“I’m really looking forward to hearing you on September 20,” she said to me as we stood with our grocery carts in the produce section of the Plaza del Lago Jewel store. I could only smile. There tends to be a great deal of interest – and expectation – about a minister’s last sermon at a church. I remember how much I expected when Garrison Keilor was to deliver what was then thought to be his last “News from Lake Wobegon” on the old and original Prairie Home Companion. And I remember how much I felt let down when it didn’t measure up to his usual standard. So I hope I do not disappoint as I share some thoughts about Kenilworth Union Church and say goodbye to you today.
Where shall I begin? I think the best way to begin is at the beginning. The first sermon I preached at KUC was entitled, “Living Thankfully.” It was July 2003 and both services were in the chapel because the sanctuary was closed due to construction for the installation of our beautiful organ that Maggie plays so well. The scripture text that day was from Luke, about the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, with an emphasis on the one who chose to come back to express his gratitude. My message was about the importance of recognizing God’s grace in our lives…of being attentive to the everyday gifts we receive that enrich our lives and relationships…and of how in taking notice of the ways God works in and through our lives, we move closer to the source of our being.
These last few weeks, I have had the time to reflect on the many experiences of God’s grace that I have experienced at this church – like sitting in my office on early Wednesday afternoons listening to the little voices of our AJN children singing songs about God’s love that is deep and wide. It was a delightful sound and served to continually remind me of the very special role the church has with our little ones. Jumping to a different kind of memory, I recalled how this congregation pulled together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to send off clean-up supplies and school materials to a community in Mississippi that had been torn apart by the violent winds, followed by a group of high school youth and adults going down to the devastated area to re-roof two damaged homes. It was hot; the work was hard; the sleeping quarters cramped. But in reaching out in Christ’s love, we received back tenfold from the grateful families we helped. I thought also about that cold day in January (or it might have been February) when we gathered at the Kenilworth Club for the KUC (Keep Us Clapping) talent show, and how young and old alike in our congregation shared in the blessings of music, dance, art, laughter and friendship. Most recently and more personally, I thought about the many expressions of support and affirmation of my ministry that I have received since it was announced I would be leaving the church. All these moments of grace, plus many others, have blessed and nurtured my soul.
As a congregation, you have been so kind, so encouraging, so patient, and so responsive to what I have had to offer. No minister could ever ask or hope for more. My cup truly runneth over. I came to this church with a strong sense of call and on most mornings I awakened feeling: this is where I need to be; where I want to be; where I ought to be for God to make use of me.
From the beginning to the ending, KUC has been a good fit me and for my ministry. And I know of no better way to describe it than by using the metaphor found in the Corinthians passage we read earlier, in which the Apostle Paul says, “We have this treasure in clay jars.”
The treasure of our lives is often found in earthen vessels – births, deaths, weddings, baptisms, family, friendships, all of which are at the heart of Kenilworth Union Church. It is a treasure that has been, is, and will continue to be shaped and held together by Jesus Christ, “the author and perfecter of our faith.”
We have beheld this treasure in earthen vessels in moments ordinary and moments not so ordinary. The treasure has been very present in those times when persons in our congregation have become vulnerable and your hands and hearts and prayers have reached out with kindness and compassion to help ease the burden, bring light to the shadows. Just this week I visited Tobi Heekin, who sings in our choir, at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. As some of you are aware, Tobi was in a serious auto accident that has left her paralyzed from the arms down. Yet despite her circumstance, Tobi has a strong, positive attitude and expressed a lot of hope. As we talked, Tobi told me how grateful she is to be alive, and that now she is working on making the most of her “new life.” She joked about all the food visiting friends had brought to her room. She said she drew strength from her husband and her young daughter. She said that lying in her hospital bed the first week, unsure and uncertain, she felt the support of the prayers that surrounded her. Then she said, “Ben, I want you to know that the church is a source of strength for my spirit.”
Life’s tough, and inevitably it seems, all of us have to go through tough patches. Times when our lives as we know them are shaken, and disrupted, and changed by circumstances we cannot control. One reason I love the ministry so deeply is the opportunity, the privilege, I have to represent the church and God to people like Tobi who are going through a valley. So often they inspire me in showing such courage, and honesty and faith, they embody the meaning of the phrase, “a treasure in clay jars.”
This treasure in clay jars has everything to do with God. As Paul writes, it is “the life of Jesus made visible in our bodies.” And so it is. As one of your ministers, I have witnessed that treasure revealed in a number of ways in this community.
