Sunday, November 27, 2016

Retirement: Pass It On

Retirement: Pass It On

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

November 27, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Deuteronomy 31: 1-8

Acts 1: 1-11

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


My what a trip it has been. I think it has been a good one. I’ve really enjoyed examining each aspect of this series. It all started 8 weeks ago when I pose the question, Is this right? Is there something to this? Am I on to something? I had been feeling and studying these aspects for years now, and slowly they were taking shape inside my mind and through my study, and I felt that I was close enough to share, to study further, and to go into more detail, to see. And I think we did, I think, from my perspective at least this journey has been one that has been filled with fulfillment, and it should have because in many ways it mirrored the pattern. It began with a question, not an answer, in Humility asking, is this right. . . and then this journey has all been about Discernment, and learning our place, trying to listen as best we can, to then the Resolve, at each step to go forward, and though these past two months have been the busiest, most pulled in many directions I have been, we pressed on, we Persevered, and as I said we have found Fulfillment, and I hope that the Legacy we have left in this series, is to study life, to look at where we are, to think about the aspects that we see, to look back on our lives and see these patterns taking shape, to feel comfort in our place in these patterns where we stand today, and have faith in them as we head into the future. Today we leave all of this behind, and that mirrors, again, todays message. . . for today we talk about Retirement, Passing it On, Letting Go, Stepping Away, Moving on to the next thing.

I chose the Old Testament lesson because it represents one of the most famous examples of what I am talking about, the Moses, saying that he will not get to the promised land that he will be passing on his leadership before that final threshold. The New Testament Lesson is similar in that it is where Jesus ascends, leaving his disiples, now the apostles to take over their role in the ministry of what will become the church, the body of Christ left here on Earth, awaiting his return. Here is the opening of the book of Acts, the first 11 verses.

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying[a] with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I think it was close to ten years ago that my mentor asked me to write a song for him. He had been asked to speak at a Presbytery Meeting about Interim Ministry, as the worship portion of the meeting, and he wanted to share his spotlight with me, some. He thought it would be great if I could write a song for him. At that point I had only written a few songs, and most of them were not all that appropriate for church, but had been popular in the old bars I would play in for extra money while I was a fresh young teacher and only a teacher, not a pastor, not a husband, not a father. (You see we are called often to things for a time and then it changes) I was no longer writing bar songs I was now writing church music, and not only that I was writing commissioned church music. He wanted me to capture something about the idea of passing on. As an interim minister me was called to serve a specific role in the life of the church, it was one he took very seriously, and it was one he thought was crucial for churches in those in between times, because in those in between times he found that his job was to help the church learn to function on their own, so that they could have a healthy balance when they called their pastor. . . and he also thought it was important to walk away from the church right at that moment when they were most ready. . . so you’ve done the hard work, and you leave the honeymoon and the smooth sailing to someone else. . . hopefully. . . at least in theory. . . I thought, ok, I get it, I think I know what you want me to write about. . . and then he said, yeah, think of Moses. . . you can see the promised land, but you don’t get to cross over into it, that is the job of someone else, often a nameless faceless stranger known to you in title only as your successor.

I thought ok, I think I’ve got it. That song he asked me to write was my anthem this morning, the song “Passing On.”

Here I stand atop the mountain.

The future lies in the Promised Land,

But I, myself, won’t reach that fountain.

I have to place control into another’s hand.

That’s it right that is the test, you stand atop the mountains, you have climbed it, and the future lies in the Promised land, you’ve done the climbing all the hard work of the mountain, but you don’t get to reach the fountain, where the water is cold and crisp and refreshing, the Promised land where there is nothing but Milk and Honey, it flows there, and everyone may forget the miracles you performed during your time, during your walk with God, there is a fountain now, but once the only way to get water was to miracle it out of a rock. . . now God is going to perform those miracles through another’s hand. It is such an amazing image. . . Moses there old, having led his people out of Egypt, through the desert, given them laws, a way of life, an identity and a history, will not be there to give them the land. The image is so amazing. . . I cannot help but think of this image another time in history. . . in the speech given just before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. used this same imagery. I’ve always loved it because of how truly impressive and prophetic and prescient it is, but also because he gave it on my birthday. . . Let me read the ending of that speech now:

You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" And I was looking down writing, and I said, "Yes." And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, your drowned in your own blood -- that's the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said simply,

"Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School."

And she said,

"While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."

And I want to say tonight -- I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed -- If I had sneezed I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.

And they were telling me --. Now, it doesn't matter, now. It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Yes, of course he didn’t pass on because of his own choice, but you can see the humility in his willingness to die if he must. . . you see that is the picture of it all not being about you, but about God, about your call, about your mission. . .

Back to the song, I’ll get to the chorus, that refrain last. . .

I have led from the changing moment,

Not as myself but by the father’s will.

I pass along just before fulfillment,

T’ those next ordained to walk the path I’s blessed to fill.

