Bernie stood in the narthex of Hope Chapel on Sunday morning, underneath the plaque engraved with the church’s mission statement: “Reaching out to everyone to share Christ’s love and the hope we have in Christ Jesus,” and greeted each of her flock with a smile and a handshake or hug.
At 5’10”, Bernie towered above many of her parishioners. She had an easy, infectious laugh that put everyone she met immediately at ease—her shiny, short dark hair swinging when she threw her head back to laugh. She greeted each person in an unhurried manner, stooping to talk to the children, often joking with them and with their parents. Her quick wit and sense of humor were two of her many endearing qualities.
Knowing that, her parishioners often greeted her on Sunday morning with a clever quip or joke, and this morning was no exception. Moving through the narthex toward Bernie, Stan Phillips took her aside and asked her if she knew what George Burns’ advice had been to pastors.
When she said no, he replied, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible.” He smiled and gave her a friendly wink. Bernie laughed, and said that she would do her best!
She turned to greet the O’Connell family, taking time to greet each member by name, including the children. She bent over to shake Sean’s hand and asked him if he had learned any new knock-knock jokes.
Sean was ready. He said, “Knock-knock.”
Bernie stooped down and replied, “Who’s there?”
“W-H-O” Sean replied, beaming.
Whether talking to a young child, a teenager, an adult or super senior, Bernie gave that person her full attention. She had the rare gift of self-forgetfulness. It was a discipline that she had worked on for years. And she had a genuine interest in other people.
When she came to Hope Chapel four years earlier, the church had gone through three pastors in as many years. The congregation was splintered into factions and was losing members after their pastor of 29 years retired. Bernie won them over, and in her four years at Hope Chapel, she had come to love its members and had made many close friends, including the O’Connell family.
Bernie had taken on the challenges at Hope with her eyes wide open. She was the first woman pastor at Hope Chapel, a church with a 70-year history in St. Michael’s Cove. The only condition she placed on the congregation before accepting the position was that she be allowed to preach solely on sacred Scripture. That was non-negotiable. She refused to take sides in political or church doctrinal wars or to use the pulpit for such purposes.
Her first priority was to put a stop to the infighting and sniping within the church leadership, the congregation, and among the staff. She accomplished this by suggesting that the Council create a Communication Team to keep open lines of communication in written forms and to encourage frequent in person dialoguing between leaders and the congregation. She taught them how to communicate ideas without attacking each other. And she taught them listening skills.
Bernie encouraged interactions between members before and after church services during coffee times and held meetings and small group discussions at the parsonage. She also helped organize an annual leader retreat to give the leaders opportunities to get to know and appreciate each other better despite their differences on various issues.
She brought in a church mediator who, over a period of months, taught the leaders and members how to resolve conflicts biblically according to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. She created teams of people who had not been active in the church and got them involved. And she set a good example to them by thanking and praising parishioners individually and as members of various teams in the church.
When a conflict arose, she took it directly to the person involved before advising anyone else. She had learned over the years that most problems can be resolved at this initial stage if not allowed to fester. She worked closely with each Council President and with the Deacons, mentoring them on how to lead their teams by following Jesus’ servant leader example.
Now, four years later, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of their collective labors were evident. As a result of the love shown and open communication between congregants, the inevitable differences were generally resolved quickly before they had a chance to worsen, and they were moving forward in many areas of ministry. They still weren’t perfect, but then that was the point of the cross. Christ had taken on their sins on the cross so that they could leave them there.
Bernie usually preached according to the Revised Standard Lectionary– Scripture texts read each week in churches across Christendom on a three-year cycle, and today was no exception.
Eschewing the grand pulpit, Bernie stood before the congregation, on their level with a simple music stand for her notes—wearing her white robe and the purple stole that a former parishioner made for her. The title of her sermon was “Nic at Night.”
“As is customary, kindly stand for the reading of the gospel.”
“We read this morning from the third chapter of the gospel of John, verses 1-17 in which John recounts a nighttime exchange between Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and Jesus.”
After reading the gospel lesson, she greeted the congregation in the words of St. Paul before launching into her sermon.
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
She looked out at the congregation.
“Why did Nic feel that he needed to come to Jesus at night?”
She paused it let the question sink in.
“Well, we know that most of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin were jealous of Jesus because he undermined their authority. But Nic was a seeker who believed that Jesus had the answers he so desperately sought.
He came to Jesus to learn under the cover of darkness, so as not to be discovered by his colleagues. He was puzzled when Jesus told him that in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must be born again. Jesus explained that entering God’s kingdom requires a do-over—a new start. He was explaining the concept of spiritual rebirth—and that the Holy Spirit is the instrument of spiritual rebirth: “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
. . .
“And so I ask you to step out in faith as Abraham did in our Old Testament lesson. Step out in faith as Nic did when he came to Jesus under the cover of darkness to learn that he must be born again. It’s not always easy, but God will open doors along the way for you when you step out in faith. Remember Nic’s nighttime courage to seek answers from Jesus when you are trying to summon the courage to follow the Jesus who loves you more than you will ever know.
God is asking you to step out in faith and embark on the journey that he has in store for you. And he promises to watch over you all your life and forever.
. . .
Bernie ended her homily with words of encouragement:
“God delivered this message to Jeremiah over 2500 years ago: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
Jeremiah was not “successful” during his lifetime by any worldly standard, but he has had a tremendous impact on believers through the centuries. You may not see the impact that you have on others throughout your life, but God sees. Stay the course.
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with you all. Amen”
“Let’s pray. Father, we thank and praise you for who you are and for being there for us at all times—whether we know it or not—whether we sense your presence or not. We thank and praise you for loving us so much that you sent your Son to save us from ourselves. Guide and comfort us as we journey through life’s dark tunnels. Give us the courage to step out in faith and to walk through the doors you open for us. Keep us ever mindful of others who are in need of our help and encouragement. In your name we pray, Amen.”