To My Family I Call First Church

December 29, 2019

My last sermon at First United Methodist Church Tuscaloosa, as Emily and I say goodbye to Tuscaloosa and head to New Jersey to plant a church in 2020.

If you’ve been around this place at all in the last four years, you know it’s only fitting I begin this morning with words penned by Frederick Buechner. Words that, for me, give voice to that thing deep down in my very being – to express the love I have for you this morning.

 

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” - Frederick Buechner

 

Being a pastor is sort of this extraordinary thing.

 

For one, y’all get to know me really well. I have the privilege of being up here almost every week and I’m tasked with having to say something about God and grace. About how big theological ideas and words collide with football games, work, marriage, heartbreak, pain - you know, the stuff of everyday life. The stuff that makes up our waking hours.

 

And in the midst of all that weaving of grace and life, I’ve shared my own life with you. I’ve told of times when I’ve seen grace in my own life, and times when I’ve failed so miserably I worried that grace would never come. I’ve told you about the struggle of my mom and step-dad’s divorce, the wrestling with God in college to where I no longer felt I had to earn God’s love, finally able to accept the Father’s embrace. I’ve told of times when I left my child in the car (not for long), or I saw a sunrise that took my breath away. A road trip gone wrong. A marriage worth fighting for.

 

And in all of this, in all of this sharing of what is my life, my hope, my prayer is that you would see your life. That you would see your life, that you would listen to your life - and see it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: that you would touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it...because life itself is grace. 

 

Craig Barnes, he’s the President of Princeton Theological Seminary, former pastor, and he’s an author. He says this:

 

"Nobody really wants a perfect pastor. Those who sit in the pews may try to turn the pulpit into a pedestal, but that is only a projection of their own flawed aspirations to rise above their creaturely limitations...what parishioners really want is a pastor who knows what it means to struggle against temptation and despair, like they do...They want to see the Gospel incarnated in a human life that is still far from complete but has become more interesting because the human drama is now sacred. In other words, they want a pastor who knows what it means to be them, but them in communion with God."

 

Now I don’t claim to have been in communion with God every single day in these last years - following Jesus is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard. But my prayer, my hope is that in somehow sharing my life with you, you would be encouraged, strengthened, empowered, to live your days open to the grace God wants to shower on you. And friends, the Father wants to pour out his grace on you, and on your days.

 

Bottom line – whether you like it or not – Y’all got to know me really well.

But I got to know you too. You shared your life with me. Now it wasn’t a given. Not by a long shot. You didn’t have to share your life with me. You could have hidden in church, you could have fit in with the crowd. But that hasn’t been my experience here. You gave me a gift. You shared your life with me.

 

So many of you have opened your homes, your family, your time, your wallets, your hands, your hearts, your lives to us. We ate together. We cried together. We prayed. And we played. We walked though some time issues. We’re still walking through some tough issues.

 

You shared with me the joy of being present at the birth of your children (not literally at the birth – but you know what I mean). You shared with me the thrill of marriages, baptisms, and affirming of your faith. The enjoyment of Christmas parties and summer barbecue. The delight that comes from doing life together.

 

Of course, you also opened up your lives to the pain and struggle. I don’t take it lightly. The courage, the strength, the bravery of coming into my office in tears, explaining that life isn’t what you thought it would be. Some of us, we’ve walked through the agony of divorce, the torture of my soul mate saying, “I don’t love you anymore.” Others of us, the sorrow of losing a child, always too soon.

 

You’ve invited me to the bedside of your dying loved ones. You know, the only time I’ve cried since my grandparents died, maybe 10 years ago now – I try, but I’m not a crier – the only time I’ve cried, and it was an “ugly cry”, when Dan Kilgore died. When Dan died. I miss Dan.

 

You’ve invited me to the bedside of your dying loved ones. Hospitals. Hospice. Funerals. Gravesides.

 

You’ve opened your lives to me during your most difficult days. Thank you. Thank you for the gift you’ve given me. I watched so many of you find in the midst of your life - grace. Grace! Of course, grace in the joys and happiness of life, but you’ve found grace in the brokenness too.

