It is tough to believe that this is my final sermon in your pulpit. The Christian community called Emmanuel has been here a long time and will be here for many years to come, but my particular chapter in your story comes to a close today. And since I announced my retirement last June, you’ve all heard me quote an Episcopal lay leader nicknamed Uncle Norman who was fond of saying, “Priests come and priests go.” And that’s true; clergy move in and out of parishes, but the parishes’ lives go on. I am confident that as you go on, you will be fine. So many of you have told me that you feel that way too, that you are grateful for the past eight and a half years -- and sad, as I am too today -- but that you also know that there is a bright future ahead. It does my heart good to have heard that message from so many parishioners.
Nevertheless, there is a feeling in the pit of my stomach that reminds me of parents calling out after their now-grown offspring as the car pulls out of the driveway on the way to college. “Wear a sweater! Don’t forget to email us! Lock your doors!” It’s a big temptation for me to spend this sermon doing the same kind of thing. I want to send you off into the new era in your life by trying to squeeze some last-minute advice in under the wire. Calling out as the car leaves the driveway: Now remember to keep going back to Scripture every chance you get.
Or: Don’t forget, you can’t just assume people know what Christians believe.
Or: No matter what happens, pray about it.
But I’m not going to permit myself any more than that. Advice is cheap. Advice is annoying, much of the time. And more than that, one of the great Christian insights is that advice doesn’t have much power. Being told what to do is not what the Gospel is about -- the Gospel is about the news of what Jesus has already done, about receiving that news and letting him go to work in your life and the life of your community. So, no more advice.
Instead, let’s look at this magnificent prayer from Ephesians. Paul writes to the congregation at Ephesus: I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. (Certainly true for me right now!) I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
You see how that prayer just presumes that advice is not what churches need? What we need is the news of Jesus, news that pours out its power through the Word of God and the sacraments into us, power that then motivates us to live in response, to live out of gratitude. Paul doesn’t pray about what he would advise the church in Ephesus to do. He doesn’t pray that they’d start some new program or be more friendly. He prays that they would grasp ever more fully what God has already done in Jesus. He prays for spiritual eyes and ears that are open to see the hope God gives, the inheritance God gives, and the power God gives, which Paul calls immeasurably great.
At our final vestry meeting last Sunday, your vestry members were doing some looking back and looking forward, and one of the things people were sharing that they valued about the past several years was how missional Emmanuel had become, how we’d learned to look outward and engage with our local community. And another one was that they valued the way I’d emphasized teaching the classic Christian tradition and taking seriously the Word of God. Those are both good things, but let’s connect the dots -- the first of those comes from the second. If you only do the first, you are the same as any social service agency. But when the Spirit opens your eyes and ears to the second, to the depth of God’s Word and God’s Sacraments, those naturally create an outward movement fueled by the spiritual potency they have inside them. As Paul prays for. And that, I hope, is what has happened here.
In a few minutes we’ll have the rite of leavetaking that the Episcopal church offers when a rector retires or moves on to a new call. And in that rite, there’s a symbolic passing back to the church of symbols of the rector’s stewardship and authority. That includes my stewardship of this community and this physical place, but also my stewardship specifically on your behalf of God’s Word for you and his sacraments for you. Those two lodestones of Christian life and practice, those covenanted channels through which God has promised to reveal himself to those who gather at his altar for Mass Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
God’s Word and God’s sacraments. They have been ours since the time of the apostles and will be ours until that time when we are in the fullness of the Kingdom and sacraments shall cease because we see God face to face. They are the two most precious things I have to put back into Emmanuel’s hands, and I hope that you all will treasure them and steward them well over the interim period and in your discernment of who is being called as your next Rector. I have so treasured your confidence in me to hold them for you and to help you as a parish system and as individuals to take hold of them yourselves. It has been a great privilege and an immensely fulfilling time. Mark and I will always carry you in our hearts. We are grateful to God for having called us here, and even more grateful to God for being God.
For I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.