I don’t usually post entire sermons, but on Sunday, June 15, I preached my final sermon among the wonderful congregation at the First United Methodist Church of Santa Maria, California, and am being appointed now to the First United Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, California, as of July 1st. So here I am including my final sermon called “What Grows in God’s Garden?” based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.
As I look over the vastness represented in Scripture – the many voices, times, cultural and historical contexts, the personalities, and the ways of expressing faith – a consistent theme is faithfulness. It is a theme that encompasses the relationship between God and creation, and between God and humankind.
Scripture portrays God as always faithful to the people God has called for particular purposes – first Abraham and his descendents, the Israelites, and then the early communities who gathered around the story of Jesus and moved out under the Spirit’s power to change the world.
Those who seek to live according the commandments of God in the Hebrew scripture are themselves called the faithful. Those who seek to live according to the way of Jesus and the greatest commandment in the New Covenant are also called the faithful.
In other words, faithfulness is somehow sown into the very fabric of this divine-human encounter toward which each of us is drawn.
The Psalms lift up this theme of faithfulness repeatedly. In Psalm 145:10 we hear:
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.
Then just a few verses later, after extolling the glorious splendor of God’s everlasting kingdom, the psalmist adds (vs. 13b):
The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.
As we theologize on Scripture and consider how God is revealed in this world, in the church, and in our lives, and as we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are aware of only glimpses of the kingdom here and now. Yet we still believe God’s kingdom will come in the fullness of glory someday! We believe that God is always faithful and that as we contribute our own faithful witness and actions, the kingdom is revealed a little more and a little more.
We celebrated 140 years of Christian ministry in this valley last year – 140 years of people doing their utmost to be faithful to the call of God so that this congregation could be part of what God is doing in the world.
Imagine the settlers of this town and others who followed them putting their sweat and their tears and the joy they had in Christ and their Wesleyan spirit of grace all out on the line so that a Church could be planted here and so that all who would listen would hear of God’s faithful love.
Think of how many Sunday School classes have been taught and how many children have been touched by the story of Jesus in those years!
Think of the worship that has been conducted in several different locations, and now in this place, and of all the worshippers who have felt the strange warming of their hearts in the presence of Christ expressed through word and sacrament!
Think of the caring fellowship that has been expressed among the faithful in this church over the years, moving beyond the superficial to love one another as Christ commands us!
Think of the mission trips, service projects, outreach efforts, and ministries that have been undertaken by this community of faith … and more importantly, think of the lives that have been changed, the addictions that have been overcome, the meals that have been served to the poor, the lonely who have been visited, the lost who have been redirected, the grieving who have been comforted, the showers that have given a new sense of self-worth to so many, and the homes that have been rebuilt or repaired!
These are all validation of God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God. These are a confirmation of the fruit of the Spirit in our life together. These are an authentication of the presence of Christ in this community.
I commend you for carrying on the vision of this faith community after 140 years – building beloved community and helping people commit their lives to Christ and grow in grace.
All of the beautiful ways that this church has witnessed to the faithful love of God over many years continue to this day. We can look upon all of it and see what God has done in our midst, and be grateful.
As I came here four years ago, I told you that I was pleased and proud to be appointed to this church. As I leave here I want to express the same sentiment – I am pleased and proud that I was given the opportunity to be your pastor and to provide spiritual and temporal leadership for a time.
You will continue to be a witness to the love of Christ through your ministry presence in this community. You will continue to give spiritual nurture to children and people of all ages.
You will continue to serve others with tangible signs of God’s gracious kingdom, by visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, encouraging the stranger, praying for those in need, and serving the poor.
I have no doubt of any of this because I believe God is faithful, and I believe you are faithful, and that is enough.
The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthian church, says that he is one of the “servants through whom (they) came to believe” (1 Cor. 3:5). But he acknowledges he isn’t the only one. Paul says to them, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (3:6-7).
In the United Methodist Church, appointments are made and ministers are moved, and congregations must rely upon the growth that God gives. None of us is indispensable, but each of us is necessary. Our gifts are necessary. Our hearts are necessary. Our love is necessary.
