Parting Words: The Last Sermon


On the Saturday night before my first Sunday here at First Church, I decided to come to the church to practice my sermon and to pray.  I'd spent a hectic first week moving, getting settled, meeting people and trying to get my bearings.  

All of the noise was gone that Saturday night and I stood in the historic Sanctuary with the street light streaming through the stained glass windows, and I sat down in one of the pews.  The historic Sanctuary here has this certain smell--an old church smell.  It's the smell of hymnals, old wood and something else that's hard to place, only you know it when you smell it. 

As I sat there I spied some writing on one of the larger windows, and got up to investigate.  The window was dedicated to the first pastor of the church.  His name, and I can't make this up, was James Hair Potter.  He pastored this church for 20 years, after retiring from pastoring up North.  

So there we were--just me and James Hair Potter in that room that night.  It may sound strange, but I kind of felt like he was there.  At the very least, I was aware of my place in the history of things.  125 years before my arrival, James Hair Potter preached his first sermon to the first members of this church.  

A lot of things went rushing through my head at that point.  I remembered praying fervently on the floor of my former church, pleading God to either give me purpose and vision or to let me go to do something else with my life.  I remembered Merideth and I kneeling beside our bed in a hotel room in Lake Tahoe right before we came here, praying that God would guide our steps.  

I thought about all of the steps that had to be made to get me to that moment when I stood there gazing at a 100 year-old stained glass window about to preach my first sermon to my new congregation.  And then I realized that it all actually started with one step--a step that Merideth and I took when we surrendered to God's will and stepped toward Eustis. 

Our future--Merideth's and mine--was a choice that we made with that first step in the right direction.  Even though there were many steps that came after, it was that first step that made the difference. 

We all know what this is like.  We are constantly being confronted with changes in our lives.  In fact, the only real constant in life is change, isn't it?  Life has a way of putting these kinds of choices in front of us.  Choices about our careers, our family, finances, our faith...  And the choice of that first step determines what shape our future will take.  

This is my last sermon to you--my parting words.  What I want you know today is simply this:  Your brightest future is a choice that you make with a single step in the right direction.  

In Acts chapter 20 there is a very poignant moment that occurs between the Apostle Paul and the members of the church at Ephesus, a church that Paul founded and dearly loved.  He was leaving them for the last time, and was fairly certain that he would ever see them again. So, he wanted them to know some things before he left them. 

Let's read: 

17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. 18 When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. 19 I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. 21 I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

25 “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. 26 Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. 27 For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God,[a] which he bought with his own blood.[b] 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”


36 When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. 37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. 38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

I want to highlight a few of the things that Paul wanted the church at Ephesus to know.  

First, in verse 20 he declares to them that he did not hesitate to preach about God's great plan to save the world through Jesus.  Paul took the Scriptures seriously, particularly what the Scriptures (the Old Testament to us) had to say about Jesus.  

Second, in verse 22 Paul wants to make sure that the church knows that no one can predict the future.  He is compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and he has no idea what will happen there.  He is unafraid, and trusts God completely.  He shares this as an example to the church so that they will learn to trust God completely. 

Third, in verse 24 Paul talks about how his going to finish the race.  He wants the church to know that they should never give up.  

Fourth in verse 29 he talks about how they need to hold the line after he leaves.  He doesn't mince words.  He says that "savage wolves" will come along and try to destroy the unity of the church.  Paul doesn't want the church to let these naysayers and divisive people win..ever.  

Finally, Paul says in verse 32 that he commits the church to God.  He wants them to know that they are ultimately God's church, and that they are part of something greater than themselves.  They have a part in the story, but they aren't the whole story.  

Essentially, Paul is declaring to the church at Ephesus that they have a choice to make.  They have a choice to step in the right direction toward the future that God desires for them.  It is their choice to make.  And it's just as easy to make the wrong one if they are not careful and faithful.  

This message is true for you as it was for those believers so long ago.  Your brightest future is a choice that you make with a single step in the right direction. 

What does this look like for First Church during this time of transition?  

A step in the right direction looks like: 
Never compromising on declaring the Good News. 
Lots of churches claim they are preaching the Good News, but their Good News seems more like bad news to most people.  When you preach Jesus... When you proclaim Jesus... when you know and show Jesus... that's good news.  When you share with people that they can have abundant, full, purpose-filled life when they embrace Jesus--that's good news.  Don't stop sharing the Good News. 

A step in the right direction looks like: 
Never quitting even when things get difficult. 
The other day when I announced that I was leaving, Gavin Hritzik, who is nine years old and loves his church, asked a question.  He asked, "Are people going to leave the church?" I had to tell him that there would be some people who would probably leave.  But I want you to consider something.  What kind of legacy do you want to leave for your kids and grandkids?  What kind of example do you want to set for kids like Gavin who look to you for leadership?  Do you want them to learn that it's just fine to quit when things get difficult?  Never quit.  Never give up.  If not for your own sake, do it for Gavin, and the kids who need you to be more for them.  

A step in the right direction looks like: 
Never giving in to naysayers and division mongers.  
I am going to be very honest and very blunt with you today.  It won't take long after I leave for you to start seeing people in church you haven't seen in a long time.  I actually heard rumors already of some folks who are hoping that there will be "revival" in this church after I'm gone.  I'm not sure what they meant by that, but there you go.   There might also be people who were prone to drama and creating division who have been quiet for some time, but now will pop up to stir things up.  Have you ever played the game "Whack-A-Mole"?  It's that carnival game where little moles pop up and you have to hit them with a mallet to earn points.  You all have to treat negativity, division mongering and naysaying like moles that need to be whacked.  Don't whack people, mind you.  Just the behavior.  What's rewarded is repeated.  Don't reward bad behavior.  

A step in the right direction looks like: 
Never forgetting that you are part of something greater. 
This is a special place--this church.  You are amazing people.  In this little town--forty five minutes from everything--you are demonstrating what it means to be a space for grace.  There are people who come to church, who would never darken the door of a church any where around us.  There is a bigger movement afoot in Christianity right now--a move away from dogmatic, angry, negative expressions of faith to something bigger, more loving, more expansive and beautiful.  Churches who don't get this will wake up one day and wonder where all their people went.  But not you, you are a light in this city.  You have the chance to keep teaching people that they don't have to shut their brains off to be a Christian.  You have the chance to keep knowing and showing Jesus in ways that you haven't even thought of to people who have yet to hear the Good News--the really Good News.  

Believe me when I say this...  I know you will do great things.  I know that you will have a bright future.  But never, ever forget that...  

Your brightest future is a choice that you make with a single step in the right direction.  


It's time to take that single step. Take it together.  Take it with joy.  Take it with hope.

I love you, First Church.  You will always be a part of me--and not just because your logo is tattooed on my leg.  I can't wait to see what you will do next.  I know I speak for Merideth when I say that we will be cheering for you from afar, always your biggest fans. 
  
Counting it all Joy...  

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