To quote the late, great Frank Sinatra, “And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.” Although my time here is coming to a close, this is not an ending but a beginning. Nicky and I are embarking on a new ministry, and soon, you will start a new ministry with a new Settled Pastor. I know that God has already chosen the person that will come here and minister with you, and I also know that whoever that person is, they will be very lucky.
My being here was actually a fluke, or some might say the work of the Holy Spirit. I was in search of a new position, and, on a whim, I sent an email to the New Hampshire Conference and asked if they had an interim position open within driving distance of Boston. I received a rather quick response with only one Church, First Congregational Church of Salem.
I read over your profile and asked that mine be sent to the search committee. I drove up here in March a little less than a month after my mother had died, not knowing what to expect, but from the moment I walked in, I felt at home and welcome here. If memory serves, I called Nicky from the car and told her that I hoped I would hear from the search committee with an offer, and well, I got one.
I first stood in this spot on the first Sunday in June 2018, not all that long ago. I had come here after a not so pleasant experience in my previous Interim, and so I was tired and a little disheartened with this thing called Pastoral Ministry. Pastoral ministry is not easy. There are a lot of demands placed on pastors these days, and we have to be Jack’s and Jill’s of all trades. One moment we are working on a sermon or a bulletin, and the next, we are at the bedside of someone who is taking their last breath. Pastoral ministry under ideal circumstances takes a toll on the minister, and my previous position was not ideal.
I had all but given up on the idea of staying in ministry. I had started looking at teaching again or going back to school to finish my clinical time for counseling, but apparently, God was not finished with me yet. I’ve mentioned my struggle with depression and PTSD. Both come from a combination of things, one of which is past church work. But I resolved to give it one more shot. I told God that if he wanted me in Salem, I would go, but my expectations were not high.
So I came and met all of you, and things started to brighten. Then July came, and I had Sunday’s off! For the first time in close to 20 years, I had weekends off again! I have told a few of you that the Wednesday services during the summer were indeed the tipping point for my coming here. I was considering another position, but it indeed was the Wednesday services that decided for me. It is a great respite during the summer months to have those weekends, and I have told the search committee to play that up when interviewing candidates.
I am not sure how many of you have ever heard of the Barna Group, but they are a group that studies trends in society as they relate to the Church. They have launched a study called The State of the Church 2020, and although it looks at the Church today and the future, the research has been ongoing for about ten years. The first part of the study had to do with pastors and what is on their minds concerning the state of the Church. 51% said that reaching a younger audience was top on their list of concerns. The pastors were then asked about the challenges facing the Church today, and 71% said that watering down the message of the Gospel was of great concern as it is with me. Although I believe that God is still speaking and that it is our responsibility to listen to that still small voice continually, we cannot water down the message of the Gospel which is for me the very passage that we heard this morning, love God with all you have and love your neighbor, your black, brown, gay, straight, Muslim, Jew, poor, rich, hungry, Palestinian, Iranian, legal, illegal, short, fat, tall, skinny, young, old, transgender, binary, democrat, republican, whatever they are and whoever they are we are commanded to love them. I hope that I have made that point abundantly clear during my time here.
St. Paul said it best; if I do not have love, I am nothing more than a clanging symbol or a crashing gong. Without love, we are nothing but cranky, hate-filled people who would instead build walls than longer tables. We would rather honor statutes of old white men than human beings created in the image of God. We would rather separate families at our borders than work towards a sensible solution that keeps people together and obeys the law at the same time. We would rather rant online, and call people names and bully people, then really listen to what others have to say and truly understand them. But if we have love, all of those barriers have to be broken down because that is what love does. Hate is what crucified Jesus Christ, but love is why he did it!
I do not care what your theological or political philosophy is, but if it does not begin and end with love, it has nothing to do with Christianity because, as we heard this morning, on these two hang all the law and all the prophets. Love God and Love Neighbor is what it means to be a Christian that is it! And those are not my words but the words of the Word of God!
I have walked with some of you as you buried loved ones and walked alongside me on the day my father died. I have baptized some of you, and you celebrated with Nicky and me when we announced that we are expecting our baby in April. I have, or soon will, marry some of you, and those of you who have been married for a long time have witnessed to me about the power of love between two people. I have fed you spiritually through my teaching and preaching, and you have fed me with your presence, your questions, your disagreements, and your love. I have stood at this table in that sacred moment of communion when we enter into the presence of the Savior, and we have fed each other’s souls. I have driven hundreds of miles and sat thousands of hours in traffic, but I do not regret any of them, and I would gladly do it all again, just not too soon, okay?
As I stand here today, I genuinely believe that I am leaving you in a better place than I found you, and I know that I am leaving in a better place than you found me. I am not sure how effective I ministered to you, but I can honestly say you have ministered to me in ways that you will never know. You have restored my faith and passion for pastoral ministry, and you have refreshed my soul, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.
Before I go, and at the risk of leaving someone out, there are a number of people I need to thank, these come in no particular order. For starters, the search committee that brought me here. I know we had a picture taken a few weeks ago but if any of you are here please stand and be recognized. It is their fault I am here.
Merri, you have been a friend and a colleague and I wish I could take you with me. I hope you all know what a wonderful gift you have in the ministry that Merri brings here.
Mark and Laura, you have been my constant guides through these days and have made worship planning easy, thank you for your constant attention that you pay to ensure that all of our worship services are worshipful. And thanks for the glass of water!
David, for your gift of music that enables us to be transformed and that brings a great sense of meditation to worship, and some fun.
To the choir, it has been said that those who sing pray twice. You are a wonderful gift. Keep on sharing that gift with the community.
Alan, who I know is basking in the sun on Hilton Head, Thank you for the times you filled in and share your gift with all of us. And to Norma, who knows everything about this place. If you have any questions about anything, just ask Norma.
To Karen in the office and Edie before her, they are the backbone of this place and working with me is not easy but they made it look easy.
To the VLT, thank you for your constant leadership and your desire to serve God and to serve this local Church.
And to all of you who came here week in and week out and put up with me, thank you.
And now, the end is truly near, but my final curtain will not be until after the Ash Wednesday Service on Wednesday night. But the time has come for me to go to another place where I hope I might be of some service. I ask that you pray for me as I begin a new ministry with the folks at the Second Congregational Church in Beverly and pray for them as well. They have gone through a lot in the last year, and they are in need of prayers. Know that I will continue to pray for all of you, and I know that God has great things in store for you if you just keep listening to his voice.
God bless all of you!