Gardener, Healer, Guide
Jesus teaches in parables. Mark says he only talked in parables. These parables typically used metaphors to open the meaning of something deeper – the kingdom of heaven or the meaning of neighbor, for example – and, as parables do, they often had a surprise twist at the end. Many of the metaphors used by Jesus involved agrarian images, shepherds and sheep, vines and vine branches, and, today, growing grain and mustard seeds. The Bible, as a whole, is dense with agricultural images: the psalms sing with references to plants, forests, cattle, sheep, birds of the air and fish of the sea. Our lesson today from Ezekiel talks of a great, thriving tree, a huge cedar with great boughs that produces fruit and offers shelter to birds of all kinds.
How timely are these lessons and images for us today as we stand on the cusp of a new season for this congregation. Tomorrow, The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver will officially go on the payroll and take his place as your Rector. It is a new beginning and comes at an auspicious time: Spring time when life is pushing up from the earth, young fruit are forming on the branches of trees and vines, and hope for health and strength is palpable. The parish has just completed another successful Incarnation 100. There are wonderful musical events scheduled in the next weeks. There us so much going on in this parish one is barely aware that we are at a transition point. This is a happening place! Stephen is arriving at a good time.
The role of a priest in an Episcopal parish is complex. The array of skills desired is overwhelming. The hunger for heart is greater than any human can give. Priests are also victims of a multitude of projections that people place on them – caricatures of some imagined holy, pious person, father figures, money hustlers, traditionalists or social radicals: as a priest, you never know what someone sees when they look at you.
We need to let go of these images and expectations for a moment. As we stand on this threshold, I would like to share three metaphors to help deepen our appreciation of what it means to be a parish priest. If Jesus could use metaphors, they might be helpful to us at this point in time.
First, mindful of Jesus’ many agrarian metaphors, think of your priest as a gardener and the parish as a garden. The hope is for diverse, abundant and sustainable crops. While your new priest will bring special knowledge of Scripture, and Theology, and Liturgy, and Music, and an understanding of how communities and families function, at the outset he will still need to learn what makes this parish unique. In gardening terms: what is the soil like? In what nutrients is it rich and what might it lack? Is there adequate water and drainage? And what is the micro-climate in this place? Are the evening temperatures such that tomatoes will ripen? Do we need to develop shade-tolerant plants? What has grown well in the past and what new plants might be successfully introduced? Who is going to pull the weeds and when should we stop trying to grow bananas?
Stephen may be a bit like Luther Burbank, cross-pollinating, experimenting with new hybrids to produce something juicier or sweeter or more disease resistant. His success will be your success and will depend on your cooperation and openness to share what you know about the soils and micro-climates; about what grows and what has struggled; about the seasons of this place.
Agrarian metaphors are helpful but have their limits. Ultimately, they don’t fully explain the reality of a congregation. Yes, we often refer to the members of a congregation as a flock, but you are not mere sheep to be herded from pasture to pasture and defended from hungry wolves; nor, are you potatoes sleeping under the warm earth and growing plump. So, I am prompted to a second metaphor.
Think of your priest as a doctor of souls, something between a physician and a teacher. One who both nurtures healthy souls and heals broken or sick souls. We have a great health science industry that includes a wide array of skilled practitioners from dieticians, and personal trainers, to research scientists, nurses and physicians, all devoted to maintaining and repairing our bodies. We typically juxtapose the idea of healthy bodies with active minds and we have evolved elaborate institutions to train up our minds. For this we have libraries, schools and universities staffed with teachers and professors, all devoted to expanding our knowledge of the world and learning how to evaluate information and make good choices – teaching our children how to think. But, we are more than bodies and brains. We each have a soul, that point of true being where we find connection to God, to one another and to all of creation. Hence, in addition to hospitals and schools, gymnasiums and libraries, we have religious institutions of every size and shape, hopefully, devoted to the well-being of our souls. This is where your church and your priest step into the picture.
Your new Rector, Stephen, as a doctor of souls can employ traditional tools for quickening your spiritual lives both as individuals and as a community. Worship, study, music, prayer, ministering to the needs of the community and enjoying the blessings of friendship with one another, make up the classic toolkit of Episcopal clergy. Stephen, I expect, will also bring new ideas for enriching your spiritual health and responding to occasions of brokenness and loss.
For your part, seeing him in this light, enables both you and him to stay focused on the role of the institutional church and, specifically this parish. Viewing the church as a community devoted to nurturing healthy relationships with God acts as a deep gravitational pull toward healthy relationships with one another including the relationship between you and your pastor. It will help you and Stephen sort out priorities for how you want to deploy your respective skills and allocate his and your valued time. It will help the parish be sensitive to the need for balance in Stephen’s personal life and in your own lives: a balance between work and prayer, between action and rest, between conflict and concord.
But, a priest can be more than a gardener and more than a doctor of souls. We are all pilgrims on a challenging spiritual journey and my third metaphor is to understand the parish priest as a wilderness guide. Our spiritual journeys are like wandering in a wild landscape. A wilderness guide has developed special skills at reading the woods – developing a keen sensitivity to the environment – the weather, the vegetation, the shadows of paths traveled by those who have wandered this way before. The guide also understands where we are headed: what is our destination. But while our guide may have an idea of where we are headed, for a priest as guide, the objective may be as much a way of being, a way of traveling, as it is a distant destination. The priest draws on a corpus of knowledge evolved over millennia by others who have traveled in this landscape. The priest can employ traditions of spiritual discipline that have been honed by seekers and recorded in Scripture and writings over the centuries. The priest, as wilderness guide, must also read and measure his companions’ capacity for the journey – do they need to rest? Are they ready for a steep climb? Do we have enough food? Are there sources of water along the way?
For your part, seeing Stephen as a wilderness guide will require trust and confidence. This will take time to be established and it requires a commitment on both sides. He needs to know that he can count on you as much as you want to count on him. Being a guide also means that he will show you a way forward, but he won’t carry you. You need to get off your backsides and walk with him. Spiritual growth does not happen vicariously: you need to move your own feet.
In the end, however, no metaphor can fully describe a priest. Stephen is more than a gardener, or healer of souls, or wilderness guide. Ultimately, he is a brother in Christ seeking to discover his own full humanity along with you. As you listen to one another, as you seek to see and know one another deeply, you will mutually experience what it means to love and to be loved – by God and by each other.
I have deep confidence that you will have a rich future with Stephen. You have been walking strong these past years since I first came among you four years ago. You have been blessed in your time with Jim Richardson and now you are ready to begin a new chapter in the story of Incarnation parish.
As in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision, God will plant a tree that extends great boughs, that produces fruit, and that shelters every kind of bird. And as Jesus taught, the scattered seed will sprout and grow, we know not how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. Alleluia! Amen!