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Farewell for Canon Cal Adams

Sermon by Bishop Paul Marshall
Discipleship isn’t a contest, it’s a community
St. Gabriel’s, Douglassville, June 27, 2010
Gen 31: 44-50; I Cor 3:4-11; Luke 17:7-10

It’s a funny feeling being here tonight. You are losing a rector, I am losing a colleague and an immensely wise confidant. Where ought we to go in such a vulnerable place but to the Bible, the family album par excellence. Let’s just go to our family story without more introduction, and see what may help us put this moment in perspective. That is surely something Fr. Adams has consistently taught us to do.

Our Old Testament lesson is one of the more striking tales of Genesis, especially when all the verses are included. Jacob and Laban had spent twenty years deceiving and cheating each other, switching wives, switching livestock, along with other dirty tricks. Jacob has proved the more crafty of the two, and has made himself quite a fortune at Laban’s expense. We meet these shady characters today when Jacob has determined that the best possible thing for him is to get out of town before Laban calls his cousins in Newark. There is one last swindle and it happens at this point: Rachel steals Laban’s household gods, the deed to the property, so to speak, and lies about it in a particularly offensive way. If there had been television this would have been a soap opera.

Jacob and Laban’s solution to the situation where neither is comfortable with the other anymore is to call God as judge and protector while they have their backs turned. God is to “watch between them,” not “watch over” them. That is technically more of a Hebrew curse than a blessing, but it makes clear that the issue is too big for them to handle, and all they can do is trust God. Jacob does leave, and on his journey comes up against Esau, whom he also swindled years ago, and finally does come to his moment of truth and repentance. If there hadn’t been the parting nobody would have gone to the next step of maturation.

Awkward as this story is, it does point out that all relationships must end, most of them end without everything being perfectly resolved, and that in order to be free to get on with what is next in our lives, we must leave each other in the hands of our loving and just God.

Tonight is a very different kind of parting, very different indeed, but it is a parting. Longer than Jacob and Laban were together, St Gabriel’s and Canon Adams have labored not against each other, but for and with each other, learning and doing the work of Jesus. You have done so with results that are greatly admired in the diocese and community. Well done, all around.

I know that you had a night to share your stories about Canon Adams, and that is great. Yet the overall story of Fr. Cal and St. Gabriel’s ends tonight, and ends on a big win, but their individual stories go on, and the Old Testament reading reminds us that ultimately we can only entrust each other to God’s keeping—our directions will be very different now. Separation is an act of spiritual as well as personal maturity. We must embrace it, however reluctantly.

If I were sitting in the pews tonight I might be wondering whether after 23 years of successful work under an unusually savvy and truly kind leader, we can go on. I might be wondering whether times will change too much.

And of course it will never be the same. There will be new things to learn and do, and relationships in the parish will change and grow.

But this is not a time for fear. As our Presiding Bishop had occasion to remind us recently, the Holy Spirit did not go home on Pentecost afternoon and sign up for disability benefits. The Spirit remains active in the Church, and we are invited to rest deeply in that Spirit, listening and watching for guidance and courage—just as we have throughout the long and varied history of this church from colonial days to the present.

Let me give just one example, a tangible one. By all accounts, St Gabriel’s has, in living memory, done seven, seven, capital programs. Nobody comes near that. With your resources you have rescued a struggling nursery school that is now a success. You have been creative with the use of real estate (note-to-self: do not mention tallest cross in Berks County). There are seniors now living on your land whose lives are so much better for your foresight. I hope you have a mechanism for remembering often enough how much you can do! The icing on the cake is that everything you have done with money has been to enhance mission, not escape it. That is something for which I am deeply grateful.

Among all this success, there it hangs, that modest sign, week by week, the simple and direct invitation to all people to learn and do the work of Jesus.

If the best prediction of future performance is past performance, there are many reasons for courage and eagerness after tonight.

When a good leader leaves, people will say, “Look what WE did,” and they will be right. A good leader shows people places and circumstances where they can grow, even plants a seed now and then. But as our epistle insists, it is God who gives the growth. We very rightly acknowledge Fr. Cal’s gifts, talents, and hard work tonight, and I am privileged to know personally something of the depth of his spirituality and sweet humility—we acknowledge that and thank him for sharing who and what he is in the service of Christ and his Kingdom. But if you know Fr. Cal as I do, you know that every step of the way he has counted on God to see the work through, and his faith has not been in vain. You have had that most special kind of leader here, one who uses the product.

Whether we think about Fr. Cal’s future or St. Gabriel’s future, can the formula be any different? Learn, do, trust. Learn the work of Jesus. Do the work of Jesus. Trust the work of Jesus.

When we keep our focus on how we are functioning, as you have done so extraordinarily well over the years, so many problems are put in perspective or don’t arise at all. I give you the gospel tonight as a bit of an example. It sounds harsh at first – Jesus almost never talks in stained glass tones, does he? – but it’s really gospel, really good news. One of Jesus’ on-going problems was that the disciples were not above squabbling about who was most important, and they could get very touchy—now you have to remember this was a long time ago. Jesus’ message to them is simple: if we are not obsessed with comparisons, if we are focused on just doing what we are called to do, using the gifts and talents we actually have, that’s being healthy normal. Discipleship isn’t a contest, it’s a community. Satisfaction comes from the sense that each of us actually does our part, without comparisons, without living for that pat on the back that the insecure seek. One of the things I love most about Fr. Cal is that he has done his ministry for the sheer joy of it. There were turns he could have taken that would have been self-aggrandizing, but he has remained the servant of God’s people because that is who he really is and enjoys being.

On hot Sunday afternoons, I end sermons on the top quarter of this very page, but you have installed air conditioning this week. For which I congratulate you, but it’s a two-edged sword.

So I will go on and say something that I hope you will cherish now and actualize continually. I don’t know any priest who more consistently speaks of his parish as “we” rather than “they” or “them” than does your rector. Fr. Cal has been a success here because he is connected to St. Gabriel’s life, not existing over-against it. As long as all those who lead and serve this parish consistently remember that we are connected to one another in Christ, God can do much. The fact that your vestry meetings are such thoroughly spiritual events is important reinforcement to that consistent memory, and I hope you will maintain the tradition

In a minute, like Jacob and Laban building their altar, we will put God in the middle of the situation by saying the Creed. But then i is actually going to happen: the rector publicly hangs up his spurs and you say that you will honor his decision, really honor it. There may be tears, there may be uncertainty, but there is also the knowledge that the God who has brought us safe this far will safely see us home.

So Father Calvin, we thank you, we admire you, and we wish you and Pamela nothing but joy.


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