Have you ever been to the North Pole? About 15 months ago, Claire and I were flying home from the Maldives. Our journey included a 16 hour flight from Abu Dhabi to San Francisco that flew over the North Pole. I was awake at the time and happened to look out the window. Being 37,000 feet up and over the top of the globe, you could basically see all 24 time zones at once.
It was dusk.
Looking ahead toward to the west, I could see the glow of the sunset.
Looking back towards the east, I could see the glow of the sunrise.
Sunrise, sunset, all at the same time. The end of today, the beginning of tomorrow, in one paradoxical, time-defying moment.
That's where we are right here, right now. Sunrise, sunset, one day drawing to a close, a new day about to dawn. This is the last Sunday of Linda’s pastorate; we're living in the afterglow of three wonderful years. Kristin's appointment begins in six days, at midnight on July 1, the dawn of a new day and all that is to come. Like Ron said last Sunday, this is bardo, a time of transition. Sunrise, sunset.
Remembering Linda's Pastorate
I want to start by looking back and celebrating Linda's three years with us. I want to recall some familiar words she spoke every Sunday.
(1) Linda would always began worship by walking out among us and asking, "How are you?" Some of us would answer out loud, and Linda would respond with some variation of this: "I'm always better when I'm with you." And now she's not. Linda and Bob are in a major transition in their lives.
She's been a pastor for three decades. Linda has the heart of a pastor. She has found her identity in her relationship with her congregations, especially leading worship. Retirement is always an adjustment. Giving up the day-to-day tasks of running a church won't be hard (I can tell you), but every time Sunday morning rolls around, and she finds herself sitting in the pews with someone else standing in the pulpit, there's going to be a sense of loss, at least for awhile.
Her identity has been wrapped up with being a pastor. “I’m always better when I’m with you." I know she'll do just fine ... but for now, just a call to be mindful of Linda and Bob in our prayers.
(2) And then she would welcome us and especially welcome our visitors. "You're a gift to us, and we have a gift for you." One of the best gifts Linda has given Epworth is a systematic way of welcoming visitors. I didn't realize how intentional it was until I had (what I call) my exit interview with Linda a few weeks ago. You know that blue insert in the bulletin? It asks “how did you hear about us?” and “what did you like about the service?” It asks for email addresses so we can send them our newsletter. It also asks for home addresses. What I never knew was this: whenever visitors provided a local address, Linda would be on their doorstep that same afternoon. She’d bring a flyer with information about our programs. She’d bring an Epworth coffee mug. But most important, she brought herself, embodying Epworth's welcome. She said, “You’re important to us.” It made a difference! Over the course of three years, we have received 51 new members. She has shown us how to be an intentionally welcoming church ... and that's a gift we have to find ways to continue.
(3) How many times did Linda say this: “Thank you, Jerry. Thank you, choir.” I've never known a pastor so intentional and so consistent in saying thank you. She would thank our musicians, our liturgists, our greeters and ushers, the person who read the Scriptures, people who helped with various programs. I know whenever I preached, or led a charge conference, she would send me a handwritten note thanking me for my contribution.
I talked about this with Linda. Saying "thank you" is a big part of why she has been so effective. The single most important thing you can do in leading any voluntary organization is saying thank you, conveying genuine gratitude, and that came naturally for Linda because she truly felt grateful and appreciative. That's a major reason our capital campaign was so successful and why we are successfully funding Epworth's ministries. Saying thank you is something Linda did better than any pastor I've ever known. Thank you, Linda, for teaching us the power of thanksgiving.
(4) How about this: "Boys and girls, come on up. I've got something exciting for you!" Childrens sermons are an art form. They are not easy to do, something I prove every time I try. It's not easy putting abstract theological thoughts in concrete ways that young children can get, but Linda made it look easy, whether she performed a magic trick, or did a science experiment, or asked questions in just the right way. She engaged with our kids, and they responded. They came up with some incredibly insightful answers. I'll never forget the Sunday when Linda said, "I'm going to have to up my game" ... and she did.
(5) And then there's the way Linda welcomes us to the table. Odette introduced the rubric that says, this is not Epworth's table, this is not the United Methodist Church's table, this is God's table. To that, Linda has added, "Everyone is invited to this table, no exceptions." And then she'd have us repeat it: "no exceptions."
We are a diverse congregation. We live out our faith in many different ways. We have members who identify with a pretty traditional Christianity. We represent all varieties of progressive theologies. Some of us identify as agnostics or atheists. But we accept each other. We don't judge. We truly try to live out what Linda affirms: everyone is welcome, no exceptions.
