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Sermon for November 28, 2010

Reflections

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again -- rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God's peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. And now, dear brothers and sisters, let me say one more thing as I close this letter. Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned from me and heard from me and saw me doing, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:4-9

I’ve been struggling this week to find the right words for today. I have a lot I want to tell you before I leave TCC, and I have also dreaded having to stand in front of you all to say my goodbyes. Instead, let me tell you some stories. I want to tell you about two of my grandparents.

My grandfather was named James Elton Hudson, and he was born in Jerico Springs, MO to a farming family. Sick of the country life, he enlisted into the Navy and fought in the submarine service in WWII. He left MO at 18 years old and vowed that if he lived through the war, he would not return until he had made a success of himself. After the war, he and one of his Navy buddies moved to CT and started their own contracting business. By the time I came along, their business was quite successful. He built condos and office complexes. After he made a success of himself, he did return to MO. He actually got his pilot’s license and flew out there in his own plane, landing in the bumpy cattle fields with his new bride beside him. The new bride didn’t know that while my grandfather was visiting, she would have to stay inside with his mother and learn how to cook big farm dinners in the sweltering Summer heat. She made meat, ‘taters, and pies while James Elton was out in the fields doing “man stuff” with his father.

My grandfather was a mysterious man to me. He never said too much, but when he did speak, we listened. I’ll never forget the time he caught my cousin and me on the roof of his barn. When we finally came down, he was ready for us. He told us that if he ever caught us up there again he would kick and blister our behinds. I believed him. His care could be ferocious. But he could also be tender. In the face of family tragedy, he would stop and listen to his kids. He was also a stubborn man. Every carpet and blanket in the house had cigarette burns, which attest to his bad habit of falling asleep while smoking in bed. Mostly, I remember him sitting at the head of the dinner table for hours, listening to the chatter and laughter of his family, smoking cartons of cigarettes (True Blues), drinking coffee with two saccharine tablets, eating Velveeta and smoked sausage, and looking impassive.

He never took care of himself, and when his health deteriorated, we all took turns begging him to do something. He waved us off with shake of his head and a pass of his hand – always with the lit cigarette that made long wisps of smoke curl around his head. He said he was fine. So, in 1993, when Grandpa died of a sudden heart attack on the front steps of his house, we realized that he wasn’t as fine as he thought. In the pain-filled weeks after his funeral we realized that his business wasn’t as fine as we thought, either. He left the family a half a million dollars in debt. Banks started foreclosing on all his properties, including the house. To make it worse, it was discovered that some of the debt was from the financial support he gave to the family of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

All these years later, there is still so much I don’t know about Grandpa’s life. I do know that I had many chances to try to make it right with him while he was still alive, but it never happened. Maybe it was his nonchalance. Perhaps it was my fear of him. It doesn’t matter. The moment is gone. He died when we weren’t ready for him to go, and I never really took the chance to say goodbye.

My grandmother was named Lorraine Teresa LaRose Hudson, the daughter of French Canadian immigrants. She never enjoyed robust health. She and her siblings faced cancer and other health problems throughout their lives. But that never stopped them from enjoying their weekly poker games. She grew up near the tobacco fields of northeastern CT to a poor, stern parents. Her mother was a fierce lady who was always old to me. We called her Meme. I’ve confessed before, everyone was terrified of Meme. I still remember meme beating my cousin for making a runny bowl of tuna salad. Meme died at 103 years old. Despite her meanness, she lived with my grandparents for as long as I can remember. Even though Meme could make life difficult, my grandmother still managed to find some joy in it all. My grandmother was a nurturer. In fact, I never called her grandma. I called her Mom. We all did. There was my mother, and then there was Mom–my grandmother. Mom just seemed to understand me. Sometimes she was sympathetic. Sometimes we disagreed, especially on politics. The wonderful things about Mom was that she always welcomed people into her home. She functioned as a Mom to all of us. Her kids, grandkids, neighbors, family friends. Her house was always busy, and always full.

Mom died on October 31, 2002. With congestive heart failure at 72 years old, she was told that she needed surgery or her heart would eventually shut down. She elected for the open heart surgery. Her heart pumped fine after the operation, but other organs began closing down and she was eventually put on life support. By the time I got there she was unresponsive. In a drug-induced coma, she laid on the hospital bed, swollen beyond recognition, surrounded by machines and tubes and weeping relatives. With her children and grandchildren standing by her hospital bed, Mom was taken off life support. 15 of us were there in her room, holding her and each other, crying, and praying as she died.