Like Apollos, I have carried the water pail for awhile, and have tried to give the right amount of attention to the needs of the church, and now another one of God’s servants is coming to be in ministry with you, to help you grow in faith and trust, to listen with you for the promptings of the Spirit, and to walk with you in discipleship and mission. You are called to live out your baptisms and be the people God created you to be – generous, giving, hopeful, loving, gracious, Christ-like.
Paul uses a metaphor for God’s people not used anywhere else in scripture. In the midst of his observation of how God desires growth in the spiritual life, Paul says to the people of God, “you are God’s field” (vs. 9). This is an intriguing way to think of ourselves, as a field in which things grow, things of beauty and things of usefulness. God’s field – a place of growth and emerging life. As I look over the past four years and consider the growth that God has caused in our lives together, I am glad that I could be a part of your journey for this brief time.
A father and daughter prepared to part at the airport one day. After a hug the father said, “I love you. I wish you enough.” His daughter boarded the plane, and a few moments later, a woman who overheard their conversation asked the father what it meant to wish someone “enough.” He said that wishing someone “enough” was a tradition in their family. There was even a short poem attached to it.
I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish you enough ‘hellos’ to get you through the final ‘goodbye’.
(Mennonite pastor and author Ralph Milton in an e-zine titled Rumors)
The life of faith provides us with the opportunities to be generous and supportive of one another. As Paul says, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share it abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). That’s a pretty healthy way to think about our discipleship – seeing our lives as full of enough of God’s goodness and grace, and choosing to help other people see their lives as full of enough too.
I close with a Franciscan Blessing that makes me want to be a Franciscan:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice,
oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those
who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
God is faithful.
You are faithful.
That is enough.
Words & photo (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
A prayer for worship on Trinity Sunday:
in you all of nature sings of heaven.
In this sacred time and space
may our hearts join the chorus of praise
that already resounds in the rocks and trees,
the skies and seas of this amazing world.
Christ our Savior,
in you our eternal inheritance is secure.
In this sacred time and space
may our souls stir with the joy of salvation,
as we surrender to the holy love
at the center of your gospel.
Gentle and powerful Spirit,
you carry us on the generous winds of grace.
In this sacred time and space
may we fully embrace the freedom
that meets us on paths of discipleship
and invites us into faithful and whole lives.
Fill us with hope and gratitude this day,
knowing that wherever we go
there you are with us. Amen.
Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
CALL TO WORSHIP
Today we worship in the love of God,
a love that will not let us go,
a love that touches the deepest parts of our lives,
a love that sends us into the world.
Today we worship in the grace of Jesus Christ,
a grace that saves us and sets us free,
a grace that relieves our fears and worries,
a grace that leads us home to God.
Today we worship in the peace of the Spirit,
a peace that the world cannot give,
a peace that assures us we are not alone,
a peace that goes with us where we live and serve.
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH (unison)
We believe in a loving God,
who is life’s breath for all of earth’s creatures,
who is the ground in which our lives flourish,
who is the mystery toward which we are drawn.
We believe in the risen Christ,
whose life is the way we see God made real,
whose death bears witness to the power of love,
whose presence nourishes our spirits each day.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who flows as a refreshing spring of life,
who comes as divine fire to energize the faithful,
who creates communities of joy and justice.
(Permission is granted to use or adapt these words in worship with credit noted)
Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
The following is a Prayer of Thanksgiving for Eucharist or Holy Communion on the Third Sunday of Easter this coming weekend.
Holy and Wise God,
whose presence is made known in light and darkness,
whose promises are made complete in reconciling love,
whose power is made perfect in weakness,
whose possibilities are made tangible in new signs of life,
we gather around this table in thanksgiving and praise.
We thank you for the beauty of this earth,
for the gifts of communion and community
for the bonds of love among friends and family,
for the blessings of this one precious and holy life.
We praise you that in Jesus Christ
we are able to see and experience life in its fullness.
Jesus walked this life with his friends along many paths.
