For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Isaiah 55:10-12
This Bible text set the theme for Rev. Renfrew’s ordination service at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, Severna Park, Maryland, on March 12, 1983, following his graduation from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Since then, he has served Christ Presbyterian Church, Rochester (1983-1990), Grace Presbyterian Church, Rochester (1983-1997), Stone Church Presbyterian Church, Bergen (1990-2007), and the First Presbyterian Church of Byron (2000-2022). He also served John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Henrietta as a Christian Education Coordinator (1997-2000).
Message “As It Began …” Rev. James Renfrew
“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
It seems impossibly long ago, 39 years. that I heard these words of Isaiah on the day of my ordination at my home church in Severna Park, Maryland. March 12, 1983. I had received my Master of Divinity Degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and had been appointed by Genesee Valley Presbytery to serve two small congregations in Rochester. So the final step was ordination. My parents and sisters were there at our church, and many friends. Nancy Saarlas, our high school youth group leader, was the preacher.
Just about everything I imagined about my ministry turned out to be very different. I thought I would end up serving on the staff of Baltimore Presbytery or even in the national church headquarters in Louisville developing ministries of peace and justice, but I’ve never served anywhere but Genesee Valley Presbytery as a pastor in small congregations. All my seminary training in New York City prepared me for urban ministry, yet most of my time has been spent in rural locations like Byron. And I can tell you for certain that I never expected to be serving two churches at the same time, but I did that for 25 years in Rochester, Bergen and Byron. I never imagined marrying Robin, who I had last seen in 1976 at college, but here she is in the front row! I also never imagined having a son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, yet here they are. And they are a wonder!
While I usually think of God in lofty terms as a defender of justice, proponent of peace, and source of abundant love, forgiveness, and healing, as I look back, I begin to see that God also has a great sense of humor, such that I am now at a place nothing like I ever imagined. Almost as if God planned it that exact way! With new surprises at every turn. And God is still not done!
Nothing has gone as I planned, but the word entrusted to me in ordination has not returned to God empty. I know this to be true, for you the people of this church and other churches have shown me the overflowing, abundant miraculousness of God’s love many, many times over. Not just me, not just you, but all of us together, with the inspiration of the Spirit, we have seen it, we have felt it, we have known it.
In dramatic moments, in challenging moments, in unexpected moments, with unlikely people, we have experienced it all: incarnation – something amazing born out of nothing, we have experienced epiphany – light out of darkness, we have experienced resurrection – new life bursting from the grave, we have experienced Pentecost – that the story is never done and that a powerful Spirit keeps moving ahead.
Weddings, baptism, communion, funerals, worship, mission and everyday life – in every experience we have shared, the light and hope of Christ continues to amaze and surprise us.
Yesterday’s service for Carol was all about that, witnessing in so many ways to the many miracles of her life. After Carol’s service I visited Bill in hospice, and though we are counting his days left on earth, he was filled with such friendship and love for the people of this church.
I could recount many other stories of the word returning to God not empty but overflowing, stories about Ted and Neville, teen boys lost in the desert of New York City but found at Trinity Presbyterian Church on west 57th Street, of Gretta and Frank in Rochester with the fervor of faith going strong into their eighties, Gretta once testifying, “If we aren’t willing to risk everything we have as a church for this neighborhood, we have no business being here”, of the Just Kids youth group at Grace Church in Rochester that kept many of them those kids alive in spite of incredible odds against them and are friends of mine to this day, of the small but incredibly bold congregation of Stone Church, their love for mission outdistancing churches five times their size, and of course all of the wonderful people at the Byron Presbyterian Church whose commitment to the mission of Jesus Christ has seemingly not been taught, but is part of our DNA, faith that is not a choice, but a grateful response to everything that God has done in Jesus Christ. We have received so much, and have so much to give.
I’m just getting started, and could keep going with these memories for several more hours, but I am told that important festivities await us after the service, so I will conclude the stories for now, but don’t worry, I will never forget them.
Isaiah’s prophecy ends in this way: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
I clap my hands for these 22 years we have shared in Byron, for the Good News we have heard, the Good News we have lived, and the Good News still to come!
We Believe “This is the good news which we have received, in which we stand, and by which we are saved, if we hold it fast: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, and that he appeared first to the women, then to Peter, and to the Twelve, and then to many faithful witnesses. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus Christ is the first and the last, the beginning and the end; he is our Lord and our God. Amen.”
This is the Affirmation of Faith frequently used by the congregation in Maryland where Jim was ordained. It is based on 1 Corinthians 15:1–6; Mark 16:9, Matthew 16:16; Revelation 22:13; and John 20:28