St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, Knoxville, Tenn.
Go west. Make space. Lose nothing.
Even before he was ordained as a deacon, Jim Parry did a rather rare thing. And he did it three times. He went west and helped start a new Episcopal parish church.
Now when I say west, I do not mean West Memphis or western Kansas or South Dakota. I mean Northshore Drive and Cedar Bluff Road and Farragut–Ascension and Good Samaritan and St. Elizabeth’s. Jim and his wife, Georgia, were deeply involved in the beginning days of all three parishes.
The skills needed to start a parish church are not possessed by all of us. You have to be able to create community. You have to be able to see what could be before it emerges, who might be called to join you before they show up, what might take root and grow even before it is planted.
You have to be able to dream. You have to be able to risk. You have to be able to trust not only in your ability, but in God’s abiding presence with us.
Jim possessed those skills. He was a creator of community. That was true with his family, his vocation in business, and his life as a builder of parish communities.
You also have to be able to live with change when you help begin something new. In Jim’s case, he was able to both plant and let go of control in order to move on and begin again with a new community.
In doing so, Jim conveyed an important belief about ministry in the Episcopal Church. Ministry is never something we possess in isolation. We all share in ministry. God gives us gifts for ministry that are to be shared in community. God has given us bodies to be in relationship with other bodies and, together, to inhabit in flesh and blood a tangible sign of the mystical Body of Christ. It takes all of us to be the body.
When we go west, we give ourselves to a life of pilgrimage. Now while Jim’s life pretty much always centered in and around Knoxville, he still possessed a pilgrim spirit. You do not have to walk a thousand miles in order to be recognized as a pilgrim. You simply have to be willing to move, to change and be open to what is next order for God’s Spirit to move in you in a new way.
Go west. Make space. Lose nothing.
Jim and Georgia were a people willing to make space for others. They created space in their marriage to welcome children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. They welcomed family, not only kin by blood, but also kin by spirit, by the spirit of adoption. In so doing, they understood that the New Testament understanding of family is a radical redefinition. Because God took on matter in Jesus, all matter now matters. There is no one to which we can say we have no need of. So, the door can be opened, the table can be made longer and the family can grow. But that only can happen if you are willing to make space.
I am also aware that Jim and Georgia made space available to St. Elizabeth’s. Now when I say made space available, I do not simply mean emotional space or a great deal of space on their calendar. I mean physical space. Before St. Elizabeth’s was this sacred space in which we are gathered here today, one of its incarnations took place at a warehouse that Jim owned. St. Elizabeth’s had a home, a space in the very center of Jim’s secular work life.
Think about that. As Episcopalians, we ask you to consider a pledge. You consider a pledge and then the stewardship committee of your parish church spends the next three months begging you to please turn it in by next Tuesday so that the Vestry can set the budget.
But imagine giving away a building. Can this church use my warehouse? Is my warehouse a fit place for worship? Can God be glorified in the very same place where you sweat and work and earn your keep?
The warehouse was more than the place where St. Elizabeth’s worshiped. It was also where Jim Parry was ordained a deacon. He was ordained a deacon in a warehouse. Bishop William Sanders presided, Canon Bob Tharp preached and many of you had roles that day in the ordination liturgy. And it took place in a warehouse.
Maybe that should catch on. If the ministry of a deacon is to be a servant of Christ in the world, then why don’t we ordain deacons in the world? We could ordain them in warehouses and mental health clinics. We could ordain them in homeless shelters and the school counselor’s office. We could ordain them at street protests and in county prisons. We could ordain them in the spaces where the deacon’s heart is already present, listening and beating.
Go west. Make space. Lose nothing.
As the people of God, we have been given the ability to be pilgrims and we have been given the ability to make space for others to join in God’s new economy.
However, losing nothing is not something we can do on our own.
You and I lose things every day. It might be quite trivial, like losing your car keys, which is not trivial when they are actually lost.
We can also lose work and relationships. Those relationships can fracture or they can simply weaken, when we say we lose touch.
If you have ever planted a church, if you have ever started a new community, you know that at the beginning, it is all new, it is still all possible, it is a perfect place.
Then, people show up. Actual flesh and blood people show up. That is where it gets dicey.
At first, it is great. I love this. I’ll be back next Sunday. I’ll bring my neighbor.
Then, like any church, like any community, we begin to lose them. The loss comes because of hurt or apathy or they moved away or they died or someone invented travel soccer.
No matter the reason, with any loss there is grief. What was whole is now not whole. What was complete is now broken. Things are lost and we cannot find them.
That is why today’s gospel lesson is such good news. Jesus has come to us in order to be about God’s will. And God’s will is about us, about finding us, about reminding us that we are God’s creation and that God loves what God has created.
Jesus has also come to us in order to find everything that God has made. Much of what God has made has been lost, forgotten, misremembered, ignored in plain sight.
We can be pilgrims. We can make space. But it is the resurrected Christ who possesses the sacred call to find all that is lost and return it to wholeness.
When Georgia died, something was lost. When Jim died this past weekend, something was lost. When you consider their lives together, as husband and wife, as patriarch and matriarch of family, as creators of community, of new churches in new places, we know that some things got lost along the way. On our own, we cannot find them. Through the Resurrection, we can trust that they are already found. Those lost things are already being returned to us.
At the Diocesan House, there is a filing cabinet with a file on every deacon and priest in the Diocese of East Tennessee. It’s not quite the Lamb’s Book of Life, but it does attempt to be complete and exhaustive.
This week, I located Jim’s file. The earliest correspondence between Jim and Bishop Sanders regarding Jim’s call to be a deacon begins in March, 1981. Letters and memos–remember memos?—go back and forth, articulating call and setting forth plans for study and preparation. Along with those letters and memos, along with reports and updates on diaconal ministry, there is now also a notice of death sent to the Recorder of Ordinations in the Episcopal Church.
We have told the Recorder of Ordinations that our pilgrim has gone west for the last time. We have told the Recorder of Ordinations that a final space has been made for our pilgrim. We have told the Recorder of Ordinations that, by the grace of God and not because of our own power, nothing was lost.