Some of you may wonder if I am nervous standing up here in front of all of you for the first time about to preach my first sermon, the new thirty-seven year old rector of this large and beautiful parish. Well, I am nervous as I think I should be. But, if you think I am nervous – just imagine how Teddy Gottwald and the rest of the Search Committee must feel right about now!
It is truly an honor and a joy to be here this morning. The Hollerith family cannot thank you all enough for the welcome and the hospitality you have shown us during this time of transition. As St. Peter said in his letter to the Thessalonians for today – How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Many thanks especially to our Senior Warden, Lilo Ukrop, for her pastoral care and concern ensuring that the four of us have everything we need. Moving can be very stressful, but we felt right from the beginning that we were moving into a new family that was joyfully ready to receive us.
For me, there is a wonderful feeling to be back in the state of my birth. This Commonwealth and her rich heritage are deeply in my blood – even if I did grow up in Northern (occupied) Virginia. We enjoyed being in Savannah; it was a wonderful place for my family, the place where Eliza was born and an exciting place to serve our Lord. But, as my brother said last year when he left a church in South Carolina to return to Virginia – it was fun being away but now it is time to go home and get a Aðreal@ð ham biscuit. I too am overjoyed to be back home again – it feels good, it feels right.
Happy New Year – St. James’s! The first Sunday in Advent is New Year’s Day in the liturgical cycle of the Church’s life. Today is not only my first Sunday with you but it is also the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. The word Advent means expectation and today we begin the season in the church year when we are called to live expectantly, to live in anticipation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ as an infant born in a stable. It is the time in the church year when we are called to prepare ourselves for what is to come, for what is about to unfold on Christmas Eve.
How appropriate it is then that our first Sunday together should be an occasion of anticipation and expectation. Aren’t you and I full of expectations for what our future together will be? I know that Melissa, Marshall, Eliza and I have been anticipating this new beginning for months. There have been so many things to do, so many things to accomplish – the packing and the moving, the new schools and the new community, the reality of having almost everything we own in storage. So many details need to be tended to, so many decisions both big and small that have to be made. And overarching it all, is the expectation of this new life together, this new ministry, this new opportunity to serve our Lord.
The trick in all of this change is not to lose sight of what is essential in the midst of the details. The season of Advent not only invites us to live in expectation for what is to come but it also calls us to concentrate ourselves on what is essential, so that when Christ does come on Christmas morning we are ready and focused to receive him.
I remember when Melissa and I were planning our wedding thirteen years ago. We had so many hopes and dreams. We had so many expectations of what our new life together would be. But, as with any wedding, there was much to be done, there were many details and after a while it felt like those details began to dominate our lives. Along with our families, we planned for months – arranging for the reception, choosing flowers, creating guest lists, ordering and sending invitations, searching for an affordable honeymoon. And when it came to planning the service itself – well let me just say, two seminary students planning their own church service is like two lawyers writing their own wills – nothing was left out. We had one priest to marry us, one to preach the sermon and another to celebrate the Eucharist. We were even lucky enough to have a choir. (The service was so long that when it was all over one of our Baptist friends remarked that when everyone passed the peace before Communion he was sure it must be intermission.) In the midst of all this planning we began to feel like the celebration and blessing of our marriage – that sacrament of the church which was central- was being lost because so much time was spent worrying about the details instead of focusing on the new relationship Melissa and I were building between us. In the end, our wedding was a truly wonderful day blessed by God, the greatest day of my life, but we had to remind ourselves along the way to concentrate on the essentials, on our commitment to each other, and not to get lost in the minutia.
As a parish, as we prepare for the new beginnings that lie in front of us, we too must be sure not to get lost in the details, to lose sight of what we are doing. In the gospels, Jesus spoke about the coming of the kingdom of God more than almost any other subject. It was his central message. And in our gospel for today he tells his disciples – be prepared, be focused, pay attention for signs of the Kingdom. Advent is the season that reminds us to focus ourselves on what is important, on the Kingdom, on the coming of Christ. After all, this church is a big place. There is a lot going on, there is a lot that has to be done. St. James’s has a heritage and a reputation, it has a long history and all of that can be a little intimidating. But as you and I mark the beginning of this new ministry and this new church year, we must not forget who it is we are supposed to be. We cannot forget that in spite of everything we have and all that needs to be done, we are called as a community to be a little piece of the body of Christ, a little slice of the Kingdom. Just as Jesus was, we too are called to be Kingdom focused – to live a life that uplifts all that is holy rather than that which is ugly; to live a life full of love, forgiveness and understanding rather than a life full of judgment, apathy and indifference; to live a life where the least of those in our midst are cared for with the same passion and respect as the greatest; and to continue to live into our motto to be doers of the word and not hearers only. All too often, churches are interested in almost everything except the Kingdom of God. Like wedding preparations that get out of control, we get too caught up in the details of church life and ministry and we lose sight of the purpose for that life and ministry. We become too absorbed in issues and struggles that have little to do with the coming of the Kingdom and everything to do with the wants and needs of an institution.
At this juncture in your life and mine, at this moment of new beginnings, I want you to know how blessed I feel to be able to serve as your rector. I look forward to forging between us ties that are binding and lasting, relationships that are deep and real – all of which make us into the living body of Christ. It is a privilege to be a part of this staff and to work with people like – Sue, Greg, Mark, Virginia and Anita and everyone else on this team who does such a fine job under-girding the work of Christ in this place. As I stood in the middle of West Franklin Street that evening in 1994 and watched St. James’s burn, I never could have imagined that a few years later God’s grace would bring us together to share in a common ministry. This church has literally risen from the ashes and you are stronger today than ever. I am proud to be a part of your history and our family is thrilled to become part of your family. Amen.