Sermon – Calling Our Pastor

I gave the sermon in church this week, and it went pretty well I think! I definitely don’t have mental capacity to write two long form essays this weekend, so I’m giving you my sermon instead.

For those who prefer watching and hearing to reading, this sermon is on Youtube.

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Samuel Anoints David
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

2 But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

4 Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

5 Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

When I started my journey on the Pastor Nominating Committee, I looked to the book of Samuel for guidance. In Samuel, the Israelites are going through a crisis of leadership. It starts immediately. Eli, one of the Judges whose family has guided the national of Israel since Moses, has sons who are not living up to God’s expectations. That prophecy we remember a young Samuel giving, “Here I am, Lord, is it I?” That prophecy is to tell Eli that his sons will not succeed him.

After giving this bad news to Eli (who takes it surprisingly well), Samuel grows up finds and anoints the first King of Israel, Saul. But Saul’s commitment to trusting God is shaky. Saul gets murderously jealous, clinging to power. And Samuel risks his life to trust God’s word and find a new King who will stick closer to God’s will. In the passage we read, Samuel goes through a long line of hopeful brothers – looking for Israel’s new King.

Our search didn’t exactly go the way I expected, either. Rod retired on April 27 of 2014 – a week after Easter. Our interim arrived that summer, and we began the work of that interim period, figuring out who we were without our leader of 36 years. In Fall of 2015 we finished our intensive Mission Study work, using the New Beginning process. But as that year wound down, it became clear that Pastor Mike was not well. His last sermon in our pulpit was Christmas Eve of 2015. He was diagnosed the next week. By Lent of 2016, he was dead of the brain tumor that robbed us all of his guidance and presence.

Those who were here at that point remember what a crazy, mad scramble it was. We had several weeks where we weren’t really sure who would be preaching, or what would happen next. My brother kindly filled in for us several weeks, and then Presbytery sent Trina to us. It took us a while to get our feet back under us, and resume our pastor-calling process. But by October of 2016, we were ready to start our search for our next pastor in earnest.

The work of the Pastor Nominating Committee was very heavy. There were seven of us who served. I hope you all take a moment this December to thank them for their incredible efforts. We spent the balance of 2016 writing our Mission Information Form – basically a job description for pastors. Early on, Trina let me know she was not going to apply then, so we were starting from scratch. We spent a vast amount of time thinking of the skills and attributes that would be needed to help us become the church we hope to be. There were many finer points, but in the end our “must have” list was pretty short:
They must be Presbyterian, because we are a uniquely Presbyterian Church. This is the common element we all share.
We wanted a pastor who would be willing and able to be our pastor for at least 10 years. That’s actually a long time for a pastor in this day and age, but a third of the “average” pastorship in our church’s history. We understand there’s no guarantee that the pastor we hired WOULD be with us that long, but we at least wanted it as a possibility.
There are three “big buckets” of skills for pastors: worship, pastoral care (of the sick and those who need God’s human touch) and administration (like fundraising or paperwork). Knowing that it’s very difficult to find all three, we focused on worship and pastoral care.

For several months, the PNC met almost every Sunday after church. First, we wrote our MIF together. Then once it had been submitted, we read applications together. Each application from a pastor is between 6 – 10 pages long. And each of us needed to read all of them – we couldn’t delegate. We’d get a batch of about 30 and read them carefully and prayerfully. We took off their names and replace them with numbers, so we would be as unbiased as possible about gender or ethnic origin. We’d make notes on the candidates, and then come together to talk about who we wanted to invite to a conversation. All told, we read 131 applications.

Once we had the list of candidates we wanted to talk to, we asked them to join us in a video call. We pretty quickly figured out that Monday nights were the best time for this. We’d do three half-hour interviews back to back to back – starting at 7 pm and often not finishing until 9:30 at night. (We always gave ourselves 15 minutes extra, in case they went long or the technology went wrong.) We called in from various homes and couches. We held interviews over 23 times this way. When we had a good short conversation with a candidate, we’d then move to a longer, hour-long video call. We’d briefly worship with the candidates, share our stories (we learned a lot about each other’s faith journeys and lives!) and listen carefully to what the candidates were seeking in their life and call.

