“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you; whenever I pray for you all, my prayers are always joyful, because of the part you have taken in the work of the gospel from the first day until now. Of this I am confident, that he who started a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. It is only natural that I should feel like this about you all, because I have great affection for you, knowing that, both while I was in prison and as I am called upon to defend the truth of our faith, you all have shared in this ministry with me. And this is my prayer, that your love may grow even richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, enabling you to learn by experience what things really matter.”
These are the words I read on my last Sunday at my first parish in Blue Earth, Minnesota forty-four years ago. And they are no less appropriate on this day. I am no Apostle Paul. And God knows I have not suffered for the faith as he did. But in every other respect I can identify with him as he writes to his most-loved congregation late in years. And in those days you got late in years much earlier than we do in our time.
Some of you have been asking about this Sunday, “Is this really your last sermon.” Sounds rather fatal said like that. I really have not thought about it that way at all. Although I said to Marlene the other day that if I knew how nerve-wracking all this would be, I might not have quit. But I rather assume that I shall preach other sermons, perhaps, in time, by invitation even from this pulpit. But indeed, these days do represent a transition for us and for you all. A certain Southern Baptist pastor always loved to insist that Paul was a Southerner. In this text, three times over, you all, you all, you all. One of you informed me after a Bible Study a few years ago that the plural of “you all” down south is really “all you’all.”
But as I was saying, this is indeed a time of transition for all of us.
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But life comes down to that many times on our way through this world. A famous cartoon shows a caricature of a well known painting of Adam and Eve fleeing from the garden driven by an overarching angel with a flaming sword in his hand, gates closing behind them. And Adam is saying to Eve, “Eve, we are living in a time of transition.” But transitions can be good and growing moments, a time when we learn and move on.
But above all, it is a time for remembrance. “Upon every remembrance.” A time when we look backward and mark the way that has led us here together. At least Marlene and I have been doing a lot of that these days. And what memories rush before us. Clearly some regrets. Like Sinatra, we’ve had a few. Mostly about things we did not do. The sins of omission are the toughest to come to terms with, are they not? When we might have been more helpful, more available, more present. Your forgiveness and understanding have been incredible.
Regrets; and sadness, of course. We are going to meet in the Memorial Garden later, I am told. I go there quite often. A lot of friends of 37 years there. And I rarely go there without a favorite poem coming to mind. Really. “Fond memory brings the light of other days around me.
When I remember all the friends so link’d together I’ve seen around me fall like leaves in wintry weather, I feel like one who treads alone some banquet hall deserted.”
Sadness, yes, but most of all our memories evoke in us incredible gratitude. I thank my God upon every remembrance. Remembrance of the great good providence that brought us here. We had no intention of leaving our former parish. Didn’t even know where Kenilworth was and we were only ten miles away. And why Dr. Hodgson would turn to a colleague from seminary whom he had not seen in years, who happened to have been my Greek professor. And why would my Greek professor think of me whom he had not seen in years. And so began the conversations with your leaders here, most of whom rest out there in the garden. And it all began almost exactly 37 years ago this day.
But don’t you all on occasion look back with the same astonishment and gratitude for the invisible hand of God at work in your life. We live forward but we understand backward. Events that at the time seemed so contingent, so accidental, from your vantage point now seem to involve a gracious hand at work. And we are so grateful for all that followed for our whole family in community and church, schools and friendships. So many gifts that I cannot possibly do justice here. But most of all gratitude to God and to you all. I thank my God upon every remembrance of you … all. That’s what memory does for us in a culture and time when so many have been encouraged to remember only the bitter, the painful, the disappointing, the empty times. Memory must be selective if it is to be redemptive, and it is precisely remembering the gifts, the glorious and the disguised, the obvious good and the good we now see in retrospect, that gives rise to deep gratitude. And so in remembering we are incredibly grateful.
Jesus took simple daily fare, and yet at the same time the fare of life, and said, “Every time you eat, every time you drink, do it in remembrance of me and my love.” And remember then that I am with you in all the many ways I come to you, in marriage and family, in the birth of a child and the birth of a friendship, in my family of faith, in a challenge to serve there, in a loved one’s departing. And he gave thanks. It is the memory of faith that leads us to lives of gratitude.
Old Sam Shoemaker, Rector of Calvary Church in Manhattan and co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, long ago took leave of his congregation with words that I can only make my own. “As I sit of a cool winter afternoon looking out the window on the snowy scene, I look back with many thanks. It has been a great run. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Much could have been better, and I have, by no means, done what I should have done with all that I have been given. There were dreams that did not come true, and losses not a few. But overall it has been a school of lessons, not easily learned but of infinite worth, an instruction of a gentle and patient kind. So the over-all experience of being alive has been and remains a thrilling experience. And I firmly believe that death will be a doorway to more of it: clearer, cleaner, better, with more of the secret of it all opened. But again I say, it’s been a great run. I’m thankful for it and next to my gratitude to my God, for all the friends who helped to make it so, especially those closest and dearest to me.”
