A Sermon for July 27, 2008, John 16:13 and I Thessalonians 5:12-23
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for calling me to be an associate pastor at Colesville and for the ministry that has occurred here. May the words of my last sermon here and the ponderings of each and every heart be good and holy in your ever abiding presence, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Since it’s airing 25 years ago in February 1983, the series finale of the award-winning show M*A*S*H entitled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”, remains the single most watched episode and TV event of all time with more than 125 million viewers. Set during the Korean War, M*A*S*H followed the daily exploits of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit located 3 miles from the front lines of the war zone. Amid the horrors of war-wounded soldiers, sniper bullets, bombs and incompetent Army guidelines-the doctors and nurses relied on humor, hijinks and hearts of compassion to keep sane. And through their common experience, the members of the 4007th became a close knit family and community.
In the episode “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the community finally receives some long awaited good news-war is over and they can return home to their families and friends! It is a cause for joyful celebration and sad goodbyes. The doctors and nurses soon realize that “going home” means there current relationships will end as they depart for various destinations in the States. The person that struggles with this inevitable change is surgeon BJ Hunnicutt as we see from the following clip in which BJ tells Hawkeye what he won’t miss about the 4077th:
[M*A*S*H Goodbye, Farewell and Amen clip: Won’t Say Goodbye]
BJ doesn’t want to say those two short and simple words “good-bye.” For him, it carries a heavy weight of finality. BJ knows that saying “good-bye” means he will never see Hawkeye again and that for the rest of his life, he’ll have to live without that daily friendship he was so accustomed to having during the Korean War. So BJ opts to pretend that he and Hawkeye will keep in touch with Christmas cards and annual visits to medical conventions or each other’s homes.
And who can blame BJ for feeling and acting this way? Many of us, me included, can identify with BJ’s anxiety, pain, sadness and reluctance toward saying the two words that acknowledge the end of a particular relationship in a certain setting. Saying “good-bye” to a friend or mentor who is leaving can be extremely difficult-once the words are spoken, a person then has to learn how to live without the other in their daily midst. That type of dramatic change can be scary.
The twelve disciples likely experienced some fear and anxiety when Jesus announced a huge change while having dinner with them in an upper room. I imagine there were some shocked faces, a few tears and twittering hands among the disciples as they listened to their teacher talk of betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. Jesus doesn’t let them dwell long in their fear of what will happen to them and he assures the disciples that they will not be abandoned:
“When the Spirit of truth comes, (says Jesus) the Spirit will guide you into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and the Spirit will declare to you the things that are to come.”
In her book Encounters with Jesus, Frances Taylor Gench, commenting on Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples, writes:
“Jesus’ announcement of his imminent departure leaves his disciples anxious and distressed. The blow of this announcement, however, is softened by extraordinary words of assurance and promise…Disciples will not be abandoned or left to fend for themselves. After Jesus’ return to God, the Paraclete/Holy Spirit will be sent in his name and will accompany them in their continued life and mission in this world…The teaching role of the Paraclete/Spirit is to pass on the tradition of what Jesus said and did without corruption, yet also to reveal the mind of Christ in new situations.”
While Jesus’ words of assurance and promise of the coming Spirit may not make a departure less difficult, the words do give hope in the midst of change. Jesus’ words lift the heavy weight of finality that is often felt when someone says “good-bye.”
And the presence of the Spirit allows time for both parties who depart from one another to reflect on the sacredness of that moment of change. As Edward White points out in the book Saying Goodbye: A Time of Growth for Congregations and Pastors:
“Often it is the transitions of life that are the greatest occasions for growth. In addition to appreciating what we are leaving and what we are moving to, we can learn many secrets of the Spirit by monitoring the experience of the transition itself. We can discover new things about ourselves and about the God who is with us in the transitions.”
My hope is that we will discover some amazing things about ourselves and God upon my departure from Colesville and move to Atlanta, Georgia with my family this week. Almost immediately we will begin to discover that I will no longer be able to relate to you in the same way as I previously have as the permanently installed associate pastor who was daily active and present in the congregation’s life and Sunday worship. After today, I won’t be in a position to provide pastoral care or talk about church business or perform baptisms or preach, teach and serve with members. Nor will I be able to answer questions about youth trip logistics, supply leaders with resources or help church leaders discern ministry issues they’re facing. After working so closely with the congregation in that capacity for three years, shifting out of that role will be difficult for both of us. Joan Mahon notes in the same book Saying Goodbye:
“The pastor ceases to be the pastor/friend and becomes friend only; members cease being associates/clients/advocates/friends and also become friends only. Relationships must then be redefined as friendships alone, apart from ecclesiastical roles. The depth of mutual loss and grief is often so great the inherent difficult in shifting these roles and redefining those relationships becomes compounded by mutual pain. But shifted and redefined they must be, and the more intentionally and clearly those role shifts are made, the sooner the pastor and members alike can establish healthy new church relationships.”
