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The Main Thing

Lessons: Isaiah 43:18-21; Colossians 3:12-17

If you’re worshiping with us for the first time today, you may have picked up during the Sermon from the Steps that today is not an ordinary Sunday. It’s World Communion Sunday, which is why we have the drums and international music today, but it’s also my last Sunday. I’m retiring after 14 ½ years as the pastor here at First Presbyterian Church.

The temptation is to try to cram all the memories, all my joy and grief, into one sermon. In the Colossians passage, you get a sense that the Apostle Paul feels that same sense of urgency. He’s writing to the Christian congregation at Colossae,[i] a city in present-day Turkey. Maybe he figures he’ll never make it to Colossae again, because he offers this gorgeous laundry list of the practices that hold people together in community: Clothe yourselves with compassion; bear with one another; forgive each other. The advice tumbles out in a rush: let peace dwell in your hearts, teach each other; oh, and don’t forget to sing!

So much to say; so little time. But, as Frederick Buechner reminds any potentially long-winded preacher, “Sermons are like dirty jokes; even the best ones are hard to remember.”[ii] So instead, I’m guided by my friend and colleague, Rich Gantenbein, who used to say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” I learned later that Stephen Covey said this first. I don’t care. I heard it from Rich a number of times and for me, it’s Rich’s saying. I offer it this morning as my parting advice to you.

Before I get to the main thing, though, I want to express my deep and profound gratitude. Thank you for allowing me to journey with you on the path of Christian discipleship this past decade and a half. I have loved being your pastor, and I have loved you. Thank you for taking a chance on me when I had never served as a head of staff. Three of our liturgists this morning, Rebecca Conant, Martha Spears and Anne Towler, served on the pastor nominating committee that brought me here. All the other members of that PNC have moved away or passed away, but I want to name them and thank them as well, as part of the cloud of witnesses on whose shoulders we stand: Betsi Christensen, Diane Fairchild, Nan Harle, Roger Hedin, Phil Heinecke (who was the chair), Miriam Kazan, Win Mauzy, Jentina Mitchell, John Sklut, Dale Steinmann, and Presbytery liaison Don Emmel.

Thank you to the best church staff on the planet: Laurie Buntain, Daniel Canosa, Chris Francisco, Tom Lannert, Joanna Magee, Audrey Mahler, Natsuko Murayama, Patrick O’Connor, Martha Spears, and our parish associate until recently, the Rev. Doug Olds. You have been a blessing to me, and you continue to be a blessing to this church. The whole congregation owes you a huge thank you.

Thank you to the members of session and the deacons, not just the elders and deacons serving now but all of you who have served as officers during my tenure. One of the joys of being a Presbyterian is serving with people committed enough to be ordained to the work of the church. Thank you for your service, your humor, your creativity and expertise, your commitment above and beyond what anyone could hope. Thank you for growing with me, and for being good sports whenever I came up with yet another new, untried, potentially hare-brained idea. A special thanks to Jean Holm and Alice Graham who served as Clerks of Session.

Thank you to the choir and to our musicians, for the holy magic you do. Thank you to all of you in the pews who have supported the ministry of this church with your presence, your generosity, and your commitment. Thank you for honoring me with your stories: your grief and fears, your joys and transitions. Thank you for participating in Sunday Seminars and Green Chautauquas; annual dinners and climate marches; centering prayer, the Transition Support Group and the healing service; the Kensington Press and the Kensingtones; the REST Shelter, mission trips all over the world, Holy Humor Sundays, the Christmas pageants, youth group, baptisms, Godly Play, and so much more, and please, never underestimate the huge gift of just showing up in worship on Sunday mornings. When you are here, community happens.

So: the main thing. Paul gets around to it in verse 14 of the Colossians passage: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”[iii] It’s a striking image. Paul is saying something like, “Dress in layers – compassion, kindness, humility, and so on – but let your outer garment, the one you present to the world, the one that most truly represents the internal change that has occurred and is occurring in you, be love.”[iv] Just like our new First Presbyterian Church t-shirts say: “Love First.”

Love first. Clothe yourselves with love. Now, “love” can be a very fuzzy word. It’s easy to sentimentalize and domesticate love. A current car ad says, “Love: It’s what makes a Suburu a Suburu.” What does that even mean? Does anyone know? Maybe there’s some way that’s true, but I can’t imagine what it is.

Our calling as the Church is to de-fuzz the word “love.” We are called to put flesh on it, to put skin and bones on it; to clothe ourselves in love. The love I’m talking about is much more demanding, I’m guessing, than whatever it is that makes a Suburu a Suburu. I’m talking about love as a practice, a discipline, a growing edge, a horizon – a radical choice, and a gracious gift. Love that is so strong and powerful it changes people. We are to be transformed by love and then we in the church are to be a school