As our family heads down to Seward, Alaska.
(This is the sermon preached at Girdwood Chapel UMC on 30 December 2012. It was my last sermon here, wrapping up 12.5 years of ministry. The texts — more or less — were Philippians 1:1-6 and Matthew 28:16-20. The title is “Goodbye, Farewell, & Amen.” It was a hard one to preach and closes with a commissioning of the congregation. — Jim Doepken)
It was earlier this year that the TV show, M*A*S*H made an appearance in a sermon—April. It’s time again.
This coming February it will have been 30 years—30!—since the airing of the last episode of M*A*S*H, that award-winning show about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 3 miles from the front lines in the Korean war. I know to some of you, the setting doesn’t sound like it was made for a comedy. But it was one…with lots of sadness and profound meaning woven in around the humor. The hijinks, the interesting characters, the witty dialogue, the laughter was all about trying to remain sane in this community who was pulled from home and thrust into an environment with wounded soldiers, bombs, and army red tape. (1)
This was a show our family watched a few times a week when I was growing up. I think it came on about 6:30 pm in New York and we were often done with dinner at that time or, on nights my dad was going to be home late, we would pull out our TV tables and eat while watching this TV community from our own little community, our family. So we were pretty heavily invested in that show and, during some of my formative years, I followed Hawkeye, and BJ Hunnicutt, and Charles, and Hot Lips Houlihan, and Radar, and Colonel Potter, and Klinger…oh, and Father Mulcahy. I appreciated them. I grew up with them.
Well, in February of 1983 the farewell episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired. It was the most watched thing on television to that time and held onto that for about 20 years. I think it was knocked off that place by one of the superbowls. Everyone in that episode gets the awesome news that the war is over and they get to return to their families. They’ll see their loved ones again. They’ll be safe. Doctors and nurses will get to go into real hospitals or into private practice. They get to go back to the real world.
But this good news comes with some bad news. It also means that their current relationships, the friendships they’ve formed, will end. And that’s hard. Of particular interest is BJ Honeycutt who struggles, mightily with leaving his friend, Hawkeye. The two of them have shared so much joy and so much laughter and so much pain and sorrow. They’ve been through a lot together. The TV show went on longer than the war.
Read on to see how this pastor said goodbye
It is 6:23 AM on Sunday morning, December 30th 2012. I can’t sleep. I’ve been up since about 3 with several failed attempts to get back to bed. I can feel my heart beat in my chest. My mind is racing. I’m anxious. I’m tired. I’m slightly nauseous. I’m unsure. I’m trying to take some deep breaths.
Twelve and a half years ago I came to this congregation and this community to be the pastor. My goal was to be the best pastor I could be, to love the people here, to challenge them, and to grow with them. I knew it was going to be a good fit. There was something about the people and the tiny church and the mountains and the town. I have no idea what I preached on that first Sunday in 2000. I don’t know how nervous I was. I can’t remember if I got any sleep the night before. But it was clear early on that this was going to be a “good appointment” — that the Bishop and Superintendent had done a good job in asking if I’d like to come here.
But since that time my mind and my heart are filled with vivid memories. The congregation has grown in size and grown in discipleship and grown into a new building. And, over the years, this place and this congregation have been more “home” to me than anywhere else. I’ve lived in Girdwood, Alaska longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, even my 10 years in New York which shaped me more than any place prior. Girdwood has been formative for our older kids. It’s all our younger kids know. It has become comfortable. I have “belonged” here and I’ve “belonged” to this congregation…this people.
But wait, there’s more!
Saturday was a painful and beautiful day for so many persons in Girdwood. It was the day of the memorial service for a friend, a father, a husband, a coworker who was loved by the community. That evening we had about 350 people crammed into our church…people down the hallway, people just inside the door, people on the floor. There were A LOT of people there. And we remembered our friend. I led this service.
Then we made our way to the Challenge Alaska building where there was a celebration of life, a party, a bonfire, lots of food, a show of community.
While at the celebration I had a number of people approach me and tell me what a good job I did in helping the community deal with this death. And, it wasn’t just a thank you for this particular loss but for all the other times I’ve been there for the community during the various tragedies that have come upon us over these last 12 years.
