Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 10, 2018
"Tenth Anniversary Thoughts" by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday (June 3), we celebrated at church my tenth anniversary as pastor of our beloved congregation. I mentioned I’m now “tied” for second place (with five others!) in terms of the longest serving pastor in the 141 year history of Morgan Park American Baptist Church. In another year, I’ll be in a tie for the longest serving pastor (with Dr. Charles Carman at 11 years).
In my attempt to live-stream Sunday’s worship service, I made an error so it did not happen as planned. Therefore I thought it might be good to add a few thoughts from my sermon.
Gratitude is too small a word to adequately describe what I feel as I celebrate 10 years as pastor of our beloved congregation. After Beth and I married, I was without a full-time job for 15 months before coming to our church.
I was teaching part-time at Moraine Valley Community College but that salary barely paid Beth and my medical insurance. Beth had a job at a downtown bank but she lost that job six weeks into our marriage. We were definitely struggling. Being called to Morgan Park American Baptist Church was an amazing blessing and grace.
I pray that the years I’ve served our church have been good years. Certainly we’ve had our struggles. We’ve had our share of joys and sorrows. But I also pray that I’ve helped us come to a deeper appreciation of who we are in relation to the Almighty and what it means to be a fully-alive disciple of Jesus Christ.
The Gospels do not primarily teach us how to get to heaven. The Gospels primarily teach us how to live well, how to live with wisdom, how to live with love in the here and now.
For a few years now I’ve served our ABC-Metro region on the ordination commission. Almost always I’ll ask the (generally) young people who seek ordination as American Baptist clergy persons: why do you want to do this? Why would you want to do this?
As I wrote in the Advance a year ago in my Letter to Aspiring Ministers: “In a true sense, ministry is not a choice. I’ve come to believe that one does not choose ministry - ministry chooses you!”
In that Letter I also added this caveat - this caution - from the Episcopalian pastor Alan Jones: “On one level, clergy cannot possibly practice what they preach. Those who think they can fully practice what they preach are a menace to themselves and everyone else. Yet God works through ministers, people are touched, lives are changed for the better.” (slightly edited)
We are all ministers. We’re all called to the priesthood of all believers. But what is our calling as ministers, as disciples, as priests? Our common calling is to share the love of God for the life of the world and for all creatures living. To paraphrase the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen: We’re called to discern where our deepest desires align with God’s deepest desires.
In a true sense, we’re not called to save the world. We’re called to fully belong to the world. We’re called not to save the world but to serve the world.
I strongly believe that the Gospels of Jesus Christ - the teachings of Jesus Christ - reveal to us a profound and practical way to live fully in our wounded world. I pray I’ve not only preached those teachings but, more importantly, lived those teachings during our ten years together.
We’ve walked together, many of us, for 10 years now. I’ll never forget this family of faith - no matter where life and God might lead me in the future. Your names are etched into the fabric of my own heart.
Let me add some thoughts from the theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna (who unfortunately went home to God at the age of 44 because of cancer). LaCugna’s work on the Trinity had a deep impact on my own theology. She wrote: “The energy spent rationalizing the privileged place of a few is astonishing. Evil - to be effective - must be subtle. It must strike at the heart of who we are, must strike at the heart of who God is, and deeply mislead us about both.
“What we believe about God must match what is revealed of God in Scripture. God watches over the widow and the poor (and sparrows as well). God makes the rains fall on the just and the unjust alike. God welcomes the stranger and embraces the enemy.
“God conceives every creature out of love, from love, for love. God is deeply with us and for us, desiring nothing other than to become fully one with each of us, to (help us) eradicate sin and death, and to live with us for all eternity.
“Entering into the life of God is impossible unless we also enter into a life of love and communion with others. Entering into the life of God means entering in the deepest way possible into the life of Jesus Christ, entering in the deepest way possible into the life of the Spirit, entering in the deepest way possible into the life of others.”
The “rule” of the Gospels is clear: the only way one truly possesses oneself is by giving oneself away. Jesus gave his life for us out of his deepest love. When Beth was diagnosed with her virulent illness, I begged God to take me instead of her. I’m sure Annette Adams would have gladly given her life to save her grandson, Matthew. I’m sure Diane Brownlee would have gladly given her life to save her son, Matthew. But this is not how God works among us.
Yet I’ve unexpectedly come to that sacred place where I’d gladly “pour out” my life for you - the dear members of my faith family. Again, always, the cross. But this is what you - each of you - has taught me in my 10 years in this beloved community. I’d give my life for you! What a beautiful teaching to have been taught, what a deep lesson to have learned! Thank you all!