10/27/2019 ~ Proper 25 ~ Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost ~ Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14 ~ Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine.
A Spirit of Humility
“But the other individual, the tax collector, stood far off, kept at a distance and would not even look to heaven. With real humility, all the tax collector said was: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” — Luke 18:13.
As I think most of you know in the official sense I recently retired. Given that I started serving churches at the ripe old age of 46 and officially retired at a much more ripe age— 71— I spent 25 years in the pulpit. 25 years— that still surprises me.
And yes, I am still here, in this pulpit this week. And yes, I am likely to keep preaching, at least some, as the opportunity presents itself. After all, old preachers never die. They just ramble on, and on, and on, and on… My wife, Bonnie, says I finally found a profession for which I am paid to talk.
In those 25 years I spent two years as the Associate Pastor at the Waldo County Cooperative, five churches in Waldo County. I was then 23 years Pastor and Teacher at United Church of Christ, First Congregational in Norwich, New York. I do not know who was more surprised by that length of time— me or the members of that church.
Now, First Parish Church in Brunswick had sent me to Seminary. And it is well known that Harriet Beecher Stowe reportedly had her vision to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin while sitting in a pew in that church.
Believe it or not Harriet Beecher Stowe steers my story back to the Norwich Church. I was the longest serving pastor that church had ever seen. The pastor whose record I broke— a pastorate of a mere 19 years— was the son-in-law of Henry Ward Beecher. Henry Ward Beecher was, of course, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Therefore and somehow, that all feels like things really came full circle.
Well, in 23 years I saw a lot of change. I officiated at the weddings of children for whom I had administer the sacrament of Baptism and with whom I had worked through the process of Confirmation. That was heart warming.
I did memorial services, celebrations of life, for people to whom I had become close. That was sometimes… no… that was always heart rendering.
Over time a goodly number of people joined the church. Whenever someone joined I always said several things.
First, said I, you are not joining me, the pastor. You are joining the church. Next, a church is not a building. This building is a meeting house. The church is the people who sit in the pews. You are joining the people who worship at this meeting house.
I also said the Norwich church had been around for 200 years. So you need to conceptualize the church this way. The church is like a train. You are at the train station waiting for that train.
Except after 200 years the train, this church, has built up a head of steam. It is not going to stop for you in the station. If you want to get on, join the church, you need to stick out your hand and grab on to it as it barrels through. (Slight pause.)
This story is presented to us in Luke/Acts in the section known as Luke: “But the other individual, the tax collector, stood far off, kept at a distance and would not even look to heaven. With real humility, all the tax collector said was: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Slight pause.)
Let me offer two more stories. In our tradition when a pastor leaves a church, a Search Committee finds a suitable candidate to be the pastor. That pastor leads a service and preaches. Then the congregation gets to vote to call that pastor, yes or no.
When I candidated at the Norwich Church, my first service there, I did what you have seen me do at the end of the service here. I had something extra to say.
“Congregationalists,” said I, “have a great tradition called freedom of the pulpit. That freedom stems from the fact that a pastor needs to understand the pulpit is the pulpit of the people, your pulpit.”
“All a pastor should try to do is share something about their own journey and how that might relate to the Gospel. But sharing the Gospel in the fulness of its love is not something which can be done in one Sunday, a month of Sundays, a year of Sundays.”
“Further, Pastors come and Pastors go. You are the church. If you call me as your pastor I shall be the 33rd pastor. God willing there will be 33 more.”
Next story: when I was in seminary one of my mentors said this: “I don’t know any pastor who fails to have a good sized ego. After all, it takes quite a bit of ego to presume you can preach, presume you can share the message of the Gospel. But, said my mentor, without a healthy ego you would never be able to share the word.” (Slight pause.)
Those of us in the Protestant tradition claim we are a priesthood of all believers. The idea behind those words is we all are empowered to share the Gospel. Some of us are called to share the Gospel with words.
Some share the Gospel by consoling someone in a time of need, by writing a card to someone, by offering encouragement, by contributing to a church fair, by visiting a friend. There are multiple ways of sharing the Gospel. And indeed, the Gospel in the fulness of its love cannot be shared by a single action, or a dozen actions or a hundred dozen. (Slight pause.)
It is unlikely Saint Francis said these words but they are often attributed to this monk. “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” (Slight pause.)
Having stated a healthy ego is necessary to share the Gospel— to share it in any form— I need to state the obvious. To preach the Gospel humility is a necessity. (Slight pause.)
One of the key words in this reading is righteousness. In the case of this reading these words are said (quote:) “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves, believed in their own self righteousness,…”
The Bible the Pilgrims carried with them to these shores was not the King James. It was the Geneva Bible. In that Bible righteousness is translated as right-wise. We must strive to be in right relationship with God, be right-wise with God. (Slight pause.)
We Congregationalists stand on the shoulders of giants— the Pilgrims for instance. In Norwich we stood of the shoulders of the folks who founded a church 200 years ago. I stood on the shoulders of the 32 pastors before me. We, here today, stand on the shoulders of those who joined with Elijah Kellogg to found this church.
Yes, we need to preach the Gospel. And yes, we use words when necessary. And yes, we need to be humble enough to know we don’t, ourselves, solely carry that burden.
As we preach we need to be humble enough to utter the same words the tax collector uttered. (Quote:) “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Humility— it’s a necessary aspect of preaching the Gospel and even a necessary aspect of hearing the Gospel. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Let me offer this quote from Madeleine L’Engle: ‘We do not draw people to Christ by discrediting what they believe, telling them how wrong they are, how right we are but by showing them a light that is so lovely they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.’— Like I said, humility— a necessary aspect of sharing the Gospel.”
BENEDICTION: Hear now this blessing, commonly known as the Irish Blessing: May the road rise up to meet us. May the wind be always at our back. May we have a full moon on a dark night. May the sun shine warm upon our faces. May the rain fall soft upon our fields. And until we meet again, may the hand of God hold us and the wing of God offer us shelter, and the peace of God be with us, always. Amen.