Homily Given at the Installation of the Reverend Brett Backus as Rector of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, Farragut, Tennessee
The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess | November 28, 2018
I. Introduction: New Beginnings: Journeying with Father Brett. Father Brett, approximately ten years ago, you and I began our journey together as brother priests. To bring everyone up to speed, the story began like this. You were traveling through, not to, Knoxville where you had visited with your Bishop and your family before returning to graduate from Virginia Theological Seminary. You didn’t intend to stay here in Knoxville too long. As I remember you had hopes for a position in the Washington DC area. In what I recognized as an act of obedience to your Bishop, you agreed to come and meet with me at Church of the Ascension. Our first full conversation was in essence a kind of job interview, but unlike any I’d ever experienced before. As we talked I could discern that your gifts would fit the needs of Ascension extremely well and urged you to talk with Carla about considering a call to Ascension. And you said something like this: “This is a real bummer! I think I might really like it here, but that throws all my plans out the window. This is not what I had in mind!” The rest is history. You did come and begin a highly successful ministry at Ascension. And we also developed a deep friendship that continues between us to this day. So began the journey that you and I have had together. And tonight the stole that I am wearing is from The Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan here in Knoxville. Brett, this is the church that has formed you, sponsored you, and is very, very proud of you.
II. Now you have become the Rector of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church and have begun a major new chapter in your spiritual and vocational journey. And likewise, people of St. Elizabeth’s, you have also begun a new chapter in your history, one about which I sense you have considerable enthusiasm. Most journeys, especially rich and life-changing ones, are not taken alone.
They are undertaken with companions — companions you can trust and rely upon as the journey unfolds. No wonder that the Gospel reading selected for this evening’s service is Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus. I understand that this story has already become a metaphor for your shared journey here. It has been the focus of early sermons and a central reading in your recent home Eucharists. I can see how this Scripture speaks to this time in your relationship: As your journey begins, you do not need to be afraid. Christ is walking with you and, know it or not, will continue to be at the very heart of your unfolding ministry together.
Tonight I’d like to ponder three elements of your new shared ministry. First, I’d like to reflect upon what may it be like to journey with Fr. Brett; secondly, what will the journey be like in the company of St. Elizabeth’s? And finally what about the journey transcends this time, place, and specific persons? So first, traveling with Fr. Brett. Let me begin by complimenting you, St. Elizabeth’s Search Committee, Vestry, and parish for selecting Fr. Brett as your Rector. My close observations over the past ten years have led me to believe that you have selected a strong and capable leader who will be exceedingly reliable, trustworthy, and honest in his relationship with you. Just as I described in my first meeting with Brett years ago, he will clearly share with you what he thinks and hopes. You can depend on him to lead you, but not to try to control you. Brett is a strong believer in self- determination. He will set goals with you, not for you. Your journey will be a mutual endeavor where together you will discern what Christ is calling you to be and to do. Fr. Brett will be your guide, your shepherd, and your encourager as the journey unfolds. He is an excellent preacher and with Carla, organizes life- changing mission trips to Bolivia. Fr. Brett is not given to unnecessary drama, but at the same time has a deep sense of loyalty and commitment to those he loves and those in his care. And let me not forget to share that he has a wicked sense of humor!
As I’m sure you already have surmised, Brett is deeply rooted in and sustained by his family and takes his responsibilities as a husband and a father most seriously. He has a beautiful family. His wife Carla is both strong and loving. And one cannot help but fall in love with his two children Haven and Bella. What an incredible family you have built, Brett and Carla. As you all come to know Brett’s mother and father better, you’ll understand that Brett comes by this quality — family building — very naturally. And by the way, have I told you that he is a really funny guy?
As we look again at how Jesus presented Himself on the road to Emmaus, it is clear that the Resurrected Jesus did not inject a sense of self-importance into his interaction with the two disciples. He waited for them to express their own disappointment and grief; he waited for them to invite him to stay and share a meal with them; and he waited for them to discover for themselves who he was. I believe that your experience with Brett will also emerge and deepen as you walk together. He has the gift of strong humility — not necessarily about the Green Bay Packers — but in every other area.
