Sheep without a Shepherd

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 18, 2021
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Maybe it’s my competitive drive, but I had just had to be the first one to church that day. I wanted to impress them, I wanted to show them that I was dependable. I wanted them to know that they had made the right decision in calling me as their priest. It was, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, my first official day as the rector of Holy Comforter. Since we didn’t have our house yet, I had stayed with my parents in Sugar Land the night before. Way back in those ancient times, before the Grand Parkway, I had to take 59, to the Beltway, to 45. As I pulled into the Holy Comforter parking lot I was so proud of myself because the parking lot was empty. I was the first one here.

And then it dawned on me. I didn’t have any keys. I couldn’t get into the church. I couldn’t start unloading my boxes. I didn’t know exactly when the Senior Warden and the staff were going to show up. So, I did what any self-respecting clergy person would do – I went for a cup of coffee. Of course, by the time I got back the parking lot was full. I had slogged through Houston traffic, I had made it here early, and yet I still managed to be “late.”

But that was my first lesson of ministry at Holy Comforter, and a critical one. I do not own this church. Yes, I believe that I have played a role in shaping this parish that we know. As the rector, I have had to make difficult decisions, I have had to let some things go so that others could start. At the same time, I have tried to be cognizant of the future and of my eventual successor. I had been called as a steward and as a caretaker, but not as the owner. Sure, they gave me some keys that day. But they were given to me on loan. And now, as I prepare for my last day at Holy Comforter and as I think ahead to Trinity Church in Galveston, we must all learn this lesson again. I had been called as a steward and as a caretaker. I had been called as a shepherd and a pastor, but only for a season. In due time, I was to gracefully let those things go. To pack up my boxes, to give my keys back, and to drive out of this parking lot one last time. And that is what I must prepare for in just two weeks time.

And the memories, oh the memories are coming thick and fast. Not the memories of what I have accomplished, because the church is not about the priest. Memories of what God has accomplished through you over these last nine years. The prayers we’ve shared, the people we’ve served, the things we learned about ourselves and about God. I remember the good and the bad. I remember in 2014 when our Treasurer had tears in his eyes because we had just announced this building project; he said, “I’ve been waiting 31 years for this moment.” I remember when our old water well was frozen solid one morning, the morning we were supposed to have a funeral and we had to tell people not to flush the toilets. I remember our last World War II veteran died the same day a baby was born to parishioners. I treasure each of those memories.

And I really don’t mean to be sentimental. You know I don’t really go in for nostalgia. More than anything, I want to share and to remember what the Holy Spirit has done here. I figure that since the disciples did it, we should, too. Notice that’s exactly what happens in this gospel passage. Jesus has sent the disciples out to preach, to teach, to heal, to cast out demons, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. And afterwards, they come back to Jesus to reflect. The disciples gather around Jesus to tell him all they had done and taught (Mark 6:30). This is altogether a good thing. To take some time to rejoice in what God has accomplished. To talk about what they were able to do, what they learned, how they grew. And above all, to thank and to glorify God.

Because truthfully, anything that has taken place here has been the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s what ministry is; ministry is simply the amplification of what Jesus Christ has already begun. Each of us, priest and people, are called to be vessels of God’s grace. The same thing with the twelve disciples two thousand years ago. They went out to on their missionary journeys not to do their ministry, but to do the ministry of Jesus. When they healed someone, it was Jesus doing the healing. When someone heard the message of love, they heard the voice of Jesus in their hearts. The ministry was loaned to the disciples, they used it faithfully, and then they returned to Jesus. That outward and inward motion should be the pattern of ministry. We are not owners, we are stewards and caretakers. This church belongs to Jesus.

And yet, we must also point out the reality of the situation at Holy Comforter. More than half of you have started worshiping in this church in the last nine years. For many of you, I am the only Episcopal priest you have ever known; I am the only rector of Holy Comforter you have ever known; and Holy Comforter is the only Episcopal church you’ve ever known. Do not fear. You are not “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). This is now an opportunity for you to dig in, to get more involved, to serve in new ways, to grow deeper in fellowship with others in the church. Because remember, this is your church. And in due time, you will call another rector. You will loan them the keys. They will unload their boxes of books. They will have hard decisions to make, they will let some things go so that others can flourish. They will shape the ministry and chart the course for Holy Comforter in their own way. They will be stewards and caretakers until, eventually, they pack up their boxes and give those keys back to you.

Now, more than anything, I want to say thank you, and I want to tell you how grateful I am that you did loan me those keys all those years ago. These years have been a gift from God, and I would not trade them for anything. And of course, I am sad, sad about all that I will miss here. I’m going to miss baptizing your babies and officiating your weddings. I’m going to miss watching your kids grow up. I’m going to miss Drive-Thru Ashes and the Christmas pageant and pancakes and mission trips and all of that. Yet, this has never been my ministry. And maybe the first lesson I’ve learned is the same as the last one. Sure, the rector helps to shape a church but in the end, we are but stewards and caretakers.

Finally, our gospel lesson today says that after all that busy-ness, Jesus and his disciples cross the Sea of Galilee again and land at Gennasaret (Mark 6:53). In some way, I can’t help but put myself there. Not that it’s the Sea of Galilee or that I’m mooring my boat at Gennasaret. But I am crossing the Galveston Causeway, and driving into a new church again for the first time. And in that way I am reminded that we are bound by something more than geography. We are bound by this ministry of Jesus. Though I will be there and you will be here, it is the same ministry for we share One Lord, One Faith, One Church.

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