Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 31, 2017
Scripture: Micah 6:6-8; Romans 8:31-39
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Well, the day some of you have longed for and some of you have dreaded has arrived. Today is my last day as your pastor. As of midnight tonight I’ll be off the payroll and will no longer be your pastor. The decision to resign as your pastor was entirely mine, and before I go on I want to say just a bit about that decision. It was prompted by what I experienced as a crisis in my pastoral leadership here and my awareness that some of you just don’t like the job I was doing as your pastor. That’s partly because I see the Christian faith differently than some of you do. It’s partly because you wanted me to do things that I don’t think it’s the pastor’s job to do or that it is possible for a pastor, or at least for me, to do. We needn’t go into all that now. There is no longer any point, but there is one thing I do want to say. Since I made the decision to resign I have had quite an unexpected reaction to it. I have not regretted it for a minute. That’s not because I don’t like you. I do. It’s rather because I have discovered that it took that crisis to get me to do what I probably should have done quite some time ago. Maybe that crisis was a blessing in disguise for me and perhaps for some of you. See, I’m not just leaving this church. I am retiring from parish ministry, and I am really looking forward in ways I didn’t expect to being retired. About the only downside of it for Jane and me is financial, but we’ll manage the finances. I am quite looking forward to being out of the need of doing a bulletin and writing a sermon every week. I am looking forward to more of my time being mine. Not that you made great demands on me. You didn’t. Still, I will be happy to have my time less scheduled. I will, in short, be happy to be retired, or at least I expect to be. I didn’t anticipate that when I resigned, and I wanted you to know it.
So what can I say about my time as your pastor? It’s been quite a ride I must say. We’ve had high highs and low lows. We’ve had fun, and we’ve had troubles. We have celebrated, and we have mourned. We have agreed, and we’ve disagreed. We have communicated, we have miscommunicated, and we have failed to communicate at all. We have had successes, and we have had failures. Some new people have come to the church, and some people have left the church. We have worshiped, sung, and prayed together. I have been in the homes of a few of you—very few actually. I have visited some of you in the hospital. Some of you have shared intimate aspects of your life with me. Most of you haven’t. All pastorates end, for all pastors and all church folk are human beings—wise and foolish, involved and distant, committed and indifferent, healthy and ill, alive and dead. Churches have their eyes on heaven, or at least they should; but they also have their feet on the ground, or at least they should. Churches may be inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they are very human institutions. They do good and they do bad. They succeed, and they fail. People come, and people go. That’s just how it is, and it cannot be otherwise. That’s how it has been with us. That’s how it will be with you once I’m gone.
We’ve had our troubles, but I don’t want to leave you with a litany of problems and challenges. You know what your problems and challenges are. I don’t want to leave you discouraged or depressed. See, for all our agreements and disagreements we are all people of faith, and people of faith can never be discouraged or depressed for long. That’s because we believe in God. We may see God differently. We may think God expects different things from us, but we are all people of faith. The one word I want to leave you with is hope, and I want to do that by talking a little bit about those two scripture passages we just heard. They are my two favorite passages in the Bible, or at least two of my favorite passages among a few others. For me they sum up both the foundational truth of our Christian faith and what God wants from as as we seek to live as Christians. I’ll start with Paul’s words from Romans.
