A Reflection on Forty-Five Years of Ordained Ministry

On this day forty-five years ago, September 21, 1975, I was ordained into the Christian Ministry of Word and Sacrament at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts. I was 26.

I had had my ecclesiastical council weeks before and waited for a call for a church before I could be ordained. Late in the summer it came. I was called to be the pastor of the Congregational Churches of Limerick and West Newfield, a “Two-point charge” serving two small congregations nine miles apart in the Northwest corner of York County, Maine. I had preached my neutral pulpit sermon in nearby Fryeburg, and a candidating sermon in each of the two churches.

I remember my ordination vividly. The church secretary, Irene Fultz, had designed. printed and mailed out the invitations. My family was there. My Associate Conference Minister, Oliver Powell, was there. The Reverend Joanne Hartunian, represented the Metropolitan Boston Association. The Reverend Meredith (Jerry) B. Handspicker, presided over the Laying on of Hands, and gave the Prayer of Ordination (after the ordained ministers were assembled he invited the whole congregation to participate, the first time I had seen this. It is commonplace now in the UCC.) The Reverend Dudne M. Breeze gave the sermon. He admonished me to be a Minister of the Word of God. I now know how wise that counsel was and how hard it would be.

I served those two little churches for four years and have never been happier. I married Martha while there and those churches threw us a big party. I trained as an EMT and became a firefighter.

Next, we went to Bangor, where I was Chaplain at Bangor Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor of the Hammond Street Church, United Church of Christ. There I ministered to students and congregants. I was a founder of Maine Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) a national anti-war organization. I chaired the Social Justice Committee of the Maine Council of Churches.

Finally, I came to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1982 to be the Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield. I had three sabbaticals from there: Oxford (1989), St Andrews (1995) and Cambridge (2000). I studied and wrote articles and books while on those wonderful respites from active ministry.

I stayed in Pittsfield for twenty-two years and would have stayed longer if I hadn’t sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a bicycle accident and had to retire early on disability.

After that I eventually discovered a new chapter as a writer. I started this blog, I wrote devotions for the United Church of Christ, and found a new ministry of the Word in my words.

So, there you have it. Here I am 45 years later. I once kept count of how many weddings I officiated at, but I have lost count well into several hundred. The same for baptisms, confirmations. I can’t count the hospital visits, the funerals and graveside committals I was part of. I’ve held people’s hands in Rehab Facilities and Psychiatric Wards. I’ve put my arms around people in overwhelming grief. I’ve been humbled by theses encounters.

I have heard numerous confessions. I have listened to more kinds of human consternation and misery than you can imagine. I have also been privileged to be part of people’s lives at some of their more poignant moments. I have shared many joys and sorrows. I have “wept with those who weep, and rejoiced with those who have rejoiced.” (Romans 12:15)

I have led countless Bible Studies and other courses for adults. I have authored “A Course in Basic Christianity” for adults. I think of it as a course to teach you “everything you should have learned in Confirmation Class, but probably didn’t because you had your mind on other things.”

I’ve valued the relationships of my clergy friends and colleagues in the United Church of Christ and other Christian denominations. I served  the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as their representative to the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity for twelve years. There, I made many friends and came to appreciate the richness of the “Great Church” of Jesus Christ.

I have also treasured the relationships I have had with my Jewish brothers and sisters in the clergy. We have become trusted friends and interlocators, and in that safe space of friendship have had rich and deep conversations about both what unites and divides us. It was a great honor that the family of my dear friend Rabbi Harold Salzmann asked me to speak at his funeral at Temple Anshe Amunin in Pittsfield last year.

I’ve witnessed people’s lives changed by their confrontation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I, myself, have been profoundly changed by a life-long engagement with Jesus and his Gospel of freedom and grace. Jesus is still the most interesting and engaging piece of our faith, and after forty-five years he is still the one with whom I have to deal in thought and deed and prayer.

I have struggled to be faithful to the truth as I have known it. My reach has exceeded my grasp. I have pondered the deep things of the faith and have written countless articles, papers, and three and a half books. I have spent years trying to reform my denomination and restore its historic theological and ecumenical vision through leadership in such activities as the Confessing Christ movement, the Mercersburg Society, and the Craigville Colloquies.

I have also, to be quite honest, been a leader throughout my forty-five year ministry, in an enterprise that is in decline in institutional vigor and societal esteem. The schools where I received my masters and my doctorate are no longer there. The mainline church in whose rocky vineyard I have labored is smaller, poorer, and less respected than it was before I began. My last church, where I served for 22 years, is selling its grand gothic meeting house.

