Hello/Goodbye: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, May 21, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Acts 1:6-14 (an account of the Ascension of Jesus) and John 17:1-11.

I find it a fascinating feature of certain languages that the same word can be used for both hello and goodbye. In Italian, whether coming or going, people often simply say “ciao.” In Hawaiian, it is “aloha.” In the Czech Republic, where I did a study abroad year in college, they say “ahoj,” which honestly always made me feel a little bit like a pirate. When a word like this contains within itself more than one meaning, it is called polysemy

We have many polysemous words in English, too, of course, but we typically use different words to greet one another and then to take our leave. Although even for us, we might choose to say “good day” or “good evening” on both arrival and departure. 

In all of the instances when one word serves as both hello and a goodbye, our languages reveal something deeper than their simple function. When both meanings are held in the same word, there is an acknowledgment of the fluidity of time and space and our place within them; when hello and goodbye are the same, then every coming together acknowledges an inevitable parting of ways, and yet every parting of ways holds within it the hope of inevitable reunion. 

I like this very much, not only because it is linguistically nuanced, but because it feels true, it feels like a little reminder that whether, in this moment, we are moving closer or farther from one another, we are still connected. 

And if that is true, then it suggests that the narratives we so often tell of encounters and departures—of definitive hellos and devastating goodbyes—are all, in reality, held within a larger, more gentle and generous story wherein all the roads we travel are interconnected, where all of our hellos and goodbyes lead back to one another in the end. Which is, itself, a polysemous, complex realization. 

Because if hello and goodbye are never truly final, it’s a consolation when we feel the sting of loneliness and yet it’s also a caution when we would rather escape our histories or shrug off our responsibilities to right relationship, because the intertwining of all our hellos and goodbyes signifies that we are inextricably tied to one another and to the whole of the earth. It suggests that, as the poet Tennyson says, we are a part of all that we have met, and, thus, it is part of us. Hello, you are part of me. Goodbye, I am part of you. No matter where we go, we will never not be part of each other. And knowing this, we must decide how best to live.

I am thinking about hellos and goodbyes and polysemy this week because we have just celebrated the Feast of the Ascension this past Thursday and you can tell that its story is echoing into our lectionary readings this morning, and to tell the truth, this story has always felt like kind of a bummer to me in the midst of our Easter joy. 

Because viewed from one angle, the Ascension is a goodbye narrative. The risen Jesus, only recently reunited with his beloved friends and family, is carried up in a cloud, into the great Mystery where it is beyond our capacity to see him, and his disciples are left staring at the sky, yearning for one last glimpse of him. 

And from this perspective, especially for all of us who have grieved the loss of a beloved face, who have felt the hollowness of being the one left behind, the Ascension might feel a bit like a flat note in the jubilant melody of the season. 

We might say, You loved us enough to come back from death, Lord, so why must you go, now, to a place where we cannot see you? Why must we continue to let go of you? Why is it still the case, even after the Resurrection, that everyone and everything we love still says goodbye to us in the end? Why must we wait here alone, waiting for the unresolved promise of your peaceable kingdom?

And yes, Lord, I know you have promised us the Spirit as our Comforter and guide, but if I am brutally honest, Lord, there are days I would trade that unseen Spirit for just one glimpse of your face, for one moment of your actual hands holding mine, reassuring me that I am not alone on this journey, some proof that your leaving was not forever, that there will come a day when we can say hello and it will not also mean goodbye. I would give anything to know that there will be, one day, an end to endings. 

But depart he does, and wait we must. And so for now, like the disciples on the mountain, we must stand in this polysemous moment of the goodbye that searches for a hello, containing within itself both joy and grief, reunion and relinquishment, and we must continue to wonder why and how and when we will understand the necessity of loss. 

But then this week, as I was reflecting on all of this, something occurred to me: that the Ascension, like so many other stories in Scripture, is itself polysemous—it, too, means multiple things at once. And while it is indeed a farewell narrative from the perspective of us and the disciples on the mountain, I realized that from the vantage point of God the Father, from the vantage point of the Spirit aloft on the high wind, from vantage point of the innermost heart of the Trinity, the Ascension is a hello, a celebration, a homecoming. It is Jesus, the Son, in the fullness of his risen, reclaimed, redeemed human flesh, crossing back over the threshold of heaven saying to the Father, here I am, I have returned to you, and much have I seen, and long have I loved you, and how good it is to be in your embrace again. 

