This sermon was delivered on the final Sunday that Elisabeth Danielsons, our Director of Children’s, Youth, and Family Ministrties, was with us before moving to Missouri.
Scriptures: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 37:23-24; Acts 20:17-24, 32, 36-38
Yesterday we bid our final goodbyes to the oldest member of our church, Donna Rock. A week ago Saturday, she passed away at the age of 103. Hers was a well-lived life. Donna will be missed by many as evidenced by the large number of people who came to celebrate her life.
When it comes to the human experience, saying goodbye can be one of the most difficult and painful things there is to do. Think of the myriad of situations in life that call for it: when a child goes off to college; at the end of a family reunion when everyone heads home; moving to a new state; leaving one place of employment to start at another one; starting at a new school; the end of a relationship; graduation; retirement. And of course, the ultimate goodbye, the death of a loved one.
It’s been suggested that when all is said and done, life is all about letting go – what one author calls ‘necessary losses.’ From the moment we say goodbye to the warmth and safety of the womb until the moment we bid farewell to this world, we’re letting go of what was, moving into what is, and preparing for what will be.
Here are a few personal examples. When I got to junior high—which for me was 7th grade—I vividly remember having to say goodbye to a system of academic evaluation utilized in my elementary school in which letter grades were never used. In other words, I had to say goodbye to the comfort of not having to worry about grades!
Jump ahead five years. On the night of my high school graduation, I sat with my mother on the deck of our backyard firepit and told her how sad I was that I would never again get together with all my friends.
Jump ahead another five years. When Caroline and I married, I was the happiest man in the world. I’d always looked forward to being married. But I also knew that being married meant saying goodbye to the single life, one that pretty much revolves around one’s own plans and desires. And of course, the same was true of Caroline.
Jump ahead many years to my second appointment, which was in Mackinaw City, where Rachel lived the first five years of her life. It was a community that all three of us became very attached to. So, when we left there in 2001 to go to my next church, saying goodbye to people we’d come to love was truly heartbreaking.
I could go on and on with personal examples of letting go and saying goodbye. You understand what I’m talking about because you’ve experienced that yourself.
It’s no secret that today is a day for saying goodbye. We’re saying goodbye to Elisabeth who’s faithfully served among us for the past year and a half, directing our Children’s, Youth, and Family Ministries. And, of course, Elisabeth is saying goodbye to us.
I began by acknowledging the heartache and challenges that come with saying goodbye. What makes saying goodbye so hard to do? Well, one obvious answer is that it’s that way by design. It’s our human nature to be in relationship with people. And as those relationships grow and deepen, we become emotionally connected. You might even say we become attached at the heart. We come to love each other. If and when the time comes when we have to take leave of those with whom we’ve become emotionally connected, it hurts. It can feel as though that relationship is boring torn away.
I’m getting physical therapy for a hamstring injury. At the end of one of my sessions, the therapist applied some kinesiology tape to my hamstring, the back of my leg at the top; in other words, the back of my thigh. At the next session, it had to be removed. Now, for just a second, consider the task of removing very sticky tape from a man’s leg, and from that location…where the skin is very sensitive to begin with. Wanting to get it over quickly, I naively suggested she just rip it off, kind of like what we often do with band-aids. But this tape was 4 inches wide and about 14 inches in length. Fortunately for me, she knew better than to follow my foolish suggestion! And boy, am I glad she didn’t. Removing it slowly and carefully was painful enough. Well, bringing a close to relationships with people with whom we’ve connected emotionally can be a bit like tearing off sticky medical tape. It hurts to say goodbye to people we love. Again, you get what I’m saying because you’ve experienced it yourselves.
However, I suspect there’s another, less obvious, reason saying goodbye can be so painful. It has to do with the discomfort of not knowing what’s to come. Quite often, saying goodbye to a person, especially someone who holds a position of leadership, entails a significant change in the situation at-hand. And with that loss of a leader comes a lot of questions about what will be the result of their leaving.
