You might not know it, but Saint Matthias and Father Albert Kennington have something in common, and it isn’t that they graduated from high school together. Albert was actually two years ahead of Matthias. No, what Albert and Matthias have in common is that they went through the discernment process during times of great transition. Father Kennington was the first person to be ordained a priest in the newly formed Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. Saint Matthias was the first person to be ordained… Ever.
It had been a whirlwind of a week for the disciples. On Thursday afternoon they were with their resurrected Rabbi on the Mount of Olives when Jesus was lifted up to heaven in a cloud. As they stood there, slack-jawed, staring up to the heavens, two men appeared before them and asked, “Why are you staring into the sky?” Luke doesn’t say if they answered the question, but I think we all know what their response was, “We’re standing here staring into the sky because we don’t know what else to do.” The world had been forever changed and now Jesus was gone again, and they were totally confused.
Eventually, they stopped staring upward and they made their way back to that same upper room where they’d been staying for more than a month. There the eleven remaining disciples gathered with the Mary the Mother of our Lord, and a smattering of other men and women and they did the only thing they could think of doing, they prayed and they prayed and they prayed. The first great Act of the Apostles wasn’t preaching a sermon, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, or baptizing new members. Before all of that, the Apostles prayed. Here again, Luke doesn’t tell us what they prayed for or about, but we can pretty much guess what they were asking for, the same thing everyone asks for in times of transition and transformation: wisdom, discernment, and above all else, peace.
It was during those days of prayer, sometime between the Ascension and Pentecost ten days later, that Peter got a word that eleven Apostles simply would not do. Twelve was the number Jesus had chosen. Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel. Twelve was, at least in Peter’s mind, the right number, and so it was that the first discernment process began. In his first ever resolution to convention, Peter sets forth a single criteria for ordination, “one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” The disciples prayed some more, they cast lots, and eventually Matthias answered the call to serve God as a witness to the resurrection.
This morning we gather to give thanks to God that men and women, and especially Albert Kennington have continued to answer that call. For more than two-thousand years Christians have benefited from leaders who can speak from their own experience as witnesses of the resurrection life in the Kingdom of God. Of course this calling is not just the purview of the ordained. You need not have a penchant for black shirts or wearing a funny collar around your neck to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, one of the lasting gifts of the Great Reformation was the rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers. Each of us is uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit in baptism for the building up of the Kingdom. Not all of us are called to be priests or evangelists, but every follower of Jesus is called to share the Good News of God’s saving love that had its fullest expression in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
This would be a good place to transition into a sermon for the service of Celebration of New Ministry, but today isn’t that service. I’m not sure if part-time Vicars or Priests-in-Charge, or old fogeys get to have those sorts of services. Today we gather to celebrate 40 years of priestly ministry by Father Kennington. There is something fitting about celebrating a milestone like this in the place where a priest continues to minister to and with a body of faithful disciples. Having retired from Trinity Church Mobile several years ago now, this day could have passed by nearly unnoticed except for a few friends, his family, and Albert himself, but anyone who knows Albert knew that retirement was not going to be the end of his time witnessing to the resurrection; it was merely a moment of transition. There is still much for Father Albert to do, and still much for us to learn from him as a pastor, priest, and teacher, but there is a natural tendency on milestone days to look back on the days that have passed.
Truth be told, I’ve not known Albert for very long. He and I have only gotten to know each other well over the past eight months or so as I’ve served as his Assistant Diocesan Secretary, and so my retrospective on 40 years of ministry would be sorely lacking. Instead of boring you with the stories of our car trips from Robertsdale to Pensacola, or that lunch we had at Ed’s in the Causeway, I decided to ask three people, who know Albert a whole lot better than I do, to share what they think has defined their father’s ministry over the last forty years. Elizabeth, Curtis, and Jessica were unable to be here today, but they were happy to share their thoughts on how their dad has faithfully followed in the footsteps of Saint Matthias as a witness to the resurrection.
Elizabeth was the first to respond, and she shared about her dad’s ecumenical and interfaith work saying that one “hallmark of his ministry” is the way he has built bridges “between people of different faiths while upholding our traditions as Christians and Episcopalians.” Through his interfaith and ecumenical work, Albert has shown us what it looks like to be a witness to the resurrection by “proclaiming by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Albert’s son, Curtis, is just finishing up his first year at the General Theological Seminary and is staring down the barrel of Clinical Pastoral Education. He’ll spend the summer serving as a chaplain at a New York hospital and fittingly, he was drawn to his father’s skills as a pastor. “He walks into a hospital room or bedroom and is able to connect, be present, love and serve… He knows when to speak, when to cry, when to pray, when to bless. He knows, most importantly … when to exit.” In his pastoral work, Albert has shown us what it looks like to be a witness to the resurrection by “loving and serving the people among whom he works.”
The last response came from Jessica, which makes sense, she’s recently given birth to Albert and Nancy’s third grandchild and spare time is a rare commodity these days. Jessica noted what was echoed by all three children, that despite the long hours and decades of hard work, Albert takes the vows he made to his wife and family very seriously. She wrote, “I think something that speaks to his integrity as a priest… is that all three of his children remain faithful Episcopalians who care deeply for their church.” As a man who continues to navigate the difficult balance between Father and dad, Albert has shown us what it looks like to be a witness to the resurrection by “patterning his life in accordance with the teachings of Christ.”
As Albert begins his fifth decade of priestly ministry, we give thanks that he answered the call to become a witness to the resurrection, using his skills as an ecumenist, pastor, father, preacher, parliamentarian, liturgist, historian, and above all, his modeling for us what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for forty years of grace and power poured out upon Albert. And Father Kennington, may God bless you with many more years of faithful ministry as a witness to the resurrection. Amen.