My name is the Rev. Robert Tate. I am a semi-retired priest in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Actually, my wife says I am failing retirement. I am working part-time on staff at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral and doing a lot of parish ministry consulting. But for our purposes today, here at Epiphany, what you need to know is that for fifteen years I was the rector of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill. And for about seven of those years I had the joy of working with an extraordinary Associate Rector--named Beth Hixon.
I am delighted to be with you today for this Celebration of New Ministry. The Church of the Epiphany, after two years with Beth as Priest-in-Charge, in a trial relationship for both parties, has taken the significant step of entering into a long-term relationship with Beth as its new Rector. I don't have to tell you that this is a great day for Epiphany and a great day for Beth! But it is bigger than that. This is also a great day for the Diocese of Pennsylvania and for our new Bishop, Daniel Gutierrez. And this is a great day for the Episcopal Church and for the one Church of Jesus Christ.
Let's look at the passage from the Book of Numbers appointed for today [Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a]. On the surface, it seems like a straightforward story of God calling Moses to share leadership with the elders of the People of Israel.
Now I know that Beth always bases her preaching on a close reading of a biblical text. So I did my homework today. I looked not only at the passage itself, but at the verses that come immediately before and after our passage.
What I discovered is that, placed in a broader context, this passage opens up into an extraordinary story that goes to the very heart of the challenges and opportunities facing the whole Church today.
In the verses preceding our text, Moses, the people of Israel and the Lord are all fighting, literally shouting, at each other. The people of Israel have had it with wandering in the wilderness, eating manna instead of meat. They are in full rebellion against Moses, and they are ready to give up on the Lord God. They shout at Moses: "We would rather go back to captivity in Egypt than have to eat any more of this dreadful manna or follow you and the Lord any farther into this awful wilderness!" Meanwhile Moses shouts at God: "What have I done to deserve this? Why am I responsible for these disobedient and disrespectful people? How am I supposed to feed them, not to mention lead them, anywhere?" Moses begs God to let him die immediately and to put him out of his misery. And the Lord God is so angry with all of them that God threatens to send a cloud of fire down to wipe both Moses and the People of Israel from the face of the earth.
Parish ministry consultants call this: church conflict.
Then in the following passage, the one we heard today, the Lord has relented. The Lord tells Moses to select seventy elders and take them to the worship tent. And the Lord says to Moses: "I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself." So Moses carefully selects seventy elders and shares his ministry with them. Sort of like they elect a vestry and the vestry elects wardens and appoints committee chairs and the conflict seems to be resolved.
Parish ministry consultants call this by different terms: shared ministry or mutual ministry or total ministry. The point is ordained ministers and baptized ministers working together. The perfect biblical text for a Celebration of a New Ministry service.
Except--if you keep on reading, things fall apart again almost immediately. The next verses say simply: "When the spirit of the Lord rested on the seventy they prophesied. But they never did so again." Huh? They never did so again? Apparently, as soon as the Lord left their midst, the seventy elders stopped functioning as effective leaders. Oh, I'm sure they had plenty of meetings. They probably passed by-laws and developed a mission statement and adopted a strategic plan, but nothing happened. They were still stuck. Still lost in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, while all this was going on, back in camp, two new leaders emerge: Eldad and Medad. They have not been selected as elders or elected to the vestry or appointed as wardens or asked to serve on a committee, but that doesn't seem to bother them. They just start prophesying, doing ministry. And you know what? The people stop complaining and start paying attention to Eldad's and Medad's suggestions, and miraculously they all start working together.
But the story doesn't end there. Joshua, very concerned at this new development, runs out to the worship tent to inform Moses and the elders what is happening: "Eldad and Medad are breaking all the rules and prophesying and the people are listening to them, when they should be listening to you whom God appointed as a prophet, or they should be listening to the seventy elders who were hand selected by you! You have to stop them!"
Parish ministry consultants call this: a crisis of authority.
How do you think Moses responds? He turns to Joshua and says: "Are you so upset and jealous for my sake? Save your energy. I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put the Holy Spirit on all of them! Finally, at last, we have some real leadership around here." And Moses and the seventy return to the camp and turn to Eldad and Medad for direction and leadership.
What can we learn from this story?
In the first part of the story, as long as Moses thinks that everything depends on him, he can only get angry with the people and with the Lord for their unrealistic expectations of him. As long as the people think that their only role is to be good followers and to complain when they don't get what they want, the people can only get angry with Moses and with the Lord for not getting them out of the wilderness. And as long as the Lord tries to impose the Lord's will with threats of destruction, the Lord can only get angry with Moses and with the people of Israel for their dysfunction, and there is no chance at all of the Lord getting Moses and the People of Israel out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
In the second part of the story, Moses and the people of Israel and the Lord finally agree to share ministry and leadership together. They communicate with each other. They establish structures, boundaries, procedures. The fabric of the community is restored. Things start looking up.
But let's not overlook the third part of the story. Eldad and Medad are the true heroes of this story. Charismatic leadership emerges in unexpected ways through unexpected people.
