Joshua 1:7-9–Psalm 43–Ephesians 4:7, 11-16–John 14:11-15
St Andrew’s Church in Edwardsville, Illinois has a story—a rather long story, but American standards, at any rate. (Our friends from across the Atlantic might not be overly impressed.) 178 years is long enough to have seen a Civil War, which I cannot help but think affected the parish profoundly, two World Wars, and a Great Depression. Rectors have come and gone. The location has changed. Buildings have been erected, and added onto. Hundreds upon hundreds of souls have been reborn in Christ at the font of baptism in this church. Children have been instructed in the faith and presented for confirmation. These very hands have laid on a few of them. Dozens and dozens of couples have stood at this altar and made vows to one another “in the presence of God and this company.” And some of those who were baptized, confirmed, and married at St Andrew’s were buried from this parish, having attained a ripe, old age. The Eucharist has been celebrated here over 10,000 times. And, whatever we may know about the history of this church, there’s way more that we don’t know, and can’t say, but is still important to the heart of God and in the lives of those who were touched here, but whose encounter with the Holy One in St Andrew’s Church left no record or trace save in the privacy of their own hearts and minds. The inertia, the momentum, of the history of St Andrew’s Church weighs heavily on us this morning. It is a force we cannot even begin to measure.
Joel Morsch also has a story—not as long as the story of this parish, to be sure, but long enough. He’s no spring chicken—and I can get away with saying that because he’s about my age, and I’m no spring chicken! Fr Joel has had a distinguished tenure as rector of one of the most significant parishes in the Diocese of Southwest Florida, and served two other parishes before that. His ministry as a priest has touched countless lives, and his priestly character has been shaped and molded over his 21 years of ordained ministry, and before that. He’s a husband and father and grandfather. He comes to Edwardsville not as a blank slate, but as an experienced and mature priest and leader.
Both of these stories—the story of St Andrew’s and the story of Fr Joel—are powerful and deep. Both stories have great strengths. The spiritual DNA of St Andrew’s, as it has been genetically modified—not engineered, but modified, in a quite organic way—the spiritual DNA of St Andrew’s as it has evolved over the decades is one of this community’s greatest assets. That DNA is present here this morning. And the aggregate life experiences of Joel Morsch have formed him into a wise and competent Christian leader. His assets have been on display here for a couple of months now, and they are in the room this morning.
Both stories, I should add, also bring vulnerabilities to this occasion. You don’t need me to tell you—and I don’t need any particular knowledge of St Andrew’s to be able to say this; what I’m about to say is generally true of virtually all church communities—you don’t need me to tell you that patterns of dysfunctionality are embedded in the culture of St Andrew’s. People have been wounded here, grievously wounded, and some have left wounded, but left a robust share of their woundedness behind to continue to infect the community. Sin lives and spreads in the life of St Andrew’s Church. Fr Morsch also arrives here this morning a wounded man, and I can say that even though I don’t know him very well. He arrives here with peculiar sensitivities and vulnerabilities. He is a flawed human being.
So this is a complex and mixed occasion. It drinks from a liturgical tradition named “induction” and “institution,” and we are indeed inducting and instituting the 33rd rector of St Andrew’s today. But the Prayer Book calls this liturgy a Celebration of a New Ministry; that’s it’s official title. Now, it’s tempting, I know, to think of the “new ministry” as being that of Fr Morsch, and it is that. But it’s also so much more. It’s the joining of two stories—two long and powerful stories that carry within themselves both strengths and vulnerabilities—the joining of two stories to create one new story. I was never a very good student in science, and only had “bonehead chemistry” in college, but I did learn the difference between a chemical mixture and a chemical compound. A mixture leaves the two contributing elements identifiably intact. A compound creates something, something to which both elements contribute, but which has properties that are beyond either of the two contributors. Or, since Edwardsville is a college town and there are many academics in this parish community, to use the language of classical Hegelian dialectics: St Andrew’s is the thesis and Fr Joel is the antithesis and what we are celebrating this morning is a synthesis of the two. We are beginning a new story, one that is developed out of the story of St Andrew’s and the story of Fr Morsch. That is the “new ministry” that we are celebrating.
This new story has a purpose. St Paul, writing to the Ephesians, articulates this purpose:
… so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.
There is an observable result that we expect to see from this new joint ministry between Joel Morsch and St Andrew’s Church, and it has to do with maturity in Christ, wisdom and perceptive insight, the ability to speak truth in love, and become more and more like Jesus in deed and word. It also has to do with worship, as Psalm 43 reminds us:
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
St Andrew’s has ever been and must always be a worshiping community, a Eucharistic community. That alone provides the context in which Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians can take root and flourish.
And what are the means of accomplishing the purpose of this new story? The Lord’s advice to Joshua as he “celebrates” his “new ministry” as leader of the people of Israel in succession to Moses offers us a clue:
Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
Joshua had a monumental task ahead of him. Can you imagine trying to succeed Moses? Here he is being promised that, inasmuch as he is faithful to that task, God will be faithful to him. We claim that promise now, in strength and courage, on behalf of the new story that is being revealed today.
Finally, the story of the new ministry between St Andrew’s and Fr Joel has an aspirational outcome, as we read in John’s gospel, as Jesus tells his disciples:
Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.
I’ve always been amazed and intrigued by these words of our Lord as he takes leave of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Jesus had an earthly ministry of compelling teaching and miraculous healing. What works could possibly be “greater” than these? There is no stock answer to such a question, but it’s apparently our vocation and destiny to find out! Somehow, the opportunity for witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ made possible by the coming together of the St Andrew’s story and the Joel Morsch story—made possible, indeed, by Jesus going to the Father—is something we should await with bated breath.
One new story emerging from two stories coming together, a vital new synthesis growing from the encounter between a thesis and an antithesis. This new story is rooted in Christian community and worship. It is resourced by the divine gift of strength and courage. It is inspired by the vision of accomplishing greater works for the sake of kingdom of God than we can now even imagine. I have every confidence that this new story will be a blessing to Edwardsville and southern Madison County and to the Diocese of Springfield. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.