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 of love,[v] a school of the non-fuzzy love that is the heart and soul of Jesus’ teachings. That is how we are to transform the world. The main thing I’ve hoped to convey in every aspect of my ministry with you really boils down to this: God loves us, God loves all of you more than you can possibly imagine, exactly the way you are. And God loves us too much to let us stay like this.[vi] The point of our faith is to be transformed by love, and then to transform the world with love.
At the Presbytery meeting in Eureka a couple of weeks ago, in addition to people from this church who spoke to my retirement, for whom I’m deeply grateful, several of my clergy colleagues spoke. One colleague, an African American woman who lives in this neighborhood, said that it warms her heart to walk past the banner on the front of the sanctuary, the one that says, “Black Lives Matter,” “Love is Love,” and so on. She said, “It makes me think, ‘Just maybe I won’t get shot today.’” That’s why Cornell West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” If anyone ever asks you just why is it that First Presbyterian Church is known around the neighborhood as “that church full of activists,” that is why. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love our neighbors, and justice is what that love looks like in public. It looks like love that changes the world.
So love is the main thing, but I want to add a related, sub-main-thing, if you will. As the prophet Isaiah declares, God is about to do a new thing. Expect something new. What this has to do with love is that we know that the people in the culture around us are suspicious of organized religion and of Christianity in particular, and for plenty of good reasons. They’re afraid a church will try to make them believe all sorts of ridiculous things. No one has ever told them that “mature forms of religion don’t traffic in simplistic or implausible answers, but push us to ask the right questions.”[vii] They’ve seen hate masquerading as love. They’ve seen the larger Church stick its head in the sand and ignore the crises of our time: climate disruption, racism, homophobia, migration policies, a widening gap between rich and poor, and an intractable divide in American politics in which the very truth is up for grabs. And then they paint all churches with the same brush.
But love is the main thing, and people will always need love; they will always need community and belonging. People will always need to be encouraged to grow; they will always need purpose and meaning. People are hungry for the kind of encouragement that allows them to imagine more options, the kind that values them, that accepts them for who and where and what they are, rather than scolding them or trying to get them to do things our way. So be prepared to let God do that new thing, because that is how you can show love to our neighbors, near and far.
Your Interim Pastor, the Rev. Scott Clark, will get you started on the new thing God is about to do. Scott and whomever you call as your next installed pastor will bring new gifts, gifts I don’t have, insights I don’t have, ideas that never occurred to me. Be open to this; welcome this, because the world around us in San Anselmo is not what it was 14 ½ years ago or 40 years ago or even 5 years ago. The church of Jesus Christ has always had its best days when facing the steepest odds. And what are the Seven Last Words of the Church? “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
At the same time, your new pastor will be excited, in fact, down right giddy when he or she begins to plumb the riches that are already here. Honest, it’ll be like the proverbial kid in a candy store. “You mean I get to do that? You mean this congregation is tackling anti-racism, privilege; even reparations? You mean you’ve had a speaker series on climate disruption since 2014, and you’re a More Light Church? Your leadership studies what it means to be a healthy congregation? You’ve sent how many overtures to General Assembly?”
What a faithful legacy you have, and what an exciting future lies ahead of you. As you step forward into this transition, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And my friends, Paul is right about this, too: Don’t forget to sing! Even you folks in the back of the sanctuary. It really does help; it heals us and it holds us together.
There’s a hymn that perfectly gathers up the main thing: God’s love, our response, the beloved community, grace and gratitude. In 1636, Martin Rinkart wrote it as a table grace, and it’s a hymn that I fervently hope will be sung at my memorial service. We’ll sing an appropriately cheerful hymn in just a minute, but right now, will you please turn to Number 643[viii] in your hymnals, and sing the first verse with me?
Sing “Now Thank We All Our God,” verse 1.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reser
[i] “There are no singulars in this passage; everything is directed to the ‘y’all’ of the congregation.” Amy L. B. Peeler, “Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17,” December 30, 2012, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1506.
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 86.
[iii] Colossians 3:14.
[iv] Kenneth E. Kovacs, “Dress You Up in My Love,” February 2, 2015, https://covnetpres.org/2015/02/dress-love/.
[v] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 54.
[vi] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 135.
[vii] Sarah, Hurwitz, “Religion for Adults Means Embracing Complexity,” September 27, 2019, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/religion-for-adults-means-embracing-complexity-11569599979?fbclid=IwAR1JHcQmeIstPKl12H3DWLhggkLnrEiadOI32bgcmR7L8017dYeRtWUuv_k.
[viii] “Now Thank We All Our God” (“Nun Danket Alle Gott”), lyrics by Martin Rinkart, 1636; music by Johann Crüger, 1647 (harmonies by F. Mendelssohn, 1840).