Well, here we are on the Sunday before Canada Day giving thanks for this great country of ours. We live in a beautiful land, one of the largest countries on earth, blessed with abundant natural resources, a nation grounded in justice, law, civility and the promotion of the common good. With all Canada’s social and economic problems, we remain a nation of peace, order and good government. While the “new world order” is unraveling right before us, and Britain votes to exit from the E.U. and Scotland may again vote to exit from Britain; while fear of the “other” permeates so much decision-making and polarization is widespread, Canada remains a positive, hopeful, and tolerant nation – one of the few countries in the world that is harmonious and respectful of differences. I have no doubt that the Fathers of Confederation are smiling from heaven at the nation they founded.
This Sunday is also my last Sunday as your Rector. What can I say to you that I haven’t already said? The good news is, nothing – but that isn’t going to shut me up quite yet.
Nothing remains unsaid; all has been said. St. Paul reminds us in today’s lesson – a lesson as apropos for the church as it is for the country: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”
It all comes down to love, doesn’t it? I learned this quite early in my ordained ministry. Right out of divinity school, I was ordained in Quebec City and assigned to the Gaspe Coast as Incumbent of five small churches, which together comprised one parish. The people in the parish were the salt of the earth: dear people everyone, many of whom were poor and some very poor. They mostly lived in small houses comprised of a few sparse rooms heated by wood stoves. But what I will never forget about these people is the hospitality they showed me anytime I came to visit their homes. In so many ways, these people taught me how to be a priest.
It wasn’t easy for me, I admit. Here I was, a New York lawyer who had practiced labor law on Wall Street, now a pastor in a part of the world I hardly knew existed and couldn’t quite comprehend. I was feeling more than a bit overwhelmed that first summer, wondering what I had gotten myself into; and asking myself why I didn’t take the advice of my dear mother and remain a lawyer.
As providence would have it, that summer I got a visit from the retired Bishop of Quebec Tim Mathews, who had a cottage on the Gaspe. Tim was one of the wisest bishops I have ever met. He himself had ministered on the Gaspe as a priest, and in talking with him I could tell how much he loved the region. At the end of our conversation about the challenges of ministry in the parish, Tim said something to me that I have never forgotten. He said, “Gary, whatever you do, love your people. Never forget that. Love your people. Always love them and everything will be okay.”
Thirty-three years later, I can honestly say that I have tried, however imperfectly, to follow Tim’s advice in the parishes in which I have served. St. James Westminster Church is no exception. I look on you today and see so many dear friends, so many people who have touched my heart and enriched my life. As I have baptized your children and buried your loved ones, as I have comforted you in your grief and guided you in your spiritual journeys, as I have visited you in hospital or in your homes, as I have counseled you in crisis or given you communion or led the Rector’s Forum or the Confirmation Class…I want you to know of my abiding affection and goodwill. It has been my privilege to be your priest.
I first came to this church the Sunday after Easter – Low Sunday as we Anglicans call it – after being interviewed by the Selection Committee – to preach in this pulpit. Thankfully, the priest that was with me that morning was Graham Bland, someone I had known when Graham was a student at Wycliffe College and I was across the street at Trinity College in Toronto. Then, there was the music – what can I say, it was heavenly! By the conclusion of the 10:30 Eucharist, I knew this church was a real gem. When I received an invitation to be your Rector, I was delighted to accept the Bishop’s appointment.
Those first several months as your Rector were challenging. Thank goodness I had the Rev. Val Kenyon to help me navigate the names of parishioners, the needs of particular members and the many nursing homes and residences to visit. More than once I turned for solace to that great New York Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra, who was quoted as saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” Yogi also said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” We have been at forks for these past six years, and we’ve been taking them.
I have no idea what future historians may say about my tenure at St. James, but I feel confident they can say this much: No one can say that the Rector didn’t preach Jesus or explain what it means to be a Christian or an Anglican or help people encounter God. After preaching countless sermons and teaching hundreds of sessions on Anglicanism, the Prayer Book, the Articles of Religion and Christian Spirituality, you should know by now what it means to be an Anglican and a Christian. As for Jesus, well, my whole life has been centered on Jesus and I hope you have gotten to love him as much as I do.
Now, on this Canada Day Sunday 2016, this parish and I are at another fork in the road, going our separate ways. I am retiring as rector and moving to Arizona, and you will move into an interim period for the next several months until a candidate is recommended by the Selection Committee and appointed by the bishop. I leave you in the good and capable hands of Archdeacon Nancy Adams who is one of the finest priests in our diocese.