But I do not despair about this. God will not be left without witnesses. The church of the future, I believe, will be smaller, leaner, and more faithful. People won’t go because it’s “the thing to do” as it once was. They’ll go because they have found something of great value to which they are committed. Or they will go because they are searching for something important that seems missing in their lives, something more durable, something deeper than the shallow seductions and distractions of our consumer culture that values having more than being.

So, while I have regrets about my failings and limitations as a minister, I have none about choosing this calling and living it out for four and a half decades. My daughter has chosen to be a pastor, and I watch with awe at how gifted and faithful she is. It is young clergy such as she who give me much hope for the church of the future. I thank God for sustaining me through this long calling, and for calling me in the first place despite my manifold frailties and failures. To God be the glory.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” Amen. —Ephesians 3:20-21.

Dudne M. Breeze (1938-2020) A Remembrance

Greetings from the Berkshire Hills. I’m Rick Floyd and I’m Pastor Emeritus of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It will be 50 years ago next year that I walked down the Andover Newton hill and took the MBTA from Newton Centre to Newton Highlands for a job interview to run a coffee house at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church.

I was twenty-two and a new college graduate and a first-year student at seminary. I wasn’t sure what I was doing there. I had more questions than answers, and was searching for something, and I wasn’t sure what for. My mother had died when I was eighteen and I was still a bit lost.

When I got off the T and walked the one block to the church it was dark, and I was comforted by the sight of a lighted stained-glass window. I was a child of the church and it felt like home.

That night when I met the committee, I met two people who would change my life. One was Martha Talis, a youth representative to the Youth Ministry Committee, and now my wife of 44 years, and the other was Pastor Dudne Breeze.

I liked Dudne immediately. He met me where I was, and supported me in my coffee house ministry. After that first year I told him I wasn’t sure about a calling to ministry and whether I should stay in seminary. He offered to let me do a year’s internship with him, and so I did. I shadowed him for a while as he made his pastoral rounds, and then he turned me loose to go by myself. That year I preached my first sermon. I wrote my first pastoral prayer. I attended my first church meetings. I led a Bible Study.

It was a trap, of course, I see now, but by the end of that year what had seemed like a sane possibility seemed a providential inevitability. I had a calling.

I stayed at the church for three years and watched and learned from Dudne. Four years after that first interview, I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in that church. Dudne preached the sermon. He admonished me to be “A Minister of the Word of God.” Only years later did I realize how wise that was, and how hard that would be. The next year he officiated at my wedding to Martha.

What was it about Dudne that made him such a good model and mentor? For one thing, he was comfortable in his own skin, and never tried to be something he wasn’t. He never condescended to me. He always listened. Sometimes he would say, “There’s a lot of truth to what you are saying.” He modeled for me a ministry of encouragement that I tried to emulate in my own ministry.

Dudne was wise as well as smart. He always had my back. When I preached my first sermon, I owned no dress shoes, so I wore my new work shoes under my borrowed pulpit robe. One of the ladies in the choir told me that it didn’t bother her, but “other people” had complained that I wasn’t attired properly. I told Dudne about her comment, and he said, “Ah. The old form over content disease.”

Dudne was a thoughtful and engaging preacher and I learned much of what is good about my own preaching from him. In the parsonage in Newton Highlands there was a guest bedroom, sometimes used by his mother-in-law. Dudne read voraciously and would clip articles from newspapers and magazines that he thought he might use in a sermon. He would toss the clippings into the bathtub in the guest room for research later. Unfortunately, when his mother-in-law visited, he had to gather them all up.

Dudne supervised numerous Andover Newton Theological School seminarians and he was also adjunct professor of homiletics. He mentored many of them, and a number of them were ordained at the Newton Highlands Church.

He was a kind and compassionate pastor. He walked beside me through some tough times in my life. He was always ready to answer my youthful questions with clear and concise answers. I once asked him what God is like? He said “God is like Jesus!” I once asked him if God punishes us for our sins? He said, “Sin is its own punishment.”

After my graduation Dudne remained a valued friend and interlocutor of mine. He and Gail visited us many times, as they had previously served a congregation in Pittsfield and loved the Berkshires. We shared many meals, many lively conversations, and even went skiing with them.

He always like to tell the story of coming down to the breakfast table early one morning and my daughter Rebecca was there with a book. She must have been five or six. She said, “What are you reading, Dudne?” My daughter, now a United Church of Christ pastor, was once an active member of your congregation in Cambridge, where she reconnected with Dudne and Gail. They came to her ordination in Westport, CT in 2013. I have a lovely picture someone took from the balcony of Dudne laying hands on my daughter as he once did at my ordination thirty seven years earlier.

When I started my own pastorates, Dudne was one of my go-to phone calls whenever I found myself in the “deep weeds” of pastoral ministry.