(6) One final memory. During Linda's first year, I made the winning bid on a sermon topic of my choice at the Harvest of Gifts. The topic I asked Linda to preach on was this: what is the most intriguing question for you? Then I added the following: bonus points if you keep us in suspense, if you hold off on telling us that question until the very end of the sermon. I was really interested in how she would handle that question.
For her sermon, Linda discussed a series of interesting, perplexing theological questions, questions about the mystery of God, the mystery of life, the mystery of faith. At the end of each discussion, she said, "But that's not the most intriguing question for me." Finally we got to the end of her sermon, still paying rapt attention, when she got to her ultimate question: "What's the most intriguing question? For me, the most intriguing question is this: how would the world be different if the church lived out its faith?"
In a nutshell, that's who Linda is and that's what her ministry is about. She's fully conversant with systematic theology and biblical interpretation, but in her heart of hearts, Linda is a doer. She wants more than intellectual stimulation. Linda wants to know, what does it mean to live out our faith? What does it look like to carry out our mission? How can the Church make a difference in the lives of people and in the life of the world by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?
That has been Linda's ministry, her gift to Epworth, and it's a gift that has prepared us for our next chapter.
Looking ahead to Kristin's ministry
Sunrise, sunset. We're in this time between times, the sun still glowing in the west but already lighting up the eastern sky. What about this new day that's about to dawn?
When I started working on this sermon, I wanted to find a biblical text that expressed thanksgiving for the past and hope for the future — but nothing was coming to mind. And then I realized, doing a sermon that way is completely backwards. It contradicts everything I’ve taught my students. You're supposed to start with a biblical text and move to the sermon, not start with a sermon and then find a text that supports it. So it occurred to me to look at the lectionary readings for today. I’ve often found them uncannily relevant to the current situation. But on my first reading, today's lessons left me in despair.
There’s the lesson we heard from Genesis, the story of Sarah telling Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert.
There's a passage from Jeremiah lamenting his prophetic ministry: "The word of the Lord has [brought me] reproach and derision all day long."
The Gospel of Matthew has one of Jesus' most difficult sayings: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."
When the only word of grace comes from Paul — Christ "died to sin ... [but] lives to God" — that's one tough set of lessons. That's a difficult word to preach.
But then it struck me. What totally appropriate lessons for now. Texts like these rescue us from cheap grace and easy answers. There can be no good news except by looking squarely into the face of bad news. There can be no hope without recognizing the despair. There can be no reconciliation without understanding the alienation all around us. That's what these four texts are about — good news in a time of despair.
Kristin Stoneking is soon to be our new pastor. She'll be in this pulpit three Sundays from now. I've googled her. Over the past four years, Kristin has served as Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. This organization is taking on some really tough issues. At the top of the list is the civil war in Syria and the human tragedy of refugees seeking safe haven from that conflict.
Such is the world we live in. There is enmity between religions. There's a clash between cultures, between modernism and traditional ways of life. There is a widening gap between rich and poor. Some people live very comfortably, while many people go to bed hungry each night, have no access to medical care. All of this feeds an alienation that too often erupts in horrific acts of violence — people who gun down their neighbors, suicide bombers who murder innocent bystanders. Alienation is at the root of the world’s violence and terrorism.
What text could possibly be more relevant today than this awful story of Sarah who banishes her servant Hagar? than this awful story of Abraham who shuts his door to his son Ishmael? than the awful cruelty of sending two members of your family into the desert to die?
What could be more horrible? This is one of the most horrible moments in the entire biblical story. Closing doors. Shrinking the circle of inclusion. Excluding Hagar and Ishmael. Isn’t this where today’s alienation began — the enmity, the bitter anger, the ongoing violence that stands in the way of Jews and Christians and Muslims living together in peace?
Shutting the door and shrinking the circle created an alienation between two peoples that's at the heart of the world's problems today.
Reconciliation is so important. This is Epworth’s work. This is Kristin’s work. This is the work of all people of good will all around the world. Reconciliation means finding ways to reopen closed doors. God knows that wise and courageous leaders have tried. God also knows that too many people don't want that door opened, and that too many people would be unwilling to walk through that door, even if it were open. This is we find ourselves today as a Church, a country, a world.
Reconciliation requires open minds, open hearts, open doors.
Doors that are open to all of God's children.
Doors that are open to people of every race, every ethnicity.
Doors that are open to people of every creed and to people who hold no creed.
Doors that are open no matter where you come from,
no matter what language you speak,
no matter your gender, no matter your orientation,
no matter whether you’re rich or poor.
This is at the heart of what we believe: Ours is a radically inclusive God. Every child of God is a person of sacred worth. And God so loves the world, that everyone is invited to God’s love, everyone is invited to God's table. Everyone is welcome, no exceptions.