A sermon preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on 28 February 2021 on the occasion of the end of service as interim pastor.
What is your favorite Christmas Carol? Not the kind of question you would expect on the Second Sunday of Lent, is it.
While I have rarely met a Christmas carol I do not like, I have a favorite: “Once in Royal David’s City.”
As an eight-year-old boy soprano I sang a solo verse of that carol at the Presbyterian Church on Neville Island, Pennsylvania.
My voice has changed since then. It happens. Now I am more of a baritone. Which as my brother points out means “Mark sings and the rest of us have to bear the tone.”
Rest easy, I will not sing. But a song has been an earworm these last few days.
In Act II of the musical Hamilton, George Washington informs Alexander Hamilton that he will not run for a third term as president. Washington asks Hamilton to help write his farewell address. Their conversation plays out in the song: “One Last Time.”
One last time
The people will hear from me
One last time
And if we get this right
We’re gonna teach ‘em how to say
You and I[i]
It is a song about beginnings and endings. An ending for George Washington as and a beginning for the country. As Washington sings “the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”[ii]
Beginnings and endings; endings and beginnings have occupied a great deal of my thoughts and feelings this week. I have been reminded of how closely beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings blur together.
Sometimes endings are built into the fabric of beginnings. They are inseparable. For example, an interim pastor serves to help a congregation prepare for the next installed pastor. And then leaves. That is the point of an interim relationship. It is intended to end. When I began serving as the interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on March 1, 2018 the clock started running. It would only be a matter of time until our service together ended.
Now that day has arrived.
To return to Broadway, the curtain will fall on my ministry tonight at midnight. Seconds after midnight, the curtain will rise Pastor Janice’s ministry. There is some sorrow at this moment. At least for me. But there is greater joy about what the future will bring. Thanks be to God. Today we say goodbye.
We have shared time together. We have dealt with difficulties. We have experienced joy. We have wonderful memories. We have done significant ministry. I am and will forever be grateful. But we say goodbye.
You will always be in my head and in my heart. We are bound in the Communion of Saints. To paraphrase Paul, “I will thank God every time I remember you. I will pray for each of you and for all of you. I will give thanks for how we have shared in ministry and living the gospel from the first day of March 1, 2018 until now.”[iii] But we say goodbye.
I hope you will pray for me a time or two or ten. Each day. Maybe more often. But we say goodbye.
That is what interim pastors and the congregations they serve do. Saying goodbye creates a healthy boundary to allow the new pastor to flourish. Saying goodbye does not diminish what we have done for each other or what we mean to each other. It does not alter my affection for you. It clears the deck and opens the way to the future. I am no longer the pastor. Pastor Janice is. I will no longer be here. She will. Together with Pastor Janice you will move on in your life and ministry as a congregation. And I will move on as well.
President Washington, at least according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, moved on to sit under his own vine and fig tree and take a moment alone in the shade.[iv]
I have no vine. Nor a fig tree. If I did, they would probably make me sneeze.
My plan is to take some time and figure out what my plan is. I am grateful to Tricia for giving me the space to do that. Retirement may be out there. Or I may look for some form of ministry. Time, and the movement of theHoly Spirit will tell. What comes after goodbye for me remains unclear.
As we say goodbye, I offer some insights I have gleaned through the years about ministry. In the words of those classic theologians the Beatles, I do so with a little help from my friends. Ginger, Babs, Mac, Bunty, Fowler, Nick, and Fetcher.
Well, they could be my friends. If we had met. And if they were real.
They appear in Chicken Run – a claymation movie involving chickens, rats, dogs, and some humans.
Chicken Run is set in 1950s Great Britain on Tweedy’s chicken farm. The chickens live ringed by barbed wire fences. The chickens make money for the Tweedys by laying eggs. Hens that fail to lay eggs soon make their final appearance. On the Tweedy’s dinner table.
The chickens, led by a hen named Ginger, become fed up with this life. Ginger knows that the chickens deserve better – a life free from the demand to produce eggs, free from the threat of death, and free from the farm. She shares her vision with the other chickens and convinces them to begin living out the vision in the only way possible – escape.
They devise a plan for escape and put it into operation. And they fail. Many attempts are made. Each attempt fails. And every time the chickens try again.
