Pastors and Teachers: Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath

The following was preached on Sunday, March 13, 2016 for the Installation of the Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath as the Associate Pastor of First Parish Church in Derry, New Hampshire:

Installations are oddly named events.

I know this has all been said before, but it bears repeating. We think of “installation” and we think about setting up washing machines or installing a piece of software or going to an art installation. We don’t think about something having to do with an active human being. Even other professions use words like “inauguration” to talk about the start of a new position.

But here in the church world we have stuck to “installation”. No one is exactly sure why, but that’s okay. The good news about church installations, though, is that unlike installing your dishwasher or a new computer program, this is a pretty exciting occasion.

Representatives from all over the Rockingham Association and the greater UCC are here. Heidi’s friends have come to Derry today. The choir is singing special pieces, and there’s a big reception down in the fellowship hall afterwards. We are making a pretty big deal about this installation of Heidi Carrington Heath.

And that’s why I think it’s so important that we remember that today is not about Heidi. Not really, anyway.

165959_10154423704977538_3898712089897527048_nSome of you were at Heidi’s ordination back in December. That was an amazing day, full of celebration. And that day was not just about Heidi either, but it definitely was about God’s call on her. She made ordination vows, and we laid on hands and prayed for her. That day was about who God has called Heidi to be.

But today is about First Parish Church of East Derry, and the chapter of ministry that God is now calling you into together. And that’s why the words we read from Ephesians are so important this morning. Paul writes to the Ephesians that, “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

You have called Heidi to be a “pastor and teacher” of this congregation. She has been called to the ministry by God, and she has been trained and equipped to do the work that is set before her. But she is not called into this ministry alone. Every one of you who is a member of this congregation is being called into this ministry too.

That is because we are all called to specific forms of ministry by the very fact that we have been baptized into Christ’s body. The calling of pastors and teachers is specific, but it is not any more valuable than any other calling. And in a congregation, if the pastors are the only ones who are living into their call to ministry, that is not sustainable. Each of you has a calling, and by being here today, you are saying you are going to listen to that calling so that Heidi can effectively live into hers as a pastor and teacher of this church.

And that’s why this reminder from Paul is so important here. Listen to what he tells the church in Ephesus about there callings: “I therefore…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Unless you are willing to live into that calling together, there is no point going forward in this installation. Unless you are willing to, as Paul says, “live a life worth of the calling” and work together to make this a place of exceptional ministry, you cannot hope to have a vibrant ministry here.

You have stepped out in faith to call Heidi. You have listened for the voice of God and, after discernment, you have created a new associate pastor position. That means that you have helped to create this ministry, and by installing Heidi into this position you are not simply turning it over. You are saying that you will continue to live into your own calling to ministry, and that you will serve with her. You are taking these installation vows alongside of her.

And so, in that spirit, I want to offer a few reminders that I offer at every installation I’m asked to preach at. First, a reminder that Heidi has been called to ministry here. She has not been hired, and she is not your employee. She has been brought by God to this ministry, and you have affirmed that call.

That means that, unlike an employee, sometimes she is going to say and do things that challenge you, or that push you out of your comfort zones. That’s her job. Know that she will never do those things to be unkind or difficult. She will only do them because she truly believes she is doing what God asks of her.

Also remember that just because she is not an employee it doesn’t mean that she is any less invested in her work. Trust me, I live with her. Heidi works hard for you because she is already living into this covenant with you.

That also means that, like every clergy person I know, Heidi is going to overwork at times. And so, if you want to keep her running at her best, make her practice self-care. Make her take time off. Make her do continuing education and professional development. Make her take the time and space she needs to be refreshed so that she can serve you creatively.

Next, remember that while she is “installed” she is different than other things that get installed. She is not a laundry machine or dish washer that you load up, flip on, and walk away from while she does all the work.

Nor is she a software program or an app that has been installed at the church and which will now solve all your problems. Nor is she a piece of artwork whose job it is to remain passively in its place.

Heidi is a pastor and teacher. She is one your pastors and teachers. And the single greatest predictor of great she will be at that role is this: how you choose to minister with her, and how you live into your own calls to ministry.

And so, as you get ready to start this new chapter of ministry together, I have one piece of advice that I hope you’ll take to heart. And that’s this: pray. Pray for Heidi. Pray for all who serve your church. Pray for your church itself.

I don’t say this lightly. I’m not saying just do it today, or whenever you think of it. I’m asking you to commit to regularly, even daily, praying for your clergy and for this congregation. Pray that God would bless your clergy with insight and faithfulness. Pray that your church would proclaim the Gospel and serve the world. But most of all, pray that God would make clear to you your own call to ministry in this place, and that God would give you the ability to live into that calling every day.

God has great things in store for you, First Parish. Today is just a reminder of that fact. And as you turn the page on that new chapter, I pray that you would keep writing this story with Heidi, and with one another. It’s going to be an incredible one; I just know it. Amen.

