Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19A (Farewell Sermon at Good Shepherd)

I have to admit, I’d been putting off writing this sermon. A part of me didn’t want this chapter of my story to end, and this sermon is my final pastoral act with and among you. In fact I waited until this morning to write this.

I can hardly believe today is here. It’s hard to comprehend that, in two Sundays from now, I’ll be standing in a pulpit in Tokyo, Japan, opening my mouth, and hoping - praying! - for the best; that my new congregation will be as receptive as you have been to my preaching.

Folks have been asking why I decided to take a new call. The short answer is this: It’s the best way I feel I can move on with my life. While R and I are on VERY good terms, I still see Lethbridge as a place WE are. And after two years of separation, and a divorce that will become final this coming week, I feel like I need a fresh start in a new city, somewhere I’d never been, to begin anew.

And I have never been to Japan. I’ve never been off the continent. I’ve never really had an adventure like this before. Call it a midlife crisis if you want, but I recently turned 42 and it feels like I need to spend the second half of my life exploring areas of myself, the world, and God’s place in it, in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of in the first half.

So, my move has nothing to do with you. You have been a WONDERFUL partner in ministry. And I thank you for eight AWESOME years together.

A lot has happened since that cold day in November 2003. I arrived with a wife and one kid. And now I leave with two kids and minus one wife. I was fit and trim when I moved here from Halifax. And now I’m...ummm....well....not.

And you’re not the same either. We’ve welcomed many new people, and have said good-bye to many faithful members. We’ve tried some new ministries. Some have succeeded, and some have not.

We have an elevator that changes both the look and the witness of our church. It tells visitors that we value EVERYONE; that EVERYONE can participate in every ministry of the church.

But I have seen this congregation change more in the last 3 months than in the last 8 years. And sadly, it hasn’t been a good change. The issues of gay marriage and the ordination of gays and lesbians have wreaked havoc on our community. These issues have created dividing lines where there hasn’t been previously.

Relationships are strained. Some families have left even though nothing has changed in either policy or practice. Some people are not talking to some other people.

One’s stance on these issues has become the litmus on test on how we, not only judge the other person’s faithfulness, but decide whether or not one can be friends - in the same church - with someone with whom we disagree. And that troubles me. That’s not the Christian way.

While the issue of how we can faithfully minister to our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers evokes strong emotions, I worry that sexuality will be the defining mark of our life together, rather than our faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The issue of sexuality has the power to tear our church family apart at the stitching.

But Good Shepherd is better than that. I know you’re better than that because I’ve seen you be better. You have worked too hard to build this church into the loving, caring, dynamic congregation that it has been through most of your history. You have prayed too many prayers together to allow this church to descend into division.

You have been to too many bedsides, visited too many shut-ins, attended too many funerals, danced at too many weddings, witnessed too many baptisms, sang too many hymns, ate at too many potlucks, and received too many eucharists, together to simply walk away from the life you have created, from the years of faithful service, from the love that has bound you together since the church began.

You are STRONGER and you are BETTER than anything that threatens to destroy what has been so carefully and lovingly built.

I know that you are stronger and better than your divisions because I have seen you at your best. I have seen this congregation respond to terrible tragedy with tremendous compassion. I have seen your arms wide open to anyone who walks through our doors. I have seen you laugh at each other’s jokes, and cry with each other’s losses.

In other words, I have seen you take seriously what in today’s gospel, Jesus called “The Greatest Commandment;” the command to love God and love neighbour.

I have seen you remember that being a Christian is about loving people, not simply being “right.” I have seen you sacrifice for each other and for folks you would never meet, but who need your help. I have seen you open your hearts to those desperate for a word of grace.

It is my deepest desire and most heartfelt prayer that you will continue on this path; the path that you have walked so faithfully for so many years.

It is my hope and my prayer that, when you confess each Sunday, that you “[believe] in the communion of saints” the principle that reminds us that we are bound together, not by belief, or morality, or even by doctrine, but we are joined together by faith in what God has done for us in Jesus, that you will live it out in all that you do together.

I pray that you will continue to see each other as sisters and brothers of the crucified and risen Jesus, not as opponents on opposite side of an issue that has nothing to do with salvation.

It is my hope and my prayer that love will continue to be your witness, that you will show the world how to love. That you will shine with the brightness of God’s love.

Your distinctive witness will be how you love each other, and how you are committed to each other, even when it’s hard. Even when you disagree. Even when you don’t want to. You love because God is love, and you are in God. You love because that’s who you are. That’s what you do.

And that love begins here, as you forgive each other for the wrongs you have done to each other. And I ask that you DO forgive each other for the hurts, words, dissensions, and divisions that have wounded your relationship with your sisters and brothers. I ask that forgiveness permeate this family of faith, that it soaks into the walls, and seeps into your skin, and that you grow in the love and joy that God has waiting for you.

And today I ask YOUR forgiveness as I move on to a new adventure. I ask your forgiveness for the mistakes in ministry I’ve made over the past eight years.

For the visits not made, for the words poorly chosen, for the prayers unsaid, and for the meetings that somehow didn’t make it into my DayPlanner.

For unreturned phone calls and unanswered emails. For my moments of unpastorly behaviour. For my messy office.

I ask your forgiveness for the moments of discouragement and resentment. For the days when I failed to model the Christian life. For the sacraments given out in haste. And for the times I preached the gospel with less than the fiery zeal it deserves and demands.

And in return I forgive YOU. I forgive you for those moments when you forgot that I was not just a pastor, but also a person. I forgive you for the occasional angry word, the gossip about my personal life, and unfounded accusations. I forgive you for the threats and ultimatums, and for the times when you questioned my motives, my competence, and my faithfulness.

In other words, I forgive you for being less than perfect, as I ask YOUR forgiveness for being less than perfect, and as we ask EACH OTHER’S forgiveness for being less than perfect.

As I begin a new journey, I’m grateful that we can part as friends and partners in the gospel. I’m glad that we can bless each other’s future in confidence that God is still working with and among us, that both our futures are as bright as a resurrection morning, that the living God, revealed in Jesus Christ, gives us courage to meet whatever challenges come our way.

So, I give thanks and praise to God for this time that we’ve shared, and I look forward to the great and promised future, where we will, one day, share in the feast which has no end.

May this be so among all of us. Amen.


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