The Text Says:
The biblical text on our final Sunday together as pastor and people is St. Paul’s parting address to the Church at Ephesus. It is characterized by simplicity, pathos, and dignity. He reviews with them his past ministry, his present concerns and future dangers. Laid bare is the loving heart of a pastor, who’s fervent yet restrained devotion throbs in every line. It is personal but not egotistical, and soars without effort. This scripture testifies to a pastor’s compassion for his people, and theirs for him. “He knelt down and prayed with them and they all wept freely.” Here St. Paul was no cold dispenser of doctrine, but a warm, deeply caring servant of God. Paul gave the saints in Ephesus the best of his capabilities in being true to his calling. His firm conviction was that he was saying goodbye forever to those for whom he had truly cared and faithfully guided. Parting words should be like these, genuine and solemn, which are both present in the highest degree.
Hear the sermon.
The Preacher Says:
What a predicament! I’ve flat run outa Sundays! But not outa bees! But I’m neither the first nor the last preacher who finds myself in this spot. There’s a similar situation in the Book of Acts where the Apostle Paul gives his own farewell address to his beloved church in Ephesus. This is not the maligned Paul that the offended ones like to censure. Here is a warm pastor with time running out with his people. It is a touching scene where he reminded them of the past and all the things they’d experienced together. And how he always told them the truth and held nothing back. Then he turns toward the future.
There’s a natural sense of sorrow surrounding the scene as they watch the ship float into the harbor. The numbers dictated that he’d never see some of them again. Paul called on God as his witness that he did the best he could. And when it got down to the final nub, and there’s only one thing left to say to them. He said: “I commend you to God.” More appropriate words were never uttered.
His first two words were “And now.” For even final words have to be spoken: “And now … I commend you to God,” because everything we do at church has to do with God. We’re here because of God. We heal because of God. We love because “God first loved us.” Paul didn’t refer them to Barnabas or Luke or Peter. “I commend you to God!” Who gathers all our diversity into one. Who’s the stack pole, around which every church should be structured. You can go to Brown and get an education. Or RISD and hone your skills as an artist. But you come to The Meeting House to get “recommended to God!”
There are the seniors among us who’ve been here a long time and teach us a lot about the faith. They may not have many more earthly miles to travel. But all of the old folks, whom I hold in highest regard, without whom this church wouldn’t be here: I commend you to God!
Our young people and students of differing shades and hues, including the rabble; some still drying from the waters of baptism, some with new families gazing down at the unknown years ahead of them, with some wonder and no little apprehension: “I commend you to God.” And bless you for your strategic role in this place.
There are those to whom the changing scenes of life have brought happiness and for others — sorrow: for whom the road to faith is hedged with doubts and frustrations and questions; for whom religion has been more of a barrier than a blessing: “I commend you to God!”
How can I not brag on our marvelous choir? Holy Jesus! Bless their hearts! What an honor it’s been to work with Steve Martorella these years! One-of-a-kind. Thank you Steve. Thank you choir. I commend you to God! “O for a thousand tongues to sing,” wrote John Wesley. I only have one tongue, but if I had 1000, I would use every last one of them to commend all ya’ll to God. Only God abides, all else is relative. And we have that solid foundation upon which to stand as we part company.
Maybe Paul pulled this up from his familiarity in preaching about the cross. He used the same benediction as Jesus before he died: a word of commendation. “Into Thy hands I commend my Spirit!” Jesus commended himself to God! Paul commended the church to God!
And not just to God, but to “the word of God.” Not infallible or inerrant, but certainly “profitable for reproof, for instruction in righteousness.” This has been the basis of our Sunday morning gatherings. People come to church because they wanta hear the stories of Jesus. And “I love to tell the story!” They don’t come to worship to hear somebody’s opinion. There is a genuine hunger everywhere I’ve been for a biblical word that makes sense, invigorates, and encourages. Which is why every Sunday I have “commended you to the word.” The first thing you see on our worship folder is an explanation of the day’s text. So you know something of what’s coming. Open it up and there’s a picture of it. Then we highlight it, sing it, read it, pray it, preach it and celebrate the word from God in it.
All of it is to “commend you to the Word.” Not to beat you over the head with a Book. Or dangle you over hell with a sacred text. But a forthright attempt to offer sound guidance “for the living of these days.”“I commend you to the word.” Because there is more that finds us in the Bible than any other literature. All the drama of life and death and the hereafter; all the joys and sorrows we have in the scriptures. It never grows stale. Or fails to heal us or bless us; rebuke us or inspire us. When people dedicate their babies, they read from the Bible. When they get married, they wanta hear I Cor 13, the Apostle’s peon of love. When dying day comes, they may call the funeral director, but at the memorial they read from the Bible! “O grave where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?” (I Cor. 15:55). When we come and when we go, and all points in-between, we unapologetically read the scriptures. When we’re up, when we’re down, when we’re warm, when we’re cold, when we’re young, when we’re old we read from the Bible. Paul couldn’t’ve said it better: “I commend you to God. I commend you to the word.”
But not just any word. “I commend you … to the word of his grace.” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” Who wouldn’t want more of that? Paul used his last opportunity to declare once more, with passion, his belief in the all‑encompassing grace of God. There’s nothing else like it. The thing I’ve loved best, to stand in this hallowed spot and proclaim the providence of God in Providence, RI.
The future is bright for ol’ First Church, because you have made this a grace-place, that dispenses the “wine of the gospel.” And not get bogged down with the “skins.” Here we traffic in compassion not guilt, hope not condemnation, acceptance not rejection, forgiveness not judgment. The ministries, gracing the poor, the facilities, gracing the person in the pew, the worship, gracing the stranger. Do you realize how rare stuff like this is in a church?
