Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen

 

mash goodbye

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

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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.

Amen.

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Embracing the Mystery (sermon 4/10/16 – Confirmation Sunday)

campfire on beach

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”  – John 21:1-19

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Sometimes, when you’ve got so much on your mind that you think it’s more than you can handle, the best thing you can do is to just stop – to step away from all of those thoughts and worries and all of that processing, and just take a breather to clear you head.

They took their breather, they cleared their heads, by fishing. By this time, they’d left Jerusalem far behind and made the solid four-day trip back to more familiar surroundings, the villages along the edge of the Sea of Galilee. With birds circling in the thermals overhead, and the waves lapping at the beach covered with smooth black basalt stones, they loaded the boat with their gear, and probably some snacks, and themselves, and as they felt the warmth of the late afternoon sun on their backs, they set out for deeper water not far from the shoreline.

Maybe they’d tried hard to catch some fish and hadn’t had any luck. Maybe they weren’t really trying to catch anything at all, the whole excursion just being an excuse to get away from things and to let the whole sensory experience of being out on the lake bring them some peace and clarity. Either way, after being out all night there weren’t any fish in the boat and the snacks were almost gone and they were going to have to go back in soon, when then, in the fledgling daylight, they saw the man standing on the shore. What? No fish? Try casting you net on the right side of the boat. Since most of them were right-handed, the most natural way for them to cast their nets would have been out off to the left side of the boat. But the stranger told them to try something new, something different and unconventional – and when they did, the results were amazing.

There are people in this world who describe having had encounters with someone, and somehow they just knew there was more going on than the eye could see. There was something more, something deeper, even otherworldly about the encounter. They couldn’t put their finger on it exactly, but still they knew that they weren’t speaking to just another ordinary human being, that there was some inexplicable spiritual thing happening. It’s the same sort of thing that the scriptures refer to as having entertained angels unaware, or maybe not all that unaware. It happened with Abraham and his mysterious three human-but-not-human visitors. It happened with Jacob wrestling the equally mysterious being along the Jabbock River, and in other places in the scriptures, too. And now, this was one of those times, as they looked across the water and somehow they just knew that even though he apparently didn’t look the same, it was Jesus.

And in a rush to meet up with Jesus, Peter does the odd thing, the opposite of what a person might expect – he’s out there, naked on the boat, and he gets dressed in order to jump into the lake – proving that not every new, different, unconventional response is necessarily the smart thing to do, and leaving the others to just scratch their heads and think, Well, that’s Peter for you.

Eventually, they’re all ashore and enjoying the grilled fish together, and it’s an indescribable experience they’re having. They know it’s Jesus, but they don’t want to say that it is, or ask if it is, and they don’t want to start running off at the mouth about how great a time they’re having and that they should set up tents for everyone and they could all just stay there enjoying the moment indefinitely, the way Peter did at the Transfiguration; because they knew that the minute they started talking like that, the mood would be broken and there would be a cloud or a thunderclap or the voice of God telling them to shut up, and they’d look around and find themselves all alone again on the rocky little beach while the birds circled overhead.

So they didn’t say anything like that. They sat there enjoying the fish and the fellowship, savoring the mixture of certainty and mystery, and maybe they thought to themselves that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could hope for in this life.

Somewhere during all that, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three time in a row he asked him, which would probably be annoying to anyone, and each time after getting Peter’s answer, the response was the same: Feed my sheep. Take care of my flock. Share my story, share God’s good news brought into this world for all people, with every generation that comes after you. And that’s exactly what he and the others sitting around the fire on that beach did, until the message eventually reached us.

And now it’s our turn. Now, we’re continuing to feed Christ’s sheep, to care for his people by sharing his message with the next generation through our Confirmation process. Teaching these young adults that our faith – their faith – is one where they’ll see Jesus in unexpected places, in ways simultaneously knowable and unknowable. That their faith is a marriage of certainty and uncertainty; that wherever their faith journey takes them, they’ll still have a list of unanswered questions that they’ll carry with them all their lives.

Hopefully, through the Confirmation process, they’ve come to learn like those disciples on the beach, to savor that blend of certainty and uncertainty, and that even in the midst of that, that they are surrounded, completely enfolded, by God’s love – that they are loved, and chosen, and called, by God – and that ultimately, that’s the best that anyone could ever hope for in this life.

Hopefully, Confirmands, you’ve learned that within our particular, Presbyterian tradition, we welcome, and honor that holy tension, the embracing of certainty and mystery, and the lifelong journey of faith that it takes us on.

I have to say that it’s been not just my pleasure, but my honor, to have journeyed along with you in this process, Confirmands. Each one of you is a truly remarkable and exceptional person, and I consider myself blessed to have spent this time together with you. Wherever life takes you, always – always – continue to be open to seeing God in the unexpected. Never – never – avoid wrestling with difficult questions of faith. And know that wherever life takes you, God will always – always – be right there beside you.

Thanks be to God.