While I know that clergy love pats on the back for our work (and I’m no exception), I felt awkward in the face of the affirmation. I nodded my head and said that it all worked well and that it was my privilege to serve in this way. It’s nice to hear, but it’s not why I do it. It’s not why I serve.
But it made think. Really, in terms of my ministry in Girdwood, my involvement with the Fire Department and with persons in the face of tragedy has been something I’m most proud of. I think I have done this part of “community pastoring” well. Looking back 20 years I would never have guessed that this aspect of ministry would be among the most rewarding at this time. It’s not fun. But I think it’s been a God-thing, how I entered into pain and tragedy, providing a pastoral presence, re-presenting Christ. It is where I’ve felt most pastoral and has dramatically shaped my understanding of how I see myself as a pastor.
Well, what were other “hits” or “successes?” What were the things I’ve done well that I can “hang my hat on” and know that I “fought the good fight”? Or, perhaps more challenging, what have been my “misses” over 12 years? Where did I fail? Where could I have done better? What do I regret?
Read on to see my two lists!
During worship on Sunday, I said I was thinking about having an “Election Day Communion” today, on Election Day. I had been seeing, off and on, images and stories from the “Election Day Communion” website. Churches were, in the wake of all the division and animosity that our political process brings out in us, choosing to demonstrate another way…a higher loyalty…a different kingdom.
Originally, I thought of holding this communion outside in the cold in a location that would be visible to those on the way to or from the polls. However, I had a big concern about this. Since I believe that many non-Christians lump Christians with the social conservatism of the Republican Party, I feared that a gathering of Christians on the way to the polling place could be viewed as a conservative political statement. This would get in the way of the message altogether.
Therefore, I decided to move it to the chapel…towards the end of the day…but before (I hope) either “side” is declaring victory. I don’t want anyone to perceive Holy Communion as a victory party for anyone but Christ. But wait, there’s more!
It happens all the time. I’m sure on any Sunday as persons are gathered for worship across the globe, including the many churches here in the US, there are medical emergencies that take place. When you have this many persons gathered together for a common cause, week in and week out, it’s bound to happen. Persons trip and fall at home. They have heart attacks at work. They cut themselves in the kitchen. They have diabetic issues at the store. So, it’s going to happen at church.
And it happened at Girdwood Chapel this week.
It started in our early worship service where there were only five people in the building…and that included me and the organist. This is, by definition, our “small” service. The sermon had been preached. Two out of three songs had been sung. We were lifting up our joys and concerns. We were worshiping.
That’s when one of the folks started getting uncomfortable. They thought they needed something to eat and went to the narthex for a couple of cookies. But that didn’t resolve the discomfort. They stood. They sat. And then it started moving into pain, pretty quickly. This was an older adult and we could see the fear that this could be a heart attack. One of those in attendance was a nurse. I called 9-1-1 and, while it didn’t take long for the ambulance to get there, it felt like it was forever. The member was in horrible pain. With so few of us there, we put a stop to worship and rallied around them. By the time the ambulance took off, the person felt much better. Some of the medicine given by the medics had done the trick. And, the very good news is that, while the emergency presented as a possible heart attack, that’s not what it was. The member was back at home the next day. We thank God for that. It’s a relief.
This was not the first time there has been a medical emergency in worship where I’ve been leading.
But wait, there’s more!
Over my time at Girdwood Chapel I’ve participated in communion with the congregation some 1200 times. That’s, more or less, 2 times a week, over 12+ years. That’s a lot of breaking bread together. Way back in 2001, when we engaged in visioning, the congregation made it clear that communion was important to them. It was a sacrament of Christ’s body and blood but it was also a sign and symbol of what it means to be the church…in community, broken for the world. For this congregation, it was almost a pot-luck meal every week. It was a celebration of their community of faith.
And, over the years we’ve had some wonderful communion stories together.
There was the time a five year old boy named Jack B. came up for a 2nd and a 3rd piece of bread during communion, starting the tradition of giving kids large pieces of bread (if they asked nicely)…which would lead me to say, “The world would be a better place if we all knew we needed a big piece of Jesus.”