Religion at its best is grace-based. So I’m gonna load on all the grace I can today. It is grace that shatters our discrepancies, grace that brings low our pretensions. Only grace can heal some wounds. No matter what mistakes you’ve made; no matter what others have done to you, God’s grace is offered to all of the undeserving. That’s what makes it grace. On this day of our parting, I wanted to remind you of “the word of his grace.” And if it’s not for everybody then it’s for nobody.
Then Paul continues, it is grace “that is able to build you up.” Not tear you down. Who needs to go to church and get a dose of how bad we are? Everybody’s used to hearing about what’s wrong with the church. Well there’s an awful lot that’s right about this one. And you’re the reason that is so. Where else but in church can you hear these days, that you are a person of value, created in the image of God, full of dignity and worth? A church worth-its-salt will build us up and “level every hill and make the crooked places straight;” strengthen the weak, and energize the defeated and help us to stand up to life.
A few weeks ago we talked about Moses standing in front of a burning bush. The bush didn’t know what else to do, cause it was set on fire by the Lord God! And that same holy fire is what enabled the church to stand against Herod and Caesar and the “principalities and powers of darkness,” of corrupt culture and selfish society. People come through these doors hungry for a loaf of bread; “God forbid that we give them a stone!” This church has enjoyed almost four centuries of illustrious history, but we don’t point to memory alone. There are many wonderful days of service ahead to look forward to. The messenger said to the women at the empty tomb: “He goes before you…” Let that “build you up!”
Finally Paul ends with a “reading of the will.” Their “inheritance…among all those who are sanctified.” His thoughts are soaring now. He’s taken it to another level; far beyond this world. Farther than Ephesus or Jerusalem or Rome. Lying beyond the tears that fall when we part, is our “inheritance.” There’s something in it for us!
The Apocalypse calls it, the “City of God, come down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband.” Where there will be “no more tears, no more parting, no more sadness.” Paul realized that the sands of time were ebbing for him. So he reminds them of the Capital “C” church invisible; and “a multitude that no one can number.”
This, is your inheritance! “Here and now dear friends, we are God’s children. What we shall be has not yet been disclosed” (I John 3:3). I confess that I’m too pre-occupied with moving-hell on this earth, to be thinking too much about sitting around in heaven someplace. But when it comes to leaving we think of God and we think of heaven. That is your inheritance. Wherever it is, whatever it’s like, it’s a good thought. There’s not a better church in the world than this one, to be your last one.
Please indulge me one more story. A church youth group was discussing how 9/11 affected their prayer life. One young man said he’s not been able to pray since that day. He figured many people in the planes and buildings were praying for God to spare them. But their prayers were not answered. So what’s the use in praying, if it doesn’t get what you want? Another youth said he can’t pray for a different reason. He assumed the terrorists were praying to Allah for courage to follow through with their dastardly deed. And their prayers were answered. That’s counter-productive. So why bother to pray? Then a young artist allowed as how she’s still prays. She visualized both the victims and the perpetrators of 9/11, sitting around a table in heaven, trying to figure out what on earth happened that day. But the group leader had a world-view that was threatened by her graciousness. So he interrupted her and sternly declared the scene she described was not possible … because the terrorists are in hell. So often people use religion or ideology to end a discussion.
No doubt each of those responses can be found in most churches, in relation to not just September 11, but any quandary we face. Of those four attitudes, the one that prevails here is the perspective of the young artist. Because that’s the way I visualize this unique gathering of God’s frail beings of light. Those whose prayers were answered and those whose prayers were not answered, sitting around a table, trying to figure out what the heck happened.
That vision doesn’t end the discussion. It continues one. Going on nine years now, it’s fallen to me to continue the discussion “in season, out of season.” And trust something productive comes of it after I’m no longer in the picture. As me and Libby vacate the premises today, we will leave a big part of ourselves here. I just thank the Lord for the blessed privilege of being your pastor. Now as I go, “I commend you to God!” And I commend God — to — you!
Providence Prayers: 2/23/14
In this historic city named for Thy Providence, we bless Thee O Lord for this congregation that also came to be under Thy divine guidance. After 376 years it’s still what makes the church meaningful, our burdens bearable, the future hopeful. Your grace makes heavy loads lighter, and turns houses into homes, sinners into saints, and common elements into messianic banquets.
If Christ could fashion from a cross a depiction of the truest love there is, what might God do with the cruelest hurts that invade our lives? May this hour of worship allow us to be delivered from self‑promotion and petty distractions, that we might serve you better. When our desires outweigh our intelligence we pray for the common sense to have a realistic outlook. For unwise prayers that go unanswered, sparing us pain we never meet, for unwelcome new experiences through which we discover in ourselves capacities we never knew were there, for the scriptures that blaze with insight as our circumstances change, for the winsomeness of good friends and your mercy that holds us steady when everything around us feels like it’s coming loose… we give Thee thanks.
May the joy of your redemption fill our souls so that in the worst of times we’ll do the best of things. Bless all who are facing the complexities of life, anxious about events beyond their control, and too many we bring upon ourselves. Be with the incapacitated, held back from a life they would otherwise live. And the bereaved, whose hearts, if not their bodies reside in the graveyard.
As we celebrate this special place, keep smiling, not only on this church’s past but also her future, as we build on our efforts to be a church, and not just a museum, thus making us worthy not only of the best of the name “Baptist,” but also “Christian.” Through Christ our Lord…