Expanded Reality (sermon 4/3/16 – Easter 2C)

sphere-plane

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.   – John 20:19-31

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There was a book published in England in the 1880s called “Flatland.” It was a social and cultural commentary of life in the Victorian Era, told in an allegorical style. In more recent times, the same story was updated, with the allegorical setting more resembling contemporary American culture, and made into a feature-length animated film in 2007. In either version of the story, the action took place in a world that exists in only two dimensions. Everything and everyone in this world existed in only length and width; there was third dimension, no height, no depth – hence the world’s name, Flatland. The residents of Flatland can’t even imagine the existence of a third dimension. In fact, an important part of the plot line is that anyone who does suggest that there might be more than just two dimensions is considered a subversive. It might be hard for us to imagine how they could exist in only two dimensions, but in the story, the people seemed to get along just fine – that is, until they get a visitor. A sphere – a fully three-dimensional sphere, from another world, a world with three dimensions, drops into Flatland for a visit. But given the physical constraints of Flatland, the people can’t quite comprehend the sphere. As it first breaks into the less-than-razor-thin plane of Flatland, the sphere appears to just be a dot, a point, that appears out of nowhere. Then, as the sphere continued to pass through that plane, it seemed to become a small circle that mysteriously grew for no apparent reason, getting bigger, and bigger, and then smaller and then back into a dot, until just as mysteriously as it first appeared, it vanished again, disappearing into thin air.

Except, of course, it really hadn’t. The sphere never changed at all, and even after it passed completely through Flatland, even though it was less than a millimeter away from them, the Flatlanders couldn’t perceive that the sphere was actually still right there beside them.

A number of people have suggested that maybe something like this is going on in the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, including today’s gospel text. Ever since Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, we’ve known through mathematics and physics that the universe does actually exist in more dimensions than just the three that our own senses perceive. And if we believe in a transcendent God, then God exists within and transcends all of these different dimensions. So for the resurrected, divine, now multi-dimensional Jesus to visit with the disciples, stepping back into just these three dimensions, it might just have looked like he appeared from out of nowhere. It would have looked like he just walked through the wall, or the locked door, or just magically materialized in the middle of the room, like the sphere visiting Flatland. I think that’s fascinating.

Something else that fascinates me about this particular story is the very fact that Thomas wasn’t there with the rest of the disciples, cowering behind locked doors in fear. Based on what little we know about Thomas from other scriptural references, I think he was just very strong-willed. When Jesus was making his final trip into Jerusalem, people were warning him not to go, that he’d be killed there, but still Jesus kept going on – and Thomas determined that he’d go along with him, he may as well die in Jerusalem with Jesus. So now, after the crucifixion, he wasn’t going to let fear consume him either. He was going to continue living his life, boldly, and whatever else may happen will happen. And then, when the others told him that they’d seen Jesus, his distrust of them certainly wasn’t distrust in Jesus. He’d seen the crucifixion. He’d seen the death in Jesus’ eyes. If he were going to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead, he was going to need more than just the ranting of a roomful of terrified people experiencing shock, whether they were his friends or not.

Of course, the truth is that Thomas is really a lot like us. We’d have undoubtedly reacted the same way. Contrary to the bad rap that Thomas has sometimes gotten over the years, let’s face it, his response to what the other disciples were claiming was perfectly logical and reasonable.

And that leads me to another thing that fascinates me about this story. When Thomas said he needed more data, more evidence, to accept that Jesus had risen, far from scolding or refusing him, Jesus gladly returned and gave it to him. “Here I am – see me; touch me.” Through his actions, Jesus was drawing Thomas into a larger view of God and the universe, into an expanded reality of life. He was allowing Thomas to catch a glimpse of, and marvel in, that expanded reality that isn’t based on superstition or tradition or ignorance, but rather, on increased knowledge and understanding.

Thomas’ desire for more knowledge, the desire that Jesus honored, is the exact same desire, the same curiosity, that drove people to develop quantum physics, and the Hubble Telescope, and the Large Hadron Collider. After all, when we do search for, and find, deeper understanding about the workings of the universe, at its smallest or largest scale, aren’t we, in essence catching a better glimpse of the face of God? Maybe we aren’t touching God, as Thomas did, but I think we’re doing something pretty close to it. God is honoring our desire for deeper understanding, and self-revealing through it – it’s God saying “Here I am – see me; touch me.”

Beyond what I see as God’s validation, God’s honoring of our continual search for more knowledge and understanding in this story, I think there’s an even more important thing going on; something more immediate and personal. If it’s really true that God exists in that multidimensional, all-dimensional way we’d mentioned earlier, sort of like the sphere in Flatland, then we have great reason for hope. If that’s true, then it means that whenever we’re going through our most difficult of times – maybe we’re facing problems at work or financial insecurity; we don’t know what to do about a child’s struggles with addiction; or we’re battling addiction ourselves; or we’re trying to help aging parents in ill health; we’re locked in a dead-end relationship that’s unraveled and we don’t know what to do and we don’t see any way out – whenever we’re going through these things, and we feel alone and isolated and it’s hard to feel God’s presence in any of it, we can take hope and have strength knowing that despite our immediate perceptions, we aren’t really going through it alone at all. We never were. God has always been, will always be, right within our very midst, right here… less than a millimeter away. The One who created us, and loves us, and accepts us; the One who walks with us and gives us the strength to navigate those difficulties, is now and always will be there for us, with us. We can have this great hope and confidence in our lives because we know and we trust in a God who would walk through walls for us – and that’s flat-out amazing.

Thanks be to God.