In my parish ministry consulting, I have been using a superb book, written a couple of years ago by an Episcopal priest in Minneapolis named Dwight Zscheile, entitled The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age. Zscheile argues that the old, tried and true ways of doing Church and being Church are no longer effective. But where a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Episcopal Church and all the mainline Protestant denominations have been in steady decline for decades, Zscheile sees this as an amazing opportunity to revitalize and refocus the Church. He actually thinks that it is a good thing that many parishes have finally been forced by declining attendance and declining resources to recognize that we can't keep trying to go back to the "good old days." We can't keep doing "Church as usual." Instead, he argues, we must move forward and transition to new ways of doing and being Church, the exact nature of which is still unclear and will eventually look very different in different situations.
To do that, he argues, we must become a much more "agile" church. What he means by this is that parishes cannot look to some recipe for growth or some formula for increased stewardship or some ready-made program for Christian formation to turn things around. Parishes can't expect a new bishop or a new rector to come in with all the answers. Instead, parishes must become much more experimental. Parishes must be willing to try all sorts of new things. Parishes must learn, in his words, "to fail well," meaning they must not be afraid to try something, have it fail, learn from the failure, and then try something else. Over and over again. Parishes must start by developing newer and deeper relationships with their immediate neighbors. Parishes must be flexible enough to let the Holy Spirit take them in some totally new and unexpected directions. And parishes must be open to new leadership from within, like Eldad and Medad.
We can all call this: being the Church.
We are here today to celebrate a new ministry. A mutual, shared ministry of Beth Hixon and the people of Epiphany, Royersford. I phrase that deliberately. A mutual, shared ministry of Beth Hixon and the people of Epiphany, Royersford. We are not here today simply to celebrate Beth Hixon's new ministry as rector of this parish. We are not here today simply to celebrate a new beginning for Epiphany. We are here to celebrate the ministry of Jesus Christ in this place that you, Beth, and you, the people of Epiphany, will share together for years to come.
Beth, you are quite simply one of the most gifted and faithful priests I have ever known. God has used your background as a nurse coupled with your deep faith in Jesus Christ to form you into a gifted pastor. God has used your background in nursing education and administration and your years in parish ministry to form you into a gifted church administrator. Your attention to detail is legendary. By the time you had been at St. Martin's for a couple of years you had compiled a detailed written customary for every single major church service in the liturgical year, explaining exactly what needed to be done, when, and by whom, including the rector! And God has used your love of the Bible and your love of liturgy to form you into a gifted preacher and worship leader. I could go on, but I don't need to. After two years, Epiphany knows you.
But Beth, I would say to you, the moment you start thinking that the ministry here depends on you and your spiritual gifts, you will simply be overwhelmed by the expectations of the role. Just like Moses. But I promise you, if you share every aspect of the ministry here with the people of Epiphany, you will never be overwhelmed. And I mean every aspect. Except for a few words at the absolution, and over the bread and the wine at communion, and at the final blessing, which only a priest can do, every other aspect of Christ's ministry in this parish should be shared between ordained and baptized ministers. Preaching. You are a good preacher. But, find some people who have the spiritual gift of preaching and lift them up. Let me tell you from my own experience years ago in a small parish, if you try to do all the preaching, it gets stale very quickly. Pastoral care? You are one of the most gifted pastors I have ever known. But find some people who have spiritual gifts for pastoral care and lift them up and share this essential calling. Finances? Outreach? Worship? Administration? Education? Same thing.
And I would say this to you, the people of Epiphany. [Hold up clasped hands]. Remember this from when we were kids? "This is the church and this is the steeple." Do it with me. If you remember nothing else about this sermon, I want you to remember this. "This is the church. This is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the . . . PEOPLE." The Church is people.
Rectors come and rectors go. Some, like Dennis Warner, are more successful than others and stay a little longer than others. What was it, 33 years? But the days of rector-centered parishes are fading away.
Think of today's parish as more like a sports team. Think of the Phillies. No, forget that. Bad example. Think of the Eagles! Together, you and Beth are a team, like the Eagles. But you, the people, are the players. You are the ones on the field. Beth is here for a period of time as your coach. Beth is on the sidelines, recruiting, teaching skills, giving pep talks (we call that preaching), calling plays, sending players in and out.
Beth, your job, in St. Paul's words in today's epistle, is to "equip the saints for ministry." Your job, in other words, is to call out and train and support and empower these people to minister together with you as a team. God has given them extraordinary spiritual gifts for ministry. As St. Paul says, some of them are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. And I'll bet there are some Eldads and Medads hidden amongst them. Call them, train them. Then let them loose and get out of their way!
And finally, people of Epiphany, and Beth, new Rector, always keep Jesus Christ at the center. In today's gospel, Jesus sends the disciples out ahead of him, two by two, into every town and village, "like laborers into the Lord's harvest." It's God's harvest, it's Jesus' ministry, but the laborers in the field are the disciples, priest and people together in shared, mutual, team ministry.
My prayer today for you, people and rector, is that together, you will be open to the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit. Share everything in this ministry. Experiment. Be flexible. Don't be afraid to fail well. Find the Eldads and the Medads in your midst. Keep Jesus Christ at the center. And trust that God will lead you forward into the Promised Land, into the future that God is preparing for the Church of the Epiphany.
In Christ's name.