Proper 7b (Final Sermon)

June 25, 2018

Fantastic Voyage

Mark 4:35-41


35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


Well this is a different kind of Sunday. And a different kind of sermon to prepare. I remember having a conversation with my son back in November about my plan to retire. I remember telling him how excited I was about starting a new chapter in my life, but also of how much dread I had about making this announcement to you – my church. Because it has gone well for me here. He totally got what I was saying, and he helped me understand what I was feeling. He said it sounded like the way you feel when you initiate a break-up. And that’s it – sort of. I mean being the pastor of a church is a lot like being in a “relationship”. And it’s always painful to end a good relationship.


My friend and mentor, Lewis Chesser, described being appointed to a church as being like entering an arranged marriage. There is this expectation that a pastor and a church will love and respect each other. The metaphor breaks down at some point, but there’s a good amount of truth to it. And sometimes these arranged marriages work out better than other times. I feel like we were a good match. We’ve had a good relationship, and on a significant level it feels really bad to break it up, but it was really clear to me back in the fall that I was ready to pass the baton.


The United Methodist appointment system sort of requires you to make your intentions known at the first of the year, and so as most of you know, I’ve had this pending retirement status for many months. Paul Simon has a song about the 50 ways to leave your lover. You know the lyrics: Just hop on the bus, Gus, Make a new plan, Stan. No need to be coy, Roy. (and so on). So being the songwriter that Lucas is, he added a new verse for me, his was, Stick around for months, Dunce.


Breaking up isn’t a perfect analogy of what’s going on here, but there are some of the same emotions. We’ve been really involved in each others lives in a meaningful way on a regular basis, and that’s about to come to an end. And I’m the one who has initiated this conclusion. It’s on me and I own that. As heart-breaking scoundrels are often known to say, It’s not you, it’s me. And in this case it’s really true. I’m not leaving you to go chase after another church. I’m shedding the role. Hanging it up.


One of the great preachers of our age, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote a book called, Leaving Church. In that book she tells the story of her burnout as an Episcopal parish priest. It’s been a few years since I read the book, but I remember reading it soon after I left West Helena to go to work in campus ministry. I had been in parish ministry for about 10 years before I went to the Wesley Foundation, and I remember thinking that I shared some of the same sentiments that she so wonderfully articulates. She was an effective preacher and pastor, but for the sake of her soul she had to let it go, and she went on to have a great career in academia.


So this is actually the second time I’ve sort of hung-up the role. The first time I left local church ministry I went in to campus ministry. And that was a huge shift in roles. When you are the pastor of a church you are in a highly examined position. There are a lot of expectations that come with that role and a lot of focus on your family, but that all changed when I went to the Wesley Foundation. When I went to UALR as the Director of the Wesley Foundation the only people who really cared what I was doing were the people I harassed for unauthorized parking in my parking lot, and my kids weren’t very conscious of being preacher’s kids. My job was to create some demand for my services, and in time I did.


But after being in campus ministry for a little more than a decade I wanted to reenter parish ministry, and I’ve been the preacher again for the last nine years. And apparently that’s about how long you can count on me as a pastor. I guess I’m sort of like a pitcher that’s good for about 6 innings – good for a start, but don’t keep him in too long. I think I’m good for about a nine year stretch and then I’m done. I don’t want to make to much of the statistics, but sometimes statistics reveal some interesting patterns.


Last week I was talking about the statistics that the United Methodist Church collects on preachers and churches. I threw out a little teaser that I would share an interesting statistic about myself today – what I said above is notable, but it isn’t particularly interesting. I don’t know how rare this is, but in my 30-plus years of ministry I think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve only had one robe. And this may be more information than you want to have, but in those 30 years I’ve never taken it to the cleaners. I guess the material is a little bit like Teflon – nothing really seems to stick to it – at least not in an obvious manner. It would probably be interesting to see how many different strands of DNA you could find on this robe.


I’ve had one robe, and I’ve had one wife. And Sharla has had the most influence on me and my work than anybody or anything. It probably wasn’t the best career move for Sharla to keep her last name when we got married, but it may well have been the best thing she could have done to preserve her sense of self, and to keep our marriage intact. I told you when I arrived that I wasn’t normal, and neither is she. Sharla isn’t compelled to do the abnormal things that are appealing to me, but she is abnormally honest, and sensitive, and righteous. She’s not self-righteous – she’s actually righteous. And that has an impact on a preacher.


Sometimes people comment on my honesty as a preacher – that I’m pretty realistic about who I am and what I think. Well you can give a lot of credit (or blame) to Sharla for that. I’ve never wanted to explain to her why I would say one thing and think or do the other thing. I don’t think we’ve ever had to have that conversation, and I’m grateful for that. That’s not a debate I would have won.


Sharla has made me a better pastor and preacher in every way, and I’m grateful that she has stuck with me. She sacrificed her career in order for me to have one, and I’m grateful to her for that. She hasn’t been a typical preacher’s wife – whatever that means, but she has been an essential partner in this deal. I was happy with the way the picnic flyer was printed. It identified that today’s retirement picnic was to honor the retirement of Rev. Thompson Murray and his wife, Sharla Chalfant.


I could go on about the value of Sharla in my life and in my work, but I need to say something about the other highly significant person in my work as a pastor and a preacher, and that would be Jesus. I like to think he’s had something to do with all of this. The truth is that I didn’t go in to professional ministry because I aspired to be a preacher. My aspiration was simply to try to get to know Jesus. That’s basically what drew me to seminary, and then it turned in to a job.