III. Journeying with St. Elizabeth’s. I would not presume to say that I know you well, but as a priest in the diocese for 15 years and a close West Knoxville neighbor for most of that time, I have watched your life as a congregation with interest. You sit on the edge of Knoxville’s growth line. And you are surrounded by families of all ages in need of a spiritual community. Your potential to grow, thrive, nurture and serve others in this place where God has planted you is phenomenal! I hope that you will not only embrace your blessings of location and a new leader, but that you just plain run with them! As new people visit and as others return to their former home, open your arms to them. As you grow, do so with grace, allowing others to fully experience worshiping in this beautiful sanctuary; to hear and join your exceptional choir; to enroll their children and youth in your Christian Formation and Youth Programs; and perhaps most importantly, to join you in shared ministry with and to each other and to the greater community.
Share your love and your decision-making authority with them and be open to new ideas for ministry
Not unlike many churches, you have on occasion been challenged in your life together. I can imagine that for a time your future may have seemed fuzzy; you have waited eagerly for your new Rector. Just like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, you must have sometimes felt like you were walking into the setting sun. When we walk into the setting sun the still-bright sunlight shines into our eyes, and we are not sure that we can see what lies ahead. I also know that you have had a fine interim priest who has lovingly prepared you to move forward. But I would propose to you that it is the very experience of not knowing that has allowed the Holy Spirit to further shape and form you. It is paradoxical, but I believe that the moments of complication and struggle have prepared you, St. Elizabeth’s, to be genuinely open to the direction the Risen Christ would have you to move. I believe you are stronger for having spent some time in the wilderness and are emerging whole for the exciting time that lies ahead.
IV. The Journey That Transcends. I would hope that all of us here this evening comprehend that our journey on the road to Emmaus is bigger than any one person, time, or place. We are part of a community of pilgrims walking our way to the Promised Land. First, we want to see that we are in the presence of a Reconciling Christ. This is the Christ who brings all things unto Himself and sends the Holy Spirit to guide our specific steps. I do not believe that Father Brett has become Rector here at St. Elizabeth’s due to chance. Nor do I believe that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus randomly met Christ. These meetings and the reconciliation threaded throughout them have been intentional. The disciples on the road were in a state of grief and confusion. Their hopes had been dashed. That was when Christ came to them! And when did they discover who he was? Only after they had traveled together for a time, later, in a common meal together. Maybe it was the way that Jesus looked at them, the familiar look in his eyes; maybe they recognized his hands or perhaps his voice became more familiar. And when they discerned who was with them, they were transformed by his teaching and by his presence. Their grief turned into joy, and they rushed back to tell the others in Jerusalem.
How do we translate this into tonight’s moment? Both you, St. Elizabeth’s, and you, Fr. Brett, have been faithfully waiting for clarity about what was to come next. And in God’s own time the answers have been given to you. What I’m really saying is that it’s time for some morning sunrise joy and enthusiasm. Now I know Fr. Brett that you are a cradle Episcopalian, and I know that cradle Episcopalians sometimes value the virtue of decorum and order. But this is a moment of celebration. Let’s go for it — let’s capture the moment. Dare I say — can we have an enthusiastic amen? Hmmm. Couldn’t hear you. Let me ask again. Can we have an Amen? Thank you.
V. A New Day. This is a new day in the life of our church. No one captures this moment’s vitality as well as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. He often says that the role of the church is “to change the world from the nightmare it often is, to the dream that God intends, and that we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” So St. Elizabeth’s and Father Brett, take your rightful place on the branch. There are souls in West Knoxville who need your attention; there are people who need to sit at the table and see Christ in their fellowship with you. And there are many who need to walk with you and know the joy and discovery of the love of Christ and of Christ’s people. Thank you God for all that has already and will continue to take place here; for the possibilities that you have created in this place; and for the means to bring these possibilities into the reality of your Kingdom. And together let us all say: Thanks be to God! Amen.