It’ll take time for both the congregation and me to get use to that shift in our relationship, and for that reason, I’ve personally committed to not having any communication with members for the next five to six months. I know that’s frustrating and that there are still members who are puzzled by this request. Trust me, it’s a decision that I’m making out of my love for you and the love I have for this church.
I love you enough to let you go and be the people God is calling you to be-a Colesville with memories of my ministry here but without me as your permanent associate. All I ask in return is that you also love me enough to let me go and be the person God is calling me to be-a 32-year-old Presbyterian pastor, husband and father who will always hold the memories of this church in his heart as he begins serving a new call as the associate pastor of youth and missions at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian. And to borrow the words of Pastor Susan in a 2006 article about pastoral transitions in Presbyterians Today:
Love that new pastor as much as you love me. It will be your best affirmation that my ministry with you was healthy, strong and enduring. It has been my main prayer in this ministry to deepen your commitment to Jesus Christ, his church and his mission, and your continued leadership in this congregation will be the best tribute to me and my ministry.
Remember also a similar parting message by the Apostle Paul to the church in Thessalonica:
“we appeal to you, brothers and sisters,* to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets,* 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound* and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hold fast to those farewell words of Paul. The final message of his letter beautifully describes what it means to be a follower of Christ in a life that is full of so much change. Being a follower of Christ is about loving others, encouraging the faint-hearted, helping the weak and be patient with all people. It’s about avoiding vengeance and seeking to do good for all. It’s about rejoicing, praying, and thanksgiving to God for all God has done for us.
It’s also about making room for the Spirit to flow and carry us on paths that fulfill God’s vision for a more just and peace-filled world. It’s about constantly moving forward in love to witness the ever-changing, ever-redeeming, ever-reforming, and ever-reshaping kingdom of God that is being established for all of creation. It’s about pushing past complacency and stagnancy so that the Church Universal, God’s ambassador for love, can continually grow and be the ever-stretching hands, feet, arms, legs, hearts and body of Christ in the world. To do the things God intends for us to do, we must open our eyes to see change-no matter how painful and difficult at times-as new beginnings rather than endings. It starts, ironically enough, when we begin observing the deeper meaning at the heart of “good-bye.” As the Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner notes:
“A woman with a scarf over her head hoists her six-year-old up onto the first step of the school bus. “Goodbye,” she says. A father on the phone with his freshman son has just finished bawling him out for his poor grades. There is mostly silence at the other end of the line. “Well, goodbye,” the father says…The noise of the traffic almost drowns out the sound of the word, but the shape of it lingers on the old man’s lips. He tries to look vigorous and resourceful as he holds out his hand to the other old man. “Goodbye.” This time they say it so nearly in unison that is makes them both smile. It was a long while ago that the words ‘God be with you’ disappeared into the word ‘goodbye,” but every now and again some trace of them still glimmers through.”
In recent weeks I’ve seen traces of “God be with you” glimmer through the various ways in that members’ have shared their “good-byes,” -from tearful and heart-felt conversations to emails to cards to affirmation sheets to signed paper towel rolls and T-shirts to a Care Bear stuffed animal given to me by a youth who didn’t want me to ever forget her.
And it those simple and powerful acts of “good-bye” that remind me of God’s wondrous presence in our lives over the past three years. You’ve witnessed them too-those glimmering traces of God’s presence like Sunday and Tuesday night youth programs; pastors’ Bible studies; worship services; mission projects; youth trips; fellowship events; baptisms, funerals, weddings, pastoral visits, baby showers; Confirmation, and Sunday School. Those glimmering traces of God’s presence have made me a better person, father, pastor and Christ-follower. Those glimmering traces of God’s presence have shaped and will continue to shape all of you to be the loving and passionate people God calls you to be.
And while there is no guarantee that any of us will ever see each other again, I do believe the glimmering traces of God’s presence will forever connect us and forever illuminate the separate paths we travel to do the work of Christ.
God be with you. Farewell. Amen.
[Following the charge and bendiction was a viewing of the final scene from “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” in which BJ leaves Hawkeye a note spelled out in sandbags for him to see as his chopper took off. The note read: GOODBYE]
“Saying Goodbye: A Time of Growth For Congregations and Pastors” by Edward A. White
“Encountering Jesus” by Frances Taylor Gench
“Listening To Your Life” by Frederick Buechner
“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” MASH, February 1983