by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 1:26-56
final sermon for Open Table United Church of Christ
On my last occasion to preach for you, the lectionary prompts me to expound on the theme of love. How fitting it’s the candle of love we light on this day as love for you wells up in me, though I’m afraid before the hour ends my tears will be coursing down my face like the wax on burning advent candles. The lectionary has doubly blessed me by also assigning on this Sunday a Gospel text that features not one but two women, two women who did what only women can do: give birth. You and I have the privilege today of honoring Elizabeth and her younger relative Mary, who were not merely passive and silent vessels for the Divine; they were courageous and eloquent women who participated with the Divine by enunciating the unfathomable and by courageously delivering and then mothering John the Baptizer and his kinsman, Jesus of Nazareth. This week I’ve labored lovingly with today’s theme and am eager to deliver it now.
Twice I’ve given birth: thirty-six years ago to a daughter who was (so it seems now) exactly who I’d dreamed she’d be, yet like nothing I could have imagined. And almost twelve years ago I birthed a church that was (so it seems now) exactly what I dreamed it could be and yet nothing that I could have imagined.
I say I “birthed” a church, even though many pastors who start churches speak of themselves as church planters. Their metaphor suggests they planted a seed into the soil of a community where that seed developed into a church which, in turn, then provides nourishment for others. But to speak of the farmer putting his seed into fertile soil is to employ a male metaphor, right? The female corollary that more aptly captures my experience starting a new church is this: the dream of you was planted in me, in my heart and brain, and Open Table grew within me before I ever met you. That maternal metaphor reminds me of the mothers of John and Jesus.
Of course, I attended workshops and read books and picked the brains of other pastors who had planted churches. I studied Mobile’s demographics and consulted with denominational leaders and received coaching from the United Church of Christ and joined several peer support groups of church starters. I also met some of you for lunches to share my vision of church and invite you individually into the early process of founding a new church in Mobile.
But I loved you long before I looked into your eyes while offering you the bread of life at our open communion table. I loved you before I rushed to your hospital bed or baptized your child or officiated your wedding or mourned a deep loss with you or laughed together at something maybe slightly sacrilegious. How much deeper I love you now after these years of challenge and change.
However, I was not the church planter. Love for you and the merest shadowy idea of you was planted IN me, not by me. As Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” Friends, so much is unknown and unutterable–about how folks like us become church for one another, how we image God, how we channel God’s love to one another. Especially now in these dark days, the future is more shrouded than ever. But the light of love which sprang up among us shines between us, through us, at times in spite of us. And that love made and makes us a church.
I love the love poem Jess wrote for us today because she named little acts of love and reminded us that we can choose to love. You chose to respond to a love circulating between us and among us.
Of course, mothers know that there comes a time when they must turn loose of the children they have birthed. Just before Georgia headed off to college in another state, all I could think about was: “What haven’t we talked about yet?” Friends, there are a zillion things you and I haven’t talked about: whole books of the Bible I’ve never preached from, whole theological topics I’ve never even named.
But believe it or not, Georgia, now thirty-six, has been adulting just fine for many years without my help. She even bakes my grandmother’s buttermilk biscuits better than I do. What happened in her first seventeen years (which included lots of imperfect parenting from me) was sufficient. I am trusting that what we’ve had these last twelve years has been enough for you to go from an idea inside my head and heart, to a new church start, to a church in full standing, to a church confident in her identity and clearly capable of attracting a highly competent new pastor. What we have done together has been enough and more.
What we, you and I, have shared is enough. And more. And now you are ready for a different kind of pastor who will reinforce the foundation already laid here but also build upon that foundation.
Mary’s story is about a woman and a people stepping out on faith into uncharted territory. On the precipice of the unknown, Mary steps forward into her future by recalling God’s goodness in the past: “My soul glorifies God,” she sings.
Take a moment to recall where we have together seen God at work in the world and have joined in that work. This is who you are. And will continue to be.
