A man was reading his paper early one morning at the breakfast table. His wife came over to him, gave him a hug, smiled, and said, “I bet you don’t know what today is, do you?” He looked at her and said, “Of course I know what day it is!” and went back to reading his paper. The reality was that he didn't have a clue. He was afraid that he would make his wife upset - she was really sensitive about special occasions. He thought to himself, “Is it her birthday? That must be it.” So after he got to work he called the florist and had a bouquet of white roses sent to his wife. Then as the day went on, he began worrying that flowers may not be enough for such an important day. “What if it’s our anniversary?” So he went to the jewelry store down from his office, picked out a beautiful gold necklace and had it special delivered to his wife.
As he started home from work he decided that maybe he should also stop and buy an expensive box of chocolates to bring to her - just in case. He pulls into the driveway and his wife runs out to greet him. As he gets out of the car and presents her with the box of chocolates, she throws her arms around him and says, “Oh, honey, this is the best ground hog day I've ever had!”
You know that describes a little bit of how I feel this morning. You all have honored me in such a beautiful way and have blessed me with these amazing gifts and tributes and expressions of love and I cannot even begin to tell you how much I appreciate all of this and how deeply it has touched me.
And yet I have to tell you since the time I knew this day was coming and there was this celebration planned I’ve felt a little uneasy. Yes this is a significant day. It is a noteworthy occasion. 10 years. The longest tenured pastor in the history of Sterling UMC. That’s really cool! And it is something worthy to acknowledge and celebrate and I truly appreciate what you have done to honor me.
But you know the more I have thought about it and anticipated this day and what I might say to you on this wonderful occasion the more the more I have come to realize and to acknowledge that today is not about me…its about we.
That’s why I entitled my sermon “Together We”, because this journey has not been about me as your pastor, but about what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do through us as a congregation and its leaders. Its not about me..its about we.
Back in January 2004 after much thought and prayer Robin and I made the decision that God was calling us to move on to a new ministry setting. We were finishing 4 years as Senior Pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in Danville. Things were going along well and the church was doing some good things and making progress. But it was a time in our family where if we were going to consider moving it was then. Robbie was completing middle school and would be making the transition to high school and Ricky and Ryan were in their last two years of elementary school, so it made sense that if we were going to move anytime soon this was the time. And although St. Luke’s and Danville had many wonderful people and had some fruitful ministry happening, it was not a place where I felt that my gifts and strengths, my personality and ideas were the best fit.
Now I don’t know if all of you know how it works when they move a pastor in the UMC, but both the pastor and the church meet each year in January and each has a form to complete to indicate out preference. The SPRC at St. Luke’s was unanimous in their desire for me to return and they completed their form to that affect. The pastor also has a form to complete and I indicated that I would like to be considered for a new appointment. Not long after we made the decision Robin and I, like most all pastor’s and families in this situation began to pray that God would open the door to the right opportunity. We began to explore the list of churches throughout the conference where we thought we might have the possibility of being appointed.
So on March 3, 2004 (“I’ll never forget that day) DS called. She said, “Randy we have an opportunity for you that we would like you to consider. We would like to send you to northern Virginia to Sterling UMC.” Never in a million years had we ever even considered Sterling! As we studied the list of churches it too far up the list. I didn’t even think it was a possibility. And I knew a little bit about Sterling because Robin and I had been friends with Alan and Libby Reifsnyder since we came into the ministry. I knew from them that this was a strong church with a great reputation in the VA conference.
Then I got a call from the Arlington DS who said to me, “Sterling has been through some difficult years recently with the loss of a beloved pastor, Jim Snow and then two short term pastoral appointments. The bishop and the cabinet believe you have the gifts and skills to come in and to be an excellent fit to help lead Sterling church and to strengthen and renew the church and to enable Sterling to establish itself as one of our more prominent and influential churches.”
“Wow!” I was surprised, flattered, excited, and scared to death all at the same time. A couple of weeks later we drove up here for our “Meet your pastor” meeting. And as soon as we walked in the building and we met the people of Sterling who had gathered that night I knew. This was where God wanted me to be. It was right. It was a great fit.
