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Farewell Sermon

Preached to the Congregational Church in Exeter, U. C. C., on the sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 2003, by Michael L. C. Henderson, pastor.

Isaiah 45:11-12, 17-19; John 15:9-17

This is going to be a very short sermon, so listen up or you'll miss it.

Jesus said: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. –John 15:11

     Does this make any sense? Here's Jesus rhapsodizing about complete joy at a time when he knows perfectly well he's about to be crucified. It's jarring. It leaves you wondering what on earth he was thinking.

     But yes, it does make a certain kind of sense. This is his farewell conversation with his friends. It's a time to focus on the most important things and fix those things in their minds and memories. Therefore it's a time to remind them that the whole point of God's creation is joy. So they won't forget what the whole point is.

     People do have a tendency to forget what the whole point is. In fact, the tribulations of this life and the frailties of the human spirit combine to make it more or less inevitable that people will forget about how life in this world is supposed to be a joy. There's so much to be disappointed and angry and anxious about. You'd have to be in denial, you'd have to be a pathological Pollyanna, to say joy is the main thing, wouldn't you?

     Well, I've given that problem a lot of thought, and I don't think joy requires pathological denial, but I have decided it demands a certain persistence, a certain stubbornness. Such as the stubbornness that I think I perceive in what the Lord said according to the prophet Isaiah that we heard a few minutes ago, which I would paraphrase something like this:

Don't you dare second-guess me about the world and the people that I made with my own hands! I'm the one who made the earth and put you on it. I'm the one who put the heavens over your head, and all the stars. I didn't put you here to be forever shamed and confounded! I didn't create the whole thing to be a mess! I made it to be your home! I did a great job of it, if I do say so myself. And I made no secret of what I was up to. I told you how it is and who I am.. Take it or leave it!

     This is a God who is feeling unappreciated. Unappreciated because he has done this wonderful thing, made this wonderful world and these marvelous creatures (such as us), and they (we) are always mucking it up and whining about it and looking for somebody to blame.

     But God is defiant. You can mess it up if you must, says God, but I, God, am still and always determined to take joy in what I've done, am doing, and will do, and to share that joy with whoever is willing to accept the invitation. It's up to you. It's not an automatic thing on your part. It doesn't take care of itself. You have to choose it, you have to choose it over and over again, you have to work at it. You have to be persistent. You have to be stubborn. Just like God.

     Jesus commands his disciples that they love one another as he has loved them. Question: How can he command love? Answer: Because he doesn't care how they feel. He's telling them to do the work of love whether or not they feel like it. If the feeling is there right away, then the work is easy. But if the work of love starts before the feeling of love, then you have a problem. Then you have to be persistent and stubborn. God is. Jesus was. So must we be.

     Well, folks, the feeling is never there at the beginning, so the work of love is never easy. If there's a feeling there at the beginning that seems to make the work easy, don't trust it. It's bogus. The work of love always comes first, and there is absolutely no reason for any of us to undertake it — except possibly the experience of having received that very thing ourselves. Knowing that we are loved, cared for, treasured, forgiven — that's what puts you to work at the work of love. And saves your life. And makes your joy complete.

     If there is any connection between what I've just said and the past 13 years in this church, I leave it to you to find it. You're on your own. Work at it.