Third Sunday after Pentecost 2018
Co-Pastors’ Farewell Sunday
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Philippians 1:1-8
Pastors Donna Buell and Marty Raths
As this Retirement Sunday has approached I’ve found myself doing a lot of reminiscing. There are so many things I could tell you about our years serving as co-pastors. But that would take all day, so I ask you to spend some time looking at the photographs on display in the gathering space. On those tables I have tried to offer a glimpse into our lives, our family, and our years of ministry. I’m sure you will get a good laugh out of some of those early pictures. And I hope you will consider that display as the visual part of my message this morning.
As I gathered up all the photos for that display, I found myself thinking back on all of the people, places, and experiences that have helped to nurture me in my journey of faith and in the work of ministry. I’ve been thinking about the church and family in which I grew up, and where I was first learned to love God and neighbor. I’ve been thinking about my years in college where my understanding of faith deepened and led to my earliest sense of call. I’ve been thinking about my seminary experience and all of the preparation and discernment that led to my ordination.
Marty and I met while we were both studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and by the time I graduated in 1985 we were beginning to think seriously about building a life together in Minnesota. So, while Marty completed his last year of seminary, I was grateful to receive my first call in Mason City, Iowa. I was ordained in my home church at the end of November, and in December I moved to Iowa and began my ministry as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church there. A week after Marty’s graduation the following Spring, we were married in the seminary chapel and within a month Marty was ordained a Deacon at Annual Conference, we moved to a tiny town on the Minnesota/Iowa border, and Marty began his first appointment to the Gordonsville, Glenville and Albert Lea United Methodist Churches. Between us we served four congregations from two denominations, in two states. And that worked amazingly well, but when Nate came along we realized that was not going to work so well for our family in the long term.
The following year Marty was appointed to Bemidji and Cass Lake. During the four years we lived there, we did some tag team parenting and I had part time work in campus ministry at Bemidji State University and at the local Minnesota Public Radio station. We enjoyed our long Minnesota winters and comfortable summers on the shore of Cass Lake. When Nate neared school age, we asked the cabinet to consider appointing us as co-pastors. Our thought was that by serving together at time and a half, and by sharing a parsonage and family health insurance, we could help a church that was too large for one pastor, but not quite large enough for two, to grow its ministry. It would also allow us to center our family life in one community and one congregation. What began as an experiment in 1993 became 25 years of ministry together as co-pastors.
That experiment began in Redwood Falls. And because we served there for 15 years, it really is the community in which we grew up as pastors and as a family. As I looked through pictures this week, I was reminded of all we did together as a congregation, and of the way that ministry evolved over those 15 years in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit among us. We were able to forge some very deep bonds with the congregation as a whole, and with particular families with whom we celebrated multiple life events, including confirmations, graduations, weddings, baptisms, and funerals. I also had the opportunity to serve as a hospice chaplain during those years. I was actively involved in Presbytery leadership, and Marty was involved in district and conference leadership.
Redwood Falls was also a great community in which to raise a child. Nate was able to complete his education in one school district. His class had a lot of great, well-rounded kids, who got along really well. He had some really good teachers and made some great friends. And because his grade in Sunday school was made up of kids from active families, he managed to survive the experience of being a PK2 (as we used to call it). After Nate graduated from high school and headed off to Hamline for college we were open to a move, but we were committed to continuing to work together as co-pastors. Neither of us wanted to do this without the other, for we had discovered that anything we did together, collaboratively, was so much better than what either of us could do alone.
That was when we were appointed to the Northfield United Methodist Church. Our years in Northfield were challenging, exciting, exhausting, and creative. It was a very different community and congregation in many ways. It was larger and more diverse, and we faced more administrative responsibilities and higher expectations. We also got to work with a talented and creative staff and congregation, who stretched us and drove us deeper and wider as we sought to provide leadership. And through it all we established some very deep bonds of friendship within the Northfield congregation.
Three years ago we were appointed here to Stillwater, and this has been a really good fit for us at this point in our lives. You and we have benefited from our 30 years of experience. By the time we got here we had this co-pastor thing down. We were able to draw upon ideas and resources, not to mention sermon series that we had worked hard to develop in previous churches. And we saw that as good stewardship, for it freed up time and energy for us to do some creative ministry among you. And though 3 years doesn’t seem like quite long enough, it does feel as though we packed a lot of good ministry into our short time together. As a congregation we have been focused and intentional about our ministry, and as a result there are so many ways in which we have been growing in our love of God, growing in our love of one another, and growing in our love of our neighbors, near and far, here at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle.
