Note: On Sunday, May 27th, I preached my last sermon as Interim Senior Minister at Bethany Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. What follows is the text of that sermon.
I have given this sermon the title of “A New Beginning” because that is what we face today. This will be my last sermon here at Bethany, next week another will stand here and I will be standing in a new place so for both of us it will be a new beginning.
Change can be difficult, and change can be a little frightening. Change brings all sort of new adventures into our lives and sometimes, to make room for those new things, we have to get rid of some of the old. Although change can be challenging it is not bad, and we will survive if we allow God to lead the way.
In September of 2014, I had a parting of the ways with my previous church and found myself a wanderer in search of a new spiritual home. The last 12 years of my ministry had been filled with many, many joys and some sorrows. I had the privilege of baptizing babies, marrying couples madly in love with each other, and saying goodbye to many, many friends as I presided at their funerals.
My ministry allowed me to bring a group of college students to an orphanage in Guatemala where I witnessed their lives, and the lives of the children there changed forever. My ministry brought me to the flooded streets of New Orleans where I prayed with those dying in an airplane hangar at the Louis Armstrong Airport. My ministry brought me to Blacksburg Virginia and the campus of Virginia Tech after shots rang out and changed the once peaceful school into a shooting gallery that took 32 lives and altered that small town forever. My ministry took me to the White House where I was able to meet with representatives of the President’s Faith-Based Initiative and tell them about the work we were doing in Southbridge and that same weekend, my ministry also took me to Newtown, Connecticut where another gunman walked into another school and took the lives of 28, 20 of them children just going to school.
But, as with most things in life, change comes and a new beginning. I returned to my hometown of Quincy and knocked on the door of the church that I had looked at our the windows of the high school. The church where in 1982, I was part of the Bethany Players production of “Here We Go Again.” Little did I know that church would one day be a place of spiritual sanctuary when my soul needed it the most.
October of 2014 found me knocking on the door and thankfully that door was answered with open arms and an outcast was welcomed in. I mentioned this last week, and it bears mentioning again this week. We are fond of saying that Jesus found rest and refreshment in Bethany and we hope you find that rest and refreshment here. Bethany was where Jesus’ friend Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha lived. Bethany was the place that Jesus often retreated to after a difficult time of ministry. Bethany was the place where Jesus performed one of his greatest miracles, raising Lazarus from the dead.
This place we call Bethany has a long history of being the place of rest for many. 1982 saw the 150th anniversary of Bethany, and in the program book for that celebration, there is a short history of the church. In the opening paragraphs of that history we are reminded of the fact that is 1842, “when it was not only unpopular but almost dangerous to do so, the church rented the meeting house for lectures on the abolition of slavery.” Bethany was also one of the first churches in Massachusetts to say that if you owned slaves, you could not be a member of the church. There is also a legend that Bethany was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The history also reflects on the Massachusetts Conference meeting held here at Bethany in 1954, when the first black person was elected moderator of the Massachusetts Conference. For generations, Bethany has truly been that place of sanctuary, rest, and refreshment.
But in October of 2014 Bethany opened its doors to another outcast, me, and welcomed me in mostly with open arms. For me, Bethany was a place where I could heal the wounds of the past, wounds that were deep and painful, wounds of a past that had not closed and was not finished. Like so many others before me, this place gave me space to “work it out” and to heal and to grow. You called this outcast to be your Associate Minister at a time when I was not sure I still had a call to be a minister, at a time when I needed to be ministered to. But you took a chance on an outcast, an unknown, a broken soul and called me to minister with you. And when our beloved pastor of 22 years announced his retirement, you called me to step into those rather large shoes and be your minister, your teacher, and your pastor. This place celebrated my marriage and wrapped me, and my wife, in arms of love when my mother died last February. I have had the privilege of ministering to you and being minister to by all of you these past almost four years, and although it has not always been easy, I will count this time as some of the best moments of my life.
Believe it or not, you have made me a better person; you have made me a better minister. You have restored my faith not only in the church but in people. You have taught me how to trust and to love again, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.
After the death of Jesus, as the apostles and others were gathered in the upper room, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. What was going to happen was on their minds and then Jesus came in the midst and said, “peace be with you,” and the felt at rest. He told them that he would not abandon them and he was sending another that would help them, the Holy Spirit. He said to them that the Holy Spirit would guide them and bring them comfort and so I remind you today that that same Holy Spirit is with us and will bring you guidance and hope in an uncertain time. I do not know, none of us know what the future will hold for this place but I know, I am confident, that if we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and we let God guide us, God will not abandon us and will bring us through.
Although I tried, there really are no words that can adequately express the feelings that I have as my ministry with you comes to a close so I will simply say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and God bless you and keep you now and always. Amen.