September 19, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Mark Simone

Sermon Text

Before I share the scripture this morning, I want to reveal to you a secret identity that I have that is totally unknown to you. My daughter, Eryn, thought that I should come out of the ministry and reveal to you that yes, I am indeed he who is know as……… The Sermonator. Here is my clever secret identity costume. At one point I was going to buy a cheap shirt and rip it off to reveal my superhero status but as I thought about it I realized how many things could go wrong. So…


Scripture:             Mark 9:30-37


30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.


33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”


Sermon – Retirement


After Rally Day, last Sunday, I returned to this precious space for a few moments of prayer and reflection. The prayers were choppy and tumbled over each other. The reflection time was dominated by other thoughts like “How did I get to this place in my life so fast?” and “What am I doing?”


    I sat and stood and let the ripples of the years flow over me. I remembered lots of scenes from my 31 years here. Of the 1612 possible Sundays in that span, I was likely present for about 1300 of them either in the service or in the classrooms for Confirmation or Sunday School. Confirmation classes ranged from 2 kids to 52 kids. GROUP – our senior high youth program – was a blessing from the beginning. With Confirmation co-teachers Bob Abley and Tony Kotnik, we had the incredible joy of helping hundreds of GROUP and Confirmation kids through the rough waters of adolescence.


Those same years saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 works camps. Some years I led two separate camps – one in our country and then another in South Africa or Puerto Rico. So many here stepped up to make these work camps successful and possible. This congregation always supported us prayerfully and financially. No teen was ever turned away from work camp or the Colorado Trip that Marty Culbertson leads, because of money. Added to the prayers and the dollars are some remarkable work camp leaders. Joining Bob and Tony, John and Mary Bourisseau, Mary known as Mother Mary, Bill Bowers, Lindsay Laufik Leibin, Jim Whitelaw, Craig Ramsey, Beth Rutkowski, my son, Daniel, and an assortment of parents made these work camps not only successful, but also, shall we say, colorful. I have been asked many times by Federated members and youth ministry associates in the wider UCC how I kept this power team together for over 25 years. The secret? My secret? I told the advisors that their salvation was contingent on being a GROUP, Confirmation or work camp advisor just for one more year. Just one more! You can do it!


There were bands and band practices for Youth Sunday services that met in this space. Play practices and Confirmation rehearsals and service. Christmas Eves and Easter mornings. I conducted 342 weddings while at Federated and officiated 263 funerals. Ministry here was always an honor. Because I believe I was called to Youth and Children’s Ministries, I found in Federated that I struck a gold mine of ministry possibilities. This church has been very good to me.


In these three decades, over a dozen teens “came out” to me first as they struggled with their identity. I accompanied or supported 6 or 7 girls as they asked me how they might tell their parents they were pregnant. I talked lots of kids off of the proverbial ledge as they were looking for reasons not to jump and end their lives. Scores of kids came to me for help in counseling, and many dozens of parents did the same as they sought to bring peace to families in discord. I helped families negotiate inevitable divorces in ways that retained faith and avoided hateful accusations.

Centered in all of this was a God that loves all and accepts all. Our God and Father of our Lord Jesus, who is also our God and Mother to us all, gets all of the praise and glory for any good outcome. For bad outcomes I typically blamed the advisors. God has been incredibly faithful and present in all that happened over these last 31 years. And it worked at Federated because, as a church, this body of followers of Jesus recognized God’s place as the center in all that we do and you lived that reality to the best of all of our abilities – even when we disagreed.

I feel so fortunate that today’s lectionary gospel involves children. You’ll remember as we just read, Jesus settling the dispute of which disciple is the greatest. I read this verse and I am struck that after Jesus asked the disciples what they had been discussing, that upon hearing their answer the Bible says he simply sat down. What the Bible doesn’t say, which I can easily picture in my mind, is Jesus sitting, putting his hands on his head and his elbows on his knees and shaking his head in frustration. He had to be disappointed in them. They had witnessed so much, and been part of so much positive ministry to others, and now this. “We were arguing about who is the greatest among us.


