The farewell sermon of a faithful PC(USA) pastor...
Farewell sermons are particularly poignant, being the "be on guard and goodbye" message of a shepherd to the flock he has loved and cared for, but now must leave. If you haven't read the sermon Jonathan Edwards preached upon his departure from Northampton, find a copy and read it. Also, the message the Apostle Paul gave to the Ephesian elders when he took his final departure from them is one of the most moving texts found in the New Testament. Look for it in Acts 20.
Rev. Dan Reuter is a dear friend who, until a couple weeks ago, has been serving as the pastor of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA)'s congregation in Nashville, Indianan, about a half hour east of Bloomington. For years, Dan has been an active participant in the work of reform within the PC(USA), but as he watched the denomination's Peace, Unity, and Purity Committee issue its recommendations and prepare to get them adopted at this summer's national general assembly, Dan realized that they would be successful and, given the godlessness of the recommendations and what would inevitably follow their adoption--namely, the normalization of the sexually immoral (particularly sodomites) being ordained and serving as church officers--he prepared to pull his credentials from the denomination and, consequently, his call to Brown County Presbyterian Fellowship.
This is the sermon he gave upon his resignation of the pastoral call to Brown County Presbyterian Fellowship...
When Dan sent this to me privately, I was strengthened to see his pastor's heart, his love for his people, his forthrightness in naming the sins of his congregation and denomination, and his willingness to suffer personal loss for the sake of honoring the Word of God and the holiness it commands. And I asked his permission to post the sermon on the blog--which he graciously agreed to.
Yesterday, Dan joined us in our morning worship service and I had the privilege of introducing him to our congregation and asking him to pronounce our benediction. Please pray for Dan and his wife and flock as they seek to know and follow the Lord's will for the future.
Here, then, is Dan's farewell sermon:So we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. (1Thessalonians 2:4)
You may remember the city fellow who asked the farmer, "How come that cow over there doesn't have horns? I thought all cows had horns."
The farmer answered, "Well, there's some cows don't have horns because they're born without horns. Then there's some cows we cut the horns off of. But the reason that particular cow over there doesn't have horns is that that particular cow is a horse!"
You have to get your categories right. Especially when the category involves a standard of judgment. Over a gap of forty years, I can still hear Dick Cook in Chateaugay, New York, auctioning a cow with the cry, "She's dairy, boys!" Dick meant that she had hip bones that stuck out and a backbone you could see, and if you didn't know cows or knew only beef cattle, you'd think she was undernourished. The standard you use makes a difference and not every standard works for every cow--or every person or every job or every situation.
Paul was an organizing pastor. That's what he did; it was pretty much all he did. He had his troubles with some of the churches he organized, especially the ones in Corinth and in Galatia. They forgot what he told them, they didn't like what he said, and they bad-mouthed him repeatedly. But this letter is to the church at Thessalonica and it's a love letter. "You," he tells them, speaking for himself and also Silas and Timothy, "you are our glory and joy."
How did that happen? How is it that things were so good between the Thessalonian Christians and Paul? It's not that he learned from his troubles in Corinth and Galatia that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It's not that Paul turned over a new leaf and discovered ways to make people feel good about themselves and him...
We know it's not that because he probably wrote this letter before he wrote to Galatia and almost certainly before he wrote to Corinth. And besides, Paul tells us himself. He speaks, he says, "not to please man, but to please God." In other words, he did the same thing in Thessalonica that he did in Corinth and in Galatia and in Philippi and in Antioch and in Jerusalem, and everywhere else. He spoke the message God had entrusted to him. He spoke it in times and places of conflict. He spoke it, he says, with "boldness."
But some people didn't like it. Others rejoiced in it--pretty much the way Jesus had predicted in his story about the seed thrown on different kinds of ground. The Corinthians grumbled, the Thessalonians rejoiced. But it was the same message in both places. It had to be. God had given Paul this word. It was not his to turn on or to turn off according to his own preferences or those of his hearers. No, things went well in Thessalonica, Paul says, because the Thessalonians received this message--the same message he gave the Galatians and the Corinthians--"not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God."
You and I have come to the end of the trail this morning. We are a long way from the joyful, even if not altogether legal meeting, at which a whole bunch of members, friends, and sympathizers of this congregation voted for me to come here as your minister. This was not the conclusion any of us had in mind. But it is where we have arrived. How come? Some of you--about forty per cent of you, in fact--are thinking, "We've arrived here because this guy in the pulpit is so stubborn, stupid, and/or arrogant. We've arrived here because he would not give us what we want, what we need, what we are so clearly entitled to. We've arrived here because he insisted on riding his own hobby horses that nobody but a fanatic would care two pins about."
