The Rev. John D. Painter served Metuchen’s Centenary United Methodist Church for the past 10 years. Sunday saw a teary congregation say goodbye to a beloved Pastor who is heading to Florida with wife Tina for their retirement. His decade long dedicated service to Centenary UMC was preceded by Pastoral administration for several Methodist churches in New Jersey as well as in nearby Drew University. The congregation at Centenary will no doubt miss ‘Pastor John’ and so will Metuchen. Below is the transcript of his final message Sunday.
A Sermon Delivered by The Rev. John D. Painter at Centenary United Methodist Church – Metuchen, New Jersey June 20, 2010 (The Concluding Sunday as Pastor)
Ten years ago, on July 2, 2000, we began this pilgrimage together with our first Worship service. You will no doubt remember my sermon that day ?…when I stated that those who have the task of teaching preachers how to preach declare that the two most difficult parts of any sermon are the beginning and the ending. I went on to say that this held true for preaching in settings of ministry, as well. It is hard to preach that first sermon before a congregation of strangers—as Jisun Kwak will discover with you in two weeks. However, I think it is infinitely more difficult to preach the final sermon in a parish. I no longer stand before strangers but before persons with whom I have shared so many experiences and feelings; a community with whom I have been in ministry; a family that has offered support and caring, and people whom I have come to love. It is hard to know where to begin to wrap it all up.
Apparently St. Paul had much the same difficulty with endings. As you heard this morning, toward the end of several of his letters to the young churches around the Mediterranean, Paul used the word “Finally” to begin a series of concluding admonitions and greetings. However, Paul’s “finallys” often came at some distance from the actual conclusion of his epistles. He tended to go on at some length, even after he had said, “Finally…” Indeed, in his last letter—the one he wrote from prison to his beloved Philippian friends—Paul has two “finallys.” It’s almost as if he did not quite know how to bring it to a close. I can identify with that a whole lot right now.
I know the first thing among the last things I want to say to you is simply, “Thank you!” Thank you for ten years of joy in ministry. If we have accomplished anything worthwhile over these years—and I believe we have—it has been in large part because of your honest and abundant striving to be the faithful community of Jesus Christ in this place. Your support and your love has been a vital key to the growth we have experienced in spirituality, in the vitality of our children, in greater opportunities for service, and in the significant diversity of our community.
Both individually as your pastor, and together as a couple, Tina and I have experienced you to be persons of warmth and caring. We have felt your support and known your love—especially at some difficult moments in our lives—and for that we thank you and thank God. Let the spirit of love and cooperation remain alive among you in the days ahead, for it will serve you and the Christian faith well.
The second thing I’d like to say to you has to do with the children. When I first came here ten years ago we had a few children who were present in the Worship services. But their numbers were small, and their general acceptance in the life of the congregation was limited. When they participated in Worship, it was mainly to “perform” every now and then. They were not always welcomed in this room—and they knew it. There were some adults in the congregation who even resented and grumbled about their presence to me, for after all they were noisy and disruptive before the Lord.
My how that has changed! The numbers and enthusiasm of our children have grown rather substantially. And now they are present with us for a portion of every service and all of some. They are still noisy, and occasionally disruptive before the Lord. But that’s okay, we’re discovering, because they are children, and that’s what children are at times. What they are discovering—in addition to their classroom lessons about God and Jesus and The Bible and faith and ethics for living—is acceptance, hospitality and love. Those lessons may be the most significant of all. They will carry with them for the rest of their lives their feelings and experiences about church as those have been shaped here. So cherish the children and celebrate the life they bring to us. See them not so much as the church of the future, but discover that they are the church of today, here and now, just as much as all of us adults. Pause often to remember the words of Jesus, “Let the little children come to me…for of such is the Kin-dom of God.”
The third thing I’d like to say to you is this: Never grow complacent and cease to look beyond yourselves to see the places in this community, state, nation and world which need the healing ministry of the church. As you strengthen your own life together, you can become an even greater force for the strengthening of the lives of others in this world. Mission is the central focus of the church. Indeed, there are those who would say that without mission there really can be no church. I believe they are right. The church does not exist for its own sake; the church exists to be the servant community of those who follow the way of the Servant Christ.
In the past ten years we have given a great deal of time, energy and resources to the repair and upgrading of our physical plant. These were necessary expenditures for the most part. And we know that there are many more places where that kind of attention and funding will be needed in the days ahead. At the same time, we have continued to strengthen our missional base. Last year—and for almost every year Centenary has existed—we met every apportionment for the mission of our church. I trust you will do so again this year, and next year…and for all the years to come. Millions of lives are being touched by those gifts which we share in connectional giving with other United Methodist-Christians. I encourage you to set that as a minimum goal for yourselves as your annual missional covenant.
