Sermon preached August 7, 2016
Final Sermon at First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: Luke 12:32-40
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (v. 32)
Earlier in my ministry here, I confessed that I was not always a huge fan of the term “pastor.” It derives from the Latin word for shepherd and relates to the Latin verb which means “to lead to pasture, set to grazing.” There is something about thinking of other people using the image of sheep that I find troublesome.
Yet, in my time here, I have come to love and embrace the term, though I do not think of you as sheep. Jesus words are words that resonate today, filled with tenderness and care – “Do not be afraid, little flock,” though I prefer Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message – “Dearest friends.” Do not be afraid dearest friends.
So here is a little irony. The symbol used for bishops contains a shepherd’s crook or crosier, and I was given a wooden crosier at my consecration. I better get used to this imagery!
Do not be afraid, dearest friends. There are so many emotions today: joy and celebration, sadness and grief, anxiety and fear. We have so much to celebrate with joy. We have done amazing things together in our work for Jesus Christ. It is cause for celebration. We are parting ways. After today, I am no longer your pastor. I am your bishop, once removed, so to speak. Bishops in The United Methodist Church are bishops of the whole church, and then assigned to an area. I am not the bishop of this area, but I am one of forty-six bishops for The United Methodist Church in the United States, and one of sixty-six bishops worldwide overseeing the ministry with twelve million United Methodist Christians. We are going different directions and there is sadness and grief. We are heading into new territory. There is anxiety and fear.
I would be lying if I told you I had no concerns or anxieties about my new role. I have never been a bishop before. I will be overseeing over 800 congregations in the state of Michigan. I will be working with the Council of Bishops as we work through some deep differences in The United Methodist Church. I have told the story, but not all may have heard it, I have told the story about the Saturday of my consecration as bishop. I was in the room where all the bishops had been getting ready for the service, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a door. There was an “exit” sign over it, and on the door it read, “emergency exit only.” I thought about it for a brief moment.
And you are entering uncharted territory. There will be an interim pastor here later this month, and for a few months – something new for First UMC, at least in a long while. The interim pastor brings wonderful gifts and graces, but different gifts and graces. Then a new pastor will be appointed with wonderful gifts and graces, but different gifts and graces.
Do not be afraid, my dearest friends – but we are a little afraid, a little anxious. I want to remind us, I want to remind myself, of the wise words of Parker Palmer, words that I have loved for a long time and words that I need now as ever, that we need now as ever.
In commenting on the biblical words, “do not be afraid,” Palmer writes: As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection. “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear…. We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94)
We all have some fear, some anxiety. We all have moments when we see an emergency exit door and wonder if our life is in an emergency situation that we need to leave. We need not be our fears and anxieties. We need not let them define us. We can live out of places with names like trust and hope and faith, and joy and love, and genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice. How? Jesus reminds us that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. It is God’s delight to see the world more loving and caring, less fearful and suspicious. God is at work, always at work, creating places with names like trust and hope and faith and love and joy and genuineness and gentleness and generosity and justice. We need not cower in fear, rather we are invited to be open, to be ready for the on-going movement of the Spirit. God invites us to stay focused on the treasure of God’s dream for the world, to let our hearts be captivated by that dream and our lives dedicated to its fulfillment.
Today I am both sad and excited – sad and excited for me, and sad and excited for you. God has done beautiful and wonderful things with us together. We have worked with God’s Spirit to do beautiful and wonderful things, and beautiful and wonderful things await you in the future. God’s Spirit working and moving within and among you – that’s not going to change. Be ready. Stay focused. What saddens me is that I will not be a part of this.
But… I am deeply and profoundly grateful for all that we have done together, for all the ways you have been moments of God’s grace for me. I cannot finish this sermon without sharing a little music. Music has shaped my spiritual life for a long time, since I was a teenager listening on Sunday evenings to my transistor radio in my family’s Lester Park home to the Scott Ross show. Scott Ross had been a New York dj who became a Christian and he started a radio show using rock music to talk about faith.
Here are some of the songs that have been playing in my mind these past few weeks:
10,000 Maniacs, “These Are Days” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23YVo2j5SN4
Green Day, “Time of Your Life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnQ8N1KacJc
Sarah McLachlan, “I Will Remember You” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSz16ngdsG0
I am so grateful, even as my heart also aches. With that combination, a song that has also been on my mind, particularly since Mary Whitlock sang “I Hope You Dance” a couple of weeks ago, is this song called simply, “The Dance”:
Garth Brooks, “The Dance” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhyijN4ftko
I don’t think our lives are better left to chance, but they are better trusted to God’s Spirit, a Spirit that is always creating places with names like trust and hope and faith and love and joy and genuineness and gentleness and generosity and justice. Sometimes the way of the Spirit leads to partings, and I could have missed the pain of those, but then I’d have had to miss the dance – and I would not have missed the dance of this past eleven years for anything.
These are days I’ll remember. I hope in the Spirit that you have had the time of your lives, and I trust joy awaits you. I will remember you, and will cherish you and delight in what God has done with us together. The people we love are built into us (May Sarton).
And the dance of the Spirit will continue, for you, and for me. It is God’s good pleasure, it is God’s delight, to keep creating, to keep inviting us into a newer world. Know that. Know that deep in your soul, and be ready for what God’s Spirit will be doing next. In Jesus. Do not be afraid my dearest friends. Amen.
Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those with whom we walk the way. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind, in the name of our companion on the way, Jesus the Christ.