Good afternoon. It is so good to be with you on this day of celebration. My name is Steve Pankey, and I bring greetings from the good people at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama, where there are still some who are convinced that Kyle Stillings is my long-lost twin brother. This isn’t the first time that I’ve had the privilege of worshiping with the Saint Elisabeth’s community. You may remember my wife, Cassie, and me from such events as: the Baptism of Mose Murray, the Baptism of Abe Murray (also known as the Confirmation of Brad Thompson, happy birthday, Brad), and the Dedication and Consecration of this Church, during which we stood way back there and took in the beauty and excitement of this great space. Having watched this congregation flourish under the leadership of your Eighth Rector, I’m delighted that you have called another one of my friends to be your Ninth Rector because it means that I get to stalk you on Facebook and see the abundant fruit of your life and ministry for years to come. Before I get to the task I’ve been called here to do, let me say a special thank you to Bishop Johnson for approving the Search Committee and Vestry’s wise decision to call Kyle, and for allowing me the opportunity to preach here today.
We gather this evening for a rather peculiar service, The Celebration of a New Ministry, or as it is more commonly called, much to my displeasure, The Installation of a Rector. There is a strong tendency to make this service all about the priest, but I’d like to challenge us to do better: to refrain from calling this an Installation service and to focus instead on it being a true Celebration of a new thing happening at St. E.’s, for the City of Bartlett, and for the entire Diocese of West Tennessee. This is easier said than done, of course, as even the specific liturgical acts we do tonight are strangely oriented around Kyle and all the things he has been called to do as your Rector, but the truth is that this service really isn’t about him at all. As he noted on the phone with me earlier this week, He doesn’t even get to do his normal priestly activities tonight. He’s not preaching, that’s my job, and he won’t be celebrating the Eucharist, the Bishop does that. Sure, he’s been duly Instituted, and in a few moments you’ll Induct him by the giving of various symbolic gifts, but in the same way that Christmas isn’t about you, even though you might get a bunch of presents, this Celebration is about something much larger than a tall guy with a red beard. This Celebration of New Ministry is about how the Kingdom of God will be brought forth through the work of everyone who calls Saint Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church home. We’re here tonight to make incarnate the prayer of Moses, “Would that… the LORD would put his spirit on all his people!”
I understand that y’all have taken on the practice of reading through the Bible this year, and don’t want to spoil the Book of Numbers for you, but I promise you, once you get past the various censuses and rules that make up the first seven or eight chapters, it really does get interesting. So come mid-to-late March, when you feel yourself getting bogged down, stick with it, you won’t be sorry. Our Old Testament lesson picks up two years after the Exodus, and finally, the Hebrew people have broken camp at the base of Mount Sinai en route to Canaan, the land that had been promised to their ancestor Abraham. Every morning they wake up, collect their manna for the day, and walk. Every. Single. Day. As you might imagine, this sort of routine begins to wear on the people and they start to complain. Like most complaints, these start small, but they grow. First, someone grumbles in the field picking up manna. Then a few folks complain around the dinner table. There are non-Hebrews in the camp as well. Scriptures calls them the Rabble, and they don’t know about God’s promises so quickly join in and it spreads like a wildfire. Eventually, the complaints build, and they build, and they build until Moses is able to hear weeping and lamentations throughout the camp.
And so Moses starts to complain, and then God starts to complain, and eventually nobody is happy. “I thought you liked me, God,” Moses says, “So why did you put the burden of this whole people on me? Are they all my children that I should carry them like babies to the Promised Land? If that’s the case, then go ahead and kill me now because I just can’t handle the complaining.” Notice what Moses’ chief complaint is. It isn’t that there’s only been Manna to eat. He isn’t crying out for meat or to go back to Egypt. His problem is that he’s in leadership all by himself. Ministry is a team sport, my friends, please don’t forget that. God didn’t kill Moses. Instead, he decided to give him some help, so 70 elders were chosen to share the responsibility of leadership. As they gathered in the Tent of Meeting, the Lord came down and plucked up a portion of the spirit that he had given Moses and placed it on the seventy who were gathered.
I’m not saying that St. E’s is full of complaining, but I do know that y’all have spent the last 18 months or so in the wilderness. Transition is never easy, and I’m certain that anxiety has been very real in this congregation, like it is in every church. There will be a tendency now that you have a shiny new rector to place the full responsibility of leadership on his shoulders. Resist it at all costs. Father knows best might have been a decent television show in the 1950s and 60s, but it is a terrible way to run a church. There are known leaders in this congregation: vergers, former Building and Search Committee members, Vestry members, Daughters of the King and the list goes on and on. As you settle back into the routine of life with a Rector at the helm, don’t forget the good work you did working as a team in the interim.
God didn’t stop in the Tent of Meeting, however. There were two men back at the camp, Eldad and Meded, who despite not being in the Tent, were gifted with a portion of the spirit as well. The Midrash of the Rabbis is mixed on how to handle Eldad and Medad and why they weren’t in the Tent at the appointed time. There are some who say that instead of picking 70, Moses had selected 72, six from each of the 12 tribes, and then by the drawing of lots eliminated two, so while they had been registered initially, they were not finally selected to go. Other Rabbis suggest that Eldad and Medad were just too humble for such things. “Leadership pursues those who flee from it,” they say, and so God rewarded them. Finally, there is a group of Rabbis who think that Eldad and Medad were never actually on the list. These Rabbis point to early manuscripts that don’t include the fact that Eldad and Meded were registered, and suggest that this was a later addition by a scribe who, like Joshua, couldn’t handle the thought that God wouldn’t work through the proper channels.
I’m partial to this last idea because I’ve seen the Spirit at work on the fringes again and again. Yes, you’ve selected Kyle as your Rector, and yes, you have lots of great lay leaders already at work in your midst, but the story of Eldad and Medad reminds us to keep our eyes open for where God might be working on the margins. It is on the edges that you will find where God is calling you to go next. Keep our eyes peeled for the Eldads and Medads in your midst.
My prayer for you this evening is that God would pour out his Spirit on all his people as we celebrate a New Ministry for the community of faith called Saint Elisabeth’s. I thank God for your new Rector and his lovely family; for the leadership that kept this congregation moving toward the Kingdom in the in-between time; and for the new places where you will find God’s Spirit at work in the months and years to come. May God pour out his Spirit upon Saint E’s with abundance and bless you richly in your life and ministry. Amen.