Learning From Leaving
12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Abba has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
“Learning From Leaving”
Years ago I ministered to a woman who ultimately died of a chronic illness. I’ll call her Terry. Terry’s death was inevitable as her body deteriorated from the ravages of a debilitating disease. Although we had talked about her death many times over the 10 years we knew one another, when death finally came near, I still felt a little surprised when the time was actually at hand. Even when we expect death, when we anticipate an ending, it still manages to astonish us on the day that it arrives.
On that day, Terry’s family called to let me know that she was in the ICU, and that she would not be leaving the hospital alive. Given that we had worked together for so long, I got to the hospital quickly, hoping it would be in time to say goodbye. Over the years, I had probably spent hundreds of hours sitting with Terry, reflecting together not only on the particularities of her life, but on the greater questions of life, death, and meaning. Although I have offered her support and counsel, she had been my teacher in many things.
Fortunately, Terry was still conscious and able to talk when I arrived at the hospital. It was an amazing encounter. It was clear that Terry invited me there because she wanted to say goodbye, and she was incredibly intentional about doing so. When she thanked me for being there for her over the years, I felt the tears come. Following her lead, I shared my thanks for the things she had taught me. We named what had been important about our connection with one another. We expressed regret if we had hurt or disappointed one another. We offered each other a blessing. I still hear her voice sometimes: “Enjoy Keziah,” she said, more of a command than a suggestion. I still think of her death bed wish, directive, that I enjoy my daughter, especially on those days when I don’t find teenaged behavior particularly enjoyable. Terry’s blessing has stayed with me.
That moment in the hospital, the day of her death, was probably one of the most transformative events of the whole relationship, at least it was for me. And it was clear that the goodbye saying was a gift from God.
Over the years, I knew that the greatest gift that my work with Terry had given me was that it increased my capacity to tolerate my own helplessness. Walking alongside a person with a chronic illness, which ultimately becomes a terminal illness, has a way of disabusing one of any notion that they can heal, fix, or make things right. Under those circumstances, sometimes the best we can do is to bear witness to the suffering of another. I learned a lot about how to do that with Terry. But in inviting me to her deathbed, Terry gave me another great gift: she taught me something about how to say goodbye.
Although there is no formula for saying a proper goodbye, there are some important elements.: Being intentional about saying goodbye, reflecting on the meaning of the relationship, naming the things we are grateful for, asking for forgiveness of the ways we may have failed one another, and offering some sort of blessing in parting. All of these things are necessary ingredients of a meaningful goodbye.
Jesus offered these same gifts to his disciples, and in so doing, teaches us how to say goodbye. The passage we read from John this morning is a part of a larger section of John’s gospel known as the Farewell Discourses. These chapters, which narrate the events of the Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples, are probably among my favorite passages of scripture in the Bible. The great treasure of this discourse is that Jesus brings the “gift of simple attention” to his impending death. He does not deny, avoid, or steer clear of the reality of his approaching death, but looks it straight in the eye.
Although the disciples clearly want to change the subject every time Jesus mentions his death, Jesus persists, and the result is this beautiful evening spent reflecting on the meaning of his ministry among these cherished disciples. In washing their feet, sharing the bread and the cup, urging them to love one another, comforting them, and speaking of a hopeful future, Jesus uses the occasion for goodbye to teach them about the sustaining presence of God’s Spirit in their lives. He “companions” them as their world is coming apart, by teaching them how to say a proper goodbye.
How have “goodbyes” gone for you in your life? Each of us probably has a tale to tell about a goodbye that did not go well: the truth was not spoken, business was left unfinished, hurts were not resolved, or perhaps we avoided or were robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye. Every parting stirs up our own unfinished business around saying goodbye. Sometimes people pick fights when it comes time to say goodbye, because it is easier to be angry than to feel the sadness of loss and parting. But even if our track record around saying goodbye is a bit shaky, it is never too late to learn from our leavings. Hopefully, we can also point to a person or event in our lives when we learned to say goodbye well, in a clean, clear, and connected way. Jesus invites us to this table to remind us how to say goodbye in a holy way: intentionally, by giving thanks for what the relationship has meant, and by offering forgiveness, hope, and blessing for the future.
We are entering into the final phase of our intentional interim in the life of this congregation. Even as we speak the OCBC Search Team is listening to a potential candidate preach and in the middle of interviewing others. Soon you will move through the joyful process of receiving the recommendation of a pastoral candidate from the Search Team. You will meet, vote on, and hopefully extend a call to that person. Then it will be time to move into your future. It will also be time for our relationship as Interim pastor and congregation to end, an ending that is a necessary loss. Because there are so many “X-factors” in a pastoral search process, the exact date of my leave taking is unclear, but I will not stay beyond September 29th. This is something we spend the last few months together preparing for.
I remember the first day I preached and then met with you afterwards for a Question and Answer time, Richard said something like: “I’m feeling like I love you already and saying goodbye will be hard.” (The feeling is mutual.) I replied by saying something about how we can use the time of saying goodbye to practice for the big goodbye we will all have to say to each other at the end of our lives.
Saying goodbye to one another can be one of the most fruitful parts of our relationship. It is important to me that we help one another be intentional about saying goodbye to one another, which involves reflecting on our connections with each other, sharing memories, dealing with any unfinished business, apologizing for the ways we may have disapponted or hurt one another, and offering each other blessings for a hopeful future. In our closing worship service, we will share a litany of farewell together. It will go something like this one:
Pastor: I thank you, the people of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, both members and friends, for the love, kindness, and support you have shown me these past few years. I thank you for accepting my leadership and receiving me as pastor in your midst for this time of transition. I recall with joy the many things we have been able to accomplish together, and with sadness the things we were not able to do. I ask your understanding and your forgiveness for the mistakes I have made and for the times I may have let you down.
Congregation: We receive with thankfulness the ministry you have offered us in the time we have shared. We accept that you now leave us to minister elsewhere, trusting that God goes with you on that journey. Your presence among us will not be forgotten. We are grateful for the time you have been with us and ask your forgiveness for our own shortcomings and our sometimes flagging faith.
As we come to this table together today, let us look to Jesus, who will be our guide as we learn more about how to let go gracefully and gratefully, and to bless one another on our way. So we go forward with fear behind us, and hope ahead of us. Amen.
 This Litany of Farewell is taken from the Interim Ministry Resources guide on the website of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA. http://www.rmselca.org/congregations/interim/interimresources2.htm#farewell