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.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ
Fort Collins, Colorado
[The sermon was preceded by a “Stewardship Moment” from the Wray family, including three-year-old Faith.] First, thank you so much to Curtis, Jackie, and Faith for your Stewardship family reflection this morning. Truly, my theology tells me that your words were the most important sermon today by the power of testimony. Your story of generosity is the best Word we could receive on giving. This testimony to the power of finding a home in God’s house, especially at Faith’s age, is priceless indeed. Thank you!
As I attempt to add even a small light to the beacon of hope we have already encountered through Jackie and Curtis, will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the offerings of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and the Great Steward of our lives. Amen.
When I was Faith’s age of around three years old, I also remember experiencing my very first lesson on Stewardship and the reason for giving. Having a younger sibling helped one learn early the difference between “mine” and “ours” and “hers”! Ironically, early lessons on giving didn’t come from the Church.
While I do remember church things like rummage sales and coloring pictures of Bible stories in Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church of Manasquan, New Jersey [I was very bad at coloring in the lines even then], Stewardship and the church are not connected in my early memory. My first formation on Stewardship, giving, philanthropy (“philanthropia” a word that literally means "the essence of being human" or "kindness" or "giving for the love of people"), and collective social responsibility didn’t come from a pulpit or Sunday School classroom.
As was the case for most of my generation, early lessons about giving, sharing, and philanthropy came not from church but from PBS and Sesame Street’s The Reverend Big Bird in particular.
Sesame Street in the late 80s and early 90s was at the peak of its success and was part of the daily if not hourly lives and early memories of most of us early American Millennials. Yes, my first memory of Stewardship Sermons came from The Rev. Elmo, The Rev. Big Bird, The Rev. Cookie Monster and The Rev. Grouch. For the record, I did consider dressing-up as Big Bird this morning for the sermon, but then decided against it after looking into copyright laws. Maybe next year.
At the end of every program, after Elmo and Oscar had signed off, PBS had one more word for us, a ritual of sending, a benediction of gratitude that went and still goes like this:
“This program was made possible by the corporation for public broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. [Long Three Second Pause] Thank you!”
You mean that these friends and educators, Oscar, Elmo, Big Bird, The Count, Reading Rainbow, Ken Burns, NOVA, The American Experience were made possible, realized, enabled, brought to life, animated by someone like me? Someone else is out there like little old me? That is such a powerful, political thought. With our powers combined, we can make things like TV or community happen. Really!? The little phrase, “viewers like you,” had two huge effects!
The first was an immediate visualization of all of the viewers “like me” out there. Even as a young gay kid, I remembered this lesson from the fundraising wing of PBS that there are others “like me” out there sitting in front of screens wondering the same thing I was about Bert and Ernie. Are they? Could they be? Viewers like me. The first lesson was that you are not alone as a viewer out there and you are collectively powerful. I believe that subconscious message was probably why this meant so much to so many.
What can the church learn about fundraising from PBS? We can learn the power of reminding you that you are in fact the institution. Viewers, worshipers, prayers, contributors, congregation… it is all you! Viewers like you make this possible. Amen!
The second lesson is the power of thank you and gratitude. There is a full three second silence before the words “Thank you” flashed across the screen. There is so much power in saying thank you well, at the right time, and repeatedly. And, yes, the church like PBS does need to say thank you every week and every day. Nothing is owed to us as an institution from our members as expected. It is all in the category of miracle of philanthropy: for the love of humanity! Everything is given in freedom and love. So, yes, thank you, no matter what you pledge, for making this possible. A Confession: This is why I run our stamp budget way WAY up over the past four years with thank you notes—thank you! I have a compulsion for writing thank you notes. I believe that Thank you is always worthwhile.
“This worship service, FFH and N2N, Habitat, Christian Formation course, sermon, song, organ, choir, building, community, potluck, Open and Affirming lifesaver of a place and theology was made possible by the Holy Spirit, and by contributions to your local church from viewers, people, individuals, faithful few like you. [Long Pause] Thank you!”
I then dug a little deeper. When I did a search for this phrase, “viewers like you,” on Google, the true impact of that campaign and its value on how we give and understand Stewardship became apparent with over 153 MILLION search results and articles about this PBS impact statement alone. Then I dug a little deeper yet finding several YouTube videos consisting of nothing but the original PBS “Viewers Like You” clip that so many of us grew-up with. The one clip alone that I watched had over 300,000 views and many comments. I read the comments and realized that there is a theological lesson for the church for Stewardship (Philanthropy… for the love of the people as they are) here… an important one.
Here are just five of the responses from my generation to this PBS statement:
“Who remembers feeling special as [heck] when they would say, ‘thank you!”
“I had a huge obsession with this funding since I was in 5th grade.”
“I literally looked this up just to watch this. I miss it!”
“Every time I hear or see ‘made possible by’ I always think of this.”
“Grew up on this.”
The Church could be so lucky to have comments like these. Do you hear the sense of belonging, ownership, community, engagement in these quotes? This is about something bigger than Sesame Street. This is what we need for the church!