But, as the writer of Ecclesiastes wisely wrote: “for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven,” and last fall Marty and I began to sense that the time was coming for us to retire. The time was coming for us to step aside and make way for new leadership that would help you take the next steps of growth as a congregation. And the time was coming for us to step out of our roles as pastors and make space in our lives for some new things, as well. As we have told you many times, this decision did not come easily to us, and it wasn’t about you as a congregation, though perhaps we were inspired by all of you who make retirement look so appealing!
Many of you have asked us what plans we have for retirement. And my first answer is always that we need to stop. We need to stop being “pastors” and explore life without that pastoral role. I suspect there will be ministry opportunities or other work that we will each do, volunteer or otherwise, but for now we are committed to taking at least this first year to rest and renew. We plan to remain in our Stillwater townhome, at least for the time being, so we will likely run in to some of you around town. But we will not be involved in the life of the congregation, for we know how important it is for us to step away so that you and your new pastor can forge the bonds that will help you to engage in meaningful ministry together. But please know that Marty and I will be praying for you and for your pastor, Dan Bader, and we will be celebrating the good things you will be doing, as we have with the other congregations we have served. I encourage you to keep in mind the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
We’ll spend more time at our family cabin, and take some road trips to see family and friends. This fall we will be spending 3 weeks in China with our son Nate, and another 2 weeks in Japan. We have a growing list of churches around the metro area where we plan to worship a time or two, to hear colleagues preach, to experience worship in a variety of settings, and eventually to choose a place to worship without the Bishop’s assistance. Beyond that, we are leaving things very open-ended, allowing retirement to unfold in ways that we may not even anticipate at this time.
So as we stand at the threshold of retirement, I find myself feeling incredibly grateful. I’m grateful for all that has led us to this day. I’m grateful to each of you for your loving support and encouragement. I’m grateful to each of the congregations we have served. I’m grateful to my Presbyterian Church family and to my adoptive United Methodist Church family for their openness to my ecumenical ministry. I’m grateful to Marty for being the best partner in marriage and parenting, in life and ministry, and in retirement that this woman could ever have asked for. And of course I am grateful to God, who loves us all and is with us all, in all times, in all places, and in all circumstances.
In writing this sermon I found myself thinking back to the first sermon that I ever preached 34 years ago now. I was serving as a student pastor at the Broadway Temple UMC in NYC, and I was standing in the back of the sanctuary before the service. The senior pastor’s wife, Grace, was standing beside me, and she asked, “How are you doing?” “I’m a little nervous,” I said. “Don’t worry,” she assured me, “You’re among friends.”
Grace was speaking to the moment, but more than I could have ever imagined at the time, she was speaking about what would unfold over the next 34 years. In the past few months many people have asked me what I will miss most about pastoral ministry, and without a doubt it will be the people and the friendships. Pastoral ministry affords such a rare opportunity to be with people in what the writer of Ecclesiastes calls all the times and seasons of life.
So in looking back over the past 34 years, what I feel most of all is gratitude for all the people and all the friendships along the way, including my friendships with all of you. Donna and I are so grateful to have been given the opportunity to be your pastors, to come alongside you as a congregation, and to work with you in ministry together. It has been an honor and a privilege and a joy.
We want to thank our staff, Monica, Patsy, Kathy, Becca, Wilma, Kari and Janna. At least from our perspective we have worked well together and done good ministry together. And I want to remind all of us that, with a change of pastors, there are always some additional responsibilities that fall upon the rest of the staff. So be sure to show them your appreciation and to give them your support and encourage in the coming months.
And we want to thank all of you. Thank you for your gracious welcome of us when we came. Thank you for being a congregation who cares about one another and our community. Thank you for your faith, for your willingness to share your gifts, and for your desire to follow Jesus in loving service to others. As I said, we have so enjoyed being in ministry with you, though I have to confess that in looking back at our time here I worry a little.
I am reminded of a story about Leo Durocher. Durocher was an average baseball player, a great manager, and one of the most colorful characters in the history of major league baseball. His nickname was Leo the Lip, and I will just leave it at that. You can use your imagination. And one season, while he was coaching the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team brought up from the minors a young right fielder named Johnson. Now Durocher began playing him right away, but Johnson really struggled with the transition to the majors, making quite a few errors in his first few games.
And the next game it went from bad to worse. Johnson made two more errors in the first five innings, so Durocher finally benched him. But the very next inning the very first batter lifted a high fly ball out into right field, and the new right fielder drifted over, got under the ball, and dropped it. By now Durocher was beside himself, so he turned to poor Johnson, who was sitting dejectedly down at the end of the dugout, and he said, “Johnson, you’ve messed up right field so bad that nobody can play out there anymore.”
