Text: Matthew 6:25-33
I have dreaded this day. There is no way to sugarcoat that. The thought that this will be my last sermon as your pastor has almost paralyzed me. But I chose this fate, and like the child who lets go of his balloon to see if it will fly, and then pitches a fit when it won’t come back, it’s hard to feel too sorry for those of us who create our own losses.
One of my favorite lines comes from Norman Mclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, where a father reflects on the mysterious life and death of his youngest son. The father says, “We can love completely even if we do not have complete understanding.” I have been the beneficiary of that thinking over these last weeks. I know that many of you cannot understand why I am leaving Pullen; to be honest there are moments when I don’t understand it myself. But even so, you have lavished your loving support on me and my family. Thank you for that grace.
For years whenever one of you came through the line after church and was kind enough to say, “I felt like you were preaching that just to me,” I would often respond, “No, I was preaching to me and letting you overhear it.” You may have thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t. And if you have any doubt about the veracity of that statement, consider the text I have selected for today. It’s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount declaring, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” So, for one last time, I invite you to listen in as I preach to myself.
I love this text because it suggests two of the most important lessons any of us can learn in life: what to let go of and what to seek after. Most of the passage is dedicated to the former. Jesus is unusually clear in telling his followers to let go of their worries about securing food and clothing. He points to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field to remind them that God’s care for the creation is sufficient. Though, one must wonder if Jesus came to regret the clarity with which he spoke these words. You may recall that he later had to feed 5,000 of his followers because they took his teaching about not worrying about food quite literally.
Now, this is the one thing I know about worry. It’s hard to talk someone out of it. And when you are unsure about the very basics of life—food, shelter, clothing, paying your bills–then worry is a natural reaction. It can be hard to let go of that concern when there is more going out of your account than what is coming in each month.
Even so, when our lives are filled with anxiety about our material standing in the world there isn’t much space left for the things that actually give life its meaning. Perhaps this is what Jesus is driving at in this text. If our attachment to what we own or what we want to own is too strong there isn’t much room left in our souls to discover the truly good stuff.
And the good stuff isn’t on sale down at the mall. The spiritual practice of letting go of our attachments frees us to hear the subtle whispers of God and find the truth about ourselves. It takes intentionality, though, to create enough space inside us to start noticing what we need to notice, to start seeing what we need to see, and to start hearing what we need to hear.
The last two months have been the most intentional period in my life of trying to let go. Some of this is obvious. I’m letting go of the only career I’ve ever had, and I’m letting go of this church I love. Beyond that, however, has been a level of detaching that is even harder. I have struggled to let go of my worries about providing for my family. I have grudgingly let go of the influence and opportunities granted me because I am one of the pastors at Pullen. I have suffered the pain of letting go of my self-identity as a Christian minister. None of this has been fun or easy.
And the obvious question is why have I subjected myself, and in some sense all of you, to this process. Because when that strange moment of clarity came when I knew it was time to leave vocational ministry, that’s all I knew. And it wasn’t nearly enough. I needed to know more than it was time to get off this path. I needed to know which path was right for the next part of the journey. The great enemies in that search were my anxieties and attachments. It’s hard to sense the nudges of the Spirit when you are feasting on the bread of anxious toil. It’s hard to figure out what your soul is yearning for when all you think about is what you will no longer have.
So, I have tried in fits and spurts to set aside these concerns and create the space my soul needed to hear and see and notice. And it worked, not in the sense that my life is all figured out and I’m on the fast track somewhere, but in the sense I caught glimpses of who I am becoming and where I want to head. I still do my share of worrying, and can easily lose sight of those birds of the air and lilies of the field, but in my better moments I am letting go and finding the good stuff God is showing me.
The other lesson that jumps out at me in this text comes at the very end. After talking at length about what to let go of, Jesus shifts to what we should seek after: “But strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) So, what is this kingdom that we are supposed to seek first? This is the ongoing struggle for the Church’s soul. Some would say the kingdom is an exclusive resort where only those who say the right words are allowed to enter. Others claim the kingdom is that place where all your wishes are granted if you can just crack the code that leads to health, wealth, and unlimited happiness. And then some preach that the kingdom is a place of dominating power where the laws of God are united with the laws of the state in order to shape society in a particular direction.
In reality, the kingdom Jesus proclaimed and pointed to was none of these things. It was a place where the model citizens were poor widows, hated Samaritans, and reformed tax cheats. It was a place where the destitute and disabled and sick were not to be pitied, but to be lifted up and learned from and noticed for their humanity. It was a place where the despised were embraced, the guilty were given a second chance, and sinners were more trustworthy than saints. It is a kingdom where grace and compassion are the currency of the realm and the letter of the law is exposed as laughable. It is the kingdom that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed and taught and died for, and you can’t find it everywhere, in fact it’s hard to find anywhere, but seeking after it and living into it are the highest aspirations we can adopt.
In our best moments, this is the kingdom of God I have experienced this church seeking. We are a congregation of misfits who didn’t believe right or look right or love right in other churches so we ended up here. Just remember, Jesus went around with a bunch of misfits himself. We are a church committed to people and issues that much of the religious establishment not only disagrees with, but finds reprehensible. Just remember, Jesus was rejected by the religious establishment but he was loved by those the establishment found reprehensible. We are a community unafraid to challenge traditional thinking and teaching because we believe the Spirit of the Living God still has truth to reveal. Just remember, Jesus taught in a way that celebrated the best of his tradition and turned the rest of it upside down.
Yes, in our best moments this is the church I have known and felt privileged to lead. A place where the miracles of redemption and resurrection have been on regular display simply because our doors are open to all and we value mercy over judgment. We have preached and taught and sought after this alternative vision of God’s kingdom because we believe it is the only true kingdom worth seeking. As Pullen goes through necessary changes in the months and years ahead, I pray that this vision of God’s kingdom always holds sway in our church.
There is an old joke among preachers that when you have something really controversial to say, or if you just want to tell off the chair of the deacons, save it for your “Last Sunday Sermon.” My problem is that I have been given the privilege of saying controversial things any time I stepped into this pulpit, and I have nothing but deep love and appreciation for the chair of our deacons. No, all I have left to say in this “Last Sunday Sermon” is thank you.
I thank my friends and colleagues on the staff who have been partners in the nearly impossible task of working in this church. I cherish these years we have shared, I am sustained by our stories and laughter, and I ask your forgiveness for the times I failed you. I thank the young adults who welcomed me into their world and pretended I was still young enough to be one of them. Our Sunday nights together reminded me how much I love teaching and how much I love the Bible in spite of itself. I thank the youth and children of our church whose generous hugs and curious questions were some of my favorite moments. I thank all of the lay leaders who were patient with me over these years and who taught me so much just by observing you. And I thank my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends in our church. You invited me into your world so that I could see the beautiful and painful truths you live with every day, and my life has been forever changed because of it. You inspire me and have helped shape my soul into something so much deeper than it would be if I had not known you. Your cause will always be my cause.
And to all of you, my Pullen family, I say thank you for these years. In one of my first sermons I used the metaphor of a dance that was just beginning to describe our relationship as pastor and parishioners. Now as the music begins to fade, and our dance comes to an end, I can hardly believe it is over. I have loved every dip, turn, and even the awkward moments when we stepped on each other. No pastor could ask for a better dance partner. May the Lord of the dance bless you and keep you always.