Fr. Tara's final homily

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Tara McGraw
Rector (2007-2015)

October 11, 2015

Today is my last time to address you during liturgy. As I look back on 10 years of Sundays, I have a heart full of gratitude. You accorded me a great privilege in allowing me to be your priest and lead St. Paul’s as your rector. I want you to know how appreciative of it I am.

I think that being a rector of a church is one of the highest privileges a person can receive, and because I think that, I believe it is not a privilege that should be retained indefinitely. By the time Tom Damrosch, the rector before me, left St. Paul’s, it was very different from when Larry Smellie, the rector before him, left. St. Paul’s now is very different from when Tom Damrosch left. Only some of those differences are attributable to the rector: every time a new member comes or an existing member leaves, the passions, the desires and the capabilities of the church change somewhat, and those changes become cumulative. Lay leadership shifts. Culture changes, the neighborhood changes, opportunities come and go, even how we think of church in general changes. The capability of good, joyful leadership is a fragile magic, affected by all of that. It is high art for a rector to be aware of when it’s time to give way for someone else to lead. I intended to do that about a year in the future from now, but in praying faithfully over the summer about the events of last spring, I realized that the time had already come, and indeed I wished I had seen that a bit earlier. I am sure now it is definitely “time.”

So I leave because I care deeply for St. Paul’s, and I am able to leave at peace because I am very mindful of St Paul’s teaching in his first letter to the Corinthians. He wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (3:6) St. Paul goes on to say, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (3:7) God was at work in St. Paul’s before I came, I saw God at work in St. Paul’s while I was here, and I know God will remain at work in St. Paul’s now and throughout the future. St. Paul’s is God’s church, and God cares for it. That gives me peace, and that is your peace as well. I know that God will continue to do great things here, and you should know that, also. I hope you will look for where God is working at St. Paul’s and join in! And I hope you will add your voice as direction is sought and decisions are made throughout this season and beyond into St. Paul’s future.

I wish to express publicly my gratitude to the wardens, the treasurer and the vestry for their graciousness to me in this time of transition. John and I do not intend to move from our home in Naples, and I will not take another rectorate at a church near St. Paul’s, so this may be my last full time, pensionable position as a priest. Although like most rector contracts in the Episcopal Church mine provided for sabbatical time, still, leaving earlier than I intended presented some unanticipated financial obstacles for me, including that for want of just a few weeks, there was going to be a very large reduction in my future retirement benefits with the national church. Your vestry graciously helped bridge that gap, and I am very grateful. Thank you very, very much, and thank you, the people of St. Paul’s.

Most of all, I am grateful personally for you, each one of you sitting here today and each member of St. Paul’s up north who hasn’t yet returned to Naples. Thank you for so many Sundays of worshipping our Lord together; thank you for so many hours of ministry and care-taking for love of God and neighbor or for love of this church; thank you, some of you, for allowing me to be your spiritual companion in the good times and really bad times of your lives. What is hardest for me is leaving you whom I have come to love. I have a deep sense of loss in severing relationship with you. I understand the diocese’s policy that a former rector not continue to perform priestly functions for members of the church she has left, and not continue to associate with them, and I will honor that policy, but it is very hard when relationships go back as long as many of ours. I would love to say, “I know I can’t continue to be your priest, but maybe we could be friends,” but I can’t say that, at least for a while. But I can pray for you. Know that I will always love you in my heart, and so my spirit will pray for you from my heart’s depths.

In this, I join all of you who have suffered deep losses in your life. Times you have moved away, or people you love have moved away. Times a special someone has died. Times you have changed jobs, or retired, and would no longer daily see people you had seen more than your own family. The faithful way to handle the loss of people in our lives is to focus on our gratitude and appreciation for the person and for the relationship having existed, to remember all the reasons we are grateful and to celebrate them, rather than focusing on the pain of the person not continuing to be in our life. We realize that the pain is sweet pain, because it is full of love for the person and the relationship that was, and we realize we are so glad to have had the relationship for however long it lasted, and we would never wish not to have had it in order to avoid the present pain. The pain is full of the beauty and joy of what was, and it makes us cherish the person and the relationship even more, and as our soul fills with that gratitude we can find the ability to bear the emptiness of the current loss. This is how I will think of you.

Many of you have asked what I am going to do after St. Paul’s. In the short term, I am going to live into sabbatical time. One thing I am going to do is catch up on a lot of backlogged personal matters I just couldn’t get to when I was pouring myself into being your rector. Things that really needed to get done, like some financial and legal things, and getting my dad’s ashes in the ground where they are supposed to be. Getting things like that done will be a great relief. A lot have built up, and it will take quite a bit of time to tackle them. How many of you have had things building up on your shoulders, and suddenly at some point an opportunity opened to do something about them, and you can remember how good it felt to do them. If you are procrastinating with some of those things on your shoulders right now, I’m happy to share my life-changing event with you for that purpose—as I’m tackling my built-up things, perhaps it can be your inspiration to get those things of yours done.

I also realize that my devotion to my vocation had a big cost that wasn’t borne by me—it was borne by my husband, John, who graciously allowed the loss of me in his life on an ongoing basis. Now I hope and intend to restore and replenish a little bit, spending time just being with him that I couldn’t do before. 

Lastly in the short term, I asked myself what I most passionately wanted to do unique to me, with this wonderful opening of time. When did you last ask yourself something like that? If you have some time in your life that doesn’t absolutely, positively have to be spent on something else, please take the opportunity to ask yourself that question, “What do I most passionately want to do unique to me, with this wonderful gift of time?” That is so important to being a good steward of your life, so important to being appreciative of the precious gift of your life. In my case, I got a whole waterfall of stuff as an answer: I want to deepen my sense of my own humanity right here, from learning more about the plants, animals and ecosystems around me, to learning more history than I got in public school and to exploring arts and maybe even music, and now that I’m not so far away from being 60, learning more about better care of my body as I age.

So I am going to make the very most I can of my time out. And what after that? I don’t know. I don’t think that God is finished with me yet as an ordained priest. I have some beginnings of ideas, but I need to give the Holy Spirit time to work to coalesce them a lot more, if the Holy Spirit wishes to, or to suggest something else. I am pretty sure that whatever I do won’t be traditional, other than maybe filling in as a supply priest at churches on an occasional Sunday. Some of you have suggested I consider particular things, and my radar is open, so thank you; they remain possible. I feel myself being drawn to gaps in church capabilities, and to gaps between church and culture, but like almost all of churches and church goers today, I don’t know quite what to do about it. The Holy Spirit needs to help. You can help by praying for me, and I hope you will.

I pray for St. Paul’s a glorious future of living ever deeper into our vision statement of being a community of joy, love and healing; of being a community to find friendship with God and our neighbor, and the best in ourselves. I pray for Fr. Bill, your wardens, treasurer and vestry God’s wisdom, provision and inspiration. I would like to pray now for each of you: The Lord be with you. ….

Loving God, I give you thanks for each person here and for each member of the St. Paul’s family still up north. I name each of them, in my heart. I thank you for all they have meant to me over these years, and for the many gifts of all kinds they have given St. Paul’s as we ministered together, especially the gift of themselves. Thank you for allowing me the privilege of ministry among them. Dear God, continue to prosper their work of all kinds and in all places that they do as your child. Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, you know and love each of them so deeply, please grant them the desires of their hearts.

In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.