Who knows how to plan a worship service like today’s worship service? Turns out none of us in the church office do! So, my amazing colleague Jason Smith did a bit of research, looking back over these past 11 years and specifically back to the first time I ever stood in this pulpit. When he did, he found that the day I preached my candidacy sermon and this congregation voted to call me as pastor, was June 22, 2003.
And here we are, eleven years later on June 22, 2014, for one last time.
In all my years here at Calvary there have been many, many occasions on which I have felt God’s presence, when I have felt the Spirit of God taking a seat right here in one of these pews, adding a word of blessing, like a stamp of approval. When Jason told me that we are coming full circle, for real, today, I felt that again. There is no doubt in my mind, in other words, that God is here and walking with us today, as God has been here all along our journey together.
Coming full circle like this in a way we could never have planned even if we tried, is kind of like…a benediction.
You have heard me say many times that there are so many things we ministers never learn in seminary. Classes in biblical Greek and liberation theology do not prepare you for people getting arrested during worship, the baptistery hot water heater set on “too hot to touch,” and burlesque dancers in memorial services.
Seminary classes do not prepare you for these things. Mine also did not prepare me well for just the basic logistics of ministry: what to wear, how to project your voice, where to stand, etcetera. And, as you may know, over the course of these last few weeks many have asked me about being a woman in ministry–which presents a special learning curve, including well meaning old ladies who say things like, “Honey, you really need to make sure you’ve got a nice shade of lipstick on anytime you speak in public. Without it, you look dead.”
You learn these things by doing them, which is why programs like Calvary’s new pastoral residency program are so very important. Those of us who don’t have the advantage of residency-like training learn from more experienced ministers who show us the ropes. That’s what happened to me at the beginning of my ministry, when the senior minister for whom I worked took me and a similarly inexperienced colleague up to the sanctuary one Monday morning and said, “Okay, it’s time to learn how to pronounce a benediction.”
Benedictions are important, he told us, because they are like a final word—the message by which you send your people out from the work of worship to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the world. He made us stand up front and pretend to give a benediction, but when he saw what we were doing he quickly sat us down on the front pew and stood up to demonstrate. “I don’t ever want to see you give a wimpy benediction. No halfway holding your arms in the air. Hold your arms high and wide, and cup your hands. A benediction should always be like holding your people close, gathering them together, and telling them what they already know: that God goes with them.”
You have not known that I had this particular training over all of these years, but perhaps you have noticed that every week I try to do as I was taught: stand up in front of you and do my best to remind you that you belong to each other, and that we all belong to God.
It’s like taking our time of worship and bringing it full circle, a benediction.
When I was eleven years old, my youngest brother Matthew was born. I often played surrogate mother to Matt, because my mom was busy with all the other kids. When it was my turn to rock him to sleep at night, I would sing that song I’d always learned that you sing when you’re putting babies to sleep. The words are, “Jesus tender shepherd hear me, bless thy little lamb tonight. Through the darkness be thou near me, keep me safe ‘til morning light.” It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that some people sing different lullabies when rocking babies to sleep. That’s the one I have embedded on my memory, because my mother sang it to me, to my younger sister, then my next sister, then my brother John. It wasn’t THE baby sleeping song—it was just the one my mom always chose to sing to us.
In the same way, the longer one pastors a congregation, the more likely one is to fall into a pattern of pronouncing some version of the same benediction every week. This is not a lack of imagination; it’s more like “our song”—something that comforts and blesses (but hopefully does not make the congregation go to sleep).
There many famous benedictions, signature blessings of prominent pastors. For example, you may have heard the famous blessing of St. Patrick:Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me….
Or you may know the prayer of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
And how could I not mention the famous benediction of William Sloan Coffin?: “May God give you grace never to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
And, of course, familiar words of the Apostle Paul from his letter to the Philippians: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I myself don’t really have a “signature” benediction; I like to remind us all of something in our worship that compels us to walk boldly into the world around us bearing the light of Christ, and I usually try to tailor it to the text or theme guiding our worship that day. But you may have noticed in all of these years that it has been my practice, every single week, to end every benediction, no matter what words I say, with the phrase, “We go in peace.”
I have said these words in times of joy. I have said them when we were grieving. I’ve said them when we felt our hearts overflowing with love for each other. I’ve said them when we could hardly stand to look at each other we were so mad. I’ve said them right here during crisis in our community, our country, our world.
Sometimes I said them with full personal conviction that they were true; many times I have said them doubtful but desperately hoping. No matter what was swirling around us, though, I tried to say them every time we gathered to remind all of us that this place is a place where we can gather to declare not what is but what can be; not the circumstances we know, but the lives and world for which we hope.
Here is where it starts: in our hearts and in this community.
The gospel lesson we heard today is one of a handful of stories describing post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Today’s is the story in John’s gospel where Jesus appears on the beach early one morning. The disciples were out on the water, in their boats, fishing. They’d gone back to what they knew how to do, sort of baffled about how exactly their lives were changing in the wake of all that had happened to them. After instigating a big catch and cooking breakfast, Jesus offers some clue of what he had in mind for their future in a conversation with Peter. Jesus describes the future church—the very first expression of a human institution that would embody the gospel he came to teach—using two instructions. He asks Peter whether he loves him, then tells him to “feed my sheep.” In effect he was telling them what he’d been telling them all along. If you want to be the church and be the church well, here is what you do: love God, and love each other.
Ever since Jesus tried to lay it out for the first disciples, we, the church, have been trying to figure out how exactly to follow his instructions. Sometimes we fail in disastrously hurtful public displays. But sometimes we get close to what Jesus had in mind. And when we do, the community we call the church becomes life-filled and gift-giving, a place where we are blessed and where we can begin to envision what God has always hoped for all of humanity.
Calvary, you are a place that has done that. We’ve done it together. God has done it with us. And God will keep doing it.
In the days ahead you will have other voices blessing you, wonderful, amazing, gifted voices who will be drawn to all of you for what you believe and what you have become in this place: the people of God living a calling with boldness and conviction. Those voices will bless you with their own benedictions; their arms will gather you together and send you out every week.
And that is as it should be, even though it’s difficult and painful for some of us to think about today. As hard as this is, we actually wouldn’t want this to be easy. We can only welcome all these feelings with gratitude, and celebrate this glorious hardness because it’s indicative of the truth and depth of what has been in this place.
So, we come full circle today, to this place in which our journeys diverge. And as we do, we give thanks for all God has done in and among us. We mark this place as holy. And we voice our expectations for God’s continued and wonderful work in the days ahead as we go boldly to love God and love each other, as Jesus taught us. And certainly today—especially today—we go…in peace.