Goodbye Y’all (a final sermon for Lindenwood)

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This is it- my last Sunday at Lindenwood- and how could I possibly begin to say goodbye?

 How do you say goodbye well?

  It’s only been 3.5 years, but for me, it’s been my entire life in ministry. My first call, the place where I was ordained, the place where I took risks, where I grew, where I made mistakes, where I learned, where you all gave me the space to explore ministry.

 This is our 170th Sunday together. For 170 Sundays, I have been your pastor, and you have been my congregation.

 I saw this time as a gift, a privilege, a true calling from the holy spirit. I owe you so much of my heart, so much gratitude, so much appreciation.

 And Y’all have taught me so much, and I realize that now as I’m fixing to leave. I came as a Yankee, but you taught me that I might could become a southern belle with a little effort.

 Y’all taught me that even a few drops of cold rain is plenty a reason to close church, the pharmacy, sell out of bread and milk- and spend the whole day at home catching up on Netflix. Thank you.

 Y’all taught me important phrases like y’all, fixing to, might could, bless your heart, getting my picture made, kiss my grits, madder than a wet hen…

 But more than those “Southernisms”, you have taught me to baptize, to keep vigil at the bedside of someone on hospice or at the hospital, you have taught me to pray out loud, you have taught me how to design worship, how to preach, how to climb up onto the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house, how to bless a baby, how to marry a loving couple, how to say farewell to someone in a funeral, how to grieve with a family, and how to love a room full of 400 people more than I thought I ever could…

 This has been a journey of teaching, of loving, of learning, of growing, and most of all- bringing glory to Christ in all that we do. So how do you say goodbye well?

 I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you.

 That’s how we did it, anyway.

 I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you.

 I remember my first adult goodbye so well. It was a cold spring. My family gathered around the hospital bed keeping vigil, telling stories, sharing memories, listening to music. The food tasted like rubber, the neon lights offered little warmth, but none of that mattered. My family spent the afternoon in the Cheyanne Wyoming Memorial hospital with my grandfather. We were creating a safe, sacred space for him to let go.

 I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you.

 We all made sure to whisper these words to him that afternoon.

 For some of us, we had no idea what we had to apologize for…

 Well, I had one little thing… I remembered a moment from 10 years before this, when I was an angst-y 8th grader- writing angst-y things in my little journal. I would criticize classmates and critique teachers. And one Thanksgiving, my grandfather accidently picked up this journal and peeked in by mistake.

 I was mortified. I didn’t want him to see me like that. I didn’t want him to see my harsh words written down.

 10 years later, gathered around his hospital bed- we had shared so many more memories and inspiring conversations and family Thanksgivings- I doubt he ever remembered my 13-year-old girl journal- but it didn’t matter- I whispered: I’m sorry.

 Many of us in the family didn’t know what we meant exactly with those words “I forgive you.” But just like ‘I’m sorry,’ they needed to be said. Maybe my grandfather experienced his own private angst for not showing up for some odd ballet performance, or not writing the perfect Christmas card, or….

 Whatever could have been troubling him, we wanted to release it- so we all whispered “I forgive you.”

 And finally, we all said “I love you.” Over and over again, we said “I love you.”

 We did this because it was time to say goodbye, it was time to make sure that our adoration and respect was understood, and believed, and communicated.

 In those final hours, we listened to sacred music. Alleluias and Praise to the Lord’s rang out. I remember when one of my favorite songs began to play in that hospital room as we all gathered. It was an arrangement of a beautiful sacred spiritual by Moses Hogan:

Lord I want to be more Holy, in my heart, in my heart,

Lord I want to be more Holy in my heart.

In my heart, in my heart,

Lord I want to be more Holy in my heart.

I sang along as the song played. It was like the anthem for all of us. I remember singing that song so clearly because that afternoon, as we said goodbye to my grandfather, it was a holy moment, a sacred, peaceful, holy goodbye.

And then I look out at all of you here today, and it almost feels the same.

When I think back to that song: Lord I want to be more holy, in my heart, in my heart, Lord I want to be more holy in my heart…

It reminds me that this was our biggest task together at Lindenwood. We all had the privilege and the honor of seeking holiness together, of trying to be more faithful, more loving, more compassionate and gospel-oriented together.

In the same way that we gathered that afternoon in the hospital room, we are all here today to say a goodbye.

I chose Paul’s letter to the Philippians for this morning, partly because it is a scripture for the 2nd week of Advent (well, last year anyway), but mostly because I couldn’t have composed a better letter myself. Our brother Paul wrote this letter generations ago, but I wanted to borrow his words and recite them to all of you today:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

 Theologians agree Paul’s letter to the Philippians was a friendship letter- it expresses the deep love and connection between Paul and this community. This letter is sustained and rooted in their shared memories- Paul recalls with joy all that they have shared together and endured together.

Paul has 4 main points throughout the letter to the Philippians:

1)      he expresses gratitude that they have shared the gospel together;

2)      he expresses his love for this community;

3)      he tells them he hopes their love will overflow;

4)      and finally, he tells them he hopes they will discern what is truly valuable and good. 

This letter holds the longest expression of thanksgiving and love to any community that Paul writes to. There is a special intimacy and love reflected in this letter that goes beyond any of his other writings. The church in Philippi was one of the first churches in Europe, and Paul has a particular connection and respect for this church, because it’s where he felt he did some of his best work.

He writes to them knowing that he will not be with the church in Philippi for the duration of their good ministry, instead, he says, he will pray for the church until the day of Christ arrives.

Today, I can relate Paul’s situation and sentiment in this letter. I want to share a message of friendship with each of you because of our deep love and connection that is sustained and rooted in shared memories and joy. I want to express the same message Paul writes:

1)      my gratitude that we have shared the gospel together;

2)      my love for this community;

3)      my hope that your love will overflow;

4)      and finally, my hope that you will discern what is truly valuable and good. 

And, just like the church in Philippi was one of the first churches in Europe for Paul, you, Lindenwood, are my first church. Because of this, there is a special intimacy and love from me, for you.

Finally, Paul writes knowing that he will not be with the church in Philippi for the duration of their ministry- and I will not be with you all as you do your best ministry ahead.

So how can we say goodbye?

Let me say to you the goodbye I learned at the bedside of someone I loved: I’m sorry, I forgive you, I love you.

I am sure there are those here who I offended, or hurt, or disappointed, or worse. But today, as we go our separate ways, it feels vitally important and appropriate for me to say: whatever has been said or left unsaid that caused upset: I am sorry.

And, I forgive you. Just like ‘I’m sorry,’ these words need to be said.  I leave with no grudges or unresolved relationships. I am sure there are those here who think we might have had a past concern, or issue, or conflict. Whatever could be troubling you, I want to release it- so believe me when I say “I forgive you.”

 And finally, the most important message of all: I love you. I do. I love this entire church for all my relationships, my memories, my joy, my laughter, all that we have shared, all that we created, all that we witnessed together.

Lindenwood, on this final Sunday, may this be my lasting word of good news: we can say goodbye well. Even the apostles and prophets before all of us knew how to depart well. And this is an opportunity for us to do the same. I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you.

  And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. Amen.

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