It is the night before the last Sunday in June. For United Methodists that means ‘time to itinerate’. Many churches across the connection are gearing up to say good-bye to their current pastors, even as they are anticipating the arrival of their new pastor. Clergy are writing last sermons. I am one of those clergy, as is my lovely wife. At the end of what will be a whirlwind week, we will preach introductory sermons to nervous new congregations. I already have my first two month’s worth of sermon themes lined up…stick with the lectionary and its meaty offerings of Year A, Kingdom of God gospel readings.
About the nerves: there is no aspect of my life that I am not currently anxious about. I am worried about my daughter’s transition; I am worried about traveling with cats; I am worried about finishing packing; I am worried about our current eating habits; I am worried about being liked at my new place; I am anxious about saying good-bye to three different congregations tomorrow.
I dug up a blog post that I wrote on my first worship five years ago. Here’s a snippet:
I had always thought that the first Communion would be when I really felt God’s abiding presence in my ministry. That it is at this moment where God says: well done. Well, perhaps God said it. Perhaps I was working and somehow missed it. There was just so much, so many details, to keep up with. In the end, I did my job, and all got fed. That is the important part. A closing hymn, a clumsy benediction, and my first worship service as a full-time pastor is in the bag.
Except—I have to run over to the other church and do it all over again. Not only that, I ran a little bit late and I have to book it. Dear God, if I get lost, it will be your praises that will suffer.
I have learned so much. There have been times when I felt God’s abiding presence as I led worship. There have also been times when I have felt overwhelmed, alone and ineffectual. In 2007, I picked up a 3rd church. I remember the feeling as I entered the pulpit on that first Sunday. I felt–better. I knew a little bit. I had one whole year under my belt and I was confident.
As I itinerate, I am aware that I still have one ‘first’ left: leaving a church. I have found it difficult to figure out what to say. I have been distracted for the last 2 months. I buckled down and took a more ‘professional’ approach. I developed some principles for the last sermon:
- Preach the gospel…this should happen every Sunday, this one is no different.
- Preach the congregation…let it be about God first, them second and me dead last.
- Preach a straight-forward text…clarity is always a top value, but it being a ‘last sermon’, don’t let confusion be your last word.
- Be grateful…the time for working out congregational difficulties has passed, say thank you.
So I developed these principles as a way to help me progress on a message as creative energy is being challenged by so many distractions. I picked a good text: 1 John 4:7-21. Lo-and-behold, the message came to me yesterday: the leading story, the plot-line and the conclusion. I decided to tell the church about Rehoboth (pdf), the oldest church west of the Alleghenies, whose 225th anniversary was celebrated this weekend near Union, WV. Last sermons ought to be about timeless, ancient, everlasting things: faith, hope and love.
Outline for my final sermon: Last Verse, Same as the First
- TEXT: 1 John 4:7-21
- Rehoboth: the oldest church west of the Alleghenies…built at a time of uncertainty.
- Telling the story of Joe Smith (circuit rider) and the establishment of Methodism in WV.
- Rehoboth means: “the Lord has made room for us”.
- What to do in times of uncertainty:
- Let Love Rule.
- Listen, Speak, Listen
- Renew relationship with Jesus (read and pray)
- How I have seen love rule in the congregation.
- @ Highland Park UMC–For the joyous manner by which they share the peace of Christ.
- @ Jones UMC–For their embracing of children.
- @ Sabra UMC–For the way they care for each other in times of grief.
- Thanksgiving for love I have received.
- Good News: God first loved us.
It’s amazing. I am so tired. I am really nervous. But I have a message. Come Holy Spirit.