Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“As he walked along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, and he said to them, ‘Follow me.’ And they followed him. Going on from there, he saw two brothers, James and John, and he called them. And immediately, they followed him.”
And so begins the public ministry of Jesus. The 30 years leading up to this day was merely practice; it was training, preparation. Now the hard part begins. Now comes the chapter that would include ridicule, rejection, persecution and humiliation. Jesus could have done it alone, you know; he could have preached and taught and healed and fed the masses all alone, but he chose to do it with others. During those three years of ministry, his disciples were at once the greatest source of his gratification and the greatest source of his frustration. But it all began there, on the shores of a lake called Galilee, and two words: “Follow me.” And they did.
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A thousand sparks to inspire you — and your congregation!
I spent the past week on the west coast. I was asked to speak at two gatherings in the Bay Area, and then I rented a cabin for four nights on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Have you been to Lake Tahoe in the winter? It was gorgeous; the water shimmered, as it reflected the snow from the surrounding Sierra Mountains. I did some reading and some writing, but mostly I just relaxed and reflected, and wrote this sermon. Now I should tell you that I gave the title of this sermon to Kathy before I left, but as I wrote, in the quietness of that lake cabin, the title still seemed appropriate to me. Let me explain….
Last summer, I began to feel a bit restless in my life. I had been here eight years, and that’s the longest I have stayed anywhere. Then two phone calls came from two congregations looking for new pastors. There was no reason for me to leave Our Savior’s; I’d be foolish to go from this church to another one, but still, I was intrigued. I mentioned the phone calls to Marsha and her response was fairly succinct: “You’ll be going alone.” Wow.
The restlessness continued, so I wondered if there would ever be something for me in the business world. I put my resume out there and, surprisingly, I had four interviews. The conversations went well, but in those meetings, I realized two truths. The first is that I am paid pretty well at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. You are a very generous people, and I want you to know I am grateful for that. The second truth I discovered is that I’m not called to sell widgets, or run a small company, or write television commercials. I’m called to be a pastor.
Now there’s a risk in sharing that story, and then telling you that I’m not going anywhere. One risk is that you’ll make this all about me; that you will fawn over me and say how glad you are that I am staying, blah, blah, blah. The other risk is that you would ask me to reconsider, that there are jobs out there, and you would be happy to find me one. But there is another reason for me telling you this story; it’s the same reason I titled the sermon as I did. You see, when a pastor leaves, he or she has great freedom in that final message. Pastors can speak the hard truths in that sermon; they can challenge the flock and not have to worry about future board meetings or future paychecks. I’ve always been tempted to title my final sermon “What I REALLY Believe!” But what I have chosen to do today is to speak as if this really were my final time with you. What would I want to say? What words of challenge, or encouragement, or gratitude would I want you to hear? And this is what I have come up with; a message that targets six groups. I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I show up to work on Tuesday morning; that’s the risk, but it’s a risk I have decided to take. Here goes….
The first group I want to address is those who are visiting Our Savior’s for the first time today. You walked in on a doozie Sunday, didn’t you? If you are church-shopping, I’ll bet you have never visited a church where the senior pastor resigns and then un-resigns in the span of five minutes! But I think I can safely say that you never walked into a church as remarkable as this one, either. If you come back next week, or the week after that, you will discover what I have discovered: that this is the warmest, friendliest, most loving and caring church that I have ever attended. Here, you can be yourself, and not worry about being accepted and loved for exactly who you are. I know a lot of churches say that; this church lives it. I hope you come back and discover that you have a family here.
The second group I want to speak to is at the other end of the membership continuum; you who have been the faithful flock in this church for a long, long time. When I did my internship here in 1980, you were the leaders here; when I returned in 1999, you were still leaders. Thank you for your courage when this church struggled. Thank you for your sacrificial giving when this church wondered how it would pay its bills. Thank you for laughing when your church family laughed, and weeping when they wept. Thank you for gradually stepping aside so that a new generation of leaders can receive the mantle of leadership from you. I suppose it’s a little bit like raising children and then struggling to give them permission to act like adults when the time is right. You have done that with dignity and grace. Thank you.