I’ll never forget one of the things that I heard over and over again from the DS and from the church folks I met. And it was expressed in different ways. “Now we want somebody who is going to stay a while.” Or they would ask the ages of the boys and do the math…”You’re going to plan to stay here to get your children through school, right?” Or, “We are really hoping to get a pastor who is not going to leave us after a couple of years.”
Well here we are 10 years later and like it or not you have gotten your wish.
As I have pondered and prayed about this happy occasion, I kept coming back to the words of Paul to the Philippians that you heard just a moment ago. Paul wrote them this letter as a personal expression of his love and affection to thank them for their gifts to him and to encourage them in their faith.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians begins with a pastor’s prayer for his church. The verses that were read are the beginning of that prayer. And as I have pondered and reflected upon these words, His prayer has become my prayer. It says, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
When I first arrived here 10 years ago I learned very quickly what made this church great…it was you; the people. That’s what has made this church great… not me but we.
You see I have always believed that ministry is a partnership = clergy and laity working together filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s work in this world. My goal has always been and always will be to empower the laity. I have purposely chosen a path to empower the people to do the work of ministry, and together we have done that.
Lay leaders – you are the heart and soul of the church. I get paid and you don’t and yet you put in countless hours and invest energy and talent in making the ministries and programs of the church happen. You are indeed the hands and feet and heart and voice of the Lord in this community and in the world.
I look out at you this morning and realize that God placed you in this church at different points along way of this 10 year journey with the gifts, talents, abilities and resources that we were going to need as a congregation to make a difference in moving our church forward. God gave us different abilities according to God’s plan for each one of our lives. Each of us was given a role to play regardless of our age, our education, our profession, or our economic standing. And together we decided to believe that God wanted to do a work in and through us.
If you look around today you will see a lot of wonderful people who have served us so faithfully down through the years. But you also would have to look up to see some of them because as we are reminded in Hebrews 12:1 there is a great cloud of witnesses, many of the great saints that served with us so well have gone before us in these last 10 years who are now surrounding us in the heaven. People like Eleanor George, Kay Farrar, Bill Hanger, Melissa Dinsmore, John Patton, Andi Zentz, Ernest Smith, Ruth Sherwood, and Ray Oliver just to name a few.
I have also been profoundly blessed with the privilege of working with our staff team. I have always believed that one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to surround yourself with good people. When you try to do it all yourself you can only go as high as your own talents and efforts can take you. There this thing called the law of the lid. If you try to do it all yourself you’re going to hit the lid. But friends let me tell you the people that work here are the most amazing, dedicated, tireless, talented, creative, and giving people I have ever known. Phil, Karen, Maureen, Valerie, Nick, Jen Q, Jen L, Willis, Bob, Vini, Paula, Marcela, Dana, Michelle, Maricella, Amy. I stand on the shoulders of these amazing people. Thank you! Together we serve the Lord and this congregation. You guys are like my family. And then through the years others such as Joanna, Luz, Patty, Sandra, Angel, Sue, Kim, Gwen, Martha, Faye, David, and Sara. My life and ministry has been blessed by the privilege of sharing it with each of these good and faithful servants.
There are only two things I love more than being a pastor: And that is being a husband and being a dad!
I want to thank my wife Robin who has been my constant companion along this journey of ministry. She has sacrificed much to enable me to do what I do. Countless nights away from home attending meetings, calls interrupting dinner and family time, pastoral emergencies that have called me away at all hours of the day and night and even home from vacations. She has listened as from time to time I have vented my frustration or disappointment with the way people behave or with the problems and pettiness, the drama and politics that can sometimes infect the church. She has seen me lay awake at night and worry about you and pray for you when you were hurting, or sick, or in crisis. And through it all she has been a source of love and support and strength that I cannot even begin to tell you. Robin I love you and I thank God for you every single day.
