Could there possibly be a better or more appropriate day than St. Mark, Evangelist, on which to gather and give God thanks for the work and witness of Leonard Homer Bolick in the North Carolina Synod?
Today we have heard from the prophet Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
And today we have heard from our epistle:
And the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
And again we’ve heard from Isaiah as quoted by Mark:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’
No, today is the day.
Today, Dad, we celebrate you and your gifts, and your willingness to share all God has entrusted to you so freely for the sake of the Gospel.
We celebrate you too, Rita, for your presence by his side, for your part in his calling, and for your vital role as wife, partner, and friend.
And so Mom and Dad: Sarah Rita, Sarah Elizabeth, Lucia, and I join with the North Carolina Synod and her staff, your faithful colleagues and many friends, the ELCA, and the whole church, in saying “Thank you.”
Thank you for your faithful service throughout forty-two years of ordained ministry, twenty-nine years in the North Carolina Synod Office, and eighteen years as bishop.
We pray the Holy Spirit who has guided you in the pilgrimage thus far, would continue to guide you as you make the transition to a life with far fewer meetings, much less stress and more fly-fishing and grand-parenting.
Your most important vocation will continue. With all of us, you will continue to be called to witness to the goodness of God in Jesus Christ who has shown his kindness to us in friendship and steadfast love. This call will continue, but your call to serve as Bishop of the North Carolina Synod will soon come to an end.
Together, we all rely on the power of God to be persistent in proclaiming the Gospel, whether the times are favorable or unfavorable, no matter where we are in our journey through life, but for you, this particular race is coming to an end, and we thank God for the ways in which you have continually and faithfully pointed us to Christ.
As we celebrate St. Mark, Evangelist, I can’t help but think of the community in which you were baptized into Christ, and through which your faith was nurtured.
St. Mark’s Church near Blowing Rock came into existence in 1926, on land given by your Great-grandfather, built with timber given by your Grandfather, and when a parking lot was needed your Dad, Homer, responded to the call.
It was at St. Mark’s that your Mother and Dad grew up together as children, sometimes singing duets together during their high school years, and marrying during the Second World War while he was home on furlough. They were two friends who shared their faith and loved one another so much.
Once, when she was in her later years, we asked Naomi when she fell in love with Homer. She thought a minute and said, “You know, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Homer.”
Those two served faithfully side-by-side at St. Mark’s for years and years. She was organist for seventy-three years, starting when she was twelve, because the church needed an organist and she was the most qualified person (because she knew how to play one hymn). Homer was treasurer of the Sunday school for fifty-nine years and sang in the choir right beside her.
Leonard’s Mother was a special woman, whom we called Grandmother. She lived to ninety-five years of age and, especially in her later years, she loved to relive and recollect old times. One of her favorite joys was to sit with friends and family in her living room and tell stories, especially about Leonard. I can still see her in her homemade dress, sitting in a great big chair, telling stories and laughing.
Imagine, if you can, her telling a story that went like this. She’d say:
“Now we went to church nearly every Sunday. Homer was treasurer of the Sunday school and I was playing the organ, so you see, we had to be there, and Leonard went along with us every Sunday, too.
“When he was about seven or eight years old, one morning he woke up sick, so he came and told us he wasn’t feeling well. Well, Leonard had to stay home. He was just old enough to stay by himself. And Homer and I went on out to the church.
“Along about Wednesday he got to feeling better and came to me and said: Mother, (as serious as could be) I’ve got to go out to the church, can you take me?
“I said, Why, Leonard, there’s nothing’s going on out at the church, why do you need to go out there?
“Leonard says: I know Mother, but I missed on Sunday and I need to go out to the church and sing praises to God.”
As the Psalmist says: My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make melody. For your steadfast love is greater than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds; and your glory extends over all the earth.
Today, Dad, we have to tell you that in your pastoral ministry at Calvary, Concord; St. James, Fayetteville; and serving the North Carolina Synod you have pointed us to Christ. But to tell the truth, the Lord has blessed you with a lot of help.
Firstly, Leonard has received help from Rita. Rita Abee grew up with her family at Holy Trinity in Hickory. And it just so happened that, during seminary, Leonard came along to serve as vicar at Holy Trinity.
