Not long ago, Mitchell reminded me of a story I’d forgotten from one of my first days here. I was walking around with he and Steve Kirkley, asking tons of questions as I took in the church. It was VBS week when I arrived here in 2017, and it was a week full of the hustle and bustle that comes with that time of year. After I had asked several questions, Steve looked at me and said, “listen, at this church we have a Mary and a Martha so you don’t have to worry about anything.” He was very right, as we can all attest.
That Tuesday evening of VBS week, our first day here, Dana and I walked down the sidewalk in front of the church as we headed back to her car. We were both excited, talking about how I’d been appointed to a great church. It was incredible to see the number of volunteers who came out to help with VBS, to see all the preparation that had happened in the sanctuary and classrooms with sets and props, and to see the way that the kitchen crew worked, where I first encountered Mitchell and Steve.
We were so excited, so glad to be here, because of what we witnessed in you. We quickly saw the spirit of volunteerism, the willingness to lend a hand to do something for this community, the responsiveness to the needs of Eastman and Dodge County, and the genuine love and care you show to everyone who walks in the doors of this church.
What we found that first week remained the same, steady, for the last five years. We give thanks to God for our time here, for you and this church, and leave with hearts full of gratitude.
Hear now our scripture for this morning, Psalm 100.
This is the same scripture I preached on my first Sunday here at Eastman. On June 18, 2017, I stepped behind the music stand at the Arise Service and gave my first sermon here. I was very nervous, I had gone over and over the sermon. In fact, what I preached that Sunday was my third draft of that sermon!
At the start of that sermon, I noted how I had told Bishop Bryan that I wanted a community-focused church where I could lead community-based ministries. And how I felt that, here at Eastman, he’d given me exactly what I asked for. It was true, but more true than I could have imagined at the time.
You may recall the effort and time we put into attempting to open as a storm shelter when Hurricane Irma was on its way. That led to us opening for evacuees from Hurricane Michael a year later. In both cases, I formed a good working relationship with Stanley Stevens, the former EMA Director for the county. Afterwards, he would frequently call to see if there was something the church could do when any kind of natural disaster hit, something we did often. We served our community because you responded to the call.
About a year later, at one of the parties at the parsonage Dana and I would throw, Nicole Barnett and Lacey Eason sat on a couch and told me how there was no part-time daycare option in Dodge County. Sure, you could send your kids to one of the two daycares in town part-time but you still had to pay the full-time rate. Four months later, we launched Children’s Morning Out. Sonya Bundick and Gail Knox have done an incredible job with that program. We remain the only part-time option in Dodge County, one of great reputation. We are serving our community because you responded to the call.
I even recall a phone call from Debbie Connell who told me that she had 10,800 eggs on the way and needed a way to distribute them! We put a plan in motion and, while it turned out to not be quite so many eggs, we got them out to people who needed them. We served the community because you responded to the call.
That kind of response is what I encountered over and over again during the pandemic. In its early months, I would regularly issue calls to support our community through donating to feed or love on healthcare workers and to provide additional shelf-stable food for those in need. We found ways to make sure that our ministry to our community wasn’t impacted by the challenges posed by the pandemic.
In these ways and many others, I encountered the service-ethic of this church. We are responsive to needs, we are ready to give and lend a hand, out of our passion for Eastman and Dodge County. One of the gifts of this church is responsive servant leadership.
But also in the pandemic, I found another gift of this church: an ability to innovate. We quickly adapted worship to an online environment. I took a crash course in video editing. Folks like Leigh and Katie Beth reminded me how, for the first several online services, they would have to time things perfectly or else we’d have to start the video recording over. This was before I learned how to edit the videos themselves! IFor the first several online services, I remember running a stopwatch for however long Lisa’s offertory was that Sunday because we would all have to stand around, completely silent, for that amount of time. And inevitably, Lily would bark or one of the kids would make some noise.
We learned, though, and adapted. Our worship services got much better. We found ways to keep traditions going. You may remember the virtual children’s processional on Palm Sunday in 2020, where Leigh went around and got videos of kids in their driveways or on their front porches waving palm branches. I spliced them together and included it in our worship. Lacey dug into our social media accounts, finding new and creative ways to post, such that our social media became a lifeline. We found ways to make things happen, we innovated, together, to make sure ministry continued.
Perhaps the best example of this is when we moved Vacation Bible School online. I think to date, our largest attendance for any VBS ever is the online version as we pulled in people on vacation and others who just wanted something positive for them and their children. We created an online community, we fostered positivity and hope, and we kept the ministry of the church going.
During the pandemic, we also found ways to maintain the egg hunt, to continue Sunday School, and several of you began calling around more frequently to check on folks, an extension of the pastoral care ministry of the church and a ministry that continues today.
Quite often, the innovative solutions we found came because I called someone who traditionally oversaw a program and said, “how could we make this happen?” And the person on the other end would respond and say, “I don’t know, but let’s talk about it.” Together, we’d find a way to do it.
