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My last message to the beloved of Bethesda Lutheran in Ames, Iowa.
Goodbyes are no fun. Let’s just name that. This is the 3rd congregation I have said farewell to. It is not something I ever look forward to. The first two goodbyes of this sort were during seminary; one a farewell to a part-time church role, the other a parting after a one-year internship.
“Don’t get too attached,” I was often advised at those Florida churches. “Because you won’t be here long.” I found myself replying, “but relationships are the core of what it is to be a people of faith!” So I ignored their advice. And that worked out ok.
But those Florida settings were shorter durations; known stops on the path toward ordained ministry. This time around, after almost half a decade of us being together, well, it seems harder.
As far as goodbyes go I’ll borrow from something that’s been said to me a few times, and something I’ve said more than once. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
The two of us are good. I count each of you as friends. Our family loves it here. All of it.
Yet when the winds of the Spirit get moving – and Iowa is a particularly blustery state – it’s best to take note. And best to be open to where those air currents might lead.
As clergy we’re reminded that our call is to the greater church. To be honest I never knew what that meant. Tho lately, as the winds kept stirring, I kept coming back to the phrase. Perhaps it is to being open to a new path you never saw coming.
Our shared journey, speaking personally, has been sheer joy. We’ve gotten into heaps of good trouble together, and we’ve done so side by side. We dove into difficult, Christ centered conversations and initiatives like –
- Racial reconciliation
- LGBTQ+ inclusion
- Intentionally welcoming refugees, migrants and asylum seekers
All topics many churches can’t or simply won’t tackle. And when they do things tend to go sideways. But we tackled them. And tackled them well. And we’re better for it. Soon our duplex will be used to house migrants from other lands in need of a safe, fresh start. That’s something we can be incredibly proud of.
When it comes to love of neighbor we are on the right track, Bethesda beloved. My guess is, for you, the best is yet to come.
It hasn’t been all heavy, difficult conversations. Thank goodness. We’ve jumped in bounce houses, played giant Jenga, sang, ate, laughed. All while gathering indoors, outdoors, in cars, over the radio, and online.
We have had some fun over the years, for sure.
Reflecting on the lighter moments of our time together I found myself reminiscing some and jotted down a few favorites. With a nod to David Letterman here is a top ten list that represents just some of the fun we’ve had.
10. A Polka Worship service. With the Bluestem Bellows Band. That’s the accordion quartet that features our very own Bethesda member Lori Woodcock.
9. In December of 2020, at the height of pandemic, over 250 of us gathered in our cars here in the parking lot for Root Beer & Carols. We sang, we sipped, we celebrated. Many of us hadn’t seen each other in 9 months. What a grand reunion.
8. Sitting over the dunk tank, getting drenched every time a thrown ball hit that little metal post. Someone put ice in the water one year…who was that?
7. Climbing the scaffolding in the sanctuary. Pastor Bryan and I did that for a Pastor Chat.
6. Climbing the scaffolding in the Commons. This one was during Pandemic. We wanted you to know your pastors were “hanging in there.”
5. Climbing the church roof for a Pastor Chat, being tempted to jump to see if angels would catch me (kids, don’t try this at home.) Pastor Bryan, I was glad you stayed grounded. You’re good at that!
4. For a Mardi Gras Beer & Hymns gathering, which is the day before Ash Wednesday, I sometimes wear a t-shirt that reads, “Get Your Ash in Church.” Just to be clear that is spelled A-S-H.
3. Running up and down the hallways, alongside Pastor Bryan, screaming at the top of our lungs, for a Home Alone parody. We were both kind of worried our wish one day that the congregation would just go away actually caused the pandemic.
2. A fourteen-day trip to Tanzania with youth and adults from here and St. Andrews. Oh the experiences we had, the things we learned, the joy we shared. The Christ we saw in others living so differently than us.
1. Buying a keg of beer for our Oktoberfest event. And putting it on the church credit card. I was so delighted you actually let your Pastor do this – we Lutherans are kind of special like that – I held on to the receipt. One of these days I’ll likely frame it!
Our gospel reading, John 13:31-35, has some irony baked right in. The scripture is part of a lectionary hundreds of thousands of Catholics and Protestant churches worldwide use every weekend. The lectionary is set on church calendars years in advance. Please know I didn’t pick this text.
So when I noticed that our short gospel reading finds Jesus telling the disciples that he is with them only a little longer, and that where he is going they cannot come, well, hmm.
Two things. First, please never confuse this pastor – or any pastor for that matter – with Jesus. We do our best to help point to the way, but we are not the Way. Far from it. If you need any help in making this distinction between clergy and Christ, well, just ask my wife. She will set you straight.
Second: beware the downfalls of literal interpretations of scripture. Because where I am going you can totally come. At least for a visit when you’re in town. Our family would love to see you on occasion. We’ll get up here for some Cyclone games here and there too.
The final piece of this passage contains the main takeaway. Anticipating a time he will no longer be with the disciples in bodily form Jesus gives the disciples a new command: love one another.
This three-word command is so simple, so straightforward, you almost don’t need to hear a sermon about it. Our scripture reminds me of a story a retired pastor here at Bethesda tells on occasion. They asked to remain anonymous. That is a request I will honor. Tho I will say this: their first name rhymes with fuss.
The story this unnamed pastor tells is of a 19th century Lutheran Bishop. The church world back then was more top-down, and the Bishop expected parishioners to heed his every word. Every-so-often, during worship, the Bishop would read scripture, and – instead of preaching on it – say this:
You know what this means.
Now do it.
And then he’d sit down.
Which basically equates to the shortest sermon ever.
With this text I am tempted to do just that!
Instead, let’s spend some time expounding on who this brief imperative – to love one another – applies to.
- For the Facebook friend who always wants to argue – we are to love them.
- For people from this land, other lands, or who have no land to call their own – we are to love them.
- For the science adherents and the science deniers – we are to love them.
- For the person who wronged us we still don’t speak to – we are to love them.
- For the Supreme Court Justices with whom we disagree – we are to love them.
- For the person who killed a man with multiple gunshots here in Ames earlier this week – we are to love them.
- Even for Pastors and their family heading 45 minutes south, whether we love or loathe their leaving – it’s probably a bit of both – we are to love them.
I’ll aspire to do the same. Tho to be honest you’re a lovable group here, one and all.
Change is hard. There’s no way around it. The packing of boxes our family is in the middle of a good reminder of that. Leadership transitions can be challenging. When congregations evolve it can’t help but create growing pains.
That’s where this edict – to love one another – comes in. For it is true no matter where we hang our hat. It is true no matter who we break bread with. It is true whether we know the surroundings we are in, or they are brand spanking new.
The call is the same. For each of us, regardless of our circumstances: we are to love. If only we embrace this simple imperative, regardless of what else may be swirling around us in the winds of change, all is truly well.
To be honest I’m not sure exactly how to conclude this message – goodbyes being so difficult and all. Instead, if you would, please just listen in to this short song (Green Day - Good Riddance), as it captures my feelings well.
To quote Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame –
Do good work,
Keep in touch. Amen.