 

I’ve shared my life with you. And you’ve shared your life with me. And our worlds have collided in such a way that it isn’t just that we, Emily and I, have simply lived in this world – this little world we call sweet tea, barbecue, Roll Tide – this little plot of land in West Alabama that we call Tuscaloosa.

 

It isn’t simply that we’ve lived in this world...but this world now lives in us. You live in us.

 

"I thank my God in all my remembrance of you," the Apostle Paul says, "always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy."

 

When I pray, when I have prayed, when I will pray…friends it will be with great joy. We will always remember you.

“Because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now”, Paul goes on.

 

He’s writing, of course, to a group of Christ followers that labored with him in the Gospel. Who have, through word and deed, built the kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

And friends, just like those Christ followers some 20 centuries ago, you and I have partnered together to spread the Gospel. We’ve been doing it, here in this place, for over 200 years. In my short time here, ever since Ken took a chance on young yankee just graduated seminary, you and I, we’ve celebrated those 200 years of ministry in Tuscaloosa.

 

We walked in parades and worshipped in taverns.

We explored 53 of the best stories in the Bible and helped over 200 families find financial peace through FPU.

We did missions in Puerto Rico, Chile, Kenya, and Honduras.

We served the homeless and fed the hungry.

We celebrated the past while at the same time embracing our future ministry.

 

And let me tell you how excited I am about First Church’s future with Clinton leading us. I assure you that you can follow him because I promise you – I’ve seen it again and again –he’s following Jesus!

 

And on that note – let me thank my staff. My team. My co-laborers in Christ.

 

Thank you, Clinton, for your leadership

Ali – your perspective

Amy – your partnership

Becky – your genuineness

Charlee Rodgers– your dependability

Charles – your love

Charlie Bolden– your laugh

Chris – your bravery

Crystal – your kindness

Earnestine – your smile

Gina – your thoughtfulness

Glenn Sharp – your dedication

Glenn Long – your friendship

Hannah – your creativity

Jackie – your strength

Janice – your resourcefulness

John – your imagination

Josh – your devotion

Linda – your muscle

Melissa – your passion

Michael – your courage

Mitchell – your talent

Nicole – your authenticity

Nini – your enthusiasm 

Randy – your prayers

Sandy – your care

Savannah – your faith

Shannon – your heart

Stephen – your spirit        

Susan – your humor

Terrell – your character

 

"I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…. because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now."

Paul concludes: "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."

 

Several years ago I reminded us, “God didn’t bring us this far to only bring us this far.”

 

First Church has a bright future ahead and I am excited to see what God does through you and your ministry. What I love about our church is that we know the church’s work isn’t dependent on one person. Not me, not you. It takes all of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community, church and world.

 

Emily and I have confidence that you will continue to build the kingdom here and now in this place. In this place we so dearly love.

 

So, we’re not finished yet.

I’m not finished.

You’re not finished.

There is still work to be done.

There is still much work to be done as we build the kingdom here in this place, in that place, in places all over the world.

 

Friends - 

We don’t know what the next days will bring

But one thing we do know

And I am sure of it

 

That he who began a good work in you
He who knit you in your mother’s womb

He who called your name

Who whispered come home my child

Who saved you

Who redeemed you

Who sanctified you

Who calls you to witness to him

He who will glorify you

He who is worthy of worship

 

He who began a good work in you

He will bring it to completion

He’ll work it all out for good

He’s got it covered

He’s got our back

 

So, let’s get to work.

Let’s get to the work of our Father’s business.

In 2020, let’s make it a year of kingdom building.

Let’s push back the gates of hell.

Make a difference with your life in 2020.

Imagine what Jesus could do with us in this next year...

This isn’t goodbye. This is see you later.

 

This is I’ll be back September 19th for the Georgia-Alabama game and I need some tickets…and maybe for the Iron Bowl too.

 

This is we are all children of the same loving Father, but each with their own task – their own calling.

 

And our callings brought us together for a time and now send us away.

 

But hey – God’s called each one of us. God has called you…so make a difference in whatever world you find yourself in. Whatever plot of land your feet fall on.

 

We’re not finished.

We’re just getting started.

So, let’s get to work.

 

And until we meet again…

may God bless you,

and keep you,

may he smile on you,

and be gracious to you.

And may he give you strength,

and courage,

and peace.

 

Roll Tide,

Jesse

 

 

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