A Sermon on Retirement
Preached on December 6, 2015
Rev. Carol Rosine
I hope that you were able to carve out time to watch the video that Jake Jacobson sent out a few days ago to our e-list. It is a video that shows the building of this meetinghouse—all the way from the digging of the foundation through the completion of the religious education wing a few years later. For those of us who took part in this huge project this video was filled with memories. If you weren’t here back then, you may feel that you missed out on something big, which you did, but I want you to know that we did this for you. Yes, it’s true, we did this because we knew that you would be coming and we needed a home so that we could welcome you into our congregation.
Some of you know that my son, David, is studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry at Andover Newton Theological School, my alma mater. This fall for a course on UU history he had to put together the history of a UU congregation, so he chose this one. The final product, a power point presentation, goes all the way back to Oliver Dean, the founder of FUSF in 1856, and shows highlights leading up to the present day. Most of the photos he had access to were taken during my ministry so there is a big focus in his presentation on what has happened in the past 29 years. The really cool thing for me is that he finally understands what his mom has been doing for all these years. It is quite a story, isn’t it? Growing from a handful of homeless UUs to the thriving congregation that we are today. We have a lot to be proud of. But now the era that was my ministry will come to a close when I retire in June.
When the Reverend Joe Bartlett, one of our venerable elder ministers, was dying, he said this: “I am the luckiest of humans…. My occupation by nature is the best seat in the theater of life. It has afforded me limitless opportunity to be of use to others and has challenged my powers. The goal of life is the fullest development of our powers and the joy of using them—for ourselves and the empowerment of others.”
This sums up it up for me as well. How lucky I am to have been to be your minister for all these years. To be stretched and challenged to the very limits of my powers. When I was a young woman, working as a registered nurse and raising my family, I could never have imagined how my life would turn out. I was a product of the 50s and the thought that one day I’d be standing in a pulpit preaching never crossed my mind. That was not within the range of possibilities for women back then, especially a woman raised in rural Iowa in a family where even college was not a possibility.
And yet the call came, and somehow I found the courage to answer yes, which meant 8 years of study while my children were growing up. There were lots of sacrifices along the way, some of which my children felt profoundly I know, and yet I’ve never doubted that this has been the right thing for me to be doing with this part of my life. I had lunch a few years ago with an old friend who had retired several years before from a 35 year ministry in the same church. He was sharing some regrets over what had transpired in his old church after his retirement, but then he said, you still love it, don’t you? And I was able to say back then, “Oh yes. I do love it.”
But now it is time for me to step aside. You need a new minister who can provide the vision to lead you as you respond to our rapidly changing and troubled world. There are so many talented and wise ministers out there who would love to be here. In fact I know a few who have been keeping tabs on me, wondering when I will finally give up the ship and retire so that they will have a shot at coming here!
And as for me, I need time to figure out what this next stage of life will mean for me—a time when I don’t have to work weekends and evenings and most holidays, a time when I won’t be on 24/7 call as your minister. Some of you know that one of my favorite poems is this one by Rilke:
My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance—and changes us,
even if we do not reach it, into something else,
which hardly sensing, we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
I don’t know yet what it is that’s waving me on, but I’ve begun to catch glimpses of that sunny hill and I want to find out what awaits as my journey continues, while there is still time. And yet my retirement is a hard thing to contemplate. There has been so much joy in being your minister for so long. And yet, as the old hymn says, “joy and woe are woven fine.”
A colleague, Kathleen McTigue, writes this: “ministry is a work of such deep intimacy with other human beings, and the price of intimacy is loss. Life’s great, immutable promise is change; so the bargain is that as we love, we will also grieve.” I have found this to be so true. That as we’ve grown to know each other, there has been so much joy but at the same time there has been so much loss, so much grief. And it has seemed, as the years have gone by, that this grief I carry is accumulating and getting harder to carry.
There have been so many that I’ve loved in this congregation that I’ve had to watch die. In my first years here, as I was growing to love the elders, I remember thinking that I would have to leave before any of them died because I could never bear to officiate at their funerals. I had no idea how you could stand in front of a congregation and speak of timeless and holy things when you were in the midst of grief yourself. And yet, one by one, these elders did die and the deaths have continued: Joan Scialo-Rubin, Helen Hamant, Tom Lazinski, David Toye, Debby Kasindorf, Brenda Goudy, Emilio Roxin, Bill Graves, Jean Blake-White, little Jake, and the list goes on. With the death of each one of these beloved people I have grieved and wondered how I could stand before you and speak words of truth and love and comfort. But this is what I have been called to do as your minister.
