The Episcopal Church of The Holy Innocents 

The Interim Priest as Wagon Master
Sermon by the Rev. Daniel W. Hinkle, Interim Priest
The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents Beach Haven, NJ

Sunday, June 3, 2018

            I have a Christian friend who lives in Arkansas. Jefferson Slinkard is his name, and he’s an honest to goodness, real live, American storyteller. Many of his stories center around the wagon train his father had organized back in the 1980s to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Arkansas becoming a state. There hadn’t been a wagon train like that since the days of the great western migrations of the early 19th Century. For three and a half months, they traveled 1,750 miles throughout the state. Wherever they camped for the night, the local folks came out to see them and to celebrate.

​When they’d finally reached the end of the trail in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, their train had grown several miles long. It consisted of every imaginable wagon, buggy, and cart pulled by horses and mules, big and small, and even oxen. It probably included some of the iconic Conestoga wagons built by the German settlers along the Conestoga river that runs through Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where my wife, Barbara, and I now live.

            Jefferson’s father acted as wagon master to that historic wagon train, riding up and down its length several times a day, talking to and encouraging the people. He probably traveled three times the distance the train traveled. He wore out several good horses. So, this Jersey boy has the distinction of being friends with the son of a wagon master of the old, American west. That's pretty cool, right? Haha.

            I want to share with you one of Jefferson’s short stories of an incident that occurred after they’d stopped for the night. The story is titled “Tom and Jerry: More from the Wagon Train.” We’ll then talk some about what this interim period will mean for you, your church, and my ministry as your Interim Priest. Now, I’m warning you ahead of time, some of Jefferson’s language is a little, well, shall we say, Biblical. Haha.    

            “During the wagon train there was an older man and his daughter from Oklahoma that had a team of Belgians named Tom and Jerry. They were 2000 and 2200 lbs respectively. Big horses! One particular day after a 20 or 25 mile ride, we pulled into the fairground of a nearby town to camp for the night. The daughter of the owner of these giants was their care giver. She helped her dad with harnessing and other duties required in keeping them healthy and in shape. She knew her business.

            It’d been a long day for everyone and having a few hundred wagons and buggies along with all of the “outriders,” we made up a fairly large group with an almost carnival air about it, as there were many artisans and vendors of every make and model, selling their wares. The town folks would come out and look at all of the different horses and colored wagons and pretty much melt into the crowd. So, before nightfall there was a large crowd of people, onlookers and campers alike.

            As I mentioned, Tom and Jerry were large horses and on that evening, the young lady had tied Tom to a pine tree maybe six inches in diameter, and Jerry she tied to their horse trailer up about eye level, as that is often where the “tie eyes” are. Metal loops if you will. What happened next was caused by who knows what, but it will forever be in my memory. Horses of any size are strong, very strong if measured against us humans. They can and often do pull back and break bridles or reins, even lead ropes tied to a halter, or worse.

            Well, something spooked Tom and he lunged back with all of his ton of weight and muscle and pulled that tree he was tied to right over, and it slaps Jerry on the ass, which caused Jerry to lunge his 2200 lbs. backwards and pull that horse trailer over, too! All the while Tom uprooted the tree completely and ran through camp dragging a full on tree, root-ball and all! This in turn…well, you get the idea, more horses, people, looky-lou-ers and a full on modern day stampede, people and animals, not just horses, but yorkies and other dogs and a cat or two (yes, many on the train brought their pets from home). It made for a good ending to a long day! Jerry couldn’t drag the horse trailer or he would’ve, I assure you. This made for a typical day on the wagon train.

            Me and some others finally catched Tom and cut the tree loose from his lead rope. No one was seriously hurt and not much of any property damaged either. But seeing an “elephant” of a horse running with a pine tree through camp gave them “looky-lou-ers” their money’s worth, I  tell you.” 

            I can't wait for the book Jefferson's putting together of all these wonderful stories.

            I think the history of wagon trains and the western expansion of our country is an excellent metaphor of the interim period. Like our American forebears, you and Holy Innocent’s Church are on a journey. You’re being called to leave an old life behind and to wander through the wilderness towards the promise of a new life. This can be a little unsettling at first. But your job is to know where you came from and to prayerfully discern the new life God is calling you to.

            The wagon train journey through the wilderness has deep Biblical roots. Our spiritual forebears, Adam and Eve, left the Garden of Eden to start a new life. Father Abraham listened to the call of God and left the familiar comforts of home for the land of milk and honey. The Israelites were rescued by God from an old life of slavery in the Egyptian empire. They crossed the Red Sea and traveled through the wilderness of Sin to the promised land. Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, the cross, and the resurrection life, and we follow him. So, the wagon train is a good way to understand this time of transition, I think.

            And the figure of the wagon master also helps us to understand my ministry as your Interim Rector. The wagon master knows the way. He’s traveled the Oregon Trail and other such westward trails many times, there and back again. He knows where the river fords, mountain passes, and other dangers are. He knows where to find food and water and the good places to stop over at night. But most importantly, he moves up and down the length of the train, encouraging folks and reminding them of the promises of new life at the end of the trail.

            During this time of transition, I’ll be your priest and pastor, and we’ll carry on the usual spiritual life of your church. In addition, there are some developmental tasks for you to accomplish, some home-work, so to speak, unique to the interim time. We’ll review the history of Holy Innocent’s Church from its founding to the present. Learning more about who you were and where you came from is always rewarding and a lot of fun. We’ll also be prayerfully discerning what new life God is calling you to. There are a few other tasks for us to accomplish together, but we’ll talk more about them at another time.

            I’m very excited about being your Interim Priest and look forward to getting to know all of you. But, like the wagon master of old, I’m only temporary. My job is to get you to the end of the trail, then we’ll say our goodbyes and go our separate ways. Hopefully, we’ll still be friends by then, too. Haha. In the meantime, I anticipate the many mutual adventures God has in store for us.

            Before we end, I just want to add that the story of Tom and Jerry, those big Belgians, who up-rooted that tree and dragged it down the street and pulled over that horse trailer is symbolic for me of what’s happening to the Church these days. Change is in the wind. I believe the Holy Spirit is blowing in a powerful way. We now live in the 21st Century and the third millennium since Jesus walked this earth. This is the post-modern era and we can never go back. The Church is being freed, my friends, uprooted from its old, western, imperial shackles. This is unsettling and a bit scary, as all change can be. And,.. it’s also very exciting, because the revelation of Jesus and his nonviolent message of God’s love and forgiveness and restorative justice are again being heard despite the many distortions over the centuries of the religion of Christianity.

            To end: My friend, Jefferson, has recounted how every morning, after all the draft animals had been harnessed to the many wagons and buggies and carts, and everything and everyone was ready, his father, the wagon master, would ride to the head of the train and call out,...

"Head ‘em up! Move ‘em ouuuut!” 

Today we begin an exciting adventure together. We begin a journey towards the future God has in mind for you here at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents in Beach Haven, New Jersey, a future full of promise.