Well, that's not fantastic. It could be true. But suspend judgement for a minute. Back off, just for the sake of perspective. Do you really believe that I am so unperceptive, so unaware of how people think and feel, that I don't know how to make a minister popular? It really isn't hard. Say in every way to folks how good they are, how much good they do, how pleased God is with them, and how, if they enrich their already grand and good lives with prayer and hymn-singing and reflection on godly things, what is good now can be even better, both in this life and in the life to come. Now that's a message with real curb appeal. That's a word almost anyone who isn't dead-set against common sense and good feeling could buy into. Why on earth is that not the message I have been offering you for the past two years and a half? If I had, this would not be the end of our common road. I know this, and so do you.
What's the matter with that message? It's not true. How dare I, by what right do I say such a thing? How can I claim that what I have been saying is better or more true than the message that seems so obviously right? And why isn't this arrogance of the worst sort? You know about the mother who watched the parade when her son finished basic training. One of the officers asked her what she thought of it. "It was awful," said Mom. "Everybody was out of step except my Johnny!" How dare I believe that I am not Johnny?
My friends, the answer is that the message I have been delivering to you is not one I made up. It is not one I chose. It is not one that I have the power to reshape or make over. It was entrusted to me. By God. How dare I say that? Ask yourself this: if it was not, if it is not God's message, entrusted to me by him, what right, what business, what point would I have in standing here week after week, and talking at you for twenty minutes? If it were my word, tailored to suit my preferences or yours, designed to produce good feelings toward me or good feelings in general in you--wouldn't that be the very height of arrogance, to lay on you week after week what you already think you know?
If it is true that you're OK, I'm OK, and everybody else is pretty much OK as long as they don't throw bombs, then you can provide the weekly message here at least as well as I can. Or we can eliminate it altogether in favor of some more good music. Inspiration doesn't have to be put into words. Often it works better when it's not. But a message has been entrusted to me. And that message is "gospel," which means an announcement of good news. The good news is news of forgiveness and rescue. God says that. God did that. God offers that. Not me. Not the church organization. God. Which right away puts a damper on the party, spreads a cloud over the festival of mutual congratulation which is what some of us would like the church to be. Because if there is forgiveness, there has to be a need for it. You get forgiven when you have done something wrong. Otherwise forgiveness is an insult, not good news. And rescue has to be from danger or disaster.
You don't get rescued from a birthday party. You certainly don't get rescued from an awards ceremony. You get rescued from trouble. So to deliver the gospel, I or any other preacher has often to mention the need we have for the gospel, which means the wrong we have done--and still do--and the danger we are in and the trouble we have. Otherwise, the perfectly reasonable reaction to the message is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." We need the gospel fix because we're broke, and I don't mean financially. It's a big and radical fix, which suggests that we are in big and radical trouble.
Some of us knew that all along. It's why we're here. For people such as this, the word I speak is pure good news. It is joy and life and hope. Christ died for my sins-mine! Christ gives me new life to replace the one I spoiled so badly. Christ overcomes the death that otherwise has devastating and irreversible power over me. Some of us echo, "Hallelujah!"
But others don't. And this, I think, is the heart of what divides us. Oh, of course I realize that my personality grates on some folks. I realize that most of us like some sorts of people better than others. I realize that some of you want to be rid of me for reasons you perhaps could not explain even to yourselves:
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell,
Why it is I cannot tell.
But this I know, I know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.
But I think most of you are more flexible than that. Which is why I suggest that before you search for another minister, you search your own--and each other's--hearts to determine just what it is that you believe, and whether you do hold a common faith, and whether, therefore, you can walk together in usefulness to God and neighbor. Most of you don't know this, but after I had been talking with your pastor nominating committee for a couple of months and had learned a little about your church, I began to suspect that I was not the right minister for this church. I thought that my theology might be too tough and my personality overly abrasive. In other words, I thought just what some of you came to think after I arrived. I told the committee this and asked that they remove my name from consideration. The members responded, collectively and individually, by insisting that they really believed I was the right person for this place. Unless you think they were making this up or had some ulterior motives, it seems likely that I was the right minister for some people. So I advise again: find out what it is that you hold in common, if in fact there is anything. Is it enough to keep you going?
For me, I think I should tell you, this is a liberation. Not a liberation from you, whom I will miss very much. By the way, I have to tell you that as long as this is a church of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and as long as I am a minister in that church, I have to stay away from here. Those are, in effect, the rules. I am planning to continue with our Bible study group and our educational evening with the Miller family, but these will not be official church activities and will not take place in this building after this week.
My liberation is not from you, but from the Presbyterian Church in the USA. For nearly a decade I have been active in what they call the renewal movement in that denomination. I have crossed the country, literally, from east to west and from north to south in pursuit of this renewal. I have driven miles, made speeches, written articles, pleaded with individuals, prayed, argued, and hoped. And at the end of this time, the denomination is worse than when I began. Renewalists used to say that our strategy was not to leave the denomination, but to "stay, fight, and win."
Well, we stayed and we fought, but we lost.