And Robbie, Ricky, and Ryan I am so proud of each one of you and the gracious, successful, talented, faithful young men you have become. In 10 years you have gone from being boys to men. It is not easy being the preacher’s kids and though we have tried very hard not to do this, I know there is a lot of pressure that comes along with that. You live in a fishbowl. And believe me when I say this, “You guys have got what it takes!” Thank you for sharing your Dad with so many others.
As we look back over 10 years, together we have walked through some of the most difficult times of life. Together we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Together we have faced disease, pain, tragedy, divorce, loss of jobs. Together we have seen burdens that have been lifted as we cried out to God for help because of the struggles we were going through.
Together we have celebrated joys of life. From births and baptisms, to confirmation and new members, to weddings and anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations. Together we have sung praises, we have enjoyed food, fun and fellowship.
Together we have tried to make a difference in the lives of others.
Together we have provided ministries to help us grow in a knowledge of who God is and what God wants to do in and through us.
Together we have become a church of compassion. We have fed and clothed those who needed it here in our church and in our community. And together our reach has extended beyond Sterling to places like, Canton, Bennettsville, Highlands, even to Jamaica and the Czech Republic.
If I had to summarize it I believe that over the last 10 years – Together we have been:
Together in the past 10 years, we have learned it’s not about me as pastor, or our staff or even about us as a church. It’s all about Jesus and the kingdom of God. Together we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have been able to do some incredible ministry in touching the lives of people. In the process, we have found ourselves being touched back by the power of God. Because we have been willing to give of ourselves, we have found God has blessed us with life in ways we could not have imagined.
Now I don’t want to dwell only on the past but I want to take just a moment to look forward into the future. Today is a day of celebration. A celebration of what God has done a celebration of what God is doing, but it is also an opportunity for us to look forward into the future. Together we have accomplished much, but together we have much more to do. I believe our best days together are still ahead of us.
You see I believe the promise that Paul claimed in his prayer for the Philippian church when he said, “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” My friends that is my prayer of hope and anticipation for us today.
This is a very exciting time in the life of our congregation. We have seen new ministries spring up all around us. This year alone we have launched a Grace Ministries site here at SUMC, offering food and other necessities to people in need in our own community on a monthly basis. We kicked off a Spanish language worship service. We continue to grow and expand our children’s and youth ministries, and provide even more opportunities for our adults to engage in discipleship and fellowship opportunities. People are being reached. Lives are being changed. Like never before we are making an impact our world.
We have launched a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to renovate and expand our facility in order to make the improvements that are needed to best position the church for ministry in the years to come.
For you see this is not about us. It’s about Him. This is the Lord’s work. He is working in us building a church for life.
A church that gathers people together to prepare them to go back out into the world and to pursue His mission in the world.
A Church of open doors that welcomes all people and loves all people, just as Jesus did.
A Church that is a community united in a spirit of communion, with unconditional and brotherly love.
A Church that uses its physical space as a tool that enables us to engage people: Children, youth, and adults, people that look like us, people who don’t look like us. People who talk like us and people who don’t talk like us. People whose names you know and others you have not yet come to know. People who need to be reached and who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. People who may not be able to hear the message that we the church have to offer if we don’t provide spaces for them to gather, to laugh together, to cry together, to worship, to study and pray together, to meet together, and to eat together.
The church is about people, people who will be here 10 years from now because you and I were willing to imagine and to dream and to invest our resources and to believe that together we can make a difference in this world.
I don’t stand here today and say that it is going to be easy. It won’t be. But as it has gone forward through the ages, God’s good work must continue to go forward into the age to come so that it can be carried on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.
My friends every one of us has an important part to play in seeing God’s promise fulfilled in this place. God will complete a good work in you, in this church, but we must let him. He can’t do it without every one of us doing our part; focusing not on people, not on ourselves or on the negatives or the problems but he will do it only as we throw off all the things that hinder and entangle us and keep our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. Then and only then it will move forward and we will win the race and God’s good work will be complete.
Can we do it? Together we can!