Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Valedictory Sermon

TEXT:                 1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-23

ONE SENTENCE:        The Holy Spirit moves through a wide variety of people, viewpoints and experiences; we would be wise to value each.

            Several years ago, I was on a national faculty team for clergy renewal.  The program was named CREDO, for Clergy, Renewal, Education and Development Opportunity.

            I began as a member of a team led by a very wise, gifted, senior priest named Ron Crocker, from the Diocese of Virginia.

            Our faculty team of eight would meet with some 30 participants at various diocesan retreat centers for eight days at a time. Faculty members, including myself, would make presentations aimed at provoking reflection and insight by the participants.  There was small group time, social time, and time for individual reflection.  There was also worship time, with services scheduled three times each day.

            As each retreat week ended, our leader, Ron, would offer his concluding meditation. It was always had the same theme: “Good-bye. I love you.”

            Ron was expressing his thanks to the participants who had prepared for and come to the conference, and shared deeply of themselves and their individual journeys.  He was thanking them for offering themselves to Christ’s ministry and for sharing so richly with the assembled group.

            And he was expressing his gratitude, affection, and even love for them.  It was a poignant way to say good-bye.

+ + +

            I understand more fully Ron’s sentiments as I stand here today – my last day as interim rector of St. Paul’, Magnolia Springs. In fact, my last day as an interim anywhere.

            When I came here last June, at the invitation of Maybelle Godwin, Chip Groner and Johnny Cooks, I was unsure of my pastoral and parochial sealegs.  I had just retired after sixteen years as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Mississippi.  But that was wholesale ministry, and not retail ministry.

            And there was more to it.  During my last year as the Bishop’s assistant, I helped guide an extremely painful and difficult clergy discipline case, and sought to resolve two highly-inflamed parish conflicts.  All of this was very intense and close to home. One of the parish conflicts was resolved very poorly and led to a very dear friend going to another diocese.

            I was like the old horse that had been rode hard and put up wet. I was done.

            It had been sixteen long years since I had served a parish – something I loved and was had been adequately prepared for.  But that had been a long time ago, and I had counted a lot of beans since that time.

            So here I came to this beautiful little chapel in South Alabama’s equivalent of Mayberry RFD.  There were some challenges, to be sure, but I was also mindful of the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”

            I may have told you that when I first became Rector of Church of the Resurrection in Starkville, Mississippi, my family and friends were greatly amused that this red and blue-to-the-core Ole Miss Rebel had been called to serve in the town where Mississippi State was located.

            I understood their amusement, but there was a more profound theological point to be made. And St. Paul makes it today in the second lesson:

“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

+ + +

You have been an easy lot to save.  It has been a joy to work side-by-side with you and witness the various ministries you have so freely undertaken and carried out on your own.  A guiding principle I have had is, stay out of the way.

            But there is an additional lesson I have learned.  I am told that an airplane is more gently guided by a light hand on the controls – that a tight grip can lead to a rough flight.  Perhaps Chip Groner can verify that metaphor.

            It is a metaphor, though, that I have learned with some value here.  These past eight months have been freeing – in the sense that St. Paul expressed in the passage today.  I have been free to be myself. 

I have learned what 55-gallon drums are filled with.  I have learned important lessons about inspecting pepper flakes.  I have had the opportunity to relate to you in your various places, to share your stories and experiences, to laugh and pray with you, because we are all freed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

            I guess that freedom that I felt reached its apex when I dressed as Lord Canterbury for the Madrigal Dinner. It was then that I knew I had thrown all caution to the wind. The picture of that outfit, posted by Nora, still gets humorous comments on my FaceBook page.

            And I mention Nora.  It is very important to me that my wife have a hospitable place to worship.  I frequently take my read of a congregation from her perceptions.  St. Paul’s has been warm and comfortable for her.  John has welcomed her into the choir.  For the first time in many years, we have felt at home.

            The warmth of this congregation is representative of a lesson that is much larger, and a lesson that I would commend to your new rector:  First, love the people.  You can do much more good with the people than working against them.

            A combined wish and direction I have for you in the days ahead:  Continue to be the people of God.  Do not resort to being a clique.  Continue welcoming strangers. Minister to those in the community.  Let your vision see beyond these four walls.  Continue to worship God, giving of your time, talent and treasure.

            Thank you ever so much.

            As my friend Ron Crocker would say: Good-bye. I love you.