Parting Words

June 15, 2014

I always admired my father’s tools as a child.  My father was big into tools, because my father was big into fixing just about anything from broken plumbing to broken bikes to broken engines.  There was nothing my father could not repair, and there was no tool he did not have to repair it with.

The garage was my father’s domain, and he kept it as clean and spotless as a surgical room.  Hanging proudly on the walls of the garage were all of his hand tools – an assortment of hammers and wrenches and screwdrivers and chisels; pliers and vice grips and channel locks and die taps; hack saws and wood saws and tin snips and bar clamps – whatever the job required, my father had the right tool, and each tool was hung on the wall with such purpose and precision that every adult male in the neighborhood suffered from an acute case of tool envy in his presence.  They’d knock on the door at all hours of the day, asking to borrow his framing square or his hammer tacker, and he’d walk them through his gallery of tools and proudly pluck the tool from the wall.  And he never worried about loaning out his tools because inside his tool chest sat his most cherished tool of all – a Craftsman corded hand engraver, about the size of a small pistol, which he used to mark each of his tools with his own two initials, “M.F.”

My father taught me how to use those tools when I was a child.  I’d shadow his every move while he made his repairs, climbing underneath the kitchen sink with him, or underneath the motor of the car, poking at gaskets, turning bolts, learning the language that only a grown man will use on such occasions when a wrench suddenly slips and knuckles collide with cold steel, or when a pipe bursts and water shoots through the airspace of the master bathroom.

I cannot claim to have inherited my father’s natural ability to fix things.  Every once in a while, I’ll look curiously under the hood of the car just to make sure the engine is still there, and I have more than once flooded a room and cooked the floorboards of the house with my blow torch.  I am no Tim the Tool Man Taylor, nor am I my father.  But I inherited many of his tools, which now lie mostly hidden in a tool chest in my garage.  I have his craftsman drill that is more than fifty years old which, when I use it, smells like burning sulfur and old kerosene.  I have his vice grips, which still display his greasy fingerprints.  I have a few of his tools.  And whenever I pull them out to make a repair, I look down at the handle and see his two initials, which are also my own initials, and I am certain that I can still hear his voice, and see the bead of sweat on his brow, and it feels for a moment as if he never left, as if there is still something of his presence and his power that remains, even eighteen years after his death.

I don’t know how that works, exactly.  It could be just me.  But I do believe that when it comes to the things of God, to matters of faith, this is absolutely how it works.  We are the apprentices of Jesus Christ, and to use the tools he left behind for us, to practice his craft, to do what he did, even imperfectly, is to invite him into our presence and to know that we are working alongside him.  Whenever Christians do the work of Jesus, it’s almost as if he never left at all.

A few moments ago we read the final words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth.  2 Corinthians is the most personal of all Paul’s letters.  He writes the letter as a personal defense of his integrity against Christians in Corinth who are determined to discredit him.  They claim that Paul is not polished enough, that he’s a poor speaker, that he doesn’t have the pedigree to be a leader.  He has very few friends and fans in Corinth.  They see him as a wimp with no authority.

If you read the last three chapters of 2 Corinthians, you see that Paul’s had enough of these cranky Christians.  It’s time for him to reassert his authority.  To those who claimed to be better than him, Paul calls them super-Christians, posers.  He says to them, “I have plenty of weaknesses and shortcomings – you’re right about that – but this is actually a sign that Christ is in me, because it’s in my weakness that God’s strength is perfected in me.”

Just before he wraps up his letter and bids farewell, he says to them, “Don’t make me come back there.  If I have to come back to Corinth, someone’s going to get a whooping.”

It’s a painful farewell for Paul.  This is how it goes for some preachers.  I’m grateful that it didn’t go this way for me, here at San Dieguito, although I confess that, just once, I’d love to say, “Don’t make me come back here.”

It’s been a wonderful eight years here, so unlike what Paul experienced in Corinth.  But it’s still a painful farewell for me, maybe more painful, because the deeper the  love, the more painful the goodbye.  Paul never made it back to Corinth, and I’m pretty sure he was just fine with that.  But hear what Paul tells them in his parting words, because they are fitting words for us this morning:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Pull yourselves together, be encouraged, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you.”

When you read Paul’s farewell, it’s as if he’s pulling down some of the tools of Jesus and handing them over to the people in Corinth, and saying, “Here.  Put these in your hands, and use them; if you do, Jesus will show up.”

What are these tools?

Paul says, “Pull yourselves together.”  He’s talking about the basic tool of community.  Some of my best memories as your pastor have been around dinner tables, in family rooms, on work teams, in small groups – those places where community is fostered, where the parts of the body of Christ are pulled together.  The best formula for Christian community comes from Jesus, who said, “Wherever two or more are gathered, I am present.”

Paul tells the Corinthians, “Agree with one another.”  It’s another tool of Jesus – the tool of single-mindedness.  Not simple-mindedness.  It doesn’t mean you all have to believe the same thing, it means you all desire the same thing.  It means having the same mind that was in Christ – a desire to please God, to live deeply in his love, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Every day and night of the week, you’re doing this here.  For every Bible study and small group, there’s an equal number of groups that are serving the community and world.  Bread of Life soup kitchen, Fill-a-Belly meals in the park, mission trips to Guatemala, Costa Rica, South Central Los Angeles.  Light Your World.  There’s no arm-twisting required.  There’s such a single-mindedness around love of God and love of neighbor that you just show up and do it.

Paul says, “Live in peace.”  Another tool of Jesus.  Peace.  It’s not the absence of conflict or disagreement.  The kind of peace Paul is talking about is shalom, a kind of wholeness, completeness that, even in presence of conflict, cannot be pulled apart by arguments or misunderstandings.  Shalom is the kind of peace that transcends our differences and says, “I may not agree with you, but I love you.”  And that shalom is here, in this congregation.

You’ve had to listen to me for eight years, some of what I have preached from this pulpit has challenged and stretched you, perhaps even offended you.  I know this because you’ve told me, sometimes with great emphasis.  I’ve seen you disagree, not just with me, but with each other – over religious, social, political, ecclesiastical issues – but your commitment to shalom has held you together.  I may not agree with you, but I love you.  It rings true here.

Paul says one more thing to the Corinthians that I want you to hear this morning.  He says, “All the saints greet you.” By saying, “All the saints greet you,” Paul is really saying, “All the believers, from other cities and communities, are counting on you.  They’re watching you, to see what you will do next.  To see if you will endure the tough times and press on and become something even greater than you already are.”  It’s the tool of expectation.

It’s a great word for you.  This community is counting on you.  It needs you desperately.  It needs your open-mindedness, your inclusive love for all people.  It needs your witness to service and justice.  It needs your hands.  It needs your music.  It needs your care for the sick and forgotten, your love for children.  In a polarized world, it needs a reasonable voice from the middle – your voice.  I could go on, but you already know.  This community needs you.

And your denomination is counting on you.  This congregation is vital to the broader connection of United Methodism.  It needs your witness, and your commitment to the connection.  You are a jewel in this conference, and it needs you to keep shining.

Community.  Single-mindedness.  Shalom.  Expectation.  These are the tools Jesus has left behind for you to pick up and use in this next season of your life together.  If I am grateful for anything, it’s that you’ve had these tools in your hands long before I came to you, and that you’ve allowed me to add my fingerprints to yours as you continue to do the work of Jesus.

What else can be said, but thank you.  Thank you for your partnership; thank you for your patience with me; thank you for your prayers.

“Pull yourselves together, be encouraged, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.  Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints greet you.”