A Sermon delivered by The Reverend Maria B. Sanzo on the occasion of the Celebration of Our New Ministry and Institution of The Reverend Suzanne Toro as Rector.
It may seem like an odd starting point for a sermon, most especially a sermon on the occasion of celebrating a new ministry, but in the Broadway production of Wicked, there is a piece of music entitled For Good. It is a song sung by both witches Elphaba and Gillinda expressing how their relationship has changed and molded them into something better than they were before they knew each other. They sing the lyric: Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good. It is a play on words which helps them to finally openly admit that their relationship has made them better people in the world. Their relationship has brought out the good in each of them. That is exactly what all Christian relationships are supposed to do, bring out the good in each of us. This is what we hear in today’s epistle.
Today, we celebrate a new relationship, one between Suzanne and this community of St. John’s. It is a relationship based on trust and prayer, and all the wonderful things that Christianity is made of, and it is a relationship that is quite insane! Really, when we get right down to it, this relationship between rector and parish requires that we really step out on a limb. Think of it for moment, the community of St. John’s which has been in existence for 155 years, calls Suzanne who has no history whatsoever with this parish and bestows on her the extraordinary task of leading, pastoring, guiding and loving you. It is a relationship that came to be after reading a ministry profile, reviewing a spiritual biography, participating in a face to face meeting which lasted a few short hours…these are hardly the tools sane people would use to make a long term commitment to a relationship, yet it is the best we can offer from our human frailty. And so we must turn to something beyond our comprehension, we must turn to God when we enter into this relationship, we must say our prayers and trust that the Holy Spirit will show up and bless this arranged marriage. That is why we are here today my friends, to pray and be thankful for this arrangement which has been sent to us by God, this beautiful relationship between one priest and a community of God loving Christians. We are here today to bless and celebrate this relationship, this crazy arrangement that God has set up. And let me underscore that this is indeed a relationship, a true integration between the hearts of the people of St. John’s and that of Suzanne; it is mutual and complementing.
So how do we go about the business of mutual ministry? How do we make this arrangement work? First and foremost we must understand the odd dynamic that we step into today. A community of people who have been living together for quite a long time has no doubt established a routine, a common life together. You have grown into a pattern in which you live and work and play together here in this little corner of the world known as Cornwall NY, you who live and love here, and are quite comfortable with life in the mountains of upstate NY. This community of people now have called one person, one priest, who was pretty much a city girl for the better part of 25 years to this upstate NY town and have entrusted her with the business of your spiritual care and growth. As a girl from the Jersey Shore I can tell you that sounds a bit like holding back the ocean with a broom. If we really have a look at this odd dynamic we might question how in the world will this ever work? But it is important to clearly see, and say out loud, that this is not easy work, and because it is not easy work it requires a true and deep commitment to one another, in poker terms you’ve got to be “all in” today to create a new community known as St. John’s. Today, whatever was the community prior to Suzanne’s arrival has grown into something new, it is a space in time, in God’s time, that takes on a new combination of talent and personality, today we must do what Episcopalians cringe over, today we must accept change. If that word causes you to run screaming from the sanctuary, then how about, Renewal or Growth. Are those words any easier to receive? The point is, today what St. John’s was before is no longer, but what St. John’s is and will become, is even more beautiful, because you, the community of St. John’s now know Suzanne, and Suzanne now knows you, and because of that, neither of you will ever be the same, you have changed for good.
All relationships require work, and present us with challenges, so Suzanne; I strongly suggest you put on your Xena underwear because this is an adventure that will take you to places that you never thought possible. You will invest so much emotion into this relationship that there will be days that you will wonder if you have anything left to give, and I assure you before you ask, God will have already given you what you need. You will, if you have not done so already, fall in love with this community. You will sit at the bedside of the one with whom you have grown so fond and recite the prayers “depart O Christian soul,” and feel as though one of your own family is dying. You will stand at this altar rail and see the little hands of the child reach up to you because they too want “some Jesus” and your heart will melt with the joy of knowing you are the one blessed with the privilege of offering them the body of Christ. You will stand in the parish hall and celebrate another year of life together at the parish picnic. You will prepare for Advent, another Christmas celebration, decide what you will do for a Lenten program, light the great fire at the Easter Vigil, shout the Alleluia of Easter Sunday, and refresh yourself in another summer at your beloved Lake Simcoe and wonder where another year has gone. Draw your strength from the knowledge that God has called you into this place and begin each day with Jesus at your side as the gospel reminds us, to ask for all in His name and he will do it. So ask Jesus to stick by you first and foremost, be in relationship with him, and I assure all else will fall into place.
Then remember that you are in relationship with the people who sit in this space today to celebrate this new ministry. This community of St. John’s is not one that you stand in front of, but one that you stand among. Remember that you will pray from among the people and offer yourself as a servant to these people. Keep that sacred relationship close to your heart, it will serve you well.
As for you, the community of St. John’s, today you will likely stretch yourself into a position that will not always feel comfortable. Perhaps if you know yoga, you should practice it often because a rector has a tendency to challenge a community of people, but remember that the only way we can grow is to stretch ourselves into uncomfortable places. Keep in mind that Suzanne needs you to support her along the way, and remember that you just made a promise before the bishop, not to mention God, to support and uphold her in this ministry. Lying will go on your permanent record! But sincerely know that this day is not about Suzanne, but rather about you and the new places that you are willing to go together. Today is about celebrating the life of St. John’s through all the years since it was established to this very moment as you begin a new chapter in the your life journey together. Remember this is a journey that you travel as a group, with Jesus Christ walking among you every step of the way. It is a very nice picture don’t you think, Suzanne, the people of St. John’s and Jesus Christ walking life’s journey together. Today begins a new ministry, a new relationship, a time to stand together and pray.
May you come to know and love each other well, may you allow our friend and companion Jesus Christ to walk with you on this marvelous journey, and because you now know Suzanne and Suzanne now knows and loves you, may you all be changed for good.