On Father James’ Retirement

Homily for Sunday, January 21, 2018
Third Sunday after the Epiphany

James LaMacchiaToday we celebrate Fr. LaMacchia’s “retirement.”  “Retirement” in quotes, because while James is retiring, he’s not leaving: he will yet continue here at Trinity Parish as one of our priests.

The classic clergy retirement text is Paul’s departing speech to the elders at Ephesus in the twentieth chapter of Acts.  Paul and the elders are gathered at the beach, just before Paul boards ship to Jerusalem, and Paul tells the elders that they will never see his face again.  There are tears, and Paul—in a line befitting the preaching of the Great Awakening—pronounces: “I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole Gospel of God (Acts 20:26–27).”  That’s the classic clergy retirement text.  But it doesn’t seem to work for today, somehow…

My favorite clergy retirement text comes from the story of the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11.  Towards the end of the story, Jesus delivers the climactic line, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus comes out of the tomb.  Then Jesus commands, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  “For God’s sake, unbind him!” the preacher says of his or her retiring colleague.  “And let the man go!”  That’s my favorite clergy retirement text.  But it doesn’t really work, either…

And neither do today’s scripture texts work, because they are about the beginning of a ministry—Jonah’s finally obeying God’s call to go to Nineveh, and Jesus calling the first disciples—and we celebrate a “retirement, but not retirement.”  Such a special occasion calls for a special text—which I have found, not in scripture, but in the anecdote Frederick Buechner tells about his own call to ordination as a Presbyterian minister:

“I hear you are entering the ministry,” the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. “Was it your own idea, or were you poorly advised?” (The Alphabet of Grace)

James, was it your own idea to retire but not retire?  Or were you poorly advised?

DSCN6088 Betty and JamesI suspect that James’ response would be similar to Buechner’s: Serving as a priest was never his idea.  Nor is his serving as a priest the result of poor advice from others.  James’ serving as a priest is God’s idea.  God called James. And in retiring but not retiring, James continues to answer that call.

Immediately after the anecdote about his call, Buechner tells a story about picking up his children at the bus stop.  This story seems a non sequitur, but—if we look closer—I think it has much to do with not only James’ call, but also our call collectively as a parish.  Buechner continues:

I pick the children up from the bottom of the mountain where the orange bus lets them off in the wind.  They run for the car like leaves blowing.  Not for keeps, to be sure, but at least for the time being, the world has given them back again, and whatever the world chooses to do later on, it can never do so much as lay a hand on the having-beenness of this time.  The past is inviolate.  We are none of us safe, but everything that has happened is safe.  In all the vast empty reaches of the universe it can never be otherwise than that when the orange school bus stopped with its lights blinking, these two children were on it.  Their noses were running.  One of them dropped a sweater.  I drove them home.

Today, the orange school bus drops us off—all of us, James and the parish—at the bottom of the mountain, and we are running for the car “like leaves blowing.”  “Not for keeps, to be sure, but at least for the time being,” God is giving us James back again, and whatever God chooses to do with James and with us later on, no one can ever so much as lay a hand on the having-beenness of this time.  This time with James has been wonderful; it has been extraordinary.  We are in a way safe, because the past is inviolate; and “we are none of us safe,” because following the call always involves risk.

Advent III, 2017Thank you, James, for your time with us.  Thank you for the memories, the “having-beenness” of this time.  Your ministry has been a blessing to us in this place, as your ministry has no doubt been a blessing to many in many a place.  We cannot adequately express our gratitude.  I cannot adequately express my gratitude.  I will always treasure these days of laboring alongside you in this corner of the Lord’s vineyard.  And I—and we all—look forward to the time ahead.

I would be remiss if—today of all days—I did not reference a rabbi… which I found in Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great American rabbi of the mid-20th century.  In his book, Man Is Not Alone, Heschel wrote of the phenomenon of God being present in everyone’s life, of God calling everyone, though not everyone remembers:

Heschel2In everyone’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil… opening a sight of the eternal….  Each of us has once caught a glimpse of [this] beauty, peace and power.  [But…] To some… [these moments] are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered.  In others they kindle a light that is never quenched.  The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith.  In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.

James, you remembered that moment—those moments—in which God called you to serve as a priest.  And then again to serve among us in our parish.  And yet again to retire but not retire.  (You were not poorly advised, you were called!)  We are grateful for your loyalty to that call, and the loyalty of your response.

I hope that we at Trinity, as we move forward with James in retirement, remember that God calls us.  I hope we might continue to allow the school bus to drop us off at the bottom of the mountain.  I hope that we might continue to “run for the car like leaves blowing.”  I hope we continue to remember that “not for keeps, to be sure, but at least for the time being” God sends us into the world, “and whatever the world chooses to do later on, it can never do so much as lay a hand on the having-beenness of this time.”  This time that has been so extraordinary, so rich, so powerful.

schoolbusOur noses may have been running.  Somebody probably dropped a sweater.  He drove us home.  Even though “we are none of us safe,” the past is inviolate.  “In all the vast empty reaches of the universe it can never be otherwise” than that when Jesus called, James followed… whose life and ministry calls us to make it true that “in all those vast empty reaches… it can never be otherwise” than that when Jesus called, we followed.

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