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Monday, July 10 2017

 Pastor Becca’s Last Sermon at Zion CC

Like many good sermon ideas, the idea for this sermon came while I was doing something completely unrelated to my ministry work as your pastor. I was straightening and packing, getting our house ready to sell, and I was listening to the Broadway Showstoppers channel on Pandora Radio. And a song from the Broadway musical Hamilton came on.

Hamilton is the most popular musical on Broadway right now, by a VERY wide margin. It’s written by Lin-Manuel Miranda about one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton--and it’s unlike anything else ever seen on a theatrical stage. Miranda uses hip-hop, rap, traditional Broadway, jazz, reggae, R & B, British Pop, and other musical genres to tell the story of Hamilton’s life. The cast is multi-racial, so major players in our nation’s history are depicted by mostly Black, Latino/a, and Asian faces. I have to say, even if you’re not a rap fan, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Daveed Diggs as Lafayette bust out one of the fastest rap songs ever made as he tells about his victories in battle.

Anyway, while I was packing, the song “One Last Time” from Hamilton came on. This is the song where George Washington tells Hamilton he’s not running for re-election for President, and asks Hamilton to write his farewell address. Hamilton is stunned. He keeps trying to convince Washington to run for re-election, but Washington is insistent that stepping down is the right move. Washington sings:
One last time, the people will hear from me, one last time,
And if we get this right, we’re gonna teach them how to say goodbye, say goodbye, you and I.

And I heard those lyrics, while packing to leave, and I was like HOLY COW THAT’S MY LAST SERMON AT ZION! THAT’S IT! While I was preparing to say goodbye to you all, God spoke to me through that song.

Here’s why this song struck me-- we humans typically stink at dealing with goodbyes. Seriously. Most of the time, we hate goodbyes. We don’t want them to happen. We want things to be the same, to never have to say goodbye or lose someone. Hamilton spends a huge chunk of the song trying to convince Washington not to step down, but Washington knows that leaving is the best thing for the country. By leaving, he’s teaching the nation how to say goodbye, how to transition between leaders, so that in the future they would be able to do it effectively.

Washington understands that goodbyes are a part of life, so people need to be taught how to not stink at dealing with them. We need to be taught how to say goodbye.

And since I’m leaving Zion, and this is my last weekend with you all—this song made me think—how does GOD teach us how to say goodbye?? And what does the Bible teach us about saying goodbye??

So I went to my Bible and I found three major stories about people saying goodbye. They are all really great stories of people saying goodbye to one another. What’s interesting is that you won’t usually hear these Bible texts read and preached on-- in Mainline Protestant congregations, at least. We use something called the Three Year Lectionary, which provides a rotating cycle of Bible passages we read in church every week, and it lasts three years, and then it starts up again.

And none of these saying goodbye stories in the Bible are included in our Three Year Lectionary, except the Gospel reading from Luke, which is only included for use on Ascension Day—that’s a special day on a Thursday near the end of the Easter season when the Church celebrates the resurrected Jesus being carried up to heaven. And most churches do not celebrate Ascension Day. So very rarely are these Bible texts read and preached on in church.

Which made me even more excited to pick these texts to preach on, and look at these texts with you today. We need to be taught how to say goodbye. Let’s look at these Bible passages we almost never look at, to see what we can learn from them-- how God is teaching us to say goodbye. Sound good??

So when I was reading these stories, I saw three major themes jump out about saying goodbye.
-Saying goodbye is important.
-Saying goodbye is emotional.
-Saying goodbye shows us God is faithful.

So first, saying goodbye is important.

In the first reading from the Old Testament, in First Samuel, we see two best friends saying goodbye. If you were confused about the weird shooting arrow stuff at the beginning of the reading, it’s because it was a code David and Jonathan made up together. Saul, Jonathan’s dad, was super angry at David and really jealous of him. He was worried David would be king rather than him. Saul wanted David dead, but David was Jonathan’s best friend, and you know, he liked his best friend alive rather than dead. So they set up this code, so David would know to leave town if Saul was on the warpath. Turns out, Saul was—so Jonathan and David put their plan into action, and David knew he had to leave to stay alive. So these two best friends have to say goodbye to each other.

