By Mindy Ragan Wood
Parishioners gathered at First Baptist Church in Piedmont Sunday morning for their pastor’s last sermon.
Reverend Gary Caldwell stood in the pulpit as he had done thousands of times before. This time he began a stirring and heartfelt address from Acts 20.
“How do you say goodbye to good folks,” he asked. “That’s what I am going to tell you today.”
Caldwell likened his 28-year stay in Piedmont to the Apostle Paul’s longest mission in Ephesus.
“We find another pastor saying a goodbye to good folks, a final farewell to his friends and what he said to his friends, I want to say to my friends, the members of FBC Piedmont,” he began. “What Paul said to his friends in his final farewell when he was gone are the same things I want you to remember after I’m gone.”
Caldwell urged his flock to remain faithful to Scripture, to the work of the ministry and to their witness.
“Stay faithful to the word,” he cautioned. “Paul stayed faithful to the work. Let me tell you it’s easy to be faithful when things are going well. It’s another thing to be faithful when things are not going so well.”
He praised the church for their example of faithfulness to each other and his family through the ups and downs over the years.
“I think of the many times over the years as your pastor that you have remained faithful to the work here at FBC and I want to thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you for being faithful in ministering to one another. Thank you for being faithful for ministering to the Caldwell family. When we can here, we came here to serve you,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“We have done that. The preaching of the word and the ministering of a pastor it’s busy all the time. My wife had been faithful to participate in the music ministry of this church, the teaching ministry of this church, both youth classes, adult ladies classes…my daughter Andrea, our special needs angel, she served in any way she can. Be it in the kitchen, children’s choirs. My son was our first drummer.”
He credited his children’s stability and enduring faith with the love and care the flock showed his family.
“My son loves Jesus. My daughter loves Jesus. My wife loves Jesus and it’s because you’ve been good Sunday school teachers, ministers and friends who have loved us. I just want to thank you for being faithful in ministering not only to one another but to the Caldwell family,” he said.
Continuing to follow Paul’s farewell address in Acts 20, Caldwell urged them to remember the cause of evangelism.
“We don’t have a ‘come and hear’ Gospel. We have a go and tell Gospel. The Bible never tells the lost to come to the church, but it does command the church to go to the lost,” he said. “Paul impacted the lost by going to where the people were and never expecting them to come to him.”
Caldwell used Paul’s final words to the Ephesians to conclude his sermon.
“Ye shall see my face no more,” he said. “You will see my face no more as your pastor, but you’ll see my face again. I’ve lived in Piedmont longer than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life are some of you folks. You will see my face again. I’ve already had to promise a few funerals…so when Dr. Seuss wrote, ‘don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,’ and as you smile stay faithful in the work, faithful to the Word, faithful in your witness and stay faithful in your watch. Good days are ahead for FBC Piedmont.”
At the end of his sermon, Caldwell offered an altar call of salvation, just as he done after every sermon.
Following the service, a long line formed to shake his hand and offer a hug, some with tears. Deacon Robin Pratt said he will miss a shepherd so well versed in Scripture.
“His foresight, his knowledge of the Word of God,” Pratt said. “When I’ve come to him with a problem, or a question, he’s got the answer. I teach a Sunday school class and I’m just a lay person, so when a question comes up I can’t answer, I’ll miss going in his office and seeing how he would answer it.”
Others who worked closely with Caldwell will miss him as a friend and someone who knew how to laugh.
“I’ll miss the office banter about food and football,” Worship Pastor Lyndall Jones reminisced. “I’ll miss his sense of humor, his fellowship and his friendship.”
Caldwell and his family are retiring to a home near Lake Eufaula. In his office, after giving his last sermon he said it was a strange feeling.
“I feel a little emptiness, a little anxious. I’m a little excited,” he said.
His wife, Anita Caldwell, said it was going to be difficult to say goodbye.
“I’m excited but it’s with mixed feelings. This church is our family. They’ve walked with us through the years ups and downs. I will miss them so much,” she said.
Caldwell will fill in for pastors who are absent and will continue to preach at revivals and crusades.
“This is a retooling,” he said. “I’ll preach the Gospel til the day I die.”
The church collected an offering for the family and presented the it to them during a reception Sunday night.