The Rector’s Farewell Sermon – May 26, 2019
On a beautiful spring afternoon in late May 1993, I was sitting on a large rock on the beach overlooking the Connecticut Sound. I was on a reflection break during a respite retreat day for HIV Counselors and Caregivers that I facilitated at the Mercy Center in Madison—but my thoughts were focused on an important decision I needed to make.
Earlier that week, Bishop Arthur Walmsley had informed me that Father Campbell-Smith had tendered his resignation as rector of St. Paul’s on the Green due to the severity of his illness. Would I accept the appointment as the interim rector? If I did, I would need to begin almost immediately.
I liked my work at Yale-New Haven Hospital. I earned a competitive salary and, back in the day, the hospital gave as much as a 9% increase every year. I had a meaningful ministry with a community of people committed to helping those living with HIV/AIDS and my private counseling practice was growing as well.
Should I stay with what I knew was fairly solid and that offered me the kind of job security that would provide stability for me—or did I step into the unknown, into a future about which I was not very sure.
Interim rectors typically serve a parish for no more than eighteen months tops and then are quickly whisked away before the new rector appears. I had been assisting at St. Paul’s since February and I knew the hornet’s nest in which I had landed. Did I have the stamina, the patience, the wisdom to assume the leadership of a congregation besieged by factious leadership, grief and anger, financial instability and on the verge of failing?
You all know the decision I came to on the beach that day. I can’t explain it but deep inside my heart I had the profound sense that all would be well and that this was a risk worth taking—that God was in this mess with us and wanted something wonderful for this community that had struggled for so long.
Now 26 years later, after 181 baptisms, 74 funerals, 50 weddings, presenting 129 adults and adolescents for confirmation or reception, thousands of liturgical celebrations, and too many sermons to calculate, I will end my time as rector of this church in just a few days. It has been an incredible and life-thrilling journey.
A few years ago, I received a note from retired Bishop Arthur Walmsley, who sent me to St. Paul’s in 1993. He was organizing his files and found a copy of the sermon he preached here that September, just a few months after I became the interim. Here is what he wrote to me: “I came across the enclosed sermon. My reaction in reading it was to affirm that at least once in a while a bishop does something right!
“Sending you to Norwalk was in turn affirmed by my successors who saw to it that you become rector there, but most notable guaranteed by the quality of the ministry you have shown to the congregation there.”
I have chosen not to preach on the lessons this morning and to use this time to offer words of profound gratitude, beginning with Bishop Walmsley who sent me here and Bishop Drew Smith who appointed my rector. Likewise to my friend and colleague, Father Richard Tombaugh, who was a mentor and strong supporter in those early days.
I am deeply grateful to the band of the “original,” those who were here when I arrived and stuck with me and worked with, not against my leadership. Some are still in our midst, many have entered into glory.
I have been the beneficiary of a marvelous and dedicated staff. Don Sileo, Ferbian Salkie, Jake Street, Marsha Dunn, and Steve Mccay have made such a difference in this place and, in the not too distant past, did Anne Watkins and Vince Edwards.
Thank you who have come to this community through the years and have become such an important part of this amazing and diverse community, especially to those who serve in so many ministries that support its worship, pastoral care, and life.
I want to add a particular word of gratitude to one of the hardest working people in our community: our choirs—choristers and adults—and their director, Jake Street. The music last Sunday was superb and I know that people will be hard pressed to find the standard of excellence in most churches.
You and I have been blessed with some wonderful clergy associates: Father Holley Slauson, Adam Yates, Peter Thompson and Mother Donna Downs, Elsa Worth and Louise Kalemkerian and some outstanding seminarian interns.
Mother Louise is now here for the duration. In her you have a strong leader, dynamic preacher, and a very compassionate human being. She will steady the ship well until the vestry has vetted appropriate candidates and selected a Provisional Priest-in-Charge. Our very capable Wardens will become the canonical authority as of next Saturday and will work with Louise and the transition team to ensure smooth sailing and transition.
Last week, I met with Canon Lee Ann Tolzmann for my exit interview and presented many documents requested about life at St. Paul’s, including a long questionnaire. A final question was this: If you were in conversation at this moment with the next rector, what advice or encouragement would you offer that is particular to your life, ministry, the mission of God here in this culture and context?
This is what I answered: I would offer my successor this counsel: Maintain a non-anxious presence and have a good sense of humor. Radical Welcome is at the heart of this community and it is imbedded in its DNA. Please continue to champion this gift and what it has meant and still means to the congregation and those out in the wider community of Norwalk and beyond. Love the liturgy and celebrate it with joy and excellence.
Preach from your heart and know that this community really listens and treasures good and dynamic preaching. Value the amazing staff you will be blessed to work with and the competent and faithful vestry and leadership that is in place.
Clara’s Heart is a 1988 American drama film with lead characters Whoopi Goldberg who plays Clara Mayfield and Neil Patrick Harris who plays David Hart. It tells the story of a family in crisis. David’s mother, Leona, escapes to Jamaica to grieve the loss of her baby daughter who died of sudden infant death syndrome.
While there she meets kindly housekeeper Clara Mayfield who pulls Leona out of her depression with a blunt, no-nonsense style. Leona is so taken with her that she brings Clara back to their home in Baltimore to be housekeeper and nanny to young son David.
At first he is resistant and sees her as an intruder, but as the parents are completely wrapped up in their own grief and dissolving marriage, David comes to trust Clara and to depend on her and a strong bond between these two very different, but loving, characters, begins to form.
When his parents finally divorce and sell their mansion of a home, David is destined to live with his father on the west coast and so Clara must leave their employ. David is angry, confused, and grieves the loss of this woman who has been his caretaker and friend for several years. Their parting was very difficult and painful for David.
A few years later, Clara is working in a healthy care center in Baltimore and David, now much grown up, looks her up and comes to see her on the job. It is a very touching final scene of the movie. David is remorseful for the way they had parted. “I want to thank you, Clara,” he says.
“I know,” she says. “You see, David, you and I are bound together by a special force, a force so perfect that it goes beyond blood.
“Well, I have to go, yeah.” David responds, a typical awkward kid, “so…I’ll see you the next time I’m in Baltimore, OK?”
“Whether you see me the next time or whether you see me again, you must know, David, that no matter where I am, for as long as I live, that I will carry you always here in Clara’s heart.”
You see, my friends, you and I are also bound together by a special force, a force so perfect that it goes beyond blood. Whether you see me the next time or whether you see me again, you must know, that no matter where I am, for as long as I live, that I will carry you always here in Nicholas’ heart.
It’s been an amazing journey, these 26 years, and I thank you for it and for the opportunity to lead you to become who you are.
You and I are about to step into the unknown, yet hear again the words of Jesus to us this morning: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”