Psalm 1:1-3; John 10:7-10, 14-16
As most of you know, I will retire from my role as senior pastor of Westminster at the end of next month. When I told a pastor-friend that this fall I’ll preach only seven more sermons from this pulpit, they asked if that was my version of the seven last words from the cross. This will be considerably less dramatic!
The prospect of concluding 40 years of ministry does raise the question of what to say, or what you might want to hear, as I prepare to leave. Early in my ministry here someone gave me a copy of Dr. Arnold Lowe’s final sermon, delivered on the Sunday following Easter, in April 1965, following 24 years of service at Westminster. The sermon was titled The Sum and Substance of It All.
Since that has been covered already, I’m going in a different direction. I’m conceiving of my last two months at Westminster as a kind of extended benediction, a long Minnesota benediction, for both the congregation and for me, as we part ways this fall and remember the many blessings we have shared over the years. That’s what a benediction is: a bene dictio – a good word. A benediction is a blessing offered and received, an invocation of the holy, a sacred conclusion to time together.
What better way to be reminded of the joy of our life together at Westminster than the start of the new church year, with children and music and festivity! We celebrate the blessing we have in our shared faith as followers of Jesus. God’s love is all around us, and we see it when we open our eyes and hearts. In the words of the old gospel song, What a fellowship! What a joy divine!
We commence this year in the life of Westminster rejoicing in the goodness of God. We know not all is well with the world. We know of the fear and injustice, the animosity and anger that engulf our nation. We know of natural disasters, the fires and hurricanes and earthquakes, and pray for those impacted by them, especially the people of Morocco. We know of humanity’s complicity in climate-related calamities. We know, in the words of the Apostle, that “the whole creation is groaning in travail, awaiting the promised redemption.”
But all that difficult reality doesn’t overwhelm us because hope finds a home in the hearts of those who trust in the goodness and justice of God. There’s a tradition in African American worship that I have long admired. When the preacher says, God is good, the congregation replies, All the time. Then the preacher says, All the time, and the congregation replies, God is good.
Given the events of the last few weeks in Jacksonville and Montgomery and other American cities – and given the long trajectory of racial injustice in this land, those words continue to sound in sanctuaries where people refuse to give up hope. We cannot change the past, but we can transform the future. God is good – all the time. All the time – God is good.
The words offer an acclamation of praise, an affirmation of the power of life together in the church, a benediction of gratitude for the goodness of the God we worship and serve. Like the Hebrew poet’s trees planted by streams of water, if we draw on the goodness of God we are nourished, and we flourish – no matter the circumstances.
When the world bears down on us and squeezes us hard, in the systems we encounter or in our own personal situations, we can still claim the goodness of God. When the diagnosis is tough to hear and the future seems devastating, or when grief grips us, we can still claim the goodness of God. When loneliness and despair and mental illness grow to crisis levels, especially among young people, we can still claim the goodness of God. When the social order is coming unglued and vitriol is unchecked, we can still say, God is good, All the time. All the time, God is good.
Christians are not Pollyannas who only look at things through rose-colored glasses. We’re not relentless optimists who see only the good in all situations. On the contrary, the followers of Jesus are realists. All of us are realists. We know how challenging it is to be a teenager in America today. We understand how new laws can create hardship for some. We see the crisis of drug overdoses and gun violence, including by suicide. We bemoan the cruelty and mendacity in politics and culture in our land in recent years. We don’t look away from the tough stuff that confronts us every day – sometimes personally, at other times in our communities or nation.
But we trust in something beyond all of that, beyond the powers of this world. The God we worship is sovereign over all things seen and unseen. Our resilience arises from trusting that Jesus came that all – that all – may have life and have it abundantly. That’s the blessing of life together in Christian community. No matter what we face, we have confidence that the light will not succumb to the shadows; that the dawn will follow the whatever our night be.
“The early morning,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
“Belongs to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light, it remembers the morning on which death…lay…in defeat and new life and salvation were given to humankind.” (Life Together)
God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.
We also know that our time is not the end of time. We who follow Jesus reject the temptation to surrender to the fatalism and conspiracies that creep in if we are not vigilant. Yes, these are difficult days, but it is hubris to think of ourselves as facing the worst humanity has ever seen.
That’s not to say nothing needs addressing. Take a look around. We don’t lack for challenges. As the church we’re called to meet those challenges head on, to speak up and act up, if we must, and stand up for what is right and just. We do not let go of our pursuit of a better way and a better day simply because it will be hard to get there.
We follow one who came that all may have life and have it in abundance. That gives us hope that refuses to let go. We’ve seen communities in other times and places find courage to work for change – even when the world seems to have defeated them – rather than lose heart.
In 1934 in Germany, in the face of the rise of Nazi ideology and its influence on the church, a small group of Protestants assembled in the city of Barmen and wrote a credal statement of resistance. It’s called the Barmen Declaration. It rejects the many falsehoods that were swirling through Germany and its churches at the time, and instead insisted on the truth of Jesus Christ.
Fifty years later Christians in South Africa gathered in the town of Belhar and wrote a similar creed that rejected false claims being made by some in the church of that time that provided theological rationale to prop up apartheid. “Any teaching,” the Belhar Confession says,
“Which attempts to legitimate…forced (racial) separation by appeal to the gospel…must be considered ideology and false doctrine.”
Both in 1930s Germany and 1980s South Africa, in the midst of those crucibles of suffering and hatred, Christians reaffirmed the power of the gospel. They resisted the prevailing ethos in the culture and politics of their time – and even in the religion of the day, as expressed by some. They refused to let the blessing of life together be undone. The church today in our land should be doing the same.
Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), adopted both the Barmen Declaration and Belhar Confession into our church’s constitution. (https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc2016.pdf)
Let us be clear:
Our faith is about life, not death. I came that all may have life, Jesus said, and have it in abundance.
Our faith embraces hope, not fear. Let not your hearts be troubled, Jesus said, neither let them be afraid.
Our faith tells the truth, not lies. You shall know the truth, Jesus said, and the truth will set you free.
Our faith shows mercy, not judgement. God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, the Apostle Paul said, but that the world might be saved through him.
The benediction of life together. The joy of being the church. What a fellowship. What a joy divine! We are like trees, planted by streams of living water, nourished by the love of God, invited to seek and reflect the goodness of God’s presence and God’s justice in all we do.
An enduring image of this congregation’s faithfulness and resilience can be found outside in Paul Granlund’s sculpture on Westminster’s Upper Plaza. It’s called The Birth of Freedom. It’s on the front of today’s bulletin and we’ll see it up close after the service for the all-church photo.
The figures leaping up out of broken chains reach toward the heavens, rejoicing in the fullness of life granted them as those who bear the image of God, as we all do. They’re leaping out of all that had bound them – as we hope to do, out of everything that binds us – into the freedom of serving God.
“The joy of God,” the theologian Irenaeus is reported to have said in the second century, “Is a human being fully alive.”
Like those figures in the sculpture, a human being fully alive is given freedom – not to indulge in selfish pursuits, but to love God and to love others. An old prayer borrows from words attributed to St. Augustine:
“Lord God, light of the minds that know you, life of the souls that love you, and strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whose service is perfect freedom.”
I came that all may have life, Jesus said, and have it in abundance.
God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good.
Thanks be to God.