About a year ago, I asked John Bush if he would be the senior warden. He first said he was honored by my asking but surely there must be someone else. I said that I really wanted him. He then sounded like a prophet of old and said he was too young for this job. I assured him there was nothing to it. He then said "let me pray about it and I will get back to you." He agreed and with that our year began. I say all this as an introduction, because it demonstrates not only the humility with which John took on this position but it also speaks to his faith that is grounded in prayer. As you know when God calls you to do a job, you may not be ready but God will make you ready. So it is with John Bush and I would ask that you join me in thanking him for a job well done.
Thinking back a year ago it seems like now a million years! There is a part of me that would like to return to those days, but the past is now a memory. You have heard me say before and I will say it again that as strong as memories are, hope is even stronger. We are a people of hope and a people of the empty tomb and it is in this Spirit, the Holy Spirit, that I find it my real privilege to address you today.
It may sound strange to some of you when I say this but I want to thank you for these past six months. I mean that, othank you. You have put me to the test. It has not exactly been a cake-walk. Rather it has shown me clearly what it means to walk as a disciple. I have been told that I am changing the direction of the church. In all honesty, I think an argument could be made that the Minneapolis Convention has attempted to change the direction of the church.
So: Where am I leading the church? First of all, I would say I am not leading. I am being led by the Holy Spirit and I am following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I am not changing the direction of the church rather I hope you hear me claiming a 2000 year tradition of a living faith. Now others have said to me, "give me one good reason to stay in this church." Well, how about "Jesus" for starters? If you follow Him you will discover that He is after all, the way and the truth and the life. Everything therefore, that we do at this church and say and think and pray is done through him. Without Jesus, I agree, there is no reason to stay.
I know of a monk who said, "there is nothing worse than a wasted crisis." Well one thing for certain, we haven't wasted this crisis! Granted each person probably has a different take on this crisis.
But what these past six months have done for me is that it has become very, very clear, "crystal clear"that if one does not submit to the authority of Scripture, if one does not submit to the authority of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, if one does not submit to the faith once entrusted for all the saints then we are nothing more than a collection of little egos running wild. It is not a community of faith. The church becomes a test of wills. We are nothing more than a collection of individuals. St. Paul is clear about this when he writes: "we must not be like children who are tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine." (Eph. 4: 14) We are a faith community and we are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Now, you might ask: What does a disciple look like? Don't ask me. Ask Jesus and He will tell you if you want to follow Him and be a disciple then pick up your Cross.
When I spoke to many of you back in September about my thoughts on the Minneapolis Convention, I agreed to do so at the Vestry's request. Believe me, it was not my idea. I didn't know what I was going to say. All I knew was that I found myself no longer in moral agreement with the Episcopal Church. I also knew, and I told the Wardens this, that the only reason why I would speak is because I would rather have parishioners get mad at me than mad with each other. While that sounds noble, in retrospect, what I think was going on in my heart and soul is that I was receiving an invitation from the Holy Spirit to pick up my Cross.
I say this in all humility. I vaguely understood it then, but now I know for certain that I was submitting, surrendering, letting go of everything and once again turning my entire life over to Jesus Christ. When I say letting go of everything I mean everything. Family, friends, way of life, a career that I had once been so proud of, a church that I have worked so hard in, everything was being given up and turned over to my Lord. I can't begin to describe how empty one feels. This act of surrender or submission strips you of your identity and in the end when you are breathing your last gasp, this act of submission, takes your final breath away. I'm not being melodramatic.
In return of your last breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit comes in and breathes for you. And this Spirit helps you stand-up and carry the Cross that you are now bearing. Now the Cross hurts, don't get me wrong. It is heavy at times. In fact, it will kill you. But I have found that it also frees you. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is truly liberating. I have also discovered that not only does the Spirit give us the breath to breathe, but it provides us with the vision with which to see. It is not like we are in the dark. It is just the opposite. There is a brightness with each new day and with each new step that we now take as a disciple. Joy is discovered not because of anything great we have done. In fact, by the worldâ?Ts standards we appear like a fool for Christ sake. But again it is not about oneself. It is all about Jesus Christ. It is exciting! There is a peace of God that passes all understanding. You know, we say that every Sunday: "the peace of God that passes all understanding." Have you ever wondered why Paul says that it is a peace that passes understanding? It is because the kind of peace Paul is referring to is not a matter of reason but it is a deep peace of the soul that is given to us through the gift of faith. As...[Pascal] says: "Faith has reasons that reason will never understand."
With all that said, I know I have made some people angry. Some are still angry with me. Again, Jesus told his disciples "people will revile you and utter all kinds of falsehood on my account." That is the Gospel truth! Some of you have known me for 25 years and yet it is the strangest thing. One night in August I went to bed as Robin Jennings, Episcopal priest, nice guy and the next morning I woke-up as Jerry Falwell, right-wing, Baptist fundamentalist! Seriously, I am not trying to make anyone miserable. I have been told that by taking the stand I have taken, I have put myself and I have put St. Francis in the Fields in a no-win situation. You all, nothing could be further from the truth. What I have learned in carrying the Cross is that once again it is not about me, but it is all about Jesus Christ who is victorious. This is His church.
