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Second Sunday After the Epiphany
St. Stephen’s Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, January 19, 2002

God is Doing a New Thing

Text: John 1:43-51

In today’s lesson from the Gospel according to John, we see Jesus’ encounter with some of the first people he gathered around him as his disciples. To Philip, he simply said, “Follow me.” Philip went with him. You get the feeling something is missing—that we haven’t heard the whole exchange. For we expect there to be some negotiation. But Philip went, and was already so enthusiastic that he found his friend Nathanael and invited him to come and see for himself this man whom scripture had said would one day come.

Now, with Nathanael, we do hear some of the give and take. He was at first skeptical that anything good could come out of Nazareth. Nazareth was a no-account town that was looked down upon by the people of Israel. As Jesus saw Nathanael approaching him, he said to him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Nathanael was immediately taken aback. He knew that Jesus had read his heart.

"Where did you get to know me?” he asked.
Jesus replied, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
And Nathanael responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Depending on the perspective from which you look at it, you have quite different reactions to it. If you think of it from a human vantage point, you say that Nathanael jumped impetuously on inadequate evidence. Simply on the basis that Jesus read this man without knowing him, Nathanael concluded he was the Son of God. He was sure lucky he was right.

On the other hand, if you look at this from God’s perspective, you see something quite different. God says, “I am looking for a few believers, and I have found one.” God is building the future of His creation on what Jesus is going to do with a few people who believe that he is the Son of God. And however that happened, Nathanael was convicted and gave himself to Jesus.

I want to keep this notion of perspective in view this morning as I tell you the decisions that have been made about who will occupy this pulpit in the days to come. Perspective is of the utmost importance when we talk about our life in God. We must always ask ourselves how things look in God’s eyes. We must always ask ourselves how what we are doing fits into what God is doing.

For twelve years now, St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s—Fleeton have shared a Rector. When this began, it was, from a human perspective, a generous thing for St. Mary’s to do, and it was necessary for St. Stephen’s survival. St. Stephen’s was in dire straits. They couldn’t pay someone to be their Rector. They only had a few people in worship on Sunday. At the request of the Bishop, the Rev. Al Jones became interim Rector at both congregations, and started a partnership that has borne excellent fruit. Joe Warren was called in November 1991 to be the Rector of both congregations. In March 1996, Joe Warren departed, and I became Priest-in-Charge in July 1996. Priest-in-charge means that the Bishop was a party to our three-way agreement. He placed me here with the consent of the two Vestries.

It has been my privilege to serve as pastor of St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s—Fleeton, for six years and seven months. This ministry has been the most satisfying enterprise of my life. I have loved both congregations with all my heart, and I have enjoyed the challenge of serving both of you.

Looking at this from the perspective of what God is doing, it is clear to me that God brought our two congregations together. I have watched with amazement as God has blessed St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s. I have seen the two congregations worship together. We have eaten a lot of food together. We have become friends. We go to Shrine Mont together. Our two vestries have met on a regular basis; we have worked through difficult issues together. For these twelve years, what has happened here has not just been a human solution to a financial problem. It has been two congregations yielding to God’s desire to do something good for both of them.

As that blessing manifested itself, both congregations grew—in size as well as vitality. Each year the vestries met together to evaluate how the joint ministry was working, and to assess its future. In July 1998, I told the vestries that the blessing was too great for a single person to manage as Rector. Both congregations were big enough and financially sound enough to have their own Rector. At that time, I presented a vision for the Vestries St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s to consider. I proposed that we continue together, with me as Rector of both churches, and we hire an Assistant Rector. The Vestries agreed. And so, in July 1999, we called our first Assistant Rector, Chris Ditzenberger. When Chris announced his departure in 2001, the vestries authorized me to hire another Assistant Rector. Chris left in August, and in September 2001, Joe Murphy became our Assistant Rector.

I have been blessed to have Chris and Joe as colleagues, and God has continued to shower us with His grace.

A look at some numbers will indicate how things have changed for our two congregations:

As demanding as it was to serve as Rector of both these churches 6 ½ years ago, it is much more so today. Even with the able assistance of Joe Murphy, I feel as though I have two full-time jobs. Or to put it in a less personal perspective, what God has done at St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s is to make these two congregations more than I can handle, even with an assistant.

Since 1998, there have been folks who said that these two churches need a full-time Rector. After much prayer, I have come to agree. You need someone who is not torn between two communities and two missions and two Vestries and two budgets and two stewardship campaigns and two Christian education programs. And St. Mary’s needs someone who does not live 17 miles up the road.

I went to see Bishop Lee last October to discuss all this, and I asked Joe Murphy to come with me. We discussed the needs of St. Stephen’s and St. Mary’s, and we talked about our own situations.

The Bishop celebrated what we have done in these two congregations over the past twelve years, and was pleased at where we are now. He said that it appears it is time for the two to separate, and he asked me to put this before the Vestries for their decision. I told the Bishop that our Vestry retreat was coming up in January, and that I would raise the matter then.

At that retreat last weekend I laid all this before the two vestries. They met together and separately and made some decisions. Last Sunday, we announced at both churches that the Vestries had decided that we would be ending our sharing of Rector. We said that the precise details would be announced later. That required our informing Bishop Lee and getting his blessing. Here are the rest of the details.

When I told the vestries last weekend that I was not prepared to continue long-term as Rector of both congregations, I said that I would like to stay at St. Stephen’s. St. Mary’s Vestry met in closed session, and voted that if I resigned, they would accept my resignation and call Joe Murphy as Rector for the remainder of his time here. St. Stephen’s Vestry expressed their willingness to allow me to stay as Rector here. We reported back to Bishop Lee on Wednesday. Later that day, I submitted a letter of resignation to St. Mary’s Vestry, effective March 1, 2003. That evening, the Vestry met and accepted my resignation, and voted to call Joe Murphy as Rector, effective March 1.

And so, that is where we are going—with the decision of both vestries, the Bishop’s concurrence, and Joe and I agreeing: As of March 1, I will be the Rector of St. Stephen’s, and Joe will be the Rector of St. Mary’s.

I want you to know that this has been difficult for me. I had hoped never to have to pick between these two churches. I am going to miss serving at St. Mary’s.

I also want you to know that the two vestries are firm in their commitment to keep the two congregations as close as possible. We will continue our annual joint family weekend at Shrine Mont; we will continue to have occasional worship services together, to share a youth group, and to put on Vacation Bible School together. With God’s grace we have achieved something wonderful in our time of sharing clergy. Originally done out of need, it became a matter of preference in 1998. I hope you agree with me that we have grown in our vision for ministry partly as a result of this partnership with St. Mary’s.

I believe it was the hand of God that brought us together. It is God’s will and God’s grace that have caused us to grow. And I believe it is God’s will and God’s grace that have hold of us as we go forward into the future. I know that God has good things in store for us.

Was Nathanael in our Gospel story, justified in concluding on such flimsy evidence that Jesus was the Son of God? Probably not. But he made the choice God wanted for him. In the same way, we all have our own view of how we want things to turn out for the future. But if we can surrender that to God and trust in His perfect plan, we will be astounded by the blessings He has for us. As Jesus said to Nathanael,

Do you believe because I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these….Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

©2002  Rev. Jeff Cerar

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