LINK TO PDF VERSION (Good for saving or printing out)
God chooses the unlikely to attempt the improbably, that God might do the impossible. The Tsachi people of western Ecuador have the New Testament and an abridgement of the Old in their language. It was the life-long work of my father, in whose honor the Presence Candle is given to this church, and his wife, my mother. Unlikely missionaries, were these two; both were city kids, one was the son of a salesman, the other the daughter of a preacher. Neither of them had a background that would prepare them for this kind of life and work outside the training that the mission provided. Their task was to go as Protestant missionaries to a place that was 95% largely-hostile Roman Catholic, to a people without a writing system, to befriend them, love them and learn from them, until Mom and Dad could translate the New Testament into their language. They were unlikely, but they were willing to attempt the improbable. They bathed their ministry daily in prayer. Somehow, they knew that only God could accomplish the impossible.
Mom and Dad are in heaven now. There are several Christian ministries in the tribe, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, and a congregation that grew directly out of my parents’ work. They all have my parent’s work available for their ministries. The linguistic analysis of Tsafiqui that Dad did was the first of its kind, and laid the foundation for future work. Such was the esteem in which they were held in the tribe, that when we took their ashes back to scatter, the people insisted that they be buried in the tribal cemetery in Cóngoma instead. Their work was greater than just them. The Holy Spirit moved through them to do the work of the Kingdom in that place for a given time. Unlikely as they were, they attempted the improbably, and God did the impossible.
God chooses the unlikely to attempt the improbably, that God might do the impossible. Look at the reading from Isaiah. The prophetic oracles in the book of Isaiah have to be seen against the backdrop of the Exile. The Hebrews have languished in Babylon for 70 years and is now returning to the Promised Land. Nobody really knows just how this is going to play out. The prophet’s oracle interprets the moment through God’s eyes: Though things may get tough at times, I will be with you through this transition, and all will be well. In returning the unlikely ones have attempted the improbable, and God accomplished the impossible.
The Gospel lesson today tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. Consider John the Baptist. Talk about unlikely! His parents were too old to have him. His father doubted it would happen, and then when grown he heads off into the wilderness. Talk about an improbable task! Baptism was for proselytes to Judaism, not good upstanding Jews, yet he preached and baptized for repentance, challenging people to prepare for the coming Messiah. People accepted his ministrations. Then God accomplishes the impossible. Jesus shows up to be baptized, and, the descent of the dove and the voice from heaven show that in this one the Father is well pleased.
We read in the Old Testament lesson how God promises to be with Israel and defend her. We heard in the psalm how God is powerful, capable of caring for God’s people. John’s work stands on the shoulders of the Old Testament tradition, but it does not accomplish it. Just like with my parents, the work was more than just his. It’s always more than just the human factor. The Holy Spirit is always there, taking unlikely people, tasking them with the improbable, and accomplishing the impossible.
We see this working out in the life of the early Church in the second lesson from Acts. Philip, a Jewish deacon and therefore unlikely missionary to the despised Samaritans, goes to preach the way of Jesus among them and they believe. So, the Jewish church leaders, Peter and John, go to do the improbable, and lay their hands upon the Samaritan believers, and the impossible happens: The Spirit falls on them, too. Unlikely servants doing the improbable, and God accomplishes the impossible.
How about Good Shepherd, Silver City? Karisse and I came to an unlikely church. There had been difficult years, when attendance plummeted and resources dried up. Those who remember those times remember the conflict, the internal strife and the divisions. They were dark years, indeed. But a resurgence of hope had already begun. The hard times had brought out a capable team of lay leaders. There was a deacon’s deacon, leading the outreach ministries of the Church. (I remind you that in 2013 our own Deacon Tom was awarded Deacon of the Year for the whole Episcopal Church.)
There was a lot going on already.
- The After School Program
- Palomas Orphanage
- Annual Bazaar
- First Saturday Garage Sale
- Support of the Gospel Mission and Hotdogs and More on campus,
- Coats for the Cold Mission to Viet Nam
There was a desire to diversify in this very diverse town. You were already the unlikely servants attempting the improbable, and over the last six and a half years God has accomplished the impossible.
- The After-School Program morphed into the 6th Street School Ministry.
- We began sharing in the Mission to Honduras.
- We began an ecumenical Blessing of the Animals in October.
- We began Blessing the Bikes at the Tour of the Gila.
- We cooperated with the Student Interfaith Alliance with Pastor Sarah,
- We began the Grant County Interfaith Alliance and helped start the Immigrant Justice Network of Grant and Luna Counties.
In terms of service, this unlikely congregation attempts the improbable and by God’s help, we have accomplished the impossible.
Our worship has changed. Our music program has expanded. The Chamber Singers stepped into the slot opened up with the ending of the Chamber Singers. Our music program includes more piano, more specialized music, and more variety. A close relationship between music and themes for any given Sunday has been established. We have become a spiritual resource for Silver City and the surrounding area. We offer the Easter Sunrise Service at La Capilla, and the traditional Christmas Midnight Mass. Then there’s our “Corderitos Corner,” our kid-friendly corner. This, of course, comes with two absolutely essential ingredients: We are entirely kid-noise and movement friendly, and Sarah’s spectacular work with making kids and young families feel comfortable, included and important is an absolute gift to us all.
With the ordination of Pastor Sarah, we now have a rotation of clergy at the altar and pulpit who diversify the worship experience. Add to that our lay preachers, the wonderful influx of a diverse people, both ethnically and age-wise, and what has become a rather robust Children’s Church program, and our worship on Sundays doesn’t really look much like it did six and a half years ago. Compared to what it was like when I came, we, the unlikely, have attempted the improbable, and God has accomplished the impossible.
The Diocese of the Rio Grande sees Good Shepherd, Silver City, as an asset to the life of the Diocese, so much so that you will be hosting Diocesan Convention here this year. Never fear that I will not be here. I know how to do these things. You find people with gifts for logistics, talk them into it and get out of their way. Bruce Taylor will do you all up proud if you have to help him. You, who seven years ago the diocese would have called the unlikely ones, will attempt the improbable, and God will accomplish the impossible.
I must also add that I was an unlikely servant. My previous cure was not an easy one. Well-meaning people with strong convictions were often less-than-loving to one another and to Karisse and me. I arrived a bit battered and wounded, looking for a place to heal and thrive once more. The six and a half years I have spent with you have healed me, inspired me and given me space and nurturing to thrive and grow. Thanks to you and who you are, I now hold a doctorate, and am known across the church for our work in border ministry. You, the unlikely, loved me, the unlikely. Together we have done the improbable, and God has accomplished the impossible.
This is a small town, where people know one another. We have come out of obscurity and disrepute, into a place of service and respect. We have learned to “Live the love of God.” This unlikely group of servants has attempted the improbable and found that God has accomplished the impossible.
Today we draw my presence here as your rector to a close. Tomorrow I will get in my truck and begin the long drive to the Northwest. There I will embark on a new ministry to which God has called me, starting next Sunday. Karisse will follow after the end of the school year. You will remain here, as you have at the leave-taking of many rectors before me. The Very Reverend Canon Raymond Raney is here today to lead the leave-taking liturgy at the end of the service. He will meet with the Vestry this afternoon to begin laying out next steps with you.
Take heart, sisters and brothers. I have done my best to stand in the impossibly large shoes of the Good Shepherd, but thanks be to God, the Good Shepherd does not leave with my leave-taking. No matter where we end up on the earth, we will always share these things.
- We are all unlikely servants,
- Who in faith attempt the improbable,
- And I have every confidence in the Spirit of God that through us, you here and me there, God will accomplish the impossible.