That spirit of innovation, a can-do attitude, coupled with a gift for responsive servant-leadership and a culture of volunteerism, makes this church powerful in ministry to this community.
So with the words of Psalm 100, I worship the LORD with gladness and come into his presence with singing, giving thanks to him, because of you. You are innovative. You are responsive. You are servant-oriented. You are ready and willing to volunteer. And you love Jesus. Could a pastor ask for anything more?
I don’t think so, and yet, I received more. This Psalm is full of gratitude, and in addition to the ministry we have done together, I am full of gratitude for the impact you have had on me and my family. Within a couple months of moving here, Carter had a febrile seizure. I panicked, as any parent would. We called an ambulance, which was there very quickly. I don’t remember the paramedics exactly but they already knew who I was and were so kind as they carried Carter and Dana to the hospital. You as a church were so kind in the way you loved on us when we barely knew you.
We found that spirit to remain present throughout our time here. Five years of life will bring highs and lows, and we have known both here. But through those highs and lows, we have experienced your care and concern for us. We have known freezers full of food when tragedy struck, we have known your love through fellowship at times of celebration. I remember the party Dana threw when I graduated with my doctorate and how many of you came out to celebrate with me. I will also never forget, for it is seared in my mind, turning around after the bishop ordained me, standing in the chancel at St. Luke UMC, and seeing how many of you had made the trip to Columbus to attend that service. I have framed a picture of all of us that will be in all of my future offices.
My children have grown up here. Carter doesn’t remember living anywhere else, as he was not quite two years old when we moved here. Jackson was entering second grade and, while he does remember living elsewhere, this has been his favorite place to live and the place he has the fondest memories. Dana has loved living here and will miss teaching youth Sunday School, as she did week after week.
We have gone on new adventures here. Not long after I entered a land lease, which first required I learn what a land lease was, we drove out to the property on a dark and clear night to watch the space station pass overhead. On that land, I learned to hunt. The first day I showed up, I was wearing tennis shoes and zero camo. When Justin Barnett asked me if I had, as he put it, “taken care of my scent,” I looked at him funny and told him I had put on deodorant about twenty minutes earlier. Justin doubled over with laughter.
That led, about a year later, to a funny meme Dana made and passed around. I killed my first deer just a few days after the blessing of the animals. She melded together a photo of me with an animal from the blessing with the picture of me with my dead deer, saying “what a difference a few days can make.”
We have had a great time living here. We have many cherished memories, built lasting friendships, and lived life to the fullest. We’ve done so because of your love and your care for us.
And so I give thanks for the ways we have experienced God’s steadfast love and faithfulness here in Eastman. That’s where Psalm 100 ends, giving thanks for that steadfast love and faithfulness. We have known it in abundance here, because you have given out of your abundant love and knowledge of God’s faithfulness.
Here in Eastman, at this church, I have found a people who are innovative, responsive to community needs, servant-oriented, and ready to volunteer. And those people, you, are full of love and grounded in God’s faithfulness. That’s who I have discovered you to be, and my family and I give thanks to God that we had the chance to spend five years with you.
So what now? Where do we go from here?
In some ways, the answer to that question is simple. You stay here, I move to Macon. In the next month, Dana and I will get our new house settled, get a vacation in, and attend Annual Conference. Then, I’ll start at Mulberry.
But beyond that, I will hold you close in my heart. Proverbs says, “as iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” That has been true for me; I am sharpened, better, for having spent these last five years here. And I will cherish that forever. Where do I go from here? On to a new adventure in pastoral ministry as pastor of Mulberry Street UMC, but much better equipped for that role because of my time here.
Where do you go? That’s where verse 3 comes in from Psalm 100: Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” You know that. Maybe we don’t say it every day, but that knowledge that you are God’s people, the sheep of his pasture, lives down deep in your bones. It’s central to the identity of this church. It’s what drives you to be innovative servant leaders who love and care for people. And it means that, no matter what the future holds, you will continue to innovate and serve and love and make Jesus Christ known in the ways I have experienced. Because that’s who you are, that’s this church; it was here before I got here and will remain after I leave.
So where do you go? You’ll continue to go out into Eastman and Dodge County, lending a helping hand, responding to community needs. You’ll continue to go into each other’s homes, offering solace and comfort when there is heartache and tragedy and offering celebration when there is good news. You’ll continue to come to church, worshipping and finding the strength of faith that can only come through fellowship together.
The LORD, as verse five says, is good. God has been good to this church. And you are good to this community as a result. In these five years, we have found new ways to utilize those gifts, to expand upon them, to innovate based upon them, and I can’t wait to see what you do in the future.
I will miss you. I will miss being your pastor. It’s been an honor to serve in this role for these past five years. But as I go, I give thanks to God for you, for your witness, for your kindness, for the part of you that will live on within me and my family.
And so I can say that I know, all the better because of you, that “the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
Thanks for everything.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.