Monday, November 12, 2018

Sermon: "A Letter to My Family", 1 Corinthians 3:4-11, 21-23/Romans 12:4-13 (November 11, 2018)--Farewell Sermon


Sermon video here; benediction video here.


Writing a “goodbye” sermon is really tough. From an intellectual standpoint, it’s hard to decide what it should look like, how it should be put together. Which scripture do I choose? How do I choose it? What final message do I want to share? What important points should I make? What kind of tone do I want to convey? To be honest, I went through at least three different iterations of potential sermons, one of which involved me singing a Broadway song from the pulpit, none of which I wound up using. So, you’re welcome.

But the task of writing a goodbye sermon is also difficult emotionally. What can I say that will be remembered? What do I do with this last chance to make an impact here? Can I avoid tears—yours and mine? Should I? How do I do this?

No matter how many times a pastor has to leave a congregation, I can’t imagine that it gets any easier. One of the hardest parts of this profession is the fact that no matter what, eventually we have to leave the people we’ve walked with, learned from, and grown to love. Sooner or later God calls us to step back. We need to make room for new people to lead, new ideas to blossom, and new life to flourish. But knowing that doesn’t make it any less difficult.

To help me work through this transition, I spent some time thinking about Biblical figures who had had to leave their beloved communities, looking for some sermon inspiration. The first and most obvious Biblical departure was Jesus’, but A.) I don’t want you to think that I have a messiah complex, and B.) I suspect that my departure won’t have the same sort of salvific effect on you all.

Then I thought of Paul. Paul, the original circuit rider. Paul, who made a business of leaving church communities every time God called him somewhere new. Paul, who clearly loved every church he wrote to. Because of his desire to stay connected with communities he’d had to leave, Paul’s letters account for almost half of the New Testament. He MUST understand what it feels like to say goodbye. Now, to be fair, a “goodbye” from a person as verbose as Paul didn’t always “stick”; he always seemed to have one more thing to say. But still, he must have known that pang of grief, that tugging at the heart, that questioning if you’ve made a difference, that comes with saying goodbye to people that you care deeply about.

So, rather than reinventing the wheel, I thought I’d write my sermon today in the style of a Pauline letter. For everyone’s sake, I’ll try not to write as much as Paul would, but I’ll follow the basic form. He must have been onto something with this format for his letters to have such a long-lasting impact, right?

Okay, so first comes the greeting. Paul “introduces” himself as the letter’s author, reminds the readers of his credentials, and specifies the audience to whom he’s writing.


“Katey, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be a pastor, set apart for the gospel of God, which God promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his son, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all God’s beloved in Boise, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

Okay…so maybe I shouldn’t follow Paul’s style EXACTLY. It’s not particularly authentic to me, and if nothing else, I want this sermon to be authentic. So: form, but not substance. Got it. Let’s try again. Next comes a prayer:

“I give thanks to God for my time here with you. I’ve learned so much. I’ve grown so much. I’ve loved so much. Together, we’ve explored God’s Word and discovered more about who it is that God is calling us to be. God has given each of you hearts full of curiosity, enthusiasm, compassion, generosity, and a real desire to live lives that reflect Christ’s love. I was lucky enough to be a part of that for three years. For all of this, I give unending thanks and praise to God.”

And now comes the body of the letter, the part where Paul shares with his beloved community what’s on his mind and heart. Here’s what’s on mine:

“Countless times over the past month or so, I’ve been told, ‘I’m so happy for you, but sad for us.’ I know that many of you are experiencing the complex grief that comes with a changing relationship. I understand, and I grieve with you. It’s difficult for me too, to leave a place that’s become home and a community that’s become family, no matter how good the reasons. All of our emotions are completely normal and expected. Hopefully, you already know that.

“But while grieving is important and necessary, it shouldn’t be the only thing in our hearts. A sense of loss is completely understandable, but we can’t let it overshadow all else. One of my favorite theologians, C.S. Lewis, warns that, ‘We must beware of the past, mustn’t we?...Notice in Dante that the lost souls are entirely concerned with their past. Not so the saved…We must try very hard not to keep on endlessly chewing the cud.’[2] This ‘past-dwelling cud-chewing’ that Lewis describes is nothing less than sin. It’s sinful not because lament is wrong, but because living in the past for too long keeps us from living into the future to which God is calling us now.

