How to hang up the robe
Jan 19, 2020
In the church I served in East Hampton, Long Island, there was a door, seldom closed, between my office and the secretary’s office. My predecessor had installed a bulletin board on the door which on which I assume he put religious literature and posters of upcoming events. I filled the bulletin board with cartoons clipped from all sorts of places. Almost all of them had a church connection – mostly making fun of clergy or some aspect of church life. I had many more than the board could hold, plus people gave me cartoons all the time, so there was an ever-circulating collection.
One was given to me after I had announced my retirement, but before I actually left the church. It depicted a male minister in the pulpit, sneakers peeking beneath his robe, surrounded by boxes and boxes marked “books.” Through the stained glass window you can see the moving van in the driveway. The caption: “Now I can finally say what I’ve wanted to say to you all these years.”
I have known that to happen. I have known of ministers to “let it all hang out” on their last Sunday – telling the congregation everything that was wrong with them. I heard of one case in which the minister called names of church leaders and denounced some for various failures and faults.
But apart from the lack of inclination, I haven’t got the energy to do that. Plus I’ll want a cookie later. Besides, it wouldn’t do any good. Anything I haven’t been able to say to you in the last twelve years isn’t likely to happen today.
So what to do this morning? The first problem is the title of this so-called “sermon.” The first version was: “How to Say Goodbye;” but that isn’t really accurate, since I’m not going anywhere. Presbyterian ministers usually disappear after they resign or retire. I’m not. Since I was already retired when I arrived here, and was never pastor of this church, the rule doesn’t apply to me.
When the transition plans were made a year and a half ago the Session and I agreed that I would remain until shortly before the new pastor arrived and would then resign; and the Presbytery agreed that I could remain here afterward. The Presbytery approved that plan. So Gillian and I will be sitting right back there most Sundays. Not every Sunday – we’ll occasionally play hookie, as you sometimes do. Turns out we actually like going to church, so we’ll go to some different churches from time to time. But usually we’ll be here. I’m as eagerly awaiting Joel’s arrival as you are, and as eagerly anticipating the next chapter in the short but remarkable history of this congregation.
When Sara retired everybody was sort of dreading her last sermon. Not because we thought that she would mess up, but because we knew how very difficult it would be for her. She talked openly about how she hoped she wouldn’t cry. No one is afraid that I’ll start crying. No one is feeling apprehensive about “will he be able to get through it.” No one is feeling sorry for me, nor should they. Though I have some very mixed feelings today, I am not sad. Nor am I relieved or particularly happy. I am mixed.
A career that I have loved and that has occupied almost my entire adult life is ending today. I love preaching. I love teaching. I love being a pastor and sometimes being able to help people. I love it when things go well at church, when programs are successful, when new people join, when hymns soar and children laugh. I love pottering around an empty church building. On the other hand, I am far beyond the usual retirement age and had another birthday on Friday. I never sleep late, and won’t now, but I am looking forward to reading the newspaper – including the crossword puzzle – before noon. I’ve never particularly admired old age; but since it’s here, I think I might as well enjoy it to the degree possible.
I am certainly not going to fuss at you. I’m not going to give you any advice. I won’t try to tell you what to do next, though I do have thoughts on the subject. I’m not going to tell you how much I love this church and how proud I am of the work we’ve done together. I hope you know that already. If you don’t, saying it today would be useless.
Although our mobile society provides us with a lot of experience, most of us have a hard time saying “good-bye.” Our language makes it difficult. “Good-bye” sounds so formal, so final. “Adios” sounds better, or “arrivederci.” Or, as teenagers say simply, “later.” Leaving is hard enough, but acknowledging it, talking about it, makes it more difficult. . The song has it right: “breaking up is hard to do.”
But I have to say something. Try somehow to put a closure to the years that we have spent together. Try to put closure to a career which definitely comes to an end this morning. There will be no more “retirement jobs” for me. And to do that, I thumbed, mentally, through the bible to search for examples of creative farewell sermons.
