Texts: Deuteronomy 34:1-19
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion…”
– Philippians 1:6
Spirit of the Living God,
Wrap us deep in your love,
Cuddle us into your healing peace,
And whisper words of hope and grace into our hearts.
In Christ and through Christ, we make this prayer. Amen.
Susan Wei introduced me to Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet and theologian whose writings have become a spiritual gift to my journey of faith. One of Ó Tuama’s poems has been particularly meaningful to me in the past two weeks as I have sought to translate into words this transition that my leave-taking will bring to this beloved congregation, to my family, and to my ministry. The poem is very appropriately titled “Narrative Theology #I,” and these are the poet’s words:
“And I said to him
Are there answers to all of this?
And he said
The answer is in a story
And the story is being told.
And I said
But there is so much pain
And she answered, plainly,
Pain will happen.
Then I said
Will I ever find meaning?
And they said
You will find meaning
Where you give meaning.
The answer is in the story
And the story isn’t finished.”
One of the main ideas proposed by Narrative Theology, which came out of the Yale Divinity School in the latter half of the twentieth century, is that God is the Great Storyteller of the universe who nurtures faith in the human heart through the sacred stories of our Scriptures. Narrative theologians believe that the stories we read in the Bible are not meant only to teach ethical principles, religious dogmas or to give us a theological language about God; they are rather an invitation to people of faith to know God by listening time and again to the narrative that opens our hearts and minds to God’s self-revelation in human history. In the stories we read and hear every Sunday morning, the Spirit speaks to us about the stunning love of a God who creates everything, breathes life into humankind, gifts humanity with varied languages and different cultures and endows us with the freedom to choose how we will shape our own personal stories. In the biblical narrative, we also meet God in Jesus Christ. The story of the incarnation of God’s love in Jesus makes the wild and earth-shattering claim that God trusted human flesh and blood to reveal God’s love in human history. And Jesus’ radical faithfulness to God, his passion for justice, his love of the neighbor, his healing presence, his unwavering commitment to peace and his willingness to die for a vision of a world without intolerance and hate remind us that biblical faith demands courage to believe in this God-inspired narrative! When you and I gather to hear the story, we place ourselves right in the midst of this narrative of love and grace that gives meaning to our faith.
But Narrative Theology is not only about paying attention and listening to Bible stories. That would be too easy! Narrative theology also asks us to “faithfully improvise the rest of the story.” In other words, now that we know the God who gives meaning to our faith, our religious task is to let the story be told through our living. As followers of Christ, every day, every hour, and every moment of our lives have to reveal the story God’s Spirit is still telling the world through us.
This morning, as we pause to reflect on the story of the final moments of Moses’ leadership, the Spirit invites us to consider how you and I will let God speak to us and through us in this time of change for the church and for me.
The narrative in Deuteronomy makes it very clear that while God had chosen Moses to lead the people of God out of slavery and had appointed him to guide God’s people as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, Moses would not cross the River Jordan into the Land of Promise. Early on in the book, Moses lifts his voice to God in prayer and asks that he may be allowed to see the good land on the other side of the river, but God gives Moses a very emphatic answer, “You are not to speak to me about this matter again! Go to the peak of Mount Pisgah and look to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west. Look carefully at what you see, because you will not go across the Jordan.”
Every time I read this story in Deuteronomy, I wonder how Moses must have felt knowing that he would see a future for God’s people that did not include him. After everything they went through together, all the struggles to escape the oppression in Egypt, after seeing the miraculous parting of the waters, living through days of hunger and receiving the gifts of the manna and desert quails, after listening to the people’s complaints and their longing for the past, after all their battles, the tragic choice to worship the golden calf, after the long journey to the promised land flowing with milk and honey, Moses only had a chance to imagine the story God would continue to write through Joshua and the people of Israel. Moses brought his beloved community to the edge of a new land, a new day, a new beginning that he would never see or experience.
I can’t speak for Moses, but I imagine that when he stood at the top of Pisgah and he saw the land with all its possibilities and opportunities, a surge of gratitude tinged with a bit of sadness welled up within his soul. It was reassuring and even liberating to know that the story of God’s people was not finished, that it would still go on. With God’s help, Joshua would take on the mantle of leadership from Moses and he would lead the people across the river. I imagine that Moses knew that he would be missed and that many would still remember the role he had in their walk to freedom. But like any good leader, Moses stood on Mount Nebo fully aware that he had done what he was called to do and, from that day on, God’s people would improvise the story and would learn to dream newer, bigger, and bolder dreams without him.
Today I stand behind the pulpit and, like Moses, I know that I have come as far as I could. I haven’t been part of the story of this church for forty years – you would have to have called me when I was only 10 for that to be the case, but I have been here long enough to know how blessed I was when you offered me the privilege of being your pastor. I did not expect that our stories would take different paths so soon, but I am deeply grateful that while I was part of your story, you kept inspiring me to be the best pastor I could possibly be. And I can say without any hesitation that I gave you the very best of my time, my energy, my skills, my intellect, my abilities and my love. But sometimes moving into God’s future requires a willingness to listen to God even when God tells you that the story of Plymouth Congregational UCC will continue to be written and told without you.