And if we truly love him, how could we not want our Lord to finally be at home? How could we not feel some joy that even though we must say goodbye, it is because he needed to see his Father’s face once more? I can’t begrudge him that. I know I want to see my father’s face again someday, too.

And there’s also this: in the Ascension, when Jesus says goodbye to us and hello to eternity, he is, in truth, doing something entirely new, something that only he could do, fully human, fully divine, his polysemous body drawn up and out beyond the limits of the flesh, blurring the boundaries between heaven and earth, reigning as the Lord of both. 

He is not simply saying both hello and goodbye at the same time; he is breaking down the barriers between hello and goodbye; the barriers that separate us from God and one another. He is effecting his prayer that we might all be one, never parted. He is transfiguring all our beginnings and our endings, all of our greetings and our grief, all of our hope and our fear, into something bigger, something timeless, something that we cannot even imagine because we have not yet known a story that didn’t have an ending. 

By journeying to a realm where human flesh could never have otherwise gone, he is making a place for us, a place where we will be greeted and welcomed, and somehow, where we will never have to say goodbye.

And when he returns, bringing back the glory of heaven for our eyes to behold at last, it will be a new word that he speaks, neither hello nor goodbye, but some word no mind has yet conceived, that no lip has dared to speak, a word that contains all things within itself, a polysemous Word that resolves every question, dries every tear, mends every broken heart, a word that will make the earth tremble with its beauty and its power, a word that will hold more than we could ever say but that will say it all. A word that will initiate our own Ascension.

What will that word be? I do not know. But in essence, I think it will say, here I am, I have returned to you, and much have I seen, and long have I loved you, and how good it is to be in your embrace again. 

And now, no more hellos, no more goodbyes. Only this. Only us. All of us together. Always. 

Parting Words: A Sermon for Good Friday

I preached this sermon on Good Friday, April 2, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion Narrative from John’s Gospel. A recording of the service can be found here.

What can we say, now that we have arrived here?

This is the moment in the Christian year when words fail us, when our platitudes turn to dust. What meager phrase is adequate to express what we see, what we feel, what we fear in this place: the first and only time in the history of creation when we face the prospect of being truly, utterly alone in the cosmos? What could we say that would ever be a sufficient offering, a word of consolation to our God as he hangs on the cross?

For that is what we are doing today, on Good Friday: we are keeping vigil at the side of our Lord as he dies for us. We plant ourselves here, amid the skulls, at the foot of his cross, and we wait, and we watch, not because we can change anything or solve anything, but because somehow we know that to love him is to be present in this moment. Nobody should have to die alone. 

But in our waiting and watching, still, perhaps, we wonder how to express to him what we feel—all the things that we always wanted to say, but never quite could.

My Lord and my God, how quickly the time went; how much more I wish I had told you while we were together. But now we are here in this valley of shadows, and you are slipping away, and there is so little time left. Please don’t leave us. But if you must leave us, what would you have me say?

If you have ever lost someone close to you, you know that this is not just a Good Friday conundrum; when death is imminent, when it is time for that last conversation, we often struggle with what to say. We are often not very good with endings. 

And in those moments, beside the hospital bed, in the moment before we must finally turn away, memory and regret and fear can leave us as inarticulate as Mary and the Beloved Disciple, gazing upon the face of the one who is leaving us, but saying not a word, our tongues parched by grief. 

For what can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

I recently read, though, that, in the end, there are, in truth, just four things that are most important to say to someone you care about before they die. Four statements that we can offer: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

So perhaps that is what we can offer today; perhaps that is the best we can do, to give our dying God the same, humble tenderness we might offer each other. To say to him: Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

Lord Jesus, forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I forgot you, while you patiently waited for me to remember. Forgive my stubbornness and my smallness, and all the times that I got in the way of the joy that you yearned to nurture within me. Forgive me for all the ways that I have passively accepted a world that still crucifies the vulnerable and disregards the poor and the meek and the hungry, whom you have blessed. Forgive me for my silence when I ought to have spoken; and for my careless words when I ought to have been still. Forgive me for holding you at a distance, for trying to preserve myself from the transformational intensity of your love. Lord Jesus, forgive me.

