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October 31st, 2011

October 31, 2011

Peace United Church of Christ – Greensboro, NC

Humbled and honored

It’s rather humbling to stand in this pulpit where my friend Mel preached.  He served as pastor at Peace Church for more than thirty years.  I am grateful to Jim Luck for welcoming me here today and also for his pastoral care for Mel these last few months.  I know it meant a lot to my friend.

Shortly after Peace Church surprised him in 1993 by giving him the title “Pastor Emeritus,” Mel preached my installation sermon at Corinth Reformed United Church of Christ in Hickory.  He began his message by noting the honor Peace had bestowed on him, then added, “I am a wordsmith, and I looked up the Latin words behind the English word ‘emeritus’ – ‘e’ means ‘out,’ and ‘meritus’ means ‘deserving to be so.’”

I feel anything but “deserving” to preach Mel Palmer’s funeral.  I admired his life and ministry in so many ways.  But he asked that I do this, and I could not say no.  Pat and Lynn both assured me over the weekend, saying, Mel had chosen me and they knew I would do a good job.  To this I respond with another Mel-ism, “Your generosity exceeds your judgment.”

Preacher creature

I got a little excited on Friday when I realized we would be holding Mel Palmer’s funeral on Reformation Day.  On Saturday I realized Mel might like it even better that we’re holding his funeral on Halloween.  For many years here at Peace Church, the Youth Fellowship had a haunted house.  Mel was always there with his black clerical robe and a hood.  He called himself “the preacher creature,” beckoning visitors in with a long hooked finger.  As they turned their back he would let out a big monster laugh.

Mel was a preacher creature.  Following Mel’s example, I looked up the word “creature” in the online Merriam-Webster.  A “creature” is “something created.”  Although often used of “a lower animal, especially a farm animal,” the word can simply mean “human being.”  Every Halloween Mel simply dressed in costume to illustrate his true identity – a preacher who is also a human being.  Mel was down-to-earth.

We are here today from all walks of life to celebrate and remember Mel because he treated us as a fellow creature, person to person.  As my wife, Linda said, you always felt when you were with Mel he treated you as special.  He wanted you to know him not as a preacher, but as a creature, as a human being.

So many phrases in Paul’s preface to his letter to the Romans remind me of Mel Palmer.  The first paragraph I read (8-10) speaks of the warm bond Paul had in Christ with the Christians of Rome, most of whom he had not met.  “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you,” the apostle said.  “God…is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will he way may be opened for me to come to you.”

Here and in many other places in his writings, you get the idea that the Apostle Paul was writing not to converts or prospects or even disciples, but to friends.  He thanked God for them, he prayed for them, he wanted to be with them, person to person.  He was an apostle-creature.

Mel Palmer made us feel the same way.  Whether you knew him as husband, father, grandfather, pastor, colleague, or something else, you knew he enjoyed your company.   When you were with Mel, he didn’t talk about himself unless you asked.  He wanted to know about you – how you are, what you’re doing, how things are with your family.  He would say, “I always have something to learn from others.” 

Speaking of Lynn, David, and Carol, Mel told me, “I like my children.  I’d like ‘em even if they were your grandchildren.”  And, of course, he adored his granddaughter, Emma.  When I asked him a few years ago what two or three things he was proudest of in life, his first answer was his kids.  He was proud that they all finished college.  He spoke of each one individually – Lynn’s loving, caring, nurturing, “save the world” soul that makes her such a great nurse; Carol’s poet’s eye and passion for detailed story telling (wonder where she got that?), David’s comeback educational career and his quick wit.

They, in turn, remember their Dad the way you might imagine they would – with laughter and fun – Carol skipping with her Dad a King Neptune Restaurant in Wrightsville, Lynn fighting with her dad over popcorn for Saturday night at the movies, David’s standing date with his Dad for opening day of dove season, missed only three times that he can remember, one of them being this year. He baptized and married all three children, and baptized Emma as well.  As Mel talked about his family, you realized he didn’t relate to them as their preacher, but as a fellow creature.  His family members were his friends.

But his friends were also family.  Peace Church was Mel’s family, and the “preacher creature” story only illustrates the human side of his pastoral style.  He said in one sermon about marriage that it took a couple of years after he at Pat were married to learn set boundaries around his ministry and prioritize time with his wife.  But they figured out the balance, and Mel deeply appreciated her complementary role in life and ministry. 

