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Pastor Fordie’s Parting Sermon — A Story of Liberation

 
This is a work of fiction but the content as far as thoughts, convictions, beliefs, etc. is reflective of my own. My intent is to say that anyone at any time of life can “come out of the closet” (as it is called) in expressing oneself along more progressive lines.

The Morning

A crisp, cold, late October Sunday morning greeted Pastor Fordie as he looked out his bedroom window, gazing at the red and yellow leaves that still clung to the trees of his small grove of maples in the backyard. The Sun had already inched its way upward a bit over the horizon to cast its golden light on a new day. It was a “parting” day, of sorts. After a total forty year career in the Christian ministry, he was about to give his farewell sermon at the 10:30 A.M. worship service at Our Savior’s Church which was part of a nationally large, denominationally mainline protestant body of church people. He had occupied the pulpit at Our Savior’s as its sole pastor for just over 20 years.

It was very early in his ministerial career that he had gotten familiar with people calling him Pastor Fordie or simply Fordie. His parents had passed down his grandfather’s name to him when he was born..He realized that his birth certificate spelled out quite a mouthful of a name — Milford Thaddeus Jasperiasen. The nickname had begun even before grade school, and “Fordie” seemed pleasant to his ears. This grandfather had also been a country pastor as was Fordie’s own father. He felt proud to become the third generation in a row to perform pastoral duties. But there was somewhat of a difference between the two previous generations of pastors and himself. These fathers had been of a more conservative, fundamental Christian persuasion and Fordie — even in his early pastoral days — had swung somewhat more”liberal” in his interpretation of scripture but not so much as to move him from typical “moderate” speech as a pastor.

He prayed and meditated in the early morning sunlight that beamed through his kitchen window. The retiring pastor gutt-wrenchedly pondered whether or not he should give the parting sermon he had prepared over the past week. It would not be a traditional message that the congregation was used to hearing. As his wife still lay in bed, he shaved his face cleanly, showered, and inserted his clerical collar.in the neck area of his shirt, entering his garage for the five mile car trip to the rural church..

His drive to Our Savior’s gave him time to reflect on the changes he had seen on the landscape of religion, especially Christianity, since entering the seminary nearly forty-five years ago! He had generally fond memories of churches he had served including Our Savior’s. His thoughts drifted to a seeming tension between entrenched literal-fundamental thinking on the more conservative Christian side of the figurative church aisle and an inclusive and progressively flavored metaphorical-figurative way of thinking for an emerging church. He remained convicted to follow his own heart, convinced his words would be God-led in some divinely spiritual way that defied verbal description. Daydreams of presenting this morning’s message or sermon could not be stopped, even as he entered the church parking lot.

As a small to moderate church in terms of membership, Our Savior’s held only one Sunday morning worship service with the youth having Sunday School during the hour prior to that. That hour was an adult opportunity for “coffee and rolls” fellowship or participating in a bible study with topical discussion. Fordie arrived a half-hour before and was the person to unlock the church doors. He walked into the sanctuary, sitting in the front pew in timeless thought and reflection. The creaking of the main door opening signaled the beginning of a church day as a family walked in.

The Bible study was led by one of the church council members, giving Fordie the chance to visit over coffee and eats. He felt a definite emotional warmth from most church members who extended their thanks and well-wishes. The clock advanced quickly and it was getting to be time to enter the sanctuary to give his parting words.

The first part of the service followed the usual order — walking forward to ascend the platform and occupy the pulpit, announcements, hymns, songs, liturgical declarations, prayer, and scripture reading. Time rolled by quickly and the pews were almost full. Next on the church bulletin was the pastor’s message. Fordie opened his folder of sermon notes. He cleared his throat and took a sip of water.

The Message

“Twenty years, two months, and three days ago, I became your pastor. It has been a rewarding time for me and I am warmly touched by how I have been received here at Our Savior’s Church. I hope and pray that I have — even in some small way — helped others in their spiritual growth and direction in life in my ministerial role. Through times of joy and celebration as well as downturns and sorrow, we as a church body have been there for one another. For that, I am sure Jesus would thank us as ambassadors of our Creator’s love.

Jesus was so revealing in the words attributed to him in scripture when it is stated that those who show acts of kindness and compassion to the ‘least’ of humanity display divinely given love not only for their brethren but also for their Creator-God. Like Jesus, we are all fellow sons and daughters of God. But it was Jesus who was primary in his created role of bringing humans to greater conscious awareness of our divine-like, divinely in-dwelled nature to be displayed in turn with others of humanity. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth was the prime embodiment of the divine being present in humankind, an awareness ideal towards which people calling themselves “Christian” strive. That is what I have meant when I have talked about spiritual growth, spiritual direction, and spiritual development. It is a process unique to the individual, a progressing toward a fuller, richer, and deeper realization of “seeing the face of God,” in figurative terms. For that seems to be the purpose of all of existence.

