Tuesday, May 30, 2017
A Hard Goodbye
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I have never seen a long-tenured clergyperson leave a congregation well. I've seen plenty of them screw it up, but I've never seen someone do it right, which is to say I've never seen a retiring minister strike the right balance between loving a congregation from a distance and giving the next pastor enough space. The reason I've never seen it happen is because the ones who get it right aren't around for me to see them. They're gone. They've left. For the most part, I don't blame the ones who screw it up because it's only natural. When you've loved a community through thick and thin, in birth and death and everything in between, it's hard to walk away and pretend that they don't matter any more. Of course those relationships still matter. They will always matter. It is impossible, I think, to love someone as much as any caring pastor loves her or his community and then let go of that love as quickly and completely as a runner passes a baton to a teammate, but that's what it means to retire from parish ministry.
As we read in Acts 20:17-27, Paul made his way back to Jerusalem through the mission-field that he had tilled for so long, knowing that this was the end. Although he wasn't sure exactly what fate awaited him in the holy city, he had discerned through the Holy Spirit that arrest and imprisonment were in his near future. As he passed through each familiar community, he had one more chance to say farewell and to offer a few parting words of encouragement and exhortation to those whom he had introduced to the way of Jesus.
As he approached the city of Ephesus, where not long before he had witnessed a riot break out because of a dispute between the pagans and the Christians, he called the elders of the city together and asked them to come and meet him. He recalled for them how he had lived among them, working side-by-side with the Ephesians, preaching the message of "repentance toward God and faith toward [the] Lord Jesus" both publicly and house-to-house. He explained to them that his future was that of a captive--a captive of God's Spirit and a captive of whatever chains that Spirit led him to. He encouraged them not to worry as he understood this was the fulfillment of his life's work and purpose--that he did not value his physical life but only the opportunity to use that life to testify to the good news of Jesus. Perhaps as a word of comfort, he told them that he was sure he would never see any of them again.
And then he said something rather strange--or at least strange to my ear: "Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God." What's he saying there? Is he publicly washing his hands of any responsibility for what happens to them? My jaded ear hears a bit of over-statement in that, as if Paul is trying to assuage his own sense of guilt for not having done enough. It feels disingenuous, like a parent whose child burns his hand on a low-lying pot and then says, "Well, I told you not to touch it." But I suspect that's not what Paul meant. I suspect that's a sign that my own shortcomings are shaping the way I read his words. I think it's more likely that Paul was in the process of severing those ties for the sake of those to whom he had ministered and that the language of letting go is so unfamiliar to me that I instinctively read strings attached where they aren't really attached.
Not long ago, someone recounted for me a conversation that she had with an aging parent. As life has wound its way to the present, this father and daughter have come to radically different positions and opinions on almost every front--politically, economically, socially, and religiously. The father called his daughter somewhat out of the blue and wanted to talk about church. I don't know the scope of the whole conversation, but the part that was conveyed to me involved the father questioning the validity of the daughter's church and asserting contrarily that his church believed in a literal hell of burning fire where unrepentant sinners go for all eternity. I think that the daughter, who was recalling the conversation for me, wanted to talk about her own understanding of hell and our church's teachings on the subject, but my mind went in another direction. "Do you think he wants to be sure that he's done his duty to tell his daughter about the Christian faith so that, when he dies, he isn't responsible if she goes to that literal hell for all eternity?" I asked her. Maybe it's just me, but, rather than engage in an honest theological conversation, it felt like this father wanted to wash his hands of any guilt for whatever happens to his daughter in the next life.
When it comes to letting go, there's a difference between covering one's own behind and caring enough for another person to be clear about goodbye. Even the word "goodbye" is a contraction of "God be with ye," which suggests that it is a time for letting go and trusting that God will take care of a person or community in ways for which we can no longer take responsibility. Paul is this sort of pastor and church-planter. The rest of Acts 20 confirms this as Paul takes his leave of the Ephesian elders only after they have knelt down together in prayer, hugged and kissed each other, and wept tears of mutual loss. Paul isn't washing his hands of the guilt of any Ephesian blood that is spilled. He is transferring responsibility for the care of this community away from himself and onto the Ephesian leaders. "I have done my part," he declares to them, "and that is all that I can do. The rest is up to you."
You don't have to be a clergyperson to struggle with letting go. Parents do it. Spouses do it. Children do it. Bosses do it. Teachers do it. We act as if helicopter-parenting is a new phenomenon, when, in fact, people have been overinvolved in each others' lives forever. It is hard to say to someone you genuinely love, "You're on your own with this one; I've done all that I can do for you." It's hard to step back when we know that we have more advice to offer, more encouragement to share, and more correction to provide. But at some point love requires letting go. Love, by definition, must honor its object more than its source. Severing ties of responsibility is not an act of cruelty or coldness. It is a gesture of love that exceeds compassion. We honor love by saying to another person, "I cannot be responsible for your struggles anymore; I have done my part, and I can do no more."
Although he takes a long longer to say it than Paul, Jesus invites us into this love of letting go in John 17. Jesus' prayer to his heavenly Father for the sake of his disciples is a long form of "goodbye" or "God be with you." Now it is my time for my earthly ministry to be complete, Jesus prayed. "I am not longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you." The Incarnate-One does not dwell on earth in bodily form forever. He leaves them. He leaves us. Instead, he sends the Spirit to comfort us and lead us into all truth, but the Spirit cannot do its work as long as the Son is in the world. One must say goodbye so that the work of the other can begin. In God's infinite and mysterious wisdom, God loves the world by sending his Son into the world but not by leaving his Son in the world forever. The resurrected Jesus could still be walking the earth. He could still be appearing to his followers, convincing more and more to put their faith in him. But that's not how it works. That's not true love. Real love is about letting go and trusting that the other will be ok. That is how we are loved by God. Is it how we are loving each other?