Two events break this cycle. A rooster from the United States named Rocky arrives. He brashly promises to teach the chickens to fly across the fence that traps them. At the same time, Mrs. Tweedy decides that eggs are not profitable enough. The farm will produce chicken pies. Escape becomes essential. As one chicken profoundly says, “I don’t want to end up as a pie. I don’t even like gravy.”
I will tell no more of the story so as not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it. But what does it say about ministry?
The Tweedys said the chickens’ role was to live on their farm in the conditions they established and produce wealth for the Tweedys. Led by the prophet Ginger, the chickens had an alternative vision. They envisioned a world with no barbed wire, no dogs, no huts, and no quotas. Instead, there would be freedom and abundance and sunshine and sharing.
Jesus proclaimed and lived an alternative vision. In the face of the domination of empire and the division of the human family along lines of class and gender and sexual identity and age and nationality, Jesus taught a vision of radical inclusion, expansive love, and unfailing justice. He envisioned a world turned upside down.
Part of that vision involves recognizing who we are and whose we are. The chickens refused to accept the way in which they were assigned worth by the dominant culture. To the Tweedys, the chickens had worth only as means of production. Once they ceased to be productive they had no value and they were disposed of. The chickens knew that they were more than that. They knew they had value simply because they existed.`
Ministry involves accepting our own value and reminding others of their value. We are repeatedly told that our value comes from externals – skin color, wealth, status, gender or sexual identity, age, ability. The list goes on. Elaborate systems and structures are built upon human differences by the powerful to maintain and enhance their power and privilege.
Ministry is knowing and claiming and living the awareness that I am God’s beloved child. And so are you. And so is everyone we meet. We should be treated as such. We should treat each other as such. We should challenge anyone who says otherwise. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, we move from treating people as others to embracing one another in God’s love.[v] And then we work to dismantle systems that perpetuate privilege and inflict oppression.
The community created in Chicken Run crossed usual lines. Nick and Fetcher are rats. That’s not a comment on their character. That’s an identification of their species. They aren’t the brightest rats. They spend a good amount of time waiting for the eggs that Rocky, the rooster, has promised to lay for them. Still the rats become part of the community working together toward the goal of freedom and a better life for all.
Ministry involves reaching out to and serving with people from whom we differ. God creates and enjoys an amazing diversity. Our challenge and opportunity is to build a welcoming, including community. God calls us to create a place at the table for everyone born, as Shirley Murray writes. God calls us to break down and reshape, remake, and replace as needed. And to make sure that not only does everyone have a place, everyone can share their voice, and every voice is heard.
The chickens created a community that worked together. When one hen had problems laying eggs, others would share theirs. Rocky points out that one or two chickens could easily escape. Ginger replies, “But that’s not the point. Either we all escape or none of us escape.” Ministry involves commitment and caring for one another.
Each chicken, and rat, had gifts they used to help one another. Everyone did something when needed. Ministry is a corporate practice – a communal art. It is not for the professionals alone. It is for everyone. It involves discerning the gifts we each have and then using those gifts for the good of the community and the world.
Chicken Run includes a rooster named Fowler who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. “644th Squadron, Poultry Division – we were the mascots.” He fondly tells stories about, “Back in my day…” The time comes when his gifts are needed. When asked to help, Fowler begs off. Ginger says, “Fowler you are always talking about back in your day. Well you are here now. And it is now that we need you. This is your day.”
Beginnings and endings blur. Time has a way of jumbling together. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. We plan and dream into the future. But in the end, today is the only day we have. Today we follow. Today we serve.
Today we make a transition. To return to Broadway one last time, one scene ends tonight. Tomorrow we begin a new scene in God’s Master Story – a story that began in the act of creation and that will extend until the end of days and the fulfillment of all things. A story of Divine creativity and grace and love in which we are privileged to play roles for a time. It is the story that has brought us to this moment and place. It is the story that draws us into the future.
We do not know for sure what the future will bring. But of this we may be certain. Whatever roles we play, we will be part of God’s Master Story of God’s grace and our response in ministry. I will, someday, figure out what comes next for me. You and Pastor Janice will engage in amazing ministry. And God will be with us all. This day. Every day. Thanks be to God.
[iii] Loosely based on Philippians 1:3-5.
[v] Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Embracing the Other (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015)