As pastor to the Peace flock, Mel functioned as a gracious shepherd in ways I have only been able to admire, not emulate.  He really made the rest of us look bad.  He visited in their homes, trying to catch each person once a year on their birthday.  He was meticulous about sermon preparation, writing his first draft weeks in advance.  He administered the practical side of the congregation.  Stewardship mattered to him.  Staying ahead of the curve on technology mattered to him.  This was all in the service of being a pastor with a human side.

Mel’s preacher-creature spirit extended to the United Church of Christ.  In Elaine McDuff’s ordination sermon three decades ago, he said of the UCC during a time when many were pulling away, “It is my family; while I may not always agree with all the members of my family, they are still my family, and I intend to remain related to them.”

Mel invested himself in that extended family.  The wider church was a priority as well.  One of his fondest memories was moderating the 1987 General Synod of the United Church of Christ.  He said he overcame prejudice against southerners, and was pleased he got three standing ovations as a moderator during the difficult synod that decided to move the UCC’s headquarters from New York to Cleveland.  “Humor is disarming,” he told me.

As a Reformed pastor, connection to the Synod, district, association, and conference was not something you did if nothing more important interfered.  That time was blocked off first.  Mel served as the first President of the Southern Conference, and as its parliamentarian for most of its existence.  For Mel, gatherings of the conference, association, and district were about business, but they were about friendships. My first connection to a UCC church was under Dan Jones at First Congregational Christian Church in Reidsville from 1978-83.  Dan also prioritized the wider church, and brought me as a 22-year-old Christian Education Director to meetings of the district and conference, where I met Mel, Emmett, and many others – and in the process learned that the wider church is worth my investment.  I have always have something to learn.

Though I was thirty years his junior, Mel Palmer never treated me condescendingly.  I was a colleague. He risked his own reputation and connections to move toward me more than once.  I experienced friendship from someone with much better connections and a lot more wisdom than I could ever expect to achieve.

Paul started his letter to the Romans affirming his personal bond with them.  He knew they would pay more attention to what he said if he knew how much he cared about them.  Mel Palmer, the preacher creature, understood that principle well.

Psycho-pastor

In the second paragraph from our reading (11-13), the Apostle Paul continues the theme of his personal relationship with the Romans, telling them that he longs to see them.  He wants to bring them spiritual gifts, and to see fruit in their lives.

In that context, he reveals a personal frustration.  “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you, but have been prevented from doing so until now” (13).  Frustrated plans.  I can picture Paul creating his bucket list of things he wanted to do and places he wanted to go.  Rome was always near the top of the list, but some crisis or letter or jail stint would get in the way.  Problem.

Peace Church published several booklets of Mel’s sermons back in the late 70s and early 80s. I read through a couple of those over the weekend. He had already earned his Ed.D. and begun considering himself a psychologist as well as a pastor.

One of those sermon series was titled “Handling Life’s Problems,” and it was certainly the work of a pastoral psychologist.  Maybe we could call Mel “psycho-pastor.”  Had the Apostle Paul said to Mel Palmer, “I’m so frustrated, because try as I might I just can’t get to Rome,” Mel would have listened, cared, and perhaps offered some counsel for “handling life’s problems.”

In the introduction to that sermon set, Mel wrote, “Every follower of Christ discovers sooner or later that faith and commitment are not protectors from life’s problems.”  He goes on to say we are not helpless as we face problems – we have an ancient book to guide us.  “Scriptural advice works,” in his words. 

I won’t try to re-preach his sermons.  I couldn’t do that anyway.  I only want to point out that what Mel wanted to do in his preaching – and I think he was ahead of his time in this – was to connect the Scripture to every day, real life needs.  Some pastors stick only to the Bible, illustrating one passage of Scripture with another.  Others hardly mention a Scripture text, launching into a discourse of their own insights on current issues. 

Mel believed the sermon should connect the Bible with issues and settings we face every day.  Marriage.  Family life.  School.  The topics dealt with in this booklet are grief, conflict, failure, guilt, resentment, criticism, and depression.  Sounds like life.

Every sermon is full of stories, often, as you might expect, with a humorous twist.  Mel’s stories in these sermons were never random.  They were carefully crafted, refined with a writer’s eye and ear.  “Life’s problems” were personal, but Mel offered practical counsel.  On grief, for example, feel the loss, share the loss with a trusted friend, rely on God, and, most importantly, use the loss to help someone else.  I think he would offer those same words of counsel to those grieving over him today.

