Goodbye to St. Thomas and St. Luke’s
It’s hard to believe that this is the last time I’ll be standing in this pulpit as your parish priest.
We have been on such a journey together over these last three years, full of blessing and challenge, and I am so grateful for every moment.
There’s no way I can articulate everything our time together has meant to me, so I hope our hearts will speak to each other, as they ever have, and God will place us in communion together on this, our last Sunday morning together.
As ever, our scriptures come to our aid with guidance, truth, and the path for our future.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” Paul tells us in our lesson from Hebrews.
Three years ago, we had many things we were hoping for.
We took a risk on each other as parish and priest, having faith that God had brought us together for a purpose.
We had the conviction of things not seen, the faith that we had good work to do together, and things to offer one another that would help us grow as disciples.
Our faith has been borne out. Now we can look back and give thanks for the risk we took back then, to see how richly it has rewarded us in our life together.
There is a famous prayer that was written by the great Thomas Merton.
It may be familiar to you, and it is very apropos to us today: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Those words that came out of the depths of Merton’s heart could easily have come out of the depths of Abraham’s heart or the depths of our own hearts.
Such is the universal nature of both the desire to follow God’s call in our lives, and the courage necessary to strike out in the midst of our fears.
Jesus asks us to live fully into that tension in our gospel today. He comforts us in our fear, but he calls us out to live on the edge, in the place where anything may happen.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” he says, but then in the next breath he says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit… You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
“The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” That means more than just Jesus returning in the Second Coming.
It is a promise that Jesus is most present to us when some kind of unexpected hour is upon us.
Many of you have shared with me over the last few weeks how unexpected this news was that I am leaving and St. Thomas and St. Luke’s must set out on a new journey toward calling a new priest.
We have all felt off-kilter, unbalanced and as though the ground under our feet, the ground of our relationship and our ministry and our church, is suddenly tilting and unsteady.
This is an unexpected hour. And Jesus assures us that this is the moment that he is with us in his fullness.
Because along with his presence, Jesus was also promising that unexpected hours were exactly what we were to expect if we are committed to following him.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” he tells us. Be ready for the unexpected journey.
Having to be light on our feet to answer God’s call to us is a commitment we make when we pledge to follow Jesus.
Our lesson from Hebrews today reminds us that our current circumstances are never our final destination.
“By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.”
The time that we have spent together is as Hebrews describes, a time dwelling in a land we have been promised, but dwelling in tents, not a permanent structure.
People who live in tents are people who are on the move, travelers.
And people who live in tents in fact can’t stay in the same place. The land they travel though is not meant to support long-term life in one location. The resources won’t allow it.
They have to keep moving, to keep travelling, to keep following God’s call to new and different places. Because they are travelling toward something specific as Hebrews goes on to tell us, “to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Rather than to engage in the idolatry of pinning all our hopes on one specific person as priest or one specific congregation as the location of everything good, we are called to remember that God’s call may take us anywhere, and answering God’s unexpected call provides much richer rewards than trying to hem in God’s grace to one specific place or person.
I am not the only one answering God’s call to a new journey right now—St. Thomas and St. Luke’s are being called also.
You are experiencing the unsettling upending of a seemingly comfortable status quo that is the voice of Christ calling you to a new place and new relationships.
In the midst of all our conflicting emotions we must reach out for the lifeline of hope that is God’s promise to be with us and lead us forward into a new country.
As our Hebrews text says, “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”
What is the city that God is preparing for St. Thomas and St. Luke’s? There is no way of knowing right now, you have just now discovered that you are being called to walk a new path.
But we can enter that undiscovered future with courage, because we have done it before.
Three years ago, we said yes to God’s call that brought us together, and today, we can say yes to the call that draws us apart.
It is a bittersweet answer to God’s call, because it asks us to let go of a time and place that has been rich with blessing and promise.
But because of how we have been blessed in our time together, we can have faith that the road ahead of us contains great promise as well.
I don’t want this to be my last day in this pulpit, my last day at this altar. I’ve never left a church this reluctantly.
I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe truly that I had to, that God was asking me to.
I also wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe you already have what you need for the journey ahead.
You don’t need me anymore. You’re ready to strike out and forge your own path, and I’m proud to see you do it and know I contributed something to preparing you.
Seldom would I be so arrogant to take Jesus’ words as my own.
Most of the time, I need to heed what he’s saying to me and be humbled by it.
But today, I do take his words as my own with confidence, because they speak the truth of my heart far better than I ever could myself.
And so I say what Jesus says in our gospel today, and hear it in my voice from me to you: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Your future is so bright.
How do I know? I know because of everything I have seen in you these past three years.
I have seen you take on challenges with courage and integrity.
I have seen you place the future of your church ahead of your own self-interest.
I have seen you hold your heads up when money was tight, and dig in and give of yourselves with freedom and unending generosity.
I have seen you learn and grow as disciples, and serve the world with outreach ministries that really make a difference in people’s lives.
And most of all, I have seen you love one another.
Let me tell you something.
I was so broken down after my last call, I didn’t believe I had what it took to have a successful relationship with a church.
I have spent the last three years waiting for the other shoe to drop.
We’ve had our struggles from time to time, our ups and downs, but they’ve been normal, healthy conflicts.
I kept thinking, “This is too good to be true. When is it going to crash and burn? When is it going to fall apart? When am I going to fail, just like I failed before, and have to walk away wishing I knew how to love this church right?”
It never happened. The crash never came.
And so today, on my last day of ministry with you, I think I finally have the courage to believe that it’s not going to crash and burn.
We have done it. We have had a powerful and life-giving ministry together, and I am so grateful for it.
I came to you with a broken heart, feeling like a failure as a priest and wondering if God had gotten it wrong, that I really wasn’t cut out for parish ministry.
And you gave me my faith back.
You gave me my hope back.
You gave me my joy in ministry back.
And I can never repay you for that.
You didn’t do it with any fancy ministry techniques or earth-shattering church programs or projects.
You did it by loving me.
I came to this church feeling called to love you.
How little did I realize how it would change my life to have you love me.
And so we go forward, strengthened and renewed by one another’s love and hope and faith.
I’m so excited to see what you do next. I’m so excited to see where God is calling you.
I have done my best for you over these three years for you, tried to serve you with my whole self, body and soul.
Sometimes I’ve succeeded and sometimes I’ve failed.
But I’ve never wanted to give up, because you have been worth every minute.
I am entrusting your care to another priest now, but our love for one another will continue on.
And I know, in the depths of my heart, that God will speak and act and sing through that love to help us love the world.
And so we will never really be parted.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus tells us today.
We know this is true for we have already caught a glimpse of it.
We have seen and tasted and felt and lived the kingdom of God together, and it has made us ready to now take it into the world.
Every time I’ve stood in this pulpit, I’ve tried to proclaim to you the truth as I understand it.
And today I give you my final truth, the truth that I hope will keep you warm on cold days and keep you laughing on rainy days and keep you hoping on grieving days: I love you.
I have loved you from the moment I first met you, and I will always love you.
This is what I’ve tried to say to you every day, and so it must be my last words from this pulpit to you now: I love you.
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