(Pastor’s Note: What follows is the message that was intended for last Sunday, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of my ordination to the Christian Ministry. I’d been told by the church leadership that there was to be “something” in commemoration of that event, to “not ask any questions,” but that I should go ahead and plan worship and preach as I usually would. Then, of course, in a delightful plan fueled by love and laced with misdirection, deception and a couple of outright lies (!), the congregation planned their own wonderful service for the day, a celebration I will always remember! I was also firmly instructed to not write a new sermon for the following week, but to deliver the one I’d already written and further, “not to change it at all,” as usually is my wont to do… and aside from a couple of “minor” edits, that’s what’s presented here!)
So… what does it take to get to 30 years of pastoral ministry?
It’s a question that, trust me, has weighed mightily on my mind and heart as of late! I can tell you, for instance, that it takes patience, persistence and a fair amount of work; to say nothing of the all-encompassing and often inexplicable drive to crank out sermons week after week, year after year, in the furtive hope that once in a while, maybe you might actually preach the word of God in the process! It’s weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations; it’s candlelight Christmas Eves and sunrise Easter mornings; it’s about a zillon “goofball” VBS songs on the guitar, and getting to see those kids who once embarrassed their parents during the children’s sermon grow up to have children of their own in the Sunday School!
It’s pastoral calls and home communion; it’s bedside vigils at the hospital; and it’s being quietly present with a family in crisis… even as your own heart breaks along with theirs. And, yes, it’s the regular stuff that happens day to day in this job: the ongoing cycle of committee meetings, stewardship campaigns, bulletin prep and constantly checking for things like if the heat’s been turned down or if the coffee pot’s plugged in. But it’s also discovering that there are untold blessings in every single one of these things; that there’s as much holiness to be found at a church potluck as anywhere else, and that whether there happens to be 200, or 20, or 2 people who show up on any given Sunday morning, there will the Lord be in the midst of them!
In that regard, I can also tell you that it takes people.
It certainly took people like my mother and father, who not only loved me and raised me up right (!) but who were always my biggest cheerleaders and staunchest advocates when as a young man I answered the call to ministry (my mom is still the first one to push the “like” button when I post a sermon online!). It also takes a great wife “like the one I got;” Lisa, who’s walked with me on this journey almost all these 30 years, my best friend and my cherished partner not only in life but also in ministry (because trust me when I tell you that being a pastor’s spouse is a calling all its own!); as well as our three wonderful children who not only accepted the dubious mantle of “preacher’s kid” that was thrust upon them, but who, each in their own way, embraced it in becoming the wise, creative and caring adults that they are.
It’s also taken all those folks who’ve been the heart and soul of the many congregations of which I’ve been a part over the years: it’s the Deacons and the Trustees and the choir members and the church organists and the Sunday School teachers and the Women Fellowship ladies and especially all those folks who are always there in the pews, come what may, Sunday after Sunday; the ones who are the first to arrive and the last to leave. It’s people like “Gustie” Chase in the church where I grew up, the sweet, elderly lady who was the very first person to call me “pastor” (when I was all of 15 years old and had just preached a “sermon” at a youth service at the church), and kept right on doing so in the years that followed. It was people like Kay Shepherd, a member of the Hallowell church I served, who after worship every Sunday greeted me with a warm hug and ever and always the admonition to “be bold, pastor, be bold!” And it was people like Len Libby, one of the pillars of the Scarborough church and the chair of the search committee that brought me there: a man who was greatly respected and admired by all, and even feared by a few (if, for instance, a youth came to church wearing a baseball cap, frontward or backward, he’d be the one to knock the cap off his head, adding firmly but not unkindly, “You remove your hat, young man, and have some respect. This is the house of God!” And, believe me, none of those youth ever got caught wearing a cap in church again!). It was all these people over the years, so many I could tell you about, whose living faith has been a source of inspiration for me; most especially in those moments when my own well began to run dry. It’s even those few individuals along the way who proved to be, shall we say, difficult, because if nothing else, they managed to teach me that patience I mentioned earlier! Because it’s true what they say: the church is not a building or a program or a business; it’s people, people of every size, shape and persuasion gathered in the powerful name of Jesus Christ; and thanks be to God for you all!
