Executive Council: Gay Jennings’ sermon at closing Eucharist

[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs]  The Rev. Gay Jennings,  Episcopal Church Executive Council member from the Diocese of Ohio whose term is ending,  preached during council’s closing Eucharist in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 20.

Jennings’ sermon follows in full.

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Episcopal Church Executive Council
Closing Eucharist
April 20, 2012

The Rev. Gay Jennings
Diocese of Ohio
Member, Executive Council
In the Name of God.  Amen.
I’ll open with a poem that I have grown to love.

The Swan by Rainer Maria Rilke
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

The Church longs to be transfigured – changed into the likeness of Jesus – from glory to glory. I believe this is really what the conversations regarding structure are about. As Winnie Varghese has said, mission is the restoration of creation through covenant relationships. And structure, therefore, is the servant of mission. The servant of the restoration of creation.

Matthew’s Gospel for the Feast of the Transfiguration tells the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop with Peter, James and John.

The transfiguration happens immediately after the confession of Peter at Caesarea Phillippi. Jesus had asked the disciples to describe how they understood him having traveled together some time. Peter is always Peter. Peter blurted out “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then tells his disciples and friends that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem and Peter quickly objects.

Peter is rebuked by Jesus and then gives the disciples a clear choice. They can follow him if they accept that danger that lies ahead. If, however, they put their personal safety first, they must leave.

Six days later, Jesus then takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where they see Jesus transfigured and are given a glimpse of the glory of the Christ soon to be revealed. They were given a glimpse of the future – they were given hope in the place of fear, and doubt, and confusion.

You and I have seen people both transfigured and transformed throughout the Church during this triennium as we have served on Executive Council together. Our actions as a governing body impact the hearts, souls, bodies and minds of the people known and unknown, many of whom are in need of transformation of one sort or another. Yet, the longer I serve this Church we love so much, the more worried I become about the exhaustion I see in some of the servants. You are tired after serving Executive Council for three years, or six years, or longer as staff or officers. Maybe there are people in your congregations, your dioceses and your provinces who are weary and wish for transfiguration.

The poet David Whyte writes of his personal fall into exhaustion. He went to a spiritual friend and the following exchange took place.

“Brother David? Tell me about exhaustion.”

He looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the entirety of the situation and without missing a beat, as if he had been waiting all along, to say a life-changing thing to me.

He said, in the form of both a question and an assertion: “You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”

“What is it, then?”

“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers. You know what that is; I don’t have to tell you.

You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown.”  (Excerpted from Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte, Riverhead Books, New York, 2001)

I don’t know about you, but drowning – now there is something to be afraid of. We are afraid of death – both physical death and those little deaths that are part of transformation. Death, we all know from hard experience, means loss and change, and in the case of personal or corporate transfiguration and transformation, it likely means letting go of something, while embracing a wholehearted approach in our leadership.  As the familiar hymn says, “New occasions teach new duties.”

Long ago, I heard a great story about people in Africa who hunt monkeys in order to sell them to zoos around the world. Those who know me well know I detest zoos, but I digress. The hunters use an ingenious method to trap the monkeys. They hollow out a gourd, and they make a small opening on the top of the gourd. At the bottom of the gourd, they put peanuts in the gourd. The hunters hide and the monkeys come to investigate. The monkeys put their hands in the gourd, grab the peanuts and then they cannot get their hands out. The monkeys don’t let go of the peanuts and they scream and yell and the hunters come and pick them up, put them in cages, and ship them to the zoos. I just want to shout at the monkeys and say let go of the peanuts!  Let go of the peanuts and you can live free and swing in the trees, and have babies and eat bananas and have a great monkey life. Let go and be free!

As a servant in the Church, as a person who works in a variety of ways through a variety of covenant relationships, I know I need to look at the peanuts in my life – what do I need to let go of in order to be free and changed into His likeness from glory to glory? What do I need to let go of so I can grab on to something that which is life-giving and transformative? What do we as a Church need to embrace, to grab onto, in order to be free and changed into His likeness from glory to glory?

As the Church engages in surprisingly passionate conversations about structure, governance, roles, responsibilities, canonical and constitutional amendments, rules of order, CCABs, budgets, staff, and General Convention, we need to remember that we are about the business of the restoration, together.

No more false choices between mission and governance. No more false wars between individuals or groups. No more jockeying for turf or control. Rather, we have to find ways to move forward together, and envision and incarnate the future God calls us to embrace – and I pray that we will throw ourselves into it with wholehearted abandon.

