Holy Trinity Episcopal Church


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    Jun 23, 2019

    The Second Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: John 14:8-25

    Preacher: The Rev. Timothy Patterson

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Category: Pentecost


      “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Just a couple weeks ago I celebrated the 30th anniversary of my ordination. At which time, back in 1989, the Bishop and a bunch of priests laid their hands upon me as the Bishop prayed, “Give your Holy Spirit to him, fill him with grace and power, and make him - first a deacon, and then shortly thereafter a priest - in your church.” Now, please relax, and be assured that I am not going to recount all thirty years in this sermon. In fact, on this my last Sunday, I want to leave you with just one point. A one-point sermon, which is a rarity for me. And that one point is that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” That those who allow themselves to be led by the Spirit of God will indeed be blessed, be an instrument of blessing to others, and be led to where they are meant to be. And that this isn’t just a way of talking, it is a way of living - every day. That the Spirit of God is a real, tangible energy and power in our lives. The Spirit of God is indeed worthy of our trust, and will not disappoint us if we truly do follow her leading. And, if I have a legacy to leave at the end of these thirty years, it is the witness of a person who has sincerely tried and learned, over time, to more and more deeply trust the leading of the Spirit of God - and the example of a priest who has led this church, to the very best of my ability, as directed by the Spirit of God.   

    Now that ordination experience thirty years ago was by no means my first or most decisive encounter with the Spirit of God. As I have said before, that one came on September 22, 1974. Briefly, as I began my senior year at Duke University, I was struggling with real anxiety about the fact that I had no clue whatsoever about the vocational direction of my life, and thus absolutely no idea of what I would be doing when I graduated. I was experimenting with various forms of mostly Eastern meditation in, what felt like, an effort to get up and out of the pretty significant levels of anxiety I was suffering. Well that day in 1974, I had a distinctly Christ-centered experience of mystical union with God – the real thing. Part of which was, for me, a stunning insight that, instead of trying to get up and out of the anxiety, uncertainty, and fragility of this human condition we share, in Christ, the Spirit of God comes down and in, down and into our human condition, sanctifying and transforming this very same human condition I was trying to escape from. And this insight was accompanied by a truly overwhelming experience of the reality of divine love and an awakening and illumination of the heart which, though it has occasionally flickered, has never gone out to this day. 

    I remember the date because it completely changed my life. The anxiety around my vocational direction simply disappeared, as I made the decision that I would commit my life to God, simply follow the leading of God’s Spirit, seek first the Kingdom of God, and let all the other stuff, all the details, work themselves out within that context. A few weeks later, I remember my parents asking me about my plans for after college. I told them that I was planning to seek first the Kingdom of God and let all the other details work themselves out.  As you might imagine, having just paid for my fourth year of college at Duke University, this was not the answer my parents were hoping to hear. But this is pretty much how I have lived my life ever since that day, and this is the path that led me to my ordination in 1989 and to these thirty years of ministry at Holy Trinity.

    Now, shortly after my ordination, within just a few months, I had another major spiritual awakening and a clarification of exactly the kind of priesthood to which God was calling me. This, of course, was my call to the path and practice of Servant Leadership, and the transforming power of that synergy between the inward journey of faith and the outward journey of active service in the world. The journey inward: Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength” - i.e., with the whole of your being. And we have taken Jesus quite literally, developing teachings and practices to awaken and engage all three centers of human intelligence, mind and heart and body, which activates the kind of holistic intelligence that is so desperately needed to address the problems of our world. And the journey outward: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Which is an incredibly radical commandment, which in effect demolishes the split between subject and object, the division between us and them, and the entire illusion of human separateness. And then, according to how and where God is calling us, engaging in active service, co-creation with God and with others in service to the whole of which we are each a part - and to the Kingdom which is the fulfillment of God’s Dream for life on earth. I guess you could say that the development of this body of teaching and practice is also part of the legacy I leave, but this is just among the fruits of what has come through allowing myself to be led by the Spirit of God.

    Now, my experience of this call to Servant Leadership – at least the way I received it - was very specific. It was not a call to leave the institutional church behind and do this other, more radical thing. It was specifically a call to stay in the traditional church and, simultaneously, do this more radical thing. To engage the infrastructure and resources of a traditional church to support the development and teaching of this more radical Christian path, and to do so in a way that would, in turn, bless, renew and spiritually activate the life of the traditional church. And this is precisely what has happened. However, in retrospect, I did not fully realize what I was getting myself into, just how demanding this call would be. As most of you understand, to be a priest leading a large church like Holy Trinity, that in itself is way more than a full-time job, more like a job and a half. And to develop this Servant Leadership work, remember this was not a curriculum someone handed to us, this is something that we worked very hard to co-create over many years. This was at least another half-time job or more. So, I have worked extremely hard for these thirty years, right up to the limits of my human capacity and the limits of my personality. But, again, being led by the Spirit of God means that God is co-creating with us, and somehow the time, the energy, the capacity, the people and the resources that were needed were always there – somehow always provided. That is how co-creation works.

