November 8, 2006

One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard was delivered by my wife, the Rev. Alex Hendrickson, last Saturday at Mountain Shadows Presbyterian Church of Tuscon, Arizona. Alex’s good friend and fellow minister, Rachel Srubas, was installed as the pastor of Mountain Shadows, and Rachel had graciously invited Alex to give the sermon at the installation. Alex is the interim pastor of Horizon Presbyterian Church in Phoenix.

Since I have an “in” with the preacher, I was able to get her sermon manuscript, which I reproduce below for your edification and blessing.

The sermon texts were Psalm 27 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

A few months ago I watched one of those obscure documentaries that PBS airs in the middle of the night. Smitten”, is a documentary about Rene di Rosa, who has the world’s largest collection of northern California contemporary art. Part of the film showcases the artist Michelle Pred setting up a piece in di Rosa’s personal gallery; a sculpture of confiscated items from airport security checkpoints-scissors, pocketknives, nail-clippers, knitting needles and other unintentionally security-breaching items. Most of her material comes from San Francisco’s International Airport, obtained and confiscated since 9/11. She pours these thousands of plastic and metal objects onto a large, low table – noisy things clattering forth, each falling into a random place. The art collector, Di Rosa, commented that the final installation of the sculpture would look much different than it did when he first bought it, as the artist did not cement the items down to keep each thing in the same place. He seemed pleased with this new creation, this newly installed piece of American art…


What we are doing here today is “installing” Rachel as the pastor of this congregation. The term, installation, can be confusing. When my husband was ordained and we were both installed as the co-pastors of the first church we served, my darling grandmother, then suffering in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, lamented the fact that she was too ill to travel across the country for our coronation. But this is not a coronation. What we are doing here today is celebrating the fact that God put this relationship in place – that God installs the covenant between this congregation and this Minister of Word and Sacrament. Just like the scissors and pocketknives falling into seemingly chaotic place as a work of art, the call God extends between pastor and parishioners may be at once noisy, sharp, beautiful and hard to explain. And you can be certain that this installation, and this ministry, will not look the same as the ministry you have shared with other pastors; just as Rachel’s ministry with you will be unique to her place within this congregation.


Like any seemingly simple work of art; a Jackson Pollack painting of drips and drabs of paint, an Ogden Nash verse of flippant and silly words, a charming Woody Guthrie tune, and the Cristos gates of billowing orange fabric in Central Park; all these installations seem astonishingly easy. As outsiders observing such art, we may be quick to look at an original Pollack paint splatter or to listen to Woody Guthrie croon “This Land is Your Land” – we know these things so well, so it is easy say, “I could have done that.” But you didn’t. Just like those who are first called to serve on the Pastor Nominating Committee… I would be quite surprised if, at the first PNC meeting, at least one of you did not proclaim, “I’ve worked in business for forty years – I’ve hired and fired dozens of employees. I think I can hire this church a pastor.” But you didn’t. You didn’t just “hire a pastor” – you entered into a complicated, frustrating, exciting and romantic adventure that resulted in this day. You PNC folk made it look easy to the other members of the congregation – they have probably said, “We could have done that – and it wouldn’t have taken us so long.” Well, I give you PNC members full permission to tell those helpful pew-mates, “But you didn’t.”


You didn’t, I didn’t, Rachel didn’t, and the PNC didn’t. God did this. Now, you did lots of good work – paperwork, Pastor Information Forms and Church Information Forms and interviews. You called references and the Presbytery and the Committee on Ministry. At times, you were like the church at Thessalonica, grieving as those who had no hope. Paul, writing to the church at Thessalonica, addressed the question of belonging. Within the Hellenistic community of these early Christians, voluntary associations and organizations were well-known facets of life. Religious groups, professional guilds, all sorts of ancient Rotary clubs and country clubs robustly co-existed. An interesting aspect to these various memberships – you did not cease to be listed on the rolls of First Presbyterian Church, Thessalonica, after your death. In fact, death meant you reached the pinnacle of accomplishment; for at your death, you became the most celebrated member of said organization. Paul, when encouraging the church to remember those who had died, insisted that such remembering should be done with hope.


We church folks know this dynamic well. Things never really die within the church. All of our past hurts, our remembered joy, our favorite hymns, our reflective retreats will inform and color our future relationships. Even our historic Presbyterian motto: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the church reformed is always reforming – speaks to our need to reflect on our past in order to properly look towards our future. Theologian Harold Nebelsick rendered the Latin this way: “We are the recipients of the activity of the Holy Spirit which reforms the church in accordance with the Word of God.” Which brings us back to the beginning; it is not the church which reforms itself – it is the church TOGETHER listening and looking for the work of the Spirit to propel it forward.


