When I was packing, I came across the first sermon I preached as a pastor on August 1, 1982. It was hand written and included a description of typing the order of worship for that Sunday on a floppy green stencil and printing it on a mimeograph machine that required a can of thick black ink handled with rubber gloves. A lot has changed in thirty-five years. I don’t produce the bulletin anymore, and the concepts of email and google docs and social media are things I could not have imagined at the time.
This is approximately my fifteen-hundredth sermon, and it is my final one as a pastor. I promised that I would share some informal reflections on what I learned in the past thirty-five years as a pastor, so here they are in no particular order:
Number one is “Whatever I imagine God to be, God is not that. Or at least not that alone. Certainly God is bigger and more mysterious than whatever words and thoughts I can conjure. That is not something I understood or even really thought about three decades ago. What I experienced as my call to ministry occurred when I was a teenager. God, as I understood God, was defined by the part of the world where I was born, the family I was born into, and the church that had a large role in raising me. There was nothing wrong with that God, but I can no longer believe that God resembles that image in more than a fleeting way. My beliefs were shaped by a rather simple and literal understanding of Scripture, not considering that other Christians interpreted those same worlds differently and that other people of profound faith had very different sacred writings. As I look back, I see that the more I immersed myself in a the details and dogmas of a faith that thought I chose but was more happenstance than anything, the less I was open to the more cosmic dimensions of who God might be. Eventually I figured out that such a view was inadequate. This church has helped me to go further in that journey, and I do not yet know where retirement will take me in my faith development.
The second thing I’ve learned is that attempting to speak for God is a perilous task. I think I’ve always believed that, but I understand that idea differently than I did at first. I used to imagine that every word I spoke from the pulpit had the possibility of pointing listeners in the direction of either heaven or hell, depending on how well or badly I delivered those words. That’s a pretty heavy burden to bear. It also speaks of an inflated sense of self. I really don’t think anymore that I have that power. What is perilous is the danger of putting ideas into peoples’ heads that don’t represent the highest and best ideals of a God we can barely begin to understand in the first place. The church gives authority to clergy at ordination to preach the Word. It takes a while to figure out that the authority is not in the preacher or even in the written word, but in the ongoing revelation of God through creation and the vast variety of people that God has made. The best I can do in preaching is to encourage people to think for themselves. And so I have evolved from feeding people information I am sure they cannot live without to simply prodding them to think and pray and act according to their conscience.
The third thing I’ve learned is that the most important things that happen in ministry are unplanned and unexpected. Nothing amazing has ever happened as the result of all the hours I spent with congregations laboring over mission statements. Despite my best efforts over the years to create action plans and follow through with the assistance of day planners, palm pilots, and spreadsheets, I can’t recall anything life-changing or especially notable that resulted. What I do remember are the spontaneous moments of grace that occurred without warning and reminded me why I took up the yoke of ministry in the first place. What I have often assumed is most important is not what matters most. It doesn’t really matter if I can report to the Conference at the end of the year that more people were in church this year than last year. It does matter if those who were there found a community that supported them when they needed it. And were urged to take action against injustice. And made the spiritual connection they needed for the week ahead.
The fourth learning from ministry is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. I’ve been privileged to serve churches in the open country and small hamlets and county seat villages and sprawling suburbs, and the inner city in three states from the coast of Maine to the foothills of the Rockies, and from the poorest county in New York State to the one of the most affluent and highly educated (not to mention “happiest”) communities in the nation, and there are some remarkable similarities between people in every one of those places. Our worldviews and experiences of life may be very different, but our basic human longings are the same. People need to love and be loved. They need to be affirmed for who they are and not just what they do, and they need to find some sense of meaning and purpose in their living. It was intimidating to come from a low-education, blue-collar community to serve a church filled with PhDs and world travelers and more clergy than I can keep track of, but I’ve been reminded here that at the end of each day we are all human beings with our own stuff to deal with who need to be loved. What a great privilege it has been to serve people no matter where they are and wherever life has taken me.
I said a few weeks ago that my final sermon would be a “Top Ten” list of what I’ve learned in ministry. I’m concluding with just a fifth point here, which might mean that I haven’t learned as much as I thought! But here it is: Regardless of who the pastor is, the church is only as strong as its members. It is not uncommon for churches to be pastor-centered whether they realize it or not. Participation rises and falls based on the popularity of the person in the pulpit. I used to think that my job was to whip up enough enthusiasm so that people would come and invite all their friends and the church would grow. Over many years, I learned that outward success in the moment does not translate into ongoing strength and health when the cheerleader moves on to other pastures (to mix a metaphor.) As I retire from this church, I am gratified to know that the church is strong and will continue to be so because of all of you. You have your own identity and passions and forward motion that is not dependent on the pastor pushing you to succeed. I’m sad that I won’t be part of the next chapter of your life together, but it is very satisfying knowing that anything good that has happened in the last few years will continue.
One of my spiritual heroes is the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. As I prepared for ministry in the early 1980s, I would often slip away from the seminary to spend time at the Abbey of Gethsemane where he lived as a hermit when not traveling and interacting with other faiths and cultures. He is often credited with saying this: “If the ‘you’ of five years ago doesn’t think that the ‘you’ of today is a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.” As I retire, I recognize that the ‘me’ of thirty-five years ago when starting ministry would most certainly label me today as a heretic. I’m OK with that and am grateful for all of the experiences of ministry that have brought me to this point in life. I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences in your area of work and in your own faith development.
May the God who brought us together and is far more mysterious and expansive and creative and just and loving than we can possibly comprehend continue a good work in each of us in the days ahead. Amen.