Last sermon at Good Shepherd Church
Little by little over these past weeks, I’ve been carrying away everything I brought into my office during the past five years. This morning there are just a few personal things left: My prayerbook. My laptop. My plastic Jesus that a vendor at our yard sale gave me for free a few years back. When I asked how much they wanted for him, she said it didn’t seem right to sell Jesus to a priest at a church. Fair enough.
And I still have the sign on the wall that says, This is the life.
I’ve left it up to the end on purpose, because even though it might seem sort of lighthearted, that phrase is the reason for everything that I’ve been and done here over the past five years.
I found it while I was on vacation in the Land O’Lakes region in Ontario. My great aunt used to spend her summers there, in a house on an island in a beautiful lake. She and my dad were close, and he visited her there many times.
Back in the 1930s, she was the leader of a community that founded a little Anglican church on the shore of that lake, Bob’s Lake. It’s a simple church that still stands, as beloved to its people as Good Shepherd Church is to us. It’s called the Church of St. Andrew the Fisherman.
I’d wanted to visit there for a long time, and when I finally made it a few years ago, I was invited to celebrate Holy Communion in that church, and that was a very moving experience for me. It was a connection to my past—to my dad, and to this woman I’ve heard so many stories about but never met, because she died before I was born.
Of course, the Eucharist is always a connection to a reality that’s bigger than the time and place that contains it.
It can’t be contained, actually.
When we gather around this table, we are joined to all of those who went before us in faith. We’re joined to all those who share this meal across the world.
Whenever I celebrate the Eucharist after today—whenever and wherever—this little church in Hilltown will be with me.
The sign in my office reminds me of that trip to Canada, and now it will remind me of all the years when it was hanging there on the wall of my office here, but it’s more than a souvenir.
It’s a simple way of stating a profound belief.
This is the life.
Those words remind me of the life we’ve been called to share here, our life together as a Christian community. Our membership in what St. Paul called the Body of Christ.
Those words remind me of my own calling to ordained ministry. It has been a joy and a privilege to live that out in this community, to live this good life here with you.
I’ve loved being your priest and pastor. I’ve loved all that we’ve done here together.
We’ve worshiped together, gathering around this table as the center of the life we share.
We’ve prayed together in glad and sad times.
We’ve explored and deepened our faith together, and then gone out to live that faith through acts of service to others, both large and small.
In our time together, the sick have been visited, by me and also by a good team of eucharistic visitors who will carry on that work.
The hungry have been fed, through our weekly contributions to local food pantries.
The sorrowful have been comforted, by a community that knows how to draw together around its members in times of need.
I could go on, but the point is, day by day and week by week, we’ve put our hearts and souls into living this good life together.
This is the life!
This is the life for me. I believe that God called me here, and it has been a joy.
So when I first began to suspect that God was now calling me to move on from this place, I didn’t want to hear it. But that soft voice grew louder and louder, until there was no mistaking the message.
Until there could be no doubt in my mind that it was time to go.
A number of years ago, a Sunday sermoni changed my life. It was about what it means, interestingly enough, to follow the Good Shepherd.
This was long before I knew I would serve as the priest at Good Shepherd Church in Hilltown, PA. In fact, it was long before I knew I was going to be ordained, although the seed of desire for this life had already been planted in my heart.
The sermon was preached by Tom Breidenthal, who went on to become the Episcopal Bishop of Southern Ohio. He preached this sermon that changed my life when he was Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University, where I was working in the civic engagement department.
The sermon was about the passage of Scripture we call the Good Shepherd Discourse, the place in John where Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
What Dean Breidenthal pointed out—what I myself really had never noticed before—was that it does say that. It says he leads them out. Out from the safety of their nice little sheepfold into the dangers of the world beyond. Out on a journey to a destination unknown.
This is a journey that’s based on trust. All they can do is trust the Good Shepherd, the one they follow because they know his voice.
And when he has brought them all out, Jesus says, the Good Shepherd “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
At that time when I first encountered this sermon, I was hearing a voice suggesting that it was time to set off in a new direction in my life. I was overwhelmed by the anxiety of leaving what felt safe and secure to go off into the unknown.
And I heard the words of that sermon as if the preacher were speaking to me. Reassuring me that the Good Shepherd would be there to lead the way.
Little by little I followed that voice out the safe world of the church I had belonged to, out of my good job at Princeton University, off to seminary in New York, back home to ordination at the cathedral in Philadelphia, and eventually to serve here at Good Shepherd.
And foolish me, I thought I was done.
But then in time once again I heard that voice I recognize, and I realized the time had come to take out my copy of that sermon and read it again, and think and pray about where the Good Shepherd would lead me next.
I hate it when that happens.
But that doesn’t make it stop.
I now believe that I’m being called to spend more time with my beloved family. I’m being called to look for new ways to use my gifts to lead others into deeper relationship with God.
I believe I’m being called, and I will follow.
So here we are, all of us—you and me—standing on the brink of the unknown. We don’t know what will come next. All we can do is to listen for that voice, and trust that if we follow step by step, we’ll come to the place where we’re meant to be, and it will be a good place.
I’m looking forward to what comes next, and yet there have been moments when the grief I feel at leaving has been almost overwhelming.
But I know the love that we’ve shared will endure, even when we’ve gone apart.
As we prayed in our opening prayer this morning: without love whatever we do is worth nothing.
Whatever I’ve done here, whatever I might have done well, whatever mistakes I might have made, whatever I could have done better, the thing that has always been there behind it—making every effort worthwhile—is love.
If anyone here has been hurt by something I’ve said or done, I deeply regret that, because there was no one here I didn’t love.
I have loved you. And I have experienced your love.
Ultimately, we are who we are because God is love.
But love isn’t always easy, and we’ll never love perfectly because we’re not God.
Sometimes love—true love, that is, not just sentiment—sometimes love can really challenging, as we heard in today’s Gospel, where Jesus talks not about loving your friends or your family, but about loving your enemies.
We’ll never love perfectly, but even so, we keep trying. We rise to the challenge of making our circle of love bigger and bigger, big enough to include even those we don’t really want to love.
And I think that’s one of the most important things those of us who are living this good life together have to give the world as we find it today.
The voice of Jesus in today’s Gospel is clear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate. Be merciful as God is merciful—for what you give to the world in love, that is what you will receive back.
But this kind of love that Jesus lived and taught is in short supply today. We live in a world where love is so often regarded as something to be shared with people just like yourself, those who love you, and withheld from others who need it the most, who are judged to be undeserving.
We live in a world that’s forgetting how to love, in other words. A world that so desperately needs our example.
The world needs us to show everyone how to live this life that Jesus gave us.
And so we pray, pour into our hearts that greatest gift, which is love.
Because love is the heart of this life that we share. Love is what it’s really all about.
So I left my sign up until the last to remind me, but standing here this morning I see that I didn’t need to. Because really, the most powerful reminder I know is right here in front of me, in your dear faces.
Yes, this is the life. Thanks be to the Good Shepherd for leading us to it, and through it.
“Exodus Renewed,” a sermon preached by Tom Breidenthal in the Princeton University Chapel on Sunday, May 7, 2006.