Most rectors make a mistake when we come to a church. We come in and act like nothing good has been accomplished before our arrival. In our efforts to spur growth and chart our course of leadership, we talk about our new initiatives and the changes we are going to institute. Changes are often good and necessary in institutions but sometimes we seek to change everything and arrogantly want to impress everyone with our talent. Sometimes we act like the world just started with our arrival.
Some years ago, when I was called to be rector here, I imagined myself as mounting my white horse and riding into town to save the day. I thought I needed to come here to bring a new vision, a new energy, and I had a zillion ideas as to what needed to be changed. Pretty quickly, however, at a place like St. John’s, the rector gets many reminders that the world started a very long time ago. I’m the fifteenth rector in our history and the important thing about that is that I am the one who falls in between the fourteenth and the sixteenth rectors, which is to say I am just one of many.
On my first Sunday here I turned and faced the congregation and I saw very clearly in the faces of those in the congregation that everything I thought I was supposed to bring to this place was already here. Not only did I quickly see that the St. John’s world wasn’t beginning with me; I also saw that I didn’t have to do anything heroic for the place to continue to be successful. I simply had to accept my place as the latest of the priestly leaders and work alongside the lay leaders to move forward into the next step in our history.
Read the beginning of the Book of Joshua and see if you can relate to it. There we find that the people of Israel have been brought through the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. Moses brings them to the River Jordan but that’s as far as he is allowed to go in his lifespan. Moses dies and now Joshua is appointed to be the next leader. He will take them across the Jordan into the Promised Land. As I read the account, it sure seems like Moses did all the hard work and Joshua gets to swoop in for all the good stuff. Moses got the weird food, the bitter water, and the long, hard walk. Joshua gets to cross the beautiful river and find the land flowing with milk and honey.
A real problem with people of privilege is that we tend to think we have caused all that is good or that we have some entitlement to all that we have. We forget that much of what we have has been graciously provided for us. There’s nothing more irritating than dealing with someone who was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple. And perhaps we all fall into that category from time to time.
Joshua is the beneficiary of Moses’ efforts, not to mention the thousands of people who were doing the work, and the grace of God which upheld them. I am the beneficiary of fourteen other rectors, not to mention the thousands of people who have done so much work in this place, and the grace of God which has upheld this parish.
Isn’t the same true in each of our lives? The world didn’t begin when we tumbled out into it. It was started long ago and we are just the most recent of players in a continuum. Original Sin, it has been said, is pride or arrogance. We act that out regularly when we forget that life is a gift and that our privileges are not entitlements. They are evidence of God’s grace.
We did not bring ourselves to this place. Nor are we alone to carry the world ahead. Our job is to be faithful to the Lord who provides all that is good. Cross the Jordan into the Promised Land but don’t forget who carried you here.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.