St Mary's Chapel, Nashotah House--I Thessalonians 3:6-13
Earlier this month, while on vacation out west, my wife and I drove—in one day, no less—from Big Sky, Montana, near the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park—up to Belgrade, which is just west of Bozeman, and then westward on I-90 up through Butte and Missoula and across the Idaho panhandle and on into Washington through Spokane, eventually cutting southward to the “Inland Empire” cities of Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland, then across the Columbia River into Oregon, turning westward again through the amazing Columbia Gorge to Portland, and finally the 50 miles or so southward on I-5 to Salem. That was some 750 miles, and we did it in about 14 hours!
There was a bit of nostalgia for Brenda and me as we did this, because that route, traveling in the other direction, represented a significant chunk of our journey 31 years ago from our home in Salem to make a new long-term temporary home for our family just a few hundred yards from this chapel, down in the Flats. We had sold our home, quit our jobs, pulled our children out of the only network of relationships they had ever known, and, most-wrenchingly, pulled ourselves out of a very close-knit and supportive parish church community that was the center of our life together. All five of us were experiencing substantial separation anxiety.
If there is an organic institutional neurosis at Nashotah House, I suspect it might be separation anxiety. Indeed, some here can probably map very closely with the family experience that I just described. You have left homes and jobs in order to be here. While less common, it’s not unknown for someone to leave his or her own nuclear family in order to be in residence at Nashotah House. All among the students, even the hybrid-distance students when they’re on campus, have left familiar patterns of life and relationships. Now, one might think that the faculty and staff have a more stable relationship to the institution. Of course, never having been either one, I can’t speak in the first person on this, but I suspect even the members of the “permanent” campus community undergo periodic episodes of grief (or, I don’t know, in some cases, perhaps, relief?!) every May as one more class graduates. And we represent, among ourselves in this moment, and whenever the community gathers for the regular round of worship in this place—we represent the full gamut, or nearly so, of positions in the worldwide landscape of global Anglicanism and para-Anglicanism, and beyond, which is a classification that has experienced more than its share of separation anxiety over the last few years.
We have a snippet this evening from Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. As I understand the historical context of this document, always willing to be corrected by more knowledgeable present company (!), it was written, possibly from Berea or Athens, if it’s appropriate to harmonize it with the narrative in Acts, just a few weeks, or perhaps even days, after Paul made an emergency exit from Thessalonica in order to escape a clear risk of great bodily harm. Both he and the still relatively newly-established Thessalonian church were enduring sudden and unwanted separation. This is an emotionally charged passage. It drips with longing and affection. “Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you.”
Aidan of Lindisfarne also knew something about separation. He was a member of the monastic community at Iona in the seventh century when King Oswald of Northumbria sent for missionaries to come re-evangelize the territory he had recently won back from pagan forces. Aidan was chosen to lead that missionary effort, and, being under a vow of obedience, he went, and established a base of operations with his monastic confreres at Lindisfarne. By dint more of sheer persistent faithful determination than any memorable brilliance, he succeeded to a degree that, were it to happen in our context, would be considered fabulous. He lived another twenty years, and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, never returned to Iona even for a visit. The separation was permanent. St Aidan understood it to be the cost of discipleship, the price of gospel ministry.
There’s a hymn, in the Hymnal 1940, one that didn’t survive the 1982 revision, that was clearly intended to be used in the context of sending missionaries off to distant and dangerous foreign lands. “Ye Christian heralds, go proclaim, salvation in Emmanuel’s Name: To distant climes the tidings bear, and plant the Rose of Sharon there.” That certainly evokes a bygone era, does it not?! But the final verse is poignant, because it implies not just “goodbye,” but “farewell”: “And when our labors all our o’er, then, may we meet to part no more, meet, with the ransomed throng to fall, and crown the Savior Lord of all.” You can imagine the tears flowing on an occasion when this hymn is sung. The prospect of separation was concrete, but joy abounded because of shared comradeship in the gospel.
What gave Paul, and then Aidan, and then hosts of others, the strength to keep on keeping on under a panoply of adverse conditions, including but not limited to, separation? It was, I would suggest, comradeship in the gospel with those from whom he was involuntarily separated. Paul says to the Thessalonians: “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” And just a little later, he offers them this benediction: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father.” Comradeship in the gospel brings joy in the midst of separation. Again, as Paul tells the Thessalonians, “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God.”
Those of you who have been sent here by a community that you were an integral part of, you continue, in your separation, to be comrades in the gospel with the people of that community, and they with you. That is a source of great joy. Only a few weeks ago, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, which, you will recall, fell on a Sunday this year, Brenda and I worshipped with the congregation of St Timothy’s in Salem, Oregon, the parish that sent us on our way to Nashotah House in 1986. It was a luminous occasion. Only a few folks there have been around long enough to remember us, but that includes the rector, because I was one of his catechists for confirmation in that very parish! We have visited many times over the years, and, to this day, feel a deep sense of continuing comradeship with them in the gospel, which is a source of great joy
Those of you who will serve Christ’s church in ordained ministry, the communities you will serve—unless you’re going to be a church planter, and I hope some of you are—the communities you will serve already exist, and you are already comrades with them in the gospel. Let me ask: Have you thought about beginning to pray for them, even though their identity is yet unknown? This could be a great source of joy for you—anxiety and trepidation as well, to be sure, but great joy.
Those of you who sit in the perpendicular stalls, and nearby, you are in the enviable position of watching comrades in the gospel grow and mature, stumble and fall, stand up, fuller of grace than they were before, and go out from here to serve competently, and sometimes courageously, as pastors and leaders. That must be a source of great joy for you.
Separation hurts, my brothers and sisters. You don’t need me to tell you that. Even when grief is relatively slight, it’s still grief, and it’s still painful. But both grace and joy abound in the midst of that separation because we are joined together, not just in the waters of baptism, but as heralds, witnesses to God’s re-creation, God’s new day, in Christ, to all the world. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.