Here at Mattoon First today we will mark two significant occasions. First, it is Independence Sunday. (This occurs every year on the Sunday closest to July 4.) To mark the occasion, we will sing a medley of thanksgivings for our nation and we will pray fervently for God's grace upon our land.
The other occasion today is Ignorance Sunday. (This occurs periodically, whenever a new pastor shows up to lead the congregation for the first time.) To mark this occasion, the new pastor gets lost somewhere in the building, the organist sweats profusely, the sound system crew forgets to flip an important switch, the woman sitting third row from the back reckons that this is the loudest her stomach has ever growled in church, and the air conditioner goes on the fritz.
The reason it is called Ignorance Sunday is because the pastor is totally in the dark about his or her new congregation, in spite of all the information found in the assessments, statistical reports, and pictorial directories. And in addition, the congregation really doesn't know what to expect from their new leader, in spite of the glittering resume, the vigorous glad-handing, and the noticeable differences from the last pastor. No one quite knows what to make of the outbursts of friendliness from all parties: whether they signify genuine care and character...or whether they mask some ulterior motive. This is the Sunday which begins with our being in total ignorance of each other. Up until now, all we've been able to do is wonder, imagine, and speculate.
And so it is that I roll the questions around in my mind about the people in my new church. Who are these people? Will any of the adults here be able to help me fix my lawn mower when it refuses to start for the first mowing of the spring? Will one of my new members bring an inedible dish to every potluck and insist that I enjoy a heaping helping? Who among them will routinely fall asleep during my sermons? Whose name will I get wrong the first 18 times I try to start a conversation? What reason will be given by the first person who decides he or she doesn't like me...and will it be the same thing my wife complains about? At the moment I know less about the children of my new church than I do the munchkins in the land of Oz.
Of course, my new congregation is just as ignorant about me. They don't know the difference between me and the 58 candidates who ran in the New Hampshire primary earlier this year. At the start of today, everyone in Mattoon First would be hard pressed to distinguish me from Walter Iwachiw, Kevin Huey, Matt Drozd, Star Locke, or Henry Hewes. (These were candidates who gleaned a total of 72 votes in that primary this year.)
I imagine a group of geezers sitting in a diner, just after dawn on Ignorance Sunday, getting ready to go to church, speculating about the new minister they are about to encounter. Grumpy says, "He's probably going to be even worse than the last one." Doc says, "I doubt he'll be tough enough to deal with some of the aggravations and troublemakers we got around here." Happy says, "I think a fresh start is just what we need, and before long, we'll be buzzing along just like we were in the 1950s." Sleepy says, "I hope he moves the worship times back to a sensible hour." Bashful says, ...well...bashful just sits there and listens, and everybody thinks he agrees with everything. Sneezy is saying something, but nobody can focus on what it is because he keeps hacking up phlegm every other sentence. Finally, Dopey says, "I think this new one will work out just fine."
But then this conversation is only in my imagination. After all, it's Ignorance Sunday, and all I have to go on today are the seven dwarves. But soon I will learn the real names and the real questions and anxieties.
As the minutes and hours of Ignorance Sunday tick off, our unfamiliarity of each other will began to dissolve. Ignorance will not entirely go away, of course, nor will it go quickly or easily. It will take numerous conversations, incidents, and endeavors to attain a genuine fathoming of each other. Only after weeks and months and years, in an abundance of curiosity and forbearance and forgiveness, will our ignorance segue into precious understanding.
And when that mysterious and distant day comes when we will complete our pastor/parishioner relationship...we will look back and measure it most of all by the distance we have traveled between this Ignorance Sunday and the full measure of knowing one another truly.