Note: This is the final sermon I delivered as pastor of West Dover Congregational Church.
I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me…
When I was in seminary we talked a lot about how the Christian life is all about grace and gratitude. I could quote that on any test you gave me, and I understood that in an academic sense, but it would be a few years before I really started to understand what grace was, and how to live my life in gratitude.
In today’s Scripture the apostle Paul is imprisoned and he is writing a letter to a church. It’s a church he has grown to know and love, but that he can’t be with at the moment. He writes to them the above Scripture.
Maybe you can see the appeal of this text for me today. Like Paul, I’m about to be far away from a church I love. A church full of people who have shared with me in God’s grace, and a church full of people who have tried to live together in gratitude. And like Paul, as I leave I thank God for you, and I will thank God every time I remember you.
I am heading to a new place. And you know that as I leave this departure changes the relationship we have. I am not going to be your pastor anymore, and that means things will indeed change. But it’s important for you to know that this does not change my affection for you, or the profound gratitude that I feel.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the last four years. Certain memories stand out. I remember blessing a family’s pet pig before she died, and finding the holy in the most unexpected of situations. I remember building bookshelves with one of you, and in the same moments learning to build a church. I remember riding in the ladder truck with the fire department when I served as their chaplain, and learning that being a pastor means loving your community, including guys who are never going to step through the church doors. And I remember you welcoming Heidi when I told you that I had asked her to marry me.
And I remember the harder things too. I remember walking down Main Street in Wilmington after the flood and wondering what was going to happen next. I remember leaving the Wilmington church for the last time after our final service there. I remember standing here too many times to say goodbye to a beloved church member who had died.
But even in these hard times, I felt God’s grace.
How can one leave this place after all of that and not be transformed for the better? As I leave, I take those things with me, and I take you with me.
As you remain, though, you may have questions about what happens now.
When will you get a new pastor? Will you like the new pastor? Will they be like me?
I can answer that last one. No, in some ways they won’t be like me. Something, maybe even many things will be different. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing. Because God is already calling to you the person who you need next. God is calling someone with the skills to meet you on this place in your journey, to to help guide you to the next. Even if you are skeptical of that, it’s true.
Do you remember when your pastoral relations committee brought you me as a candidate? Some of you, maybe more than I know, were skeptical. A younger woman who was gay. A first time parish pastor. A Southerner who had never been to Vermont until I interviewed here. Someone who had spent a lot more time around cities than farms. And someone who just couldn’t seem to stop using the word “y’all”.
And yet, you gave me a chance. And together, and with the grace of God, I think we built something pretty great. And with your next pastor, you can keep building on that. You know you can do it, because I didn’t do anything special here. You did the heavy lifting. And you can work with whomever comes next to do the extraordinary things that God already has in mind for you. And the one thing I do know about your future is that God does indeed have extraordinary things in mind for you.
And so, as I leave, I’m going to ask you to do some things I can’t do anymore.
First, I’m going to ask you to stay. Some of you may have come to this church because you got to know me in the community. I’m glad for that. But this church was never about me…it is, and has always been, about Jesus. And Jesus is staying right here.
Second, work together. You are a diverse congregation made of people who have decided to be the church together. You are all good people. And you are all carrying a piece of what this church needs to thrive. Work together to put those pieces together. This church’s future will be blessed if you do. And, look for the ways God is calling you to serve. Are you being called to some sort of leadership in this church? Now is the time to ask yourself, and to ask God in prayer. And now is the time to step up.
Third, keep looking out at your community and asking “how do we serve”. Half of you are new here within the past four years. You came here because someone or something from this church reached out to you. Find the ways to keep reaching out. Find out this community’s needs. Look for ways to help your neighbors. And never forget that this is God’s church, and those who pass through its doors are just this generation’s caretakers.
As we leave tomorrow, I know that you are in good hands. Because you are in God’s hands.
And because God is going to equip you for whatever comes next.
But I want you to know, I’m taking something with me.
It’s not, as we’ve joked, the pews or the tea cups. Or the pulpit. That wouldn’t fit in my car, unfortunately.
No. It’s gratitude. Gratitude for all that I have learned. Gratitude for the cups of coffee at Dot’s. Gratitude for the times you have left me into your home or hospital room and allowed me to share in your life. Gratitude for the laughter we have shared so often. Gratitude for the privilege of baptizing your family, or officiating at your wedding. And gratitude for the fact that each Sunday you let me come up here, and you gave me the great honor of preaching the Gospel in this place.
I will never forget West Dover. I will never stop praying for this church, or for any of you. And I will always do so giving thanks to God for God’s amazing grace in bringing me here. Amen.