But most of all, friends, (and here’s the message for today!) it takes a Spirit.
What’s interesting is I’m realizing that everything I just said to you about getting to this point comes solely by virtue of 20-20 hindsight! But back 30 years ago; quite honestly, I was, to say the least, very green where ministry was concerned – sincere, earnest, enthusiastic, yes – but essentially clueless! What I did have was this strong sense of calling; a clear understanding that I was being led to become a pastor. Beyond that, however, it was pretty much a mystery and very much a “learn as you go” process; but that, of course, is precisely what a journey of faith is all about.
Thankfully, however, we never venture into that mystery alone.
On the night of the arrest that led to his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus knew, you see, that his disciples were about to walk into this big, vast, mysterious, dangerous future; and that right then they couldn’t even begin to grasp what they were going to have to face by virtue of being his followers in the world, the utter scope of this incredible good news that very soon now they’d be sent to proclaim to a world that stretched far beyond the shores of Galilee. There’d be challenges they’d have to face and suffering to endure: there would be a cost to discipleship, but there’d also be a joy in believing that would sustain them in their darkest hours; and the thing was that it all just about to unfold, but for now it was simply too much for them to bear, and Jesus knew it.
And that’s why he promised them – and us – a Spirit to be there amidst the journey. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus says, “he will guide you into all the truth… he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Not in the sense of divination, of course; Jesus is not talking here about some faith-based “spoiler alert,” because the truth is every one of us will already know about the future… just as soon as it becomes the present! No, this will be a spirit that, as The Message translates it, will “help make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that [Jesus has] done and said.” And what a gift that is; to know that whatever the situation or challenge we’re facing; whether the path we’re walking is one safe and smooth, or one fraught with danger; no matter if we’re, in the words of the Psalmist, “[rising] on the wings of the dawn… [or settling] on the far side of the sea,” (139:9 NIV) God’s Holy Spirit will be present with us and within us; ever and always guiding us into God’s truth!
Friends, I want to tell you this morning that not only do I believe this with all my heart; I also depend on it, and if there’s one thing that I can point to that’s gotten me to this place 30 years later as a parson and a person, it’s that. And it’s this same Spirit; this Spirit of truth that Jesus himself said would take what is his and declare it to us that gives each one of us the strength and the courage we need for the living of these days; and, I might add, the joy of it as well!
God’s guiding Spirit is how we can go out from this place today and face the unknown with all boldness; ever and always choosing to think (and to act!) on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing” and commendable; to exemplify in our lives that is filled with excellence and worthy of praise, and to do so because through his Spirit of truth, the Lord has shown us how. It’s how we nurture a relationship with the Divine that will carry us from day to day, season to changing season, and “from age to age the same;” it’s how we discern moral and ethical truth in a world and culture that more often than not prefers to keep things muddled and woefully ambiguous; and it’s what will lead us forward, so that each one of us may begin to discover our own unique, God-gifted purpose of life! It is good news indeed that by the grace of God and through his Holy Spirit, even now you and I are being guided into all truth!
You incredible, wonderful people have honored me last week with a celebration of 30 years of ordination to the Christian Ministry, and I continue to be truly humbled by your thoughtfulness and love. I thank you so much; not only for all of what you’ve done for this milestone in ministerial calling, but truly for all the kindnesses you’ve extended to this pastor, and to his family, over the past two years we’ve been together as pastor and parish. You have been, and continue to be, amongst our life’s greatest blessings!
I said something to you last Sunday, and it bears repeating: that we need to understand that ultimately, none of this is about me, or even about our church; nor should it be. This is about the Lord who gives us life both abundant and eternal in the life to come; and who offers us up redeeming, saving love which never, ever fails. It is God in Jesus Christ our Lord who deserves our praise and celebration; the God who has brought us rejoicing to this day, this same God who by his Spirit will guide us into all truth as now, the next part of our journey begins!
So what else is there to say today, except: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say… Rejoice!”
Thanks be to God, beloved; thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry