Pay Attention to the Transitions

Pay attention to the transitions.

The transitions are the most difficult part.

My mentor rector, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon gave me this piece of advice during my second year of preaching. He was talking about writing sermons. Usually a preacher has two or three salient points to make in a sermon. The difference between an artful piece of writing and absolute dreck largely depends on what happens between the points, on the transitions. Pay attention to the transitions. Luis was right, and not just about preaching.

Moses and the people Israel find themselves today in a moment of transition. Our reading comes from the last chapters of Deuteronomy. Moses is preparing the people, because he knows he can’t cross over Jordan with them. His time has come. The people, per usual, have been grumbling. God’s people know how to grumble. Do you remember those first years out in the wilderness? The people said, “if only we were still in Egypt, in slavery, at least there we had enough food.” And yet, God hear’s them. Their grumbling becomes the occasion for God’s provision, manna from heaven.

This particular grumble is particularly memorable. On Mount Horeb the people told Moses, “We can’t listen to the voice of God anymore. We can’t put up with the Lord’s presence in that pillar of fire. Make God go away.” God even tells the people they are right to grumble. Have you ever been in a room full of people who were convinced God was speaking to them? Directly? That’s not a pleasant room. God says, it is good to have a way to test God’s voice, to say God’s calling must be reflected in a community. So they will have prophets.

But remember, this is a big moment of transition. Moses is announcing a new prophet. Moses has been the prophet. Moses spoke God’s word to pharaoh. Moses brought God’s word to the people, and that word set them free. Now there will be a new prophet? Why do we need a change?

Deuteronomy tells us that Moses was 120 years old when he died. His time had come. But the people don’t like the news. They’re not eager for a new prophet. Just as they weren’t eager to find themselves out in the desert. Now, standing on the edge of the promised land, they learn their seasoned leader won’t be with them when they enter. Again the people have to give up what they know. Again they have to adjust. Transitions are difficult.

We know this difficulty in our own lives as well. Ask any parent of a young child, what it is like to look back at photos from two years ago, or ten. Children change so quickly. Those old words are patently true. “They grow up so fast.” The challenges and joys of an infant give way to the challenges and joys of a toddler, a young child, the challenges and joys of a teenager. It all happens in the blink of an eye, and you don’t realize how much has changed until you look at a photo or a video from a few years ago. You remember that little person, but they are not the little person you are faced with today.

In life, if we’re not careful, we can find ourself in a constant state of mourning. Pictures can fun, but they can also be problematic, remembering times gone by, missed opportunities. We can spend our time looking back, missing what was, longing for old times. But no measure of longing will return us to the past.

The ache for the past has a capacity to increase along with the aches in our bodies. As eyes grow dimmer, knees feebler, and physical challenges increase, it is easy to become frustrated. It can be more and more tempting to dwell on the past, but as fun as nostalgia can be, nostalgia also has the capacity to frustrate our present. If we’re not careful, we begin asking questions like “why is my body betraying me?” and meaning them. The temptation to long, to wallow, to hold on is strong, especially when we face a future that is unknown.

Don’t give into that temptation, that longing. Aging with grace is a physical process, but it is also psychological and theological. If we are busy missing the child who once was, we might miss the gift of the adult in front of us. Theologically, memory has a particular function in Christianity. Memory helps prepare us to see how God is acting today, and tomorrow. We remember the mighty acts, and the small surprises that God has wrought, so we have hints about how God might be moving in the present and the future.

The transitions are the most difficult part. Moving beyond what was and into what might be, can feel scary, but it is the only way forward. Put your stock in the future. Have faith. And know that, no matter how much you grumble, God won’t leave you alone.

As Moses assures the people, God will continue to send prophets. God will continue to lead the people toward freedom. God’s word will continue to guide them, even through the transitions.

As I look back on this year at Holy Communion, I am amazed by the number of transitions we’ve been through. We’ve grown. That’s true in terms of raw membership, Sunday attendance, the size of the choir, the size of the clergy team. Our budget has also grown, thanks to the incredible generosity of this congregation and the faithful management of your vestry with the partnerships we’ve created with non-profits renting space. Numbers are up, but as I look across the year, those numbers only tell a small slice of our transition.

