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 Church
Fort Collins, Colorado
Would you join me in prayer? O God who walks with us on the many paths of life, I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts may be good and pleasing in your sight. Amen.
One of the greatest gifts of ministry with Plymouth over the past years has been the participatory planning of the All-Church Retreat. While many of our ministry teams require only distant supervision or occasional guidance (usually only in the event of a crisis), it has been part of the full-time associate minister role for me to walk through the joyful creation of this annual event as a member of the planning team.
One of the saddest parts of leaving Plymouth before September, when the All-Church Retreat will take place this year, is not having the chance to attend this event. I always name it as my very favorite moment of ministry here every year. And this year, friends, let me just say that the team is planning the coolest, most intergenerational, artist-filled weekend of going deeper in faith and Spirit together down at La Foret. We even have an internationally known rock balancing artist contacted to come for our program!
What is it, though, about the All-Church Retreat that has made it, repeatedly, the highlight of my year of ministry, year after year? What makes it special and even restorative for our work together as church? Why would anyone choose to spend a year planning an event for church to gather in old cabins, to worship in the outdoors, to be dirty, to not get much sleep, and to be homesick? We have a perfectly good church building. We have perfectly good beds here at home. We have perfectly great hiking in Lory State Park. Why would one do that on purpose—especially as it requires driving South on I-25 during a Friday rush hour?
Here is why: for me, the All-Church Retreat (like the All-Church Picnic) is a Sacrament of the Plymouth Church Year. It is a Sacrament that disrupts the systems and the “normal” of our lives together. The manners in which we do community and worship and fellowship is challenged and set (for me) on a new pathway every year from the retreat onward. The All-Church Retreat is where I have my ministry New Year Eve. It reminds that the church isn’t contained by walls or magic words… but by people, their stories shared around a campfire, and the attentive listening to the Spirit. On the hikes and the pathways of the retreat, norms are challenged and new ways of being in community emerge.
Like the All-Church Retreat, leaving our comfort zones and upsetting norms is also the subject of our Scripture passage this morning from the Gospel According to Luke. It is a passage that on the surface appears to be Jesus in a really foul mood. On the surface it is a text that makes us cringe at times of change and transition, but under that surface is a call to go deeper into Christian love together especially at times of new pathways and journey.
In today’s passage, Jesus encounters some “wanna be” disciples. While our reading today is often thought of as one conversation, if we break it apart, there are actually three distinct and potentially very different people auditioning to be disciples before Jesus. Since there is no time marker between them, each could have been a very distinct conversation and context. This is like an American Idol for auditioning Disciples, except Jesus is a tougher audience and judge than even Simon Cowell.
Within the context of the Gospel of Luke, at this point in the story, Jesus is transitioning from B-List (regional) Prophet (sort of the type who might play Las Vegas) to an A-List Celerity. Jesus is becoming the Jesus Christ Superstar we imagine in theater and movies. We catch-up with Jesus today right in the moment when he is really building up his ministry, and people are paying attention. Joiners are circling. Do you know what the word “joiner” means? Joiners are the opposite of covenant-makers. These are the folks who attach themselves to the next best celebrity and then leave just as easily for the next best thing. Jesus is auditioning disciples not joiners for the difficult work of walking together in the woodland and forests of Spiritual Community.
Let us hear the text again listening for all three audition tapes in this episode of Disciples Idol:
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus[a] said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Here are three people all presenting themselves to Jesus to be followers, and now the story never tells us is they actually decided to continue following Jesus or not, but it does show us three of the reasons Jesus warns them about the realities becoming part of Christian Community. Jesus offers three reasons that covenant is a difficult pathway—and note it is different for each one of them. There is no blanket response. It is individualized for each person.
To the first, Jesus tells him that one of the risks of following is discomfort and housing insecurity. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There is likely to be times of severe discomfort on the Jesus Journey. There is the risk of restless and even sleepless nights and solidarity with those on the margins. The first trail warning is that this isn’t a comfortable walk or life. Discomfort is part of the Jesus Journey.
