The Last Sermon by Louise Westfall
at Fairmount Presbyterian Church
13 February 2011
Text: Philippians 1:2-11

One good thing about moving is that it forces you to consider your “stuff.” We accumulate so much, and packing seems as good a reason as any to evaluate what to keep or toss. Do I really need fifteen textbooks on preaching?? (Please say “no.”) Can I live without the silver casserole dish holder that has never been out of its protective cloth bag in thirty years? Is there a statute of limitations on storing your adult child’s things? And these are easy questions compared with the ones about non-tangible stuff, and what to take and what to leave behind. Pastoral transition allows you, also, to determine what will last and what will quietly fade away. As I take spiritual inventory of our mutual ministry this past decade I find myself wondering “Did I do enough?” “Was the vision compelling enough to last?” “Will the dreams we dreamed together take root, or languish on a crowded shelf in the archive room?”

The late, great champion of justice and human rights, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, offered a different perspective on such questions, one that understands human effort as part of a larger, divine plan. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that God’s kingdom always lies beyond us. No sermon says all that could be said; no prayer fully expresses our faith; no program accomplishes the church’s mission; no set of goals includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing they hold future promise.

The morning Scripture text expresses almost perfectly what I want to say to you in this last sermon as your pastor. It acknowledges the unique beauty of a particular ministry between pastor and people while also recognizing that it transcends them. The apostle Paul was a church planter; he labored joyfully among the young Philippian churches, and then moved on to other regions and other ministries. The only letter he sent them that remains to this day was written from prison (okay, it’s not a perfect parallel; chains do not await me in Denver that I know of… except tire chains). Here the apostle reminds a beloved congregation of the seeds they are cultivating, and why he is confident of a bountiful harvest. From the opening blessing to some appreciative reminiscing and finally sharing his fond hopes, this passage resounds with the things I most want to leave with you. Listen for God’s Word in the reading from the letter to the Philippians, in the first chapter at the second verse.

Among the first words I spoke from this pulpit was the observation that if you rearrange the letters of “Britney Spears” it spells. . . Presbyterian. I repeat it in these last words because in some ways it reflects our time from the first day until now: how we have shared the gospel and connected faith and culture, with a little humor and a lot of grace. It’s never been a solo act, but one that grew out of our conversations and experiences, all the “stuff” that makes up relationships. You’ve never been shy about commenting on sermons . . . which is a good thing because it signals engagement—you want your church to engage the topics and issues of today’s realities, and try to discern a word from the Lord about them (even though it may be one with which we disagree). Sermons are like scattered seeds—some of which take root and grow. One of you pointed out, for example, that if you rearrange the letters of “Britney Spears” it spells “Best in prayer.” And that is a goal worth striving for!

Last week we had the first look at architectural drawings to revitalize our aging building and make it more welcoming, more accessible, and a more effective mission center, while preserving its beauty and spiritual ambiance. The architect had listened carefully in conversations with elders, deacons, trustees, staff, and other leaders about creating a better flow through classrooms and worship spaces, identifying a central entrance point (among the 17 doors we have) with a staffed reception area and main office nearby, and decluttering and refreshing rooms to strengthen the way we learn and build community through small groups. These preliminary designs are part of the development of a five-year plan, and you will have many opportunities in the weeks ahead to participate in that process. While this plan is envisioned as a roadmap towards Fairmount’s centennial celebration in 2016, it is more than that. The Session added the Greek word “kairos” to the name and to the process. “Kairos”—a word meaning “time”—but not simply time measured in minutes and days, but God’s time, a time of shimmering possibility and promise. The five-year kairos plan calls for spiritual discernment, so that all together you can determine where God is leading this great congregation. It really hit me hard that I won’t be here to see the completion of these plans, but like the apostle Paul, I am confident that God will. I’m not the only one with that confidence. The individuals being received as new members today all made their decision to join knowing the pastor was leaving. Their commitment is not to a minister, but to the mission of Christ as it is lived in this community of faith. Friends, Fairmount’s future is in God’s hands, and by God’s grace, your strong and capable human ones.

And how well your hands have served these past ten years! –preparing meals and developing budgets, knitting prayer shawls, holding the hands of young children, welcoming strangers, playing bells and singing your heart out, clasped in prayer for the needs of the church and the world, teaching church school and mentoring confirmation youth, comforting the grieving, building Habitat homes and a youth club that registered its one thousandth member in January, providing hospitality for homeless guests, engaging the problems and potential of our struggling City, listening to diverse voices, gathering in worship and for committees and more. Your finest moments came when you stretched out of the comfort zone to pursue God’s kingdom with passion. Sometimes that has meant taking leadership in a big initiative, and sometimes that has meant taking time to connect with one person. Both kinds of serving take courage and caring and both make a difference.

Here’s one example: Aida McCracken recently shared with our Children and Family Ministries Committee the experience that pulled her in to this congregation (and she gave me permission to tell you). Aida grew up in Ethiopia where she was nurtured in Christian faith by family and a lively Christian community. But when she came to the United States, she noticed the loudest voices identified as “Christian” often were hateful and hurtful, put barriers up to keep some people out, focused on judgment rather than grace. Discouraged, she accepted the invitation of her mother-in-law and brought her husband and two young children to worship here one Sunday. Aida recalled the day: I felt I had finally found the God of my childhood, the God who surrounds you with love, who accepts you and fills your life with peace and hope.

Have you ever imagined that you could become the embodied presence of God for someone else?!! I know you can, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes, countless times, from the first day until now. I know you can, because you have been that for me, supporting me personally when I was sick and in treatment. I thank God every time I remember you. And believe me, you are very memorable.

Biblical scholars comment that of all Paul’s letters, his words to the Philippians are the warmest and most affectionate. Other letters would soar to greater intellectual heights; others would build a more systematic theological structure; some even scold the congregations as he weighed in about local problems and set new rules to resolve them. But no other letter comes close to this one for the joy Paul expresses at the friendship he feels for them. His ongoing prayer is simple – yet embraces the whole mission of the church, and this magnificent enterprise that is God’s work: may your love overflow more and more. It is my prayer for you as well.

Dear friends, thank you for the privilege and the joy of gardening with you; of planting and tending seeds that by God’s grace will yield an abundant harvest of goodness and peace. Thanks be to God!