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, and my prayers for you are always joyful, because of the part you have taken in the work from the first day until now. If there is one thing that Marlene and I are grateful for, it is the way in which you all according to your varied gifts and interests have so willingly supported our ministry, but even more than that, have so enthusiastically shared it. Together we have served one another as family and friends. Together we have reached out to the needs of others less fortunate in material and spiritual ways.
Gratitude then, and every bit as important, hope, hope toward a great future. This too the memories of our years together evokes with great strength. Of this I am confident, that he who started a good work in you 115 years ago will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. And that gives you a lot of time. It is precisely the memory of what God has done for us in our individual lives and our life together in this family of his, that arouses the hope and conviction that the future of this community of faith is in good hands, both His and yours. Someone commented, “God already knows who he has chosen to lead you. It is only for you now to go out and find him.” And you will. We will all know sadness at this time of transition, but then we will get on with it, the future of this unique, embracing, inclusive, active, family of faith, God’s incredible gift to us for years to come wherever we are.
So, good memories on this Memorial Day weekend can raise up in us all songs of thanksgiving and hope. I found these words a long time ago in a now defunct magazine. They mean more to me now than ever. They were written by Malcom Muggeridge, an English cynic and curmudgeon for most of his years, who in his seventies finally found meaning for his life in Jesus of Nazareth. His friends of the typical London literary circles commented when this happened, “Malcom, you are just getting old and thinking about your mortality.” To which he would reply, “Exactly.”
He writes, “I am an old man, already past the allotted three score and ten, and, as the old do, I quite often wake up in the night, half out of my body, so that I see between the sheets the old battered carcass I shall soon be leaving for good, and in the distance a glow in the sky, the lights of Augustine’s City of God. Let me, in conclusion, pass on to you two extraordinarily sharp impressions which accompany this condition.
“The first is of the incredible beauty of our earth, its colors and shapes and smells and creatures, of the enchantment of human love and companionship, of the fulfillment of human work and procreation. The second, a certainty surpassing all words and thought, that as an infinitesimal particle of God’s creation I am a participant in His purposes, which are loving not malign, creative not destructive, orderly not chaotic – and in that certainty a great peace and a great…joy.”
Did you hear it, out of the remembrance of God, gratitude and hope and joy. And, in a way, that is what we are about here, you and I, keeping gratitude and hope alive in a world where they are in very short supply. And we do it not so much by our chatter but by the manner of our life together, by how we act and what we do, in our studies and our guilds and our knitting and our rummage and our Joyful Noise and our youth trips and our church school and our youth groups and our choirs and our outreach. And here in this simple meal which some still seem to find a bit strange. It is not strange, this eating and drinking of the gifts of God by which we live. More than just symbols, they are small samples of what we shall turn to for life today and tomorrow and as long as God gives us breath. And in eating and drinking together here this morning we remind ourselves of the past that brought us to this day. And for a few moments we as His family act out the future we hope for all God’s children, no less ours, a future not only of daily bread enough but of relationships wherever everybody counts, no one is turned away, and where peace and joy reign. Here in this eating and drinking we meet our God, among us and between us, even as we receive from and give to one another.
Here we make church. The kids get it. I cannot conclude without a “kid story.” One of my favorites concerns a woman who taught Vacation Bible School and had an experience she will never forget. Her class was interrupted on Tuesday of the week when a new student was brought in. The little boy had one arm missing and since the class was well underway, she had no opportunity to inquire about the cause of the problem or the state of his adjustment. She was nervous, afraid that one of the other children would comment on his handicap and embarrass him. There was no way to caution them, so she proceeded as carefully as possible.
As class time drew toward a close, she began to relax. She asked the class to join her in their little closing ritual. “Let’s make our churches,” she said. (We have all done it as kids). They each folded their hands and began to recite. “Here is the church and here is the steeple, open the doors and there’s…” The awful truth of her own actions now struck her. The very thing she had feared that the children would do, she had done, exclude this terribly challenged young one. As she stood there speechless, the little girl sitting next to the boy reached over with her left hand, placed it up to his right hand and said, “Davey, let’s make church together.”
That’s what we do together here, make church together. “And this is my prayer for you all, that your love for one another may grow even richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, enabling you to learn by experience the things that really matter.” Welcome to the feast which is our future.
Copyright 2007, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.