Now latch onto the adjective in our church’s name. “Open” has primarily meant for you a commitment to include others at Christ’s table, in our faith community, and through fair accesses to our society’s opportunities. Yes. But the word “open” right now also needs to apply to your stance toward your future, which includes your next pastor. Be open to this particular person and this next phase of your journey. Open Table, be open to him, his new ways, his fresh perspective, perhaps his different mannerisms and gifts. Because love opens us to the Other. Love is not pinched and locked up and ungenerous. Love doesn’t say, “Prove yourself.” It says, “I’m expecting the best and here I am to give and receive in this relationship.”
I have never regretted that our daughter left home and learned from others and developed into a fuller human being who joined her life with a husband and they together opened their hearts to a daughter. I have never regretted that Georgia, a lawyer but specifically a public defender, gave her heart to “the least of these”—that is, to Nashvillians accused of crimes.
I will never regret that I have loved you deeply, even though I will grieve the absence of you in my life. But this letting go is part of the comings and goings in this life. Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for every season. For me, there was a time for planting, and there is now a time for leaving the church we planted, the church that began as an idea planted in me.
I will leave you next Sunday with profound sadness but mainly with a heart bursting with gratitude for our time together. How good you have been to me. How tenderly you have loved me. How bravely you have stood for the right. How adventurous you have been to explore progressive theology. See, Open Table, how “open” you have been to the new?
You are now ready to embrace another kind of newness. And, to be specific about this moment in our relationship, you are capable of letting go. But more generally, as one of Open Table’s best spiritual guides, Richard Rohr, advised in his daily meditation on Friday: “Letting go helps us fall into a deeper and broader level [of reality] . . . that is already available to us.” To let go of the familiar in order to embrace the new is to let go of the illusion that life can stay the same. Sameness is death . . . to an organism, to a church.
You’ll also need to forgive me. Because on the days when you are embracing the new, it may at times feel good to dwell on the many things I did NOT do well. When you do so, I hope you will be able to forgive me — for your sake — so you can move forward. As Rohr said, “Forgiveness is just the religious word for letting go.” Move forward in the healing strength that love alone provides.
I pray that love is the foundation we’ve laid together. I hope I’ve been clear about my progressive Christian theology, but it’s not a specific doctrine or polity or liturgy or theology that will sustain you. It’s love. Which I underscore now with a song by William Flanders titled “A Skeptic’s Hymn”:
This, my song, a skeptic’s hymn,
ode to mystery within,
Sung to you no one can prove,
dwelling there, as real as love.
Of your forms portrayed without,
all evoke a lingering doubt.
Your own presence you bestow.
From experience, I know.
Blind belief and full assent
by maturity are rent.
Questions follow, questions asked,
taunt the present, as the past.
Challenge all authority,
scripture, doctrine, history,
Leaving what my heart has known,
what experience has shown.
Nothing more this heart can move
than to know that I do love,
And, as crucial, to believe
I myself can love receive.
Be this but a moment’s grasp,
such conviction long will last,
Firmer than mere faith or guess.
This experience will test.
You, the source of love, I name,
working through my heart and brain.
Be this true for everyone?
Has been so, since life’s begun?
Let religions rise and wane,
love’s compassion must remain.
This is what a seeker learns.
This experience affirms.
What remains are faith, hope, and love, said the Apostle Paul. But the greatest is love.
My only regret right now is that our goodbye has to be virtual. No hugs?!! Even though I see our 4-year-old granddaughter several times a week, we visit together outdoors and masked and from a distance. No hugs from that sweet child. I’ll bet you are similarly hug-deprived. Would you do something for me and for us? It’s a hug that Molly taught us and that we can do virtually: Offer an elbow bump, give yourself a hug while beaming a smile at one another, and then throw a kiss. May we do that now? Me to you? You to me and one another?
Thank you, Open Table, for all the ways you’ve loved me and one another and the God we serve.
Closing prayer: Source of Love, may your ways hold sway. Amen