Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Past As Prologue

Final Sermon preached at Wilton Congregational as their Interim Senior Pastor

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1, Verses 1-11
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem , asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem , saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

A familiar story; wise men, a star and a wicked king.  It adds a sense of mystery to the infancy narrative of Jesus, not that it needed any more mystery than a virgin birth.  Maybe intrigue is a better word because the story of the visitors from the East brings us deeper into what will unfold as the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   

Much has been preached about this piece of scripture.  Finding your way home sometimes by a different route, letting a star remind you that the light of Christ is here, the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s plan of salvation, gifts that we can bring to the Christ child or gifts that we can offer to the church and to the world.  There are good nuggets that have been mined from this story.

Epiphany is a transitional moment in the church calendar year where Christ’s glory and divinity is revealed beyond the stable walls.
The Three Wise Men by EKDuncan
I’m not going to talk too much about that story today because you and I are at a transitional moment in our lives as pastor and congregation too, and I’d rather talk about that because that is where my heart and mind are this morning.

Interim ministry has a beginning and an end and it is hoped that the work in between is fruitful, revitalizing, spiritually energizing and that it would be a period of growth.  I believe that we have achieved all that if not more.  And so, my work is done!

There is a wonderful children’s movie called ‘Nanny McPhee’.  It’s about a nanny who comes to take care of a slew of horrid little children. Nanny herself, had warts, a huge tooth protruding from her upper lip, and was very unkempt looking at the beginning and was overly strict to the point of being mean.  Now don’t make the connection that you were horrid children.  You were not!  And don’t go thinking that I had warts.  I did not (or not many!)  
Emma Thompson as Nanny McPhee
So as the movie progresses the children become well behaved and each time they do something nice a wart magically disappears off of Nanny’s face. 

Throughout the movie there is something beautiful that happens to all of them.  With patience, understanding, searching, and a whole lot of love they become beautiful together.  The transformation is magnificent.  Of course when this happens, then it is time for Nanny to take her leave.

The best line in the movie is one that Nanny utters when she comes to live with the family, she say’s,

“When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay, when you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.”

You no longer need me and so I have to go.  There are so many plusses to interim ministry but saying goodbye is not one of them. However that’s what we will do today because you no longer need the type of ministry that I can provide for you.  I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner in ministry.

We’ve done some fine work together over these 18 months.  We’ve weathered some storms literally, and we’ve laughed, cried, prayed, worshipped, studied, sang, and ate together.  My goals when I came here were to calm everyone down and to steady the boat when Brigitta got off.  You were pretty anxious whether you know it or not.  I sought to lead you through a process of discovery and unearth you from pretty some fairly stagnant waters. 

I endeavored to instill hope and to help you envision a path to your future.  I prayed to love you as a congregation of dedicated people who try very hard to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I prayed to just love you, which I’ve come to do.

We have so much to be thankful to God for as a pastor and congregation.  Blessing upon blessing God has given us the ability for forge ahead with confidence in a period of transition.  I thank God for your care and concern, for your reception of my ministry and friendship among you, and for a talented staff to work alongside of.  Doug, Ken, Richard, Marilyn, Nancy, Max and Jim.  I thank you.    

But you no longer need me, I recognize that.  And it’s not because I need to be needed, it’s because you are ready to launch!  That’s the bittersweet nature of interim ministry.  You are ready to embark on a new journey that will be exciting and fruitful with a new pastor in the pulpit, a different pastor who will bring his own experience, his own love of God, his unique call to ministry to bear here at Wilton Congregational.  You are ready to embark upon ministry with a marathoner!!!    

And you see, that makes me really happy.  I feel, leaving here, that I have done my best to honor God and to be the pastor that you needed me to be at this time in the life of Wilton Congregational.  We are severing our relationship on very good and gracious terms knowing that the best is yet to come.

Be open to the endless and exciting possibilities of how you will move forward, God called you into existence in 1726 and God will safely see you into the future.  It is a marathon of grace, gratitude, love and forgiveness.
Wilton Congregational Church photo by S. Wagner
So I want to leave you with a charge, or maybe a couple.  Three to be exact since this is the last time that I will address you as your pastor and in a position of authority under God.

The first charge I leave you is challenging but essential.  I charge you to always be about the work of Christ, that is why we are here and that is why men and women discern a call to ministry, because we want to be about the work and ministry of Christ.  It is for no other reason that the church exists.  We’re not a country club or a social service agency, or a hierarchical vessel to pour out our power hungry selves.  We are here solely to witness to the strength and salvation of God through Jesus Christ.  Please, always remember that, if you stray too far from that it will lead you onto rocky terrain.

Your second charge is to pray.  Pray often. Pray always.  Your new pastor is human and will, at times, need your prayers of support, your prayers of love, your prayers of compassion.  He is human in all ways and the demands of a congregation upon their pastor can be great.  Be gentle, be loving, be forgiving, be kind as I have experienced you to be. 

And your third charge is to be a beacon of hope in this community.  Our world needs hope, this community needs hope.  Not that we are in a bad way, but the demands of life are huge and people need a place of complete acceptance and unconditional love.  You can be that place for people, you can be that non-judgmental haven for people to experience God when the rest of the world is saying something else, when the rest of the world is condemning rather than commending.  Shun no one and let the community know it explicitly. 

My dear friends, I will miss you.  A lot.  But I leave here knowing that I have lost my warts and you are the best that you can be.  Together we have honored and loved our Lord, Jesus Christ and that’s what it’s all about. 

Rejoice fully in the pastor to come who is ready and willing to be here for the marathon, who will love you in all of life’s circumstances, and who loves God with all of his heart. 

God is good all of the time, and all of the time, God is good.

Amen, and Amen!
Thank you to Rev. Cynthia Robinson for the reminder about Nanny McPhee!

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