How Do I Thank You for Twenty-Three Wonderful Years?
The Final Sermon as Rector of St. Thomas’ Church
This is how I always want to remember you. (Takes a photo)
How can I begin to thank you for these past 23 years? They have been wonderful, and each of you has been so kind and caring!
Departing and retiring clergy are sometimes honored by the printing of a collection of their sermons. I think of one such occasion which happened in the Lutheran church. It occurred in Lake Wobegon – that fictional setting for Garrison Keillor’s humorous but truth-laden stories.
Parishioners decided to honor Pastor Ingvist by publishing some of his sermons in a commemorative book. Here’s how it went according to Keillor. They wanted it to be a surprise, so they didn’t ask Pastor Ingvist to choose the sermons. Instead, they chose their own favorites.
And so at the service, Val Tolverson rose and congratulated the departing pastor and gave him a copy. The collection was entitled “To Know Him is to Love Him,” which Pastor Ingvist immediately recognized as one of the dumbest sermons that he had ever given.
There it was in silver letters, immortalized and eternalized forever. He opened the book, and his heart sank. Eighty pages of sermons followed. One quick glance revealed that of hundreds of sermons that he had written and preached, they selected the ones that he had been trying to forget.
Those dismal, dumb sermons, which ought to have been followed by a prayer for forgiveness, were now the means for them to remember him.
Keillor noted, “Our best moments are secret. Sometimes, we don’t even know them ourselves.”
Each one of us is a book. We are all a mystery – a collection of events and experiences, some of which we treasure and some that we would like to forget.
Before I turn to the sermon I want to turn to you. I want to thank you for our 23-year partnership for which I am so grateful and for which I will always keep you in my heart and in my prayers.
I want to thank you for loving God and loving this great church and giving it your best and for following Jesus so faithfully. Thank you for loving my family and me for over two decades.
My ministry here is deeply indebted all countless people. Second only to being Mims’ husband and Marguerite and Isabelle’s father and Emily’s stepfather, serving as your Rector has been the greatest honor and privilege of my life.
In the text today, we read that Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. We now take the word “disciples” for granted, but it was not always the case.
Early in my ministry with you, our Vestry carefully created a mission statement. It noted our mission was to “make disciples for Jesus,” but one Vestry member strongly objected. She said that it sounded too religious.
Over time, however, we clearly saw that our mission was not about making members for a church but rather creating disciples for Jesus. We wanted the pews of this church to be populated by persons striving to learn about Christ and what it means to serve God and walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Christ is the cornerstone of all that we do. We know ourselves as a Christian community gathered for nourishment and equipped for service.
People come to a church like this because they can find outstanding worship and music and lots and lots of programming. But sometimes people believe that if you want community, you need to find a smaller church.
We refused to accept such a notion.
We have gathered together here for years to sing and offer prayers, to receive the Eucharist, to rejoice and at times to drive each other crazy and always to be sent out into the world as disciples to serve those in need.
We are disciples of Christ in community just like Jesus and his followers.
I clearly remember my first day at St. Thomas’. I drove from Richmond, Virginia in a used, red Ford Explorer packed with boxes, books and clothes. Will Woolbert and Frank Serra greeted me on the steps of Groton House, where our office was located.
Will lamented, “This is the first time that my doctor, my lawyer and now my priest are all younger than me.” I was 35 and looked 25. It was hard to command respect. I was the youngest person on staff and had never managed a full-time employee. My learning curve was sheer vertical.
St. Thomas’ was not an easy place to enter and lead. People grumbled over the slightest change, but changes needed to be made.
The church was not air conditioned. Holding weddings and funerals in the summer was like worshipping in a blast furnace. The bride and the groom and I would be covered in sweat while large, noisy fans blew warm air on the congregation.
There were no kneelers to kneel on. Eucharist was held once a month. The church had no Bible studies, no finance commission, no buildings and hardscapes commission and barely any staff.
We had a quarter-time minister of music. The secretary, who could xerox but could not type, had been dismissed. Depending on which drawer he opened, the parish administrator would charge two different prices for the same cemetery plot. Nothing was organized. No systems were in place. Leadership was lacking. We had our work cut out for us.
So, we placed a new emphasis on the Eucharist and on families. We renewed our focus on children and youth and took outreach to a whole new level thanks to so many of you. We made pastoral care for every member a major priority, and we rebuilt our music program and developed a chorister program that fills us all with pride. We put the Bible back in the center of our church and in the center of our lives.
Together, we worked to make St. Thomas’ the most welcoming and hospitable church that we could. We took care of our buildings and grounds and expanded our facilities. We transformed our preschool and strengthened the relationship between our church and our school, creating one big, wonderful, caring community.
We carried out several capital campaigns which exceeded what we thought we could achieve. In all that we did, we strove to leave a stronger church than we had inherited and to ensure that it would a blessing for generations to come so that disciples could be formed to serve those in need.
This is our legacy. Our time together has been a manifestation of the Trinity, because the Trinity reminds us that everything comes out of relationship. God is never a solo act. The Trinity reminds us that God always works in relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, you and I never carry out God’s work independently but always in relationship, working together to carry out God’s mission.
We journeyed inward. We journeyed together, and we journeyed outward – but always in community.
As a congregation we were timid. We feared ourselves. We feared dreaming. We feared failure. We feared success. We feared competition from the culture around us.
The biggest obstacle was our own timidity. But perfect love casts out fear, and the more love we generated the more fearless we became. There is no timidity in the love that Jesus shares and in the love which we developed and in the love that you have showered on my family and me and countless others.
Love casts out fear. Remember this during the transition. Do not become anxious. Trust. Be loving and gentle with one another.
We are limited only by our imagination of what’s next in store for us. But love yourselves and love those in and beyond this beautiful community.
Today, our church is very strong. We believe in ourselves and we believe above all in Jesus Christ. We are disciples. St. Thomas’ has great lay leadership. Our Vestry is strong. Our Wardens and Vestry will lead the parish faithfully forward during the transition.
Our staff is second to none. They are extremely talented, committed and work wonderfully as a team. Please care for them. Invite them into your homes and into your lives. Do the same for your next Rector. Include your next him or her and his or her family in your life outside of church.
If you celebrate a big birthday, invite them to attend.
If you hold a baptismal brunch, send them an invitation in advance.
Invite them to an Eagles game or just to watch on TV in your home. Make them part of your life, and they will help win your friends and family into this wonderful church.
I trust that you will continue to follow Jesus faithfully. Each year, our leaders and I worried whether you could continue to support the ministries with your time, talent and treasure and help our church go to the next level. Each year, you stepped up and gave more generously of your energy and resources in service to Jesus.
Please continue to invest in this great church and the miracles that God longs to do here. The interim will last 18 to 24 months. St. Thomas’ needs a time to forget me and our ministry and focus on who you are as a faith community.
Be patient. There will be an interim rector. Things will be exciting. Change is good. Embrace, don’t fear it. Let love cast out fear.
Throughout this summer, I found myself listening to an old song sung by Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. He was the only member of the Beach Boys who actually surfed and raced cars. Shortly before his tragic death, he wrote a song called Forever. He sang,
If every word I said could make you laugh I’d talk forever
I asked the sky just what we had, mmmm… it’s shown forever
If the song I sing to you could fill your heart with joy I’d sing forever.
My dear friends and fellow disciples in Christ, nothing is forever. This has been wonderful, great, and unforgettable. But life is full of changes. Let’s embrace them.
Good-bye and Godspeed to you. Let the love that we share for each other and above all our love for Jesus live in our hearts forever. Amen.