One day last January, I shuffled along the icy sidewalk and climbed over the snowbank to get my mail out of the mailbox. It was one of those days when many of my monthly bills arrived and I opened each envelope quickly while I was focused on some other things, taking a peek at the amount owed. I opened one and gasped at the amount, before I realized I had mistakenly opened my neighbor’s American Express bill. The good news was that it wasn’t my debt; the bad news was I needed to go apologize and explain my carelessness.
As I thought about it later, I was struck again by how intrusive it is to read another’s mail. And yet, on many Sundays, reading another’s mail is a central part of our worship together. On those Sundays when our lessons include the epistles, the letters written by Paul and Peter, James and John, we are often reading in a sacred way in this church, words intended for another, for the churches or the Christian communities in Corinth, Rome, Thessalonica, Ephesus and such.
Hearing the words intended for another Christian community has been and continues to be quite instructive to us. While 21 st century North America is much different than 1 st century Corinth or Rome, many times the issues and concerns raised in the epistles are alive and well for us. One of the hallmarks of great literature is this ability to transcend time and geography; this ability to address the human condition once again.
As you know, one of the topics on the agenda for today’s congregational meeting is an update by our Search Committee chair Rick Brownell. While I certainly don’t want to take away from Rick’s report, I suspect most already know that the search committee is making good progress in their efforts on our behalf to find a new senior pastor. I know we all await hearing Rick’s update today.
As they move on in their work together, my message today is a letter to the Search Committee, a letter which the rest of you are welcome to listen in on today.
Dear friends, your time together and hard work is bearing great fruit. I hate to say “I told you so,” but in the past, I’ve told you this was a special church that many clergy would be eager to serve at and now, as you begin to hear from those interested in serving here, you’re seeing that’s the case. You’ve done a great job, putting together an accurate and appealing profile, a snapshot of Spring Glen Church today, coupled with dreams and hopes and goals for the future. As you begin to interview and meet candidates in the weeks to come, this is probably a good time to give thought, prayerful thought to making the right decision in the days to come. Our theological word for that is “discernment.”
You are charged now, with the high calling, of discerning who among the many possible candidates, is the best choice. Often, in the church, when we are facing choices, we seek wisdom and insight from the Scriptures. This morning, we hear two of the most important instances of how our faith ancestors sought out leaders and pastors, each of which have some lessons for you.
In I Samuel, we hear how Saul has fallen out of favor as king with God, and so God commands Samuel to go and find someone to replace Saul as king. God sends Samuel to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem, telling him that there he will find, among Jesse’s sons, a leader. Samuel does as he is told and upon his arrival there, he begins to look over and give discerning thought as to which of these sons God would have become king. As Jesse prepares to introduce his sons to Samuel, beginning with his eldest son Eliab, God reminds Samuel, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look upon the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
One by one, seven sons of Jesse come by, but none of them is the right one. Samuel asks, “Are these all of your sons?” to which Jesse replies, “No, there is one more, but he’s busy taking care of the sheep.”
And in an ending that would make Cinderella blush, David is summoned and comes in, ruddy, handsome, with beautiful eyes, and Samuel realizes that this is the one. He anoints David, then and there, and the Spirit of the Lord rushes upon David.
There are numerous lessons here for you at this time. The reminder that God’s time and our time are not always the same. The reminder that God sees differently than we do. In that day and time, patriarchs looked first to their eldest son to step into the leadership roles, but time and again, God seems to choose differently than the world does-favoring younger brothers like David, Moses, Joseph, Jacob and even Isaac, in a way.
And even though David sounds as if he will be the “trophy king,” with his ruddy complexion, handsome face and beautiful eyes, God’s warning earlier is worth discerning, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord looks on the heart.”
Now, in the end, David proved to be an inspiring leader and a very fallible human. As attractive as he was on the outside, we know how flawed his inner life was. As inspired as his poetry, recorded in the Psalms is, as brave as his leadership was in taking on Goliath and later serving as a battlefield general, we also remember David as the one, who in his pursuit of Bathsheba, broke four of the Ten Commandments at one time—covetousness, adultery, murder and lying.
But on that day, when God selected him to serve, there was within his inner life, that which separated him from his other brothers, which led him to stand out.
So, perhaps the first lesson in discernment, is the importance of looking within, deep within, the heart of those interested in serving here.
Several hundred years later, the surviving apostles of the first century church, a raw and emotional bunch, just forty-some days after witnessing first the horrific death of their leader Jesus, followed by the event which reshaped human history, his resurrection from the dead, are gathering in Jerusalem, charged now with the important duty of finding a new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. Peter declares the time is right to select a successor. Two of those who witnessed the resurrection are nominated. Joseph called Barsabbas, but also known as Justus, and Matthias. The apostles prayed together and then they cast lots, rolled the dice if you will, and Matthias was selected.