What’s really interesting is that their code and plan could have been carried out without them saying goodbye to one another. David could have found out he had to leave away from Jonathan—in fact, that probably would have been safer for everyone, since Saul is Jonathan’s dad. But they specifically set it up so that if David had to skip town fast, they could still say their goodbyes. Saying goodbye was important. They needed that closure before David left.

In the second reading from the book of Acts of the Apostles, Paul is saying goodbye to the elders, or leaders, of the church in Ephesus. He gives kind of a mini-speech about how he traveled in Asia, teaching about Jesus and serving in Jesus’ name. Paul talks about how the Holy Spirit is sending him to Jerusalem, even though the Spirit told him that jail time and persecution will happen to him. And then they all say goodbye, before Paul boards his ship to head to Jerusalem.

The thing is, Paul wasn’t leaving Ephesus when this goodbye happened. He was actually leaving a place called Miletus. He specifically sends a message to Ephesus, asking the elders to meet him before he left. Paul knew that he and the elders needed time to say goodbye. He knew that saying goodbye was important.

Our third reading from the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ last words with his followers, the disciples, before he ascended into heaven. He tells them about how he fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah in the holy scriptures, and he tells them that they are to witness to this truth, that they should share the good news of forgiveness and resurrection to all nations. He promises that they will receive power, and should stay in Jerusalem until that happens. Then he led them to Bethany and blessed them, and he was carried up to heaven.

What I find interesting about the resurrected Jesus’ ascension into heaven is that he could have ascended whenever he wanted. He could have just told the disciples “Yo, I’m going back to heaven tomorrow, see you later!” But Jesus chose to leave them in their presence. He chose to spend time with them to be clear about their mission, to say goodbye and bless them. He made saying goodbye an important part of the story.

So in all three of these Bible stories, the people make saying goodbye a priority. It’s an important part of the human experience—saying goodbye is part of the closure process we need. And honestly, we instinctively know that. This is why family members and loved ones usually rush to be near when a loved one is dying. This is why we have funerals and have burial services. This is why we have special things like “Farewell and Godspeed” that we do in church, to officially mark the goodbye. This is why we feel kind of lost when a goodbye doesn’t happen, and we find other ways to say goodbye, like flowers and visit to a grave, or a phone call/email/letter. I’ve had more people come to visit me in my office in the last few weeks than I have the whole time I’ve been here! It’s because we have that need to say goodbye. We know that saying goodbye is important.

OK, so we know that saying goodbye is important. I’m probably not telling you something new when I mention our second theme-- saying goodbye is emotional.

In David and Jonathan’s case, the Bible says both of them “kissed each other, and wept with each other.” They weren’t afraid to let out the emotion they were feeling when they were saying goodbye to one another. And not everyone will feel as strongly as someone else when saying goodbye—it says “David wept the more.” Sometimes, one person saying goodbye will feel more emotional about the goodbye than the other person or persons.

When Paul is saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders, it says “There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship.” So the Ephesian elders and Paul were also not afraid to be emotional and weep and embrace while they were saying goodbye—in fact, it describes them as grieving. Sometimes, saying goodbye is a grief process. Clearly, it’s a grief process if someone dies, but even if someone is alive, saying goodbye can also be a form of grief. If you’ve ever dealt with a break-up or a divorce or know someone who has, for example, when that goodbye happens and that relationship ends, it can be natural to experience grief.

When Jesus and his disciples say goodbye when Jesus ascends into heaven, there is a very different emotional response. It says that after he is carried up to heaven, the disciples “worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” So rather than grief and weeping, the disciples experienced joy in saying goodbye to Jesus, and were even drawn to worshiping frequently. So saying goodbye is emotional in all three stories—but what type of emotion isn’t always the same for everyone and for every goodbye.