I read part of Moses’ final speech to the people of Israel. He had led these people out of slavery in Egypt and wandered with them through the wilderness for forty years. Finally they reached the verge of the promised land – so close that they could see it across the river. Moses knew that he couldn’t cross – that new leadership was needed, that they would have to go on without him. So he gathered the people together to say good bye to them.
He took quite a while to do it – his farewell address comprises over thirty chapters of what we call the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses talked directly about his leaving, without a hint of avoidance. He made no false promises. He reminded them of the way they had been together – with God – and told them what he wanted them to do in the future. Moses promised only that God would go with them in the future as God had led them in the past.
It is a fine sermon. I actually read a sermon on this text that a friend of mine preached on his last Sunday as pastor. I expect I could do that too. I could even preach his sermon. But there are problems. Moses was on his deathbed. In fact he died immediately after the sermon was over. Not quite relevant, I think. Besides, he spent forty years leading them through the wilderness; not twelve years as a part time “Parish Associate.”
Then, too, I think of Jesus. He didn’t avoid the pain of parting by simply slipping away or by denial. His disciples tried to do that: In Gethsemane they pled with him: “O Lord, we will never let that happen to you.” But he confronted them with the reality: “No. You will all fall away.”
They didn’t want any kind of farewell, but Jesus made them sit and listen. The gospel of John takes six long chapters to record this conversation. “Don’t worry,” was his point, “I’m leaving. But God will not abandon you. He will send the Holy Spirit to be with you forever. Shalom. Don’t’ be afraid.”
These words are often read at funerals, which are also farewells, of course. Jesus knew what the disciples would soon learn – parting is not a time for easy assurances and false promises. Rather, it is the time to turn again to the assurance of God’s continued presence and the promise that even in parting we are gathered up together in the peace of God.
So I thought of both Moses and Jesus, but came down to Paul. After all, he wandered around the Mediterranean for years, going from church to church. He never stayed very long in one place, and he had lots of practice in saying “good-bye.” The New Testament records many of his farewells. I certainly do not compare myself to Paul – nor you to the saints in Rome or Philippi or Corinth – but it does seem slightly more relevant than either Moses in the wilderness of Jordan or Jesus in Gethsemane.
Travel was dangerous in the first century – shipwrecks were common and pirates were all over the place. Plus Christians were liable to be arrested and executed for their faith. Paul knew that every time he left a place he might never see these people again. They knew it too.
Leaving the Corinthians must have been harder than most. This was a very difficult church. It was deeply divided. There were ethnic divisions. There were theological divisions, and some people thought that those who disagreed with them weren’t Christians at all. There were divisions between the rich and the poor. Some people brought roast beef to church suppers and sat together. Others brought tuna noodle casserole and they were made to sit in a different place. The rich also brought the communion wine, and some of them were accustomed to getting drunk at communion!
Paul made at least three visits to Corinth, and seems to have spent more time with these people than with any other church he served. He had a very special relationship with this church. It was a church that he had loved into being; that he had agonized over, fought against, argued with. A church that he was very proud of, despite its faults. A church that he was not reluctant to call “the Body of Christ.” He goes on for page after page of the most awful kind of criticism, and then says “but you are the Body of Christ; and individually, members of him.”
And in saying good-bye to them after his third visit he wrote:
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Mend your ways. Listen carefully to what I’ve said. Agree with one another. Live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Paul could bring himself to leave this church only by recognizing that he was not leaving them alone, not leaving them leaderless and bereft, but leaving them with capable leaders and leaving them in the grace, love, and fellowship of God.
And Paul knew that the same God who remained with the Corinthians would also continue to be with him, sustaining him through the remainder of his life. Life was uncertain in the first century, as it is uncertain in the 21st. But he lived in the assurance that: “my grace is sufficient for you.” And his ministry with them concluded with the benediction – literally the “good word”
And so what better way to conclude our formal relationship with each other – and to conclude a career which has been wonderfully fulfilling for me – than with the “good word” with which Paul concluded his ministry in Corinth:
May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord be gracious unto you
May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God the Father
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with us all – now and forever. AMEN