Final Sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Auburn NY
April 17, 2016
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters;
He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. – Psalm 23
A pastor’s last sermon to a congregation typically follows one of a handful of formats. Sometimes, the pastor will offer a review of all the significant things the congregation did, the progress that it made, while the pastor was there. But I just did that in a recent newsletter article, so I can’t do that again. Other times, the sermon can be a stroll down memory lane, recalling all sorts of funny things that happened that they shared together over the many years. But since I’ve only been here a short while, there haven’t been a huge amount of those to pile up, either, so I’m striking out on that score, too. Still other times, the pastor will offer up detailed advice about the specific direction the congregation should head in the future, but frankly, that’s never appropriate; that’s an issue for the congregation and the new pastor to work out for themselves. A lot of other times, the pastor will slide into a flattering kind of smoke-blowing, telling the congregation that he knows they’re destined for great things in the future – but the truth is, I don’t really know what the future holds for Westminster any more than I know what it holds for myself. So in a way, I’ve felt really stuck trying to figure out what my last sermon to you would say – not out of any lack of deep emotion or love for you, but out of a desire to leave you with something appropriate and honest and important.
I suppose all I can offer you today is a bit of advice – not the kind of detailed, nuts-and-bolts advice I mentioned earlier, but something broader, something simpler, and yet, I think, something even more important.
Wherever you go as a congregation, whatever you do, always remember what this is really all about. Remember why you’ve come together as this group of people, here to worship and serve God, trying to understand your faith and to live out its implications. Gauge everything you consider doing by this measure: is this really consistent with what Jesus expects from the church?
There are all sorts of wrong things the church can do, and has done, and undoubtedly will do in the future. There are all sorts of petty, trivial, legalistic, manipulative rabbit holes the church can go down that can derail its real reason for being. But my prayer for you is that you’ll always see those kinds of things for the church-killing, faith-snuffing, soul-crushing pursuits that they are, and that you’ll avoid them like the plague. I pray that you’ll always remember that love is what this is really all about. Receiving God’s love, and giving God’s love.
It really is that simple. We’re supposed to be the earthly illustration of God’s kind of love, to ourselves and to those around us. Our relationships with God and with one another are supposed to reflect the words of the 23rd Psalm – that through God’s love, we’re led to the peace and contentment, to green pastures and still waters; and through our love, we’re supposed to help others find that same place of peace and contentment.
So in the future, when you’re trying to determine what the right thing to do is, just remember that the loving thing is always the right thing. The loving thing is always the right thing. And if you find yourself in some dilemma where you say to yourself, “Yes, I suppose that would be the loving thing to do, but we can’t do that because ‘X’” – then you’ve just identified what you have to do – you have to get rid of “X,” and get on with doing the loving thing you’re supposed to be doing.
Jesus really couldn’t have made this point any clearer – we’re to love one another in everything we do, in the same way that he loves us. We’re supposed to love one another like the world has never seen love before.
But what does that kind of love really look like? It can look like any number of things, I suppose. It can show itself in ways large and small. Sometimes…it can look like someone singing a song. Or playing the organ. Or playing the violin. Sometimes it can look like offering a smile, or holding a hand, or putting a hand on a shoulder as a sign of support. Or graciously receiving that hand on the shoulder. Sometimes, it can look like sending a card. Or making a casserole. Or knitting someone a pair of lucky socks, or buying them an ugly Christmas tie. That kind of love might look like sharing a meal, or sharing your ideas. Or visiting someone in a nursing home or hospital. Or unloading a delivery at the food pantry. Or serving up meals and hospitality at the Salvation Army. Or searching the woods for a missing child.
That kind of love might look like adding to the beauty of creation by working on the landscaping at the church. Or opening the church up on Sunday mornings. Or making sure there are coffee and doughnuts for the Sunrise Service.
But that kind of love might also look like sitting in silence with someone who’s lost a loved one, who’s in mourning; when you don’t have words because there are no words. Or holding someone as they shake through the worst hours of withdrawal. Or cleaning up after an aging parent’s accident.
Love might be easy or hard, beautiful or ugly, but whatever shape it takes in the moment, that’s what we’re supposed to be all about – as individuals, and as the church.
So never allow yourselves to get bogged down by all the petty, self-serving, and unimportant garbage that’s poisoned so many congregations, and always look for the loving solution, the loving answer to any situation in everything that you do. If you do that, the future will take care of itself, for you and for me both.