Before I headed off to seminary — the first time, almost twenty years ago — I reached out to all of my former pastors, people who’d known me since I was a child. I needed their help as I tried to understand what it might mean for me to set off on this path, when the ending was so unclear. I wanted to know if they thought I was making a mistake. After all, what was I hoping for, going to seminary as an openly gay man at a time when our church refused to ordain gay people?
Each of my pastors shared their own bits of wisdom with me, but one pastor’s response in particular sticks out to me as I stand here with you for the last time in my capacity as your pastor. Pastor Elton Richards of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, who’d known me during my high school years, told me to “keep singing.”
He’d always said kind things about my voice when I was younger. He’d ask, “How’s my favorite tenor doing?” He did the same with my mom, who has a beautiful soprano voice. So when he signed his letter to me, reflecting on my call to ministry, with the words “Keep singing,” I didn’t think much of it at first. It seemed like another way of saying, “I remember you. I see your gifts.” And even if that’s all he was saying, that would’ve been powerful enough. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”
I think about how powerful those words could have been to the people of St. Luke’s twelve years ago, just before we began this redevelopment. The handful of people who’d clung to the hope that their congregation might still have a future, when the rest of the church had all but given up on them. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”
But, whether he meant more than that or not, Pastor Richard’s words to me have come to mean more than being seen and acknowledged. For me, “keep singing,” means something more than sharing my gifts, it means “be yourself.” It means, “tell the truth.” It means, “don’t stop now.” It means, “change is coming.”
It wasn’t until I went to seminary — the first time — that I learned about the Singing Revolution, the term coined by the Estonian artist and activist, Heinz Valk, to describe the non-violent means by which the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia sought their freedom from the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s. In one of the most famous of these actions, the Baltic Way, about two million people joined hands to form a human chain that stretched over four hundred miles, crossing the national borders of all three Baltic states. Together, they sang songs that expressed their hope for a new nation, a new future. Through a series of actions like this one, Estonia regained its independence without violence or bloodshed.
The text we’ve heard this morning from Romans is now, for me, forever a song. “You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now, is nearer now then when we first believed. The night is far gone, the day is near. You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep.” (Rom. 13:11-12) We’ve used this text as a sung gospel acclamation during the season of Advent for years, so that now, when I read those words and hear that tune, I also remember that season: Advent, a season that fills the long nights with songs about the coming light, about hope for a new tomorrow, about God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.
Despite the great love I have for you, and the light that floods this room through these larger-than-life windows facing out onto the street, in many ways the world outside this sanctuary feels trapped in a long and lengthening night. There’s no way we can gather this morning for worship without naming the devastation that’s been taking place during this hurricane season. Harvey has been called “the worst disaster in Texas history.” At least seventy people died and recovery efforts will take years. Irma is breaking records for intensity and duration, and left a path of devastation across the Caribbean before landing in Florida yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been advised to flee the storm in “one of the largest evacuations in American history.” All credible science tells us that the intensity and frequency of these storms is connected to climate change, and that we should plan to see this trend get worse as long as we continue to ignore the ecological crisis in which we are now living.
And, in some kind of societal equivalent to the devastation of the natural world, we also seem to be living in the eye of another storm of racism and nationalism, as politicians pour gasoline on the fires of racial resentment and white supremacy for short term personal gain at the expense of our common life as a nation. From the riots in Charlottesville to the rescinding of DACA protections for the Dreamers in our communities, we have every reason to think that this storm will continue to rage on as well, as long as we ignore the root causes of the human crisis we have created.
This is what God tells the prophet Ezekiel to announce to the nation: “Turn back, turn back, from your evil ways!” (Ezek. 33:11) That is our job as well, to keep singing, to keep telling the truth, to never give up, to herald the dawn while the night still feels long.
It feels almost ridiculous to try to connect the massive destruction being done to people and places by these raging forces of nature (both human and environmental) and the intimate moment we are sharing here, together, as we say goodbye to each other after eleven years of ministry. But it is not. Not at all.
On Monday night you all shared such kind words with me and Kerry about what our ministry together here at St. Luke’s has meant to each of you. Something Katie Baxter said has stuck with me all week. She said that I brought with me a gift for reminding St. Luke’s of its story, and telling it back to you over and over again. It meant so much for me to hear you say that, because that’s exactly what I was trying to do. It’s what all of us who preach are trying to do: to remind the church of who we are in light of who God is, to keep singing the song that started long before our verse began.
So let me do this with you one last time. Let me remind you of the part you play in the larger story, your verse in the cosmic song:
When I came to you, after a long journey of my own in which the odds seemed stacked against me, the church as it was did not recognize my ministry in this place. In the technical jargon that props up institutions, the pulpit at St. Luke’s was listed as “vacant” for the first few years of our work together.
What we did, as piece by piece we began to rebuild the foundations of this congregation, was to contribute one more story to a narrative that had already been forming for decades, a story that showed how God calls people from all walks of life, of every sexual orientation and gender identity, to lead God’s church. Our story, our success, was part of a great human chain that stretched across the church, sometimes quite literally across the floors of synod and churchwide assemblies, creating change out of nothing more than hope for the children coming up behind us, faith in the God of liberation, and the songs that kept us standing. We stood against that storm and it did not overcome us. It was we who overcame, and we shall overcome again and again until the whole human family is free.
You are a part of that chain. We are a part of that much longer chain. The bonds between us. The love we’ve shared. The church we’ve built. The future we’ve imagined. None of that is going away. Everything we’ve been doing until now has just been part of the labor pains, one great push toward the delivery of the new creation.
Now is not the time to stop pushing. Now is the time to take a deep breath and look one another in the eye, to take hold of one another’s hands, to remember who we are and what we were made for. The sounds that come next may sound as much like a howl as a song, but they will carry the truth of this moment to ears that have been longing to know, waiting to hear if the church has anything to say, anything to sing, that makes any kind of difference in times like these. So the songs we sing next, wherever our journeys take us, had better not be confined to these small places. They need to be heard out in the world, in the streets, in the halls of power, at the voting booth, in the break room, over countless meals with family and friends and strangers.
As you set off on the next leg of your journey now, the path unclear but the destination absolutely certain, I have only hand-me-down words to offer. Thankfully, hand-me-down words are to a preacher what notes are to a composer — you’ve heard them all before, but they still have the power to move you. So I’ll leave you with some of the best words I’ve ever heard.