Rather than explode in exasperation, Jesus does yet another wonderful Jesus thing. Scripture says that, “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”


Jesus is anxious to get the disciples off the rating scale based upon their impressive personal achievements. He embraces one of the least in their culture, a child, and makes this part of the Gospel rest upon how we treat our children. 


    In the Greek, the word used here for welcome is expandable to mean, “to receive favorably, give ear to, embrace, make one's own, approve, not to reject”. It is a word of high activity and intentional reception. The word appears 59 times in the New Testament which gives us some idea of how important the overall ministry of welcoming, receiving, embracing, not rejecting really is to the early church leaders. This was not an opportunity for Jesus to wax whimsical and use some child as an object lesson. He is stating clearly that it begins with how we treat children. From there is it scaled to evaluate how we treat adults and others who may not be like us. 
We, as this Federated Church of the United Church of Christ, are not perfect or flawless in our treatment of the youngest in our family. We have often cut funding for our children and youth ministries first as we worked to make budget. Never a good idea. And we should always consider this.
However, and this is a big however to me or I would not have stayed here as long as I did. However, we have done many, many things well and right. This church, way before my time, always sought to embrace children and youth. This church has financed non-budgeted activities like work camp and the Colorado trip by enthusiastically supporting our fundraisers and giving donations. You have been wonderful and this “however” moment is not to make you feel better when budgets have been trimmed, but to say that there is far more evidence that Federated loves kids, than the observation I made about funding. This is to say, whatever I did here, I always felt the love and support of this church family.


    Probably among the questions most asked since I decided to retire has been, “What will we do without you?” A second comment has been, “I feel like my kids are going to be deprived without you.” These are very gracious and flattering comments. Thank you. And I am sure some may have thought it better if these questions were asked years ago!
My sincere belief is that Federated will do just what it did when you all called me. You will do the right things and make the right decisions that will continue on where I am leaving off. I have total confidence in Hamilton, Melissa, our Church Council, Marty and all of the leadership that whatever form my replacement will take will be explored prayerfully and considered well. In fact, our leadership has already been praying about these changes for months. We are blessed with leaders who are committed to the very best choice that God brings our way. I have no knowledge of the actual plan, but I have worked with our volunteer leadership for many years, and I know that God raises up exceptional women and men from among this congregation who put God first in their discussions and decisions. God will oversee what comes next. But please, don’t look for a replacement for me. Let God do a new thing here as you join our leadership in fervent prayer. Look for God’s presence and hand as this wonderful new chapter unfurls.
(Phone call)

And as God is engaged to bring new leadership (hit phone call button), I want to assure you that – (phone interruption)

    Oh man. Sorry. I think I better take this.
    Listen – shake head. Shrug to congregation (sorry)
    No, I’m sorry. I am retiring now, and I cannot do your wedding. Please call the church office. Look, I’m a bit busy here. Can I call you later?

    Anyway, God speaks to us in many different ways (Hit call button) and we would do well to…

    Ahhh. This is painful, but I need to take this. They must think that church starts at 11 or something.

    Hello – unhuh, unhuh, No. I’m retiring now. I am not going to be able to help you with your grandma and her funeral when she passes. Yes. Unhuh. Sorry, I just can’t. Please call the church office. Blessings.

    Where was I. Yes…. (hit call button). Hello? Ahhh. No, I am not able (look at congregation and put phone down...) to help with the baptism of your wonderful child. No, I can’t counsel you at this time. No, I will not be able to pray at your annual banquet or lead that Bible Study or whatever it is that you would like for me to do. No, No, No. I love you bunches and lots and lots, but the respectful and needful answer is No.  No!