The second, once he receives the direct invitation to follow Jesus, suddenly pivots and comes up with the excuse of needing to go home for a previously (conveniently) unscheduled funeral. Biblical Scholars agree that this second one is the example of the false excuse for real commitment. There isn’t really a funeral to plan or attend or he wouldn’t have been there listening to Jesus in the first place. Funerals happen that quickly in the ancient world, and still today in Jewish tradition. Have any of you ever worked in the HR field? This is the, “I need to go to my grandmother’s funeral,” excused absence claim.
Even so, Jesus says that sometimes the dead will need to bury the dead. There are many valid interpretations of this, but one interpretation is that a risk of following Christ is that some things, even important things (like funerals) will never be completed. The bereavement process is a journey and not a destination. The second trail warning is that Christian life on the path less traveled doesn’t always have a sense of completion or perfect closure. Nothing final will ever feel complete, and we have to find acceptance with that.
The third trail warning is a hard one today. The person simply asks to say goodbye to friends and family before leaving. This one I feel deeply right now, and Jesus’ response pains me. Facing leaving home and not feeling like there is enough time to say goodbye to every one of you individually, Jesus’ reply seems strange or hurtful. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This is when we realize what Jesus is doing… everyone is welcome to be a follower, but the challenge is different for each. Jesus is working in the genre of the impossible. In the ancient world, a plow wasn’t like today’s modern GPS operated tractors made by John Deer and International Harvester. They were messy and propelled by donkeys. No matter how good of a farmer you were (even an Iowan) would have to look back and check their rows. It was part of the process.
Everyone looks back. Jesus has set-up an impossible paradigm. The third warning has the implication that none is able to do this perfectly without Grace. Jesus is using hyperbole to welcome an imperfect world and people to a new way. The third trail warning is that nobody will live up to this work. No human is fully able to let go of the past. Nobody is perfect, and none can do this Jesus Journey alone…at least not in perfection.
To each joiner, to each auditioner Jesus faces them with their own fear. It is like, for those of you who are Harry Potter fans, like a Boggart. To some that is imperfection, to others it is discomfort, and to yet others it is the incomplete.
“I will follow you wherever you go,” they say. Jesus replies, “Yes, yes, but you need to know that this whole Christianity thing is hard (hard for different people in different ways)—it means admitting to our imperfections and lack of straight lines, it means knowing that some things will be left undone and even incomplete, and that it can be uncomfortable and even sleepless at times… even away from La Foret.
[Pause 4 seconds]
This time of saying goodbye and moving feels kind of like this story rolled all into one process—incomplete, imperfect, and uncomfortable. It is all part of the larger vision of following Jesus on the road.
Let me close by adding one more observation about this passage. Verse 57 starts with this phase: “As they were going along the road…” What do you notice that is strange about this. The journey is already in motion. All three are already his followers—they never needed to audition to be followers in the first place, so Jesus challenges them with their own sense of what following means.
These and others are already in journey with Jesus. The choice is made, but the challenges remain. The word translated in our NRSV translation as “the road” comes from the Greek word Hodos. It can mean a physical way or road, but almost as often it means a course of conduct, or a way or manner of thinking (entrenched systems). As they were going along the way, as they were settling into a manner of thinking, as the systems solidified into a course of conduct… Jesus changes the direction. The hodos or the norms and familiar faces shift and the hodos ways of their lives change. Jesus offers a hodos challenging statement to each person who presents her or himself for discipleship. Going deeper in faith means understanding ourselves and accepting new pathways when presented with them for the sake of going deeper together and becoming better individuals.
I leave you now with a poem that inspired my sermon “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I come from a literary analysis background, so when I am in times of change and stress I lean deeper not into history and facts but words and meaning.
Those who study this poem indicate that while it has a melancholy overtone, in the end there is a joy that there is no wrong way or path…all lead to a Providential Hope in God’s Realm and the interconnectedness of all Creation.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh [deep breath and pause]
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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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