sin since 1610.
When Episcopal churches were disestablished during the Revolutionary War, for example, and many colonial churches ended up becoming Methodist or Baptist, this parish survived as an Episcopal church.
Samantha and I were at our Diocesan Annual Council last weekend, where the keynote speaker1spoke of another kind of disestablishment, one that is happening how and has been happening for decades. The Episcopal Church once thought of ourselves as the church in America—we’ve never been the biggest, but we’ve been around the longest, as you all certainly know, and we have the National Cathedral. Right? Many politicians and important people came from our Episcopal tribe. We dress well, we have nice manners, and we do things right.
But few seem impressed by us these days. Now our church is just one voice among many. Even here in the south, people no longer ask “So where do you go to church”—assuming that you go to church. Stores are open on Sunday mornings. Kids’ sports take place on Sunday mornings.
And with you all here at St. John’s, things have changed as well. Three years ago you had three clergy, and now, you have Samantha. She is fabulous—but she’s also only one person.
Things have changed at St. John’s, and things have changed for Episcopalians all over the country.
How does that make us feel? We don’t have the clout that we used to. Maybe it almost feels like we are in exile, or that like the people Nehemiah was coaching, maybe it feels like we are survivors.
I pray that we are beginning a new period, that you all are beginning a wonderful new era of ministry and rebuilding.
I went from being an assistant to being a rector three years ago, so I know a little something about what it’s like. At my Celebration of New Ministry, my friend Bob told my congregation, St. David’s, that I was going to be a lot like a coach.
I’ve reflected on that image of a coach in the past three years, and it occurred to be that when Samantha and I were assistants, we were more like mascots. When you’re the team mascot, everyone adores you, but no one takes you seriously. Samantha and I and a group of other assistants met regularly to compare notes. We’d laugh about things that people would say to us. For example, in the greeting line, for me, it was always about the length of my hair: either that they liked the new cut, or that they noticed that it was getting long. No one said much about the content of my sermons.
As the coach, they hardly ever mention my hair. Occasionally I worry that means that my hair has become slightly less fabulous, but mostly, I’m still a little overwhelmed by the demands of being the coach. Because they still talk about the sermon less than I would like. As the coach, what they talk about is how the outside light was NOT ON AGAIN when they came to choir practice. And they bring me so many things to sign; I’m always signing stuff. They demand to know when we will go back to the same fraction anthem that they sang for fourteen years straight before I came: Jesus’ own fraction anthem!
Now, I love being the coach. I don’t want to go back to being the mascot. But as Samantha already knows, as the rector, as the coach, the view of the ball game changes.
Samantha is the coach, but together, you’re the team. Your part isn’t over now that you have landed an amazing new rector. It is time to celebrate, but it ’s not time to kick back and relax and watch the game. Many members, one body. Now it’s time for you all to pitch in and rebuild.
The book of Nehemiah shows that there were a lot of challenges, and Samantha, you have your work cut out for you. I have helped coach a couple of big changes at St. David’s, and it’s been painful, and we’re only 47 years old. St. John’s is over 400, and remember that Hampton was the town that preferred to burn itself than fall to the Yankees and Mr. Lincoln (and happy birthday tonight to Mr. Lincoln tonight, by the way).
Samantha, I think you may have your hands full with these people.
And sensing the joy and excitement that are in this room tonight, I believe these are people who have a mind to work. Sanballat asked, “Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day?”
You all are restoring this beautiful building, and I know you will be not only restoring but growing this body of Christ. I believe you will go and bear fruit in the name of Jesus.
“Will they sacrifice?” One of the things I love best about Samantha is that she is not afraid of a theology of sacrifice. I trust you all will make sacrifices together that will continue to create a Christ-centered community.
“Will they finish it in a day?” No way. I love that one of the gifts Samantha will receive tonight from you all is a history of this church, so that she may “know the stories of the people who came before,” so you all can “embrace the future together.”
Rebuilding takes time. She has been learning from your history so that you all can embrace the future, hundreds more years of fightin’ sin. Tonight Samantha will kneel among us and make vows to serve, vows she has been longing to make. And you all have been longing for a new leader. Thanks be to God that tonight is the next step toward your future, toward rebuilding, that will not be finished in a day.