Alas, there is so much to say, and so little time. On the other hand, what more is there to say after 40 years (in the same pulpit)? Ah, but because we believe in a "still-speaking" God, there is always more to be heard, and maybe if we listen, there is more to be said. The Scriptures are so rich, and the truths so profound that as we grow and change, and as society changes, we discover new meanings and applications.
But fear not, I will not lay on you any parting shots (for I truly have none to take), neither will I lay on you all that I have learned as a pastor, or that we have accomplished together, but rather, a few things core to my belief and a brief charge to you for your ongoing life and ministry.
One of the bonuses of sharing life with a community is that there have been more light and downright hilarious moments than I can count:
· Like when I was ready to take a gulp of water prior to preaching and discovered that the Senior Youth had put a gold fish in my glass. (To this day, I always check to see that there is not something swimming in there.)
· Many of you were not here when the choir used to sing from the balcony. They took the opportunity to hold up score cards after the sermon, like in the Olympics. (We soon put them up front where we could keep an eye on them.)
· Then there was the time when one of our most proper choir members - who is sadly no longer with us - on an Easter Sunday morning was annoyed at the Choir Director because she thought he had left his music stand in the way of the choir when they were processing. So she took it upon herself, as one of the first ones in the processional, to move the stand to where she thought it should be. The problem was that it had a lot of music on it and overbalanced when she tried to move it, and she dumped the music all over the floor. So there she was as we were singing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" crawling around in the chancel with her behind toward the congregation desperately trying to gather the papers.
I would have helped, but I was laughing so hard that I had to sit down. It seemed to me a perfect beginning to an Easter Service.
· At my most recent anniversary celebration service, Colleen, Aidan, and I were sitting in the front row, when one of our very best liturgists, and a person meticulous about words, began the Call to Worship meaning to say, "We prostrate ourselves...but instead, said, we prostate ourselves. Of course, Aidan and I, he being much like his father in that regard, heard it immediately, and the two of us got laughing so hard we almost made a scene.
Of course, every clergy learns to be wary of weddings.
· I did a wedding, a second marriage for the man; I think it was 3 or 4 for the bride. She had on a dress that made her look like a floozy (which wasn't too far off) and he had on a yellow tux that made him look like an ice cream man. Unbeknownst to me, he decided to sing to her during the service. His young-adult sons were standing up with him, and as he sang (significantly off-key) his sons made pained faces, that I could see, but the congregation couldn't. The congregation could only see my face, which, at great cost, maintained a beatific smile.
As a church and individual members, we have been through significant events together. You were with Colleen and me for the adoption of a son, Camilo, and later his death. Then the birth and raising of a son, Aidan. (I must particularly commend the Sunday Sessions staff for surviving that one!) And, of course, Colleen has been a supportive presence for me and you for all that time. As I look back over the years, I have been honored to know and celebrate the lives of so many members who have completed their sojourn on this earth. Many of them were saints of the church... though for some that status was a bit dubious! How much richer my life has been by knowing them. They are that great cloud of witnesses, as Paul put it, cheering us on as we now run our race. The power of a church community is that those who have gone before are somehow present among us because their spirits have fed our spirits.
But for me, you and they are not the only ones present in worship and in our church life. Though this is our worship service and we do the kind of liturgy and music that feeds us, the world of God's people is also among us. I have always believed that what I say and what we do needs to wash with the community in my head as well. That is a diverse community that cannot be physically present. To be authentic to Christ, the words I say also need to wash with Greg, the brilliant, young, angry, black youth from the projects with whom I worked when I was in college. They need to wash with my N. T. seminary professor, with our IHN guests, with an abused woman who had to flee her home for her life. They need to wash with the person of color who suffers micro-aggressions and who is discounted or looked upon suspiciously multiple times a week, or a day; with Makmed, a Palestinian I know who has lived his whole life in a refugee camp in occupied territory. These, too, are God's people, and if we are not authentic to them as well, we are not authentic to God.
I want to thank you for allowing them and me into your church. I thank you for allowing me to be your pastor, and the pastor of Plymouth Church (and for paying me!). Your pastor and Pastor of Plymouth Church are not the same role. A pastor is the pastor of the church, before he, she, or they (they being used for an individual that does not identify as male or female) is the pastor to any individual in it. That is not the case in terms of pastoral care in times of crisis, but it is in terms of the church's ministry and direction. The pastor must look at the big picture, at the overall needs and ministry, even if that is displeasing to a member the pastor loves and cares about. We are a ministry to each other, but more than that, we are a ministering body called not to ourselves but to God.
