Shaping Leaders for the Church

A sermon given by Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey on Sunday, May 14, 2017

Parting words come in a lot of different ways. A president gives a farewell address. A professor delivers her last lecture, thinking of graduation today. Someone offers final words to somebody they love.

This week I was with my mom in Connecticut and her health is declining. Every time I go and I visit her I wonder if it’s the last time, and I’m very conscious of that every time that I say goodbye to her. On Thursday morning I got up early and I went to visit her at 4AM before catching an early flight out of Hartford, and as I popped into her room in that early, early morning she was lying in bed awake. Even in all her dementia we hugged each other and we said to each other, “I love you so very much.”

Parting words tend to carry with them a lot of weight, of gravitas. They’re imbued with a lot of deep meaning. In the scripture this morning we find lots of places in the Bible where there are farewell words offered to God’s people. The whole book of Deuteronomy is Moses’s final words to the people of Israel as they’re about to enter the Promised Land. Of course Moses didn’t write those words. They were written hundreds of years after the death of Moses. But they were written in the spirit of Moses so that people would continue to go to those words and find meaning, and believe that God’s word was still speaking through those words.

It’s in the same way this morning that Jesus is speaking to his friends. It’s a love letter. He’s gathered around the table one last time before he departs, breaking bread and drinking the cup just as we’re about to do this morning. And he offers some final words of love to his dear friends. So I got to thinking this morning, you know we have two wonderful people, Michael Vollbrecht and Beth Ruhl, who are saying yes to following in the steps of Jesus. I wanted to imagine, what would Jesus say to Beth and Michael if he were here this morning and he were to offer his final words?

So I want you to listen this morning to my message and overhear what Jesus would be saying to Beth and Michael.

Will you pray with me?

God, may your spirit be in this place and may my words proclaim the message of your Gospel. I pray it in Christ’s name. Amen.

Dear Beth and Michael,

Bless you. Bless your hearts.  Bless you many times over, that you have made a life choice to follow my path, that you have said yes to my call.

Believe me, I know, it takes guts. The world has never been an easy place to preach the gospel. But it’s never been an easy time.  Why, look where it got me. But I am sure glad that you have said yes to my call.

And yet, oh, how the world needs to hear the message of the Gospel.

For my heart grieves for the world. For the suffering and pain I see all around. I see today that the world is troubled by hatred and fear and bigotry. And though you have come so far to alleviate suffering, there is so much brokenness, still so much suffering and pain in the world today. People are in bondage, held captive in all different kinds of ways, to their fears, and they think the false gods of greed and of materialism are a way out, but they are not. So I am so glad that you are here to help people hear the message of the Gospel.

What comes to mind are the words of Esther, sent to deliver her people, the Jews, from bondage; Esther who said the words, “You have been born for such a time as this.”

Perhaps you, Beth and Michael, have been born for such a time as this.

When there is so much pain experienced in and by the world.

When African American brothers and sisters continue to experience the bitter taste of America’s original sin.

When women are devalued and objectified.

And mothers and would be mothers on this special day are denied the reproductive rights to their own bodies.

When the sting of prejudice against the foreigner or the immigrant or a person of another faith is on the rise….

When people are made to feel they are less than because of their gender orientation.

When the economics of our society treat people as so many disposable commodities that are to be used and then tossed away…

When our human capacity for hatred is unleashed, and even encouraged by people in high places.

I would say given the state the world is in, the most important thing you can do is preach the gospel, not just in word but also in deeds, and do it in such a way that the gospel can be heard.

The truth is, in so many ways, in your time, the gospel has not been heard. Oh, yes, people have my name on their lips all the time, and they do all sorts of things in my name, in God’s name, but the truth of the gospel, my message, has, in many ways, fallen on deaf ears.

And what would be the proof of the gospel being heard? That people’s lives are transformed.

Note what Paul wrote in his letter to the good people in Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:1-2

So, what is that message, that gospel message that we need to do all we can to make sure that it is heard?

I would boil it down to three points.  (See even Jesus was partial to the three-point sermon!)

Number one, what needs to be heard is a message of radical love, a love radical enough that it will resist the powers and principalities of the world today.

Number two, what needs to be heard, and is often not heard because people don’t want to hear it, is the message of being willing to love our enemies, to forgive them, even as we must ask to be forgiven ourselves.

And number three, what needs to be heard the most is my promise that I am with you always, and I will always bring you home.

So, number one. Embodying radical love means to follow the way that I loved.  And Michael and Beth, you are already preaching that, preaching that in a way that others can hear it.

For you, Beth, when you stood shoulder to shoulder with your African American brothers and sisters in Ferguson, MO when Michael Brown was shot …. when their lives were in peril; for your work with women in prison, you have lived my words, when was I in prison and you visited me…

For you, Michael, when you got involved in the gay Christian network, and you reached out to speak with people who had been hurt by the church, and you helped, in their wounds, to hear my message that they are God’s beloved sons and daughters, and that God cares for them no matter what their gender orientation. You were preaching the Gospel in a way that could be heard…

Now it is all fine and good to embody my radical love, so needed for the world, but it you want to drive down to the depths of my love, you must see that true love means that we even have love for our enemies.

And people will tell you they have no enemies, that they are a friend to all. But that is not true. We all have our prejudices, people that are not part of our group. It may be people who voted another way. Or think another way. We must not fall into the us versus them mentality that is gripping the nation. That’s not the Gospel. The Gospel is loving your enemies, loving people that don’t think like you, that don’t look like you, that don’t act like you, that even may be distasteful to you.

And I lift the saints among you…. like Will Campbell who fought his entire life for racial justice but believed that included even loving members of hate groups, that wished harm on African Americans….

Or like Dr. King, who mightily embodied that radical love resisting the powers and principalities of the world, but he always cautioned the resisters when he said, “In doing social justice we must NOT seek, to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win their friendship and understanding.” That’s the hard work of loving your enemies. That’s taking that radical love and going to the very depths of it.

Part of that work is confessing all the ways, unwittingly and unintentionally we add to the world’s pain, that we are complicit in bringing suffering to our planet.

Why just today your pastor, Peter, confessed to me in his prayer that he unwittingly revealed his own racism, confessed he tripped over his own biases and unquestioned assumptions at the grocery store in Connecticut.

He told me that he went up to a woman who he had assumed worked at the store stocking shelves and yes, she happened to be African American, and as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew the sin that he had revealed. “Do you work here?” he asked. And then he recognized that maybe because she was black that’s why he asked the question. Before the words were out of his mouth he recognized how much he’s complicit in the racism that is throughout our culture.

Being a pastor is hard work. Mistakes will be made. Remember that time I told the woman in the gospel that she was not of the house of Israel and was not welcome…well she put me in my place when she said, even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from the table… Oh how I wish I could have taken those words back.

So, in sum, preach the gospel so it can be heard…

Embodying my radical love.

By reminding your people to love their enemies and ask for forgiveness even as you forgive your enemies…

And one more thing…the best news of all. My promise to you.

I am with you always…and no matter how perilous that path I will always be with you, and I will lead you Home, that where I am, you may be also.

That is what I shared with the disciples at the last supper and it is what I share with you today as you prepare to break bread…

These words, written down in the Gospel of John, but words spoken to you as fresh as this morning, take them to heart. Trust my words, and the words are these….

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I come again I will take you to myself, that where I am you will be also.”

Beth and Michael, my peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you, not as the world gives but as I give. And let not your hearts be troubled and neither let them be afraid. Amen.

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