I mean that in a good way.
Last week at church may have been one of my best services, but today was one of those days that reminds me why I’m a *pastor* and not just a preacher/worship leader.
It is Heritage Sunday, and my sermon (unrecorded) focused on “coming together”– our denomination coming together 40 years ago as the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Episcopal Church (both themselves results of previous mergers) merged into a new denomination, The United Methodist Church; our global church coming together as we do once every four years for General Conference (which I showed some of, streaming live from Texas as people were gathering for worship); our youth coming together with the youths from three other conferences, which are planning to merge, to lead the way in fellowship, worship and relationship building. I said that unity is not uniformity, and that the process of being one is courageous, counter-cultural, and miraculous. I spoke about some of the divisions in our church, particularly with respect to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, and that our commitment to remaining one body in the face of those differences is staggering.
After church, I was approached by the two women from the family involved in last fall’s murder-suicide. They asked me if I was allowed to express personal beliefs in a sermon, or if I had to tread softly or walk a party line. I replied that I was allowed to say anything I wanted, short of outright telling people who to vote for (but I can tell them which issues I think should sway their votes), but that I remained a little more neutral because I wanted people to still be able to come to me in a moment of need and not feel that I’m unapproachable because I’ve been so disrespectful of their position. “That said, I hope I’m pretty clear about my support for homosexual people and their inclusion in the church.”
“Loud and clear,” my congregant said, “and that’s what I think too.”
We talked for a long time about the church’s position on human sexuality, and the harm that position does to people inside and outside the church. I told them about my dear friend Annie losing her preaching license, and it was a great conversation. The younger woman told me that she thought I’d get along really well with her son (who is my age, and who I’ve met, only once, under pretty sad circumstances). Then she said, “In fact, he asked me to tell you– I guess I just never got around to it. He was one of the pallbearers at… the funeral. He was so impressed by what you said, and he wanted me to pass that on to you, that even though he’s not a church person, he really respects you and was impressed by you.”
“In fact,” her mother in law chimed in, “I don’t know if we’ve ever properly said it, but, well, thank you. You gave so many people hope and comfort that day. It was a really tough job, and you did it so well. I can’t tell you what it meant to our family, and I’ve never really been feeling good enough about it to bring it up before, but thank you so much.”
Our conversation continued for a little while, and we even shared some laughs about the letters I received from the Jehovah’s Witness church in town following the press attention the funeral received and the quotes from my message, including that it was okay to be angry at God, who out of all of us, could take it. I said something along the lines of, “hey, it was what I believe and if it helped one person feel a little bit more at peace in a terrible moment, it was worth ten letters from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“It did more than that, pastor. *You* did more than that.” And that folks, is why I do what I do. It’s that final line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “What is Success?”: To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.