The Next Part of the Journey

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

Over the past few weeks I have shared this news elsewhere, but now that the news has been shared with my current congregation, I want to share this here for those of you who follow my blog.

On Sunday, May 4th, I was called as the new senior pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, a United Church of Christ congregation in New Hampshire. The Congregational Church in Exeter was founded 375 years ago, and has a rich history of witnessing to Christ’s love in southern New Hampshire. The congregation continues to be vital, and is an important contributor to the Exeter community. This, along with their Open and Affirming commitment, their Eco-Theology covenant, and more drew me to prayerfully consider this call. But it was my meetings with their search committee, and the deep faith and passion for a strong future for the church that they exhibited, that helped me to know that God was calling me Exeter.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Earlier this month my family had another celebration as well. My wife, Heidi Carrington Heath, graduated with her Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. After years of coursework, internships, worship services, and ordination interviews, it was a day of profound joy and blessing. And it was also a day of commissioning. God has great things in mind for Heidi. I’ve known that since I met her. And now it will be my turn to stand beside her as she sees where God is calling to her next.

My last day at West Dover Congregational Church will be June 22nd. We will be moving to Exeter the next day, and I will begin ministry at the Exeter church on July 15th. Heidi will be searching for her first ordainable call in the surrounding area as well. In all of this we have both felt extremely clear that we are being called together to make this step in faith, and we are confident of God’s grace.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

But to be clear, leaving is not easy. For the last four years I have been deeply blessed by the congregation of West Dover Congregational Church. In that time we have nearly doubled in size, we have had a successful Open and Affirming process, we have reached out further to our community, we have maintained the legacy of a sister church who closed, and we have undertaken major capital improvements. It has been an incredibly busy few years. But, more importantly, we have had moments together where I know that Christ was present, and where I know I saw God.

But there comes a time for every pastor when they are called to something new. When that call came for my family it was indeed joyful, but there was plenty of bittersweet there too. We love Vermont, and we love our church. But we also know that God is calling us to the next step. And God is calling West Dover Congregational Church on to the next step too. And for the next part of the journey they will walk with someone else. And for the next part of my journey, I will walk with someone else too. And soon, I know Heidi will walk with a congregation on their journey as well. And God will be with all of us along the way.


Questioning Advent: Day Three – 22 Years

999793_776477625701050_1389697935_nNote from Emily Heath: Yesterday I asked my wife, Heidi Carrington Heath, whether she might like to write the devotional today. Today is an anniversary of sorts for her, and one that challenges the idea of hope. She said, “yes”. I’m grateful for the devotional which is found below, and for Heidi’s courage in telling this story. What follows are her words: 

22 years ago today, my life changed forever.

My father took his own life in a deserted parking lot in upstate New York.  After years of deep and constant addiction to alcohol, his demons became more than he could bear.  His dark nights of the soul were many, and this dark night in particular ended in utter despair.   Now, I find peace in knowing that he is finally at rest after so many years of torment.

Every year the anniversary of my father’s death falls during Advent.   It falls during the time in the church year when we light candles into the darkness as we watch and wait together for the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.   We speak the profound truth that Christians for millennia have whispered into even the most consuming darkness: In Jesus, there is hope.   We are not alone.

Embracing the light of hope when we cannot see the road ahead and do not know where it leads is a powerful leap of faith.   It is a terrifying exercise in trust.

Hope is the addict who walks into their first 12-step meeting after years of battling addiction alone.

Hope is the young person whose life is being cut short by vicious cancer, but commits to living every moment with bold compassion and a heart cracked wide open.

Hope is the friend who reaches out to repair an estranged relationship despite hurt and anger, because love is greater than fear.

Hope is an unwed mother in Galilee who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and sings a subversive song of praise unto God in spite of her fear.

The profound hope brought to us in Christ doesn’t come in a neat, clean, gift-wrapped package with a bow on top.   It comes to us in the form of a vulnerable, tiny, baby boy, born in a stable to unwed parents on a cold winter’s night.   It reminds us that Christian hope is messy, but with just a little bit of boldness it can conquer even the darkest night.

Question:  Where are the dark places in your life?  This advent, where will you take a leap of trusting God to live into the hope that Jesus’ brings to us?

Prayer:  Holy One, Sometimes we cannot see the road ahead of us.   We have no idea where we are going.  We are afraid.**  Yet we know that hope is greater than fear, darkness, or the demons that sometimes consume us.  Give us hearts to sing like Mary, and the courage take a step forward in hope.  Even one step can help crack open the darkness.   We don’t know how you’ll do it, but you promised, God.  O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  We cannot do it alone.   Amen.