And I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to have such a job. My job has been to try to get to know Jesus and to share my thoughts about who he is and what he is calling us to do. That sounds pretty simple, and on some level it is very simple. My job is to love Jesus, to love my neighbors, and to try to encourage more love for Jesus and one another.


Of course it’s more complicated than that. I don’t know why we always let these good things get more complicated than we do, but we do, and we all know about complications. Life is complicated, and preaching is complicated.


I love this morning’s scripture lesson. It occurs to me that this is a great illustration of what I regularly experience as a preacher. Just think about this for a moment. Jesus instructs his faithful followers to get in the boat and head over to the other side. And they do as they are told. They start going where Jesus told them to go and in the process they encounter a life-threatening storm. They are terrified and rightfully so. They are about to die while they are doing what Jesus told them to do – and Jesus is asleep.


As a preacher, I rarely find myself in an actual life-threatening situation, but there is rarely a week that goes by that I am not in touch with the fear of preaching failure. I experience some level of crisis every time I am in need of a sermon. Sure, I’ve got a pile of old sermons, and there are a couple of paragraphs I can lift from something I said three years ago, but people don’t make the effort to show up for worship in hope of getting fed some reheated irrelevant theological concepts. People who come to church deserve some fresh and nutritious spiritual food on Sunday mornings, and it’s not an easy task to prepare that dish each week – not for me.


And it’s not unusual for me to wonder where Jesus is when it’s time to go to work. Here I am sitting down at my computer to do some serious word-work for these good church people and where’s Jesus.


Of course, this is probably the perspective of a man who has more fear of somehow appearing foolish than of a man of deep faith. It’s easy for me to think that somehow it’s up to me to generate the right words to say that will properly illustrate the reality of the living Christ. I’m inclined to think it’s all on me to find the right story and to tell it in the right way in order to produce the right kind of inspiration or challenge or encouragement that you need to hear. The “crisis” I experience each week is largely an exercise in protecting my vanity. It’s never been easy for me to speak for 12 to 15 minutes without saying something regrettable, or foolish, or worst of all – boring.


And I should know better. I should know that it’s going to be ok. Even if I do speak in a way that’s foolish, regrettable, or boring the truth of God can come through. I’ve had a sense of crisis every time I’ve approached the task of preparing a sermon, and I’ve been rescued every time. I regularly have these moments when I think Jesus is off taking a nap while I’m going under, but I don’t think I’ve ever stepped in to the pulpit without feeling like I had been provided with a little something to offer. When God-loving people come together to worship and celebrate the living presence of Jesus Christ it’s going to be good. Jesus will be in the house. The storm will have passed and peace will prevail.


This is the pattern of existence I have come to know and to love – to some extent. I’ve never enjoyed the pressure that has to mount before I’ll sit down to do the work of preparing a sermon. Someone asked me one time if I worked well under pressure – I said I don’t know because the only way to get me to work is to generate some kind of pressure. Work is what I do when I’m not doing what I want to be doing. But I’m happy to have done this work of preaching.


The Chinese define the word, crisis, with two characters – one meaning dangerous and the other meaning opportunity. So you might say I’ve been presented with a dangerous opportunity each time I’ve approached the task of preparing a sermon, and that’s been a good challenge for me.  I love the feeling of discovering something new that I hadn’t noticed in a previous look at something Jesus said or did and how that matches up with something that happened just the other day. I love the feeling I get when worship is over and it went well and I have the sense that Jesus rescued me again.


But I’m ready to become familiar with a new pattern of existence. I’m ready to trade in my weekly roller-coaster ride of impending doom and miraculous salvation for some less dramatic terrain. I really am ready to be less of the guy in charge and to be more of the guy who just sort of shows up.


In my opinion, those of you who regularly show up are doing the work of God in this world. Showing up for worship, showing up for Sunday School, showing up at meetings – it’s a powerful contribution to simply show up. If you are so moved to teach Sunday School or chair a committee or get involved in the food pantry or any of the other essential and unrecognized jobs that keeps the community of faith alive and people fed you are building up some serious treasure in heaven.


I’m sorry to be stepping out of this good community. I’m not happy to be leaving you, but I’m happy about where I’m going, and what I’ll be doing. I’m very fortunate to be able to make this move back to Little Rock where Sharla and I will start a new chapter in our lives. I’ll miss seeing you on a regular basis, but I hope to stay in touch. I know some of you may think that I’m departing prematurely, but I assure you I’m not. And if you are ever inclined to think that things would be better if I was still around please trust me that it wouldn’t.


I’m so glad to have been here and to have been the pastor of this church, and I’m so glad to pass the pastoral baton. You deserve to have a preacher that wants to be in that role, and that is no longer me.


I still have work to do as a follower of Jesus Christ. I’m not bailing out of the boat. I expect this fantastic voyage with Jesus to continue, and I’m still trying to become more familiar with him, but I’m shedding the robe, and in the spirit of Mr. Rogers, I’m hanging it up for the last time. (I removed my robe and hung it on a nearby coatrack)


Thanks be to God.









One Response to “Proper 7b (Final Sermon)”

  1. Earl Says:

    Thompson, I could tell over the years that you put a lot of thought and work into your sermons. I never heard one where it seemed you winged it. I will wear you robe of faith the rest of my life. Happy trails to you and yours. Earl and Helen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: