Today was my last sermon before finishing up at Quinns church and I was torn between what to speak about. Part of me – the part that avoids pain – was headed towards something cerebral and safe – a ‘heady’ message – a message that informs and provokes, but avoids what is going on in the heart.
But after 31 years of doing this stuff I know when I’m copping out. A ‘thinkers sermon’ would have been an attempt to avoid the simple but significant pain that comes with finishing ministry amongst a community of people you love deeply.
If I allowed my heart to express what was going on then I would speak from Acts 20, where Paul farewells the Ephesian elders on the beach at Miletus. There is something beautiful, raw and visceral in the display of affection that is shown there. I knew that was where I wanted to go but I feared the degree of emotion it would evoke in me.
But that scenario and some of Paul’s words encapsulated much of what I wanted to say to the church – so I made the choice and dove in. There has been some deep, sincere love shared and some significant participating in people’s lives over the 14 years of being there. We have shared in marriages, divorces, new converts, de-converts, funerals, sickness and the whole spectrum of life. And while we often glibly use the language of it being a privilege – I can’t think of a better word to describe our experience.
I felt more emotional than I expected this morning, so chugging thru some of what I wanted to say was difficult. But to not go there would have been simple cowardice. In the Acts 20 passage there are a lot of tears – Paul says he warned them continually with tears, he reminds them that he served them with humility and tears and the final scene on the beach is full of raw emotion as they farewell Paul knowing they won’t see him again. Acts 21 opens with the words ‘After we had torn ourselves away…’ It was a heart-wrenching time.
And while today was hard, and some of it was shared thru tears I am glad for taking the harder road. I want our people to know some of the depth of what we feel – and that our shift has been led by the Spirit – as best we can discern. It was an opportunity to ‘end well’ and to call the church to support of Ed as he continues to lead us forward.
If I had to encapsulate what we hoped for over the time then it was simply to be ‘real’ people who allowed others into our lives – the good, the bad and the ugly. There is so much plastic Christianity around the place and pastoral celebritism that it makes me ill as I observe it. Then there’s the whole idea that you shouldn’t be friends with your congregation, which has never made sense to me either. I suggested ‘no bullshit’ might be a good summation of how we have hoped to live among the church over these years. People nodded.
I joked that Paul was on the money with calling people to remember how he lived as there sure aint anyone gonna remember sermons! That said, I was stoked when one of our younger people told me after that she remembers clearly one thing I said ‘ ‘God is good‘. Yeah I did say that and I said it often as it’s the foundation of my theology. So to know that this idea has taken root in someone else’s life and will be formative for them gave me goosebumps. If you can get this one idea embedded in your heart and mind then you are gonna travel well.
I love Paul’s words that seem to be central in this account:
“However I consider my life worth nothing to me – if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”
Those are true words for Paul – but probably more ‘aspirational’ words for myself.
I remember being interviewed for a youth pastor job back in 1995 by the Lesmurdie church and they asked me what my sense of calling was. I said ‘I want to be able to communicate the Christian faith to ordinary Australian people in ways they can understand.’
In recent years I have added to that ‘and create Christian communities that make sense in this culture.’
Part of this is the apostolic gifting that I have been given and part of it came from being part of churches where ‘insider language’ meant that ordinary Aussies felt like they were entering a foreign culture. That’s been my goal for many years now – for faith to make sense to ordinary Aussie blokes especially.
When I thought this morning of ‘finishing the race’ well I remembered the women’s 10000m from earlier in the week where the Scottish woman, Ellish McColgan finished with such power and purpose that it sent chills down the spine. I sense that is some of how Paul hopes to end the race and I hope it can be my own experience too.
August 21 is our ‘farewell service’ where we officially finish ministry in Quinns and Yanchep. And while these 14 years won’t be written about in anyone’s history books as a phenomenal success or an amazing achievement, for us it has been a beautiful and significant experience of travelling with a community of people through good times and bad.