My “Farewell Sermon” at Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC
Scriptures: John 15:12-17; Acts 2:1-21
My first Sunday here was as a pulpit supply preacher on August 7th, 2011. The Lay Leader that day was John, who was a tremendous help, the very first of many here who have reached out to support, encourage and guide me, every time I’ve been in this Sanctuary or ministered in any capacity on behalf of this congregation.
Just over eight months ago, I began serving as your Ministerial Intern. That day, I was leaping into the unknown. I was nervous about the year long experience we’d both committed ourselves to, worried about saying the wrong thing, doing something stupid, or offending someone inadvertently; hoping our time together would be a positive experience for all of us.
And every day since has been a great blessing, filled with experiences I will always treasure. This has been a time of growth and of correction, a time of learning and of teaching, a time of deepening and broadening my faith and ministry (and – I hope – yours), a time where we have each given a piece of ourselves to the other, a time when we planted seeds for the future within each other, a time where we have been open to each other and shared in deeply moving, loving ways. We’ve bonded with each other in ways that will last forever.
Those most involved in mentoring and guiding me during my time here, the members of my Teaching Parish Committee, and Tom and Cathy, are all up here this morning, continuing their support through our joint ministry today, doing what you have all been so diligent in doing these past eight months – affirming and guiding me in hundreds of ways, small and large. But most importantly, and most memorably, you’ve all offered me your friendship, and your love, and I have been profoundly grateful and blessed by it.
But now, our journey together draws to a close. Our future has arrived, a future where our paths diverge. A time when, once again, we must leap into the unknown; but this time of ministering together will live on, in our memories. Good memories, mostly – I hope! Certainly that will be the case for me. It’s been a good year, but as we often say when times such as this come to a close, our journey together has been all too short.
But is it the end?
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father…”
I do not call you “Servants” any longer… but I have called you friends…
We are embarking on a new stage in our relationship, which is also the message of Pentecost. The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a declaration that Christ’s relationship with his disciples, including us, is one that can never die, and one that has changed into something new. There is a new level of openness, of sharing, of affirming, of vulnerability. A deeper bond has been born, binding us together through the Holy Spirit that now indwells each and every one of us.
By saying “I call you friends,” Jesus is telling his disciples that they are no longer lost in his shadow, they will no longer be faceless figures, doomed to vanish into the mists of history with his passing. They are now “friends” – and more than that in fact, because the word we read as “friends” in this passage is perhaps better translated as “Those Whom I Love.” … I do not call you servants any longer, but those whom I love… In saying this, he is affirming them, and that all he has, and is, is theirs.
Affirmation has been central to my experience here this year. You have affirmed me; and I have learned that affirmation is much more than simply saying “I accept you as you are and for who you are.” You live your commitment to being an “Open and Affirming Church;” and, as I’ve often said from this pulpit, affirmation is an action, not a state. It is a term that, unlike the word “acceptance,” does not imply that the other has now passed some sort of test for membership within this community.
To affirm is to free the other from needing to meet our expectations. You can affirm someone even if they are not acceptable; in fact, we are called to do so since acceptance implies we’ve judged the other as conforming to our standards.
Affirmation requires embracing the other, and loving them, without judgment, for every aspect of who they are, and what they are. Affirmation frees the other to undertake the path that their own relationship with the Eternal drives them to pursue. It is an acknowledgement that we don’t have all of the answers, and that the other’s answers therefore deserve just as much respect and care as we expect them to show for ours. This is driven by our firm conviction that the Holy Spirit is available to all and that God is present in all of Creation, a conviction rooted in Peter’s quote from Joel to that crowd of many nations on Pentecost: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” All Flesh. So, it is our role to discern God in the other, even if the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives manifests itself in ways that we are neither familiar nor comfortable with.
This is what Love is.
Pentecost is a sign that we are now loved as equals, not led – no longer servants subject to the will of another, but brothers and sisters in Christ. The Holy Spirit is guiding and comforting us, and has bound us together in a way that can never be broken, nor forgotten. Through Pentecost, we have been affirmed, and set free, and set upon the paths we are called to follow, responsible for our own journey, and called to support and assist the other in their own walk with the Divine.
And so we are called to love each other – for another definition of Love, and of affirmation, is that we are consciously placing the other’s welfare and best interests ahead of our own, acknowledging that our own happiness and wellbeing are meaningless unless those whom we love are also happy and fulfilled in their own walk with God.
This is how Jesus loves us. And today, we are finding that this is how we love each other. You have prepared me for the ministry. Now it is time to affirm this by setting me free, and a time for me to affirm you in the same way – to acknowledge that God is leading us in paths that are diverging, and that this is a good thing. We will miss each other, but we will never be separated, because we carry within each of us, a bit of each other; and we are bonded now, in ways that cannot be broken. We are united within the Holy Spirit that has been poured out upon us and all of Creation. We are bound together in communion with the grace and love of our infinite and almighty and always astounding God.
You have changed me. Through your love of me, I’m better able to express, and enact the faith we share, I’m better able to share our faith with others, and to live out our faith as I am called to do. Through your example, I’ve learned to become more open to both giving and receiving love. I’ve become much better at sharing the Love and Peace of Christ with all whom I encounter, and I have learned the true meaning of what it means to say “you are my friend.” I’ve learned to open up and affirm you, and others, through your own openness and affirmation of me.
And now, this phase of our relationship is coming to an end, but that in itself is also an affirmation – a statement on your part, and on mine, that we are willing to let go of each other, that love does not mean control, but support. We are stating that we are confident that God’s love will stay with us, just as our own love stays with each other, confident that our love, and God’s love, will walk with each of us as our paths diverge. We are affirming that our friendship is more than simply a passing episode in each other’s lives. It is a living, growing thing. We are part of each other, and our destinies are intertwined through our friendship and our unity in the Holy Spirit, we are joint recipients of the love that God pours out upon us.
You are, and always will be, a vital part of my ministry, wherever it takes me. You are Those Whom I Love, and always will be: fiercely and eternally loved, just as Christ loves us. So, this is not the end, but a new beginning, a new leap of faith into the arms of God.
Farewell my friends, God is with you.
Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).