My personal line in the sand was the repeal--or as it has turned out, the evasion of--the fidelity and chastity clause in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Form of Government. When the report of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Committee came out last September and it seemed probable that it would be adopted by our General Assembly, my first intention was to resign before the Assembly, so as not to disrupt the church's relationship with the denomination. I notified the session of this. A friend persuaded me that this would mean preserving my own purity by deserting you. So I agreed to stay, though, if I had become installed, I would still have had to resign when the last judicial action confirmed the abandonment of fidelity and chastity. That is a development which I think is as certain as any future event in this world could be.
But as things have turned out, I have been set free. You see, the Peace, Unity, and Purity Report was to me only the last straw. I have a friend and former colleague in Pennsylvania for whom the allowance of the celebration of same-sex unions in our churches was the last straw, and maybe he was right. Everyone has to reach her own conclusions about these things. But whatever straw breaks the camel's back, there were a lot of other straws underneath it. I have mentioned one. More substantial in many ways is the fact that this church is not clear that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is in truth the Maker of heaven and earth, the true ultimate cause of all reality, the God with whom all men and women have to do in life and in death. This church is not clear that "Jesus Christ, as he is testified to in holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear . . . trust and obey, in life and in death."
The Presbyterian Church (USA) waffles on this. Its actions remind me of something Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said about the Soviets. Forgive my quoting a Democrat again. (He used to live in the next town to us in Delaware County, New York.) Moynihan said the Russians would land an army--say, in South Carolina. We would protest. World opinion would be stirred up. The Russians would withdraw all or maybe only some of their troops. And the world would congratulate them on their contribution to peace.
Typically the Presbyterian Church (USA) commits an outrage against the gospel: a speech at a denominational youth conference asking, "What's the big deal about Jesus?" There is a firestorm of criticism. A year or so later the General Assembly adopts a statement which has in it some orthodox phrases, along with some you could interpret very differently. And the official apologists say, "See, we still believe in Jesus. Isn't it wonderful?"
Meanwhile no explanation or retraction has gone from the sponsors of the youth conference to the kids who attended it. No statement has come from the church disavowing the statements made by an official spokesman for the church--which is what every minister is. And the offender is still a minister, still free to run around the country saying in the name of the Presbyterian Church (USA), that Jesus is no big deal.
I am haunted by the question a father asked me when he came to our church in Pennsylvania, holding by the hand his little girl who was about two at the time. "If I come to this church," he asked, "is my daughter going to be taught that anything goes as she grows up and reaches puberty?" "Absolutely not," I said. But then he asked, "What happens when she is a teenager and the other kids want her to do this or that (you all know the sorts of things he had in mind), and they say, "Your church says it‚s O.K. I saw it on TV." What then?
Back in the 90's there was a report on sexuality given to the General Assembly. Its theme was pretty much, "anything goes." The Assembly rejected it. But you know what, its ideas continued to be printed and I fact dominated and still dominate everything this denomination says about sex to kids. And nobodyˆnot least no General Assemblyˆhas been willing to hold the church‚s staff members accountable to this. Nobody has been willing and able to stop it.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in love with its own political, especially its own foreign policy, insights, and it thinks they are the word of God. Unable to learn from the past, the denomination seems doomed to repeat it. God forbid that they make the rest of us repeat it, too.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) shares with other so-called mainline denominations responsibility for causing World War II. All these denominations were pacifist during the 1920's and '30's. They favored the disarmament treaties which did so much to build up the relative military and especially naval power of Japan. They inhibited this country's ability to prepare for war and therefore helped make its moral and political postures largely irrelevant to what was happening both in Europe and the Far East. "Let's get along," and "War is not the answer" were the slogans of preachers in three-piece suits long before anybody dared appear on the sidewalk in sandals. Our churches helped convince the Nazis that the "decadent democracies" wouldn't fight. And that made it as certain as could be that fight is what we would have to do. And now we're doing it again. You'd think we would have learned when to shut up.
Some of you are perhaps thinking, "Hey, you're the guy who keeps praying for the terrorists. Who are you to talk?"
Here's the difference: Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. If we obey him, we have to do that. But we know that they are in fact enemies. The Presbyterian Church (USA) thinks that enemies are a figment of the imaginations of Republican politicians, arms tycoons, and generals. The best way to avoid having to nuke your enemy is probably to convince him that you could and would. The Presbyterian Church (USA) thinks it knows better.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) still does some good things. Our churches and people do many good things. But, sadly, I have become convinced that the denomination itself is a force for evil and not good; that it is not on the side of God but on the side of the Adversary. So what I will be doing is looking around to see whether some other connection has any use for my talents--some of you are thinking, "Ha! What talents?"--as a minister. If not--and I do think it is unlikely--I will become what they call "inactive," which means, basically, that I would no longer be a minister and would be free to join a church. That church will not be part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
This is something which gives me no joy--after all, I was baptized in this denomination more than a half century ago. But it is freedom. Not freedom to "do my own thing," but freedom in Christ to belong to him.
That is all I ask for any and all of you. Godspeed.