There it is, I have led from the changing moment. . . I have been the leader, I have been the one doing it, the hard work, the struggle, taking the risk of leadership, but often with that risk and commitment comes a great pitfall. . . that it is about you. This is the great issue that is shown in the classic Greek Tragedy Oedipus Rex. You see Oedipus is the king, but he loses his way, it becomes all about him, he earns himself a Messiah complex, he must be the one to save the city. . . along the way he because so very foolish, at one point saying:

When the dark singer, the sphinx, was in your country, did you speak word of deliverance to its citizens? And yet the riddle’s answer was not the province of a chance comer. It was a prophet’s task and plainly you had no such gift of prophecy from birds nor otherwise from any God to glean a word of knowledge. But I came, Oedipus, who knew nothing, and I stopped her. I solved the riddle by my own wit alone. Where were you, where were the gods?

And that is one of many. . . he is the one who solved the riddle of the sphinx to save the city once, therefore he is sure that he is the one called to save the city again, little does he know he is the problem, he can’t face it, can’t see it, like Fezzini in The Princess Bride, it is all Inconceivable to him. . . but the words of the song echo the words of the Lords Prayer, Thy will be done, it says “Not as myself but as my father’s will.” Our leadership is not about us ever, but instead about the one who sends us, the one who calls us, the one who made us in the first place. . . an important thing to keep in perspective, especially if you are being called to pass it on. You now pass it on to the next person chosen and called, and you see it as a blessing, “bless to walk the path I’s blessed to fill.”

The third verse, what we leave behind.

Though I leave many friends behind me,

My own path takes another road.

I mustn’t let my fear to bind me

Because with God beside me I can’t be alone.

One of the great story types with Genies or Leprecauns, any magical creature that offeres wishes. . . one of the great types is the holding on to the 3rd wish. Often there is a promise made to the creature that the third wish will be made to set them free from their eternal task of service. You may remember it in Aladdin, the Disney version, where the genie wants to be set free, and Aladdin promises to use the third wish to free him, but circumstances change when he has only one left. . . and the promise falls by the wayside, as it had with every other master the genie had ever had. . . You promise to pass on, but then when it comes time to do it, it’s hard. Another great version is Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel is his magical spirit he has been using on the island, but he promises to set Ariel free after just one more usage. . . it almost seems as if there is always, or at least has been before, this one more usage. . .

Be free, and fare thou well! Please you, draw near.

Prospero. Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Often with the understanding of passing on, there is great loss, not just of control, but of purpose of doing. This is where it may be important to say again that retirement here does not mean an end to all work, but only of this one calling. . . there is always more and more to do. . . but with the sense of change, you do leave behind friends sometimes, and you leave behind the friends of your accomplishments, because often they are living things, hard to leave behind. . . but again, like so many parts of this, there is faith, faith that just because there is change, just because there is loss, doesn’t mean that God has left you, never, never, don’t let the fear bind, but the faith to offer the reassurance.

Here is my favorite of the verses, the final one:

I must leave, let others steer now.

Not my will but thine be done.

I must let go with faith not fear now.

I know their steps’ll be led as mine were led now on.

Here is the great test. . . to let go with faith instead of fear, knowing that another person’s steps will be led as yours were led. . . It is hard enough to have faith in God to work in your own life, but to believe that God is working in someone else that is a true test, and it goes completely against the way of the world. The world  says grab control and don’t ever let it go. Let them pry the reins of power from your cold dead hands. . .  but it takes great faith to turn it over to someone else. And that is the mark of the refrain. Listen to the words of that chorus:

Passing on is never easy.

Passing on is hard to do

‘Cuz passing on takes so much more faith,

Allowing God to work in those who come after you.

It isn’t easy, it is one of the hardest things to do in life. . . to allow God to work in other people, those who come after you, those who are different from you, those who will do it differently than you did, and yet they are called and are serving in their own way. . . . so hard, but yet so important. It is also so rare, and since it is so rare, when we see it we marvel. There is no greater example than our very own George Washington, stepping aside when he had control, stepping aside at the height of his popularity and fame. Stepping aside at the perfect time to leave behind a legacy and a tradition of doing just that, stepping aside. . . something we take for granted in our history. . . that our presidents, and all our elected officials follow in his footsteps and step aside, in the play Hamilton there is a song, “One Last Time” that captures his farewell address, leaving behind that legacy, the repeated refrain is, “Gonna teach them how to say goodbye, say goodby” so important, ours is a system built on faith, even when that faith is difficult. . . we read last week from Ecclesiastes about how hard it is to give all that you have worked for to another, especially when that other person is a fool. It is hard. He won’t do it like me, he’ll ruin all I’ve ever worked for, He is different from me. . . but we are called to let go when the time is right. . . to let go. . . to pass it on.

We have had to give up many things here at this church over the past 5 years. . . the choir, Presbyterian women. . . friends called to other places, other churches, those who have passed on mortally. . . all of them are difficult, but here we are, humbly waiting for the next thing. What is the next thing going to be? Where are we being called as a church together? In the short term we are being called to Advent and to Christmas. . .  with all of the joy and new birth of a new year. What will that year have in store? What direction will this church head? These are the questions we look to, and we do so humbly. . . because though this year, 2016 passes on, 2017 comes rolling in. . . today marks the end of this series of sermons, but it also is the New Years day in the church Calendar. . . Today is Advent. . . and Advent means coming. . . in humility let us go and await the king. Amen.