The Rev. Val Roberts-Toler’s Sermon of January 19th, 2020

Several of you have asked for the Rev. Val Roberts-Toler’s sermon of January 19th. We welcome Val to the pulpit. She and her husband The Rev. Printice Roberts-Toler are both retired United Methodist pastors, and have been attending St. Paul for the last few months. In this sermon, Val preaches about discipleship and her experience in coming to this congregation.

It is the Patriot’s fault. Every Sunday afternoon when they are playing, my husband the avid fan, is sure to be watching. I am not a fan of football. But we have a good deal. He watches and I go wandering. I go off to the beach or to a movie or to hear a speaker or to listen to live music.

That is how I ended up at Jalapeno’s, a Mexican restaurant in Gloucester that Sunday afternoon listening to Celtic music. And that is when Michael O’Leary and I got to talking.  It was Michael who suggested this church and this pastor. And that is how we ended up here. We came that next Sunday and we never left!

“What are you looking for?”(vs38) Asks Jesus, of those first two disciples who had first followed John and who then began to follow Him.

I believe that what the disciples were searching for, what we were looking for and what so many people all around us are searching for are the same.  Augustine captured this best when he prayed, “You have made us for yourself, Oh God, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee.”

Our search for a church was a search for the Beloved Community. Pastor Anne referred to that in your wonderful directory, as “a community of repentance, a community of remembrance, a community of hope, love, revelation, and justice.” We are not meant to journey after Jesus alone, we need each other.

Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth celebrates the faithfulness of that particular community. It reminds us that we are called into fellowship.  “God is faithful; by Him you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (vs9) Paul says that this is a community filled with grace. It is a community that is not lacking in spiritual gifts.

And so on this Sunday before your annual meeting. I want to offer my own epistle by celebrating this community, your spiritual gifts, and the grace which we are experiencing here. And in the end, I also want to issue a challenge.

I know that you treasure this church, but sometimes it is a good thing to hear the perspective of an outsider.  I want you to know how amazing this church is. And while I am brand new to this church, I do know a lot about churches having served seven of them. And so “to the church of God called St. Paul’s grace to you and peace…”

So often I can sense the connection Pastor Anne has with all of you.  To a person people have shared how much you love and appreciate your pastor. The fact that Pastor Anne has been here for so many years is really such a strength.

You also love one another. And that is a beautiful thing and it is pleasing to God! (not always true)

The liturgy and the music and the sacrament are all powerful for us. I often keep my bulletin so I can read over the prayers.  I find myself humming the hymns. (Wade in the Water) (Postlude PTTLTA)Each word preached or prayed, sung or spoken speaks to both of us.

You had the vision to grow this church through investing in family ministries, and you stepped out in faith and then God sent Robin along.  She is brilliant. Every church needs a Robin.

 You are a church that welcomes people to get involved and to share their gifts. Rejoice that Abbey’s ministry has been nurtured here. Every person whose life she will touch, and there will be many, are the fruit of your ministry.

Your concern about caring for the environment is especially important as, we live surrounded by the stunning ocean, which so needs our care. You are reaching out to the hungry and to the homeless after the manner of Jesus.

Your stewardship is fantastic. Having a fully pledged budget is rare and it says so much about how truly invested each of you are in this ministry. Too many churches are living off of endowment funds.

Just as Isaiah talks about Israel as a light for the nations. So I believe that this ministry is a light for the Northshore and beyond. You have much to celebrate as you look back at 2019 but as you look ahead to 2020 and beyond, I want to challenge all of us.

As the people of God we are called to be a people on the move. In a bad news world we simply cannot keep the Good News of the Gospel to ourselves.  And especially on this weekend when we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy we are reminded that we always need to be asking the question—who is missing? Who is missing from the table?

Neither John nor Andrew could keep the news of Jesus to themselves. They just couldn’t. I don’t think that Michael O’Leary considers himself an Andrew, who went to bring Peter to Jesus but that is who Michael was to me that afternoon. Michael spoke up—will we speak up?

With the Psalmist may we faithfully be able to say, “God has put a new song in our hearts… Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord…We have not hidden your saving help within our hearts, we have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; we have not concealed your steadfast love and faithfulness from the great congregation.”

So who is it in your circle, that you work with, live near, go to school with who is restless and filled with longing to meet the living God and longing to belong to a caring community? Who might be sitting next to YOU at Jalapeno’s?!

Having served UMC churches for decades, you might wonder why we drive right by one to come here.  When recent legislation has limited the full participation of the LGBQT community, we could no longer support our denomination. It was a deal breaker for us, as it is for so many, especially for our young people.

 I so appreciate your mission statement, from the church council, “we are a community that strives to follow the message of Jesus’ unconditional inclusion…we welcome all persons, all ages, all ages, genders, sexual orientations ,races and faiths..

 Yet because the LGBQT community has been wounded by the church at large, I believe we have to be very intentional about advertising our welcome. As a pastor friend once said, “We have to let them know that the electricity in the fence has been turned off!” That this is a safe place. How might we do this?

I am working with Young Life.  (A+R) Of the six churches we visited there very few young people. So YL goes to where the kids are. I believe that young people are literally dying to know Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life. I believe they need us, the beloved community. In my last church, about this size, there were 7 kids who were hospitalized for depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Through YL I have met several immigrants. One young man grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda. He and I have become friends. Recently I was helping find him a used car—his first car.

 It was eye opening to me to see how difficult it is to navigate the system of buying, insuring, and registering a car. This process was totally foreign to him. And again on this MLK weekend, I have to say, I was painfully aware of white privilege… I have to wonder if he would have been treated as well if I had not been present. Gloucester is filled with refugees who are far from home and who need the Lord, “who is our dwelling place for all generations” and who long for community

Will we dare to say to them, “Come and See.”

The temptation is to guard what we have to want to protect it. None of us likes change. And I confess that, already, I find myself thinking what if we grow too much, will we need two services. Will there be enough parking? Not to make you nervous, but…church growth experts tell us that once a church is 80% full—we have to start looking ahead…

 Let me close first by thanking Pastor Anne for trusting me with this pulpit, and then you for this ministry and for your faithful service to God that has created this place.

And finally with the words of our next hymn. “I come with joy to meet the Lord, the love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now our friends, and strangers now are friends…Together met, together bound by all that God has done we’ll go with joy to give the world, the love that makes us one.”

Amen

The Rev. Val Roberts-Toler