This year we also renovated a long vacant house on our property. Dozens of volunteers gave up thousands of hours and transformed the building on Gannon street into a home. The first graduate of Magdalene St Louis moved into our house in October. In the coming months she’ll be joined by a sister from the program, the second graduate.

We say this church has three values. The first is welcome. This year you made that value of welcome out of concrete, and paint, and plaster, and tile grout. You lived that value of welcome in the hard work of scraping dirty floors and repairing porch rails.

We say our second value is diversity, and this year you made a serious investment in that value as well. This year we dedicated ourselves to a partnership with the Church in El Salvador. We sent 12 of our members down for a pilgrimage and to begin exploring how we might work together with the organization Cristosal. We said we cannot see the work God is doing if we’re only focused on our own corner of Delmar. We have much to learn from the human rights work the church is doing in Central America.

Our third value, community, this year pushed us out beyond our walls. Since this summer we have paid for hundreds of loads of laundry at the Classic Coin laundromat on Balson. More importantly we’ve met neighbors, played with kids, laughed about the small world of UCity with folks in the moments while the loads are in the machine. We’ve shared food and helped to build community at Laundry Love.

Those are just a few of the ways we’ve been in transition this year, and the transitions have not always been easy. These projects and partnerships have come with doubt, frustration, and even sometimes tears.

There’s an old joke: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to call an electrician, and the other two to talk about how much better the old light bulb was. As a denomination, we are not famed for our easy willingness to accept change.

But this congregation, this year, has broken that mold. You’ve leaned into discomfort. You’ve looked at the horizon and said, “this work matters.” We’ve dedicated ourselves to being a welcoming and diverse community, and not just for the sake of our members. We want to make, in the words of one of the founders of Laundry Love, a “love-spreading difference.”

This has been a year of transition, and you’ve done the hard work with grace. I am grateful to be along with you on this journey. I hope God continues to let me serve with you for many more years ahead.

This year, we have seen God’s presence, and we have been met with blessings. Can we celebrate this year and also carry these blessings forward? Can we see this year as a sign of what is ahead?

In the year to come, can we continue to welcome new people into our pews, into our dinner groups, into our circles? Can we deeply welcome the folks who are new, not with a simple smile at the Peace, but deeply into community? Can we discover new friendships? Will we take risks and politely excuse ourselves from a conversation with a well-known friend in order to get to know a newcomer?

This year, will we continue to invite the deep conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, language, national origin? You can name others. Will we commit ourselves to being the “Beloved Community” Dr. King’s translation of Jesus’ much preached about “Kingdom?” Will we be honest? Will we show up for the tough discussions? Will we listen to the stories of our neighbors? Will we continue to work past prejudice to seek, in the words of our “Beloved Community Commitment,” to love God and to love the image of God reflected in our neighbors, in ourselves, and in creation?

This year, will we continue to ask how this church can serve the community? Now, don’t grumble when I say this to you. The vestry has agreed to formally start exploring a major renovation of the church building and an accompanying capital campaign. We know many of the systems that support the church, the kitchen and the undercroft are reaching the end of their serviceable lives. You can feel it when this room is often too warm or too cold. You can hear it when the organ has a note that won’t stop playing. Though Connor covers well.

I want to challenge us to ask bigger questions as we look at the building, for the sake of the community. Could our space be more useful if it could be configured differently? Could we welcome young women and men learning to cook if we made the investment in a certified commercial kitchen? Could the instruments in this space support not just our choir, but community children’s choirs as well? And, I know this is a dangerous question, are pews the best seating arrangement for our largest space? Could we make changes that would better serve the wider community?

I don’t pretend to know how we will answer these questions, and more together. But I know this year we finish 150 years of service Holy Communion.  It is incumbent on us to look toward the next 150, to make plans for how we will minister, for how our buildings will serve us, but most importantly how this church will continue to build a welcoming a diverse community.

Pay attention to the transitions. My mentor Luis was right, transitions are hard work. But transitions can also be bearers of unexpected grace. When the status quo is upset, we are invited to grow, to change, and to trust. We have assurance from this past year, and from the 149 years of history of Holy Communion, when we take risks God will meet us. In the blessings and in the challenges, God will be there. God invites us to look toward our future with hope, with faith, and with the assurance that God’s love will meet us.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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