A little bit of insight from those days comes from my Bishop, Jim Mauney, who remembers his first month as a student at Lenoir-Rhyne, in Hickory, waiting for the bus that would take him to Holy Trinity.
He says, “Up drove a large school bus, the door opened and there sat Vicar Bolick – all 6 feet 18 inches of him – with a smile as wide as North Carolina, and a welcome as warm as any freshman could hope for.”
Maybe that’s what Rita saw in Leonard, too – his kindness and warmth.
Certainly that’s part of what Ethel, Rita’s mother, saw in Leonard when she came home one Sunday morning, before Leonard and Rita had ever even met, and said to her husband Russ, “I was sitting there looking at Leonard this morning and listening to him preach and I thought: I hope Rita marries somebody just like Leonard.”
And she did marry somebody just… like… Leonard.
Yes, over the years you have received a lot of help from friends and colleagues, the Synod staff, the Synod council, pastors and rostered leaders, council presidents, and so many, many gifted women and men.
During your time of service to the Synod, the Synod imagined the Book of Faith program, cut a historic covenant with the AME Zion Church, and in the Forward Together initiative reimagined what God is calling us to do and to be in our communities for the sake of the Gospel.
Yes, you have been blessed.
But for all your partners in ministry, and for all the many people who love you, if there’s one thing you do learn in life, you know we can’t please everyone.
One church professional had gotten to know Leonard in seminary and in 1970, when he heard that Leonard had been assigned to serve as vicar at Holy Trinity – a large, healthy, vibrant congregation – he remarked, “Why, Leonard Bolick, at Holy Trinity? He’s nothing but a raw mountain boy.”
Maybe he thought Leonard was a little rough around the edges, from too-rural a background, still a little green, or still had too much of a Blowing Rock accent.
But that perspective was selling the Holy Spirit short.
Certainly, John the Baptist was rough around the edges, with his camel hair clothes, strange eating habits, and choice to set up shop out in the wilderness.
John was a raw mountain boy by any account with his tent pitched down by the River Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But we hear that both folks from the country and people from the city are coming out to confess their sins.
And in the midst of all these people John cries out: “Not me but the one coming after me. He is your health. He is your salvation. The good news is that he is coming to bring the Kingdom of God in which we are made children of our Heavenly Father and invited to take refuge in the shadow of his wings.”
We remember John at all because he announced Jesus’ coming. It’s the voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way,” that points beyond itself to the One over whom we hear the Voice say, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased,” that points us to the voice that says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”
The Beloved, the Son of God, the crucified and risen one, is the voice always calling us into friendship with God and telling us the time has come. This is the voice we are listening for. And when we hear it, we realize that before we were seeking him, he was seeking us.
To tell the truth, even if we are rough around the edges, we too are beloved by God. We too can still be useful to the Kingdom. And we even find ourselves in good company: with John the Baptizer, the Apostle Paul, the prophets, and Our Lord himself, whose closest friends were labors and tax collectors, whose work was done among the unclean and hungry, who came for sinners and the sick.
Let us not underestimate the Holy Spirit!
God’s Holy Spirit chooses to work through us for the sake for the world.
The same Spirit that descended on the Lord, drove him out into the wilderness, and enlivened his ministry has been poured out on us in our baptism – and this same Spirit continues to empower us, ignite our gifts, and make us useful in the work to which we’ve been called.
So today, on St. Mark, Evangelist, as we remember before God Leonard’s forty-two years of ordained ministry, twenty-nine years in service to the North Carolina Synod Office, and eighteen years as bishop we celebrate the Holy Spirit who called him, who has equipped him along the way, and who has surrounded him with partners in ministry, so that the name of Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, might be proclaimed.
Today we celebrate and give thanks for the work and witness we all share – as a church, as a synod, and as congregations – and we join our voices to sing praises to God.
We come to the church to sing praises to God, and we are sent out into the world to sing praises to God.
We sing: “Our heart is steadfast, O God, our heart is steadfast; we will sing and make melody. For your steadfast love is greater than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds; and your glory extends over all the earth.
O God, You are King of Creation, You are Lord of the Nations, You are our Beautiful Savior.”