I was wakened in the wee hours this morning … actually, I didn’t sleep very much last night. I never sleep very well on Saturday nights, and last night was no exception. Today is my last Sunday in the pulpit at Smithville United Methodist Church. Over the course of the last two and a half years, I have loved this community of faith and they have loved me. It will be a tough day for all of us. Below is the text of the sermon I have planned for today. It is entitled “My Prayer for Smithville,” based on Ephesians 3: 14 – 21.
As I began planning and preparing for today – our very last worship service together – I couldn’t help but think back to my planning and preparation for our first worship service together. You may or may not remember that day. It was Sunday, February 3, 2008. I was a bit nervous. Though I had stood in many pulpits over the years as a lay speaker, this time was different. This time I was a pastor. The pastor. And I was nervous. It was Transfiguration Sunday and my sermon that day was entitled “A Mountaintop Experience.” Indeed that Sunday was a mountaintop experience for me as I entered into this community of faith. Since it was the first Sunday of the month, we also had Communion that day. I had celebrated Holy Communion many times in my life. And in my seminary classes I had contemplated and wrestled with my theology of the Sacraments. And we had “practiced” Communion in my worship classes, but this time it was the “real deal.” That Sunday was my First Holy Communion, if you will, as a pastor. It was my first time to preside at the table. Talk about a mountaintop experience! As I prepared for that day, I went over the order of worship in fine detail and I rehearsed my sermon, but the thing I was most nervous about was Communion. I remember that Sunday after church Barb and Brad invited me to go to lunch with them at Bob Evans, and I recall Barb asking me if I was nervous about worship or about meeting all of you. And I remember telling her that I was indeed nervous about Communion. I told her that I had rehearsed the communion liturgy again and again – no, not to be sure that I got it right, but to desensitize myself so that I would not cry as I presided at the table for the very first time. Those preparations were not unlike my preparations for today. I practiced and rehearsed the communion liturgy again and again to at least try to minimize my tears this morning.
In preparation for that first Sunday, too, I spoke with several of my former pastors. I asked them if they had any pearls of wisdom to offer me as I started on my journey with you. Some offered spiritual advice, reminding me to continue my own spiritual practices even when I got busy and to be sure I kept my relationship with God my top priority. Some offered personal advice, reminding me that when caring for others, I need to be sure I care for myself. Still others offered practical advice ranging from “don’t make any changes at all during your first year” to “if you wear a wireless microphone, be sure to take it off or at least turn it off when going to the bathroom.” All of them, though, had one common piece of advice. Every one of them said to me, “Love your people. Just go in there and love them.”
And that is what I have tried to do during my time here at Smithville United Methodist Church. I do indeed love you – collectively as a congregation and the body of Christ, and individually, as beloved children of God, with individual needs, hurts, desires and joys. And I am so grateful to you for sharing all of those things, even your very selves with me, as we have journeyed together over the last two and a half years. You all have blessed me in ways that I cannot even begin to articulate and it has been quite an honor to be your pastor. It has indeed been quite a ride! On my last day of classes just over a month ago, I posted as my facebook status that it was a bittersweet day. One of my friends made the comment, “Like all good rollercoasters, this ride has come to an end.” Indeed that is true with our time together as pastor and congregation. Our time has come to an end. It has been an incredible journey together – truly, a mountaintop experience.
As we complete our time together, there are a few things I want to leave with you. First, I want to tell you that it is OK to cry. Both your tears and my tears are OK. My field education instructor, The Rev. Sandy Selby (you met her when she came for my site visit), once preached a sermon on tears. In response to those who said that tears were a sign of weakness, Sandy suggested that tears are a sign of love. Our tears together today are a sign of our love for each other. So it’s OK to cry.
The second thing I want to leave with you is a reminder to laugh. You all know that I love to laugh. Laughter is good for the soul and it can cure many ills. In the midst of this transition or even after, if you find yourself discouraged, do something that will make you laugh. Sing a silly song. Watch a funny movie. Watch children play … or better yet, join them! Play. Laugh. Laughter is good for us.
And the last thing I want to leave you with is a prayer of love. That is what today’s scripture lesson is. It is a prayer of love. It is one of my favorite passages in the whole biblical canon and I could not think of a more fitting scripture with which to end our time together. These eight verses are the epistle writer’s prayer for the church at Ephesus, and as your pastor, they compose my closing prayer for you, too. This is my prayer for the people of Smithville United Methodist Church.
In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, these verses read, “My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit – not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength – that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. God can do anything you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. Glory to God in the church! Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus! Glory down all the generations! Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!”
When the writer prays this prayer for the church at Ephesus, he is NOT praying that God’s people would know that God loves them, but that they would know God’s love. Let me say that again. It is not a prayer that God’s people would know that God loves them, but that they would know God’s love. Do you hear the difference? Do you know God’s love, or do you only know that God loves you? I know that the molecular structure of water is a combination of 2 molecules of Hydrogen & 1 molecule of Oxygen. But that doesn’t do much for me on a blazing hot day like today when it is 90 degrees and I’ve worked hard outside and my throat is so parched that when I try to swallow, it feels like a dry ache. I could care less about H2O as a chemical formula. My understanding of water doesn’t quench my thirst. My need is not for deeper insights into the meaning of water. I don’t need knowledge about water, I need
water. A tall glass of ice cold water. If you know that God loves you in your head, but you don’t know or feel that love in your heart, it’s like someone who studies water without drinking it.
In verse 19, the prayer is that we would know the length and breadth and height and depth of Christ’s love for us – that is, how broad, how long, how high and how deep it is. These are the four dimensions of God’s love that the writer prays we might understand. As we consider them in our minds, may they also penetrate our hearts.
God’s love is so wide, it encompasses and embraces everyone. It is so long and long-lasting that it will never, ever let us go. It is so high and of such a high-quality that it will never let us down. And it is so deep that it reaches even to those places that we thought were too dark or way beyond reach. It reaches to the deepest parts of our being.
Some of us are more open than others. Some of us reveal ourselves more freely than others. But all of us have locked closets and dark corners where we don’t even like to peek ourselves, let alone have anybody else take a look. These are places that we have shut off from the light of day; from the light of the love of even those who are closest to us. We do this mostly because we’re afraid that if someone sees those deep down ugly parts of us, they won’t love us anymore. And we just can’t risk that. But God’s love is deeper than our deepest secrets. It can penetrate the darkness of our worst fears. It can clean out the closets of sin or despair or self-hatred.
God’s love is so wide that it embraces everyone; it is so long-lasting that it will never let us go; it is of such a high-quality that it will never let us down; and it is deep enough to meet our deepest needs.
God wants us to know how wide and how long and how high and how deep that love is for us. Do you have any idea how much God loves you? That’s not a platitude. God does indeed love you! But do you know it? Do you really know it? That is my prayer for you today. That is my prayer for Smithville United Methodist Church – that you know that you are loved; that you indeed know God’s love in the very depths and core of your being.
I love you, but most importantly, God loves you, and my prayer is that you know it.
And to my faithful blog readers … until next time, peace …