Jesus talked with people who didn’t attend synagogue;
yet he considered them good candidates for the kingdom.
Jesus ate with sinners, met with troubled people,
and didn’t bother checking with those self-appointed
to uphold what is good and right and holy.
Jesus was a rabble-rouser, a loose cannon, a troublemaker;
in his worldview God’s Realm of indiscriminate grace
was far more important than any human institution.
Jesus took simple bread and declared it to be holy.
Jesus told us we would do well to eat this meal in solidarity
with all who hunger and don’t have enough to eat.
Jesus said hunger is not God’s plan for humanity,
unless it is hunger for the kingdom, hunger to be whole.
And he said, those who truly know God
open their eyes to the troubles others endure;
they hunger and thirst for just relationships with all.
So this is a symbolic meal, even though it is more.
The suffering of Jesus is laid before us in his body and blood.
The hope of Christ is spread before us in symbols
of the eternal banquet where all are welcome,
all are blessed,
and all receive the saving grace of an extravagant God.
Thanks be to God for these wonderful gifts
that draw us into the presence of the risen Christ,
whose Spirit is alive and working in the midst of this community,
whose power is felt in the sharing of this amazing grace.
Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
Photo (c) 2014 Dallis Day Richardson
Twelve years ago, on the Second Sunday in Lent, at the church I was serving in Los Osos, California, I preached a sermon titled, “Love Took My Hand.” The sermon was based on the very familiar text of John 3:16, which reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I have subsequently preached a revised edition of this sermon in my current church in Santa Maria, California, because so many people have responded positively to its underlying message of grace and hope!
The scripture text is almost too familiar. People of all stripes think they know clearly what it means. But my approach in the sermon was to make the words of John’s gospel very personal for myself and my listeners. I wanted us to consider how God searches for us throughout our life journeys and extends to us an inexhaustible and unconditional love. Eternal life is not some far-off, distant promise of a better future — it is the reality we know when we are embraced by our Creator and trust that we are loved, right now, right here!
A few weeks after delivering that sermon twelve years ago, one of my parishioners offered the most sincere praise one can offer. He wrote a beautiful song based on his reflections on the sermon, and sang it in his rich tenor voice for our church family. He even ended up taking the song on the road. So I offer his lyrics to you for your enjoyment and blessing!
Love Took My Hand by John Kelly
Love took my hand, and led me through my childhood,
Love held me close, and calmed my childish fears.
I felt Love in my mother’s warm caresses,
And when, with love, she wiped away my tears.
I found in Love a friend who would not leave me,
Who’d stand by me whenever I might stray.
I never knew why Love was so forgiving,
I only knew that Love would find a way.
But as I grew, I thought Love was unneeded,
I felt no need for Love to lean upon,
I turned away from all that Love could give me,
I turned away, and thought that Love had gone.
But then I found that without Love I’m nothing,
I needed Love to face a world of care,
I looked for Love, and Love had never left me,
I reached for Love, and Love was always there.
Love walked with me among the sick, the homeless,
Love walked with me when pain was everywhere,
Love said to me, “Love even these, the love-less,”
Love walked with me, and taught me how to care.
And now I know that Love will never leave me,
And now I know that Love comes from above.
And I will go wherever Love may lead me,
Because I know, I know that God is Love.
Thank you, John, for these beautiful words affirming the deep and abiding love of God for us!
God bless you, my friends, with the knowledge that God is for you and with you, and that indeed God is Love!
Grace and peace, Mark
Some days, even after thirty-some years of active parish ministry, I simply don’t feel that well suited to being a pastor.
A disappointment tips the scale, and I am gripped by a growing sense of discouragement.
A loss is felt – either because people move away, because of a death, or simply as a result of the shifting landscape of peoples’ spiritual lives or family dynamics – and I grieve all over again for the way these losses tear at the fabric of community.
Life is difficult. I get it. I am a pastor, and I am well accustomed with the challenges and struggles people experience – not only those within my pastoral charge (as we Methodists refer to our flocks), but those well beyond it, in the larger community and among the circles of relationship of those I know. Yet this doesn’t lessen the impact of disappointment or loss.
