There is an old adage that defines the only certainties in life as death and taxes. To that short list most of us would add the inevitability of change. While the changes we face in life know no times or seasons, many occur at transition points woven into the secular calendar. One such transition point occurs as spring gives way to summer, generating many graduations, weddings, moves and job changes (including pastoral). Early summer is a time for endings and new beginnings, and since many of those occasions involve the life of a congregation or its members, preachers would do well to consider ways of addressing them in worship. But while all of our traditions have rituals for welcoming new members and new ministers, few have comparable liturgies for saying goodbye and thus little direction for preaching.
No matter who is leaving—the pastor/preacher or members of the congregation—the sermon can provide a way of offering a good and gracious “goodbye.” Biblical examples and theological affirmations assure us of the presence of God with individuals and with communities of faith through the many seasons of life. Whether the sermon evolves from texts appointed for the day or from texts chosen by the preacher, two dimensions of any life transition—acknowledging the past and anticipating the future—can serve as lenses through which to view biblical texts and create an appropriate sermon.
Acknowledge the past
Significant life changes always provoke a moment of reflection on what has gone before. Preachers can take advantage of that moment and use it to point to ways in which God’s presence and work has led the individual(s) to this time of transition. Acknowledging the past will include a celebration of and thanksgiving for what has been: accomplishments achieved, learnings gleaned and gifts shared. But looking back can evoke mixed feelings and perhaps bring regret for opportunities lost or mistakes made. The sermon can offer an important reminder that by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Anticipate the future
Just as any act of leaving implies a past, it also implies a future. We move from something but also to something. As people of faith, we believe that “something” is the new thing God is doing in/with/for us. We move into the future, therefore, with anticipation and hope for how God will lead, use and even surprise us in new places and ways. But just as acknowledging the past can evoke mixed emotions, so can anticipating the future. New ventures are often accompanied by fear of what lies ahead. There might also be some resentment for transitions that were imposed rather than chosen. No matter why or what the transitions, however, the preacher can assure the listeners that, in the words of the beloved hymn, “’Tis grace that brought [us] safe thus far, and grace will lead [us] home.”
Do’s and don’ts
As we think about preaching “goodbyes,” there are a few caveats to keep in mind:
- DO honor the individual(s) leaving the congregation, but DON’T forget that sermons should be about God and not about whether the pastor is addressing her own leaving or the leaving of members, it is easy to let the sermon become focused on the individual(s). Much as there is a difference between a eulogy and a homily at funerals, so there is a way of using the experience of the one(s) leaving as a lens through which to proclaim the work of God and the words of Scripture.1 Most occasions of leaving are accompanied by some kind of celebration outside worship, providing an appropriate context for personal reflections.
- DO address the past with honesty, but DON’T rehearse past grievances or rekindle hurt feelings. Acknowledging the past might include things important—and helpful—to mention, even if some of those things were difficult at the time. Naming, for instance, in a general way, challenges those leaving (including the preacher) faced and managed to overcome can offer a moment of honesty that bears witness to the grace of God and the faithfulness of the individual(s). But the sermon is not the place for rehearsing old grievances or doing revisionist history.
- DO acknowledge the emotions generated by the experience of leaving, but DON’T let those emotions eclipse the act of worship. Preachers are usually taught to hide their vulnerability when in the pulpit, but occasions of leaving (especially when they are the ones leaving) are opportunities to name feelings as gifts of God that reflect our shared humanity.
There are many biblical characters and texts that speak to leaving well:
- Biblical characters who offer examples of leaving include:
- Moses, who blesses the Israelites before turning them over to Joshua’s leadership;
- Orpah, who reluctantly departs from Naomi and Ruth, to pursue her own life;
- Jesus, who entrusts the disciples with his ongoing ministry on earth;
- Paul, who offers words of encouragement to the New Testament churches.
- Texts that assure us of God’s presence and care through life’s transitions include:
- Psalm 46—God is our refuge and strength through earth-shattering changes
- Psalm 136—God’s steadfast love endures forever
- Isaiah 42, 43 and 65: God is doing a new thing
- Matthew 28:20—Jesus promises to be with us always
- Hebrews 13:8—Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever
- Themes in Time after Pentecost: Most summer transitions occur during the Time after Pentecost (in the northern hemisphere), providing helpful connections between the mixed emotions that accompany transitions and Jesus’ promised presence with us through the Holy Spirit.
Embracing personal and corporate change that transitions generate is possible because of the assurance that God is with us in all times and circumstances. As people of faith, we are called to look forward with hope and confidence rather than backward with longing and regret. We can celebrate faithful service and accomplishments of the past, but we always have our eyes fixed on the horizon for the new thing God is doing among us, knowing that nothing—nothing past, present or yet to come—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- See my suggestions for how we move “through and beyond” the individual’s story to see God’s story in Beverly Zink-Sawyer and Donna Giver-Johnston, For Every Matter under Heaven: Preaching on Special Occasions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022), 56-61. There is also a Working Preacher Books podcast episode on the book.