The third focus is really…all of you…all of us. I want to spend a moment celebrating what we have done together these past eight years. When I arrived in 1999, our Sunday worship attendance was 197 people. Today that number is 554. In that span of time we have doubled the size of our building, tripled our staff and quadrupled our Sunday School. We have added 200 parking spaces, a preschool, a bell choir, an orchestra, several vocal choirs, a parish nurse, and of course, a new church sign. We have given away more than half-a-million dollars over these eight years to such ministries as The Salvation Army, The Life Care Center, The St. Paul Area Synod, Young Life, the Food Shelf, hurricane survivors, tsunami victims, and a vibrant congregation in Mlafu, Tanzania.
But if you think it is time to coast, then you are making a huge mistake. If you think its okay to circle the wagons and rest awhile, then you have misunderstood what has happened here over these eight years. We didn’t cause the growth; God did, and he enabled us to follow his lead and meet the ministry needs of countless people. If you decide to step back now, you will be saying to God “Stop! Stop the blessings! Stop the growth! Stop demanding so much of us! We’re taking a vacation from your challenges!” People, you can’t do that. Not when there are people who need to know the Savior. Not when there is a sanctuary to build, and mission trips to fund, and hungry to feed, and important issues to be prayed over and discussed. For all we’ve done together, I thank you. And for all you will do in the future, I thank God.
Fourthly, I want to address our church staff. I love you; every one of you. Jane Gay has begun her 23rd year as our organist, but all of the rest of you, I had a part in your coming. You should know that you were my choice in every single instance. Over these years, I have watched you work, and serve, and help grow this ministry. I know the struggles you have overcome, I am aware of the criticisms you have received that have kept you awake at night, and I know both the joy and the frustration that comes with being an employee of the church. You have 1700 bosses who think they should give you guidance and direction. You have 18 colleagues, and some days you think their jobs are easier than yours. So have I. I wish I could have done more to affirm your work, to help you understand the important role you play. But I would also tell you this; serving in a church is different than working in any other sector. In the church, we are the Body of Christ, and if one member suffers, the whole body feels it. You are an amazing collection of people, and I have been privileged to work with you, and I have received my greatest joy when I saw you working with each other.
Fifth is a word to our young people. You know who you are; you are the ones who are under the age of 18, and much of the world does not take you seriously. Because you are still in diapers, or you have not yet reached puberty, or you are just starting to drive a car, or because you aren’t exactly sure what you want to do after high school; because of your youth, you often feel like you don’t matter. But in this place you do! When Pastor Keith tells you that you are special, he speaks for all of us. One-third of our congregation’s budget is spent on ministry to young people, because we think you’re worth it! And so did Jesus. When he told his disciples “Let the children come to me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God” he was talking about you. And you are not the church of the future, as is so often said; you are the church of today, and we are so glad you are part of this congregation.
Finally, a word to you who are new. Now, in a church that’s 150 years old, being new is a relative term. I would say “new” means those who have come along side of us in the past three or four years. What attracted you here? Was it our fabulous children’s ministry perhaps, or the passion and joy of our youth ministry? Was it our music, or our preschool, or our lively worship, or the warmth of our membership? Whatever brought you here, I’m glad you’re here. But there comes a time when you must not be new anymore. That is to say, that you are not merely consumers but participants and contributors as well. Part of the DNA of this church has to do with a word called “stewardship.” You think that word has to do with money, and in part, it does; but not exclusively. To be a steward means to recognize that all you have is loaned to you by God; it belongs to him, and you are to use it wisely. That includes your money, your possessions, your time, and your talents and abilities. If you are new…if this is really someone else’s church and you’re just new here, well then, you won’t be expected to use your money or your time or your talents here. But you’re not new anymore; not after three or four years. This is your church now. This ministry depends on you. Nobody is going to approach you directly and say that it’s time for you to do your part. But until you offer a bit of yourself, this will never really be your church. I know this sounds harsh, and you can be upset with me, but what are you going to do? I mean, this is my final sermon after all! The point is, this church needs you to be a partner in this ministry.
I leave you with this; the gospel lesson today featured a two-word call of Jesus that has set the tone for the Christian Church for 2000 years now. “Follow me.” Jesus didn’t want followers, as if he were the drum major leading a parade down Main Street. What he meant was “emulate me, imitate me, take on my values, my priorities, my hopes for the world.” And in short, that’s what it means to be the Church; that we would have the heart and mind of Jesus, and it would direct our paths. So today I leave you with two words; not “follow me…Steve,” or “follow Linda” or “Follow Keith.” That would be a huge mistake. No, the two words now are “Follow Him.” Take this church where he calls you. Give your lives in service to him. In these eight years, that’s all I’ve ever meant say, but perhaps that’s been enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.