As leaders, we need to consider how we might exercise new models of leadership. Nicholas Petrie of the Center for Creative Leadership writes about interdependent leadership. He suggests that interdependent leadership is  a collaborative enterprise and more a shared process than an individual skill set. Who the leader is becomes less important than what is needed in the system and how we together can produce it.

This kind of leadership is more likely to flourish when there is open flow of information, flexible hierarchies, distributed resources, distributed decision-making, and loosening of centralized controls. Petrie writes, “We are still at the early stages of thinking about leadership development at a collective level, but I have no doubt that future generations will see networked, interdependent leadership as a natural phenomenon, the way of the world.” We need to pay close attention to this.

As I talk to people around the Church, people are clear that there is a need for something new, people are passionate, but there aren’t many concrete suggestions offered, and some are not sure about what the structure of the Church actually consists of. The good news is that people care about how we are structured. Structure is simply the arrangement of relations between the parts or elements of something complex.

Structure in the Church is simply the arrangements of relations between the parts or elements for the purpose of the restoration of creation through covenant relationships to the glory of God. How we go about restructuring is as important as how we restructured. Will we be true to our Baptismal Covenant? Will we be courageous and brave?  Will we accept what Jesus offers us?

We are offered nothing less than the gift of transfiguration and it is ours for the taking. We are given the gift of being transfigured into His likeness from glory to glory. To be transformed as a Church, we have to be transformed as individuals.

How are you and I transfigured by the dazzling light of the transfigured Christ? How are we changed into His likeness from glory to glory? What makes the morning star rise in our hearts? How does that happen?

You are transfigured into His likeness every time you recognize that sin and death and brokenness are not the last word.

You are transfigured into His likeness when you work for justice and peace, when you will not accept the diminishment of any person, when you help others claim their dignity.

You are transfigured into His likeness when you pray – for yourself and others.

You are transfigured into His likeness when you eat the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation.

You are transfigured into His likeness when you believe in the grace and transformation that comes to all of us simply because God loves us.

You are transfigured into His likeness when you trust in the power of God to recreate, to bring us free out of debt, and beauty out of chaos.

The voice from the cloud said “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  That same voice, the voice of God says this:

This is my daughter Bettye Jo, and my daughter Winnie, and my daughter Debbie, and my daughters Blanca, Bonnie, Rosalie, Marian,  Martha, Anne, Angela,  Katharine, Vycke, Sandye, Lelanda, Bronwyn, Kathryn, Sally,  Neva Rae, Lori, Mary Frances, Stephanie, Nancy, Carla, Dylan, Dinorah, Lee, Katie, Anita, Jane, Cecy, Hisako, Rosalie, Fredrica, Joyce, and Elizabeth.

My beloved. With her I am well pleased.

This is my son Mark, and my son Gregory, and my son Paul, and my sons David, Cristobal, Terry, Tim, Wendell, Jon, Chuck, Francisco, Bryan, Sam, Del, Paul, John, Jim, Stacy, Silito, Alex, the two Brians, Steve, Butch, Kurt, Bruce, and Michael. My beloved. With him I am well pleased.

You are transfigured into His likeness when you rejoice in the fact that you are the beloved child of God and that your belonging is close to God’s heart in a place that is saved for you and for you alone.

Amen.

Comments

  1. Lee Powers says:

    “The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”

    Thank you, Gay, for this incredible insight from David Whyte. I recently retired. I was running on empty. I was no longer interested in trying to fix problems in the church, in any church, in any part of the church. I thought I needed rest.

    I have gotten a lot of rest over these last ten week. I have rediscovered a full night’s sleep.

    Now that I’m rested, I still don’t want to fix problems in the church. I want to remember what it was that caused me to give my life to Christ and to let everything else go.

    You are right: we see tired people all around us. We can’t fix our church; only Christ can. And I know He still loves His Church, which means He still loves us. We can’t fix each other; we can only be like those friends who climbed up on the roof of a house and let their friend down on a mat so that Jesus could heal him. Those friends may have been tired, but they were wholeheartedly devoted to bringing their friend to Jesus so he could be made whole again.

    My prayer for all of us in our beloved church is that we will carry one another back to Jesus.

    God bless you and thank you.

  2. Betsy Willis says:

    Gay, your insight into the cure for exhaustion certainly rings true for this tired old Christian. Wholeheartedness, wait for me. I’ll “get it” sooner or later – I teach women inmates at the local jails and see the transfiguration weekly as they show me how they care for each other. Sometimes I feel they enjoy more freedom than I do. Thanks for your reminder of where the path lies.

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