Asbury First United
Text: John 17
You are right to argue that the Bible is not only a series of farewells. In the Bible there are many and other forms found. There are epic tales of heroism in the Bible, like those of Samson and David. There are engaging stories of cunning and cleverness, like those of Esther and Daniel. There are sermons, lectures, prayers, hymns, poems, polemics, parables, genealogies, and even the occasional note of humour (“no graves in the land of Egypt that you brought us out here to die”?), all arranged with careless abandon in the glory hole of Glory, Genesis to Revelation. Your interest, and you have a point, is to make sure that the preacher in making a clear point does not obscure all the other points that might be made. You want the preacher to avoid letting the sideshow eat up the circus. Ah, you have become such careful listeners. Like Gretzsky, you skate to where the puck will be. So, no, one must admit, yes, it must be said, the Bible is not only, merely a series of valedictions, benedictions, farewells. There are more than final words here. There are traveling instructions, family tales, declarations of love, and the occasional inscrutable wisdom saying.
But consider this Ms. Gretsky. Mark this Wayne. We remember the last words best. Every spring we hear our senior youth intone their valedictions. We remember what they say. Martin Luther King, we remember, last said, “I have been to the mountain top and seen the promised land”. Douglas MacArthur told the houses of congress, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. It is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, “with malice toward none”, his last will and testament which we recall. Or Nathan Hale, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”. At church camp, and at great revivals both, in Methodism it is Wesley’s dying sentence that is preached: “The best of all is God is with us.” Amadeus Mozart, at the end, with Solieri taking down his every whispered note—who could forget it? Why, after thousands of pages, and a lifetime of writing, does Aquinas’ last self-deprecation remain: “all my work, before Grace, is so much straw”? I can still hear Joan of Arc, and her powerful feminine cry for truth. Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. Eli, Eli, lama sabach thani. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. It is finished. We remember the last words best.
It is the gracious humanity of the Holy Scripture, its divine grace that is, which of course makes space for valedictory words. So, while your point is taken, there is this response as well. The Bible is full of farewells. Listen again to Jacob, that dear old man, as he bids farewell to a host of progeny, ill fed, unlead, widely spread, nearly dead. Then listen to his favorite son—such a burden to be the favorite son—Joseph, as he bids farewell, as he says, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”. Is it an accident that King, the last night of his life, quoted Moses, on the last night of Moses’ life? The words, the valediction from Mt. Nebo? Look out on the land of milk and honey, says Moses. Moses, the man of stone and commandment and prophecy and courage, who too bids adieu. What about blind Samuel, dear old man, warning against kings and those who want kings, that dear old man as he says goodbye? Are not the books of the prophets, all, at the last, a last will and testament, and a collection of how they would have their words remembered? Hosea—God loves. Amos—God makes just. Jeremiah—God reigns. Micah—God sees. It is as if, before these great people of faith must finally leave the world stage, they want with Hamlet to name their demons, their hurts, their truth, and their faith, especially their faith.
In this vein, Jesus concludes his epic farewell discourse. Five terrific and dense chapters of evening speech are concluded with a single word. He closes with consecration. “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth…that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” The last private word, remembered for some generations now by this community, is this prayer of consecration. ‘I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth’.
You are alive, living, on this earth, breathing—and that only for the briefest of galactic moments—in order to be consecrated. We consecrate Bishops. But for John, every one of you has become a Bishop, consecrated, so this chair behind is for all. You are set apart to be holy. You are made into truth. You are to be devoted, entirely. You are to be dedicated. You are to make the ground holy. And what sentence leaps to mind? But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. You are alive to find what you can die for. There is no aspect of this farewell that makes out an interest in your becoming religious, let us note. Loving, yes. Truthful, yes. Able to do and live truth, though others howl and shriek, moan and decry. God pleasing not man pleasing. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all of falsehood against you falsely. Rejoice and be glad. So they treated the prophets before. At the last, Jesus offers himself. In truth, which is spirit. Or in spirit, which is truth. He offers us himself. Here I am. Love me.
And so, adieu. His love is most sharply heard and seen in his departure. You will need again to choose this week, whether you are His. He has chosen you. And now, the ball is in your court. But you say, how may I know him? I see him not. I hear him not. I feel him not. How may I know him?
Take His hand. Intertwine your five fingers with His, and we shall walk, consecrated. Hold, hold fast.
One for Scripture. I saw you this week. Studying the Bible. Learning its history. I heard you. Your music taught our children the faith of Esther. Consecration.
One for Sacrament. I saw you this week. In this chancel, receiving the bread and cup. You cried. Why would you not? Your music, hymns sung, taught the faith of John Wesley. I saw you in the nave, this week, to bid farewell to a young woman, and to trust the God of Resurrection in the face of death. You cried. How could you not? Your music, organ soaring, taught the faith of Charles Wesley. Consecration.
One for Prayer. I saw you this week. Steeling yourself, curbing your tongue. Someone did something that profoundly disappointed you. But you prayed, and you found grace. You prayed at meals—you shared meals—and prayed. You sang in church. Your twice prayer taught others the faith of John. Consecration.
One for sacrifice. I saw you this week. Once walking to a meeting. Once in a meeting. Once folding clothes, unheralded. Once on the phone. Once hovering over the checkbook. You hummed the hymns of the Sunday before. Your murmuring taught others the faith of Asbury. Consecration.
One, at last, for conversation. I saw you this week. Are we not in conversation? You listened, not only for what was said, but for the underside of what was more deeply and darkly meant. You gathered many from many places for a weekend of sacred space, consecrated life. Your trumpets, bells, voices, instruments, all—taught others the faith of Jesus. Consecration.
You may take Jesus’ hand, and be consecrated. With the music of Scripture, the music of Sacrament, the music of Prayer, the music of Service, the music of Conversation. Consecration.
Once we walked in the snow. Snow is far better for the soul than all this spring beauty, sunny April, warm and happy Eastertide. We slipped and skidded up the drift. Our son reached up and said, “Mom, let me take your hand”. Believe me, in love, should you decide to consecrate your way, there is a Loving hand reaching toward you, to intertwine five fingers with your own. Take Hold.
All of us are better when we’re loved.