I am well aware that many of you wonder what the future holds for this parish, the Diocese of Huron and the Anglican Church of Canada. Frankly, the only answer I can offer you is love. That’s why I commend to you our lesson from St. Paul. The Christian ethic is very clear: we are to love and embrace people, all sorts and conditions of people, because the world is a cornucopia of races, ethnicities, religions and cultures that demands a love as big as the heart of God. I like the way Shel Silverstein put it in his poem, No Difference. He wrote: “Red, black, or orange, yellow or white, we all look the same when we turn off the light.”
We are much more the same than we are different, aren’t we? We’re all human, all inhabit this small planet. We’ve all been given brains to think and hearts to love. If Christians have one role in this increasingly global village, it is to bridge the divide among peoples. Quite simply, Christians don’t build walls. We build understanding and relationships and mutual respect; we promote tolerance and inclusiveness; we affirm the image of God in every human being. Yes, everyone, without exception, is a precious child of God.
I have served under some exceptionally fine bishops during my 33 years of ordained ministry, but the one I loved and respected the most, was Mark Dyer, the Bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania. Mark would constantly exhort us: “Remember who you are.”
Particularly in this coming year, you must remember who you are. You must be kind and forgiving to my successor. The next Rector is on his or her way. She doesn’t know it; he doesn’t know it; you don’t know it yet; but God does.
There is a rabbinic tale. When God created the world, he looked down the road and saw that the world would be full of you and me, fallen, broken, fragmented people. And you know what God did, according to this tale? As soon as God had created human beings, he forgave them, just as God forgives you and me for our frailties and for our imperfections and for all those times beyond counting when we fall short. As you have forgiven me, time after time after time, so forgive the one who next stands where I stand, who will be blessed beyond calculation to lead this great church.
Remember who you are: an open church that welcomes all people on their journey of faith – a church with a passion for Jesus that includes rather excludes, blesses rather than curses, counts people in rather than shuts people out. We are a church with a wide embrace for all – as wide as the embrace of God.
Yes, I know… it is not easy to love everyone. It’s expensive, it’s costly, it’s painful; it will grind you down. We have to get along with people with whom we may not agree. We have to love people with whom we may not like. We have to be civil as well as Christian, listen as well as speak, and treat each other with the utmost respect even when we think they are acting foolishly.
Someone asked me recently, “With all the churches you have served as a priest, how are you feeling about ending your ministry at St. James? Has it been worth it?”
“Of course, it’s been worth it,” I replied. If I had not come to this parish, I would never have known the dear people here, people who have become my friends, people I have come to love and who have touched my heart and brightened my life. The people here at St. James have given me reason to know once again why I became a priest.
As I counsel young clergy who are going through their own struggles in the parish, I tell them that God never promised that the way would always be clear, nor ever easy. Every parish priest has his or her “war” stories to tell. What God promised is that his Spirit would be with us in all the ups and downs of our lives as we seek to serve him as called but unworthy servants. So, in looking back on my 33 years of ordained ministry, the words of Dag Hammarskjold seem most appropriate: “For all that has been, thanks! For all that will be – yes!”
And thanks especially for including my daughter Allison in the life of this parish. You have accepted and welcomed her with open arms, and for that Heather and I are deeply grateful. You made her – and us – feel very much at home.
Anne LaMotte, in her book Traveling Mercies, tells the story of a little girl who got lost in the city. The child didn’t know her address. She was frightened; she was alone; she was getting cold and hungry and just plain scared. A policeman picked her up and rode her around the city to find her house. She couldn’t find her house, but suddenly she saw her church. She then said to the policeman, “You can let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”
From my experience at St. James, what makes this church so special is that we are a community that is home. I have quoted him before, but let me repeat the words of Robert Frost, because what he says about home is equally true of the church: “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” When you are at St. James, you’re home – you know that God holds you in the tenderness of his palm, not only here but in every moment and every instant of your life. I pray that you will always know that this church is your home.
I have told you many stories from this pulpit, and here’s my last. A young man developed severe depression. He had to be hospitalized for treatment. Finally, he was sent home on medication. But the medication failed, and he became so ill he tried to take his life and nearly died. When he came around in the hospital, he found a picture postcard of Salvador Dali’s painting Christ of St. John of the Cross. It had been left by a dear friend who had written on the back, “When you wake up, think of me. I love you.”
Dear friends, those are my parting words to you. With everything we have shared together, know that I love you and will always love you. But even more, know that Jesus loves you. He will help you face tomorrow, for every morning as we awake, he says to us, “Think of me. I love you.”
Good-bye, God bless you, God bless Canada, and farewell.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
June 26, 2016
Text – Galatians 5: 1, 13-25
Proper 8 (13), C