We must recapture the idea that all of this is made possible by you. Our worship, our community, our work, our vision, our, program, our mission, our radical agenda of LOVE of all people here at Plymouth is made possible by people like you. This is all yours. Stewardship isn’t a trap, or pressure pledge campaign. Imagine if, like PBS or NPR, we sang the first half of the hymns this month then abruptly stopped. We will keep playing the other half of the hymn when we receive ten more pledges! No, we don’t do it that way. Rather, it is the enactment of what we are called to do most in this life—commit to something bigger than ourselves and let go of worry. This is an invitation to living. Philanthropy.
Speaking of loving people as they are, let’s look at verses 21 and 22:
21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.
The man says leading up to verse 21 that he has it all made, but he is still so worried about his possessions. He comes to Jesus and claims that he has already finished God’s Ten Commandments and all other to do lists. Does the Scripture say that Jesus said, as it is often misremembered by some lucrative ministries that you should sell what you own and give all of the money to me…to Jesus? This text has been misused by the church to mean that Jesus wants the man to give his money to Jesus. Really, Jesus is saying that he is inviting the man to follow him and to not worry about his belongings. Jesus’ loving request is an invitation to greater discipleship rather than a demand. Jesus isn’t asking for the man’s money. Jesus is offering a sense of belonging in his movement regardless of material possessions. Jesus looked at him, really saw the man, and he loved him… “you only lack one thing.” If you say you have really done it all already, then here is a challenge.
I don’t know about you, but I am not yet at the spiritual point where that man claims was! He only had one more thing left to do—sell all his possessions and follow Jesus. Boy, I have a long way to go before I claim that I need a bigger to do list from God. Most of us will never get to that point, but we too are invited to be part of the solution, the cause, the movement with Jesus. Viewers like you…wherever you are!
I have one more thing in closing to add as a critique or further wisdom for the church and PBS/ NPR. For years PBS and NPR and the Church liked to use the language of “sustaining gifts.” How many of you have heard an ask for “sustaining gifts?” Most of us, right! The phrase “sustaining” means fundamentally that we have been looking for gifts that are adequate enough to maintain the status quo. By its very definition, sustaining is a conservative, life support, status quo sort of effort. Looking at the world around us today, how many of us want to sustain what we see as the status quo environmentally, economically, socially, politically, or ecclesiastically? [Congregation responds.]
For generations, Stewardship has been done in terms of sustaining gifts—gifts that are offered in the hope of an outcome of the status quo being maintained, managed, or sustained. Two years ago, when Obama was still president, I was invited to spend a Saturday at a regional HUD [Housing and Urban Development] meeting about the direction of housing and urban development around the world, and my entire understanding of what the goal of Stewardship of resources should be for governments, churches, and non-profits changed radically forever. I was offered a new framework.
One of the speakers was the dynamic director of the Department of Local Affairs Office of Resiliency at that time. I remember vividly as she explained the difference between a sustainability framework and a resiliency framework. “The Department of Local Affairs' Colorado Resiliency Office supports and helps empower Colorado communities in building stronger, safer and more resilient in the face of natural disasters and other major challenges. The CRO coordinates overarching recovery and resiliency activities by collaborating with numerous multi-disciplinary local, state, federal, and private partners in setting priorities, leveraging resources, communicating transparently and delivering measurable results to shape an adaptable and vibrant future.”
Isn’t Colorado cool? In the face of the adaptive change in our state and world and climate, our state understands that sustainability and sustaining gifts is no longer the way to problem solve. We must think bigger, reconceptualize what our viewership, participation means. It is only viewers, Plymouth members like us, like you, like we that can make this institution resilient. Cleveland and the National UCC won’t save us. The National Council of Churches won’t do it. Our Association or Conference won’t do it for us. It is up to us to make this place resilient.
Imagine our Stewardship this way: Plymouth Congregational Church coordinates overarching spiritual and community resiliency activities by collaborating with numerous multi-disciplinary local, state, federal, and private partners, non-profits, and members in setting priorities, leveraging resources, communicating transparently and delivering measurable results to shape an adaptable and vibrant future for the sake of God’s Realm on Earth and in peoples’ lives.”
Jesus calls us to not just give to the church but to transform our own lives. This is the same message that my generation received from PBS’ ending to Sesame Street—this is bigger than just you and thank you for being part of it. Philanthropy—the love of people—takes resiliency now.
Resiliency is not about saving what was, as our state has already recognized. It is about creating a future in a time that doesn’t even see or value tomorrow.
It is no longer the time for sustaining gifts, but now is the time for gifts of resiliency. Resiliency gifts are for a vibrant institution that is comprised of none other than us, than you, than me… than we. We are the resilient ones.
It is time for me to return to my Jersey Shore roots and learn to color outside of the lines of traditional sustainability again. Today is the day for us to give and vision a time in need of resilient communities.
I think that would finally make The Rev. Big Bird proud!
This program was made possible by the Holy Spirit, and by contributions to your church from viewers, believers, the faithful like you. Thank you.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, 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. Read more about him on our staff page.
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