Too Light a Thing: The Gospel and Goodbye
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6
These are my last two sermons as assistant rector here at Holy Cross. I came here in 2017 as a soon-to-be seminary graduate looking to complete the required three-month internship to apply for priesthood. I leave an ordained pastor, priest, and teacher.
These are my last two sermons as assistant rector here at Holy Cross. I don’t mean just the 8 AM and the 10 AM. I also mean there are at least two remaining sermons: the gospel and the goodbye.
I mean, if this were any other Sunday, I’d just preach the Gospel. It’d just be another sermon. Here we are at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, among the first disciples—before all the squabbling, before the betrayal, before the suffering, before the hiding, the confusion, the parting, the travels, the persecution, the martyrdom, before the church as we have come to know it, for better and for worse. Before all of that, there was only Jesus’s invitation: “come and see.” Jesus invites each of us to see whatever it is we came to this place for. And to see it for ourselves. Before everything else, there was joy and the realization that joy was real—or it could be. And that’s what I’d preach: God’s joy.
Because God intends joy—not merely contentment, or satisfaction, or even success but joy. And it’s that joy that compelled the first disciples to follow Jesus. On this bittersweet occasion, I hope to encourage you in following Jesus, in seeking and living into God’s joy for you.
But it’s not any other Sunday, and I have to say goodbye. I have some thank-you cards (some long-overdue, some timely) for gifts and kindnesses over the years. There are some farewell emails going out to some groups, mostly because emails are going to start bouncing. There will be a final farewell email from me in this Thursday’s newsletter. Please look for that. Finally, I look forward to when the next thing comes together, and I can let Kelly let all of you know where I’ve landed. These interview processes don’t always line up as we might like. The Spirit has better ideas. But all that communication doesn’t meet the expectation to hear thank you, I’m sorry, I love you, goodbye from this pulpit.
There are two sermons, then: there is the Gospel, and there is goodbye.
Thank you, I’m sorry, I love you—Goodbye
Or perhaps there’s just one: Thank you, I’m sorry, I love you—Goodbye. Because today’s Gospel message is a goodbye, perhaps the best kind.
The best breakup I ever had—I don’t know if you can call it a breakup—we were together for maybe two months, in high school. The marriages of prospective priests, by the way, are evaluated by a therapist. Did you know that? The therapist’s report said of me, “Limited dating history.” So we might not have registered on your relationship Richter, but I remember what the silence sounded like on the phone after she said, “I think we should see other people.” “See other people” was a script, borrowed from people far older than us, in relationships, situations very different from ours. I remember thinking she had to have been scared. She’d called me on the phone and used a script. But she did call. There’s a word for doing something important even though you’re scared: brave. I remember being less hurt than impressed. It’s hard to be the first to say goodbye, risking hurting someone you profess to care about because you have to speak and live another truth. She had somewhere to be, and she wasn’t going to get there with me. There was another silence, and I spoke the truth she’d just helped me to discover. “I think so, too,” I said. There was another silence. “Do you feel better?” I said. “Oh my God, yes,” she said, and we talked as friends would for what seemed like a few hours.
I’d say that was a good goodbye, a true goodbye.
You know, some months later, I followed her friend Allison into drama club to see if she would go to homecoming with me. In 2005, she put a ring on this finger. Last year, she put a stole on these shoulders. We have three amazing kids.
That’s good news. That’s Gospel. That’s goodbye.
John Says Goodbye
This morning’s Gospel reading is the joy of a goodbye.
“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples [traditionally Andrew and John], and as [the Baptizer] watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”
As Kelly mentioned last week in our observance of Jesus’s baptism, in the gospel of John, John the Baptist narrates the events of our savior’s baptism. Jesus, says John, is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one foretold, the one I’ve been telling you about.
Why does John believe that? He doesn’t rely on any tradition. He offers no intellectual argument. John saw it for himself: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day, John sees Jesus again, and he testifies. And the disciples follow. Jesus sees them, stops, turns, and asks, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”
“Come and see,” says the savior. Come and see this for yourself.
John the Baptizer, for his part, is left standing there. He doesn’t pull rank as a teacher. He offers no theological argument. He doesn’t drop everything himself to follow Jesus with this pair. John’s ministry remains there in the wilderness by the river Jordan, to continue paving the way for people to find Jesus.
It’s an inverted Beatles. I don’t know why we say hello. This was goodbye.
This is the Gospel. This is a goodbye.
Now, I don’t know if you’re John, my second seminary, my teachers, and I’m one of the disciples—or if I’m your John, whose great hope it is to point out Jesus enough that you might be able to follow him. Perhaps, it’s a bit of both.