**Thanks to Thomas Merton for saying it best.  If you don’t know the Merton Prayer, it’s a keeper.

If you are struggling with suicidal feelings, or thinking about hurting yourself, please reach out to someone. There is always hope. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is: 1-800-273-TALK

Where Do We Go From Here: A Sermon by Heidi Carrington Heath in the Aftermath of the Bombings

IMG_0686Note: this is not my own sermon, by one written by my wife, Heidi Carrington Heath. Heidi is a seminarian under care of Old South Church in Boston, the church located at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The first worship service of that congregation was this Thursday night. Due to the fact the area is still considered a crime scene, Old South worshipped at the neighboring Church of the Covenant. She had already been scheduled to preach before the bombings. This is what she said to a congregation still in shock:

I love to preach at this service.  I had a text all picked out.  My sermon was well planned.  The ideas were percolating.  I knew exactly what I wanted to say to you tonight.   And then, it was Monday.   Beautiful, sunny, Marathon Monday.   It is practically a High Holy Day here in Boston.   I was sad to be away from the city for the first time in a number of years.  While I mumble and moan about the traffic on Patriot’s Day, and the ways it clogs up my commute, I not so secretly love the marathon.  I love what it stands for.   Dedication, hard work, determination, the resilience and perseverance of the human spirit.

This year I was almost through a full day of work wistfully wishing I was spending my sunny afternoon at the marathon when my phone buzzed.   The words on my screen read as if in slow motion.  A text message from one of my best friends said this:  “Hi.  You are going to hear soon there was a bomb at the marathon finish line.  I am okay.  I wanted you to know before the news broke.  I love you.  Don’t worry.”   I read the message over and over almost unable to process it.  Bomb.  Finish Line.  Don’t worry.   It couldn’t be…

I turned on the TV and the images came.  Fast.  Furious.  Heartbreaking.   Our beloved city being attacked in this way.   There was blood and devastation on our doorstep.   It didn’t feel real.   How could this be happening?   My co-workers and I held hands and shared a Kleenex box in the main part of our building as we watched in disbelief.  Almost immediately, I began watch social media and news reports with rapt attention for information of our beloved Old South.    It was a rare moment of joy when I discovered our church was safe.

A well meaning colleague of mine wrote me an email on Thursday night.  She said:  God has a purpose for all of this, we may never understand it, but there is a reason for everything.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find those words very comforting.

My words of comfort look a little more like tonight’s scripture passage:  The Lord is my Shepherd.   I shall not want.   (Do you know it?  If so, won’t you say it with me?)  She makes me lie down in green pastures.   She leadeth me beside the still waters.   She restoreth my soul.

Now, I understand where my friend was coming from.  I really do.   When the world feels too hard, too big, too awful to understand, it is our instinct to rush to quick, accessible theology in an effort to make sense of it all when things seem so senseless.    It is somehow easier to attribute the horror of something like a bomb to God than it is to another human being.

But here’s the thing.

I don’t believe that God causes bombs to explode.   I don’t believe that God sends attacks on our city as the result of some kind of celestial revenge for bad behavior, or in a wrath of heavenly anger.   That’s not the God I know and love.

William Paul Young, author of the popular book The Shack says it like this:  Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen, but I do believe that God can work for good even in the midst of something unspeakable.

Here are a few examples of what the Holy One looks like to me as she works in our midst…

He looks like a lot like 1st LT Stephen Fiola and 1st Sargeant Bernard Madore of the Massachusetts national guard who ran into the flames when the first blast came to help the injured.

She looks a lot like the countless, tireless first responders who have worked around the clock since Monday.

Or how about the marathon runners who had just run TWENTY SIX POINT TWO MILES and kept running another mile and a half to Mass General Hospital to donate blood for their fallen and injured community?

I see it in the countless neighbors and community members who were Christ to each other in these recent days:  offering food, shelter, safety, even the clothes off their backs to help the stranger in a time of need.

This is the God I know, beloved.    Our tender shepherd who does not leave her sheep alone, even and especially in times of great trial.    On a less than ordinary April night when we cry out:  my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   God is Emmanuel, God with us.   She is living out her promise:  I will be with you always.

That is why we gather here tonight. We gather not to pretend that what has happened on our doorstep did not happen.   But to remind ourselves that death will never have the last word. We gather tonight to be in communion with the one whose rod and staff comforts us in times of great.   We come to rest our weary hearts on the font of God’s still speaking love. We come to be with the one who does not and will not leave us alone.

Smoke may have clouded the finish line one sunny, Monday afternoon.  But it is not the end of the race.  Tonight, we lace up our running shoes, and begin anew.  We walk and run with steps of mercy, love, justice, and compassion.

Though the road seems long, and the journey may make us weary…

Though right now it may seem that we are running up heartbreak hill for miles and miles…

We are not alone.

To that end, will you join hands with the person next to you?  Let us pray.

Holy One,

We have so many questions and so few answers.

Our pain is raw and our tears are fresh.

We cannot see the road ahead.

And yet, we give you thanks for your presence with us in these dark days.

We have seen you move among us in powerful ways.

Help us to turn away from darkness and toward the light that we might see you in one another.

May we seek solace in community, knowing we are not alone.