Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-242 Corinthians 8:7-15
Psalm 30Mark 5:21-43

Finding God in goodbye

My husband has led retreats for many years, and from time to time he invites retreatants to bring a poem to share with the group. Invariably, absolutely without fail, someone brings a poem by Mary Oliver, usually “Wild Geese” or “The Summer Day.” Just about everybody I know loves these poems – my husband does, and I do, too – but their selection has become so predictable that my husband and I sometimes joke about wanting to shoot those geese or to ignore that summer day. Well, the joke is now on me, for as I thought about this sermon and about the fact that Rob will leave Grace Church in two weeks and that in two weeks we will have to say goodbye, what came to mind was a poem by – you guessed it — Mary Oliver. It’s not “Wild Geese” or “The Summer Day,” but another poem, one entitled “In Blackwater Woods.” 1 Here are its closing lines:

To live in this world

you must be able to
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like letting go. I don’t like to say goodbye. When we allow ourselves to care – when someone’s presence becomes important to us, when we open our heart to someone and we notice how our spirits lift when he or she walks into the room, we will probably be sad when the time comes to say goodbye. As Joyce Rupp puts it in a book called Praying Our Goodbyes, “Every goodbye has some suffering in it and the greater the parting the deeper the pain; the greater the loss, the … [larger] the empty space that accompanies it.” 2

No wonder many of us tend to run from goodbyes. It is so much easier to wave breezily, “See you later! Gotta go!” No big loss here; no need to feel much. It is tempting to make light of the sorrow that is part of saying farewell. Maybe we hide our sadness from other people by laying low and keeping quiet, or maybe we hide it from ourselves by staying too busy to feel anything, or by stuffing down our feelings with extra food or drink. “It’s no big deal,” we may tell ourselves. “And if I do need to grieve, I intend to do it fast and then get on with things.”

Trying to anesthetize oneself and to go numb is a familiar way of avoiding the pain of goodbye. So is getting angry. If I get angry with you just as you’re about to leave, then I don’t have to feel my sorrow about your going. What a convenient time to pick a fight!

But of course we can’t keep dodging the goodbyes of life if we want to experience life in all its mystery, depth, and fullness. We can’t keep skittering across the surface of things like motorboats on a lake if we want to grow in self-awareness and wisdom, or to deepen in compassion. It is when we face, feel, and pray our goodbyes that a loving God can find us, console us, heal us, and give us strength and courage to let go.

So let’s take Rob’s imminent departure from Grace Church as an opportunity for reflection. And if this goodbye is not the one that is most vivid to you right now, I invite you to choose another one to reflect on.

What has been stirred up in you since you learned that Rob’s tenure at Grace Church is coming to an end?

What has been most difficult for you as you anticipate his leaving?

What will you miss the most?

What have you learned from Rob or received from Rob that you never want to forget?

What gifts did he give you?

What gifts did you give him? (Please remember that when we entrust someone with our story, or allow someone to be with us at a vulnerable time, we are offering a gift to the other person, the gift of ourselves.)

What, if anything, feels incomplete in your relationship with Rob, and how might you complete it?

And if Rob has been a person and a presence who is important to you, how do you intend to embody or to carry out in your own life what you have seen in him?

As we reflect on these questions, we do so in the presence of the God who loved us into being and who sustains us invincibly through all the changes and chances of this life. The God we know in Christ is a God of infinite compassion. Today’s Gospel story gives us not one but two stories of Jesus’ power to awaken us and to make us whole. The woman with the flow of flood is healed, and the child is restored to life.

So I imagine Jesus coming to us this morning to say, “Right here, where you feel the pain of loss — right here, where you face the reality of separation — right here, where you need to say goodbye and where you glimpse the fact of death, which is behind every goodbye — I am with you. Dare to keep your heart open. Dare to admit how much you have meant to each other. Dare to accept how much you have given each other, how much you have learned and received from each other.” I imagine Jesus saying to us this morning, “Dare to love one another, for in the pain of separation, you will find that I am with you, and I will lead you to new life.”

That, to me, is the great surprise, and the great mystery: as we risk keeping our hearts open in the face of separation and loss, as we dare to experience and to express our love for one another, even in the face of goodbye, even in the face of death, we discover the love that has no fear of death, the love that transcends change, the love that no loss, no separation, no death can destroy. This love was ours in the beginning, even before we were born, and it is ours at every ending, too, as we say goodbye. Love is what we were made for, and when we dare to love, in union and in separation, in presence and in absence, as we say hello and as we say goodbye, Jesus Christ draws near, and bears us deeper into the heart of God, that place of infinite compassion and infinite respect. Sometimes other people are most present to us when they are absent. Sometimes God is most intimately present when we feel God’s absence.

In a little while we will share the Eucharist. I praise God because here at this table, where Christ gives himself to us again and again in the bread and wine, we will always meet – every one of us, the living and the dead, those who are near and those who are far away. Here in the sacrament of Holy Communion, Christ draws us to the heart of God, where everyone is present and where the limits of time and space have no meaning anymore. When we say goodbye to those we love – when we say “God be with you” and “God go with you” – we give thanks that love is all, that love is everything, that love will never end.

I give thanks today for the great work that God has given us to do – to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart — and for the chance to make a difference at such a crucial moment in the history of life on this planet.

1. Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods” (from American Primitive, 1983) in New and Selected Poems, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992, p. 178.

2. Joyce Rupp, O.S.M., Praying Our Goodbyes, Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1988, p. 32.

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