“The world is my parish,” John Wesley once said. Pastors aren’t appointed to churches to be mere chaplains. We are sent among God’s people to equip them to be ministers in the world. Pastors are like personal trainers, helping others get in spiritual shape so that they can live as followers of Christ for the sake of the world. Trouble is, too often people are content to purchase a bargain gym membership and then fail to show up and work out! The church atrophies. Leadership dries up. People walk away.
I still believe that God wants to bless the whole world, no exceptions! And so I get up each morning knowing that the work is not going to be easy. My hope and desire is that my efforts for the sake of God’s realm on earth will bear fruit, but I am also realizing that I don’t control the results of anything. Not really.
I am learning to turn my work over to the Spirit of God who moves about freely in the world without regard to human borders or divisions. I am learning to release the imperfect work of my hands, my heart, my mind and my spirit, to the one wise God who is able to use even me to create a more just and compassionate world.
(c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
I’ve returned to The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church lately in an effort to better understand what it means to be in covenant with my ordained colleagues, and indeed with all baptized members of the Church. While I think I have a reasonably good understanding of the meaning of covenant, I am increasingly aware of the vastly different approaches within the Church on this matter.
As human beings we cannot help but see covenant through the lenses of our own experience of God, faith, grace, and community. In other words, the very meaning of covenant is formed within the ongoing lived experience of faith communities composed of imperfect human beings working together for the common good.
The Book of Discipline says, “Ordained persons exercise their ministry in covenant with all Christians, especially with those whom they lead and serve in ministry” (para 303.3). This covenant is spoken of as one of “mutual care and accountability.” So there is a sense that in whatever ways the Church seeks the Reign of God, we need to purposefully exercise mutual care and accountability.
The Book of Discipline also says, “The effectiveness of the Church in mission depends on these covenantal commitments to the ministry of all Christians and the ordained ministry of the Church. Through ordination and through other offices of pastoral leadership, the Church provides for the continuation of Christ’s ministry, which has been committed to the church as a whole” (para. 303.4).
So there are covenantal commitments that we make to, with, and for one another, and these commitments are naturally tested over time. I have always understood these covenantal commitments primarily in terms of relationship – relationship with God, with my ministry partners, and with the whole Church. Throughout my thirty years of pastoral ministry in a variety of contexts these covenantal commitments have meant renegotiating relationships that continue to grow and change. I am not the same person I was when I entered ministry. My experience of God and of Church has changed. My theology has changed. The world has changed, as has the Church’s role in the world. In other words, covenantal commitments are not static, and those of us who seek to minister alongside one another must exercise grace and humility in our relationships with one another if we are to have any hope of faithfully dealing with the current discord within the Church over how we welcome LGBTQ neighbors into the Church’s life and ministry.
While I view covenantal commitments mainly in terms of relationship, I am aware of how many United Methodists view it mainly in terms of accountability. These are my sisters and brothers in Christ who see accountability as a matter of all parties agreeing to follow rules of conduct and belief as spelled out in the Book of Discipline. I admit this is true as far as it goes. We do have rules for a reason. However, no covenant relationship thrives on the basis of simply following rules. Any covenant relationship that holds the possibility of being life giving and spiritually enriching needs to be a dynamic interplay of diverse voices coming together to give glory to the One who invites all people into abundant life.
Accountability flows in more than one direction. There is a mutual accountability built into the covenant we have with one another. But do we ever hear anything about the accountability of the United Methodist Church for how it has demeaned and dismissed LGBTQ persons from openly participating in the life and ministry of the Church? Is anyone being held accountable for failing to truly recognize the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons? Is there any accountability of General Conference delegates over several decades for the discriminatory language written into church law? When the General Conference gets it wrong, are we to ignore the royal law of scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself?” (James 2:8) Such love requires mercy over judgment.
