It is so great to finally be here with all of you. It has taken some time to get here but here we are at the start of what I pray will be a fruitful time for tis church and for all of you. My wife Nicky and I are very happy to be here. And we look forward to getting to know all of you. I understand there are name tags available at the entrance to the church and I would like to ask each of you to please wear yours and if you don’t have one, let us know and we will get you one. It will assist me, and others, to get to get to know you and your names.
Last Sunday, I completed my term as interim at Bethany Congregational Church in my hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Towards the end of the service we conducted what is called the “service of release” where the congregation released me from the covenant I had with them to be their pastor. It is always sad when a relationship comes to an end but at the same time the service requires us to look forward. They sent me off with prayers for the new covenant that I now have with all of you, the covenant to be your pastor, your teacher, and your guide as we embark on this journey together.
Pastoral relationships can be very interesting. We do not really know each other and we might have some expectations. Perhaps these come from the past experiences we have had. There might be some expectations of my roll and I might have some expectations about your roll. The best way to figure it all out is through communication.
One of the lessons I learned early on in ministry was to try and fix something long before it gets out of hand. If you have a question about me or ministry or the process that we are about to begin, just ask. It is better to get an answer straight from the source rather than third, fourth, or even fifth hand. The only way this relationship, this sacred covenant is going to work is if we are open and honest about our expectations of each other. I have no doubt that at some point I am going to make some of you angry, well let’s talk about it. Let’s not let thing fester under the surface. We need to have a relationship where we can share anything with each other but at the same time when it is finished we move on. I am not one to hold on to things, once it is done it is done.
So a little about me.
I was not brought up in the United Church of Christ I was raised Roman Catholic and was ordained in the Romanian Orthodox Church where I served for 12 years as pastor of a small congregation in Central Massachusetts. I am a veteran of 15 years in the United States Army and National Guard. I have a heart for mission especially disaster support. I serve as fire chaplain in the City of Quincy as well as one of deputy chief chaplains for the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains. I am part of the Disaster Resource Team for the Massachusetts Conference and serve as the Disaster Spiritual Care Lead for the American Red Cross. I have ministered in New Orleans, Blacksburg Virginia, Newtown, Connecticut, and most recently my own hometown after the last round of winter storms. I have sat with parents who have lost children in school shootings. I have sat with wives who lost husbands in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have brought what comfort I could to families who watched as the violence of winter storms and hurricanes took everything the owned out to sea. And through it all, all of these experiences have shaped me as a person but they have also shaped my theology and my spirituality.
My theology is quite simple, and you will hear me preach about this in almost every sermon, love God and love your neighbor. I share this theology with Jesus who commanded us to do this.
I love God and therefore I attempt to follow his will for my life and I attempt to follow the example, as I understand it, that Jesus left for us. I am a Red Letter Christian, I focus on the red words of Scripture, the words that we believe were actually spoken by Jesus and not someone’s interpretation of what that means. My theology requires me to love everyone and as a consequence of that love I am compelled to help them any way I possibly can. This love is unconditional because Jesus loves us unconditionally. Don’t believe me; just flip open your bible to the Gospel of John, the third chapter and the 16th verse;
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (NIV)
It is not our job to determine who is and who is not worthy of our love we are, just as God has, to love our neighbor and that includes our black neighbor, our white neighbor, our lgbtq neighbor, our Muslim neighbor, our liberal neighbor, our conservative neighbor, and the list goes on…
I believe that the bible is a guide in our lives but I also believe that God is still speaking and his revelation is constant and our challenge is to figure out, as those who have come before us, how we continue to make this 2,000 year old faith relevant in this fast changing world. It cannot be business as usual.
One of the greatest minds of the contemporary church was Phyllis Tickile. Phyllis wrote a lot about the emerging church and how to keep the faith fresh and new in each generation. Historically Phyllis has mapped out the history of the Christian Church from the time of Christ to the present day and has come to notice that every 500 years there is a reformation of the faith. It started with Jesus who was the greatest reformer, but every 500 years since then the church has undergone a reform of some kind. One of the problems is we do not know when the 500 years start and when they end so we may be in one right now.
Our job is to read the times and trends and to stay a head of the curve. We have to be relevant in the lives of the people we hope to reach with the message of the love of Jesus Christ and we have to speak the language that they speak and we have to be willing, when the time comes, to call out the hypocrisy that exists in the world of the Christian today.
In a recent survey of those who no longer attend a church on a regular basis said that one of the main reasons they do not attend is they are not really sure what the church believes any more. They know for certain what they are against but they have no idea what they are for! Churches, and Christians, are viewed as hypocrital and judgmental and they are also viewed as caring more about themselves and the continuation of the institution then they are the mission and ministry of that institution. We have to change that.
Just so there is no confusion, I am a progressive theologian and a liberal when it comes to social justice, which, despite what some in the national eye will tell you, is not the work of the devil. I have a certain core belief which I have already shared, love God love everyone. I believe in everyone’s right to their opinion and I support our rights to share those opinions, but when it comes to how Christians act, how Christians behave I believe that words are easy, it is easy to say you are a Christian, but show me you are a Christian because if you don’t I’m going to call you on it.
Again, just so there is no confusion, I am very active in the world of social media, Facebook and Twitter as I believe that is the, not so new anymore, world of communication. I have very strong opinions and fight for what I believe in with every fiber of my being. I believe as Christians we are to be the voice of those on the margins, the “least of these” if you will that Jesus often spoke about and ministered to. I believe we have an obligation as not only Christians but as human beings to care for those less fortunate then us and I believe it to my very core. I believe if you call yourself a Christian that it has to mean something and you have to live by a certain set of principles and if you don’t I will call you out on it. This world we live in needs to hear the message of love and inclusion and needs to hear it without conditions and that is what I try to do, but, in the end, and I am not always good at this part, we have to do it all in love. Speak the truth to power but we have to speak the truth in love because the truth is love. If the person you follow causes you to hate another for whatever reason, that simply is not Christian, a Christian cannot hate, period.
So where do we go from here? One of the charges given to me is to help guide you through the process of calling your next settled minister. As you all know, as the interim I cannot be that person. I am here to guide you and prepare you for the one that will come after me. We do this by asking some very simple question with extremely complicated answers.
Who are we?
Who is our neighbor?
Who is God calling us to become?
These are the three big questions that we will work on over the next months as we prepare the search. I only ask one thing of all of us, since we will all be involved in this process, we have to be open to and remain open to the power of the Holy Spirit in this process. I believe God has already called your next minister, our task is to pray for that person and then seek them out, but we can only do it if we are in constant prayer and we let God be in charge of the process. I will guide you and offer you my experience, you will provide your input and suggestions, but God is the one who is in control.
Beloved of God Here I am, I am yours, and you are mine. Let us always remember that we have to love God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls and we have to love each other as we love ourselves, perhaps better than we love ourselves.