January 21 Sermon

See You Down The Road
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower

for January 21, 2017, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany
based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The story of Jonah is one of the best-known stories from the Hebrew scriptures. Jonah has been called by God and told to go preach in Nineveh. Jonah gets on a boat and flees the opposite direction. A storm rises, and the sailors ask who had offended their God. Jonah admits that he has, and asks them to throw him overboard. A giant fish, maybe a whale, swallows Jonah and later throws Jonah up onto the beach. All this happens before the part of the story we are about to hear.

also based on Mark 1:14-20

This passage has several elements characteristic of Mark. John the Baptist is mentioned; his story provides markers for the story of Jesus. Prophecy is fulfilled. Jesus calls, and people respond. And we have one of Mark’s favorite words: immediately. Listen for these as we hear this morning’s gospel lesson.

 Well, we finally made it here to … not the end, not really even the conclusion. We made it to another transition. Our journeys of faithfulness to God follow different paths now. I’ve thought a lot about that mystery: how can you and I both travel with God and yet travel different paths? And here we are at that intersection.

On World Communion Sunday, 2015, I joined you in worship for the first time. Now, 123 Sundays later, it is time for me to begin a new journey. The most important thing I can say today is thank you. Thank you for your patience with me: I continue to be human with all the possibilities and limitations that entails. I continue to learn about grace and graciousness with relationships. I continue to learn about the tasks of leadership, the role of pastor, and the specific work of interim ministry. Thank you for allowing me to learn, thank you for giving me many lessons, thank you for learning alongside me.

I do not yet have a call to which I am going. I have been told by the Association Ministers that they know I am available as an interim minister, there are not currently any interim openings, but I am near the top of the list. They have been observing the transitions at Lyonsville and they think it has been a mostly successful interim period. Yes, parts of it have been difficult, even unpleasant. Yes, some members have been dissatisfied with my leadership. Yes, there were several goals that went unmet. All of those are fairly typical of an interim ministry. Change is difficult.

Some of you have expressed regret for me – regret that in my role as an interim I am unable to make friends in the congregations I serve; regret that the interim position is by nature a set up for dissatisfaction and conflict; regret that I am without a community or congregation to call my own. Thank you for your care for me.

I have made friends here – and I expect some of those friendships to endure. Yes, my strongest friendships are elsewhere – but that was true before I began doing interim ministry. As I think of my closest friends, they are scattered: Virginia, Washington State, Florida, Michigan, Georgia, one in Beijing and another in Australia.

I enjoy interim ministry. I like the sense of having a focus, of working with congregations to diagnose themselves and strategically work together on being healthier, and in the process admitting – sometimes confessing – ways we have not worked well together, ways we have not fulfilled our calling to be the church.

Because of the transitional work Lyonsville has embraced, I have been able to apply for certification as Professional Transitional Specialist. Because of the transitional work Lyonsville has embraced, I have been asked to consult the Association of Trained and Intentional Interim Ministers in developing their 2018 conference.

Know that I will follow your progress for a while. I am curious how you will grow as a congregation. I remain vested in your individual faith journeys. You will continue to be in my prayers, individually and collectively.

For a while – 6 months, maybe more – when you contact me by facebook, email, even by phone I will say hi, listen and read your message, but my responses must be minimal. I will ask you if you have spoken with Sean about your concerns – or if not Sean, your moderator or even James Olsen. This is very deliberate: you need to invest in your relationship with Sean, which means I – and every other pastor – needs to step away for a while so you develop the relationship with Sean. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s not even about Sean. It is about being a healthy congregation. And part of being a healthy congregation is allowing the sitting pastor to be the pastoral authority for the congregation.

After a while, I will be freer to be more responsive in our communications. Even then, it will be you who initiate most of the conversation. And while I will be able to share more about my ministry, if you ask me for advice I am first going to ask you if you have spoken with Sean, or your moderator or members of Council or even James Olsen. This is perhaps one of the most awkward roles of being in ministry. I and other pastors who served you still care for you, still pray for you, still desire that you will fare well, but we are not your called and settled pastor – and in this congregational tradition, we have to allow that your current pastor is leading you to discern God’s will – even when our methods of discerning are different, even if we discern a different conclusion, we pastors must allow other pastor to do their work in the way that they discern to be best. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s not even about Sean. It is about being a healthy congregation.

I learned a lot from being around circus folk – a lot of unusual skills, some interesting ways to look at the world, a great deal about community, and a few rituals. Circus folk do not say goodbye. They’re superstitious, and goodbye holds too much finality for a short-term parting. So when circus folk depart from one another they say “See you down the road.” Sort of like “until we meet again” but with a lot more hope of actually seeing one another. I think it’s a good sentiment that the church should adopt. Let’s plan to see one another down the road. I don’t know specifically when or where, but I look forward to seeing you down the road. Shalom