Christians have traditionally looked to the Holy Bible, as it is typically called, as a record of what historically happened to humankind in the Bible lands constituting the cradle of Christianity — before, during, and just after Jesus’ short life on Earth. I recognize the historical settings within which Bible stories occur as well as the geography that extends forward to current times. I contend that much of what was written in the scriptures reflects how God was experienced by the people of those times, written in a way to convey human-divine truths by way of stories or accounts that are not necessarily literal but rather symbolic and metaphorical in nature. These stories are in keeping with the literary writing styles and methods during that time in history. To say that New Testament writings show fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies may actually be that of using author-license (exaggerated, imaginative embellishment) to color-in a portrait of predictive fulfillment. That does not do anything to make the actual experiences less powerful or less meaningful. We all need to, at times, reflect back to literary writings studied, let’s say, in high school English classes to be aware of what was learned as to literal meaning, figurative meaning, symbolism, manifest and latent content, and so forth. For me, Herman Melville’s work, Moby Dick, comes readily to mind — was it just a great sea adventure story or was it something much deeper and more meaningful?

Oral history was the “fire” that burned to keep the memory of Jesus alive until the first of the canonical gospels (Mark) was written about four decades after Jesus’ death, oral sharing continuing to keep the Christian movement exciting and engaging. Subsequent gospels did some borrowing from previous writings and I contend that the “Jesus story” became more magnified in terms of miraculous claims and occurrences as the first century CE advanced. Jesus on Earth, the things he did, the words he spoke, and the experiences of people getting to know him MUST have been something extraordinarily impressive, to say the least. Oh, to have actually been there and be witness to all of this would have really been something! But alas, we are here and alive in the early twenty-first century, several thousand years removed from the time of his divine-like revelations on Earth.

The original biblical writings have been passed down to us century after century and from one millennium to the next, generally intact, it seems. But time has a way of bringing about some erosion of the original texts what with untold numbers of hand-written copies, numerous and varied translations, and multiple interpretive strategies and rationales that reflect transitions historically from antiquity to modernity to post-modernity. To God, we look for spiritual guidance in making the best sense of it as best we can! As humans, we often cannot rely on finding absolute certainty and must settle for the best and most rational approximation to truth. In my heart, I believe God would appreciate such a seeker. I am convicted that those who have in some way “found” God — whether this be through scripture or some other form of divine revelation — yet remain seekers of further truth to be discovered are blessed “children” of God. An infinity symbol — a lazy, horizontal, figure-eight-looking character — precedes and follows a traditional-looking time line as a representation of eternity. We recall hearing the words, “time immemorial.” That and love I see as the essence of God. God is a guiding spiritual presence flowing within us, among us, through us, and beyond. There can be “the peace that passes understanding” in fuller conscious realization of that truth.

In coming up with today’s pulpit message, I could not, over the past week, arrive at a title for it. I entertained some tentative words but none really fit. Over my ministerial career, I have searched the scriptures and searched my own heart for a way or ways to make recorded writ more meaningful to me and to help others in this endeavor. Yes, I have walked in the direction of more “liberal” interpretation over the years as my own spiritual preference and have sensed being divinely guided in that. A year ago, I did a searching and fearless inventory and wrote a “glossary” of sorts to anchor some of my convictions which I still maintain. For those interested, the table in the back of the church has those in written form. They reflect my thoughts and beliefs. I do not fault others for their own perceived stances on how they may see the Bible.

With heart-felt sincerity, I wish every one of you our Creator’s peace and may God, through Jesus of Nazareth, dwell forever in your hearts as an eternal expression of that peace.”

The Journey Ahead

After the conclusion of the service, Fordie was met with departure handshakes (and hugs), some people praising him for his honesty and being forthright, some parishioners appearing rather neutral, but no one really acting disdainful for what he had said. He walked to his office for one last look, he having emptied it of his personal contents some days ago. He and his wife walked to their respective cars for the trip home. As he ushered his wife to her car, he was met at her car door with a big hug that said more than words ever could. She surprised him in mentioning that she had prepared his favorite chicken casserole and vegetable salad back home, complete with vanilla pudding for dessert — his favorites!

He had a lot to think about during his five to ten minute drive as he went home. He smiled, overall, about his career. He had “hung in there.” The ministry was not an easy or cushiony profession. There had been many people to deal with and at times, the politics were horrendous. He often felt caught between a national to state hierarchy and his pew parishioners. But he had experienced and learned much.

He planned to continue to read and study theology of a Christian variety but also looked forward to learning more about inter-faith efforts that he hoped to be involved in. And he planned to write, continuing to write essay pieces and maybe even challenge himself to write a book.

In the area of hobbies, he knew he would have more time to devote to amateur paleontology, on the hunt for fossils that portrayed the once-alive outlay of God’s Great Creation. He had already amassed a sizable fossil collection and he hoped to volunteer at the local university geology department museum.

And he could never let go of his love for the sky as an amateur astronomer. He would have more time to attend “star parties” around the nation and renew some old acquaintences. He always wanted to work more with youth in introducing them to God’s endless vista. He would have more time now to devote to building a six-inch (front lens) refracting telescope that he had long dreamed of doing.

His wife liked traveling to some extent. She would likely be occasionally accompanying him on fossil hunts and for gazing at the sky. National and state parks beckoned for camping for both of them.

