June 21, 2014

Farewell Addresses


Text: 2 Corinthians 13:11b: “...Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, which is famous only for being the only Sunday in the Christian calendar devoted not to a person or to an event but to a theological concept­—or, depending on your point of view, a theological construct. It is dangerous territory for even the most able preachers, if only because most of us leaving seminary have only the slightest grasp of the inner workings of theological argument.

Over the course of my ordained ministry I’ve had a go at preaching the doctrine of the Trinity, and most of those times I’ve come away battered and bruised—and aware that I will need to try again. This year, though, something else for some reason strikes me about the readings before us this morning.

Perhaps it is because of the season that Trinity Sunday nearly always coincides with, notably, the season of graduations, and completions, and accomplishments, and endings. We are in the midst of that season now. Newton North High School, just across the street, had its graduation services this past Tuesday. And although many of them do not yet know it, most of those five hundred students have seen each other for the very last time in their lives.

Or perhaps it is because just recently we have said farewell to people dear to us, in different kinds of farewells.

We welcomed our newly ordained brother Robert Schoeck here last week, but part of what we were doing was sending him off to new adventures and new duties far away from here, in Pennsylvania.

We have said farewell to our dear sister Pat Macdonald. And those of us in the clergy and in the alumni circle of Harvard Divinity School learned just yesterday of the untimely passing of Professor Ellen Aitken, an accomplished scholar and friend to many of us who died too young early yesterday morning.

In the end of this spring that is finally here, in this time when we should be celebrating the return of life and growth and possibility and hope, we are surrounded by what Julian Barnes called in that felicitous title the sense of an ending. The are farewells to be said, and the lesson that somehow stays with us that every new beginning come from some other beginning’s end, as Seneca said.

That is the sense both of the Epistle and of the Gospel lesson today. Jesus, in the very last words of Matthew’s gospel, is bidding farewell to his disciples by giving them a charge, a purpose, what comes down to us as the Great Commandment. And they are words that have kindled the flame of passion in countless generations of missionaries, who found in these words a clarion call to preach the Christian gospel to every human community on earth.

And then we have Paul’s deeply affecting words to his beloved community in Corinth, these beautiful and gentle words of parting that convey without any shame a profound concern and compassion for those people. If the end of Matthew is the Great Commandment, we might call this the Good Commandment, a set of small instructions, like small flowers, to help grow the community. Put things in order. Listen to my appeal. Be agreeable. Be peaceful. Small phrases, big advice.

Farewell addresses are a funny sort of literary trope, because they are typically about the future and not about the past. You might well think that the whole point of a kind of last summation would be to review the past and either defend it or celebrate it.

But when you are the one saying farewell, something else seems to take hold. At least if you are taking your leave from a group of people you have come to love, you find yourself rather naturally drawn into thinking about their future, about the course they will be traveling without you.

That is how both of these little speeches, one from Jesus and one from Paul, strike our ears. They are future-looking. They give purpose and focus to the disciples, the followers, the community of the baptized. They give instructions on how to live, and what to live for.

These words are gifts to us; they are little arrows pointing to the future, our future, not just a long-ago future now lost in the past. They speak to us down through the centuries, and they require us to make sense of them in our own day. We may not preach the gospel to all nations in the same way our ancestors did; but in everything we do, for good or for ill, we preach the gospel among our friends, our colleagues, our students, our companions, our neighbors.

And we are always well advised to remember that keeping order is gentle but profound witness to the hope of God; to listen to the words of scripture for how they speak to us anew every day; to find ways to be agreeable with one another; and most of all to be agents of peacemaking in this world in which the tide of violence and disorder seems poised to engulf whole human societies.

Farewells, paradoxically, point to the future. Our endings make beginnings. Our spring will become glorious and verdant summer. And our God of creation, resurrection, and sanctification will carry us from the end of one beginning to the beginning of another. Amen.