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Oh, I’m so happy to be here with you.
I have been looking forward to this moment for months. To finally stand here in this parish, with these people. In this beautiful building, full of light and color and 145 years of prayers. Here in the center of Santa Rosa and the heart of Sonoma County. We are the church of the Incarnation, which means the Word of God made flesh. Today we’re here to encounter the very physical and sacramental presence of Jesus Christ together in our hearts and hands and faces, and soon in our holy meal. Thanks be to God.
Those of you who have been living here for a while may not remember what it’s like for a newcomer to start calling Sonoma County home. Over the past couple of weeks, in between unpacking boxes and hauling furniture around, Julia, Abby, and I have been soaking up the magnificence. The sun on the golden hills. The star jasmine everywhere, with its intoxicating scent. The vineyards and farms. Spring Lake and Annadel and the Russian River. We’ve discovered the twin children’s meccas of Howarth Park and the Sonoma County Children’s Museum, and the amazing food mecca you locals know as Oliver’s. Settling into this idyllic place it’s easy to understand why Luther Burbank called it “the chosen spot of all this earth.”
Oddly enough, it reminds me of Galilee. Nine years ago Julia and I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jerusalem and Judea were just what I’d expected: dry streets, deserts, dusty hills. But the north, Jesus’ home region around the Sea of Galilee, is lush and green, bursting with flowers: irises and primroses and bougainvillea. I was struck by the fact that Jesus grew up somewhere so physically beautiful. I wonder whether he carried something of that place with him even while following the Spirit’s call on his life which took him away from it, out into the desert both literally and figuratively, and eventually to walk the way of the cross.
Today’s gospel reading takes place there, on the Sea of Galilee. And today’s story is a reminder that even though Galilee is beautiful, it’s not a place of utter safety. Beauty and security are not the same thing. Even in Galilee, there are storms—storms that can come up without warning.
That’s true of this place too. An outsider might look at Sonoma County and say, “This place is a paradise! If only I could move there, then life would be easy.” But you know better. There are storms here too. Most prominently, the devastating firestorms of last October, whose physical and psychological scars will leave their mark on this community for years and years to come. I didn’t go through that experience with you, and I know how much I have to learn about what it has meant for you as a congregation and as individuals. And I’m grateful to have the chance to be part of the ongoing rebuilding with you in the months and years ahead.
But the fires aren’t the only kind of storms this community has faced. This idyllic valley is home to incredible beauty and prosperity, yes, but also to poverty and inequality, and to a housing crisis that long predates the fires and has been worsened by them. And people here face the same storms everyone faces more generally. A world situation that feels unstable and often threatening. A political climate full of polarization and anxiety. And the ordinary storms of everyday life. Cancer diagnoses, lost jobs, troubled relationships with loved ones. This place is beautiful and easy to fall in love with; it’s also a place full of human beings subject to all the ups and downs of the human condition in a world still calling out for the fullness of God’s redemption.
In the middle of the storm, the disciples know what to do. They don’t paddle harder or try to bail out the water; they don’t rely on their own efforts. They look to Jesus. They put their trust in the one who loves them. They don’t fully understand it, but they know Jesus is uniquely connected with God—the same God who made the sea and set its boundaries. Our reading from the book of Job this morning has God recounting the time when God created the sea and enclosed it, saying, “Thus far shall you come and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.” Jesus says essentially the same thing to the Sea of Galilee. “Peace; be still!” And the sea knows its maker, and it becomes still.
In the middle of our storms, we look to Jesus. We put our trust in the one who loves us. Jesus may or may not speak a dramatic word that brings an end to every situation. Sometimes trusting Jesus looks less like a calm sea and more like holding onto the mast for dear life. But when we put our faith in Jesus we know that he’s our captain, our guide, who will never leave us, and who will guide us to a safe harbor in the end.
This congregation has known some storms over its history. You have known conflict, trauma, and turbulence, including a number of painful endings to relationships with clergy. But this congregation also knows how to look to Jesus. There is an incredible resilience and grassroots energy in this congregation that I think is one of its most precious and unique spiritual gifts. During a long and fruitful season of transition, you’ve launched incredible new ministries like the Open Table and the Incarnation 100. You pray together, serve together, and share the ups and downs of life together. One of the things this congregation knows well is that you don’t need a rector to follow Jesus! And I am so glad to be here with a congregation that knows that. Because I’m here not to be Jesus in this story, but to be one of the disciples in the boat with you.
I promise to be the best priest I can be with you. I promise to love you and to share God’s word and sacraments with you. I promise to do all I can to help you grow in the faith of the church and in your own life with God; to rejoice with you when you rejoice and weep with you when you weep. And I promise to do all I can to be a person of emotional and spiritual health and integrity and to foster those qualities in our community life. And—I can also promise you that I will not be a perfect priest for you. I will need you to be Christ to me too, to help me learn when I make mistakes, and to forgive me when I fail. We are in this boat together, this leaky but seaworthy boat of the community of faith. Or, to use a different metaphor, we are the Body of Christ together, each of us needing one another to be complete.
We are the Church of the Incarnation—the church of God’s Word made flesh. On our own, each of us is just an individual. Together, we are the hands and heart of Jesus. And Jesus is ready to use us, as we start a new chapter of ministry today, to bless God’s beloved world.