The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Mr. Rodgers once said, “Love is at the root of everything. Love and the lack of it.” He also once said to a friend of his, Fort Collins’ very own Rev. Rich Thompson, “If you cannot be near the ones your love, then love the ones you are near.”
Today, I am preaching my final sermon as a minister of this church, and so the advice of Mr. Rodgers is resonating especially strongly with me in this time of goodbyes. You have shared with me a love that will never let me go. I will no longer be near, but our ministry together will continue throughout my callings and ministries to come—however many God allows me.
For those of you who do not know, I wandered into this church as a recently-out gay evangelical high school student. I now leave you as clergy and member some sixteen years later, as a seasoned young minister: ordained, married, trained, and hopeful for the Church and the future. I will no longer be near this church that I have loved, but I promise to share the love I have learned here, as Mr. Rodgers suggests, with those whom I will be near in my ministries to come.
As we explore our Scripture, let us start with prayer. O God, grant us wisdom and understanding of this text, and may the words of my mouth and our collective meditations be good in your sight. Amen.
J’étais très jeune quand j’avais mon premier coup de coeur. I was very young when I first fell
in love. It is a love that has never since let me go. It is a love that has taught me everything I know. It is a love that will keep all of you and my Plymouth years with me always.
As early as I can remember, I have been in love with and infatuated by words and their power. It was this love of words that sustained me through the tortured years of mastering French verbs and syntaxes. It was that love that threw me into theological studies and seminary. It is with words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—One God and Mother of us all,” that we are Baptized into Christian Faith. It is with the words, “eat this bread and take this cup,” that we are sustained in our faith. It is words that have truly Ordained me to this work of walking with and being with you, called by the words of pastor, minister, and reverend. I love and fear words!
But it isn’t just the words in and of themselves for their own sake that I love. It is what we do with them. Words communicate, can build up, move, and shape history on their own, but they only truly find their power when words join their forces together in story. If words are the rivers (the sources/ springs) of meaning, then stories are the churning oceans of the Spiritual, Ritual, and purpose our lives.
Today, I want to share a Word with you as I leave you—a final benediction formed at the spring testimony.
As I have often preached about, I attended seminary in the Deep South in the woodlands of North Georgia. It is land where there are even more storytellers than there are pine trees. Even more than out here in the West where we have the history of campfire storytelling, story is what holds Southern Christianity and identity together. Story and testimony are at the core of community more than history (New England Christianity) or common love of the landscape (Colorado Christianity). In Southern Christianity, where I was shaped into a minister (might I add with some significant kicking and screaming from yours truly), personal stories are also how you show your love and express your faith. Story is what makes us human. All creates communicate in some form, but only we tell stories.
In that context, where story is the heart of being Christian, there is a different way to talk about what we might call a “sermon” or “homily.” Instead of calling it a sermon, they call it a Word or a Good Word. Preach us a Good Word today, Pastor! So today, on my last Sunday in this pulpit, I don’t want to preach at you, to meditate you to sleep, or offer some highfalutin homily, but I want to share a simple Good Word with you about the power you have had bringing this Scripture to life in my ministry and life.
Turning now… The Word Jesus shares with us this morning in Mark 12: 28-34 is Love.
He is asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself'—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
This is my favorite passage in all of Scripture. I value it for its simplicity, its necessity, and relevance for today. I don’t care what religion you are. I don’t care if you don’t have a religion at all. No matter who you are or what you call yourself, the idea that we are called to love our neighbors reigns supreme today and always in every culture and every corner of this world. The difference in how we treat each other and, in our politics can all be cured by the power of the Word…love. It is such a simple message, yet it is forever aspirational in nature. It forever requires our daily repeating. Our word of the day every day is love.
Today in the Gospel of Mark we have Jesus’ benediction. This is the end of his teachings as he turns towards the cross. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been saying this all along—through different stories and metaphors he has tried to communicate his purpose. Finally, right as he is about to face the proceedings that will lead to his end (he is already in Jerusalem when our story today takes place), as he finishes his ministry here in Chapter 12 of Mark, he says it plainly for once. There is no commandment greater than these—nor patriotism, nor purity, nor progressive politics, nor recognitions, nor fame, nor the amount of your pledge… no… your story is love of neighbor and of God. Period.
You all have shared so much love with me in my time at Plymouth. From being a 15-year-old lost high schooler wondering around these pews through college, seminary, ordination, and ministry—you have been love.
As a person of words and language, the way I have most received your love is in your sharing of stories. I spoke about this at the start of my sermon, and I want to come back to it now. I love words for their meaning, but it is in your stories that I have found your love for me as your pastor. It is love manifested as trust.
