The proverbial wheels have begun turning and in exactly one month from today I will preach my final sermon as a clergy person of the Boothbay Region United Methodist Cooperative Parish, in the pulpit of First United Methodist Church of Boothbay Harbor, Maine. As I am preparing for this final Sunday, which happens to be Pentecost, I am simultaneously turning my thoughts to my new congregation, Sudbury United Methodist Church.
Moving is an occupational expectation as a United Methodist Minister. In fact, settled ministry, or the one church/one preacher model that we have become so comfortable with is a relatively new invention in the United Methodist system. In the early days of American Methodism circuit riders would be responsible for dozens of Methodist Societies and would ride from town to town preaching, supplementing the work of the laity and administering the sacraments.
I can’t say that I would like to move back to circuit riding, as much as I enjoy traveling and staying busy with 3 churches and having to share them with another pastor by swapping off each week I have found it difficult to create and maintain that deep relationship that a congregation and a pastor develops with every congregation.
This year has offered a lot of really great opportunities for learning both about myself and about the inter-workings of churches in a traditional fishing village on the coast of Maine. I’ve learned that congregations rarely care if you’ve carefully exegeted a particular passage of scripture, mostly because the word outside of the Academy is a strange, foreign one that needs careful explanation. They care if you’ve prepared well for Sunday morning, yes, but more importantly they care about whether God loves them and they really need to hear, from their preacher’s lips, that God does love them.
I’ve learned that it is easy to get bogged down with budgets and financial issues and that those things can scare even the greatest of people. We live in a time that is not friendly to the local church. People are leaving in droves, the majority of churches in Maine are facing hard decisions about who they employ and what ministries they continue to support. When we focus solely on our budget and the amount that is being put in the offering plate on Sunday morning, we forget why we exist. We forget that the church exists to glorify God and proclaim that Christ is risen! Yet, that is difficult to do when a congregation is worried about whether they are going to be able to pay their pastor, organist, or secretary that week. Further, it is difficult to ‘deny [ourselves], take up [our crosses] and follow [Christ]’ when we focus on our money problems by holding on tight to what little we do have instead of giving it away so that others may share in the abundance of God’s blessings. If, instead of wallowing in our own problems of not enough we as the question, ‘what is it that this community needs that God is calling us to provide?’ we begin to share the good news and in ways that not only feeds those who have not heard the Word before but also feeds the disciples who are serving.
Finally, I’ve learned the important words of the prophet Micah, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God...” (Micah 6:8) The prophetic vision of justice is one that can’t be laid aside if we are to be actively engaged in the ministry which God is calling us to. Instead the church must be on the front lines of justice and in the face of injustice proclaiming God’s love for everyone--that all people, no matter what, are the recipients of God’s love. That unless we are willing to march with union workers, fight for just healthcare coverage, and stand up and protect migrant workers we are not doing our job. What’s more, I have learned that to do so is to take a risk. That risk will make your heart pound, will make your body shake, and if the weather is cold enough threaten frost bite; but, it is the church’s calling to stand in solidarity with the oppressed when rights are threatened. It is the pastor’s responsibility to connect the church to the front lines in a way that does not push aside those who disagrees with the cause, but invites them into the conversation and makes the church a wellspring of conversation and debate, allowing people to speak their mind lovingly, to worship and pray together, and then take to the world their theologically sound interpretation of the issues and causes.
As I pack boxes and separate out stuff that will go to the thrift shop and stuff that will move with me the Sudbury, I can’t help but thank God for, what Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver describe as, ‘this odd and wondrous calling.’