Kathleen goes on to say “In our ministries we are caught up in so many different people’s lives — in their secrets and their shame, their hidden scars and public scandals, their victories, losses and longings. It is a privilege, and at times a weighty burden. We are asked for answers, for advice, for absolution. No matter what we say, or do not say, it will likely be remembered, and at times it will change how a life is lived or how a death is greeted.” What she says is so true because I have people remember things that I said decades ago, sometimes in appreciation and sometimes in anger when I’ve said the wrong thing or when I have not found the words that they wanted and needed. Those times when the screen comes down and I’m revealed as only human. Times that I regret.
And yet, look at what we accomplished by working together. When we were in the midst of building our meetinghouse, especially during those times when we kept asking you for more and more money, I often reminded those of you who were here that what we were building was not the same as building a house. That we were doing this not only for ourselves and our families, but we were doing this as well for those who were yet to come—the babies who had yet to be born, for the stranger finding his or her way to our door. I kept reminding you that this is a congregation that stretches back to 1856 and that if we are good stewards now, this congregation will stretch into the future for another 150 years. And aren’t we the lucky ones, I would say, to be the ones who are here, now, at such a pivotal time in history.
One of the stories I’ve told is about the famous rabbi living in Europe who was visited one day by a man who had traveled by ship from New York to see him. The man came to the great rabbi’s dwelling, a large house on a street in a European city, and was directed to the rabbi’s room which was in an attic. This man entered to find the master living in a room with a bed, a chair, and a few books. The man had expected much more. After greetings, he asked, “Rabbi, where are your things?” The rabbi asked in return, “Well, where are yours?” His visitor replied, “But, Rabbi, I’m only passing through.” And the master answered, “So am I, so am I.”
The truth of this tale is that we are all just passing through—whether it be this congregation or life itself. Someday I plan to have my ashes mixing with some of yours out in the memorial garden, but in the meantime, aren’t we lucky to be here right now– together?
I know that some of you will have questions about what will be happening between now and June when I leave. Lea and Doug sent out a letter to our e-list yesterday in which they outlined what you can expect. After you get your coffee, you can return here to the sanctuary to ask questions of Lea, Doug, and me.
But right now I can tell you that when I retire, I will be leaving for a while so that you can establish a relationship with your new minister. The reality is that it is really hard for the new minister, if the old one is hanging around watching, especially when the old minister has been here as long as I have been. This new minister is going to bring change and I can’t be here, looking aghast or rolling my eyes in disapproval for this would make your new minister’s role impossible and would be a bad thing for the whole congregation.
I will be remaining in Franklin, but I will not be coming to worship on Sunday mornings or taking part in any church activities. This does not mean, however, that if you see me at the end of a grocery aisle, you will have to turn and head in the opposite direction. I will still be delighted to see you and hear how things are with you. We just won’t talk about anything happening at the church. After the new minister is well-established you may see me here at worship once in a while.
During the early years of my ministry, when all of the elders, the faithful nine, were still alive, I would hear stories about the golden years of Dr. Marvin. He was the beloved minister who had served this church for over 30 years during the first half of the 1900s. It was another time when the church was growing and flourishing. Dr. Marvin had never married, so he devoted his whole life to the people he served and he was dearly loved. The elders would tell me how he had been the one to baptize them from this baptismal fount that now holds our candles of joy and sorrow. He had been the one to officiate at their weddings and had buried their parents and grandparents. Those were the golden years, the elders would tell me. When Dr. Marvin retired, his successor was Rev. Menadue who served this church for over 20 years. Another long ministry, and yet Mr. Menadue was always ministering in Dr. Marvin’s shadow, and the years that followed were a time of low energy and decline.
I don’t know what you will end up calling the 29 years of my ministry, but I know that some of you at least think of me as your beloved minister. My greatest hope is that my successor will not be ministering with my shadow hanging over him or her, that you will be open to the changes that are sure to come, and that any love you have for me, will be heaped upon this new minister.
We have over 6 months for this transition to happen. May we do our goodbyes well so that you will be ready to welcome your new minister with open arms and willing hearts.
© Carol Rosine, 2015