Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Lake Worth, Florida
The Eve of Advent III [Dec. 10, 2005]
Canon Richard T. Nolan


on the occasion of Fr. Hamilton’s pre-retirement, final Eucharist with Integrity-Palm Beach

     In much of my career as a philosophy professor, it was necessary to engage in considerable self-promotion. In the college setting there were very few openings each year for rank and salary advancements. To demonstrate one's qualifications for promotions through various professional activities, it was necessary to develop strategies to convince department chairpersons, faculty committees, deans, and presidents that an applicant deserved to be among the few moved up the ladder. Self-promotion was also required to secure opportunities for one's continuing education and for projects. It was also necessary to lobby for a satisfactory teaching schedule, preferred class size, particular courses to teach, sufficient office and classroom equipment, secretarial assistance, and for effective involvement in the institution's governance. The work as a professor was very competitive and not always congenial among colleagues.


      Experts on self-promotion have provided guidelines on how to achieve one's objectives, such as "set goals and plan your campaign," "focus on the specific people you need to know for their direct or indirect support," "become known in the broader community through media exposure," "develop and use a website, brochure, newsletter, or clever stationery," "dress appropriately: look the part," and "learn techniques for convincing people." All of this self-promotion can be carried out aggressively or assertively, clumsily or with style, at the wrong time or the right moment, and, justly or ruthlessly. Furthermore, even when one has used the most honorable, successful strategies, one must deal with mean-spirited responses from envious colleagues. The celebration of each other's accomplishments is not the norm in academic circles! Like our culture, resentment against achievement permeates the hearts and minds of those serving in many vocations.


     I am convinced that vocational self-promotion implemented ethically is compatible with being a Christian. Graceful ambition can be a sign of healthy self-acceptance, self-regard, self-confidence, and enthusiasm for the work one is called to do.


     Nonetheless, there are dangers for those required to compete in their work. Self-promotion can spill over into all areas of our lives and even become addictive. Among friends and family as well as in all activities we might demand center stage. We might create inappropriate competition outside the workplace. We may become seduced by the exhilaration of recognition in what we do and demand the same in all our relationships. In the extreme, we might join with a movie character who shouts out in anguished exhaustion, "To each man, he is the center of the universe." We could come to believe that the maxim "Always watch out for number one" fits well for us in all situations, personal as well as occupational. Each of us could come to live out the conviction, "I am the clue to my life – and everyone else’s."


     To all such excesses John the Baptist serves as a correcting hero. Although he was an ambitious attention-getter, even his career efforts were not ultimately for himself. His very job was to be a "pointer" to someone else. He appears to have set goals and planned his campaign wisely. He focused on people he needed to know for their support. John became known in the broader community. He learned techniques for convincing people. Whether he dressed the part appropriately and how successful he was are arguable issues; and, I doubt that he had anything like a website, newsletter, brochure, or clever stationery.

     It might escape our attention that John was a faithful pointer to a low-class Jew, Jesus, as God's Anointed One - Jesus, the embodiment of the Creator's purposes for humanity. For those whose lives have been surrendered to habitual self-promotion and unbridled ambition, John's call is no incidental matter. The pressures and anxieties accompanying some vocational self-promotion may be necessary and even exhilarating. However, the constant pointing to oneself in personal life as well can be isolating and hellish. John's messages to turn around, to repent, and to be realigned with God’s Will have been with us throughout the centuries as warnings to those who have become the centers of their little worlds. People so centered are on the wrong road, a dead-end journey burning them up in exhaustion and delusions of grandeur.


     As is every other Christian congregation and parish activity, Saint Andrew’s and Integrity-Palm Beach is called to share in the ministry of John the Baptist. Uniquely with John, you and I are called to be faithful pointers to Jesus Christ and the social justices flowing from God's Word. Our mission is not only to care for deserving people, but to invite them into Christ's fellowship – even though they might have been brutalized by Christian churches. In this place, you and I as the Church worship and give thanks to God through Christ; we learn and teach; we gather for forgiveness, healing, fellowship and care in Christ's Name; we are guided by Jesus Christ who is the clue to all we are and all we do. If we fail to be pointers to him, we become one more social agency which happens to be housed in a museum of ancient folk tales and rituals.


     As a result of Fr. Hamilton’s gracious invitation and the Vestry's approval, about four years ago I began to serve a bit in this parish as a "retired priest-in-residence." A joy of this ministry is that it did not result from my usual vocational self-promotion. Frankly, Bob and I had become disenchanted with Episcopal – and other - churches in this region, and we were doubtful that we would ever again find what one bishop calls a "divine match" between ourselves and any regional congregation. Now, these years later, we feel very much at home and absolutely well matched with the parish’s Saturday evening ministries. I'm especially delighted with the warm collegiality and trust Fr. Hamilton has offered me as a priest. He and I are very different personalities with our own particular gifts. I appreciate his willingness to put up with my independence and preference for uncomplicated Saturday liturgies. While other clergy have literally walked away from me as a partnered, gay man, Fr. Bill has treated me with the inclusivity for which this parish is becoming known - thanks to his prophetic courage and pastoral care. I suspect that his capacity for such priestly collegiality is his commitment to serve as an enabling pointer to Christ, not to himself.


     I remain enthusiastic about what Bob and I are apparently called to do at this time in our life. However, whether employed or not, John the Baptist stands there always insisting that all of us are to be witnesses “to testify to the light” - not to ourselves. His prophetic invitation for us to seek justice and to get back on track when we stray is coupled with the assurance of God's grace, mercy and forgiveness. John's faithful pointing to Jesus is also a call to us individually, as a parish, and as the fellowship of Integrity-Palm Beach; we are reminded that God's clue to truly fulfilling and purposeful lives is not the person we see in the mirror, or “the beautiful people,” or others we may idolize. Rather, we are to share in the Baptist’s ministry as just a few pointers of the millions needed. We point and witness to the clue to authentic living, he who is born in Bethlehem and annually in our hearts, none other than Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

John 1:6-8,19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.