August 11, 2019 I Timothy 1:12-16
When I realized that the church was going to recognize my 50 years of ministry I thought: You now, Terry you ought to write a sermon for this occasion. But the second thought was this: How do you compress 50 years into a 50 minute sermon?
I was ordained at the Presbyterian Church of Old Greenwich CT on June 15, 1969. The preacher at my Ordination Service was Dr. James Ault, the Dean of my Theological School at Drew University. The ordination service took place during a violent thunderstorm, a portent of what ministry is sometimes like. Dr. Jim Ault went on from Drew to become a Bishop at the United Methodist Church.
From my first call in Old Greenwich I went on to serve in Philadelphia, Portland, Lake Forest, Charlotte, Jackson MS., Litchfield Park AZ, Mequon WI., Northbrook IL, Tucson, Scottsdale, and Peoria. That’s us. .
My ministry has spanned the years of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9-ll, and presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter Regan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and Trump.
Over the years my conviction has grown that if the Christian faith doesn’t have anything to say about the great and compelling social issues of our day, it doesn’t have anything to say at all. After all, Jesus Christ is our personal Savior, but He is also Savior of the world. He is our personal Lord but also Lord of history. Faith is both private and public.
My ministry has spanned the years when the Presbyterian Church declined from 2.6 in 1969 to 1.4million members last year. This figure was made more stark when a fellow Presbyterian minister said to me in 1992, when we were both serving in Chicago. Do you know there are more Muslims in Chicago than Presbyterians?
I have grieved at watching this wonderful and beloved church spiral downward in members. Not because bigger is better, but because we have a heritage which is vital and important for our nation. After all, the constitution of the USA was borne of Presbyterian ideas, that there should be checks and balances in the local church and in the government
The reason for Presbyterians decline is complex and we don’t have time to explore it this morning. If you want to know more email me and I will send you the information.
And as a postscript we here in our little church have experienced that decline. In 2000 this church had over 200 members with a thriving SS and youth program. Today we are about 130 members, but we do have a thriving SS thanks to Shannon, and Sheila, and Linda, and Barbara, and Mickey, and Keith. Whom did I miss?
My ministry, has for the most part, been very fulfilling. For the most part. But there have been some exceptions. My churches have never had enough money and the stress of of that always fell on my shoulders as the pastor and designated fund raiser. There have been a whole host of difficult people, whom I have lost sleep over. People like the church member about whom it was said, She never swore but made everyone else want to.
I’m in a Facebook page with fellow Presbyterian ministers called “Happy to be Presbyterian” One pastor said in a posting, “Unless you are called into the ministry you won’t survive. So true. One in five United Methodist ministers do not make it after the fifth year in ministry. I don’t know what the percentage is in the Presbyterian church, but I suspect it’s close.
I did feel called. At a Youth for Christ rally in 1961 I gave my life to Christ and felt an almost instantaneous call to ministry. As first this call seemed to be a call to the mission field. After all, if you really want to serve Christ you go off to Africa somewhere and preach the gospel. But later, as I went to college and seminary the call was refined to a call to serve the local church–preaching, teaching, pastoring.
I am forever indebted to the members of the PC in Old Greenwich, who when I was a summer pastoral intern in 1968, affirmed my ministry and told me, “Terry this is where you belong.”
I have preached about 1500 sermons, some of which were repeats, so for the record let’s say 1000. I have all my sermons since 1986 on my hard drive and I go back every now and then and look at some of them, and say, “WOW, that’s good,” or “Oh, WOW could I ever inflict such drivel on my parishioners.”
My wife, my dear encouraging wife tells me, “Your worst is better than a lot of preacher’s best. I don’t know if she meant it or was just sayin’ to help me feel better about the dogs I’ve preached.
And to my wife, and my Dutch family here today what I am most thankful for in my is not my ministry, although I am unspeakably thankful for that, but my family, my beautiful daughter and my son in law, whom I love despite although he did steal my daughter from me and plant her in Holland; and my two grandchildren Liam and Jayden, and Jeremy and Dory and Fia and Kady in CLT.
How could you be so lucky as to have kids like that? Especially when they are all self supporting and don’t need your money and are not living at home?
When I retired in 2010 I said to myself, Every sermon I preach from now on will have an element of hope in it, for life is hard and discouragement lands easily.
One of the finest compliments I’ve ever had is from a family in Portland who had two boys aged 7 and 9. “We go home every Sunday and at Sunday lunch all four of us discuss your sermon over the meal.”
When a child or an old person likes your sermons, that’s as good as it gets.
What do I remember, looking back? All the people I’ve known, so many wonderful and inspirational church members whose lives would even cause preacher to believe. I don’t remember the stewardship campaigns, God save us all. Or the meetings. If the kingdom of God could be brought in by meetings, the Presbyterian Church would have already achieved that.
A final story which to me sums up all the other experiences of my ministry.
Several years ago, I received a phone call from a man I did not know. He said, “You don’t know me, but I know you. I’m in a lot of trouble. I’m now in a psychiatric hospital. I ran away from my family, my job, I got on a plane in Portland and flew to Nevada. I was going to commit suicide there. But once I landed, I kept thinking, for some strange reason, of you. My mother, a member of your church, had told me so much about you, about Westminster Presbyterian Church. Somehow it came to me that I needed to get back to Portland and talk to you. Somehow I sensed that you would accept me for what I am, that you wouldn’t judge me, that you would understand all the pressure I’ve been under.”
And so I did meet with this man in the hospital, and we talked and had prayer together. Now this story is a great mystery to me, how this man who had never seen me, who had only heard about me, could make a decision not to kill himself and go on living because he believed I could help.
But I understand this story in the context of giving my life to Christ in April, 1961. I understand this service in the context of our scripture today from : “I thank Jesus Christ our Lord that has appointed me and given me the strength to do his work.”