There is treasure in the earthen vessels of those guys in the Wednesday Men’s Coffee group who have been there to support one another as some battled prostrate cancer, and others traveled on to their last stage of life. There is treasure in the earthen vessels of the women in the Knitting Group who enjoy fellowship in making prayer shawls, praying over them, then giving them to persons going through an illness or difficult time. The treasure in earthen vessels can be seen in mothers and fathers bringing their children to this church to give them a foundation of faith that will later sustain them in life. The treasure of our church is present in the listening ear and caring presence of our Stephen Ministers, in Sunday school teachers telling the stories of the Bible, in our children and youth collecting mittens and hats and preparing sandwiches for the homeless. And the treasure is regularly present in worship as we sit side by side, singing God’s praise, listening for God’s word, and praying for healing and justice for those we know and don’t know. We clay jars have known this treasure at Christmas Eve services as we sing Silent Night in the soft glow of candlelight that illumines each face. This treasure is clothed in the human form of friends and family members gathered at a memorial services to celebrate the life of those we have loved and lost. And it is revealed on All Saints Sunday as we read the names of the dearly departed and claim the promise of everlasting life we have through Jesus Christ.
I look out at this congregation this morning and see faces that are treasures in the life of this church and in the life of others. We all share our own light and spirit in this faith community. But finally the church is not about our light or our spirit. It is about God’s eternal treasure that somehow shines in and through our “clayness.” It is a blessing to behold it as I have, and I leave grateful for that.
For the second text this morning I opened my Bible to the first chapter of Ephesians, because these 2,000 year-old words speak for my heart on this, my last Sunday with you. The letter to the Ephesians is a lively, hymnic, often rhapsodic epistle written to a well-loved church. It may have been written by Paul or perhaps another pastor writing in the style of Paul some years later. The verses we heard are really a two-part prayer for the church. And it is my prayer for this church.
First, there is a simple prayer of thankfulness. “I never cease to give thanks to you as I remember you in my prayers.” All these centuries later, I feel like that writer, and I want to say directly to you, “Thank you.” Thank you for being such a wonderful community of faith. Thank you for being so caring and nurturing. Thank you for the joy you have brought this minister and the hospitality you have shown to Sue and myself. I will never cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers each morning.
The rest of the Ephesians passage is the pastor’s prayer for the future of the church he loves. He prays that the people of the church will be blessed with a spirit of wisdom and that “the eyes of their hearts may be enlightened,” so that they may continue to know the hope, and the power, and the fullness of Christ in their life together. Again, that is my prayer for you.
There is a depth of faith and grace, kindness and strength in this church. As I leave and you go forward to continue the good work of this church, I hope you appreciate as much as I do the beauty of this family of faith that I have come to know and care about deeply.
Well, the conversation between myself and the woman at the Jewel continued. “So what’s next for you, Ben? I’m sure it will be good.” Once again, I could only smile since I’m still not sure about what may be next. But I could agree with her that with God’s help, I too expect the next chapter of my life to hold something good.
I left the store with my groceries and on the drive home a thought came to mind. Some time ago in the New Yorker, I read about a well known book that ends with no ending at all. It’s where James Joyce leaves off in Finnegan’s Wake – in midsentence, without punctuation or exclamation. Some scholars believe that last phrase connects with the incomplete sentence that begins the book, implying an unending circle. I hope it’s so. I like that. I want it to be that way for me – as in the song Harry Chapin used to sing at the end of his concerts.
All my life’s a circle, sunrise and
The moon rolls through the night
Till the day break comes around
All my life’s a circle, but I can’t tell
The seasons spinning round again
The years keep rolling by.
There’s no straight lines that make
up my life
And all my roads have bends.
There’s no clear cut beginnings,
And so far no dead ends.
Now it is time for me to say good-bye. Some part of what I want to say I cannot find the words for, so I borrow some words from a novel by one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner. An old saint named Godric is talking to a certain river that he bathes in and loves. He speaks:
“Praise, praise! “ I croak. “Praise God for all that is holy, cold, and dark.Praise him for all we lose, for all the river of the years bears off. Praise him for stillness in the wake of pain. Praise him for emptiness. And as you race to spill into the sea, praise him yourself, old river. Praise him for dying and the peace of death. “And the secret that the river and I share I cannot tell in full. But this much I will tell. What is lost is nothing to what is found…” (Frederick Buechner, Godric, p. 96)
What is lost is nothing to what is found…” These words tell a truth about our life. We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be somethng old. I believe that. Standing here I can say to you with all the conviction of my faith that the treasure we have in our faith, in our relationships, and in the church, add up to so much more than anything we have lost. For it is the treasure of the power and glory of God that renews us in every season of change and loss.
My friends, I praise God for the treasure we share in our fragile, flawed, earthen vessels. I praise God for the time we have had together. May you continue in the faith that has made this church what it is. God is with you. Know that my heart is with you too. Let us pray:
You call us to ventures of which we
cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through
Give us faith to continue the journey
before us with courage,
not exactly knowing where we
but trusting that your Spirit is leading
us on and your love is
This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.