Speaking of Church, some have said, did you hear Robin Jennings was in Plano last week? Plano, Texas is where they signed the formal agreement for the new network within the Episcopal Church. I was in Plano because first of all I was invited along with Rectors of other large Episcopal Churches. Three hundred of us gathered. A parishioner underwrote my costs. The title of the conference was Leading the Church Through Difficult Times. It was sponsored by Vital Church Ministries. Yes, we met with Bishop Bob Duncan, who is the moderator of this new network. But you should know I was there to listen and learn and gather information and talk with other rectors about their churches and their dioceses. I wanted to see what these people looked like. There was nothing secretive about what I did. I did go under the confidentiality of the wardens. I spoke under confidentiality to the Vestry. Obviously that confidentiality was broken. Why be confidential in the first place? Because frankly there is a great deal of emotion that has gotten stirred-up in this parish and in the diocese. As a leader I am trying to get beyond emotion and get to the facts so that you can be better served. There are all kinds of negotiations going on at all kinds of levels. I returned from Plano better informed. And I am still carrying the Cross, being led by the Holy Spirit, who reveals to us that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.
We can see this life, when we follow the Holy Spirit inspiring our Church School with an expanded vision for our children and a new curriculum called "Confident Kids" on Wednesday Nights, and then there are Alpha Kids on Monday Nights. Watch as the Holy Spirit touches down on our Monday Night Faith and Fellowship offerings and even class called Financial Peace where a group of about 25 people are learning to get a hold of their finances. What does that have to do with the Spirit? Parishioners are learning how to be better stewards of their finances so they invest in the work and building up of God's Kingdom. We follow the Holy Spirit as it builds a home lifts Gail Esterly and her family through Habitat for Humanity and continues downtown to Portland where through our Outreach we have just launched a special program for the Jefferson County School System called, "One Book, One Community." Be present with this Spirit as we go about the task of offering healing through special classes during February and a workshop on healing at the end of this month. We will celebrate the Holy Spirit at work as it gently touches a new initiative called marriage mentors where we will soon train parishioners to strengthen new couples in the sacrament of marriage. Last weekend, I looked in on a new development in pastoral care where parishioners are being trained to help with the gift of visitation, by being Lay Eucharistic Ministers and they are fired-up in this Spirit. There are so many opportunities available in this church but also out there in the world. We have subdivisions all around us with people who are only reading about the news of the Episcopal Church in the paper but they are not hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Now before Neal Cory and Tom Dieruf are introduced may I remind you to keep the main thing the main thing. The church is not merely about bricks and mortar and maintenance. It is primarily about building a community of faith. It is a faith that is built on the rock and foundation of Jesus Christ who is the way and the truth and the life. Recently, a parishioner said to me that we need to be reconciled. I said do you know what that word means? She said, "yes, I looked it up in the dictionary and this is what it means." What I said to her and what I humbly suggest to each and every one of you who use this word of "reconciliation" to go home and look it up not in the dictionary but in the bible. Get a good concordance and see how it is used. And here is why. If we only use the dictionary definition of reconciliation then there will be times that we will have irreconcilable differences. Have you ever heard that term before? If, however, we use the biblical definition then we will discover that Jesus Christ reconciles all things to himself. Nothing is irreconcilable in Christ. Nothing. We have devoted the month of February to talk about healing, and we have devoted the month of March to reflect further with J.D. Brown on the power found in this word of reconciliation. March seems like a good time. It has nothing to do with March madness. It has everything to do with Lent.
I opened my remarks by saying that if one picks-up his or her Cross and follows Jesus such a person will be giving up everything. I was acutely aware of this reality one particularly dark night this fall. This had nothing to do with the church. This did have everything, however, to do with God. As many of you know my second son, Rob was flying helicopters for the Marines over in Iraq this summer and fall. There wasn't a night that Mary and I weren't glued to the news. One afternoon however, Mary called me to say that a transport helicopter had gone down. We knew Robby was in the area. I went home immediately and we started flipping channels until well after midnight when we finally learned the details of the type helicopter. It was an army helicopter. We both immediately started crying out of a huge relief that our boy was safe and yet we cried with a deep sorrow knowing that some other parents were now finding out that their child had paid the ultimate sacrifice. I tell you this story because I also cried knowing that I was profoundly aware at that very moment that the years with my kids were gone. Riding bikes, shooting baskets-"as silly as all that sounds-those years are over and that past is irretrievable. It is now what good memories are made of.
But as I said to you when I opened my remarks I stand here in hope. Because what I surrendered and gave to God, I have found that God is now giving back to me in abundance. Not just my four boys but He has given me back four young men of whom I am very proud. He has given me a wife who not only do I dearly love but she is my soul-mate more so now because of all that she has gone through of which believe me you will never ever know. I have been given new friends for the journey. In place of a professional career, I have been given again a deep, rich calling, and a faith community that stands now in expectation and awaits the dawning of a new day. I am here to tell you that being a disciple of Jesus Christ will flat-out take your breath away, until you recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who is now breathing for you. I am also here to say that as disciples, the mission of this church is to follow Jesus Christ who is the way, and the truth, and the life. It is a way, that I'll grant you, some just won't believe. But it is true. And it makes for a great life, a life that we indeed call blessed. And for this blessed life I again thank you.
-The Rev. Robert T. Jennings is rector, Saint Francis in the Fields,
Louisville, Kentucky; this is the address he gave to the parish annual
meeting, February 1, 2004.
St. Francis in the Fields, Louisville, KY
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