One of the hardest hurdles for a new church and a new pastor to gracefully leap over together is the “but we’ve always done it this way/I’ve always done it this way”. When you find yourself beginning to say, ‘we’ve always done it this way’, stop and realize that phrase is an expression of your own grief. You are grieving the loss of comfort and familiarity in your usual way of doing things. I am going to share a secret with you about Rachel – Rachel’s practice for a long time now has been to use Wednesdays as her sermon-preparation, reflection and writing time. She told me recently that she is going to try and make Tuesday her sermon day since she is now serving this church, because of the church meetings that are already scheduled here on Wednesdays… maybe this doesn’t seem like a big change to make, but writing sermons week in and week out is all about rhythm and allowing enough good time for contemplation… because of her vocation as a writer, I imagine it will be a big hurdle for Rachel to sit down in front of her Bible and her computer a day earlier in the week. But be sure that something similar is going to happen in the other direction. You Mountain Shadows folks will have to make some change in your life as a church, due to Rachel’s presence and call as your pastor. When that happens, please remember that Tuesday is her new Wednesday – and cut each other a little slack on these things. Allow one another to grieve these changes, as silly and trivial as they may seem to those who are not being required to change.


All of us who have ‘done’ church for even a few years know that it is these silly, trivial things that can cause pain within the church. That pain is grief. Because Rachel is not and cannot be Pastor John or Pastor Barbara or any pastor from any church you have belonged to over the years. Just as Mountain Shadows is not any church Rachel has served over the years. Acknowledging that grief and working through changes carefully is one important way that the Holy Spirit is bringing about reformation and restoration and renovation to our souls. These changes may not seem earth-shattering, but the spiritual labor involved will be mighty. Remember that this work of art is installed uniquely within this place.


We need reforming because of who we are and who God is. We are, primarily, the precious children of God. But we know we fall short. When beginning new relationships, we all drag along that old, hard-sided Samsonite luggage full of fear and preconceived notions. But don’t worry – God is the one who makes all things new and perfect in God’s own image. Just as Mountain Shadows and Pastor Rachel have ideas about the future of this place – God has a few ideas, too. Church historian Edward Dowey, once wrote that “reform is the institutional counterpart of repentance.” The psalmist sings so eloquently of such repentance in Psalm 27: “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path …I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” You have done a good job of waiting, all of the faithful gathered in this place. You have waited for the right person and the right place to serve and be served. But no matter how far along the path you might have gone by yourself, you know that God’s help is required – as is courage in trusting that God’s Spirit is present, even if not always tangible.


There is a terrible, old joke about a church and their new pastor: “A much-anticipated pastor finally arrived at her new church. As usually seems to be the case, several of the Great Old Saints of the church had conveniently waited for their new pastor’s arrival before they died. Consequently, in her first four weeks as their pastor, she did eight funerals. She did not have time to write her regular Sunday Sermons. So she used the same sermon from her first Sunday – three more times. The Session went to the Committee on Ministry, complaining that this new pastor had used the same sermon four times in a row. So their COM liaison asked what the sermon was about. The Session couldn’t exactly remember; they scratched their heads and hemmed and hawed – but they really couldn’t remember. The COM representative told the elders, “Then let her preach it one more time.””

Paul likely wrote this letter to the church at Thessalonica about twenty years after Christ’s death and resurrection. This many centuries later, we need to hear this word preached at least one more time: “God will bring with him those who have died” and “we will be with the Lord forever”. So on this day, which seems to be all about this church and all about the here-and-now of this new relationship – let us remember that it is actually all about God’s Kingdom (not the church) and all about the now-and-not yet of God’s eternal reign in our lives.


The next year will be an exciting one for this congregation and its pastor. It will also be hard – as you get to know one another better, there will be places of disagreement, instances of miscommunication and days where all involved will feel exhausted with the work of doing and being the church together. There will also be days when things just fit together and work. Like any long-lasting, enduring bond – this new creation that we are putting in place will take some time to feel right. Give each other enough care, enough space, and enough sunlight to grow together in the same direction. A marvelous entreaty, attributed to Philo of Alexandria, reminds us to ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.’ So be gentle with one another. Remember that we all have the same goal in mind – that each church may be a place of healing, wholeness, family, courage and community. The psalmist prays: “Come,” my heart says, “See his face!” Your face, gracious God, do we seek. Amen.


Michelle Pred art

Amen and Amen.

4 Responses to “Installations”

  1. Alex Says:

    I’m glad you found a picture of the Michelle Pred piece. This pic is much neater than the way is was shown in the film…

  2. Evonne Says:

    Great job Alex. I would love to hear you live someday.

  3. Matt Says:

    Good Word, Alex. Glad to hear that Mtn. Shadows and Rachel are on the way together.

  4. sheepdays Says:

    I love that quote at the end from Philo: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” How many times have I been impatient with someone only to find later that there is a personal story that I don’t know about.

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