I am honored to be here with you on this high and holy day. I preached Steven’s installation sermon, and so I am privileged again to be in this pulpit at this service of celebration and thanksgiving for Steven’s ministry among you.
Steven joked that because of my bookending his ministry that I am the “Alpha and the Omega.” I replied that “we have an Alpha and Omega and I am not he!”
I have known Steven since he was a seminarian. I laid hands on him at his ordination, and our lives have been intertwined ever since. I recall him bringing his girlfriend Kelley to church, and years later I officiated at their marriage. Steven sang at my last service. He officiated at my son’s marriage, and he gave a charge at my daughter’s ordination.
And for many years, when this congregation graciously hosted Confessing Christ meetings, I stayed overnight with the Smalls to break up the trip from Pittsfield. I was sort of “the man who came to dinner” every few months, and what dinners they were! The Smalls treated me like a member of the family.
I was blessed to watch Katherine and Abigail grow up to be the wonderful women they are today. Steven likes to call me his mentor, but I think of myself more as his friend, and I feel blessed by him and his family. So that is who I am and why I am here. Steven said I should keep my sermon to 15 minutes, so now that my introduction is over, you can start your watches.
Let us pray: Holy God, through the written word, and through the spoken word, may we behold the Living Word, even your Son our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have picked as my text 2 Timothy 4:4-7 and especially the final 3 verses. Let us hear those again:
“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
The context of the whole letter is Paul passing the baton to his younger colleague Timothy. Paul’s ministry has come to an end, and now Timothy must take over his vocation as an Apostle to the Gentiles. So there is a valedictory quality to these verses.
Let us look together at what Paul is saying here. First he says, “As for me I am already being poured out as a libation.” He may have had in mind the libation offerings at the temple when people would pour wine at the foot of the altar. “Poured out” is a metaphor of completion. He is saying, “I have nothing left,” or as we say in sports, “I gave 110%, and I left it all on the field.”
The next thing Paul says is “the time of my departure has come.” The Greek word here for departure can refer to dying (as it can in English,) but more likely here it means a leave-taking, as when a ship leaves a harbor, or an army breaks camp and moves on. Again it is a metaphor of completion.
Then Paul employs a couple of sports metaphors. First, he says, “I have fought the good fight.” Here the word “fight” doesn’t refer to warfare or battle, but more likely to a wrestling match. But this is not just any old contest, but the “good” fight, the noble cause, in his case the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then Paul turns to a different sport, the foot race. His readers would all have been familiar with foot races from the Roman stadiums. He says, “I have finished the race.” It is another metaphor of completion.
Then he says, “I have kept the faith.” That can be read as keeping the Apostolic Faith he has been exhorting Timothy about, or it could be a more general “I have kept faith” or “I have been loyal to my calling.” Either way Paul is not bragging, but testifying that he has kept trust with his calling.
Then finally in verse 8 Paul continues: “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
He may very well be thinking of the much prized laurel wreathes which are placed on the heads of the winners of the race. You’ve seen them on the heads of winners at the Boston Marathon. They get them at the end of the race, but Paul doesn’t say he is going to get his victory wreathe at the end of the race. No, he says he will be given it on the day when the Lord, the righteous judge, will appear. This is clearly a reference to the Advent of Jesus Christ at his return.
It’s a great passage, and it was actually the appointed epistle reading for this Sunday in the Lectionary. I told Steven we couldn’t have found a more appropriate one for this occasion if we had searched the whole Bible.
And what does this passage say to us now, on this holy day? Well, first of all, the phrase “passing the baton” has come to mean the safe handing over of responsibility from one to another. Just as Paul passed the baton to Timothy so now Steven safely passes the baton to your next pastor, whoever that person will be.
And I have faith that that new pastor will take the baton, and with it the responsibility to lead this congregation into your new future. I received the excellent letter that Dan Newman and David Gustafson sent out to you all. Two phrases popped out at me. First, “we have been unusually blessed by long-tenured pastors. Those tenures speak volumes about our congregation and its faithfulness.” And that is very true.
For example, I was a great friend with Steven’s predecessor, Eric Bascom, who was a wonderful pastor. So even before Steven came here I knew about this church and its faithfulness.
You’ve had good long-tenured pastors. What is the explanation? Recall how Yogi Berra once said, “Good pitching will always beat good hitting. And vice versa!” So is it like that with congregations, faithful congregations will have faithful pastors? And vice versa! Could be.
The other phrase that popped out at me from that letter was this one: “Our faithful God is even now preparing our next pastor to come and join us in leadership.” Amen! Every member of this congregation should be praying for the search process. I know it can be a scary time between pastors, but it is also an exciting time, and an important time to reflect on your mission and direction.
I always say the Christian faith is a team sport, and the church is the team. That is true at any given time; we need each other in community to be who we are. You are the body of Christ in this little piece of God’s Great Church.
And the Christian faith is also a team sport across time, from generation to generation. We didn’t make up the faith of the Apostles; it was given to us. Sure, the context keeps changing, and we have to keep discerning how to be faithful in out own time, but we build on what has come before as others will build on what we have accomplished.
So I have faith that the First Congregational Church of West Boylston will be fine.
And I have faith that Steven will be fine. He is setting out on a new chapter in his life and ministry. He doesn’t know just what is to come, but he does know that God is with him on the journey.
When Steven and I started talking about today’s service we talked of a “Farewell Service.” And it is partly that but not only that. I recalled that my own farewell service was called “a service of celebration and thanksgiving” and I suggested that idea to Steven and George (Vogel). We all agreed that’s the note we want to emphasize today, because there is a lot to celebrate and much to be thankful for.
We celebrate and give thanks for Steven’s 24 years of ministry here, and the wonderful collaboration between him and this congregation.
So I invite each of you now to think of some way Steven touched your life in some way. Did he officiate at your wedding or that of a family member? Did he sit by your sick bed? Did he stand with you by a graveside as he gave the last tender offices for a loved one? Did he weep with you when you wept, and rejoice with you when you rejoiced? Did a sermon or prayer of his touch you deeply and brought you closer to the living God?
And Steven, I invite you to think of the ways the people of this congregation supported and blessed you as their pastor. What encouraging words were spoken to you during a particularly challenging and difficult time? When did they carry you, when you couldn’t quite carry yourself? And when did someone express deep appreciation for your faithfulness and steadfastness as their pastor at just the needed moment?
I was a track runner in high school, and so Paul’s running metaphors in today’s text have real meaning for me. And I can tell you that when you run in a relay race others are relying on you and you give it your all. And when you finally pass the baton to the next runner, you are exhausted and breathless. But you are also somehow exhilarated for having been part of an enterprise bigger than yourself.
As Steven passes the baton, he can feel the genuine satisfaction that he has faithfully executed the ministry entrusted to him in Jesus Christ, that he has given his all for this congregation, and that he leaves you as a healthy, faithful Christian community.
He’s poured himself out for you. He has fought the good fight. He has kept the faith. He has finished the race, and a garland of victory awaits him on that Day when he meets the real Alpha and Omega, the First and the Living One, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on May 13, 2018, at the Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving for the Ministry of The Reverend Steven A. Small, at the First Congregational Church of West Boylston, Massachusetts, A Congregation of the United Church of Christ. Photo: MT Floyd, 2018))