If I could keep only one sentence from the Bible I would keep Romans 8:38-39. Let me read it to you in my preferred translation, the New Revised Standard Version: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There’s Christianity in a nutshell. There’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell. Nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing we do or don’t do, nothing we say or don’t say, nothing we believe or don’t believe can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Do you get that? Nothing, nothing whatsoever, can separate you or me or anyone else from the love of God. We have that assurance in Christ Jesus. Do you think you’ve done something God can’t forgive? I hope not, but if you do you’re wrong. There is nothing God can’t and doesn’t forgive. There is nothing God hasn’t already forgiven. Our problem isn’t that we aren’t forgiven. Our problem, if we have one, is that don’t really know and feel deep in our bones that we have already been forgiven. Whatever comes our way in life God is with us. When we succeed God is with us. When we fail God is with us. When we are healthy God is with us. When we are ill God is with us. When we are alive God is with us. When we die God is with us. And not just with us but for us. Holding us. Loving us. Challenging us to respond in love to God’s love. If there is anything I have said to you that you never forget let it be this: God loves you. God loves everyone. God forgives you. God forgives everyone. God calls you. God calls everyone. If you feel that God is far away, that feeling is of your making not God’s. When you start to doubt that God is with you go read Romans 8:38-39 again and take it, really take it, to heart. It is a sacred word of salvation to us and to everyone. Absolutely nothing can or ever will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Then there’s Micah 6:6-8. Those words come to us across the millennia from the eighth century BCE, but they speak powerful truth today every bit as much as they did when they were first spoken so long ago. The prophet Micah was dealing with how he saw the people of Israel misunderstanding what their God wanted from them. They thought God wanted grain and animal sacrifice. They thought God wanted worship, and it’s not that they thought God wanted the wrong kind of worship. The kind of worship wasn’t Micah’s issue. He accepted as much as those against whom he prophesied that worship meant sacrificial worship. No, what Micah says is far more radical than “you’re doing the wrong kind of worship.” He says God doesn’t want or care about your worship at all, or at least God doesn’t want or care about your worship if you worship and then go out and live the wrong kind of lives. That’s why he famously says, again in the NRSV translation: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Be just. Be kind. Be humble. That’s what God wants from you. That’s what God wanted from the ancient Israelites, and that’s what God wants from us.
And notice which requirement Micah put first: “Do justice.” The life of faith is a life of justice. That doesn’t mean a life of due process. Ancient Israel never heard of due process. It means a life of caring for those in need and of calling on those in power to rule in ways that care for those in need. Micah’s first demand is for political and economic justice. His second demand is personal. Love kindness. Be kind. Treat everyone with kindness, even (or rather especially) those toward whom you don’t want to be the least bit kind. His third demand is spiritual. Walk humbly with your God. Remember always that God is God and you’re not. Don’t claim to know what don’t know. Don’t claim to know what you cannot know. Don’t try to do what you cannot do. Don’t try to do what no mortal is ever able to do. This is God’s world not your world. You are God’s people. You are called to be God’s disciples, to be Christ’s disciples; but God always comes first. God is always so much more than you can ever see or ever know. Remember that, and walk humbly with your God. Do these things, and your lives will be pleasing to the God from Whom nothing in all creation can separate you.
And now the time nears for us to say good-bye. You shan’t hear me up here again. I shan’t see you out there again. I acknowledge those truths with some regret. I wish things had worked out better between us, but they didn’t. I go to the next stage of my life, and you go to the next stage of this church’s life. As you do I wish you nothing but the best. You will search for a new pastor, or maybe you already are searching for a new pastor. Your pastoral search is really none of my business, but I’m going to say a few words about it anyway. Please take your time. Determine what you want in a pastor before you start talking to candidates. More importantly, figure out what you need in a new pastor, then look for a person with those qualities. Don’t call someone just because he or she is available, which is essentially what you did with me and what I did with you. You are better off being a church without a pastor than you are being a church with the wrong pastor.
And one final admonition. The world in which you live and in which your church seeks to operate has changed, and the changes that we see now will broaden and deepen in the decades and maybe even centuries ahead. Discern what that change is and what it means for you as a church. Understand the context in which this church lives. Don’t assume that that context is what it used to be. It isn’t. Study. Discern. Pray. No pastoral search can end successfully unless it is done with those disciplines always in mind.
So as we go our separate ways my prayer for you is new life, new growth, a new sense of God’s call, and a new willingness to respond to God’s call with joy and enthusiasm. And remember: In whatever you do, in whatever happens, in whatever blessings or challenges come your way, God is with you. God will hold you and keep you. No matter what. Please never forget it. And as you go on your way may you go in the peace of God, the peace that is ours in Christ Jesus. Amen.