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.

“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

“New Shoots from Old Stumps” A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

I’ll tell you a secret. It is something every pastor knows. Also, any therapist, social worker or anybody else who deals with people at a deeply personal level. For many people this is not “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many it is a sad and troubled time. Advent invites us to consider even the darkest parts of our world and of our lives. And that is a good thing, because often the deepest truths are found in the darkest times. That certainly has been true for me. 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

“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

“Down to Earth” A Sermon on John 13:1-17

I started my ministry 43 years ago in two small congregations in two adjacent tiny towns in Maine about 9 miles apart. When I lived in Maine just about the nicest compliment you could give someone was to say they were “down to earth.” It meant that they weren’t puffed up about their own importance. They were reliable, sensible, responsible, unpretentious and humble. Continue reading

“Did God Say?” A Devotion on Genesis 3:1

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” —Genesis 3:1 Continue reading

“Epiphany: A Drama in Three Acts” (The Baptism of Jesus, Year B)

The reason for my title is there are three Biblical stories that are traditionally read in worship during Epiphany, and they all share the same purpose. Epiphany means “appearance” or “manifestation”, and the themes of Epiphany are about seeing and knowing Jesus as the incarnate One, the Light of the World. Continue reading

Awesome God: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29

When I read today’s lessons, I am struck by the mystery, grandeur and majesty of the Biblical conception of God. In these lessons God is the One who is due reverence and worship by virtue of God’s very being and nature. Our God is an awesome God. Continue reading

Paul on the Relationship of Christians to the Civil Authorities in Romans 13:1-7

Chapter 13.1-7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been highly controversial and is a good subject for a lively conversation on just how Christians should view the government. The Christians that Paul is writing to lived in Rome, the capitol of the world’s biggest empire. Christians claimed that “Jesus is Lord,” the title that the Roman emperor, seen as a divinity, required. Could one say both “Caesar is Lord” and “Jesus is Lord?” Paul would say no, “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ.” So was simply being a Christian an act of sedition against the state?

If this new transformed community said that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is the true Lord how shall they live in the heart of the empire? This is what Paul was addressing in Chapter 13.1-7. Continue reading