Note: A year ago today, I preached this final sermon at Sunnyside-Centenary United Methodist Church.
I want to begin with an apology. This apology is generally for the remaining members, but it is more specifically for Cliff Fairley our illustrious choir director. Boy, hasn’t the choir just been magnificent?
Several months ago, while we were in the throes of some very difficult conversations about the future of the church, the idea of closure was first floated. The possibility of closure had always been before us, but on this particular day it emerged as the most appropriate decision. I said something to the crowd that day that Cliff really took to heart. I said “Given the stature and history of this great congregation, if you’re gonna close, you ought to close out in style. You ought to light up the cross and flame on the bell tower and you should shoot fireworks of the roof.” As the conversation went on Cliff spoke up and said: “Yes, I want fireworks off the roof.”
I am sorry there won’t be any fireworks off the roof. Because Sunnyside has earned fireworks. Fireworks are what you get when you make the winning play. And I’m a bit disappointed that you’re not getting all the things you have earned by being a winning church.
For any other offense I may have committed in my brief time here, I offer my sincerest apology. No doubt that in 125 years, this congregation has accumulated its share of offenses. From love withheld, to neighbors neglected. From harsh words to rash decisions. From sins left unconfessed and unreconciled to bouts of laziness and cheap grace. In the light of these offenses God empowers us to pronounce forgiveness and be freed. You are forgiven. You are forgiven. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. I believe it is God’s will for you to exit this place freed of any burden of regret and guilt. So know you are forgiven.
I love this text from Jeremiah. It is famous in and of itself, but perhaps you’re unaware that these words were given–this promise made–at a time of loss. A time when the all the people of Israel and Judah were losing their homeland. That piece of property that was so quintessential to their identity was now someone else’s…and they had to leave. How strange that these ancient words are about God doing new things. God still must do new things. Our God is a creative God who knows us intimately, better than we even know ourselves. God can see what’s ahead and what is needed for the continued redemption of God’s creation. How awesome is this God that writes a new covenant on the very hearts of those who understand the pain of transition.
I feel that pain myself. I know what my calendar says about where I’ll be this time next week. I know that the Bishop has reappointed me across the river in Vancouver. And I trust God to show me new things there. But I can’t help feel a particular sorrow for having to leave Sunnyside. I just got here. And I deeply, deeply love Sunnyside. I wrote to conference leadership around Thanksgiving that Sunnyside is the church I have always wanted to serve: inclusive with purpose, classy with personality, faithful with an inquiring mind. So many Godly qualities live here. As surely as this ole boy from West Virginia loves Sunnyside, so too does the living God know and love you who make up Sunnyside. God knows you better. God honors you more deeply than any of us ever can.
God honors you because in spite of those moments of iniquity, you have blazed a tremendous path of faithful service to God. When no one else saw the need to house homeless families, you saw the need and you responded. When your neighbors weren’t so happy with the company you kept on Wednesday and Friday nights, you stood firm with faithfulness and creativity. When our denomination wasn’t able to welcome our neighbors with differing sexual orientations and gender identities, you told your own stories, lived out your own faith and welcomed without judgment. You have taught others to listen without prejudice and you have made room for others.
You deserve fireworks, because you have loved deeply. The church is called to be the body of Christ. We take on the life, purpose and example of Jesus. Jesus got down in the gutters and redeemed people where they were. He defiled himself through the controversial acts of healing the sick, eating with sinners and forgiving the despicable. It’s crude to say Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins. It’s more like Jesus died so that others can be freed to live as God would have them live. So churches, to be like Christ, must give their lives away. Wanting to live forever is understandable. Even as we’ve gotten smaller, Sunnyside is still a joyful congregation. But the God we follow ultimately lives for others, even if that means losing his own life in the process. It may be that the toughest task ahead is explaining to your next congregation what happened to Sunnyside. Others may view your old church as a failure. They may wonder what you did wrong. But you know the truth: Sunnyside chose to give its life so that others may live.
God’s covenant is not about a building, it has never been about the building. The new covenant is a state of mind–a state of heart, really–it’s a way of being which says this life is for loving God with all that I have. A way of being that says this life is for loving my neighbors as myself. It is still about healing the sick, befriending the forgotten, welcoming the outcast and working for the peace of the world.
You are allowed to feel whatever you are lead to feel on this day. I have cried and I will cry. I’ve been mad, confused, relieved, honored…every emotion. Regardless of how you feel, I insist, as your pastor, that you walk out of here with your heads high, with a deep sense of accomplishment for having been faithful to God ’til the end. And be free to love and serve the Lord in all that you say and do.