Listen to the sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017 titled “Thank You!” by the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune. This is Dr. Bethune’s final sermon as UBC’s Senior Pastor.
Smile! You don’t mind if I take a selfie or two do you? After all, this is my benediction. My last sermon. That’s a lot of pressure. You must be expecting my most profound preaching ever. Everything I have left to say, I have to say it today. We could be here awhile! But like I told you last week, I am leaving over 1500 sermon manuscripts in the UBC archives. But, don’t worry. Like Congress I’ll assume “permission to revise and extend my remarks, and let the 1500 sermons I leave in the archive speak for themselves.
I’ve never cared much for selfie sermons because worship isn’t about the preacher; it’s about the congregation. It’s about our hearing a word from God through the sacred story. And what better story could we hear to celebrate our journey together than our Gospel reading today?
Several years ago Gina and I attended a seminar in Oakland called “Unlearning Racism.” Our eyes were opened to white privilege we had never even noticed and how pervasive racism is in our culture. Not long afterward, this story was our lectionary text on a Sunday, and I heard it again as if for the first time.
Jesus and his posse retreat across the north border to escape the conflict back home for awhile. It’s Gentile country, and kosher Jews avoided Gentiles in those days, as the Bible commanded they should do. They’re not looking for any trouble, but this Gentile woman accosts them, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” They’re on vacation. As far as they’re concerned, she’s the demon tormenting them.
Now Jesus and his disciples respond with classical racist and sexist behaviors. First, they ignore her, as if she were invisible. Then they expect the authority to put her in her place. Then Jesus delivers a flat out “no” based on race: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted. “Lord, help me!”
So Jesus turns up the volume. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs? Dogs! That’s what Jews called Gentiles in those days. It’s as much a slap in the face as the “n-word.” But this woman refuses the offense, and pivots back to her daughter’s need. She says: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Jesus is stunned. He changes his heart, and that changes his mind. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed instantly. If you prefer a Jesus so perfect he would always batted a 1.000, you might join generations of interpreters who say Jesus knew what he was going to do all along, but strung her along to teach the disciples a lesson. Such cruel explotation seems seems far from perfect, and morally indefensible to me.
I prefer the higher moral lesson that Jesus learns through his compassion so that he changes his heart and mind. Like us, he was “raised right,” which means he was marinated in the culture of his day. Taught that women were less than men. Taught that people of other races were less than his own kind. And don’t you know those teachings were justified with the Bible! But when Jesus opened his heart to this Gentile woman, he saw those racist and sexist attitudes were just wrong. He unlearned his racism to welcome her as a child of God.
We ourselves have been on a long journey together to fulfill God’s promise in Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” We have begun the journey to welcome all as children of God regardless of race, gender, orientation, or economic class. And I say “begun” because we haven’t arrived at the goal. We’ve declared our inclusive values, but still struggle to embody them. We have to begin with ourselves. If we hold any group in disregard and look down on them as less than fully human, less beloved of God than ourselves, we need to repent. Bigotry in any form is a sin.
And Lord knows, the events in Charlottesville, the conversation that has followed, regressive laws targeting women’s health or LGBT families, and the way our culture treats the poor as if they were invisible show the journey is not done in our nation with race, gender, orientation, or economic class. You have had the courage to pursue the journey that embodies God’s love for all people. That’s why I felt called here to begin with and why I have stayed so long and why I have rejoiced in our journey together.
I urge you, keep to the journey of God’s all encompassing love . As Rabbi Tarfon said, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Jesus is touched by this foreigner’s faith and heals her daughter instantly. In a surprising one-eighty, she becomes his rabbi, teaching him something new, expanding his view of how far God’s love reaches. And Jesus is grateful for her teaching.
This is where I deftly pivot to thank you for being my teacher these thirty-plus years. I have more people to thank than I have time left today.
I have to thank Gina – my partner, my colleague, my mentor, my best friend, and soul mate – who has carried the stress of supervising 35 people in providing spiritual care to an eight hospital Catholic health system and built a program to train chaplains serving across the country while also raising three kids and encouraging me. That’s her dressed as Pippi Longstocking’s Mom with Pippi by her side. Gina, I love you and I can’t thank you enough!
I have to thank our three children, too, for enduring the challenge of being P.K.’s, and thank all of you for helping us raise them. Kara, Zachary, Andrew, you make us proud every day.
I want to thank the most talented staff in the history of the universe, and all the superb staff members I have had the pleasure to call colleagues. I have learned something new from you every day.
While I’m at it let me thank the choir, who have brought such beauty to our worship week after week. You give your time to rehearse and then have to sit in the loft with everybody watching to see if you will listen or snooze. Thank you for listening and for providing the holy moments when I could worship, too.
I wish I had time to thank each of you by name. God knows you have listened to me talk for thirty years, but I have listened and observed, too. I arrived thinking I knew so much, but I had to unlearn a lot and relearn how to be Christian, how to be church, how to be pastor – and you showed me in your love for one another. Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for listening to me, thank you for loving me, thank you for trusting me be your pastor.
I have often looked through our windows to see the light streaming in. A few years ago I took up the habit of looking to the light as I pray when beginning a sermon. University Baptist Church is a place where God’s light comes streaming in.
But since I have spent many hours here, I have also been around at night, walking on the streets or finally driving home. Maybe you’ve seen it, too, in the darkness of the night, God’s light streaming out from those windows gloriously to all who are passing by. That’s University Baptist Church: the light of Christ streaming into the congregation on the Lord’s Day and then in the deepest darkness the light of Christ streaming out from you to enlighten the world. I hope every sight of these windows will remind you of the glorious mission God has given you. Keep the light shining, beloved friends. Let your light shine. Keep the light of God’s love for all people shining through you.
My heart is full today. I feel grief that my time as your pastor is finished, but my grief is overwhelmed by joy and gratitude in remembering. And I am confident that the One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion. After all, we are Easter people! In Christ, every ending is a new beginning. So I urge you not to look long to the past, but turn eagerly to the future ahead. As God says through Isaiah:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. (Is. 43:18-19).
I love you, and I pray heaven’s best blessings upon you as you and God partner to do a new thing in the name of Christ. Amen. May we pray?
Abiding God, we thank you for all the holy moments we have shared because your presence is in this place, among these people. Bless us all as we are apart from one another and bless your church as it shines the light of Christ. Let Christ rise in these people who embody resurrection. Form reform, and transform your church with hearts and minds changed by your love. And we will praise you always in the name of Christ. Amen.