“When we fixate on what has been, we become blind to what is and what will be. We become helpless to see what God is doing among us RIGHT NOW. We become unable to perceive the joy that God is bringing out of our anxiety or sorrow. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in part because the church was overly concerned about which past leader they should cling to. In their distress, they weren’t able to see the growth that God—not Apollos or Paul—was even then bringing in their midst. Which was, you know, the whole point of everything that Apollos and Paul had done. Leaders lead for a season, each with their own role to play, but nothing—none of the people they love, none of the work they do, none of the resulting growth and change—ultimately belongs to them or to the past. All of it belongs to the community and their future, which has been entrusted to them by God. And since we trust in God, we know that (in the wise words of Julian of Norwich), ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’

“In fact, things aren’t just ‘not that bad’. Change within our church family is, in fact, truly a blessing for all of us. Because God is STILL working even in the moving and reorganizing of our communities. Last week was All Saint’s Sunday, and we talked about the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that makes up the Church (with a capital ‘C’). It’s a pretty strange idea that can be a little too abstract for us to fully and truly understand (I think Daniel Bailey literally described it last week as ‘really cool, but really weird’). But consider this: every time something changes about the composition of our immediate community, God is giving us the opportunity to expand our understanding of the Church Universal—God’s family—in a tangible way.

“Let me give you an example. Four years ago, I had no idea you all existed. Theoretically, I knew that there were churches in Idaho that were part of the communion of saints, but that’s all you were to me: a theoretical idea. Now, I know you by name, I know your passions and hopes and fears, I know your desire to follow Christ, and I love you. And when I leave my position here as a leader among you, that gift of knowing you can never be taken away. As new leaders join you in your mission to embody God’s love around the corner and around the world, that will never take away the connection that you all have with ME. Because of our ministry together, the cloud of witnesses is that much more real for each of us. Even in the face of challenges and transitions, our concrete sense of family grows and grows, because our God is a God of ever-expanding love and boundless inclusion. I’m not leaving your family—our family is just getting bigger.

“I chose to read a part of Paul’s letter to the Romans to you because the it’s the only letter in the Bible that Paul wrote to a community that he himself hadn’t founded. He hadn’t even visited them by the time that he wrote it—and yet, he considered them his family in Christ. He understood that our faith connects us all in a way that goes deeper than our shared understanding of the divine. It’s a tie that binds us irrevocably to one another in heart and mind and spirit. We’re all part of Christ’s body, and because of that, we are individually members of one another.[3] No matter where in the world we are, we belong to each other forever. The better we understand that, the better we embody Christ’s family. And as much as the change may grieve us, our time together has helped us to understand that connection a little bit more fully.”…

All that’s left to write of my Pauline letter to you is the closing. This was more than just Paul signing off; it was Paul’s final opportunity to give encouragement and instruction to the community. Sometimes, he’d call out specific individuals for the work they’d done (or not done) on behalf of the Church. Because I’d like to finish my final sermon with most of you still liking me, I’m not gonna do that today. But I will leave you with a charge:

“Beloved: Cherish one another. Cherish the time that I’ve had with you. And in honor of the family that God has already blessed you with and the family that God still has planned for you, cherish every new leader and member and friend and visitor that walks through the doors of this building. Person by person, recognize and foster the expanding household that God is growing among you, and give thanks. Give thanks for what has been, give thanks for how it’s shaped you, and give thanks for where it’s leading you next. We can’t see the whole of God’s garden, but it’s our task to care for the piece of it that’s been entrusted to us. With God’s help, we’ll be able to see more of it day by day.

“Continue to answer God’s call by caring for one another, remembering that family is not just the people that you see around you in this moment. There’s more community just waiting for you to perceive it. Keep looking for your next opportunity to welcome more of the family that God has given to you. Remember: the Kingdom of God cannot be diminished; it can only grow.”

Beloved, I commend this letter to you. Keep it. Remember it. Treasure it. Pull it out of your desk drawer years from now, when you long for the past or are particularly missing people who are gone. Use it to remind you that even when you feel alone, you’ve been called to be a part of Jesus’ extraordinary and quirky family. This is a family that becomes stronger with every new relationship built and every new connection made. Even as our lives shift, even as the places we call home change, nothing can break the bonds that Christ has forged. No matter how many miles or years may separate us, let us live out this shared calling together, and honor our commitment to each other through our commitment to this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and to all who will ever call it home. Amen.


[1] Based on the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
[2] The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III.
[3] Romans 12:5.


Additional verse to “Here I Am, Lord” written by the Rev. Stephen Fearing, commissioned specifically for this worship service and sung as the benediction:

I, the Lord of ties that bind, gath’ring all of humankind,
Through the Spirit’s gentle call, they shall be one.
Evermore shall they be bound by the love in me they’ve found
Who will live this truth with them? Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

I will hold your people in my heart.

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