I do know that the goodbyes were omitted from the Gospel, which we just can’t do.
Perhaps, Andrew runs back to say, “Thank you.”
“Thank Allison for me,” he says. “I’m sure it pains the devil that my Homer Simpson soul was long ago claimed by another, and I’m sure it delights the Spirit to read the deed to my heart.”
“Thank you Denise for accepting me at the first. Thank the clergy Jamie, and Claudia, and Bob, of blessed memory.”
“Thank my original lay committee, who served in those early months for no other reason than Denise asked them: Andy, Owen, Jennifer, Sarah, Karol, Karen, Lane, Michael, and Judith. It’s been a long time. I haven’t forgotten. I owe Sarah one of my favorite comments: ‘You’re fire and brimstone, but like in a good way.’ I felt so seen.”
“Some of them have gone to callings elsewhere,” John replies.
“Well, may the record show that I’m grateful,” Andrew says. “Thank Nick for his music and churchmanship. And thank Megan for her thoughtfulness and faithfulness. And thank Maude for her dedication and creativity, and for her gift of an enchanted stole I was honored to wear at each of my ordinations. I don’t make it through the plague without them.”
“Who are these people?” John asks anachronistically, straining to keep Kevin’s metaphor going and provide enough critical distance that Kevin doesn’t lose it in public. “Anybody else?”
“Yes, thank the priest Kelly of House Moughty, first of her name, fifth rector of the Holy Cross, the Godsend.”
Thank you, Holy Cross, my second seminary, each of you, all of you. I’m grateful.
Perhaps, the disciple whom Jesus loved comes running back to say, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” says the Baptizer.
“For all the times I wasn’t the disciple you’d hoped I’d be, the times I wasn’t the disciple I’d hoped to be,” says the disciple. “For all the times I wasn’t the priest I feel like I should’ve been, for all the time I wasn’t a priest and could have been.”
“I’m sorry, too,” says John. “We were both learning.”
There’s a silence.
“Do you feel better?” John asks.
“God, yes, thank you,” says the disciple. There’s a pause. “Well, I have to catch up with Andrew.”
“And Jesus,” John offers.
“I’m going to miss you.”
“And I you.”
Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. Goodbye.
Too Light a Thing
This is our Gospel. This is goodbye.
I leave today for the same reason John continued as the Baptizer and the disciples parted ways.
I’m not leaving because I found a better deal. I don’t have one. I’m not leaving for any secret reason. If so, God’s keeping it from us both. I’m not leaving because of some theory of priestly formation or diocesan requirement. I’m not leaving because either of us did anything wrong. I’m not leaving because the budget doesn’t include me or because you can’t afford me.
I’m leaving for one reason and one reason alone. Because we should see other people. Because we’re doing something brave. How can we keep each other from following Jesus? How can we honestly, lovingly deny one another our vocations, our joy in Jesus Christ? We’re parting because we’re happy. We’re parting because of joy.
I leave Holy Cross for the same reason I came to this church this morning, for the same reason we always come to church: to say goodbye. Goodbye, after all, is “God be with you.”
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
It was too light a thing to send Jesus to comfort Israel, to just put things back the way they were. As extraordinary as that alone would have been, it was too light a thing to do it. God made Israel a light as well so that God’s rescue would transform the world.
It was too light a thing to send me here for three months. Wonderful as that was, it was too light a thing to do that only. God made me a priest here.
And it is too light a thing for you to come here to this place for a moment’s rest. Or to be intellectually stimulated. Or to be involved in some ministry. Or even to find your calling or to change the world in some way. Though you’ll do all of that.
And if there isn’t such a moment of faithful joy in your journey so far, then God bless you, for that moment awaits.
Miraculous as that alone was and will be, it is too light a thing for God to do that only for you. You will get a moment’s rest. You will be intellectually stimulated. You’ll be involved in many ministries. You will find your calling and you will change the world in some way. In these pews, in this place, you are part of nothing less than the transformation of all creation, the reconciliation of all people and things, the renewal of heaven and earth.
If you have found Jesus, if you seek him, how can I not say goodbye: goodbye to the way things were? Goodbye to the way they say things have to be? Goodbye to the people we were once upon a time? Goodbye to the people we thought we’d be? Goodbye to the things we regret, to the stuff that holds us down and holds us back?
“He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God…” And that song was goodbye.
God be with you, God bless you, then, in your vocation. I hope that in my claiming my share in the priesthood of God, you discover something of your own. God put a new song in your mouth, too, and that song is goodbye. God be with you.
We should see other people. Because you will be a blessing to each of them.
My song is the Gospel. My song is goodbye.
“I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
That is our Gospel.
And this is our goodbye.