I do hope that we have not messed things up too bad for Dan. We have been able to spend some time with him, and he will bring rich gifts and graces and experiences for ministry. And both Dan and his wife, Monica, are very excited to be coming here, so we trust that you will welcome them as graciously as you welcomed us, and we will be praying for all of you as you begin your new ministry together./
After 34 years of preaching, what does one say as a last word. It will come as no surprise to those of you who know my preaching, that I decided to tell a story. It is a rabbinic story that happened many years ago. A congregation had become concerned because their old rabbi had taken to disappearing from the synagogue after the opening of the Sabbath. Some were afraid that he was forgetting his proper duties as a rabbi. Some feared that he was actually breaking the Sabbath laws. Some, knowing his reputation for holiness, insisted that he was being spirited up to heaven, perhaps even by Elijah himself, to discuss holy matters with God.
So as a way to calm the concerns among the congregation, one Sabbath night the congregation picked someone from among them to follow the old rabbi to see where in the world he was going every Sabbath.
Sure enough, as soon as the Sabbath candles had been lit, the old rabbi slipped out of the back of the synagogue, walked quietly down the path, through the woods, and up a large mountain. Finally, the one who was following behind the rabbi could see a small cabin in the distance, a ways farther up the mountain. And without a moment’s hesitation, the rabbi went straight toward the cabin.
Now the one who was following wondered to himself, “What could the rabbi possibly want from the home of a gentile?” So he crept closer, as both fear and curiosity filled his heart. And when he looked again, he could see the rabbi framed in the doorway by the soft light of a dying fire, just before he entered into the home.
The one following slipped around to the side of the cabin and pressed his face to the window, and he could never have imagined what he saw. There on a simple cot lay an old gentile woman, her face wrinkled, her body weary, her breathing labored.
First, the rabbi swept the floor. Then he chopped some wood and fed the fire. Next the rabbi drew some clean water from the well. Finally, he made a pot of fresh soup and set it on the stand beside the woman’s bed. And then with the utmost patience and kindness and care he helped to feed her.
Now the one who had followed the rabbi hurried back down the mountain and through the woods as fast as he could go. And when he finally got back to the synagogue, some asked with disdain, “Is he just wandering lost?” But others asked with hope in their hearts, “Did he go up to heaven?”
And the one who had followed the rabbi stood among them for a long time, almost as if he were lost in wonder, and then he said, “No, the rabbi did not wander lost, and he did not go up to heaven either. No, he went even higher than that. He brought heaven down to earth.”
In matters of faith, this is as high as we can go, bringing a little of heaven down to earth. Jesus taught us that, when he taught us to pray, “. . . thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is our highest calling as followers of Jesus, bringing a little of heaven down to earth, as we live out our lives in faithfulness to the one who came down to earth full of grace and truth, as John tells us, and who not only taught us to love God and neighbor but who showed us how.
And this is what Teresa of Avila meant when she said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Heaven is not just something that we await in this life. It is something that we anticipate, and something that we experience in this life as well, in the midst of our ordinary, everyday lives. In every kind and thoughtful and encouraging word that we speak, and in every act of generosity and courage and justice and compassion and peace that we show, the kingdom comes, and we experience a little more of heaven on earth. And the kingdom comes too, and a little more of heaven on earth with it, whenever people are treated with honor and dignity and respect, and wherever people are allowed to live without fear or want or violence.
This is our highest calling in Christ. Like that old rabbi, to see in the other, however different they may be from us, to see in them a beloved child of God. As you did to the least of these, Jesus said, you did it to me. It is perhaps the moral challenge in our or any other time. How do we see and hear and understand and above all else treat those who are different from us. Like Jesus’ treatment of others, and like that Samaritan in his most celebrated parable, that old rabbi did not see a gentile woman who was different from him, he saw a woman, a beloved daughter of God, who was in need. And he responded with patience and kindness and care.
I have told you this before. Never ever underestimate the significance of a hotdish, and so it is with every act of concern, and care, and compassion that we show. At their most gracious they are what someone has called sacraments of care, the coming of the kingdom, and the bringing a little of heaven down to earth. And these are going to be my last words to you: in the life of faith it does not get any higher than that.
With grateful hearts, this picture (pictured above) is presented to
First United Methodist Church of Stillwater, MN
on June 10, 2018 by
Pastors Marty Raths and Donna Buell
who served as co-pastors from July 1, 2015 until June 31, 2018
Creation, Covenant, Shekinah, Kingdom
This print is an illustration from the St. John’s Bible, a contemporary handwritten illuminated manuscript commissioned by St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN. The four panels depict: God’s presence in the creation of the world; God’s covenant with Noah on behalf of all creation following the flood; God’s presence (shekinah) guiding the Hebrew people through the wilderness in a pillar of fire following the Exodus; and God’s ongoing presence with God’s people even to the end of the age when the New Jerusalem will be established with God as king.
“May you always remember that God loves you and is with you at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.