You have shared stories about your deepest fears, secrets, hopes, dreams, lost dreams, dead relatives long ago and yesterday, new born babies, hospitalizations, insecurities, theological question, justice innovations, funny times, etc. We have laughed, cried, and sat in silence.
There is a story told in speechlessness as well, isn’t there?
I have come to realize, as a young minister, that this is how you all have shown me love. This is how you have lived into The First Commandment message of Jesus from our Scripture today. I will be leaving Plymouth as your minister and fellow member this week, but the love you have shown me through trusting me with your stories will last a lifetime. The Word you have shared with me is love, and that love in our pastoral relationship has manifested in the stories you have shared with me. Your stories, not church politics, have ordained me to ministry and send me now to Second Call in Connecticut. The robes, stoles, and titles have never interested me in this work. You could take them all away, and I would be more than good with that. What has ordained me to this work is your stories. I promise now as I leave you to keep them safe in my heart and forever in my prayers as I ponder your Gospel.
In January I preached a sermon about clergy being like curators of art galleries or museums, and while that is still true, a new metaphor has taken hold of my imagination this week. I have started to think of the role of a minister as being a lot like being a safe container. Sure, I have to be open and receptive to the different ways you all communicate, but the most important part of my job (more than party planning or preaching or emailing)… the most sacred thing about being a minister is receiving your words… your stories and remembering them and holding them safe. My job is to let you know that you are not alone in the echo chamber of your own storybook. You have shown your love for me as your pastor by sharing those intimate and precious stories with me, and I show that love back by remembering them and holding onto them forever in my heart.
My Metaphor today is that of the Minister as a Treasure Chest. In the tales and stories about pirates and buried treasure, the box itself is never of much value save for the fact that it is filled with riches. Likewise, what good is a minister without stories? What value is a pastor who hasn’t learned to cherish and keep safe the Words of her or his parish? The Word we share, the Love we manifest as congregation and clergy has been to be in dialogue. It is a conversation that never ends even though I won’t be here any more as I ponder your stories.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I shall love your stories as my own and protect them and take them with me always. As a treasure chest is made whole and real by the value of its contents, so I have been made a real minister by my time with you.
In closing, as a lover of words, I thought a bit about what words for goodbye mean in French and English. In French, the quotidian way to say goodbye is with “au revoir” meaning till we see each other again. But when you say a long-term goodbye without a known conclusion in this lifetime—you mark it by saying Adieu. Adieu means "to God I give you, to God I leave you, and with God’s love I enfold you." Adieu.
In English, we say goodbye. Anyone know where this comes from? Goodbye comes from an old English contraction for “God be with ye.” Moreover, students of language say that goodbye is the response line of the one being sent away. The who sends or isn’t leaving would say “farewell,” and the one leaving would reply with “goodbye.”
“Farewell,” one would offer—have a good journey ahead.
“Goodbye,” would be the reply—God be with you.
This time of saying goodbye is a dialogue. As the history of the phrase “goodbye” shows, it is two sided, and we need each other to truly say farewell/goodbye well.
Today I wanted to share a simple Word with you. That word is love. Some of you I may never see again but know that I will never forget you. Your stories will always be in my heart.
So, as Mr. Rodgers said, at the end of his final episode, and I paraphrase, “I like you just the way you are, and I am so grateful to you for bringing healing to so many different neighborhoods… it is such a good feeling to know we are friends. Goodbye for now.”
Adieu, Plymouth. Farewell, and May God be with you. Amen.
God of the ages, God of many names,
God found both in the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the depths of Long Island Sound…
God, I call upon you to be with this congregation of your people.
Bring them comfort in their times of wariness—for their strength is needed.
Bring them leaders of wisdom and confidence—for this church is a beacon in this community.
Bring them courage in times of pain—for you are in all things.
O God, I give you thanks for their radical hospitality
that not only helped me find a home in Christianity
but has allowed me to share that story with others.
I give you thanks for their generosity that is manifested today
in their ministry with Habitat for Humanity, FFH, and other endeavors.
I give you thanks for their patience,
especially with their clergy as we don’t always get everything right the first time.
For their immigrant welcoming work—help them to continue to accompany.
For their Open and Affirming work for the LGBTQ community—help them to continue to learn.
For their Peace with Justice stance—help them to stay in solidarity
especially with Israel and Palestinian issues.
We, O God, give you thanks for each other and each person’s stories.
May this church always be a safe container for this sharing, listening, and caring.
We now listen to all of our voices as we together tell the story of hope
through the ancient words of the Lord’s Prayer beginning with, “Our Father…”
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake") came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. As of August 2019, he serves First Congregational Church of Guilford, Connecticut.