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A Fond Farewell

June 24, 2006

This is the first time I’ve had to say goodbye to a congregation as their pastor. Maybe the hardest thing I’ve done in a while.

Here is the rough draft of my final sermon to my current congregations, based on this week’s lectionary Gospel reading, Mark 4:35-41. In the sermon, I mention the hardest sermon I’ve had to preach (the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who died of cancer) and the lay speaker who covered for me while I was at Annual Conference.

No Easy Way

There’s just no easy way to do this.

For all of the fourth chapter of Mark, Jesus has been teaching from a boat – close to the shore, with the disciples and the crowd standing on the beach. That’s got to be a great way to learn from Jesus, don’t you think? The sea of Galilee with its peaceful waves just behind Jesus, the Middle Eastern sunset behind you, reflecting its beautiful colors off the water in the cool evening air. And Jesus gives you some of his best teachings: the parable of the sower, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the growing seed. What a beautiful, peaceful scene. Can you feel it? Can you hear the water lapping up against the shore? The birds flying around overhead? The voice of Jesus, straining to be heard above the wind, the whispers and the ambient sounds of the sea and the crowds? Can you see the light dancing on the water? Jesus trying to keep his balance while standing in the boat? Can you smell the breeze?

But this scene isn’t as peaceful and pastoral as you might think. The crowds have started to follow Jesus. Kind of like the way the crowds followed Elvis or the Beatles. They’re running, pushing, crowding and generally pestering. Jesus isn’t teaching from that boat because it’s a good idea, or because it’s a pretty scene. He’s back there because they’ve crowded him from the beach! He ran out of room on the sand, so he has to teach from the water. And as the disciples look past Jesus and across the water, they catch a glimpse of where they’re about to go.

I wonder if they knew? I wonder if they had any idea that they were about to cross the sea. I wonder if they knew what kind of storm was brewing.

Jesus and the disciples were in Capernaum, which is kind of on the northwestern part of the sea. If you look at a map, it might actually be easier to simply walk north of the sea and cross the river, then venture southeast on foot. Sure, that might be the easy way. But with Jesus, there is no easy way.

Jesus and the disciples go back and forth across the sea in Mark’s gospel. The first time they go from West to East, they encounter a storm. The second time they go west to east, they encounter another storm. The third time they go west to east, the disciples argue about bread. They always have a hard time going west to east. Going east to west, there are no problems.

The west side of the sea represents familiar territory. It feels like home. The east side of the sea, however, is unfamiliar land. The storm is an obstacle, trying to keep Jesus and his disciples – and therefore his ministry – bound to familiar territory. We can keep it to ourselves. We don’t have to spread the word among those heathen Easterners, do we? Even getting there is a challenge every time.

There simply is no easy way with Jesus.

There is a better way with Jesus, a more excellent way with Jesus, a more rewarding way with Jesus, a more satisfying way with Jesus. But no easy way. Not with Jesus.

Sure, we could travel only within safe boundaries, covering only familiar ground. We could travel easily by land without facing the danger of the sea. But NOT with Jesus.

Jesus calls us into the stormy deep, where it is dark and dangerous. Jesus calls us out of our comfortable homes and into the scary places. We are called to lives that involve risk, uncertainty, unanswerable questions, unforeseen dangers.

There is no easy way. Not with Jesus.

It is unbelievable to me that this is our last Sunday morning together. And I have worried myself sick over the last three weeks about how to preach this sermon. I think I can easily say that this is the second hardest sermon I’ve had to preach.

And there’s no easy way to do it. Not with Jesus.

We have no way of knowing what the future holds for us. Are the waters rough? Will the seas be stormy? Or will it be smooth sailing? Maybe periods of calm followed by moments of turmoil? As we look out toward the new horizon that God calls each of us toward, do we see the light dancing on the water or do we see storms a-brewing?

And what do we anticipate? Are we like the doubting disciples, who feared for their lives, or do we trust fully in the Lord who says both to the storm and to us, “Be still.”?

Just as the disciples feared for their lives, we may all experience fear or concern about where God is leading us. Because, we are learning, there is no easy way – not with Jesus. But even though it is not easy, we have to trust that it truly is God calling us into new possibilities, into breaking through boundaries and obstacles into new territories, new lands, new life. And we must trust that the Lord is in the boat with us, and we are going to be OK, no matter what happens.

And while this move is not easy for us, we must remember, as Jack told us – that God has a plan for me, and God has a plan for these churches. God is calling us into a new life – a life that may be different, scary, stormy and challenging.

But we must hold fast to his promise that he is always in the boat with us. Peace. Be still.

Good news, indeed.

Amen.

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