Always Mel would point back to the Scriptures as the source of our practical help when handling life’s problems.  The sermon on conflict is full of biblical texts, and ends with a recurring theme in many of his sermons – the need for forgiveness.  “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive,” Mel quoted from Colossians 3:13.  He told the story of a man who had tried to forgive a co-worker but couldn’t change his feelings.  Finally he realized that “forgiveness must be coupled with action.”  He started smiling at his co-worker, inquiring about his family, asking for advice.  Soon he learned that his grudge was gone.  Mel closed the sermon with, “Forgive each other as God in Christ is willing to forgive us.”

The psycho-pastor approach to everyday problems is to name them, talk through them, and ultimately take them to the Bible for God’s way of handling them.

Saint Mel

For Mel, though, the Bible was not an end in itself.  The Scripture points to Jesus Christ.  Mel’s unapologetically Christ-centered approach not only to ministry but to personal faith is what prompts me today to call him not only “preacher creature” and “psycho-pastor” but “Saint Mel.”

On this point I come not only to the final verses of Paul’s prologue to Romans (13-17), but to Reformation Day.  I wore my red stole today in honor of Reformation Day; Jim Luck wore his white, as is his custom for funerals, in the hope of the resurrection.

Romans 1:16-17 awakened Martin Luther to the abuses of the gospel in the sixteenth century, and ultimately moved him to post the 95 theses on the chapel door at Wittenberg on this day in 1517.    For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”

Mel was not ashamed of the gospel.  When he preached my installation sermon at Corinth in 1993, his text was John 3:1-17.  He said there have always been those outside the Christian church who questioned the divinity of Jesus, but “one of the things that is new is that more and more we have people within the Christian community who join in the challenge over who Jesus is.”  In his sermon, Mel used not only John 3:16 and John 14:6, where Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except by me.”

He told a parable of twin boys, yet unborn, who had a disagreement while still in the womb.  The wiser of the two said that when they left the womb, they would have to breathe air in order to live.  The unwise twin argued that they had known nothing of air or breathing while in the comfort and security of their mother’s body.  His mother would never insist on his doing something he had never heard of.  The following morning there was an announcement in the paper.  “Mrs. S. P. Numa gave birth to twin boys.  Only one lived.  The other never breathed, although his lungs appeared to be normal.”

Mel used this parable to point to the necessity of believing in Jesus.  He is our breath, our eternal life.  He closed the sermon by saying, “When the question is raised to me, ‘Is Jesus the only way to God?’ my answer is, ‘Yes, yes, absolutely, yes.’”

It’s been about three and a half years since Mel called me and asked me if I would preach his funeral service.  Linda and I came over to Greensboro a few weeks later to visit with Mel and Pat – me with my black folder and serious face, you know.  Mel started the conversation by wryly quoting William Saroyan, “Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

He wasn’t an exception.  Earlier today his body was placed in the ground on All Hallows Eve.  That means the first 24 hours of his burial awaiting the resurrection will span into All Saints Day.  Mel Palmer was a saint.

He wasn’t a saint because he was perfect.  The closer you were to Mel, the more you both appreciated him and saw some of his blind spots.  He didn’t always practice what he preached.  His continual quest for knowledge was part of his humility.  He knew he had not been perfected in wisdom or life. When he gave his reference for me to the Search Committee at Corinth, he said, “I don’t always agree with Bob Thompson,  Then again, I don’t always agree with myself.  I find myself arguing with myself all the time.  ‘You dummy, why’d you do that?’ ‘You shut up.’”  Mel was always in process.

Nodding this day to Luther and the Protestant Reformation, we Protestants have put our own little twist on All Saints Day.  The Catholics created the day as a catch-all for honoring saints who couldn’t squeeze into an increasingly crowded liturgical calendar.

We Protestants set aside this day, “For all the saints who from their labor rest.”  The Apostle Paul wrote his letter “to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (7).  The descriptive term “saint” applies to all who have been set apart by the Holy Spirit of God for eternal life in Jesus Christ through faith alone by grace alone.

He’ll always live in my heart as “Saint Mel” – not because he was a great friend, a wise parliamentarian, a caring pastor, or a fine preacher.  He was a saint because God claimed him at his baptism and redeemed him by the life and death of Jesus Christ, in whom he had placed his faith.

When I visited Mel last Wednesday for the last time, I didn’t know what I should say.  He couldn’t talk back much, although he knew me and smiled and certainly wanted to talk.  I was stymied, because Mel always knew what to say, or seemed like he did.  He always had some spontaneous story or one-liner to break the tension.  It’s one way I’ve always wanted to be like Mel, but I don’t think I have a spontaneous bone in my body.

All I knew was to remind him of the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism:  “What is your only comfort in life and in death?  That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”  Amen.

 

 

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