Now friends, I suspect there have been days or that there will be days, when picking names out of a hat, or rolling the dice, or seeing which bowl of several bowls, each named after a candidate, a hungry dog eats out of first, may have some appeal in your challenging work together. You get Thursday nights back with your family, get to see first run episodes of Big Bang Theory, get to save a lot of trees; but I hope you’ll not go that route. For one thing, as lucky as Matthias was in this lottery, and I think his main advantage may have been having only one name instead of three, I’m not sure he was a great choice. This is literally the only mention made of him in the New Testament. Matthias is blessed enough to be called to serve as an apostle and no one ever hears of him again.
Lesson number two—although it worked once a long time ago in church history, picking a candidate at random, is not the way to go.
Which brings us back to the nature of discernment. Never having sat with a search committee at this time in their work together, I can only offer what I’ve learned second hand. Those searches which seem to have been successful, which led to a “good fit” seemed to be those where there was a blend; a blend of what often goes into, what the modern world would recognize as a good fit---the right amount of education, experience, solid references, and those qualities which faith tradition would recognize, discern, as a good fit.
In faith, we see as a good fit those who seem grounded in their call to ministry. Now the call to ministry can span a range from those rooted in a call to the passionate pursuit of social justice concerns, to those whose call involves seeking a deeper awareness of God through extended times of contemplation and prayer, to those whose call blends a hunger for knowledge, and who find in study and dialogue, the avenues to a growing awareness of God in their midst, and of course, those who blend these forms of calls and interests.
But finding someone, who you sense is grounded in their call is crucial. And keep in mind, being grounded in the call to ministry and being comfortable in the call to ministry are not the same things. Ministry is frequently challenging, dissettling, lonely and hard work, but the pastor grounded in his or her call finds the resources to go on, even in the midst of challenge and discomfort.
Discernment can be measured in the emotion and spirit in the room after an interview. Did time go by quickly? Were you interested in talking more, learning more, sharing more? Was there the right balance between talking and listening? Are you energized or exhausted? Do you get a taste of connecting, in that basic, honest, human way that Martin Buber first called the I-Thou connection? Are you looking forward to talking with this candidate again?
In this search, discernment is not a solitary activity. Discernment can be measured by the complex blend of personal chemistry among you all; a shared intuitive sense of congruity—this person really is as good as their references said they were. “I get a sense others will feel as engaged and interested as I am tonight.”
In sports psychology, there is a growing awareness of the phenomenon known as being in “the flow.” Athletes describe those transcendent moments when they know they will be successful, when body, mind, and spirit comes together in a way that they recognize as peak performance. They are on their game. And seeing athletes compete when they are in that stage of being grounded in their own authenticity and competence is inspiring.
That experience is not just limited to athletes. I hope we’ve all had moments of personal fulfillment and blessing that help us to connect and relate to this phenomenon.
Akin to this experience is Paul’s declaration of the “peace that passes all understanding,” which to me is the spiritual equivalent of “being in the flow” for athletes, when intuitively, you sense that this is good, this is right, this is how it’s supposed to be. When you sense you are in that place of grace, wonder and hope, the spiritual work of discernment is taking place. And if that’s your experience, your search is bearing spiritual fruit.
That about sums up what I have to say to the search committee. To everyone, members of the committee; their families, who have a very special investment in this process and who we should all be mindful of and thankful for; and all of us who are invested in their important work, take note of one of the lessons in Acts. After the apostles had narrowed down their choice to two and before they cast lots, they prayed.
Let us all be mindful of the committee, praying daily for their work, that they be gifted with a sense of discernment together, so that in the weeks or months to come, they might recommend a candidate to this church, who has their enthusiastic support, the kind of support that comes when one is enthused, en theos, full of theos, full of God.
For the rest of us, let us be patient. Searches have a time and pace of their own. There may be some wisdom for us in this from an unlikely source.
I greatly enjoy meals at small, intimate, family run Italian restaurants. And often when I go to one of these, there is a disclaimer at the bottom of the menu that says in effect—“Good things are worth waiting for. We cook all our meals when they are ordered, not well in advance. So please be patient and we hope your wait will be worth it.” When I see that, I know the food’s going to be good.
So, be patient, wait. Do what I like to do when I’m waiting in places like this—top off your glass, get another breadstick and flirt some more. The wait won’t seem that long.
We are blessed with an outstanding committee, working faithfully on our behalf. Let us pray for their continued work together and for a rich sense of the spirit of discernment in their midst. For when minds and hearts of the community of the faithful are aligned, the peace which passes all understanding will be ours to know. A peace that can be in its own time a dissettling peace, an inspiring peace, and a transformative peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.