Of course, I am not going to tell you that God somehow coerced me into leaving. You and I know this is not how this moment of leave-taking has come about. As Al Mather said in the sermon he preached a couple of weeks ago, we have to take responsibility for our choices. Maybe Moses knew that he had given everything to God’s people and he had nothing else left to give other than making space for a new generation, a new leader, a new tomorrow and a new chapter in Israel’s story, but I hope that I can still give a few more years to the Church. The question then is why leave now? If God is not making me leave and if I have a choice, why am I leaving?
A friend of mine once told me that it is best to leave a week early when everyone still loves you then to stay a day late when people can’t wait to help you find your way out. There is definitely wisdom in knowing when it is the right time to say goodbye. And as difficult and even painful as it is for me to say this, I believe this is an opportune time for me to step aside and, with gratitude laced with sadness, let your story go on without me.
It is very easy to love this church. Many congregations turn the narrative of God’s love-made-flesh-in-Christ into a sedate religious tradition, but not you! You keep alive in your story the subversive nature of Christ’s teachings. You are not afraid of improvising the narrative of our faith to give new meaning to God’s grace. Your story is punctuated by brave steps, votes, decisions, and choices that give flesh and blood to Jesus’ ministries of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Your courage to stand up for justice reminds people in this town that Christianity is a narrative of protest against the world that is and a story of persistent hope for a God-given future where all human beings, and not just a few lucky chosen ones, will enjoy a full and beautiful and joyful life on Earth. I am thankful that you, more than any other church I have served, have embraced both Erik and me and have made it totally uncomplicated for my family to be part of the Christian story. And it is because you all have loved and supported Erik and me since the first day we arrived in Plymouth that I believe you will also understand why this is the time for our leave-taking.
On August 4th, Erik and I celebrated the 12th anniversary of the day we first met on an uneventful Friday night in Chicago. Tomorrow, we will give thanks for our fifth wedding anniversary and will remember the hot and humid Tuesday afternoon when we stood side-by-side at Elizabeth Park in West Hartford and promised that we would never fail to see our story as a sacred gift given to both of us. In all these years that we have been together, Erik has been an amazing spouse, one of my most ardent supporters, a good listener, a patient partner, an unapologetic cheerleader and an insightful friend. He has often reminded me of how blessed I am to know that God has called me to live my life within the narrative of God’s love and he hasn’t hesitated to make changes to his own life and plans in order to let God’s Spirit take us to the next chapter of my ministry. Earlier this year, while Erik and I were talking about some of his professional goals I realized that since 2010 we have moved across state lines, changed addresses, lived apart for a few months, and settled into vastly different communities to accommodate my call and not once Erik has been reluctant to participate in this story of faith to which I have given my whole life. As Erik and I talked a bit more frequently about his longing to enrich his own story by growing professionally, I felt that it was time for me to ask myself how I might support him. I opened my heart to what God might be speaking to me through my spouse and I took a leap of faith; now I am standing here seeing a future where you and I will continue to live out the biblical faith but without each other.
It is difficult to say goodbye to people we love. I certainly have struggled to find the words to express my feelings and emotions these days. But I am hoping that like the people of Israel, we will know when to be sad and cry and feel disappointed, perhaps even angry, and when to start smiling again and be excited about a new leadership and feel energized to search for the new pastor that will also love this church and who will stand behind this pulpit to inspire you to move forward courageously, faithfully, and joyfully into the future God has in mind for Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. It is tempting to think of my leave-taking as the loss of a pastor, but in truth, this is also an opportunity for the church to remember that the story is not finished yet, your mission is not done yet, God is still speaking, the story of Christ still calls on you to be a living church in the heart of Plymouth, your work as improvisers of the Gospel of Christ is not finished yet!
In fact, this congregation is blessed to have very thoughtful and dedicated church officers, lay leaders and staff who are ready to carry on the mission and ministries of the church until a new pastor arrives. The Church Council has already met with Richard Slater, our Associate Conference Minister, to plan for the transition time. I am sure that before I see the White Mountains in the rear view mirror of my car, the council will already have identified a transitional pastor to keep you grounded in the narrative that has sustained the faith of this congregation for 255 years. The story of this church is not finished yet! Your work is not finished yet! Your sharing of the narrative of God’s love must go on. Human lives depend on your courage to keep practicing the faith that has inspired you to be an Open and Affirming congregation, to be a Just Peace church and to follow joyfully and faithfully in the way of Christ.
On this first day of transition and changes in our stories, I make mine the words the Apostle Paul wrote in his Letter to the Christian community in Philippi, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Friends, remain faithful to the story, keep sharing the narrative of God’s grace, stay true to your calling to improvise the rest of the story. We may be sad today, but do not give into hopelessness, remember the answer is in the story and the story of hope, the story of love, the story of justice, the story of faith that gives meaning to the journey of this congregation is not finished yet. Keep telling and living the story because God the Storyteller still has much to say to the world through your story.
For the story you and I have shared, we give thanks. And may we see the future ahead filled with possibilities and opportunities for God’s narrative to be told through each one of us. Amen.
 Pádraig Ó Tuama. “reading from the book of exile,” p. 4.
 By Roger E. Olson. “Narrative Theology Explained,” Patheos, 15 January 2015. [http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2016/01/narrative-theology-explained/]
 Numbers 32:13.
 Deuteronomy 3:23-27.
 Deuteronomy 3:26-27.
Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.