I preached the installation sermons recently for two colleagues, newly ensconced in nearby churches. It was a pleasant task for me, and a happy time for them. I remembered my own installations, the receptions that followed, and the challenge to get acquainted with a whole new set of parishioners. And me with my poor memory for names.
A fellow member of the cloth once observed how new preachers will spend hours honing their inaugural sermons in order to make a positive initial impression. However, what people really remember is not the brilliance of their first homilies but how soon (or not so soon) they get around to calling on the shut-ins.
My initiation in my last charge is still fresh in memory. My wife and I were wined and dined (well, dined anyway) and almost killed with kindness. In seminary nobody told me how many oceans of coffee I would have to swim through and how many mountains of cake I would have to scale in pursuance of my calling. Still, the dinners were nice. Meanwhile, I did my best to call on members of the flock as quickly as possible.
Someone said I should drop in on Mr. A at his store near the church. I complied a few days later. I found Mr. A in a deeply animated conversation with Mr. V, chair of The Brotherhood, a Men’s Society. Good. A two-for-one call!
Mr. V spoke first. “Dominee, we are having a difference of opinion.” (Oh no, I thought, not wanting to be caught in the middle.) “Mr. A says he wants to die with his boots on. I say he should pray for a deathbed so he can testify to his children one last time. What do you say?”
I was sorry I had come. How could I choose between them and keep both on the friendly side? I answered with a story about two characters in a comic strip named Mutt and Jeff.
Mutt: “I wish I knew where I was going to die.”
Mutt: “Because if I knew where I was going to die, I would never go there.”
“And now, Mr. A and Mr. V, I have to leave you because I have many calls to make before the day is done.”
I saw them in my rearview mirror, standing there with puzzled faces. I smiled to myself. I had squeezed out of a situation without taking sides.
Some few weeks later The Brotherhood held a welcoming dinner for my wife and me. Self-styled theologians, the brothers attended their twice-monthly meetings carrying heavy commentaries. Their discussions could sometimes be hot and heavy. At the dinner, Mr. V gave a welcoming speech. And then, to my consternation, said, “And now I am going to ask our new dominee a question to see how well he knows his Bible.” My heart sank. I just knew I would fail the test. I was going to be a public humiliation and me not even a month in my new church. Was Mr. V getting back at me for my Mutt and Jeff story?
“Dominee, here is the question: Jesus said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ In which gospel is it found—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?”
Whew! I knew the answer. It was a trick question. I had used it myself on occasion. I rose slowly from my chair. I would play with Mr. V.
I said, “Mr. V, I am astonished! You are an elder. You are chair of this Brotherhood. So how can it be that you don’t know that the quotation from Jesus is found neither in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but in the book of Acts? After the meeting I will be happy to instruct you. Please remember it is in Acts.”
Great laughter. Mr. V laughed the loudest. The honeymoon had been preserved. I wish both of my colleagues, whom I recently installed, long honeymoons too.