    It is time for me to take some “me” time. I have always been open about my health challenges and those needs form a major part of my decision to retire. I am just going to chill and do some of the things that have taken back burners. Eventually, I may explore some other vocational avenues, but I have nothing on the table now. My table is filled with some house projects, lots of guitar playing, maybe some work on a couple of documentaries and some photography. I also have lots of plans to do more things with my wonderful and precious wife, who also retired this summer. Kathy has been my biggest, and sometimes painfully, my most honest supporter. I never would have accomplished these 42 years of ministry, 31 of those years here, without her wisdom, her ideas, her prayers and her support. So along with my “me” time, I look forward to some “we” time as Kathy and I explore new directions.


    And my dear children, Dan, Lindsey, Eryn and Nichols, have shared me with so many other kids for so many years. I thank them for participating in my ministry with their own presence. They came to all the meetings, went on all the trips and had to put up with remarks like, “Your dad is so cool!” I laughed real hard when Lindsey responded at one of these exclamations on a work camp, “Yeah, he’s not that cool.” Again, my family offers me yet another reality check. My grandkids have participated in Federated in varying levels as well. I am immeasurably blessed by my family, and I honor them on this day when I am being so graciously honored.


The Staff at Federated has always been exceptional, and I have truly benefitted from the gifts my colleagues have brought to my life and ministry. I was trusted and challenged by two remarkable men of God in Dave Norling and Hamilton. I like to tease Hamilton and call him Boss, but there is nothing bossy about his approach to leadership. He is a generous collaborator, a careful listener, and I will miss, what he once referred to, as our dance together. Tip of the Hat, my dear brother.


It was a joy to share ministry with the associates who were here over these 30 years – Dan, Susi, Judy, Dave Broad, Dan Kerschner is each a blessing to work with.


The staff has been so fun. I will not even attempt to name them all from over the 30 years, but God had blessed this church with amazing and talented people who lead with their hearts and their spirits, as they let their creative minds bring the business and ministries of this church into daily realities. I would be remiss, however, if I did not make special mention of the support I have received from Larry Trace who has always taken a stand for the youth. I have loved my youth ministry partnerships with Marty and Kiersti, Kristin and Carol, among many others, who cared so dearly for our children. Melinda Smith in our church office go way back in our work relationship. She, along with Trisha, saved my butt many times when I messed up schedules, times, and dates. Dear Pat Nichols and Marge Weygandt were the office staff who helped launch my ministry when I first arrived by gentling telling me, when necessary, “You’ve got to be kidding me. That will never fly at Fed!!” All of these colleagues, those mentioned and the many others, made my ministry rich and rewarding. Thank you.


Our choirs, bands and instrumentalists have blessed me deeply with church music that is so carefully crafted and presented, that you can just feel the waves of the Holy Spirit from their music. I have especially been close to Marcia and Bill Foley, Joshua and Randy. 

I also want to thank Melissa Owen, our Director of People and Operations, for her great help in this last year. So fun to work with and so insightful in guiding me into retirement. She was my phone call collaborator a few minutes ago. 

And what of all of you? Those of you whom I met 30 years ago and the many, many that have come and gone since. You are truly a remarkable group of believers, and I am at a loss as to share how much you have meant to me and my family. It is overwhelming to be loved so completely and with such class. One of my favorite things about Federated Folk is that the oldest in our fellowship have often commented and intentionally supported our children and youth ministries. The Elder Life to Prime-Time crew, led by Janet Peters and most recently Dolly,  have frequently talked to me in Fellowship Hall after services to question and comment on our children and youth ministries. That intergenerational support has always blessed me. 


And so, we come to the last paragraph of my last sermon as a pastor at Federated Church. Thank you for these groovy, rad, great years. You will travel with me deep in my heart for the rest of my life, and I will brag about you in all my days to come and in those days after this life when I thank Jesus for bringing you into my life. I love you, and as Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts (I wonder Why, Runaround Sue) once said, “Keep your eye upon Jesus, Keep your eyes upon Jesus.” 

So be it and as Captain Picard of Star Trek would say, “make it so.”