God Be With You

Rev. Sarah Buteux                                                                             
January 26, 2014
Matthew 4:18-22

You can watch and listen to this sermon on our youtube channel here.

I’m hoping you’ve all watched enough TV to have very tempered expectations about this, my last sermon. By which I mean that it’s the rare series finale that leaves you totally satisfied - right?- with all the closure you could ever want, content to let your favorite characters sail off into the distance never to be heard from again.  Rarely is the final episode of any show the funniest, wittiest, most exciting, or best episode of the entire series. Actually, the more beloved the show, the more likely people are to hate the series finale. Have you noticed that? There seems to be some law of inverse proportion at work here. The X files, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Lost, not a one left their fan base satisfied. And I get that, even though in the case of the X-files I still resent it.

Developing a truly satisfying series finale is a tricky thing. I mean how do you bring closure to a story when there’s no such thing as a story that ever really ends?  The finale for Six Feet Under was the best I ever saw, but that’s because (spoiler alert) they fast forwarded during the end credits through every last one of the character’s lives… until they died. There was literally nothing more to see. We’re talking serious closure.

The trouble for us today is that I’m not dying. It’s a trouble I’m thankful for, don’t get me wrong, but it’s trouble all the same. My leaving is hard, in large part because I will still be around. I live just one town over. I like to eat at Esselon. The truth is that I’m going to rest up and eventually emerge. I will live to pastor another day.

So how do we do this? What does this mean? How does this work? I mean we’re breaking up; so can we still be friends?

And the answer is, no, not really, first and foremost because we all know that never works. In order for me to leave well, I really need to leave you completely, which means that today you will release me from being your pastor.

You will release me from the covenant we made all those years ago when I said that I would be here for you to guide and teach you, to pray and care for you, to baptize, marry, even bury you.

After today, I won’t come visit. I won’t call. I won’t write.

And it’s not because I’m a mean, selfish, insensitive jerk who never really loved you, because I’m not and I always will. It’s because after today I will no longer be your pastor, and until we both accept that, you’ll be unable to move on and form this level of relationship with the next one.

So if I see you in the grocery store, we can still say, “hi.” You can still send me Christmas cards even though we probably all know I’ll never be organized enough to send one back.

If you’re broken down on the side of the road, I can pull over and wait with you till help arrives, but if you’re broken up over anything else it’s the next pastor who will sit with you and listen to you and pray for you.

I can help you patch a tire (‘cause I know how to call AAA). I can no longer help you patch your soul.

And that’s hard, hard all the way around… hard for you and hard for me. It’s hard because we have forged an incredible relationship over these past nine years. We have worked side by side and we’ve accomplished incredible things. We’ve bucked every trend and defied every expectation by growing, deepening, and expanding the ministry of this 355 year old church in a world where churches like ours are dying out right and left.

We’ve made a great team: you and me. And I know that for a lot of you my leaving feels like enough to tear it all apart, bring it all down. But it’s not. It’s not, because as important a part of all of this as I have been, I am hardly the most important part of all the growth we’ve experienced, not by a long shot.  I’m not the one who made all this happen. God is…thanks to you, and you have, thanks be to God.

Friends, none of this would have been possible if you, as a congregation, had not opened your hearts to God when you did… opened your hearts to what God was doing right in front of you. Responding to the work of the Spirit in your midst, that is what has made all of this possible.

And that’s not easy. You deserve a lot of credit for that. That’s not easy because God does not always look the way you expect God to look or lead in the direction you would expect God to lead.

In fact, our time together is a perfect example. If you’ve been here nine years or more, then you know that this church was a perfectly well-behaved UCC church back when I came along. You were just going about your business, searching for a pastor, scouring profiles, following all the rules, and then I walked in as nothing more than a visitor.

I sat right back there where ____ is sitting with my friend Rebekah and listened as your former interim, Leo, gave his last sermon. He assured you that although you didn’t have a pastor yet, God was sure to send you someone, at which point my friend leaned over and said, “don’t you dare tell them you’re ordained or we’ll have to stay for coffee hour.”

But somehow I did. It slipped out.  I mentioned to Ken Parker that I was a Swedenborgian minister and he kept talking to me anyway.  He ushered me downstairs and we talked. He introduced me to the deacons and we talked some more.  You opened your hearts to me, a stranger, with a strange name, from an even stranger sounding denomination. You saw God doing something right in front of you that others might not have seen, and you responded. Just as you did:

- when Alison Childs showed up out of nowhere and asked if we’d help build a home for the Pierre family in Haiti,

-just as you did when father Shaun asked if we’d partner with Most Holy Redeemer in the Take and Eat ministry,

- just as you did when Bryan Perley asked if we might start a Food Pantry,

- when Erin Perley asked us to refurbish the play-yard at Jessie’s house,

-  when I said it was time to overhaul the whole Sunday School curriculum

- when the Amherst Area Gospel choir came looking for a home,

-you responded just as you do every year when we put out a call for help with the church supper or the Fall festival or Relay for Life,

- when we need volunteers at Not Bread Alone, someone to make lasagna for the Survival Center, or feed the folks who turn out for Cathedral in the Night.

So many of the beautiful things we’ve done together, we’ve done because you were willing to open your hearts to something new, the better to help people you didn’t even know.

So many of the wonderful things we’ve done, we have done in response to the movement of God in our midst, a God who is always leading us away from what we know to help those who need to know:

who need to know that God is alive and at work in the world, who need to know that God has not forgotten them, who need to know that God still loves them…even them.

That is what you have done every time you have opened your hearts to what God is doing right in front of you, and I want to take a moment and connect that back to our gospel reading for this morning.

You know I always assumed that Jesus knew who his disciples would be before he called them. I don’t know if you’ve ever given this much thought, but I always figured that men like Peter, Andrew, James, and John were pre-ordained in some way to fill those slots;

that when Jesus went around gathering his disciples he knew exactly who he was looking for and exactly what they would say.

But then I began to wonder, as I read through the story this time around, if maybe Jesus went along the sea shore that morning and made his fisher’s of men pitch to every Tom, Daniel, and Hezekiah he passed by.

I began to wonder if what set Peter, Andrew, James, and John apart from the rest was not their fitness to follow Jesus, but their willingness!

Because we all know that as disciples go they were pretty lame. Their time with Jesus was like a three year adventure in missing the point. They argued amongst themselves, jockeyed for position, and were painfully slow on the uptake whenever Jesus was trying to explain things to them.

They abandoned, betrayed, and denied Jesus when he needed them.  They were terrible disciples. Really, just awful, and yet they kept following Jesus. They weren’t perfect, but they kept coming back, showing up, and opening their hearts to whatever he wanted to do next.

I think that willingness to follow, that openness to what God might do, that is what God needs from us, and what God needs from you as you continue to move forward.

So hear me when I say that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to know all the answers.  You don’t have to find the best minister out there to fill this role in order to keep this place moving forward.

What you need to do is what you already do well when you are being the best church you can be. You need to keep your hearts open to the Spirit of God. That is my prayer for you. Keep your hearts open to the Spirit of God, because God is here, even now, always and ever inviting you to follow.

Actually, I learned this week that the word “Goodbye” is really a shortened form of the phrase “God be with you.” I know I have to say goodbye to you today, which is hard, unbearably hard, but knowing what that word means makes it a little bit easier in large part because I know it is true. I am going but God is with you and God will remain.

In some traditions when the minister says, “God be with you,” the congregation responds, “and also with you.” So I thought maybe rather than say goodbye, we could say it that way, knowing as we do that God is and will always be.

God be with you…and also with you.
So may it be. Thank you and Amen.