Dudne really loved his family. I recall visiting him at the parsonage one evening before he put the boys to bed, and he was roughhousing on the floor with them to squeals of delight, while Gail calmly went about her business. He was devoted to Gail, whom he often called “The Lithuanian.” I once asked him what the secret of a good marriage was and he said, “Marry a Lithuanian!”

His son Andy wrote a lovely letter about him that said Dudne had “a life well lived.” I heartily agree with that, and I would add that his was no only a life well-lived, but “a life well-lived” with great enthusiasm.

Dudne loved life. He loved not only his family and his calling, but also ideas. He read voraciously and subscribed to numerous magazines. He was intellectually curious and always interested and open to the new. He loved the movies, especially off-beat avant-garde ones. He put me on to Martin Scorese’s very first film, “Mean Streets.” He loved to go to Harvard Square to watch a film.

He loved cities and all the cultural amenities they offered. He had gone to Union Theological Seminary in New York City toward the end of its heyday, and he had been friends with some avant-garde artists such as Al Carmines of Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in Greenwhich Village. He loved jazz and recalled his student days in New York where he could go to jazz clubs and hear Miles Davis and Billie Holliday. Dudne could spend hours perusing the used books at the legendary “Strand Bookstore.”

Dudne had a great sense of humor, a great big laugh, and also a wry little chuckle. His signature parting was an enthusiastic “See you soon!”

Now Dudne joins that great cloud of witnesses who surround us as we walk in our faith journey. I give thanks to God for him. I will miss him. I’m not sure what happens to us after we die, but my faith assures me that someday we will be reunited in Christ. So, my friend, Goodbye for now: “See you soon!”

(These are my words of remembrance for Dudne M. Breeze at his Memorial Service at First Church of Christ in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 12, 2020. My remarks were recorded in Pittsfield, MA.)

“A Different Story; a Better Way” A Sermon on Matthew 4: 12-23

Over the years I have preached a number of Epiphany sermons here, as Brent often takes time away during the season. One particularly memorable one was three years ago. It was the conjunction of three significant events: the inauguration of a new president, Martin Luther King Day and the first Woman’s March. My sermon was called “Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death.” I worked hard on it, and indeed, I still think it was one of the best sermons I ever wrote. Sadly, it is not the best sermon I ever gave, because some of you will recall the plumbing failed us that morning, and the toilets weren’t working, so we abbreviated the service and sent everybody home. There’s a parable in there somewhere, although I’m not sure what it is.

So here I am, and here we are, three years later with the same text: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in the shadow of death, on them has light shined.” Continue reading

“Heads Up!” A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A

Advent is my favorite season of the church year. It has a different feel to it than the other seasons. There is a sense of yearning in Advent. A sense of anticipation. It is a time of watching and waiting. A time to remind ourselves that there are forces at work beyond our control. Continue reading

“Rich Toward God” A Stewardship Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” —Luke 12:13-21 NRSV Continue reading

“Distracted by Many Things” A Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

I have heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who do not. I, myself, am of the latter opinion, because no simple binary model can contain the diversity of the multitudes of humanity. Still, Mary and Martha represent two ideal types of individuals. Continue reading

“Taking on the Mantle” A Sermon for The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Luke 9:51-62

Who is Jesus? Albert Sweitzer famously said “looking for Jesus is like looking down a well. You see only your own reflection: that Jesus remains a stranger and an enigma; there will never be one answer to this question.” (The Search of the Historical Jesus). But there are things we do know about him that can help us understand his purpose and ministry. Continue reading

“Unfinished Business” A Devotion on 1 Corinthians 3: 6

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”—1 Corinthians 3: 6

At the beginning of my ministry I taught myself to cook. I was serving two small congregations in rural Maine. I was single then and rattling around the parsonage, so to keep myself occupied (and fed) I started reading various cookbooks and trying out different recipes. Continue reading

“You’ve Got To Serve Somebody” A Sermon on Luke 4: 1-13

When Patty Fox had her ecclesiastical council here in January I asked her to talk about how she goes about interpreting a scripture text to prepare to preach on it. She said several wise things, but one really struck me as particularly insightful. She said, “I always look for the odd, unexpected or unusual verse, and then I ask, ‘Why is this here, and is it important?” So as I was looking at today’s story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness I looked for something I may not have paid much attention to before. And you need to know that the temptation story, which is also in Mark and Matthew, appears in the readings for the First Sunday in Lent every year (from one of these three Gospels.) And I’ve been ordained 44 years, so I have had a chance to preach on this story more than a few times. Continue reading

“Passing the Baton” A Retirement Sermon on 2 Timothy 4: 4-7

Prologue

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!” Continue reading