    Speaking of my personality, the truth is that God works and always has worked through flawed, limited, imperfect human beings, like you and like me. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses - all of us. I think one of my contributions to Holy Trinity has been bringing the Enneagram into the culture of our church, because it is a tool which awakens a genuine spirit of humility, authenticity and compassion for the human limitations we all have. On the Enneagram my personality is type five - it’s just the way God made me. At their best, fives can be pioneering visionaries, highly creative, able to see the whole of things, but also at the same time able to see the details with real depth and precision, and how all the pieces within the whole are connected. A downside is that fives also tend to be hard-core introverts, sometimes, under stress, extreme introverts. I would venture to say that there are very few fives who are rectors of large churches like this. But this was God’s call for me, and I have done the best I could. I remember when I was the interim and the vestry was trying to get the Bishop to allow me to be called as rector, Bishop Johnson was meeting with the vestry. I was not in the room, but I am told that, at one point, the Bishop said that Holy Trinity was no longer acting like a normal Episcopal Church. That the church had become a “Tim Patterson personality cult.” To which I believe it was Hattie Aderholdt who responded with a laugh, “It’s not about his personality. In fact, he’s not really very charismatic at all. It’s about what the Spirit is doing in our church.” And I wholeheartedly agreed with that. This church has more than doubled in membership and, I would say, more than doubled in spiritual vitality since then. And it’s not about me. And it’s certainly not about my personality. It’s about an approach to ministry that is truly open to the activity of the Spirit and an approach to leadership that is genuinely responsive to being led by the Spirit of God.

    I also remember, during that interim period, how much I struggled with the discernment process. I felt, with every fiber of my being, that God was calling me to remain at Holy Trinity as rector and to continue this work I had been called to do. But the institution, the diocese and the bishop, had not only closed that door but apparently locked it. And I have told this many times but, in the midst of this struggle, one night up in the mountains at Kanuga, very deep in prayer, I don’t usually hear voices, but this time I clearly heard a voice saying just two words. “Follow me.” Follow me. It was a warm, inviting voice, a Presence I could feel, that conveyed the message to just stay close to me and you will be fine. You don’t need a five or ten year plan. You don’t even need to know the way you are going.  Because I will show you the way, and guide you in the moment, each step of the way. Just stay close to me and I will get you where you are meant to go. And at that point, I surrendered, I stopped struggling, let the whole thing go, stayed present to that Presence, and simply trusted the Spirit to lead me in the way I was supposed to go. Six months later, I was officially called to be rector of this church.

    And this isn’t just a nice story. It really changed me and the way I operated. And this is pretty much how I have operated, literally, ever since becoming rector. I pray, I make room for the Spirit, I pay attention to relationships, I listen deeply to other people, I listen deeply to God, I try to see what gifts the Spirit is bringing forth, and I allow myself and my decisions to be led by the Spirit in that moment, like in this renovation project. I wander around the church, looking for God’s vision and listening for the next right answer, where the Spirit is leading us. If the Spirit says wait, I wait. When the Spirit says act now, I act now. If the Spirit says go this way, I go this way. If the Spirit says go there, that’s the way I go. It’s not organized in a very linear way. And I think my leadership style can sometimes be a little bewildering to more linear, maybe more rigidly organized business and corporate types. But the fruits of being led by the Spirit are the kind of spiritual energy and vitality that we have been blessed with in this church over the years and to this day. This is not the achievement of some master plan that I or the clergy or the vestry came up with. This is something that we have co-created with the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God has been an active agent, a co-creator, in this ministry we have shared and developed. And be assured that the Spirit of God will remain alive and active in this community long after my departure.

    I say all this with the awareness that the church is about to begin a process to find a new leader. And I am also aware that organizations sometimes have a tendency to want to over-correct. To identify the flaws of the previous leader and find someone who is the exact opposite. Like, on a political level, we went from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, then from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Organizations, including churches, can have a tendency to over-correct. However, I urge you to remember, that while this is a corporate-sized church, it is not a corporation. And, while there is certainly a business component to it, this is not a business. It is a spiritual community. And while I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the church seek someone with anything resembling my personality type. In fact, I think a warm and fuzzy extrovert could be great for the church. But, whatever the personality, I truly do hope that this church will seek a man or a woman of prayer, one who genuinely knows God, one who truly is open to and led by the Spirit of God and one who leads this church by the leading of the Spirit of God.

    This is my hope and my prayer for the church. And beyond that, my prayer is primarily a prayer of heart-felt thanksgiving. Gratitude to God for leading me here and guiding me each step of the way in this ministry we have shared. And gratitude to you, each of you, gratitude to this extraordinary, generous, gifted and caring community, for supporting, loving and co-creating with me. Thank you. And thanks be to God!