But do not hesitate to expand upon that, as you have been doing, with your “Advance” and “Second-Mile” giving. Our weekly barrel offerings have been a significant part of that Second-Mile giving. There are individuals and families in our area who will have a meal to eat because you have provided food today for our elderly sisters and brothers in Perth Amboy, and funds for the Interfaith Clergy Association and the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund and Family Assistance Fund. There are individuals and single-parent families who are sheltered today because of your relationship with Amandla Crossing. Persons from many different communities come to this church on Thursday night and Saturday mornings to seek fellowship and inspiration for the resurrection of their lives out of the tomb of addiction. We have reached out to touch lives through local, national and world mission projects by gifts from our United Methodist Women. And who can measure the number of persons whose lives have been impacted by the ministry of our own Centenary Early Learning Center? There are wonderful stories to be told of the children who have found here a quality, caring environment, and much-valued direction for their personal and social development. I could go on, for there is much more that you do individually and corporately.
I encourage you to provide all the support you can for these and for other outreach projects. Share your financial support, certainly. But if you’re not now involved in some “hands on” ministry and mission, then share your time. Pick an area where you can volunteer your gifts and graces. The opportunities are many. The ways in which your particular skills and abilities can be used are only as limited as your imagination and your willingness.
The fourth thing I would say to you is do not be afraid to confront the really difficult issues of our time in the spirit of the Christian faith. I know that there are those who believe that religion and politics don’t mix. Frankly, I’ve never understood that point of view. There are times when it can be a volatile combination. You will not always agree with one another on the appropriate strategies or courses of action in every case. I am well aware that there have been times when some of you disagreed with what I had to say about some of our critical social concerns from this pulpit, or with an opinion that was expressed in classes, small sharing groups, or in personal conversation. That’s okay. We’re learning it’s okay to disagree. Just do it with acceptance and understanding—with the utmost respect for sincerely-held opposing points of view—and then move forward together to seek to discover those places where you can agree in Christ.
The Christian faith has a great deal to say about the quality of life in our society and in the world. I encourage you to “dig in” on the hard issues. But do it always with a spirit of love and respect for one another. Provide your new pastor with the same freedom of the pulpit that you have offered me. And provide her with the same quality of feedback you have offered me. In both cases, it will be a witness to your respect and concern for one another.
The fifth—and penultimate—thing I will say to you is simple, and yet as profound as it can be: Love your new pastor in every way you can. Jisun Kwak is a very special person who will bring you many marvelous gifts for ministry out of her learning and experience. A pastor is most effectively able to lead among people who provide their support and encouragement. That really is what has enabled you and me to have many good times together over these past ten years. It is what will make it possible for you to continue to have good times together in the years ahead. If you provide your pastor and her family with the caring hospitality and love you have offered us, then there is no limit to what you and they and God can go on to accomplish together.
Finally, pray for us, just as we will pray for you. I will miss you; we will miss you. But now we need most your prayers as we move on to a new setting for our lives. Your prayers will be important. And I hope our prayers for you will be equally consequential. Our prayers continually connect us in God; offer mutual support; remind us that there is indeed a common “tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” whether or not we are physically present with one another.
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. …[L]isten to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace: and the God of love and peace will be with you. …The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
—2 Corinthians 13:11 & 13, NRSV
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Eternal and living God, we give you thanks for the church: for a community in which we can know ourselves to be accepted; for a place in which we can experience your rich and wondrous love poured out for us through Jesus Christ. On this day I give you special thanks for the years which I have been offered to serve this congregation, for the ways in which you have strengthened our ministry together, and for the opportunities for growth which we have shared. Bless these your people as they enter into a new moment in their history. Grant that they may be of one mind in Christ and live in love and peace with one another. Empower the leadership of Jisun Kwak among this congregation, that she and your church gathered together at Centenary may go forward to offer an even more effective witness to the power of your presence in this world. And continue to bless us with your love as we move into a new community and new experiences, that all that will be done will be to your glory and to the realization of your Realm. May we all, by your grace, be led to say, “For all that is past, ‘Thanks!’ For all that is yet to be, ‘Yes!’” Amen.
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Texts: Ephesians 6:10–20; Philippians 4:8–9; 2 Corinthians 13:11–14
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak. —Ephesians 6:10–20 (NRSV)
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
—Philippians 4:8–9 (NRSV)
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. —2 Corinthians 13:11–14 (NRSV)