Speaking on this occasion is beyond me.
Thankfully, this is just one of three sermons for your closing
– Fr. Joe last week; me today; Fr. Rick next week.
Out of our three perspectives, you may glean some material
to use in crafting your own perspective
– which, after all, is the only one that matters.
Most of you probably remember Joni Mitchell’s song, “The Circle Game.”
It’s about an innocent child catching dragon flies.
He becomes a pre-teen when “promises of someday make his dreams,”
then a teenager, then a young adult
– and that’s as far a Joni was able to tell the story
because she was only 25 at the time she wrote it.
There’s a poignant sadness in those lyrics
as the passing of each stage is a loss.
The chorus insists four times,
“We can’t return. We can only look behind
From where we came.”//
There’s regret in that.
I want to return, to go back.
Surely you must want to go back too.
We miss our past, our youth, the good times
– even when they were not entirely good
– but good or bad, they were our times.
The children of Israel even wanted to go back to Egypt.
Knowing “we can’t return; we can only look behind
from where we came” – that’s a grief.
There’s also hope in the lyrics.
After acknowledging that the boy’s
“dreams have lost some grandeur coming true,”
she adds this promise,
“there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty.”
That is also true.
As Christians we live by that hope.
We have heard God’s promise in the words of Jeremiah,
“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your good and not evil.”
We know that God brings life out of death,
and hope out of despair.
We know that.
But we also want to go back.
We love the place we have been.
It does no good to deny it.
We are losing something precious.
I have known St. Stephen’s for only three years.
But I mourn this passing.
People all over this diocese from Ely to Tahoe
and down in Las Vegas are saddened.
I can only imagine what it must be like for you
who have lived in this family, who have loved this family,
and who have devoted so much of yourselves
to sustaining it all these years.
So I acknowledge your grief.
It is not only right; it is inevitable, that you should grieve.
I cannot and would not try to deny your grief or to foreshorten it.
Grief has its own integrity which must be honored.
Brothers and sisters, I won’t tell you how to feel.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel.
You must feel what you feel.
This is your church and your life.
But there must be more than feeling.
Great change calls for reflection.
It calls for finding the meaning in things.
In this case, it is necessary to find two thing kinds of meaning:
First, you must discern the value of St. Stephen’s life.
Second, you must discern the St. Stephen’s legacy.
First let’s reflect upon St. Stephen’s life.
What has transpired here matters. It counts.
You must tell this story in a way that has a point.
I have sometimes heard your story told
in a way that focused on your traumas.
Every life has traumas and they are part of your story.
How you dealt with them then and deal with them now
is part of the meaning.
I have sometimes heard your story told
with a focus on mistakes that were made.
Every life has mistakes.
What we learn from our mistakes
is part of the meaning.
But, wiht my own eyes, I have seen you rejoice.
I have seen you worship.
I have seen you pray.
I have seen you serve the outcast in Jesus’ name.
You have borne the Christ light for each other
and for people outside these walls.
God has been here.
I feel in your presence, I feel at this altar,
that God has been here
in your light and in your darkness.
This story is yours to write – not mine.
But I implore you not to write too readily
the story of a victim
or the story of a mistake.
When the gospel has been proclaimed
and the sacraments of life shared,
that is a story deserving of respect.
I implore you to be faithful to who you have been.
I implore you, as a gospel people,
to write your story as gospel,
as a chapter in God’s epic of good news.
A voice in your heart may whisper,
“If it was so great, then why isn’t it continuing?
We must have done something wrong.”
We like to think that way.
We like to think there is some magic formula
that will make things last forever.
It’s our way of denying mortality.
But the 2nd Noble Truth of the Buddha
and the entire Gospel of Luke insist that it isn’t so.
We arise out of the universe without cause
other than God’s mysterious will.
Then we dissolve and reconfigure in new forms,
all in the mystical providence of God.
St. Stephen’s has lived for a purpose, God’s purpose.
If St. Stephen’s passes away,
does that mean you have failed in your purpose?
Has God failed?
Or has the mission perhaps been accomplished
to the extent that it can be accomplished in this form
– and is it now time to regroup
in order to continue God’s mission in a new way?
These are questions for you to answer – not me.
But I have not noticed that the good live longer than the evil.
Billy Joel tells us “only the good die young.”
I don’t know about that, but the good do die, sometimes young.
The difference is that the good are also resurrected.
I hope when you write the St. Stephen’s story in your memories,
it will be a story to cherish, to hold fondly,
and to tell to others with love -- and not regret.
The second way to find meaning in the midst of this pain
takes both reflection on the past
and imagination about the future.
This part is determining the St. Stephen’s legacy.
Did your prayers, your study of wisdom, your works of mercy
have any lasting value?
Is it all up in smoke? Was it all for nothing?
Or did you create something that will endure
– perhaps something not of bricks and mortar
– but of the spirit?
Is something being buried here?
Or is something being set loose?
Has something been longing to transcend
its old structure to become beautiful in a new way?
As Joni Mitchell said in Both Sides Now,
“something’s lost and something’s gained
in living every day.”
We know what is being lost.
It takes spiritual imagination to see
what is being gained.
I urge you to engage your spiritual imagination.
You may not be ready yet. That’s ok.
But when you are ready, engage your spiritual imagination,
and follow as best you can the adage of Gordon Lightfoot,
“If you’re going to face tomorrow, do it soon.”
It isn’t a betrayal of the past to embrace a future
to which the past has given birth.
The future is the child of the past,
and it gives the past its lasting value.
Look within your hearts and ask
“How am I better today because I was part of St. Stephen’s?
What will I do tomorrow to honor what I learned at St. Stephen’s?”
There is a close tie between these two reflections.
The meaning you find in St. Stephen’s life
is the key to the legacy you will make for St. Stephen’s.
If you tell a story of traumas and mistakes,
that’s the kind of legacy you will carry forward.
But if you find joy and grace in St. Stephen’s life,
that’s the kind of legacy you will share with the Church
and the world.
Brothers and sisters, I thank you and I honor you
for all you have done here so faithfully and for so long.
I have more than confidence,
I have a “sure and certain hope in the resurrection”
of St. Stephen’s spirit in many places and many ways,
for generations yet to come.