There was the time long time member Patti H. was leaving the state and she was given a huge piece of bread with the understanding that it was to sustain her until we saw her again.
There was the time two year old Logan W. went up for communion on her own and her mom was just beaming from the back of the sanctuary.
There was the time the whole service revolved around Jesus being “The Bread of Life” and the table was filled with breads of all shapes and sizes and we had fellowship with bread and butter and fruit spreads after worship.
There was the time persons left behind strips of cloth, representing the unbinding of Lazarus in their lives, as they came forward to receive the gift of Christ and the freedom from bondage that he offers.
There was the time one of our long-time members was so emotionally wounded that we gathered around her for communion.
And, while I’m not sure anyone else saw this, there was the time, upon my announcement of my leaving, that a dear friend in the church walked out before communion, aware that, for him, communion was going to be too intimate an event when he was feeling so hurt. It was an awareness of the power of the sacrament.
Well, we have another wonderful communion story.
We are a little over a month away from a presidential election here in the United Stated. In November we’ll know whether President Barack Obama gets four more years or whether Governor Mitt Romney will take over.
And, on the Wednesday morning after the election, there will be Christians who will be happy and those who will be upset. If Romney wins, there will be Christians who will claim that this is affirmation of the Gospel Truth that homosexual practice is wrong and that abortion is evil and that churches, not countries, should take care of the poor and disenfranchised in their midst. On the flip side, if Obama is victorious, there will be Christians who will be pleased because they voted for the one whose policies support the Gospel Truth to care of the poor in our midst, to support the virtue of hospitality to all, and to be willing to put restrictions on top wage earners to try to keep wealth in check.
Both sides could use the Scriptures. Both sides could say they are merely trying to follow in the way of Jesus. Both sides can, and probably will, claim that their side is more in line with the Gospel.
But “The Gospel Truth” can be a slippery thing.
As a United Methodist, I can, at times make the words of John Wesley into some kind of Gospel truth. He’s the closest thing we have to a saint and so his sermons and his General Rules get lifted high. During the ordination process it’s a wise move to understand his perspectives and what makes them “right” for us people called Methodist.
And you will find other “Gospel Truths” out there. And it’s amazing how they can contradict. Each of our denominations is convinced that how they structure themselves or the emphases of their faiths are true…making other beliefs false. There’s a lot of beliefs out there. You have predestination. You have free will. You have believer baptism. You have infant baptism. You have social justice and personal piety. You have the call to have an experience of salvation, to make a decision for Christ, and, for some, to have it in a particular way. There is the “Gospel Truth” that you need to speak in tongues or the truth that, if you aren’t reading from the King James Version of the Bible then you’re not reading the Bible at all. There are Christians who take it as a truth that Rob Bell will burn in hell for questioning hell’s existence in Love Wins and those who are sure that Mark Driscoll will burn for leading parishioners into a misogynistic faith…and those who are sure that I’ll burn for bringing up either one of these guys.
Keep reading for a joke and the big finish!
I just happened to be looking up a phone number for an Animal Hospital without having to get up out of my chair. The search took me to YELP and their reviews. I already knew the vet I needed and the reviews didn’t matter to me, but I thought, “I wonder if there are reviews for Girdwood restaurants or services.” So, I checked.
And I came across the following review of Girdwood Chapel. I was nervous about what it might say, but was clearly thankful for what I found. This is from reviewer “Dave K” from Massachusetts:
The small community church is a gem of this community. The pastor, Jim, and his family are incredible people seeking to engage the community. Whether the church is hosting lower 48 short term trippers, cookie flinging, or hosting worship services, their joy and friendliness is heartwarming.
Perhaps you’ve never met a church or pastor that gets you. Perhaps you’ve been written off or hurt before. I implore you to visit Girdwood Chapel and say hi to Jim after the service. Get to know these people and enjoy the welcoming community that emanates from this location!
WHAT A PLEASANT SURPRISE!
Thanks, “Dave K.” Some of the things you write about are things our church has tried to be about in the community. While we don’t do the things we do for recognition, it’s still nice to see that someone has noticed some of the things we do. You’re welcome to join us anytime.