Fifth Sunday in Easter 2009

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 10, 2009 (5 Easter, Year B)

It’s like “putting the cart before the horse.” I’ve actually never tried this, mostly because I have neither a horse nor a cart. But you know the expression – to put the cart before the horse is to reverse the proper order of things. And at first glance that’s precisely what’s going on with our gospel reading this morning. It’s a bit odd that we hear parts of what’s known as Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” after Easter. Because that ship has sailed, Jesus has already left; he’s been crucified and resurrected and now he’s going to say goodbye? It’s like abruptly leaving a dinner party and then phoning the host from your car to say goodbye. If we were going chronologically we would have heard this passage before Good Friday and the crucifixion, before Easter and the resurrection. But this is out of order; we are putting the cart before the horse. 

But I think it works because life itself is really a series of goodbyes. We begin with a most dramatic one – leaving the womb. And in dying we end with that final goodbye. And in between we experience all sorts of goodbyes: going to sleep away camp or moving out of our parents’ house or leaving relationships or changing jobs; seeing friends move away or bidding farewell to loved ones at the graveside. 

And the most difficult of these goodbyes, the ones that are particularly difficult or painful are never neat and tidy. Where we’ve been spills over into where we’re going. The cart and the horse don’t know which one is coming or which one is going. Yet Jesus shows us how to say goodbye with grace and love; which is important because we’re not always so good at it. Let’s face it, goodbyes are difficult. There’s a reason why many of us don’t like “long goodbyes” – they’re painful; they’re emotional; they leave us vulnerable. And so we talk about “making a clean break.” But when there has been much shared history and commitment there’s no such thing as a clean break. And to pretend there is, is an act of denial on our part. 

Jesus understood this and so he shows us how to say a healthy goodbye. For four full chapters in John’s gospel Jesus bids farewell to the disciples (speaking of long goodbyes). He prepares them for his impending death, offers them comfort, and assures them that he will be with them even to the end of the age. What he doesn’t do is pretend he’s not leaving or ignore the disciples’ profound fear and anxiety. He names these emotions, reiterates his love for them, and reminds the disciples that the relationship is not ending but being transformed. 

We’ll hear even more of this Farewell Discourse over the next two weeks. But in today’s passage, Jesus reminds the disciples that he will not leave them orphaned. And that is the great source of comfort, not just for those original followers of Jesus, but for all Christians. 

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he tells the disciples, and us. And it’s a very intentional metaphor. It speaks of the intimate, familial love Jesus has for us. The same Jesus who refers to his followers as “little children” tells us that he will not leave us, his children, orphaned. The nature of the relationship will change; there will be a painful goodbye to the earthly Jesus. But something even greater will occur – for we can’t have the glory of the resurrection without the agony of the crucifixion. No, Jesus does not leave us orphaned. And it is only this continuing and abiding presence of Jesus that makes the myriad goodbyes in our lives bearable. 

And so we come to having to say “goodbye” to Dorothée Caulfield. Dorothée has been a part of this place for many years – nearly a decade; her personal relationships with many of you extend even beyond her connection to All Saints’; she has lived in Briarcliff and Ossining throughout her adult life; she and Rick raised her three boys in this community; Cole, Max, and Sean were all confirmed here; it was here that she first received her call to ordained ministry and it was out of All Saints’ that she was sponsored for ordination to the diaconate; in our midst she has rejoiced with those who rejoice and wept with those who weep.

And as she follows God’s call in her life to serve as deacon at Christ’s Church in Rye, we must now bid her farewell and give thanks for her presence in our lives and for her ministry among us these past three years. Actually we were lucky to even have the opportunity to share Dorothee’s ministry as regional deacon for the Landmark Churches. It’s rare that anyone ordained out of a particular parish is allowed by the bishop to serve in that parish in any capacity. So we have been specially blessed to watch first-hand as Dorothée has lived into her diaconal ministry and then to receive some of the fruits of that ministry. 

But still, saying goodbye is hard. And while we will still see Dorothée around town – at Starbucks, at Stop ‘n Shop – she will no longer be our deacon. And so the relationship is changed. Dorothee’s role in the community has changed. But we too are changed for having known her as both parishioner and deacon. And that’s the underlying truth about saying goodbyes: we are transformed by the experience of having been in relationship with those to whom we bid farewell.

It’s been said that the way we learn to say goodbye in this life is how we ultimately prepare for the final goodbye of dying. Learning to say goodbye in a healthy, mutually affirming way often translates into a peaceful final goodbye. And make no mistake: goodbyes are filled with grief. The familiar, established relationship does indeed die. Grief isn’t always a bad thing, of course, but it’s a natural part of saying goodbye. To deny the inherent grief in a goodbye is to carry the pain with us rather than letting it go so that we can move on. But move on we must after a goodbye – Jesus tells Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb “Do not hold onto me.” That doesn’t mean they are no longer in relationship with one another but the relationship has indelibly changed. Jesus is no longer the earthly companion but is now the resurrected Christ. The goodbye is necessary for transformation.

And so in his farewell to the disciples, Jesus models for us how to say a proper and healthy goodbye. They’re never easy. But done with grace and love they offer the opportunity to lay the emotional groundwork to move forward in life-giving, emotionally satisfying, and transforming ways. Thanks be to Jesus Christ who says goodbye but never leaves us orphaned.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

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