Just before entering his driveway, he thought about the glossary he had written that he gave church attendees a chance to see. He believed he had done the right thing with his pulpit message and supplementary write-up. He could visualize the words it contained:

My Glossary-Style Thoughts on Selected Biblical, Christian, and Spiritual Matters by Milford Thaddeus Jasperiasen, 2015 and 2016

THE BIBLE — a written record of human attempts to put into words their experiencing of God several-plus millennia ago; may be divinely inspired in many instances as are some other spiritually-based human written creations such as poetry, essays, stories, journaling, etc.; rather than being “God’s word” per se, perhaps this collection of books is more that of “human words describing ineffable God-experiences,” the words only able to mediate (not sacred in and of themselves) that experience from writer to reader, in keeping with our human language capabilities; though some actual history is recorded, the scriptures are not necessarily to be interpreted literally and more meaning is to be derived from reading them metaphorically, symbolically, figuratively, representationally, etc.; though the canon-selection people very likely prayed for guidance in picking which books were to be included, some books just didn’t make “the cut” and they may have been worthy of inclusion; therefore, the Biblical story of Jesus and his earlier followers is only an approximation of what really occurred; perhaps ancient texts are still yet to be found to shed new light on Jesus’ meaning for humankind — archaeology does not stop!; multiple Bible translations over many centuries likely introduced some error or bias compared to the original texts but underlying meaning and intent has most likely been preserved in a general way

GOD — the hard-to-put-into-words Ultimate Reality, the ground of all being, the eternal and creative spirit flowing through all that is; conceptualized by humans in different ways and personalized; humans may tend to anthropomorphize God in keeping with a need for tangible contact and security; God is love and we can rest assured in that; God sustains life in “cooperation” with humans being good stewards of what has been created; a future eternity awaits humankind and God’s mysterious nature shall be onward-revealed

JESUS — a divinely created human being, more infused/in-dwelled with God’s presence than probably anyone else ever, whose mission was to bring to humankind a message of love, compassion, peace, positivity and hope; he was so filled with wisdom and divine insight that there were claims of he being the only son of God; all humans could be considered as sons and daughters of God; he lived in a patriarchal culture but respected and included women; the scriptural portrait of him painted by the ancients may be clouded by an imaginative, idealistic, embellished, and exaggerated style of the authors; his resurrection could possibly have been a physical one, but more important is the rising into our consciousness of his life, teachings, and our (like him) eventual passing into eternity, ever closer to God; he likely was capable of performing healing “miracles” through some type of divinely guided positive energy flow/transfer; driving demons out of people did not occur but was perhaps a matter of alleviating psychosis or epilepsy, no one during those times having our current medical/scientific knowledge; such actions then were seen as the casting out of demons (Satan, demons, the Devil personally viewed as a type of literary characterization); bottom line was that God was, in some mysterious way, in Jesus of Nazareth; to have been there during his actual life would be so telling!

GARDEN OF EDEN — beautifully crafted mythical story of human creation in keeping with (then) ancient cultural understanding capabilities

THE FALL –mythic tale appealing to an awareness of our inherent human short-comings (my God, we just ain’t perfect!) and our God-guided capabilities to rise above our egocentric ways

THE TRINITY — a difficult-to-grasp conceptualization of spirit-creator and the divine humanity of Jesus; the “three persons” thing was an overly elaborated way by theologians in early CE times to make sense of God; the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible

JESUS PAID THE PRICE — Jesus did not die for our sins to get us “off the hook” for them; rather than atonement, as it is called, Jesus loved humankind so much that he relinquished his physical survival instincts and gave his life in a humble and loving way rather than militate and cause rebellion

BORN AGAIN — an often-stated pair of words making little sense which implies that something glorious, grand, and dramatic needs to occur to have a true God-awareness vs. a process of evolving closer to sensing/realizing God

HELL AND ETERNAL PUNISHMENT — concepts not consistent a loving, forgiving God; likely promulgated through church history as an ecclesiastical control tactic

HEAVEN — a metaphorical term for an eternity of a non-Earth dimension(s); not a compartmentalized location up in the sky or Jerusalem-based on a new Earth

THE DEVIL — not an actual character or being but rather the literary personification of human actions seen as despicable in a selfish way that ignores the well-being of others

SECOND COMING — occurs when the teachings of Jesus are understood and melded into the hearts of humans whereby Jesus can be “seen” again; there’s no dichotomous “either to heaven or hell” and no Book of Life that tells early on how one shall spend eternity; we will end up in an eternity based on our own merits of behavior and spiritual growth; it’s based on our “personal relationship with God”

CREED — whether Nicene, Apostle’s, or Athanasian, this reflects early CE thinking that was codified somewhere around the 3rd or 4th centuries; not all of it is to be taken literally, but is said verbatim in worship gatherings to pay homage to the early theological thinking of our ancestors

PRAYER — any sincere human effort to make conscious contact with God (the divine spirit which we can be even more part of); doesn’t have to be words as verbal mediation between humans and the Ultimate Reality; can take the form of contemplation, meditation, being mindfully absorbed in some aspect of living and being, etc.; not to always be taken as a petition to God for some favor or intervention but has to do more with positive energy flow and transfer that is only divinely understood.

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