Earlier in the fall, when our Finance Committe crunched the numbers and it became clear to us that we would not be able to fund the Director of Children’s, Youth, and Family Ministries position starting in January, my very first question was, what’s going to happen to our children and youth programming? Who’s going to step up and lead these ministries? Admittedly, I felt anxiety at the thought of Elisabeth leaving. The challenge before us was that for many, many years, we’ve had a paid staff person leading these ministries. When it was clear that for the first time in a long time we wouldn’t be able to pay someone to lead these important ministries, I got worried about what would happen. Many of us were left wondering how such a huge change in our leadership would play out? And, of course, it wasn’t just us who experienced anxiety over the unknown. No doubt, concerning her own immediate future, Elisabeth felt it as well.
And that’s my point. Saying goodbye often thrusts us into the unknown, and that can be a scary thing to face. Even painful. Why? Because it confronts us with our natural lack of faith. It’s part of our human condition to think the sky’s falling when we’re not sure what the future holds. Even people of faith, such as us, have to consciously work at moving forward faithfully, trusting God, when we can’t see what’s ahead or how things are going to work out. Trusting God is not a natural instinct. It’s something we have to develop in ourselves. And the only way it develops is by being in positions of not knowing what’s going to happen. But when we do—when we do entrust our unknown futures to God—then we soon discover that God has a way of working things out, even if it ends up being a different solution than what we had in mind.
I’m glad to say that persons within our church have answered the call to lead our children and youth, and I’ll talk about that in more detail next week. But today, I simply want us to be encouraged by the fact that God has been faithful. Leaders are coming forward on our end, and Elisabeth quickly secured employment doing something she loves and is gifted for. For both of us, there’s still a lot we don’t’ know about how things will unfold, but we’re nevertheless experiencing the wonder and power of God’s grace amid the unknown.
The writer of Psalm 37 made this observation about the source of our security in the midst of uncertainty:
A persons’ steps are made secure by the LORD when they delight in his way. Though they trip up, they won’t be thrown down, because the LORD holds their hand.Psalm 37:23-24
To be clear, he’s not saying that following and trusting God means nothing bad will happen to us, or that we’ll never struggle or have to go through times of peril or uncertainty. That would be a misreading of his testimony. What he is saying is that when we consciously lean into God during times of uncertainty, he’s faithful to grant us a sense of hope for what lies ahead, whatever it may be. Hope for the future—even an unknown future—is a thing of beauty and comfort and security.
When the Apostle Paul met with his beloved friends in Ephesus, he was passing through the area on his way back to Jerusalem. For the Ephesian Christians, Paul must have been a rock of sorts. He was the one who started their church, trained its leaders, offered years and years of encouragement and instruction. When they had theological questions, he had answers. When there were problems within the church, he helped them through. When they faced persecution, he was a source of strength. Imagine the anxiety they must have felt when he informed them that the Holy Spirit had made it clear to him that “prisons and troubles await me” in the months ahead.
And then he offered what could only sound like a kind of final goodbye of sorts. Before getting back on the ship, he said, “Now I entrust you to God and the message of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all whom God has made holy” (Acts 20:32). Now–at this point in time–I entrust you to God. He’d probably said something like that at the end of previous visits, but there had to have been something different about it this time. Maybe it was a voice inflection, the way he said the words. It must have conveyed the idea that this was a final goodbye. The man who’d been their rock and leader would no longer be there for them as he had been for so many years. Can you imagine the uncertainty they must have felt about their future? Verse 37 says they “cried uncontrollably” as they embraced him for the last time forever.
I have to believe that Paul felt the same pain and uncertainty when he stood on the deck of the ship and waved goodbye to his friends. He didn’t know what their future would be. And they didn’t know what their future would be. But he did the only thing there is to do in circumstances like this. He entrusted them to God. He knew God had a plan for them and would see to it that leaders were raised up to help them move forward.
Friends, as we bid farewell to Elisabeth, and she to us, should we not do the same for each other? Elisabeth, we entrust you to God. We, the people of Port Huron First United Methodist Church, entrust you to God and the message of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all whom God has made holy. And we hope that according to the grace given you by the Holy Spirit, you’ll entrust us into God’s care and keeping.
Let me close with words that have been spoken over and spoken into God’s people for thousands of years. And I offer this blessing on behalf of this entire congregation. In gratitude for your service to us and amongst us, and trusting that God’s plans and purposes for you will continue to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God wherever he leads you, I say to you, Elisabeth: The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his face to you and give you peace. Amen and amen.