I thank you that you have made me a better pastor than I would have been, and that you have built, with the Holy Spirit and me, the kind of church I hoped for when I contemplated going into the pastoral ministry. We are far from perfect, and we need to always look seriously at where we are insensitive, narrow, or exclusive; where we are focusing on what we are not, rather than what we are.
But what too often characterizes church: pettiness and squabbles, factions, mini-fiefdoms, and internal politics does not characterize you. Neither does putting on airs. I dreamed of a church that would be open and welcoming, non-judgmental, yet passionate about its belief and work. I dreamed of a church that put its time and money into ministry beyond itself, a church that "Talked the talk, and walked the walk," a place where people could be authentic, accepted as they are and challenged to become who God calls them to be. Often church is the place where people feel that they need to hide or put on a front. I have heard many of you say that, given your family, work atmosphere, or neighborhood, this is the only place you can really be who you are. And I think that makes the reign of God come a bit closer.
Many years ago when Pastor Beddingford was about to retire from Central Reformed Church, he said to a group of pastors, "The older I get, the less I believe and the more I believe it." I think I know better now what he meant. It isn't about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or what heaven is like, or if the virgin birth, the feeding of the 5,000, the walking on water, and a host more, are literal or metaphorical truth. It is that they point to a love that will not let us go. They point to a goodness that is beyond us but to which we are called. They point to a ground of hope that spurs us on even when God seems absent and times look bleak.
That goodness, that love we see reflected in Christ, is our foundation. I am not sure how mindful God is of each of us at any moment. But what I am certain of is that true discipleship is about us being mindful of God. It is about God, not about us. It is about aligning ourselves with the love, hope, and values that we see of God through Jesus. It is aligning ourselves with the intention of God for this, God's world. "Seek first the reign of God."
So as we both get ready for new chapters in our lives, Plymouth Church, I charge you to:
§ Remember that. This is not about us; it is about God. We are a church that comes together to celebrate the Good News of God's love for all. Each of us is here because we need to be here. We need to be fed, to be refueled to try to be a faithful people in our daily lives, yet one more week. We are an institution that points to God and God's intention for the world by how we conduct ourselves with each other, how we represent ourselves to the community, and by the ministry we do. Those are the results of our faith, not our reason for being. They result not from a desire to do good, or even to make a difference, but because we align with the one who lived and died and lives again for the just and peaceable realm for all on this earth. Remember, we do not speak on behalf of marginalized people, rather, as the saying goes, "We need to hand them the microphone." But we do speak on behalf of God's realm. And we need to speak loud and clear.
§ I charge you to come to worship as often as possible. This is where the community is gathered. This is where the Word, that you might need, is spoken. It is where your presence, that someone else might need, is seen. And, believe me; it matters to your pastor! Pastor's pour themselves into sermons (even though it may not always seem like it). And it is as much work to prepare a sermon for 50 people as it is for 150; but a lot more fun to deliver it to 150.
§ As I said last week, I charge you to let your pastor be your pastor. Invite her, or him, or them, into your lives, your events, your times of crisis and celebration. Allow them to accompany you, for that is what ministry really is: to walk along side.
§ Finally, I charge you not to rest on your laurels or to be over-enamored with your past or your reputation. When I was new to the ministry I associated with some clergy who had been very involved with the civil rights campaign in the 60s. For some, that was a foundation from which they moved forward continuing to do equity work. But for others, it was their glory days and they were stuck there. They would talk about it as if it was just yesterday - which I understand now it was, but to me, it seemed like distant past. What are you doing now?
When our Pilgrim forebears left for the new world, pastor John Robinson said to them, "Do not stay where Calvin and Luther left you, for I am sure that there is more truth and light yet to break forth from God's Holy Word." Be bold. Be hopeful. Embrace what is next, as you embrace who is next.
And so, my good friends (adapting a benediction given to me by Dr. Ted Jennings when I graduated seminary) my prayer for you is that you will have:
Courage in all difficultly,
Steadfastness in temptation,
Noble companions for the journey,
That you be refreshed and empowered by the Holy Spirit so that you will be:
Found by grace,
Supported by peace,
Encountered by love,
Led by hope,
And surprised by joy.
May it go well for you, my friends, may it go well. Amen