According to paragraph 306 in the Book of Discipline, an order of ministry like the one to which I belong along with other ordained Elders, is “a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church.” I don’t believe that being a part of this order means surrendering my conscience and my integrity to an imperfect book that is revised by the General Conference every four years. Like all other United Methodist Christians, I seek to understand the witness of God’s grace in Scripture by means of my own experience of God, my reason’s ability to understand the many contextual voices of Scripture and to embrace new knowledge, and the historic tradition of the Church (which, for the record, includes John Wesley’s own rule-breaking for the sake of Christ’s work on earth).
I cannot with integrity simply bow to human law – for that is what the Book of Discipline is – when it violates the human dignity of LGBTQ persons. In challenging or disobeying church law I do not believe I am violating my covenant with others in my order. Indeed, I believe I am protecting covenant from the harm that is done whenever a person made in God’s image feels the sting of the Church’s rejection. I believe I am being true to my calling of continuing Christ’s ministry and welcoming to the table of grace all who seek God!
Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
A Prayer for the New Year
“Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life” ~ Ps. 23:6a
Step bravely into a new year.
Release the hurts others have done to you.
Break free of those who consistently cause you harm.
Unburden yourself of grievances you have been unable to forgive.
Give yourself wholly to the pursuit of living your life, not someone else’s.
Sink your feet into the ground of all being, where it is enough to simply be you.
Be profoundly grateful at the sheer miracle of being alive.
Taste the sweetness of divine grace that accepts you exactly as you are.
Play no one’s fool.
Seek wisdom humbly and persistently.
Refuse to placate people just to avoid conflict.
Never surrender your joy without a fight.
Run, don’t walk, toward real beauty, wherever you discover it.
Listen deeply for the still, small voice that resonates within you.
Pay attention to your feelings – they are indicators of your wellbeing.
Trust that there is an inner guide in each of us.
Forge ahead knowing you will make lots of mistakes.
Learn from them.
Throw yourself with utter abandon in the adventure of living.
Remember – goodness and kindness are following you.
Words and photo © 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson
A year ago, just a few days before Christmas, my wife Dallis and I walked into a dog rescue organization “just to look.” We walked through the kennels, and in one we saw four small dogs. Three of them were jumping and barking as you might expect. The fourth one sat there quietly in the chaos and looked at us with eyes that said, “Well, are you going to let me out, or what?” We asked to see him. Then we walked him on a leash, and he didn’t seem to have a clue about that. But he was trusting and he liked to be held. So we took him home on a “trial basis” — no papers signed, no promises, no nothing! Within half-an-hour our hearts were hooked.
It had been almost a year since we lost our Pomeranian named Sadie, who died suddenly of congestive heart failure at the age of just eight years old. Our hearts were still a little tender. But Bailey entered our lives just before Christmas, much to our surprise, and helped in the healing process.
I ran across the piece below written by an unknown author that helps me to remember that the grief of loss is soothed by finding another pet to love.
Bailey was initially found wandering the streets of our city. He was in bad shape. He was held at the county shelter right up to the day before his time on earth was scheduled to expire. But the strange and wonderful serendipity of him entering our lives is that we initially thought we were “rescuing” him, and it turns out that he “rescued” us. He came into our lives right at the right time, and he makes us laugh at least once a day!
Here’s the piece titled, “A Dog’s Last Will and Testament,” author unknown. I imagine Sadie, who wasn’t all that crazy about other dogs, approving nonetheless of us finding another canine companion to share our home. Some of her toys and beds remain, and Bailey now enjoys them.
Before humans die, they write their Last Will & Testament, and give their home and all they have to those they leave behind.
If, with my paws, I could do the same, this is what I’d ask…
To a poor and lonely stray I’d give:
My happy home,
My cozy bed,
My soft pillows and all my toys,
The lap which I loved so much,
The hand that stroked my fur and the sweet voice which spoke my name.
I’d will to the sad, scared shelter dog the place I had in my human’s heart, of which there seemed no bounds.
So when I die please do not say, “I will never have a pet again, for the loss and pain is more than I can stand.” Instead, go find an unloved dog; one whose life has held no joy or hope and give MY place to him. This is the only thing I can give … the love I left behind.