So this morning I preached my first sermon. To be able to preach was a great blessing to me, and I hope my words, by God’s grace, were a blessing to others.
Brothers and sisters, today, for the first time, I step into a Methodist pulpit to preach, as did my father and grandfather before me. I am the product of two generations of Methodist ministers. Which means I have seen a lot of moving.
I was born in Lewiston, Maine. My father had recently been ordained, and was the pastor at nearby Lisbon and Lisbon Falls. We first moved when I was two, to the small town of Barryville, on the Delaware River, in New York. From there we moved to a succession of small towns in New York and New Jersey. By the time I was twelve, we had moved five times. My mother once had to pack up our entire household, move to another state, and then, exactly one year later, pack it all up and do it again.
My dad was used to this, because that’s how his childhood had been. My grandfather served eleven charges in his forty-five year ministry, mostly in central New Jersey. My father was born in Seattle, because at one point Grandpa was moved to a church clear on the other side of the country, and then moved back. We were accustomed to moving, because we were Methodists. It is normal, and has been for over two hundred years, for Methodist ministers and their families to move often.
Most Protestant churches do not do this. The great majority of Protestant churches in the United States work on a “call” system. Individual congregations hire their own minister, with the understanding that, if all goes well, this will be a long-term arrangement, sometimes until that pastor retires. Methodists instead use a “charge” system, where ministers are appointed to a congregation by the conference, with the understanding that they can and will be moved as the conference sees fit. Methodist ministers are to the bishop as the centurion’s soldiers were in the Gospel Of Matthew: the bishop says “Come” and they cometh, the bishop says “Go” and they goeth. Moving is an inherent part of Methodism. What is the symbol of our denomination? The circuit rider, a man on a horse, a man in motion. That is how Methodism spread in the early 19th century. Even when Methodist congregations became established, with institutions and physical buildings, the expectation had been set: ministers move.
Paul moved. Paul was constantly on the move, across the Levant, Asia Minor, Greece, to Malta, to Rome. In each city, he would find a niche. He supported himself by his craft, tentmaking. He went out into the streets, preached the Word, and through the movement of God’s power in the Word, met people, and became friends with them. In each city, he made a community, a home, and lived with them in love. Until it was time to leave. Then he bade his new friends farewell, got in the ship or walked down the road, and started the whole process over again.
In the passage from Romans, we see the fruits of all that motion: Paul knows people. Even writing to a church where he hasn’t been yet, there’s a long list of folks there that he has met and loves from elsewhere. So many it takes a while to say hello to them all. Paul had gone out into the world to bring those he met the love of God in Christ Jesus, and in turn God brought people to the love of Paul.
It is a frightening thing, to go continually to new places and new people. A minister does it by grace. No person Paul met was a stranger, because God already knew that person. No place was alien to Paul, because God was already there. The Holy Spirit opened his heart to all people and all places, moving him to embrace all whom he meet when and where he happened to meet them.
The purpose of moving is that God’s work shall be done. Paul went where God needed him to work. Methodist ministers go where God needs them to work. Every place and every person is equally precious to God, and therefore must be equally precious to God’s servants. If God is everywhere, and Christ loves everyone, then God’s servants cannot be too attached to particular places and particular people. We may say good-bye in temporary terms, but we will always be connected by the love of Christ. We look forward to the Last Day, when God will reunite us in physical fact as we always have been in spirit.
That’s the ideal. It comes at a cost. In June of 1986, my family moved from western New Jersey to extreme upstate New York. Dad had already gone ahead of us. On the last day of the school year, when school let out, my sister and I walked back to the house, accompanied by a group of our friends. We got in the car with Mom and drove off and I never saw any of those children again. My childhood was punctuated by a series of farewells, of last looks, of lost memories. My grandparents never had a house of their own, that belonged to them as opposed to a parsonage, until my grandfather retired at the age of seventy-three. My parents, my grandparents, made fast friends in each of the churches they served, friends to last them a lifetime. Then they said goodbye. In the reading from Acts, we can hear the sobs of the congregation of Ephesus, saying farewell to Paul. They will never see their beloved friend again. In Romans, we can read between the lines when Paul says:
“Say hello to our sister Phoebe. I miss her.”
“Say hello to Ampliatus, my dear friend. I miss him.”
“Say hello to Rufus’s mother. She was like a mom to me.”
“Say hello to all those I know there, and kiss them for me, for I am far away and cannot.”
God gave Paul a multitude of friends, and then pulled him away from them. Paul was willing to pay that price, because it was the only way to embrace the whole world. That was worth the pain.
So into our midst now comes [redacted name of our new pastor], making that move, paying that cost. How shall we respond? God is giving our new pastor to us, as a moment in the life of our congregation, and God is giving us to them, as a moment in their lives. So let us seize that moment. Let us use it for the purposes for which God had brought us together. Let us take joy in it. It will not last forever. The clock is ticking.
Let us welcome our new pastor as we would welcome Christ. Let us be a place of God for her and her family. Let us work together with our new pastor in the moment God gives us to be together. That time will be temporary. Let us rejoice in the blessing of it while it is here.