Lord Jesus, it may sound strange to say it, but I forgive you, too. I forgive you for not being present in the ways that I needed you to be when I felt so alone. I forgive you for inaugurating a church that at times, in your name, has harmed so many people. I forgive you for creating a world that allows for sin to break people apart, for this mortal life where we seem to lose everyone we love. I forgive you for being so hard to understand at times, and so hard to follow. I forgive you for not being the type of strong and mighty savior that I expected, the kind that would keep me safe. I forgive you for all these things, mostly because I need to let them go, in order to see you properly, in your fullness, and not the incomplete version of you that has been distorted by my own pain and confusion and resentment. I forgive you because I want to know you as you are, not as I wish you were. Lord Jesus, I forgive you.

Lord Jesus, thank you. Thank you for loving me beyond comprehension. I know that your love is why you hang upon the cross, why you choose to lay down your life for your friends, and although I cannot fully understand it, I feel it—its saving, healing power—deep in my soul. Thank you for showing us what it means to live as a human being fully alive, fully in communion with our Father in heaven, fully in partnership with our neighbors and with the web of all creation. Thank you for the outpouring gift of your grace in water and bread and wine and oil; for giving your flesh and your Spirit to us, unworthy as we may be. Thank you for your church, which, at its best, has saved my life and taught me the meaning of community. Thank you for the invitation to live a life caught up in the joy your life, and to love with a heart enraptured by your undying love. Lord Jesus, thank you.

Lord Jesus, I love you. Not perfectly. Not as consistently as I might hope to. But I love you. I love you for challenging me to be better; for believing in us, in our potential, these wayward children that you have fashioned out of the dust of the earth. I love you for your tenacity and your gentleness; your courage and your peace. I love you because you have taught me how to be myself, the way you created and intended for me to be. I love you because you were yourself, purely and utterly yourself. And as your life slips away on this day, know that I will carry you with me now, for all the days to come, until death is but a memory, until I see your face again. But for now, Lord Jesus, just know that I love you. And it’s ok to go, if you must. I know you must. 

What can we say, now that we have arrived here? 

Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. 

And then, it is finished.

But is enough. It is, perhaps, all he ever wanted us to say.

On Saying Goodbye: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on September 8, 2019, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana. The lectionary texts cited are Luke 14:25-33 and Philemon 1-21.

In late August of 2001, I stood by a fountain on a crowded brick-lined plaza, hugging my dad goodbye. We had just driven from Upper Michigan to northern Virginia, to the small college where I was about to begin my freshman year, and after unpacking my meager belongings into a dorm room, it was time for him to get back on the road.

We embraced, and I let go of him, and he smiled in his gentle way and disappeared into the crowd. And although I knew I would see him again at Christmas time, this goodbye was different, deeper, more definitive than those I had known before. It left me feeling hollow and full all at once, like a balloon untethered, drifting into the summer sky, into an unknown future.

I think that this particular goodbye felt so significant because I knew, intuitively, that I would not be the same person in a few months; that life at college would intervene in unexpected ways, and that when my father and I saw each other again in December, we would behold each other with new eyes. Our relationship would be changed.

Such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

Little did he and I know, on that late summer afternoon 18 years ago, how dramatically life would indeed intervene—for us, and for everyone in this country, just a couple of weeks later on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when many of us were forced to say a “goodbye” of a different sort: a goodbye to the illusion of our country’s impenetrability, a goodbye to the confident expectation that there might be peace in our time, and a goodbye to the clarity and innocence  of a world that had seemed relatively less complicated, at least for some of us, on September 10th.

It became clear to me, that first semester of college—and to many of us, I think, in that twilight of the year 2001—that we could take very little for granted. The precariousness of our previous assumptions about safety and security demonstrated that any moment—any moment at all—might turn into the unanticipated goodbye, the half-appreciated embrace, the unresolved question of our incomplete entanglements–cut short by time, or violence, or misfortune. 

We were then, and perhaps to some extent still are, a people collectively holding our breath, waiting under the specter of another imminent loss. 

But I also believe that, in that season of uncertainty, when the world shifted beneath us, each of us realized, at least for a little while, how important it is to live as if we are always about to lose each other—that is, always savoring the magnificent gift we discover in one another, the vibrancy of loving that which is changeable, and the transfiguration of the human heart that is revealed in those moments before we say goodbye, before we go our separate ways at the fountain on a summer day, before the smoke and dust envelop us, before we become dust ourselves. That urgent, insistent, keenly felt connection with the friend, with the stranger, and with our own fragile lives, was a gift revealed in the shadowlands of September 2001.