Three times, Spring, Summer and Fall, we then invited the best of the candidates to be with us in person. These were full weekend affairs. We’d start with lunch, to get to know each other. We’d interview them for an hour or two on Saturday, and then show them around the church. I’d drive them from Stoneham up to Lowell to show them just what it meant that we are a regional church. Then we’d have dinner at Brad’s house – the two of us who were session members – to answer any questions about church politics, history, finances or concerns they might have.

The next morning, the whole PNC would get up bright and early to go to a strange church and listen to our candidate preach. We worshipped in unfamiliar pews, and listened to different music and tried to find the way to bathrooms in new churches. Finally, our candidate would meet with the Presbytery Committee on Ministry, who would then report back to us on whether they thought the candidate was acceptable or not.

By the end of the second day, we were all past exhausted!

Talking and thinking about our church so much, though, we ended up learning a lot about who we are and what makes us special. I wanted to pause for a few minutes to let you know what it is that is remarkable about our church – what impressed our candidates very much when we talked about Burlington Presbyterian.

1 – Our patience with each other
When learning how long we’d been without an installed pastor, the candidates would often ask about how restless the church was. “Are they giving you a hard time?” I’m sure that you have been restless sometimes in this journey. I know I have been. But not once did a single one of you ever give me a hard time, or the rough end of your tongue, for how long this was all taking. That is actually remarkable, and speaks to the kindness and patience with which we treat each other. Heck, the Deniers brought us cookies for every single meeting. These are not remarkable things in our church – it’s just the way we are. But it’s a precious thing about our congregation.

2 – How we hold together
There has been a lot of stress put on our congregation in the last four years. Our long long time pastor left. Our next pastor died suddenly. We have changed our music program. We have invited a new congregation to worship in our building. And the long waiting time. Many things have happened which were opportunities for discord and dissention. We had lots of chances to schism, or blow up at each other, or fall away. And we haven’t. Through it all, we have stayed together and loved each other. Even when we may not have agreed, or when there were very hard times, we have been on this journey together. Again, that is both rare and precious.

3 – We are together without being the same
Every single pastor we spoke to was amazed at our diversity. Our congregation comes from many countries in many continents. We speak many languages. We are not one culture, or two. We are a great feast of cultures. We don’t all share the exact same political viewpoints. Even here in Massachusetts, we come from many different communities, and from many very different backgrounds. Every time we worship together, it feels like a small Pentecost with our great richness of language and living. This is incredibly rare. Many churches are a lot more homogenous – the same – than we are. The ones who are diverse usually have TWO cultures. Not ten. The equality that we share in our church mirrors the equality we have before God in a wonderful and unusual way.

4 – Finally, we are very authentic together
We show up as who we really are, and we love each other the same way. We don’t pretend (much) to be perfect, or holier-than-thou. We don’t gossip (much) about each other, and when we do it is never unkind. We are a part of each other’s daily lives, not just on Sunday mornings but on Friday nights or Thursday mornings. Our kids show up to worship dirty from the soccer fields. Our babies cry during the sermon. The tags stick up on the back of our shirts, and our back-pew neighbor gently tucks it in. We are accepted and loved just the way we are. I hope it is the same for you, but when I come to worship I don’t feel like I’m faking it, or putting on an act. I feel like I am welcome here as myself.

These things are remarkable and unusual – both in churches and in groups of people in general. These are things about our congregation that are worth treasuring, and preserving.

Coming back to the book of 1 Samuel, the next King that God directed Samuel to anoint was one that hadn’t even been one of the candidates when Samuel begin his search. It required great waiting – remember that they did not even sit while they looked for David. David was out taking care of sheep – not really even eligible in the beginning of the process. It was an unexpected choice, driven by God’s will, and Samuel’s obedience to listening to God’s will.

I feel the hand of God present in our search, too.

It was actually a hard thing for me, to see our year of heavy labor end up with us exactly where we started. I wondered what the point was of having worked so hard and looked so long. This wasn’t how I imagined our journey would go. Our choice to call Trina was not one that we made easily, lightly, or without a tremendous amount of information. It turns out that Trina is phenomenal. In the time she’s been with us, we’ve both grown and changed. We’ve grown together. And together, I can clearly see us fulfilling the call to mission we spent so long discerning. A new phase in our life together beckons – filled with mission, outreach, music and new energy, but built on the authentic love that has preserved us so long.

Thanks be to God.

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