On Sunday, May 20th, I was elected to serve as the Pastor for First Presbyterian Church in Freehold, New Jersey. This is the sermon I preached for my candidacy. In this sermon I discuss my faith journey and how it brought me to Freehold. My first Sunday in the pulpit at Freehold will be July 8th.
Good morning. I am so excited to be here this morning. I am filled with joy! This is the day I’ve been thinking about since I began seminary. I felt a little bit like this on the first Sunday at the first congregation I served, but this is different. My first call was to interim ministry. If the way be clear, I will be your next installed pastor, that’s a different sort of relationship; it’s the relationship that I believed I was called to when I started this process several years ago. The idea of relationship is central to my journey.
In many ways, I’ve been preparing for this moment my whole life, but there are several inflection points, places along my journey where there was a fork in the road; my path changed and I could never go back. If I had to pick one of those inflection points, it would be a moment of clarity that I had in December of 2008, and the insight that came from it.
How many of you are familiar with the term, moment of clarity? It’s used in recovery circles. A moment of clarity happens when an addict recognizes the need to change, that he or she cannot overcome the addiction alone, and also, that life cannot move forward until that person begins the path toward sobriety.
My moment of clarity was a little bit different. A couple months earlier, I’d been given notice that I would be laid off from my job at the end of the year. Honestly, I didn’t like my job, but I loved everything else that was going on in my life. And the part of my life that gave me the most joy and fulfillment was my church, and the web of relationships that was centered around that congregation.
I’d thought about seminary then, but after a long conversation with my pastor, it seemed like the timing wasn’t quite right. I didn’t have a clear sense of call then. Going to seminary because I was about to be unemployed wasn’t a calling to ministry; seminary would have to wait.
By December, the economy was getting worse and it seemed like it would be difficult to find a job in my field. I had some job prospects in Philly, but I really didn’t want to move. I wanted to spend more time with the people who made my life so rich.
I couldn’t get into the Christmas spirit that year. Most nights my fear and anxiety would spiral out of control. I didn’t know what I would do or how I could afford to make my life work. Sure, there was unemployment, but how would I ever find another job? How could I live on half of my paycheck? Should I stay in western Pennsylvania or move back to Philly?
In the midst of that cycle of fear and anxiety, I had a moment of clarity. I thought: “Instead of making my job the organizing principle of my life, what if I made my relationships the organizing principle of my life?” First and foremost was the web of relationships that was woven around my church.
In an instant, all of my anxiety went away. I knew that I would stay in western Pennsylvania and find a way to make it work.
A couple weeks later, a friend from church gave me some advice on where to look for a job. It was a simple bit of advice and it paid off. I found three jobs that looked like a fit. I applied to all three, got interviews with two, and landed a job with one, all in the space of three months.
And that job was the best job I ever had in the secular world. I went from a toxic workplace environment to an office that was friendly and fun. I had a boss who valued all of the employees and treated everyone with dignity and respect. And on top of all that, my salary increased by 25%.
That job was great. It gave me a place of stability. A year later, I went on a mission trip to Nicaragua, and after that trip, and after six months’ worth of processing, I was able to discern a call to ministry. I couldn’t have discerned my call without having that job, which afforded me the time and money to travel, and the security to process the experience. Also, I couldn’t have done that sort of discernment without my church family.
Now I realize I’ve been talking a lot about myself. Please forgive me—I’m an only child, so talking about myself comes naturally. But I’m not telling this part of my story to make you think I’m wonderful. I do believe that this part of my journey relates to both of our scriptures this morning, as well the story of this congregation.
Today we celebrate Pentecost; this is the day when the Church celebrates the action of the Holy Spirit in the world, and this is evident in both of the readings we heard this morning. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel is visited by God’s Spirit—the Holy Spirit! It’s worth pointing out that the Hebrew word, ruach, which is translated as spirit, can also be translated as wind or breath. Any faithful Jew, listening to this story in ancient times would surely have heard all three of those meanings.
The Spirit showed Ezekiel a vision of valley of the dry bones, then God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Then God commands him:
“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Ezekiel became a prophet during the exile in Babylon; he was a captive. The kingdom of Judah had been torn apart by the Babylonians. This was a crisis of faith and identity for the exiles.
Yet in the midst of their suffering, God speaks to the people, through the prophet Ezekiel, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And Ezekiel tells them that they may live again. God can clothe the dry bones with muscle and tendons and skin, but the dead don’t truly come back to life until God breathes his Spirit into the once-dead bones! Spirit, wind, breath; these are from God. This is how God restores life!
We all know that church doesn’t occupy the place of prominence in our society that it once did. Many of us grew up in an era when the pews and the collection plates were always full. And I know that you folks have had your struggles here in this congregation, too. I know that you’ve been through some tough times, too. No doubt, some of you might have asked, “Lord, can these bones live?” But you never gave up.
I’m not here to offer you an easy answer to that question. First, I think you’ve already determined that the answer is yes. Second, I think a better question is, “Lord, how can we live?” There’s a straightforward answer to that question. You live through relationship, which is enabled by the movement of the Holy Spirit. Also, you do God’s work, as the Church, through relationship. And you have brought me here today to determine if I will be a part of the web of relationships here at First Presbyterian Church of Freehold.
First Presbyterian Church, Freehold
I began this sermon by telling you a story about a low point in my life and how that low point was transformed in a moment of clarity. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I now realize that my moment of clarity came from the Holy Spirit. At a moment when I was feeling down, when it felt like my world was spinning out of control, there was the still, small voice telling me to make relationships the organizing principle of my life. It took me a lot of self-examination, three years of seminary, and a bunch of ordination exams to put language around my experience, but I know it was a Holy Spirit thing.
In this congregation’s mission statement, you folks say that you: “seek… to share the Love of Christ, teach the Word of God, and celebrate the gifts of all people.” I believe this is done through relationship. Also, I believe that this is the antidote to the chaos of the world around us, and you are correct to identify this church as a place of refuge from that chaos.
But simply being a place of refuge isn’t enough. We are called to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations; we are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Those are really big tasks! And those are also really scary tasks. Tasks that we don’t always want to take on, or that we feel we don’t have the right tools for the tasks.
The Book of Acts shows us how the first Apostles were called to continue Christ’s mission here on earth. Our reading this morning shows how God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, equipped the Apostles for that mission. Simply put, the Spirit gave them the ability to hear one another. That’s it. The Spirit equipped all of the believers to truly listen to one another—nobody learned to speak a new language, but they were all empowered to listen!
There was no church before Pentecost. Through the movement of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles were able to build a movement that could not be extinguished. We are called to continue that work. And yes, it’s an enormous task, but all we have to do is fall in with the movement of the Spirit, and God will continue to equip us for the work.
I believe that you folks have been attuned to the movement of the Holy Spirit for some time, even if you haven’t thought of it in these terms. The Spirit, along with a couple of interim pastors, has inspired you to take a long, hard look at yourselves. The Spirit, along with a behavioral Covenant, has taught you how to listen to one another more effectively. Through the process of self-examination, you folks have discerned a vision for this congregation: to grow in spirit and mission, and to continue to minister to the community outside these walls. That, too, is the movement of the Spirit. I want to be part of that mission, too! I want to work with you, through relationship and empowered by the Spirit, so that this congregation can live into its vision. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Go forth and be witnesses to the resurrection. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!