Homily for the Installation of the Rev. Sarah Fisher, St. Catherine’s, Marietta–the Feast of St. Margaret

sarah and stuart photo

I learned the hard way that Isaac Newton was right about his First Law: “an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.”

I still say, some twelve years later, that it wasn’t my fault.  The man didn’t give proper instructions.  My wife still says he thought I had common sense, and that she knows he has never assumed that of anyone since that day.

My old white Grand-Am just stopped one day outside of Columbia Seminary in Decatur where Lisa and I were living while we finished school.  It began sputtering down the road, and I actually made it into a parking lot space before it just gave up the ghost.

I called a wrecker that the dean recommended, and they came to take Truvi away (that was my car’s name, yes, from Steel Magnolia’s).  The wrecker man told me to sit in the driver’s seat and turn the wheel while he pushed the car out of the space so he could winch it up on the back of the truck.  I followed those instructions to the “t.”

I saw him walk back about fifty or so feet, honest to God take the starting position like he was running the quarter mile, and launch off in a full sprint toward the front of my car.  I held the wheel and prepared to turn it.

What happened next was a blur.  I only remember a loud “thwomp.”  The next thing I knew, his face was staring back at me through the windshield, and his entire body was lying across the hood of my car.

It’s hard to describe the look on his face.  Shock, mixed with disgust.  He knew what I had done—or not done.  He slid off the car, as I stepped out.

“Did you remember to put the car in neutral?” he asked me.

“Oh….” I said.  “Yes, I guess that would make a lot of sense.”

To amend Newton, an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force—so long as that object remembers to open itself to the possibility for change and take the vehicle out of “park.”

Lesson learned.

So much about pastoral leadership orbits around this core image of willingness, of possibility, of openness to growth—of inspiration.  And so much about pastoral leadership encounters a dynamic of inertia that resists such an openness.  And, be certain that both the willingness and the inertia are found within both the community and the pastor!

It’s a complex dance to be sure where, at one moment, the priest may want to stretch while the community says, “we’re just fine the way we are” or “I’m afraid of how that might change us,” and the next moment, the community wants to explore and the priest may say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea” or “this isn’t the time.”

And either may have “good” or “solid” reasons for their hesitance in being willing to move—or either may just be stubborn and be led by their ego that just wants things their way.  (But, thankfully, this ego posture is extremely rare in communities.)

I love the image from today’s reading from Deuteronomy, for the Feast of St. Margaret: “open your hand,” the text says.  Don’t be tightfisted toward those who are in need.  The poor, yes.  Of course.  But also this description of your “needy neighbor.”  We can easily imagine a wide spectrum of need: loneliness, despair, grief, frustration, confusion, depression, anger.  People have many needs within a community, and we’re called to care for each other.

Indeed, we have a common vocation to care, to offer support, to give a helpful push so that one can get rolling again.  We all share this common vocation, as the First Letter to John describes, “the commandment we have heard from the beginning, that we love one another.”  We have heard this from the beginning, we have “told the old, old story,” as the hymn says, and we must walk in it.  We are called to embody Christ’s love in the world.

And, Christ’s love moves and flows.  That is its nature: to flow and surge and spill over into every nook and cranny it can find, never to settle or grow stagnant.  The divine energies are known by their persistent movement.  It is the nature of divine love as seen within our deepest selves, as Thomas Keating describes, guiding us and leading us in embodying God’s desire for us.  He once wrote that

[Christ’s] presence in us is our deepest self manifesting in every action, however trivial from our point of view.  We are invited to have no movement of body, mind, and heart except from the Spirit, who wishes to inspire all our thoughts, words, and actions.[1]

Thus, the pastoral vocation seems to be about a discernment of movement: God’s movement within us, our movement within community, and also our resistance to the movement of the Spirit.

I was actually with Fr. Thomas in Snowmass this Summer, along with Laurence Freeman, Tilden Edwards, and Richard Rohr.  While I was there, Fr. Richard and I were visiting one morning about life and ministry, and I told him about this day, that I would be offering a sermon for my dear friend’s installation as rector here at St. Catherine’s.  I gave him a challenge: “If you could condense all your experience of the pastoral life, of ministry and vocation—all your understanding of what yours has been and what you have learned—into one word, what word would that be?” (It’s not a bad exercise for anyone to do, actually).  But that was my challenge to Fr. Richard.  Abba, give me a word.

We sat together for a while in silence in the meditation hall as he felt his way through it.  After a bit, he said, “I think I have it.  My one word would be humility.”

“What does that mean for you?” I asked him.

“In your pastoral life,” he said, “you will always frustrate some people because they will feel you went too far or moved too fast, even while you disappoint others who will feel you didn’t go nearly far enough or fast enough.  If you live your life, your ministry, with the hope of meeting everyone’s expectations, you will face endless frustration.  You must have the humility to recognize that your ministry needs to connect with something deeper than your ego striving to meet such expectations.”

(I’m so glad I asked him that question!)

That something deeper, of course, is the living Spirit of Christ that infuses us and moves within us, nudging us into a posture of openness and compassion, of awareness and transformation.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said as he took the scroll and read from the Prophet Isaiah that day in the synagogue.  “The Spirit of the Lord” is upon me, not the spirit of cleverness, or agendas, or even my own good ideas.

That reality, that dynamic energy is what Jesus was rooted in—not the impulse to impress or exceed expectations or the urge to defend against perceived offenses.  But the reality, the truth of God’s flowing presence, always here, always within us and around us.

Our lives are marked by a yielding to God’s indwelling presence that directs and guides, that fills and overflows.  In that space, in that awareness, we find that the pastoral life is not, in the end, about moving people, about moving anyone anywhere.

Rather, each of us is called to open our heart so that we ourselves may be moved—by the Spirit of Christ who calls us to be transformed together in awareness and desire.  We’re called to move it out of park, as it were, so the Spirit can give us the nudge we need.

As Rumi once said, “Yesterday, I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.  Today, I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Or, in one of the most beautiful prayers I know, that St. Ignatius incorporated into the Spiritual Exercises,

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

[1] Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable (New York: Lantern Books, 2017), 67.

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