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A Few Last Words

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Here are some of the important phrases for my life. Maybe they will reflect some of the phrases that are important to you as well.

Today’s texts: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 and Matthew 5 (selected verses)

Pastor Phil

One of the common lines for pastors who are leaving their congregations is, “Well, now you can tell them what you really think!”

One of the wonderful things about the decade of being at Memorial is that I have never felt any hesitation about telling you what I really think. And part of the wonder of that is you haven’t seemed to have any trouble telling me what you think, either.

We seem to have done it in a way that leaves plenty of room for a variety of viewpoints and an understanding that – whatever our differences – we are connected in the care of this community and in our commitment to figure out we each might follow the way of Jesus.

We surely are not perfect at it, but I do think we have taken to heart the words of Paul that we heard today in his letter to the people of Corinth: “Love is patient, love is kind,” and so on.

I do, however, want to tell you what I really think. I doubt there will much new in what you hear. I have said all this in one way or another over the last 10 years.

But sort of like I selected some of the important phrases out of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, here are some of the important phrases for my life. Maybe they will reflect some of the phrases that are important to you as well.

“We are made in God’s image.” You probably recognize that from the first chapter of the first book in the Bible – Genesis. For me, it’s a constant reminder that I have dignity and, more importantly, so does every person I encounter every day. There may be things about them that I don’t like. I may not want to spend much time with them. I may want to challenge them on what they are thinking and might be doing. The bottom line, though, is that both they and I are in made in God’s image. If I can’t see the divine in them – or in me – I need to dig a little deeper.

“I might be wrong.” You’ve heard me talk about this phrase before. To me, it is an essential phrase in our time when political, theological, cultural, personal polarities so divide us from one another.

It’s a reminder to me to listen to what those who disagree with me are saying, to seek the underlying principles that have led them to their conclusions, to question whether the way I prefer is really the only way or even the best way. As the line in that prayer that reflects the spirit of Francis of Assisi says – the one we heard the choir sing this morning – “grant that I may not so much be understood as seek to understand.”

Here’s another important part of that “I-might-be-wrong” phrase. It’s not one that I impose you on, as in “You might be wrong.” Yes, you might be wrong, but let’s keep working on understanding the different ways we see the world. And if you are not willing to do that, well, then at some point I have to shake the dust off my feet and move on.

“It’s not that simple.” That’s kind of a corollary to “I might be wrong.” It acknowledges that there are usually more than just two dimensions to any issue we are struggling with. This is a particularly useful saying in the political arena, where politicians and advocates tend to frame issues as really stark choices between good and evil.

Yes, it’s easy to get paralyzed by never choosing the path you think is best on any given issue, but what “It’s not that simple” reminds me is that I should never think I’ve got the solution all figured out when I first learn about the problem.

“It’s only temporary.” That’s a phrase that has gotten me through some tough times in my life. It’s not about the state of the world. It’s about the state of my being. And yes, I know, some things are not temporary, like chronic pain or a degenerative disease or a terminal illness. I have never had to live with something that drastic, for which I am grateful.

But the “it’s-only-temporary” phrase speaks to me about both short-term and long-term distress. It gives me a calm place to go when things in my life seem to be spinning out of control. And it gives me hope in the long term because I believe that God’s love carries me beyond the limits of my body.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” You know that line from the prayer of Jesus that is in the Sermon on the Mount. To me, the whole idea of forgiveness is one of the essential messages of Jesus.

You heard one of many references to it in today’s excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift…”

Any of us who have ever been wronged by another know that forgiveness does not come easy. The greater the wrong, the greater the harm done to us – the harder it is. And there are times a glib message from others to forgive an offender can be destructive in itself. It’s not something those on the outside should be pressuring us to do.

Yet forgiveness is so intertwined with my understanding of God and Jesus. I trust that God will forgive me when I take a wrong turn. I love that image of the God of Second Chances. I know that I need to reach inside myself and forgive myself for mistakes I make, without overlooking the impact those mistakes may have on others. And then I need not to let the harm others have done to me take control of my life.

It’s a hard phrase, one that I can spend a lifetime working on. And that leads to another phrase.

Jesus asks us to do the hard things. Just think about the little snippets from the Gospel today – be hunger for righteousness, be a peacemaker, forgive your offender, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies. Whoa! Who can do all that?

To me, that’s the hard part of being a follower of Jesus. We like the portrayals of Jesus as someone who understands our humanity, who offers comfort, who embraces little children and heals those in torment. I am consoled by his promises of God’s love.

Still, the challenges that he holds out for me will take a lifetime to even approach accomplishing. Step by step, I try to get there, recognizing that what Jesus asks often goes against my very human instincts and society’s very seductive norms.

Two more phrases, a little more upbeat.

“He took bread, blest it, broke it and gave it to them.” This is a line from the story of Jesus meeting a couple of followers on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter. They did not know who he was until be blest, broke and shared the bread.

Many of you know that the scripture reference to that verse is on my car license – LK2430. Many of you have heard me talk before how I think that whole Emmaus story defines for me how we ought to living as we follow Jesus. I’m not going to go back over all that.

I will, however, focus on that one line. When we take what we have, give thanks for it, treat it as a blessing to be shared, not to be hoarded, then we are on the road with Jesus. That’s a pretty simple idea. It’s not as simple to live out. Or, as I might have mentioned earlier, “it’s not that simple,” but if we see ourselves made in God’s image, then we will see God in others as well and we will be companions with them in Christ.

Finally, a phrase that is deeply rooted in the life of Memorial since we moved out to Fitchburg 28 years ago. As the people said who had moved into leadership during that transition from our church on Madison Street near the UW Fieldhouse to Lacy Road here in Fitchburg, “We’re starting over. We will never say ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ ”

I can’t begin to tell you what a gift that spirit has been to this congregation and to those of us who have been lucky enough to be your pastors.

It has allowed Memorial to try new things, to let go of those things that were not working, to weave people into the life of the congregation easily and graciously as they arrived.

We will never say ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ ” So this is a phrase that I have learned from you for my life. It is a reminder to me not to get too set into routines, not to get too locked into the comfortable but to be willing to try things and go places where my natural caution might hold me back.

It’s a phrase that I think is particularly important for me and for you on this Sunday. My life is surely changing in significant ways this weekend, so I am hoping I can let go of the routines I have established. There will be sorrow, of course, but a recognition that there are good and exciting things ahead.

I hope that is true for the congregation of Memorial as well. We have all gotten used to how we do certain things in certain ways during my time here. I think for the most part, that has worked for us.

But now new people – first Laura, then your new settled pastor – will be bringing new ideas, new experiences, new ways of doing things to a congregation that has thrived with that spirit of never saying “we’ve always done it this way.”

I hope you embrace them with all the care and love you have given to me over the last 10 years.

I hope you embrace the uncertainties of what’s ahead with the same spirit of trust that has guided Memorial across an amazing century.

I hope that you remember that image from Paul’s letter – “for now we see in a mirror, dimly.”

And then, together, let us cling to those last words we heard from Paul this morning: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

The world around us is a beautiful place to live that out. Let’s sing about the beauty of our earth. It’s hymn number 28.