And yet, at her death I felt some peace. I had been with her two weeks earlier, and I extended my stay because I just knew that this was my last time with her. As I drove her to doctor appointments, we talked about her family and her memories of her sisters and brother who had died before her. I asked her if she had the choice between dying on a hospital table or dying at home surrounded by her family, which would she choose. She chose surgery and she knew the risks. We shared our appreciation for one another, and found some strength in one another. So when she died, as sad as I was, I knew that I could let go. I new she was going to die, and I had a chance to prepare. And I said what I needed to say. I made peace with her death because I can look back on Mom’s life and see all that was good, and beautiful, and praiseworthy. I am thankful that we were part of each other’s lives. I still think about her a lot, and I hope that all the good and wonderful parts of her life live on in me.

I guess I’ve been getting in touch with my own grief as I begin to say goodbye to you all. I’ve been allowing myself to experience sadness and anxiety over my decision to resign. And I’ve been thinking about Mom and Grandpa – my grandparents. I think about death. Letting go. Saying goodbye. In a sense, my departure feels like a kind of death to me. Not a sudden death where a loved one is suddenly snatched away, but the kind where you’re told how much time is left before the end arrives. And knowing that, I want to make sure that I say what I need to say before I go.

I have been changed by knowing you. I have been transformed by a church family that has been warm, generous, and loving. I have been changed because we took the risk of being vulnerable with each other. At least I know I did. There was a point in my ministry – a number of years ago – when I thought to myself, “Matt, you can keep professional distance and be effective but aloof, or you can invest yourself in relationships.” I chose the second option. I chose to get to know you and let you know me. I did it because I think that’s how we allow ourselves to be transformed by God. We give each other all the respect and love it takes until we can see the image of Christ in one another. Vulnerability is about sharing our woundedness with one another. That’s what Jesus did for us. Of course, when you share such love and vulnerability it makes it harder to say goodbye. But I would rather leave knowing that we shared significant relationships rather than having treated you as my professional clients and you have treated me as a figurehead.

You have let me into your lives – to mourn with you, to party with you – just to live life together with all that life throw at us. Thanks for laughing with me – or at me – when I forget to let the choir sing or skip something in the bulletin. Thanks for putting up with my scatterbrained forgetfulness. Thanks for not taking it personally when I’ve done something that you didn’t like. Thanks for helping me learn – and for learning with me along the way.

I am thankful to our God, and I will continue to reflect on all that is good, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy about you all. In some of my sadness over leaving, I am learning to make peace. I can look back on our life together and see all that was true, honorable, and right. I am thankful that we were part of one another’s lives. I think about you all a lot, and I hope that all the good and wonderful parts of you will live on in me.

I will miss this sanctuary. In this sanctuary I have wrestled with God and wept and laughed. I have preached and listened. I found solace and have felt my heart break. I have been filled with joy. I have felt scared and stretched and ill at ease. I have been welcomed. I have been blessed. I have met God here, so many times and in so many ways. I have sat in silence in here. I have blessed marriages and said many final goodbyes. I have taken — and offered — the bread and the wine here I have felt the presence of Jesus here.

I will miss the people who make this place special. II have made mistakes and said the wrong thing and hurt people. I have been forgiven. I have felt stretched to my maximum. a times I’ve felt frustrated, misunderstood, and attacked. Other times I’ve felt nurtured, supported and encouraged. No matter what, I’ve found that my heart has grown bigger.

One of the reasons we’re leaving TCC is because Chris and know that we need a different kind of community in which to raise our family. There is another reason. Over the past few months, I’ve become convinced that there is something especially sacred for me to do in Silver Spring, MD. I have some more learning and growing to do as a pastor, and I need to be responsive and responsible to that calling.

I think the sadness of leaving is worse when we become afraid of saying goodbye. I know that’s how it is in my life. I think life takes on a new quality when we are able to let go of our fears. I would rather have a place for us to be able to continue to share our wounds. I think when we do, we begin an important process together. As we do, I think God’s presence and peace with come.

If you have things you need to say to me, give me a call or come visit. I want to know what you are thinking and what you’ve observed. If you are sad or angry and you want to tell me, please do. If you are overjoyed you can tell me that, too. Say what you need to me. Ask questions. And I promise I will just listen without judging or getting angry or hurt. I’ll give you honest answers and be a friend.

Comments

Anonymous said…
I hate to see the man who had been the only other Progressiveclergyperson (TCPC.org) in Connecticut besides me. The third one signed up was a layperson in Bloomington. I see that now a couple others have joined us in TCPC. Best wishes for Silver Spring. Steve Burt, 1st Cong of Lyme

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