But it’s easy to forget this hard, valuable lesson, especially once life resumes its typical patterns. We get accustomed to new realities, and they become normal, and we settle into them as best we can. We assemble some sense of security and perhaps convince ourselves that this time we are safe, this time letting go won’t be necessary, at least not for a while…until, of course, the next time that life intervenes, as it always does, and a new goodbye is thrust upon us, shocking us back into life, catching in our throat like a pill we aren’t quite able to swallow.

So, why all this talk of goodbyes?

It’s because I think that by considering what it means to say “goodbye,” which is really a condensed form of the phrase “God be with you,” we might find a new way to approach this week’s Gospel passage, where Jesus offers us some challenging words about hating our families and even life itself in order to be a disciple, along with bearing our cross and giving up our possessions. 

Those latter two conditions we hear elsewhere in Scripture and are somewhat more familiar to us, but hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters? This is a hard teaching to understand or accept for a way of life that is supposed to be rooted in love.

Now, commentators often claim that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole to drive home a certain point—that we need to make him and his Way the priority in our lives, the One who comes before all other allegiances, the One who lays full claim upon our selves, souls, and bodies.  

And that is quite true, but we are still left to wonder, as our children play in the nursery and our spouses and parents sit next to us in the pews: how can loving our families—our birth families, our chosen families, our church families—how on earth can this love be considered a stumbling block to following Christ? Are we supposed to conclude that we should leave them all behind and become itinerant preachers in the wilds of Indiana so that we might be called disciples?

I don’t think so.

No, Jesus, in this jarring talk about hating those whom we love, is, I think, trying to wake us up, and teach us an important lesson about being able to say goodbye, about letting go of the people and things we love the most, precisely because he knows that letting go is the price of loving as deeply and as selflessly as he calls us to do, especially when life intervenes in unexpected ways: a move across country; an illness; a breakup; a national tragedy. 

To love in the way that Jesus does, without clinging to safety, without controlling, without turning inward: this is the mark of a disciple. 

A disciple is one who arrives into every moment, every interaction, with the clarity and gratitude of someone who is already prepared to say goodbye. One for whom every joyful greeting is already shaped by the sweet, appreciative sorrow of departure.

Because it is only in those moments when we are compelled to say goodbye to the people and places we love the most, when our eyes are blurred with tears—at the airport curb, at the schoolhouse door, at the graveside—it is only then that our hearts finally see clearly: that these people and these experiences are a fleeting gift to us, not an entitlement—a blessing from God, not a fixed commodity. 

Our families, our possessions, even our own lives—as Christians, we are given the grace to perceive that these treasures all belong to the Triune God Who sent them, not to us, and we must release them, daily, into the care of the Holy One, saying, with reverence, in every moment: Goodbye. God be with you. Because I cannot hold onto you forever.

Thus, being a disciple who is able to say goodbye is about freedomthe type of freedom that allows life to be what it is, with its encounters and departures, its quiet predicability and its shocking upheavals—and to still seek God in the middle of all of it, to be servants of the God who endures despite all change, and to know ourselves as God’s beloved, above all else.

It is a strange freedom, this, one that upends everything we think we know about the world. It shapes Paul’s request to Philemon in today’s epistle, in which a severed relationship is restored under new terms. 

No longer, says Paul, are Philemon and Onesimus to be understood as master and slave, as they once were, but as two brothers, two disciples, united in the love of Christ. Philemon, like us, must learn to “hate” the old way of being—he must say goodbye to the old understandings of himself and others in exchange for something new, something entirely unexpected— something Jesus requires of him, and of us. 

And when he and his former servant are reunited, perhaps by a fountain on a brick-lined plaza, life having intervened in unpredictable ways, they, too, will behold one another with new eyes.

After all, such is the nature of leaving home: it’s never quite the same when you go back.

What is it that each of us must say goodbye to in this season? What must you and I release into the care of God, not because we love it any less, but because we love it so very much? Who or what can each of us set free, so that we can be free, so that we can be disciples, as Jesus invites us to be? 

Whatever it is, I pray that you will taste that magnificent, slightly disorienting freedom. In letting go, I pray that we will be surprised by an exquisite, grateful, and enduring love. In goodbye, may God be with you. May God be with all of us.