Saying goodbye always has emotions attached to it, but those emotions can be very different depending on the person and circumstance. When saying goodbye, you could feel sad and cry and grieve like David and Jonathan and the Ephesians and Paul, or you could feel joyful like the disciples and want to praise God. And you could feel anything else in between when saying goodbye—angry, relieved, or even numb, which is an emotion by itself. And you could feel angry one minute, and sad the next, and numb the next— because feeling multiple feelings when saying goodbye can happen too. No matter which emotions you feel, saying goodbye is emotional. These stories show us that it’s OK to feel emotions, whatever emotions you’re feeling, when saying goodbye. It’s normal and natural to feel those emotions, and to show them.

OK—so we’ve got that saying goodbye is important, and saying goodbye is emotional. This is the third and last theme—saying goodbye shows us that God is faithful. God is still with us and has a plan.

When David sees Jonathan’s code and knows he has to leave to stay alive, the first thing it says he does is that he “rose from beside the stone-heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.” Stone-heaps were made all throughout the Old Testament to commemorate a specific time when God acted in human history. And laying on the ground face-down was a typical prayer position. So as soon as David knew he had to leave and say goodbye to his best friend, his first response was recognizing God’s actions and to pray. And then while they’re saying goodbye, Jonathan says to David: “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.” Even in the middle of an emotional goodbye, the men acknowledge that God has a plan and is with them and their descendants.

And Paul also talks about God’s presence and God’s plan when he’s saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders. Paul says: “And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.” Paul knows that the Holy Spirit is with him and his guiding him to do ministry in Jerusalem, even though it will be hard. God’s presence and God’s plan doesn’t mean it will be all hugs and puppies and rainbows. But Paul knows that God will be there through it all, and he’s telling that to remind the elders (and us!) that God is always there and has a plan. God is faithful.

And before Jesus ascends into heaven, he explains to the disciples how God had a plan. Using the scriptures, he tells them how it was foretold that he would suffer and rise from the dead after three days, and that repentance and forgiveness is Jesus’ name is to be told to everyone around the world by the disciples themselves. And he promises them that they will be “clothed with power from on high”, which will be the coming of the Holy Spirit to them. Then he blesses them—and literally while he’s in the middle of blessing him he ascends into heaven. So Jesus is very clear that God has had a plan all along, and still has a plan for the disciples to be witnesses, and that the Holy Spirit will come to them and be with them and give them the power to do these things. And Jesus even blesses them as he is leaving them.

So—we saw in all three Bible readings people saying goodbye, and learned that saying goodbye is important, saying goodbye is emotional, and saying goodbye shows us that God is faithful. Since we learned those things today, we can say that through the stories of the Bible, as Washington said in the musical Hamilton—God is teaching us how to say goodbye.

In my last sermon here at Zion as one of your pastors, as I speak to you “One Last Time”— my hope is that God has spoken through my words to help us say goodbye to one another, to teach us how to say goodbye. As we learned, marking this goodbye is important, and it is undoubtedly emotional.

But as we also learned, God is faithful. God is always with us and has a plan. God is up to some amazing things at Zion, and my leaving doesn’t change that. The Holy Spirit is still here at Zion, and still has a plan. And as Washington sings in “One Last Time,” saying goodbye can come from a place of strength, to help people move on and to teach people how to say goodbye, both now and in the future.

As I was writing this last sermon for you all, I found myself singing that Hamilton song in my head. And Washington’s words became my own words, with me singing to God the Holy Spirit:
One last time, the people will hear from me, one last time,
And if we get this right, we’re gonna teach them how to say goodbye, say goodbye, you and I.

May my saying goodbye to you all today help God teach us how to say goodbye. Amen?

Posted by: AT 09:55 am   |  Permalink   |  Email

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656

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